The game of Lost
You find yourself marooned on an apparently deserted tropical island. You have to solve a series of puzzling mysteries in order not only to survive but to reveal the story behind the island itself, the meanings hidden beneath its surface (literally, it later turns out). Along the way you encounter a series of unexplained phenomena: voices in the trees, cryptic documents, films and videos left behind by previous inhabitants, what seem to be invisible monsters in the jungle and powerful anomalies of nature everywhere. You have to use the available tools you find around you to overcome obstacles and solve whatever puzzles you encounter. At one point, for example, you use salvaged dynamite to blow open a locked hatch you discovered earlier in the jungle, in order to go down the hatch and see what’s in it, look for further clues, further meanings. You listen to a cryptic radio signal and try to decipher the series of numbers being broadcast. Levers and buttons and caves and tunnels abound. The process seems open-ended if not never-ending, but every so often you solve an important mystery and reach a new level. Then, you continue to explore the island world in order to find out where you are now, what to do next, and who or what is behind it all—what it all means.
The game of Lost
That sounds very much like a description of a video game, but it’s actually a summary of the hit TV show Lost, which debuted on ABC in 2004, a serial drama about the survivors of the crash of Oceanic Flight 815 on a mysterious island somewhere in the South Pacific. I might just as well have been describing a video game, especially a game of the puzzle-adventure or action-adventure genres. That Lost draws upon video-game conventions and structural devices is not exactly a secret. Lynette Porter and David Lavery, who wrote the unauthorized guide, Unlocking the Meaning of LOST, note that the show’s narrative progress is based on video games. Just as in a video game, with Lost the characters on the show and the viewers have to acquire the tools they need—weapons, texts, skills—in order to solve the mystery of the island. Significantly, the authors point out, this leveling up depends as in video games on making use of the “collective knowledge” of others posted online.1 For their part, the writer-producers of the show speak about their experiments in “nonlinear storytelling,” which, all the debate in the games studies community aside (over the role of narrative in gameplay), they understand simply as a synonym for game-like storytelling: as starting with a well-stocked fictional world containing potentially meaningful objects, tools, codes, “hints and clues.”2 An executive consultant for the show, Jeff Pinkner, said in an interview on the DVD of the first season that “exploration” of the island would drive the story, would amount to “a mystery and adventure unto itself,” and that “the island would in a way be a dramatic version of a video game … [you could] find the hatch but it could take you several weeks before you had the proper tools to open the hatch.” With the support of a major TV network owned by Disney, the creators of the show may have begun by attempting to fictionalize Survivor, fundamentally a team-based reality game show, set in its first season on a tropical island.3 But they did more: they adopted the world-building gestures of video-game design. This is much more than simply planning for the future release of tie-in games; that has, of course, become standard practice for many films and TV shows these days. The writers actually seem to have based the formal structure and narrative possibilities of the show itself on video game conventions, and they’ve done so in part in order to better create the kind of networked community or fanbase usually associated with games—a potential audience ready not just to watch but also to “play” Lost.4 Though there are predecessors among earlier TV shows set on Islands—consider Gilligan’s Island, for example, or an even closer analogue, The Prisoner—the visual experience of watching Lost is fundamentally more like a video game than like any of these TV precedents. Steadycam shots through the jungle or down the beach create a dynamic first-person point of view that alternates with wide shots and stylized, fuzzy or slow-motion transitional “cutscenes,” with background music and providing quick visual exposition. The use of the Hawaiian locations makes the natural seem virtual (and vice versa), to the extent that CGI (computer-generated image) palm trees can easily be mapped onto actual footage of the jungle, and the elemental sets, the beach, the horizon line at sea, a giant rock formation, a pillar of black smoke, could in many shots, as far as the viewer can tell, be either computer-generated or filmed. Consider the crucial importance of mapping and world-design to the show, the gradual revelation of meaningful geography on separate “levels,” above and below ground, at sea level and in the mountains. Making iconographic maps of various kinds, maps that help characters interpret the island as well as navigate it, occupies a number of the characters (Kelvin, Locke, Rousseau, Ben).
