Ghosts of the Future: Hauntology, Premediation, and LIMBO

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This paper was originally presented at Interface 2013: Creative and Critical Approaches in the Digital Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and eventually evolved into the first chapter of an MA thesis on gamespace and time, spectres, and hauntology in games. It’s posted here unchanged, minus a few typos, just to finally get it out there. 


Ghosts of the Future: Hauntology, Premediation, and LIMBO
Adrien Robertson

In Spectres of Marx, Derrida posits hauntology, meant to supplant the traditionally ontological focus on presence and being by prioritizing the spectral: that which is neither presence nor being. Derrida repeatedly invokes the ghost from Hamlet as a spectral figure, one that indicates how “time is out of joint,” as Shakespeare had it, and how the present can stand beside both the past and the future. While hauntology has since found fertile ground in cultural and literature studies, it is the potential for a hauntology of video games that I want to move toward today. A hauntology of games cannot undergo a one-to-one translation, in part (but not only) because games participate in digital, specifically algorithmic processes, and what Richard Grusin has called premediation. This paper is really about the ways the hauntological and the premediated can be braided together and situated within larger discourses of game studies. Hauntology and premediation are both concerned with the past, present, and future, and how technology negates any linear and monochronic progression and perceptions of temporality. Both can be seen working together in Playdead’s 2010 game LIMBO where, in effect, the premediated becomes the hauntological, and any hauntological consideration of games must take the digital logic of premediation into account. I’m going to try, briefly, to provide an overview of hauntology and how it has privileged textuality in its considerations of space and time; premediation and how it operates generally; and then turn to an analysis of a few specific moments in LIMBO.

Spectres, like the ghost in Hamlet, are those figures that stand between life and death, presence and absence, and occupy the gap between the either/or — the space between the “to be” and “not to be” of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Spectres frustrate any considerations of the present as strictly monochronic because they are clear reminders that the past remains in the now. Spectres encapsulate this chafing and undoing of ontological barriers between what is and is not. The future, too, is experienced as what Mark Fisher refers to as a haunting “virtuality that impinges on the present, conditioning expectations and motivating cultural production” (16). The past and future are virtual insofar as they are “without existence,” but are nevertheless existent, their presences part of the present. Troublingly, to Fisher, the “digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-first century” are haunted by the many spectres of the past, and the future the twentieth century taught us to anticipate has failed to materialize. The cultural imagination of the twenty-first century has been confronted by this failure to actualize. The so-called “hackneyed” futurism of the twentieth century, with all of its jetpacks, flying cars, and intergalactic space travel may have failed, but its imagery persists as a spectre and as a constant reminder of what is not. Involved in this process was the radical social imagination of the twentieth century, but rather than being able to imagine a future radically different from the present, it’s become, as the popularly dark tiding goes, easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Derrida was aware of this loss of radical imagination, and refers to the need for an “unprogrammable” future that could not be prescribed. Any future imagined must include “the desire to emancipate the present from the ideas of the programmed future,” and not be shackled by the deterioration of the social imagination that Fisher identifies. All the same, the present is dogged by the plethora of futures that were generated in the past and never materialized, as well as the spectres of the past that constantly linger within it.

Hauntology has found a foothold in literary scholarship. Textuality is understood to be spectral as such, a “space beyond the opposition” of the objective assumptions about the “otherwise sharp distinction between the real and the unreal.” Texts are where ghosts are not just found, but invited; in the words of Julian Wolfrey, “to tell a story is always to invoke ghosts, to open a space through with something other returns.” All stories are ghost stories, and textuality the space in between where ghosts are engaged with but not exorcised. It is on these grounds that video games and their narratives can be considered constitutive of the territory of spectrality, as a medium that frequently tells stories and can represent this in-between space.

