Of what use is the past to a gamer? Peter Lunenfeld: “For the most part, its blood, mischief and role playing that gamers revel in. They live in an alternative universe, a solipsistic one scripted by designers whose frame of reference extends no further back than Pong, Pac-Man and Dungeons and Dragons. The visual and storyline tropes that most of us bring with us as cultural baggage are… all but forgotten ancestral memories, thrown off, on purpose, too cumbersome to be of any use.”* In this new world that appears indifferent to history, with only halls of fame for its champions, chronicles of its big battles and charts of its greatest hits, accounting for how this digital gamespace came into being presents something of a challenge. Perhaps it is best to approach it in its own style, as a series of levels, each of which appears to the gamer on battling through to the end of the last. If one is defeated, one starts over. But remember: these are the grind levels. The going is hard here, even a little boring. You may need to attempt it more than once. In gamespace, time is measured in discrete and constant units, and while one cannot always win a level, one can always start over and do it again.
Click to start. Here is a new world. The first level opens onto a topic (from the Greek ‘topos’, or place). Here a topic is a place both on the ground and within language. Jacques Derrida: “The themes, the topics, the (common-)places, in a rhetorical sense, are strictly inscribed, comprehended each time within a significant site.”* One can place one’s foot on a topic because one can place one’s tongue on it. Or one can point toward it and say: “there it is…”. All around the topic it is dark, unknown, unmapped, without stories. Move around a bit and you bump into others, from other tribes, other settlements. Via others one learns of still others. The topics start to connect. A map forms. Once there is a map, there is the topographic, which traces lines that connect the topics, and which doubles the topical with the space of maps and texts. These outline the contours in space and time of what was the topical, redrawing and rewriting it as a continuous and homogenous plane. The lines of the topic are traced into the page; the lines on the page are traced back onto the earth as topography. History is a story and geography an image of this topography, in which the boundaries are forever being expanded and redrawn. This play between the topical and topographic is the first level.
In the first level, every topical feature that resists inscription as a continuous space is erased and replaced. Impassable mountains yield their passages, joining once separate topics. Every recalcitrant people with its own indigenous topos is exterminated and forgotten. James Fenimore Cooper: “In a short time there will be no remains of these extraordinary people, in those regions in which they dwelt for centuries, but their names.” The names persist, on maps, or in books with titles like The Last of the Mohicans. The first level is this dissolution of the topical into the topographic, where an oral lore is erased and replaced by inscription: Lines on maps, lines on pages; lines that evolve from trail to rail. The first level is where the topographic unfolds as the line between what is charted and what is uncharted. (See Fig. C) The storyline dwells between the autonomy of the topical and the authority of the topographical, always lagging behind.*
In the cinema, mapping and writing meet. The emergence of the topographic and its struggle to subsume the topical becomes the great theme of western genre, above all of the director John Ford.Jimmy Stewart, the frontier lawyer, bringing the wild west to book, runs up against the outlaw gunslinger Lee Marvin. When Stewart shoots him in a showdown, Stewart becomes a legend, and a senator. Only it was John Wayne, the honorable outlaw, who really fired the fatal shot.In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, cinema functions as the form that can reveal retrospectively the workings of topography, its creation of a storyline that justifies the imposition of the thin blue line of the law. The completion of the topographic is the subject of film noir. Here the topographic has connected all of space in a loose network, and one cannot run beyond the frontier to escape it. One escapes within, looking for ill-lit, interstitial topics, like the rail yards and wholesale markets of Jules Dassin’s Thieves Highway. Here, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ there is still a space for illicit desire, and an escape from boredom.
What closes the frontier for free action is the enclosure of the space of movement within a space of communication. The line splits, into one that moves objects and subjects, and another, faster one that moves information, the line of telesthesia, of the telegraph then telephone.* In High Noon, Sheriff Gary Cooper learns through the telegraph that his lawless nemesis arrives on the midday train. In The Naked City, this power of telesthesia — perception at a distance — is everywhere. The police, forensics, the coroner are all brought together via the switch board operator, enabling and overcoming a division of labor with the telephone, and compacting space into a temporal event. We see the policeman make a call, the operator making the connection, and the call being answered. Telesthesia allows the speeding up and coordination of movement along all other lines, setting the railway timetables by which vast armies of goods or soldiers may be mobilized. Telesthesia makes possible the completion of topographic space, where vast territories are coordinated within the bounds of the line. As telesthesia develops, from telegraph to telephone to television to telecommunications, topographic space deepens and hardens, but always with gaps and exclusions. Film Noir dwells in a gap between the free act in an unmarked space and the imposition of the line. You can run but you can’t hide.