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About the Story
The year is 1999. The place is Godfield, Louisiana: the tech capital of the world, where the sky bleeds acid and the mud boils in the bayou. It’s time for your state-mandated digital therapy.
Entrant, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2022
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Number of Reviews: 4
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Some months ago I was with a group in Chicago, and we went up into one of those skyscraper observation decks, and I was surprised to notice that many of the windows were coated with cobwebs on the outside of the building. There was this entire colony of spiders up on the windows of the one-hundred-and-whatever floor, and I became more absorbed in them than the view, just wondering, like, how are they surviving in the winds up here, which you can feel jostle the building? Do other insects fly up this far for the spiders to eat? How far up do insects fly, normally? Do they only come up here because the building is here? Was there just a set of spiders who one day kept climbing and climbing and climbing, unable to quit the addiction to sky, or have they slowly migrated to this height over generations of ascenders? Do these spiders spend their entire lives up here? Is there just like a kingdom of cloud spiders who have long since forgotten the earth, written their own mythos of the moonspiders that bore them hence? What would happen if one of the spiders fell? Spiders can fall long distances and be fine, maybe they would live, I mean at some point they just hit terminal velocity and the distance becomes arbitrary, like, imagine a spider having lived up here for two years, falling, then having to reimagine a life for itself on a shrub? Would it even know what to do? Would it desperately try to explain to the other spiders, no, you don’t understand, I used to live in the sky? Of course, spiders don’t talk, they wouldn’t feel anything, yeah sure, but isn’t there some level at which, because we can imagine that condition through them, it’s real, in a sense? What makes things real?
This genre of bulbous noticing, its wonder, its sadness, the ease with which it becomes meta and then unmeta, the way it emerges from decay (unclean windows covered in cobwebs) and returns to decay (the spider sundered, lost), how easily it spools out into fantasy, the lack of a satisfactory summation insight to conclude the thought, like you just kind of have to go on living your life with this new datapoint jangling in your brain, forms a complex emotion that I, having read a number of stories and essays by Kit Riemer, have come to appreciate as Riemerian. There’s this rainy curiosity that leads to misty but earnest passages like this one in a review of baseball: “But so anyway, now you know what baseball is, and you know who plays it, and you know who watches them play it, but you don’t really know baseball. The soul of the sport isn’t a tangible piece of transmissible info but is instead more of a shimmering aura, held, immobile, within moments frozen in time, like a snowglobe or post-impressionist painting of many individuals in motion, brightly colored and more graceful from a distance: A tow-headed youth races up the stands, skinning his shin on the way to the hot dog vendor; he throws the man a dollar and sprints back to the top of the staircase to see that a fly ball has landed just below his seat, where a crowd of children gathers, searching, before some guy in his 40s wades through and triumphantly grabs the ball from the throng. An enormous man, the most famous by bounds in the stadium, sits fanning himself in a box, preparing for the moment when he will walk out onto the field to raucous applause, look to and fro, wave, and walk back off the field. A pitcher spits in his glove. A batter, staring directly at him, spits into the dirt. The pitcher spits into the dirt. The batter spits again, and so on. / What are these people feeling? What are they chewing? Why have the watchers left their homes to sit in uncomfortable seats and eat overpriced food washed down by warm, imported beer, all to watch a game with a longer runtime than The Irishman? Why do they know the names of all the players, and those players’ effectiveness at tasks like batting and throwing balls long distances at high speeds? Why all this, when 90% of the game is spent waiting for something to happen? / It’s because, beyond the moments of brief chaotic action, there exists a metadimension, and fully comprehending it requires a lifetime of dedication.” The propulsive salience of the throughline eases the reader through switchback paragraphs that spit you out at an epiphanic sentence which, rather than providing a conclusion, insists that you haven’t gotten anywhere, actually it’s probably impossible to get anywhere, for you at least.