The writers have said that they consider the island itself a character, almost as if it were a non-human artificial intelligence—or a computerized game engine. During season 2, an old-fashioned tape-drive computer in an underground bunker (the Hatch) literally controlled the action of characters, who had to input a series of numbers and push a button every 108 minutes in order to avoid a possible (and long unspecified) disaster. In fact, the Hatch computer controlled that season’s story as a whole. We eventually learned that this Hatch (and others like it on the Island) were part of a shadowy project called the Dharma Initiative, either a Stanley Milgram-like psychology experiment or post-apocalyptic survivalist training—it remained (and, as I write, still remains) unclear. But something like the mid-twentieth-century cold-war military-industrial complex would seem to be responsible for the technology of the underground geodesic-dome roof and whirring tape drives and green-screen input terminal. By the end of season 2 an “electromagnetic anomaly” is revealed, in a building reminiscent of nuclear silos, complete with a failsafe switch and an explosion that fills the sky with bright light. Throughout the season, some hidden force (apparently whoever created the Dharma Initiative, perhaps the Hanso Foundation) seems to lie behind or literally beneath the surface of the island, a set of concealed intentions driving the events and experiences of the castaways, who must make sense of what they encounter, piece together fragments of meaning, even though they have no direct contact with the mind(s) and intentions behind the whole. On one level this is a metaphor for how the viewer relates to the team of writers behind the scenes of the mystery show, who are producing meaning week to week (and rumor has it, sometimes on the fly, in response to fan feedback). But on the other hand it also describes how any player approaches most video games, and especially games of the puzzle-adventure genre: by exploring the world and its objects (often with tools or weapons in hand) in search of patterns, hidden meanings, a way out or over or to safety, the reason for the overall design or intentions behind the place and whatever pieces of the puzzle you encounter along the way.
The human castaways on Lost in effect play against this shadowy underground intelligence, the island itself with the Dharma Initiative behind it, in the life-or-death game. But the fan-viewer also “plays” Lost at home. Just as there are avatars in a multiplayer RPG (role-playing game) or FPS (first-person shooter), the characters in the show serve as surrogates for the viewers as players. And most of Lost’s principal human characters can be mapped onto recognizable genre types—the sexy female action-heroine (Kate), the violent redneck (Sawyer), the Asian gangster (Jin), the drug-addicted has-been rock star (Charlie)—the kind of hip personae that are common in hit games from Tomb Raider to Grand Theft Auto. They repeatedly go on quests or “missions” (a game term often used in the show) brandishing torches, selecting weapons—and sometimes shooting them—as part of the puzzle-solving action. Survivor-like teams maintain camps on opposite sides of the island, the “Losties” or “Lostaways” (as fans came to call them) and the at-first mysterious Others, and it was repeatedly suggested during the first three seasons that there might be all-out battles between these tribal “teams,” a promise fulfilled in the finale of season three. The fake “primitive” yurt encampment and dress of the Others even looks at first like a vaguely medieval RPG—at least until it’s revealed as a kind of set (hatch doors open onto a stone wall, beards and costumes are fake-rustic), which, more than puncturing the fourth wall for the viewer, actually suggests even more strongly that the castaways are engaged in playing a kind of game, where identities and props can be adopted in order to gain an advantage, then put away when the game moves on to another level (a new season). This is not to say that the show is undramatic in traditional ways, or emotionally uninvolving on a psychological level. Much of the writing focuses on the (often interconnected) personal back-stories of the castaways, told through frequent flashbacks, as well as their on-island relationships. But these are interwoven into complex, long story arcs and connected plot lines, in the sort of game-like structure that Steven Johnson has recognized as crucial in today’s successful TV series.5 Though some viewers surely watch Lost more passively, just as a kind of prime-time soap opera, it’s hard to imagine how they overcome their frustration at the show’s mysteries and science-fictional, video-game-like elements. For those in the know, the viewers who become fans, the whole point is to exceed the weekly story, to extend the universe of Lost. Back-stories are filled in and interconnected by postings on numerous Internet message boards, blogs, and downloaded podcasts, both fan-created and official ones sponsored by the show, providing a more complex knowledge that helps them fill in the gaps and solve the overarching puzzle of the island’s meaning. This doesn’t preclude emotional involvement with the characters; quite the contrary. But it does imply a larger, rules-based, goal-oriented, methodical, obstacle-overcoming style of “watching” the show that is more like playing a game. Perhaps aimed at this game-savvy kind of viewer (and as a private in-joke among the writers), the scripts for Lost self-consciously and repeatedly call attention to the theme of games and the game-like nature of the show. Literal games are everywhere. This has led at least one serious fan to create his own website (in 2007), Lost is a Game.com, which argues for a comprehensive theory explaining the whole show in terms of the premise that “Lost is a game with 6 levels,” with “specific objectives for each level … time limits … numerous roles … points that can be earned … specific instructions/rules for the game … game prompts that lead the player through the game.”6 The creator of the site catalogs all instances of references to games in the show, including to my mind some that seem to be merely coincidental references to toys or “play” or “points.” I don’t share the general theory if it’s to be interpreted literally. It’s too close to the hackneyed TV trick known as “it was all a dream.” I suspect instead that what is discernible in all of these references is the conscious and unconscious modeling of the show on video game conventions. But at this point in the series, which is scheduled to conclude in 2010, who really knows? It could turn out to be a giant Sim Island after all.
