Sisyphus, founder of Corinth, father of Odysseus, founder of the Ismithian Games, is best know for a most cruel and unusual punishment, meted out to him by the Gods. He was to roll a huge stone up the mountainside, watch helplessly as it rolled back down again, and then start all over again. Nobody knows what he did that required such a punishment. Perhaps it was for revealing the designs of the Gods to mortals. Revealing the forms beyond the mere particulars of mortal life would, in topical times, be a serious crime. Or perhaps, more prosaically, it was for his habit of murdering seafarers and travelers. Topical space, where each law, each God, is bordered by zones of indifference, would surely be troubled by such a transgression of the rules of ‘xenia’, of the gift one owes to strangers. Anne Carson: “The characteristic features of xenia, namely its basis in reciprocation and its assumption of perpetuity, seem to have woven a texture of personal alliances that held the ancient world together.” Or so it was in topical times.*
In topographic times, Sisyphus is a hero. He revels in this new world from which the Gods and their intangible forms have fled and a great industrial engine usurps their place. The task of Sisyphus becomes everyone’s labor: pointless, repetitive, endless, shoulder to the wheel of fortune. There are no longer any lawless spaces. There are no gaps between topics. All of space is within the law. There are no more border zones where indifference prevails. Certainly it gets much harder to get away with murdering travelers. But in topographic times, it is time itself that is not quite so completely subordinated to rules, to ends, to purposes. There is a limit to the working day, and even within the working day, not every second is called to account. Albert Camus: “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world.”* The topical Sisyphus played fast and loose with the gaps of space, between the topics; the topographic Sisyphus played in the gaps of time, and exploited those gaps to turn everything to account for himself alone.
Where is Sisyphus now? Using the analog sticks on the game controller, you move a little character who rolls a ball called a Katamari. The game is called Katamari Damacy.* The name translates roughly as ‘clump spirit’, which might in turn translate as ‘analog’. As the Katamari ball rolls, things stick to it. At first it is small things that stick, household items picked up off the living room floor. The ball gets bigger as things stick, and so it can pick up bigger things. Once your ball is big enough, you move out of the house and into the world. To move the ball, you twizzle the little analog joysticks. Push the sticks forward, and the character rolls the ball forward. Pull the sticks back and the character rolls the ball back. Turn left, turn right — it feels as though the variable pressure on the sticks translates into variable movements. This is analog — a relation of continuous variation. Only it isn’t really. It is a digital game. The game converts the continuous movement of your thumbs on the sticks into a digital code. It turns movements into decisions — back/forwards, left/right, stop/start. An algorithm calculates the outcome of each movement. If you roll your ball over a small object, you pick it up. If you roll your ball over one that is too big, you collide with it, throwing off a few things you have already gathered. Analog spirit becomes digital code (see Fig. D).
All games are digital. Without exception. They all come down to a strict decision: out or in, offside or onside, goal or no goal. Anything else is just ‘play’. Game studies scholar Jesper Juul: “The affinity between computers and games is one of the ironies of human history.” But not at all surprising. From the start, games were a proto-computer — machines assembled out of human motion, inanimate materials and the occasional dubious call by the referee — to make a decision, a yes or a no. Sisyphus — founder of the Ismithian games — is condemned to a useless labor which is at the same time useless play, in that it cannot bring about a decision. The rock he rolls never crosses a line. It rolls right past the notional top of the mountain, and overshoots the bottom of its own momentum. But in Katamari Damacy, things are different. Rather than the rolling of the ball being entirely useless, now it is entirely purposeful. Time, like space, no longer harbors indifference. Brenda Laurel:”…even the smallest fragments of your idle time have been colonized…”. As you roll your ball around, making it bigger and bigger, an icon in the corner of the screen shows your progress. The icon shows your ball as a circle inside a larger one, which is the size it must grow to if you are to win this level. It grows, gradually, incrementally, but at some point — a decision. Big enough! An analog progression stops at the digital threshold.*
Here is a version of the Katamari myth: You are a Prince send down to earth by a careless King who in a moment of boredom got drunk and destroyed the heavens. The Katamari balls you roll up are offerings to him. If your ball is big enough he replaces one of the stars in the sky he trashed with it. The King then sets for the Prince the task of rolling up a bigger one. Perhaps this storyline is an allegory for the relation that holds now between the analog and the digital. The twizzling of the sticks on the controller, the rolling up of the balls on the screen, is the task demanded by gamespace, and which gamespace can only recognize by rewarding the gamer with a score. Topology, with its endless, intricate lines — wireless, satellite, fiber optic — turns anything and everything into a meaningless smear of data. Gamespace installs itself in topology to reduce that smear to a decision, a yes, a no, a straight line, and to convey back to the gamer the result of the gamer’s actions. The analog is now just a way of experiencing the digital. The decision on whether something can appear or not appear is digital. You and your character the Prince are confined to the analog, rolling from topic to topic. The King commands the digital heavens. He decides what point in the sky each ball is to occupy.