There are also differences between the ways literary works function hauntologically and how game narratives might. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter have written about how games are the “paradigmatic media” of the “planetary, militarized hypercapitalism” (call it Empire) that dominates the present global structure — an informatics-oriented, globally distributed structure that emerged in lieu of the radical twentieth century’s hopes for the future. Games are, on the one hand, representative of the wide-reaching nodes of a military-industrial-entertainment complex whose, McKenzie Wark writes, “gold-plated output jacks turn everything into digits.” On the other hand, games represent the other side of global neoliberalism and its inherent potential for multitudinous action against and within the machinery of capitalism. Games are “shot through” with this potential. (Which I’m just going to table until we get to LIMBO.)

Games, moreover, also participate in premediation. If the future is unpredictable, unprogrammable, it is nevertheless, Grusin argues, premediated. Premediation understands the future as already mediated, and with the right technologies, the future can be remediated before it happens. The moment the future emerges into the present, it has already been mediated — it is the algorithmic representation of multiple futures before they happen. Like spectrality, premediation incorporates all points of a multilinear temporal progression and incorporates the present’s polychronic nature in an attempt to construct a sense of coherent order. If in the past people were concerned with immediacy and the desire to, through new media technologies, contract space and time into an instantaneous and accessible moments, then, Grusin argues, since 9/11 there has been a marked end to this desire for immediacy. Immediacy was demonstrably catastrophic. The focus is now on the future, and a desire to ensure it never emerges unmediated; that something as traumatically unforeseeable as 9/11 will never happen again.

Premediation generates and sustains a low level of anxiety; it displaces the obsession with a distinct mono-present with a fear of the same immediacy; and consequently it attempts to predict as many futures as possible, generating numerous possibilities that will mostly fail to actualize. The present attempts to extend into the future and “colonize” it, order it, and know it. It’s a process that insists on plurality, like hauntology: space becomes haunted by and through time, and both are experienced as a broken, fatal repetition (Fisher) as these systems enact loops, the future and past (indistinguishable past a certain point) feed into the present. Grusin also notes that the logic of premediation of particularly game-like: like video games, it is an attempt to guess where someone will go before they do, and develop the path accordingly.

It is within these twin and complimentary frameworks of hauntology and premediation that I want to turn to LIMBO: with the understanding that games are spectral, like narrative spaces generally; that games occupy a sometimes privileged position as a media particularly representative of contemporary global structures and flows; and that games can engage with real and present processes in multiple ways. A franchise like Legend of Zelda, for instance, generates its own world-specific spectres, whereas games like Braid or Prince of Persia also incorporate time-rewind mechanics in their gameplay and spectres become structural.

LIMBO is a monochromatic, 2D side-scroller that sends the player through a chiraoscuro-style world filled with gruesome and often startlingly abrupt ways to die. Players control a boy who wakes up in a grayscale forest, only to witness his sister running away off screen. He searches (presumably) for her throughout Limbo, that shadowy and liminal edge of hell. Other human characters are few, and are all shadowy figures who briefly appear only to try to kill the player. From the forest, the boy progresses from being stalked by a giant spider set on impaling him to more urban areas rigged with electric floors, giant buzz saws, and gears — only to break through a glass wall and return to the beginning of the forest, waking up once more. The game is one long narrative loop. Traps are often invisible, hidden in the black spaces of the game; death is sudden, unforeseen, and normally involves flying limbs and sudden stillness. Explicit narrative content is minimal. Limbo relies on lighting, camera focus, soundtrack, and blurring, likened to film noir and silent films, to communicate much of its meaning and ambience. Overall, it’s an isolated, quiet experience punctuated by moments of sudden, brutal death. This is not unlike the atmosphere Grusin attributes to premediation: low levels of anxiety interrupted by catastrophes that require a pause, a reconsideration, and perhaps fear.

This style of play has been called “trial and death.” You will die, repeatedly, and you will try again until  you learn the rhythm of the game, know where the traps are, and how to use them to your advantage. The spider stalking you, for instance, is injured by dragging traps that likely, previously, cut your head off. Now you wait for the spider to step on them. They are as helpful as they are a hindrance.

