They move ceaselessly forward. Always forward. They cannot do anything else; their nature is set. At best they may be acted upon by outside influences, but still they are like water. They may be diverted and rerouted, but there is nothing that actually stops the flow. They will walk until they drown.
It is the same with us, really. Time’s riptide pulls us all under, drowning us all beneath the waterline of history. We are perhaps more complex than the green-haired mascots of Psygnosis’s 1991 multiplatform classic, occasionally making what appears very much like a choice. But our choice is just the removal of all the other options; We are set within a system of rules and defined by outside influences. We are not protagonists; not individual avatars of some demiurgic player-souls. We are but part of the flock, buffeted by outside forces.
(And yet the outside forces cannot, strictly speaking, be described as “causal.” The path of history’s flow is defined and knowable, and yet nobody actually follows it with any precision. To use a specific example, we might successfully root the development of the masculine “gamer” identity in the Sega Genesis’s attempt to counter Nintendo’s family marketing with a male-skewing notion of coolness, but it is not as though every Genesis household spawned a Gamergate supporter, or as though there are no misogynistic fuckheads who owned a SNES.)
Perhaps one separates from the crowd. Often this is accomplished by literally elevating him above the rest, designating him with two of the three (or arguably four) permanent traits, namely Climber and Floater, which allow him to scale walls and subsequently parachute down from great heights. This newly minted ubervole will be forever marked as such, appearing under the cursor as “Athlete.” He will strike out and explore the vast landscape, reshaping it to whims that he no doubt imagines are his own.
But this great reshaping’s only purpose is, in the end, to provide the path that the crowd shall flow through, so that his individuality is subsequently lost in the tide that follows. Indeed, the functions of reshaping – Builder, Digger, Miner, and Basher – are all temporary roles. When the tasks are completed, whoever performed them simply recedes back to the faceless crowd, reclaiming their identity as “Walker.” The landscape has no author. Nobody made it this way. It simply is.
More chilling is what is revealed about the the landscape itself when it is altered. Once it has been Dug or Mined or Bashed, or even Blasted, it is simply removed, and the shadows and texture remain fixed around it. For all the intricate play of light and shadows with which it is rendered, it proves flat, an illusion that can be torn through and scraped off. Individual points of landscape may be resistant to destruction or fatal to the touch, but it is all the same substance – a trompe l’oeil painted upon the world.
This is the state of things: a world designed only so that a mass of people can flow deterministically through it, and a mass of people who exist only to sluice within it. And at the end of things, a pockmarked landscape with a traced path from entry hatch to exit gate, left desolate and void of life. We call this blasted husk “history” and move on. And thus the game is played.
Within this, one figure stands out: the Blocker. There are several dynamics from which the game’s challenges arise: the difficulty of isolating a specific figure from within the crowd, the steady creep of chaos that arises from simultaneously managing events at opposite sides of the board in real time, and the simple dance of timing involved in renewing a Builder’s status after the twelfth brick is laid or in converting a Walker into a Basher at the precise moment before it turns around to walk in the other direction. But none are quite as profound as the Blocker.
The problem is simple enough: like Climber and Floater, Blocker is a permanent status. Unlike these others, however, it is also a terminal one. The Blocker, once named, cannot be unnamed. It will stand there forever, looking side to side, until the clock runs out and history is imposed upon the world. Or, alternatively, until the player opts to euthanize it, either by assigning it the status of Bomber or by simply nuking the place.
The practical consequence is an enforced upper bound on how much of the flock can be saved. In those maps where 100% survival is a requirement there can be no use of Blockers, despite the fact that they are, on other levels, one of the most basic units of play. And on those other levels a perfect score is impossible. Instead a brutal logic of necessary sacrifices is imposed. And once this logic takes hold, it is difficult not to apply it in other circumstances. The stragglers who, by happenstance of facing the wrong direction at a crucial moment, lag behind the flock. The rear of the line, slowly meandering towards the gate long after the goal has been met. Armageddon becomes an ever-present temptation, a handy means of avoiding idle time.
Oh, to be among the flock. To march ever forward is, after all, to never be idle. To never face the awful, mocking spectacle of boredom. Why be a player, suffering the cruel delusion of selfhood that afflicts all who sit behind the cursor, when one can instead submit to history’s flow and be swept along with the tide, trusting or perhaps hoping that you will not be among those turned to Blockers.
In the end, of course, it is all based on a lie. Lemmings do not simply blindly follow each other off of cliffs and drown. The myth is based largely on a documentary produced by the Walt Disney company entitled White Wilderness, which purported to show a mass of the creatures marching to their doom in the Arctic Ocean. In reality, the body of water was the Bow River near Calgary, and the effect was produced by placing lemmings on a rotating platform so that they were pushed to their doom.
The lesson here: the game, like the landscape, is an illusion, created only by the presence of a would-be player. The cruelty has only ever been ourselves.