Friday, October 28, 2005

Lost as Godgame

The term godgame is defined by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy as "a tale in which an actual game (which may incorporate broader implications) is being played without the participants' informed consent, and which (in some sense) is being scored by its maker." A key figure in the godgame is the "owner of the game (a Magus, a magister ludi, a god." The author of the entry gives two examples: Shakespeare's Tempest and John Fowles's The Magus. I would add at least two more: the film The Truman Show and the current TV series Lost. (Another example of a godgame without fantastic elements is the film Trading Places, with Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy.)

All four of these works take place on islands, which, by virtue of their isolation, are well suited for the staging of godgames. All of them have their own unique features; for instance, in The Truman Show, although there is one Prospero/Magus figure (played by Ed Harris), everyone on the island is complicit in the game except Truman (Jim Carrey). I am currently in the middle of reading The Magus, so I don't know how it's going to turn out, or who is complicit in the game (not the reader!).

In the first season of Lost, my working hypothesis was that the island was some kind of region of the afterlife — a province of purgatory — and that the castaways somehow had to overcome their faults to "escape." But at this point in the second season, I'm convinced that a godgame of some kind is in progress. Of course, we don't yet know what the game is or who the Prospero/Magus is. One fascinating possibility is that the Magus is, unbeknownst to us, one of the characters we are already familiar with. I don't think Locke (Terry O'Quinn; my favorite character) is the Magus, but I think he might somehow be complicit in the game as a helper of some kind. Anybody else have any thoughts?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: John Clute, "Godgame," Encyclopedia of Fantasy (ed. J. Clute and J. Grant; St. Martin's, 1997), 414-415.

UPDATE (10/31): Some interesting comments below. From Jim Davila's comment, I learned that the word "godgame" is also used for virtual-reality scenarios, whether philosophical (such as the brains-in-vats meme) or fictional (like The Matrix). I must admit that using it this way seems like an extension away from the original concept, but usage is usage. Therefore I would propose two different kinds of godgame: the kind I described above, in which people know they are caught up in some kind of manipulation, but don't know who is doing it or why; and the second kind, in which perception or reality itself is a construct, a fact unknown to all or most of the participants. Let us call the first kind the Labyrinth, or Narratives of Misdirection; the prototype in Western literature is The Book of Job. And the second kind can be called the Matrix, or Narratives of Misperception; its prototype is Plato's "allegory of the cave." As Jim notes, the Matrix type provides interesting parallels to Gnosticism, while the Labyrinth type is more typical, religiously, of mainstream Judaism or Christianity ("God has a wonderful plan for your life" that you are unaware of). (I intend no irreverence.)

Joe surmises below that the island in Lost is itself the Magus. I must admit that I don't understand this suggestion. In what way can the island be thought of as sentient, and what could its motivations be? Locke speaks of the island that way, but I presume that he's speaking out of his own arguably confused preconceptions.

Interestingly, there is at least one theory out there that the castaways are in fact victims of a Matrix type godgame. (Look through the "theories" threads here.) My idea is, however, that a Labyrinth style godgame is going on, and that the island is a real island, not a digital construct. I haven't yet worked out how to integrate my theory with the persistent hints in the script that most of the castaways have some kind of psi Talents: telepathy, precognition, etc. But that's what makes it fun.


Jim Davila said...

The Truman Show is also a nice retelling of the Gnostic demiurgic myth. I mean to blog on this one of these days.

Even more interesting, philosophers are seriously discussing whether we all are living in a godgame. Maybe I'll blog on that sometime too.

Andrew Criddle said...

Another example of a godgame is 'The Squares of the City' by John Brunner (Although Brunner was an SF writer the book contains no overtly fantastic elements.)

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


This is a simply fascinating post. I have read the works you mention as well viewed the Truman Show. I, like you, believe that Locke plays a pivotal role as a “keeper” for the Magus. I have examined each character from the first season – I bought the DVD boxed edition from season one – and have come to a conclusion. I don’t think the Magus is a player in the traditional sense. I believe that the Magus may be the island itself. Remember that Locke told many people that he had seen the heart of the Island and it was magical and also beautiful. In any case for right now I am convinced that the Island somehow is controlling the people in a way in which even they are not aware of – at the moment.