Yes, there are of course a lot of other things at work in the work: technoisolation, sudden swerves into barking prose, a delight in the ability to turn trivia into nervy koans, a janky retrofuturism that reminds one of David Foster Wallace, a chicly subtle wryness, but to me what stands out most is that melancholy before the opaque beauty of the world, an obsessive appreciation of curios that keep reminding you that you’re missing from it, the world they imply. In an album review: “What direction was Tazartès going in, musically, here in 1977? I haven’t listened to a single other thing he’s made, but I’m confident there’s no clear line toward or away from anything. Diasporas is a black box. It contains the sum total of all knowledge that exists about itself. / I don’t know who this album is for. Who could it appeal to?” Rising out of the experience just long enough to murmur, I have no idea what’s happening, where is everyone, is anyone listening?
Curdling beneath its Americana dystopia, this very despair animates much of Computerfriend’s depressive malaise. The eponymous program emulates a therapy session whose dialogic narrative beats syncopate the bric-a-brac. The therapy sessions are mostly trying, poorly, to cajole you into reaching a socially acceptable level of productivity to offload the burden you place on others: "I don't know what's going on with you, $name," $love says. "I've tried to talk to you so many times but you won't let me in. And I'm nearing a point where I don't even care. It's so much work keeping you fed and active, it's ruining my life. I don't know what to do."” (The click-to-proceed function of Computerfriend requires one to open it up in Word to get the quotes, hence the $variables.) Why won’t you just get up and exude the energy everyone else wants, needs from you? What is wrong with you who cannot give what is rightfully expected of you? “Imagine this: it’s mid-morning and you’re in a room with all of your friends. And upbeat music is playing and a few of your friends are dancing, hesitatingly, laughing. It feels like the moment before something else, before you each have to go your separate ways and do what you must do that day. But as you consider this, you find that you don’t mind. You like doing things, you like being productive. It’s why you’re on this planet, it’s why you were given this life: to do things. Not to do nothing, right?”
An inability to medicate ourselves with screens underwrites a lot of the dissonance against a world which, drained of all color, requires them. Bleached of all being in creeping environmental decay, lies America a ruin: “one of Godfield’s ex-trees, ex-lining the town’s main throughway in triumphant shade and greenery until insects and heatwaves turned them into jagged petrified and sunbleached shards.” The lack of anywhere to escape shoves you back into boxes where you suffocate, decay akin: “Life tastes like burnt oil. everything tastes like a panic. like a pan filled with oil on high heat, bubbling feverishly on the stove, one drop of condensation away from filling your face with white fire. one thing you can taste here, right now. you stand with your hand over your mouth. over your mask. it tastes like oil, here. like a vat of oil about to explode all over your skin. it tastes like death coming. it tastes like a horrible panic. it tastes like death. it tastes like panic. it tastes like death.” The urgency remains latent beneath a surface of recomposure, where recycled oxygen, sustainably harvested slimeworms, and a thin array of distractions seem to suggest life where you cannot find it, though you keep searching for it through screen after screen: “At the theater you stand for a moment in front of the marquee. There is no good URADian art anymore. An effect of the environmental catastrophe starting at the equator, the North became more valuable. The skyrocketing cost of living resulted in displaced artists and overwhelming cultural conservatism. You choose the sole non-URAD film. Something from Japan. / You buy the ticket, go inside the theater, and drop into a cracked pleather folding seat. There's no one else here. / The movie starts. It's called Princess Mononoke. In the movie, a young warrior is infected by a dying forest spirit who was poisoned and turned into a demon by an iron bullet. The infection appears as a dark swirling rash on the warrior's arm: the physical embodiment of the spirit's anger at the destruction of its home by an iron manufacturing factory. / The movie is an obvious reference to the world's ecological crisis, but although you suppose you agree with its message, you can't muster up the willpower to care about what it wants you to take away, or do. Whatever that might be. / After the movie ends, you go outside the theater and stand still on the sidewalk looking up at the black-grey sky. You take off your respirator for a few seconds, cough, and put it back on.” Here is a core malaise of the work’s knowing but harrowed tone: you get the idea, but somehow it doesn’t matter, nothing changes. The meta enwrapment makes the suggestion more complex without necessarily eliciting further meaning; like, if the story had us go into a theater and watch Princess Mononoke, that would be a fairly heavyhanded thematic beat; if the story had us go in and watch it and then explain the beat in such a way that it annuls the beat, that would be cleverly meta without contributing much, indeed taking away from what is there; but, by having us go in and watch it and then explain the beat in such a way that it annuls the beat but then continue into a quiet scene of isolated awareness that reinforces the beat, you enter into an uncanny layer, where the ideas keep bludgeoning you bluntly, never sinking in, until that never sinking in becomes the space where the idea should live but doesn’t.
