Crimes Committed Backwards
Video Games and Teleology
I finished Ghost Trick a few days back, and I realized that for a story about a ghost trying to find his identity involving national intrigue, betrayal, deadly Rube Glodbergs, and so forth, it could have only occurred in what Leibniz famously called “the best of all possible worlds.” This is to say, there would have be a god in this particular universe and it would have to be a god so good that is it vulgar. For the coincidences within the story to have taken place, there should have been a clear final cause in the mind of this crazy demiurge, from which the events of the game would have been traced backward until the game’s beginning wherein all the conditions would have been entirely perfect, such that no door that leads to the end will be locked, no stray bullet will cancel all efforts, and so on.
It is actually for this precise reason that all video games are inevitably utopian and most occur backwards; this is to say, the divine hand which guides the almost-impossible events of the video game could be seen as the reversing of a video of a complicated maneuver: Consider a video of a round bullet which enters the barrel of a gun. How was this almost-impossible act done? Simple: It was the gun which shot the bullet, but it was played out backwards, in reverse.
This is precisely the reason why Grand Theft Auto IV, more than in its Imaginary dimension of representation—of storyline, characters, etc.—is subversive in the Symbolic dimension in that the existents within the game possess attributes of their own whose interaction is not strictly governed by teleological processes, such that each event or mission may be handled in a variety of ways. There is a goal, but the elements of the game do not point to it directly. It is up to the agency of the player to find a way to use the autonomous elements such that the goal is met. In this precise sense, Grand Theft Auto IV is anti-teleological. This makes it easy to conceive why it may be charged with nihilism. There is no final cause. Even if the plot of the game ends, the world will continue to persist precisely because there is no “ending” to which its elements merely needed to reach, and upon its consummation its reason to exist will be nullified.
Consider, for example, in Ghost Trick when the playable character, who, as a spirit, may jump from item to item to reach a certain destination, spots a tea pot on the floor, thus allowing him to make out a path toward the basement of the building, we can see very clearly that this tea pot was placed there authoritatively by the game’s authors so that the video game’s goals may be met. This is to say, the placing of the tea pot was teleological. It is as if, as with the example with the gun, the end, the final cause, was first thought out and that the rest was designed backwards.
We know that in reality, it does not occur this way. There is no “final cause.” What seems to be a smooth chain of cause and effect is actually retrospective meaning-making. The universe is fundamentally absurd, and what we make out to be meaningful results are actually contingent accidents. Evolution, for example, is thought to be teleological. Upon closer inspection, however, we can see that the very mechanism of evolution—natural selection—depends upon millions if not billions of years of accidents which, in its clumsiness, will eventually be enough to instill another fundamental error which will allow further accidents to take place. Is this precisely why we still have a tail bone, though none of us have tails? Its exclusion is not the deliberation of an intelligent mind or mystical cause. It was the result of a beneficial accident.
The Imaginary chaos of the Grand Theft Auto series, therefore, is supplemented by a far greater disorder beneath this Imaginary, a Symbolic chaos which makes it truly subversive. Its elements do not cohere into an organic whole. Perhaps this is how the series should be read: Rather than a commentary on contemporary capitalist society, or on the profound absurdity of violence, perhaps it speaks of a fundamental nihilism where, as Sartre put it, humanity is condemned to its freedom precisely because there is no final meaning. It is precisely when you strive to be nothing that you finally realize you can do anything.