Thirty-five years ago, while Martin Amis was writing "Money," one of the novels that defined the nineteen-eighties, he admitted to a distracting dalliance with another contemporary icon. "I have spent weeks in a PacMan-fed stupor, unwilling and unable to think about anything else," he wrote in "Invasion of the Space Invaders," his "addict's guide" to the nascent arcade. Amis was not alone in his obsession. The Japanese-made game, in which players guide an auto-munching yellow head through a Daedalian maze, consuming a trail of pellets while fleeing four candy-tone ghosts, earned more than a billion dollars in quarters in its first year, surpassing the highest-grossing "Star Wars" film at the time. Pac-Man towered, Amis wrote, over "a vast garbage dump of rocky romances and wrecked careers."
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, young directors who go by the joint film credit Daniels, are known for reality-warped miniatures--short films, music videos, commercials--that are eerie yet playful in mood. In their work, people jump into other people's bodies, Teddy bears dance to hard-core dubstep, rednecks shoot clothes from rifles onto fleeing nudists. Last year, their first feature-length project, "Swiss Army Man"--starring Daniel Radcliffe, who plays a flatulent talking corpse that befriends a castaway--premièred at Sundance, and left some viewers wondering if it was the strangest thing ever to be screened at the festival. The Times, deciding that the film was impossible to categorize, called it "weird and wonderful, disgusting and demented." Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that when the Daniels were notified by their production company, several years ago, that an Israeli indie pop star living in New York wanted to hire them to experiment with technology that could alter fundamental assumptions of moviemaking, they took the call. The musician was Yoni Bloch, arguably the first Internet sensation on Israel's music scene--a wispy, bespectacled songwriter from the Negev whose wry, angst-laden music went viral in the early aughts, leading to sold-out venues and a record deal. After breaking up with his girlfriend, in 2007, Bloch had hoped to win her back by thinking big. He made a melancholy concept album about their relationship, along with a companion film in the mode of "The Wall"--only to fall in love with the actress who played his ex. He had also thought up a more ambitious idea: an interactive song that listeners could shape as it played. But by the time he got around to writing it his hurt feelings had given way to more indeterminate sentiments, and the idea grew to become an interactive music video. The result, "I Can't Be Sad Anymore," which he and his band released online in 2010, opens with Bloch at a party in a Tel Aviv apartment. Standing on a balcony, he puts on headphones, then wanders among his friends, singing about his readiness to escape melancholy. He passes the headphones to others; whoever wears them sings, too. Viewers decide, by clicking on onscreen prompts, how the headphones are passed--altering, in real time, the song's vocals, orchestration, and emotional tone, while also following different micro-dramas. If you choose the drunk, the camera follows her as she races into the bathroom, to Bloch's words "I want to drink less / but be more drunk." Choose her friend instead, and the video leads to sports fans downing shots, with the lyrics "I want to work less / but for a greater cause."
My day job, in lieu of teaching creative writing like a normal person, is writing scripts for blockbuster video games. Last summer, while I watched a play-through of the then-unreleased Gears of War 4, for which I was the lead writer, something odd happened. The game's story called for a massive plane crash, out of which a single robot, operatically aflame, was intended to stride toward the player. Within the game's fiction, robots have hitherto opposed the player, but we wanted this particular burning robot to pose no immediate threat. The game programmers had thus switched off the hostility driven by the robot's artificial intelligence, allowing the player to walk past the hapless robot or shoot it. Most of us on the development team, I think, hoped our game's future players wouldn't shoot. Just ahead of the encounter we placed what is referred to, in game design, as a frontgate--a kind of contrived environmental blockage intended to prevent players from rushing too far ahead, which can mess up loading times.
If reality is a game--a vast, snow-globe-y sort of experiment that plays out according to the hard rules of physics and the loose rules of story--then it is, in contemporary game-design parlance, a persistent one. We enter it when it is already under way, and we hope, for the sake of our children, that we exit before it's finished. There are advantages and drawbacks for those who, like us, have arrived to this game relatively late. While we benefit from the invention of penicillin, of airplanes, of the Internet, we also suffer antibiotic resistance, looming climate disaster, online comments. And one pleasure enjoyed by our forebears, now largely denied to us, is the thrill of cartographic discovery.