Through this constant interruption and reiteration, revisiting the same spaces until you can move past them, the boy himself becomes a spectral figure in Limbo. He haunts the world of the game like the other ambiguous shadowy figures, constantly returning to the present (formerly failed) moment. The past failures allow the player to learn how to avoid mistakes; Alexander Galloway refers to this as learning to play the code of the game, “internalizing and becoming intimate with” the game’s algorithm. For critics like Dyer-Witheford, Wark, and Galloway, games represent the topological, digital, informatic logic of the 21st century’s allegorithm in this way. To play a game is to know the system but it is also “to discover its parallel allegorithm” and how the game’s code functions as part of and within the “massive, multipart, global algorithm” of capital. In Gamer Theory, McKenzie Wark refers to this global, all-encompassing, digital overlay as “gamespace.” Its logic operates like a game – albeit one with an unknowable and imperfect algorithm. Gamers do not, in effect, merely play games in this line of thought; they play an idealized version of the algorithmic codes that network the world. Consequently, gamers also engage with how that system has generated the spectral intrusions of the past, future, and the dislocated temporality.

The boy in LIMBO must constantly draw the past into the present in order to continue. He himself is a spectral figure whose future is played through. The game ends where it begins, a structural loops that echoes Fisher’s summary of the hauntologically premediated twenty-first century as that broken, fatal repetition. Part and parcel of games that occupy this digital and global space, however, is that aforementioned potential to play against the system and work beyond their algorithm – a way through gamespace, perhaps. This is how video games like Limbo represent an ideal version of the real world’s systematic operations; Limbo’s algorithm can be learned and known. 

This, then, is how LIMBO approaches the problem of an unprogrammable, indeterminate future without resigning itself to the idea that the future will be one more repetition amongst many. Hauntologically, games are not haunted per se by the failures of the past. These failures are incorporated into the ludic structure of the game and used as a way to progress. Much like the immediate traumas that premediation attempts to insulate the present from, the sudden deaths in LIMBO are minor catastrophic moments that a player learns to navigate away from and not repeat. The future/present does not happen that way on the second, third, or fifteenth attempt.

There is, finally, the matter of the game ending in the forest: the end. Here, once more, is the repetitive and dislocated temporality where the past merges with the present while the already-mediated future lingers on its edges. Like the “digital cul-de-sac” Fisher laments is haunted by the failures of the past’s social imaginary, LIMBO is a circular repetition, a dead-end. Pessimistically, it stops there: like the digital logic of the 21st century, the game is left in the same loop it emerged from, the past haunting it, the future already known, and halted from emerging into the present unknown. More optimistically, however, LIMBO demonstrates the potential for the present to be, as Derrida put it, unshackled by the bonds of the past and present. The repetitive nature of learning to deal with and use one’s environment to navigate the polychronic and haunted present enables one to eventually enact a future that is not considered a failure. This is perhaps not a winning in gamespace, but it is a way to navigate limbo and a shadowy, liminal, often destructive world. A video game hauntology becomes less about the spectrality of the past and future as they lurk on the borders of time, and more about the translation of the game’s spectrality into the real world, such as it is, with the assurance that the repetition hauntologists identify are not the ultimate game over, dead end, or running around in loops like a hamster in a wheel.

It is less about being guided into the future by ghosts that have foretold how futures will fail, but about navigating the present until the present is playable and its algorithms learned. The logic of premediation enables not only new futures to be generated, but for new kinds of spectres to appear: ones which are equally algorithmic as the moments that generate them and must therefore be engaged with not only as textual, thus virtual ghosts, but as algorithms, allegorithms that move beyond the code of the game, and as practical interpretations of the 21st century and what it means to exist in this kind of limbo.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. 1994. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greig De Peuter. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2009. Print.
Fisher, Mark. “What is Hauntology?” Film Quarterly 66.1 (Fall 2012). Print. 16-24.

Grusin, Richard A. Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2006. Print.

LIMBO. Playdead. 2010. Video game.

Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

Wolfreys, Julian. Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Gothic, the Uncanny, and Literature. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Print.

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