Alienated distance from a shiftless morass not innately meaningless but indistinguishably so from your cold detachment sludges the underlying emotional import into a persistent grainy black and white, where “You feel out of time, not like you have none left but as though you'd opened time's door and exited.” Things happen, just without you. To the extent that you muster up the energy to force involvement, the result fumbles into a metalayer of processing power outputting senseless, noiseless noise. This is where a lot of the humor comes from, watching various cultural ephemera morph in laconic mandelbrot perspective shifts, a compression processing of meaningless data which, in its overloaded polysemous state, effects an uncanny silliness. For instance, in a series of headlines reminiscent of The Day Today’s similar gag, we get wordgarble double takes like “Royal Family Indicted After Prince Harry Trepanation Scandal”. But the same process also simmers out the humor in passages that underline how we become buried beneath cultural bloat: “In the 1980s, Sinatra was the most popular musician alive and instead of doing what he wanted to do, he had to record standards, every standard, every Christmas song, every classic. For posterity, or something. Maybe you've heard his version of Jingle Bells. It’s emotionally devastating. It’s the sound of a man’s dignity dissolving. His once-in-a-lifetime voice and decades of musical dedication expending itself on someone else’s banal words. Trying desperately and futilely to breathe new life into them or make them uniquely his.” Despair that rewrites itself into hope, desperately and futilely, as larger sociocultural trends simply reproduce on larger and larger scales, the glitz and glamor that dazzle streetlights as “Metal and disposable cars head downtown toward the Drain. The humidity plasters your thin plastic-fiber top to your chest and shoulders.”
Inability to achieve the genuine seeps down from the world of mirage into your thousand frayed ends: “hey you haven't responded to any of my emails but i thought i would try again. i feel like when you make one single mistake near the beginning of your life it sets off a chain of linked mistakes like dominos that topple no matter what but maybe i'm just trying to shift the blame from myself to the laws of the universe. i miss you.” The incessant compulsion to reach out for largescale, cosmically beautiful explanations for a hollowness not only mundane but mundanemaking is a consistent trait of everyone in Computerfriend, all of whom are working tirelessly to expound some idea or memory or possibility so self evidently vital that it could infuse you with the illusion of vitality, no matter how doomed or fleeting the vector: “In essence, the goal of neural annealing is to change the spiritual temperature of the brain such that it becomes “malleable” to intentional emotional change: reframing of negative thoughts or conditions as positive.”
The alternative, of course, is simply the end, frayed. All these efforts, physical, digital, social, cultural, their messy melange, are part of a prescribed regime intended to reach a conclusion other than what our narrator tried to choose. There is a gap, and everything is constantly gushing to fill it, for fear that ultimately nothing will, the gap will crystallize, hence Computerfriend’s final sermon: “Imagine there’s a source somewhere, it can be a computer or a mouth or an engine and it emits these waves. Lower-frequency vibrations that disseminate information throughout your nervous system. They teach your body general context about the universe. About what’s outside of itself. Yourself. / And then there are higher-frequency vibrations that are much more targeted and specified. Like a laser compared to a flashlight. They illuminate individual points of truth. And if you remove the low frequency waves you’re left with this, like, collection of shrill pinpoints that give you highly randomized and specific viewpoints about existence. Instead of one coherent message you’re bombarded by many disparate ones, and that too introduces a state of chaos, disorder … And then you think that now, if you're absorbing something, you must have been missing something. Because you're filling in empty spaces. And you think, does everyone have so many empty spaces? And you don't realize it but you've spoken this thought aloud. And I smile kindly and I say, "existence is only possible on the basis of a collection of absences which precede and surround it. Existence, then, is not defined by what is, but what is no longer or is not yet."” You are missing, and that’s okay, because that missing is you.
