Metaphysicians Inside a Star-Filled Sky

by Darius Kazemi on April 30, 2012

in Games I Love,philosophy,weirdness

I wrote the following piece on a transatlantic flight yesterday after reading a big chunk of Bruno Latour’s (absolutely brilliant) Aramis, or the Love of Technology. I was inspired by a passage in the book where a personal rapid transit system is talking to its priest about ontology and free will. (Yeah, I know.)

This a dialogue that takes place between two philosophers who live inside Jason Rohrer’s game Inside a Star-Filled Sky. (Yeah, I know.)

If you haven’t played the game, you really should do so (Win/Mac/Linux), but this video will give you an idea of what it’s like to play a recursive shoot ‘em up. (Yeah, I know.)


–What is an object?

–Why, an object is a thing that sustains qualities.

–Very well then: what is not an object?

–Simple! It’s something without qualities, such as a wall.

–Ah yes, of course, silly me. It appears I’ve temporarily forgotten my education at L’Ecole [Star Filled]! But how do we know whether a wall contains intrinsic qualities?

–I say, is something wrong? Have you been drinking? You’re asking the most peculiar questions. Knowing whether a wall contains intrinsic qualities is a simple empirical matter: when we try to dive into the depths of the wall to see what is inside of it, we find that we are unable to do so!

–Ah, so the fact that the wall does not allow us to plumb its depths is what makes it not an object. But how can a wall exist without qualities?

–The nature of the wall, as a not-object, is contained within objects themselves. You might call it a virtual object, or an intentional object? The wall is a kind of negative space. It appears to have qualities but in fact does not have any: you and I have the quality of Do-Not-Pass-Through-Wall. This in turn makes it appear to have the quality of Denizens-Do-Not-Pass-Through-Me. But do not be fooled. The wall has no qualities. Similarly, bullets know to disappear when they encounter this wall-space.

–Then let me ask: is “Wall-ness” a quality?

–It is not a true quality, not in the same sense as Do-Not-Pass-Through-Wall is a quality. It’s… let’s call it a surface quality. This is why we cannot plumb the depths of the wall: it is nothing but surface, no depth whatsoever.

–What of bullets, then? A bullet moves, but we are not able to plumb its depths. Yet it sustains velocity, attraction, deflection, replication, and other behaviors! Surely those are primary qualities in the same sense as Do-Not-Pass-Through-Wall?

–Hmmm. You make an interesting point. Very well, I revise my metaphysics: the primary divide in the world is not between objects and not-objects, but rather it’s between objects whose depths can be plumbed and those whose depths cannot be plumbed: the plumbable and the unplumbable!

–That sounds all well and good, but I believe you’re short-sighted. For let me ask: what do we see when we plumb an object?

–By the stars, I know you know the answer to this question but I’ll play along anyway. When we plumb an object, we see mazes of walls, exits, powerups, a sometimes dense spray of bullets, and of course other denizens.

–Yes, and further, what relation does the interior of an object have to its exterior?

–Well, the maze makes up the general geometry of the object’s exterior. The powerups contained within represent the object’s potential for change: collecting these powerups provides the transformative moment when the exterior object changes its properties and behaviors. And the density of bullets and denizens is somehow related to the overall power level of the object itself.

–Yes, very good! So allow me to ask: what do we see when we plumb the depths of ourselves?

–Why… why we see the very same things!

–Is it not possible, then, that only objects that are similar to one another—that is, that sustain the same qualities—are able to plumb one another?

–But that is absurd! Powerups sustain the same qualities as we do—we can see as much when we enter them—but a powerup never plumbs the depths of another object!

–Yet perhaps it could, were it able or willing to do so? It is perfectly normal to enter a powerup, then enter a series of denizens, then exit those denizens, then find yourself back inside the powerup. It’s normal because, by convention, we know that we must have entered the powerup at some point. And while you think you know that you are yourself, that you are a Primary-Path denizen, how do we know we are not 100 levels deep inside some powerup, deluded this whole time into thinking we are not a recursive branch—secondary, tertiary, or worse?

–You mean to say that on my exit from the current maze, I might not find myself in a new body, but rather a body inhabiting the interior of some powerup? Or that I am currently inhabiting a powerup, and on my next exit I will find myself face to face with that powerup for the consumption?

–Yes, I mean to say that. What I mean to say is: like denizens, powerups contain both powerups, mazes, and denizens. Perhaps a powerup is just a denizen who chooses not to shoot or move for whatever reason.

–That’s absurd. Next you’re going to tell me denizens can be consumed.

–I wouldn’t go that far. What I’m saying is that ontologically speaking, denizens are a hair’s width from being powerups, and vice versa.

–How does this talk have anything to do with my theory of the plumbable/unplumbable divide as the two primary ontological states of being?

–Has it occurred to you that perhaps self-similarity is the hallmark of plumbability?

–It has occurred to me, yes.

–Well then: walls, even in their complete alienness as a kind of negative space without recognizable qualities, are presumably similar to one another. Perhaps a wall could plumb another wall, should it choose to do so.

–You’re entering moonbat territory here, my friend…

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