Among the references to games (all of which, and many more, are noted on Lost is a Game.com) are included the fact that Locke educates Walt during a game of backgammon, which he says is based on a 5,000-year-old game using bones for dice, “one light, one dark,” an obvious allegory for the meaning of the Lost story as a whole, at least from one point of view. In a flashback we learn that Locke was an avid player of tabletop war-game simulations; he also used to work in a toy store, where we see him playing the contraption-based board game, Mousetrap; when dealing gingerly with dynamite, he mentions the game Operation and Jack asks: “You like to play games, John?” “Absolutely,” he answers. In a different flashback we see Walt playing with a handheld Game Boy console in the airport before the flight. Hurley builds a golf course on the island and it distracts everyone for a time with its free-zone of gameplay, but in another episode Hurley shouts metatheatrically: “This isn’t a game, man!” Referring to the raft Michael builds to attempt an escape in season 1, Sawyer asks, “You gonna vote me off?”—a winking allusion to the “reality” gameplay on Survivor. At the end of the season-2 finale, two hired explorers in what appears to be Antarctica (they are speaking Portuguese) are playing a game of chess when they detect the electromagnetic anomaly that may reveal the island to the outside world. The list could go on (as it does on Lost is a Game.com).
My point is that Lost is a self-conscious product not just of video game conventions, but also of gamer culture as a whole, and that it has become a hit in a popular media culture in which video games are now the dominant, paradigmatic form. This becomes clearer when we look not just at its themes and formal devices but also at its mode of production—the way the show gets written, produced, and marketed to its layers of fans and more casual viewers. Lost is the first major-network show to employ the formerly independent strategy of deliberately cultivating its own interactive fan culture, using the web and fan conventions and related publications, official and fan-created podcasts, a dedicated wiki (the Lostpedia), and, most of all, a far-flung viral marketing campaign based on pervasive gaming, a truly transmedia phenomenon.7 The core of this strategy was the multifaceted ARG (alternate reality game), played mostly during season 2, called The Lost Experience, which emerged from the crossroads of fan-base community-building and collective gameplay, as exploited by marketing. I’ll have more to say about the nature of ARGs in chapter 3, but in this case it is important to understand that in The Lost Experience participants played a sprawling pervasive game across the borders of the TV show’s fictional world, a number of related fictional worlds, and the real world. Players watched for clues inside and outside the show, including telephone numbers listed in fake commercials shown during broadcasts, editorial ads printed in newspapers, and fake websites for the fictional Oceanic Airlines and the nefarious Hanso Foundation. Manipulating the Hanso websites using clues from the ads, for example, yielded “Easter eggs”—extra clues, sometimes concealed in images or employee profiles on the company site. All of this was discussed by fans at length on both official and unofficial blogs and threaded discussions, and in real-sounding entries in Wikipedia, for example. The official sites were sometimes sponsored by the show and on these, the show’s writers and producers sometimes took part online. The duo most associated with the show, executive producers and writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, provided content for a regular podcast posted during the TV season. In it they offered behind-the-scenes insights and answered some fan questions from online discussions. In one instance, they responded to a threat from the fictional Hanso Foundation as if it were real, in effect playing along with the ARG.
The writers of Lost have from the beginning played with intertextual allusions and clues to interpretation by way of books planted within its storyworld. One strand of the second season’s finale focused on Desmond Hume’s always-postponed reading of Dickens’s last major novel, Our Mutual Friend; the strange instructional movie in the Hatch is hidden behind a copy of The Turn of the Screw; glimpses of an obscure 1967 (completed 1940) experimental detective novel, The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, fueled sales of the book—and months of speculation about parallels with the show, especially the idea that the castaways, like the characters in the surreal novel, might be already dead and in some kind of purgatory. Sawyer reads Watership Down and a character makes an allusion to Lord of the Flies—and the fans started reading, searching for clues, and sharing the results on multiple online forums. A sign out on the dock reads “Pala Ferry,” and fans quickly noted the reference to the island utopia in Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel, Island, a posting s...