Julie D. said...

That is also what Locke believes too, except he is the only person who acknowledges the Island as a character. I think of him as the island's "shaman" who interprets for the others.

Michael Turton said...

Other GodGames, a type of story that I love:

The film The Thirteenth Floor (came out the same time as Matrix, much better IMHO) but overshadowed by Neo & Co.

I have always loved Microcosmic God (told from the god's point of view) by T. Sturgeon. Many of Philip K Dick's SF novels have godgame-like qualities, including Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, The Man in the High Castle, and A Scanner Darkly, probably his three best. Greg Benford's The Stars in Shroud is one of a host of SF stories in which the world is a test for the protagonist. Philip Jose Farmer's Ringworld is a classic godgame variant. Another is Blish's _Universe_.


Ron Franscell said...

From novelist/blogger Ron Franscell at ...

Who knows why an author becomes an author. A tricky wiring of the senses? A quest to recapture some too-brief moment in the distant past? A hubris that allows him to believe he has something worth somebody else's attention? A wan attempt at immortality? Keener-than-normal typing skills?

I wrote "stories" when I was very young -- snippets, really, without the pretention or self-awareness I now combat. I read voraciously and unwittingly collected a vocabulary that stood me in favor with English teachers. I started working on the school paper when I was 12 and never stopped.

But it wasn't until college, when I read "The Magus" by John Fowles, that I believed I could write a book. Not because it seemed too damned easy, but because Fowles was alive and because his writing was rich beyond belief. Intensely erotic in its language, incredibly brave in its structure, and utterly asymmetrical in its intellectualism -- it opened a door that had been cracked only a sliver. Here was this Brit who spoke so beautifully and viscerally and poetically when all I knew about British literature to that point was stuffy, overwrought and exceedingly long. And the ending ... inconclusive, atmospheric, an unanswered question. To this day, "The Magus" remains among the two or three books that made my life better, both as a writer and a man.

Fowles' death Saturday, then, gives me pause. We'd never met, although I had hoped someday to shake his hand and to tell him what his writing meant to me. I spent some time in his old hometown -- Oxford, England -- while doing some international reporting years ago, and I asked about him, but I was discouraged from knocking on his door like a troublesome literary groupie -- which, I suppose, I was. After all, he was a private man and the fact that I had written two novels gave me no unique dispensation to ask him to share a pint at the corner pub and tell me a secret. I'm sorry now that I didn't.

John Fowles did what a writer must do: He created his alternate, parallel world and invited me in. More than the others whom I admired -- the literally all-American passel of Hemingway, Steinbeck, London and Fitzgerald -- he showed me possibilities I hadn't considered. His later books taught me everything I needed to know about non-linear storytelling, the free-verse that prose could be, and diabolic irony. And more than the rest, he showed me that poetic eroticism and visuality -- not the strength of the Americans either -- wasn't only the country of women writers. But his mystery was no mystery at all; he knew there were no magic beans, no answers, no perfect resolutions, no knowing what comes next, except dying.

I'll miss Fowles. And I promise: If any young writer ever knocks on my door to tell me he became a writer because of something I wrote, I'll let him take me to the corner pub for a pint. I just won't have any secrets to share. I'll just hand him a copy of "The Magus."

Christopher Heard said...

Ed, what do you make of the Dharma Project revelations in recent episodes (e.g, "Orientation")? Is the Dharma Project an absent magus?

Anonymous said...

I suspect that Locke's father will be the Magus. he was rich . . .

Anonymous said...

the magus theory confirms with 3 series

Anonymous said...

There is a user on various "Lost" related websites that is involved in some underground game and goes by the name of Conchis. He seems to appear then becomes invisible. I have read many of his posts on, yet now there is no trace. Yet if you send him a PM-personal message-there, it goes thru and he sometimes will reply; if you are one of the 'elect.'