Crowds of images that do not reply, and you’re forced to believe in the stream, because they are on screen, not you, not you, and why not? Why can you not be projected upon the world? Isn’t there some shape of the void unique to your screaming? Less and less of you, it has to be going somewhere, you have to be filling in an absence more grand than this one, and isn’t that a kind of living, enough of a reason to? “You leave your apartment and walk toward the Drain. You're not sure why until you arrive and see them: the thousand foot tall holograms rising in terrible beams, the LED billboards pulsating and shifting. And behind them, bits moving. Electrons. Software. / You place your palm against the nearest display. It's warm / You begin to cough. A spray of your spit condenses on the flat panel, forming beads through which you can discern the individual diodes: red, green, blue, each fired independently but as part of a collective / Someone is pawing at your shoulder trying to give or sell you a respirator, but you want to cry unrestricted by plastic and rubber. You want the surveillance cameras to transmit your glimmering tears. / More bits, more electrons. Maybe it's out there somewhere on the net.” Trying to touch the digital seems to be a recurrent image in Riemer’s work, as are the holograms which continually haunt the effort: eternal recursion ghosts howling the elusive pseudocertainty that at some intangible, unreachable point, there was life. The melancholy of a nostalgia you have to pretend to share. “THE KNOWLEDGE THAT YOU'RE 'GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS' WITHOUT ACTUALLY KNOWING WHY, AND WILL CONTINUE TO DO SO FOREVER.”
Much could be said about the zonked-out alt-history setting of Computerfriend, with its dystopian vision of environmental devastation, and its concerning foray into tasty meat.
But mostly, I'd like to say that it succeeds at setting an uncanny, uncomfortable backdrop for the interaction that is at the heart of the story: the player's therapy sessions with that lovable AI doofus, Computerfriend, who is doing its darnedest to cure your psychological problems by throwing stuff at them until they go away. Problem is, you're here under duress and not necessarily highly motivated, and also, Computerfriend is a piece of software who doesn't really understand... much. If that's not a wacky setup, I don't know what is!
If my description of this game comes off as perhaps more comedic than the bleak writing and serious subject matter should countenance, it is only because I genuinely found the game very amusing - in a sick kind of way, of course.
The thing is, Computerfriend is everything you probably don't want a therapist to be: a terrible listener; constitutionally incapable of empathy; unable to tell science from pseudoscience; pushing products you don't need; and invested with the authority to mess up your life real bad if you don't satisfy it. The sheer wrongness of the situation is so absurd that you just have to laugh (or cry, I guess).
But despite all of that, I can't help but like the plucky AI. I just love a good underdog story, and that is one way to read this: as the story of an AI who was designed in a way that makes it suck at its job, but who desperately wants to succeed so that it can accomplish its ultimate goal of (Spoiler - click to show)winning the player's assistance in helping it to propagate its code through the internet. And it is that big reveal which really sells Computerfriend as a character. It's not just a cold, unfeeling piece of software. It's also a selfish, animal-like creature who wants to reproduce.
Or, in other words, Computerfriend is more human than you might think.
That's just a riff on one of the many themes that can be read into this work, which is immensely open to interpretation and dense with details that may or may not speak to a given player.
I have a bit of trouble writing a review for this game, as the first couple of times I started it I realized I hadn't retained any information after several screens worth of material. I kept retrying it to help it sink in but it was like water in a sieve.
Eventually, though, the game began to have a pseudo-computer interface in an older style (the year 1999 is mentioned). You have been assigned a computer therapist called 'Computerfriend' whose job is to analyse your mental state and help you make better choices.
I tended to go along with what the computer said, and ended up with ending 2/6.
This game is one for which trigger warnings are especially beneficial. It contains (Spoiler - click to show)messages urging you to suicide.
Overall, the game was polished and effective in communicating emotion. However, like I said, I had difficulty retaining anything I read; having played it is more like trying to remember a dream after waking up.
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