by Jace Brittain
Early on in David OReilly’s game Mountain (also referenced as MTN or Mountain Simulator), a player (“you are mountain you are god”) is informed that “There are no controls.” A player who opts not to test that limitation would watch their mountain slowly over-encumbered by meteorites shaped like cop cars, oversized top hats, and musical instruments. A player who enjoys the musical tones summoned by a gliss across their bottom row keys or who is intrigued by the messages prompted by their space bar (“I am alone on this fiery morning”) might even go far enough to discover that rapid clocking accelerates the mountain’s days and seasons or spin the mountain so fast that foreign objects are destroyed before they enter the atmosphere. I’m pretty sure the end is the same for all mountains, and I’m fascinated by a game whose ground rules are lies from some higher authority within the game, a proxy of the game’s creator.
David OReilly’s new game Everything was recently released with bigger-and-better type promises of being an “everything simulator” with gameplay trailers featuring rolling pebbles, swimming dolphins, horses overlooking stylishly-rendered natural vistas, and of course: mountains. And the joys of accidentally creating and feeling at command of a pack of wolves or a plains roaming herd of transmission towers are very real. It’s often an oddly relaxing blast to play or watch others play: I smile recalling the chaotic laughter at teetering at the limits of control as the choreographer of a sensual and destructive dance of office buildings, hospitals, and industrial cooling towers or thinking of an experience described by a friend: “the surprise of descending from an arctic world down to the electron before re-emerging as a cigarette butt somewhere completely different.”
The game’s moments of beauty and clever relativity are matched and deviously undercut by a sly philosophical subversion recognizable as David OReilly’s guiding hand, which instead of telling us “there are no controls,” works harder to tell us that Everything isn’t a game, but as a simulator where you might play as a dog, understand something of being a dog. Beyond the trippy twists of the game’s equivalent of a story mode, possibly financial but certainly aesthetic decisions like an individual object’s locomotion (ex: dogs who run like OReilly’s animated short THE HORSE RAISED BY SPHERES) mess with a player’s notions of the game universe’s ground rules in a way that I couldn’t describe until I read the novel Fifteen Dogs by the brilliant André Alexis.
Alexis begins his novel with an appealing premise which sharply states the rules of the narrative and the clearly defined stakes for the characters. This comes in the form of the first chapter’s barroom bet between the gods Apollo and Hermes. The essential terms of the bet revolve around whether the titular group of dogs (enumerated and named in a frontismatter dramatis canae) granted human intelligence can live their lives and die happy. The novel is incredibly compelling and as binge-worthy as any freshly fallen streaming series. Some of its pleasures are tied to the premise: returning to the dramatis canae to keep tabs on remaining dogs, calculating the odds, doing bookkeeping on behalf of the gods, and cheering for your favorite dogs. Certainly, other thrills come from the promise of the stakes of the bet: potentially some realization about human fates, the meaning of any individual human life, perhaps some meaningful penetration into the mind of a dog or our relationship with our own canine companions. But, the novel’s smirking literary intrigue comes from Alexis’ divinely inserted deus ex machina as Apollo, Hermes, and an increasingly invested cadre of divine gamblers interfere and break the rules the reader has been asked to trust. The rules provide a narrative structure which remains mostly intact, and its precisely the integrity of that central structure which makes departures from the basic premises thrilling.
In fact, the terms of the bet are marked by this impermanence, and the frantic interference—literally hedging the bets—serves only to emphasize the randomness of the deaths of the fifteen title characters. In fact, it is randomness that gives meaning to one or the other dog’s life. Ironically, the emotional and poetic resonance is contingent on the characters being neither perfect representations of dogs or humans. Alexis’ dogs yearn immediately for a world of sense but after any length of observation are increasingly frustrated by senselessness: “The world before them a chaos of noise and odours whose meaning now mattered to them.”
The success of the narrative position these dogs occupy as characters seems inextricable from the instability of their being, a pointedly imperfect representation which tied to the allegorical underpinnings in the book. By way of contrasting symbolism with allegory in his book The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin describes the Romantic understanding of symbol: “The measure of time for the experience of the symbol is the mystical instant in which the symbol assumes the meaning into its hidden and, if one might say so, wooded interior.” If—in a different novel than the one Alexis wrote—the gods’ words and actions corresponded, that dog story might capture a resonant symbol of canine nature some kind of inherent and organic dogness, the wooded interior of dog pictured in a mystical instant. Alexis works in a slower, thornier, more allegorical approach toward a brilliant artificiality, an autopsy of human unnature which separates visual being from meaning. In the same way, if Everything’s greyhounds walked with a quadruped’s timed gait instead of the same humorously glitched roll that that world’s simulated horses and park benches use to move around, a densely forrested and mountainous symbolic order would remain intact and the game’s player-passive so-called “documentary mode (with animal and alien descriptions from wikipedia) would be honest. Instead, both Everything and Fifteen Dogs upend symbolic orders and curse animal kingdoms with humanity.
Two of Alexis’ most memorable dogs: Majnoun (a conflicted and philosophical poodle) and Prince (a mutt poet) stand at two ends of the novel’s portrait of instability. One dog despairs at the difficulties of belonging and inbetweenness in a temporally complex and heartbreakingly tragic story about love and relationships. The other dog struggles to communicate in a language with fewer and fewer living speakers and with his ability to create art as his own senses deteriorate in a senseless world. These two dogs are the most profoundly betrayed by divine meddling. And ultimately, the two lives most upset by human (mis)perception are granted some sliver of meaning’s light. In a twist more merciful than grand symbolic gestures, Alexis grants some emotional levity to the finales of canine characters from whose labors a cynical human expects to learn something.
I think about what small optimism Benjamin sometimes finds in human calamity, and I think about it rerouted here through María Negroni’s “Dark Museum” translated by Michelle Gil-Montero:
“Poetry, Benjamin said, is an exemplary theater of sadness, an inertia that remains, self-absorbed and deaf to revelation, aware only of the world of objects and the slow turns of Saturn. In poetry, if you look closely enough, the only thing truly active is a veiled attack against the other installed in the self (or vice versa) to suppress an unbearable scission. The game, unpremeditated and treacherous, pays off. The poem never stops its blind meandering, but something may be won—if only for a moment—in the light its violence leaves behind.”