February 5, 2020
“Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called the pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object, and pledges to you its utter normality. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called the turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part. The part we call the Prestige.”
— Cutter (Michael Caine), “The Prestige”
You’ve probably heard David Foster Wallace’s speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, the “This Is Water” speech.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
It’s possibly the greatest College Graduation Speech of all time, both in its mastery of the form and the surgical precision of its own self-serving subversion of that same form. “This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories”, right after the parable-ish story. “I am not the wise old fish”, followed by an explanation of the whole point of the fish story. Over and over again, throughout, we’re shown the same sleight of hand:.
Tell your audiences that they’re too smart to want a certain thing and give it to them anyway. Remind everyone that they’re too hip for corny dad sermonizing and then double down on the corny dad sermonizing. This is a great way to write a commencement speech—not by avoiding platitudes, but by drawing an enchanted circle around yourself where the things we thought were platitudes can be revealed as dazzling truths. Where all of us can be consoled, if only for an instant, by the notion that the insight we lack has been here all along! Just hiding inside of our clichés.
I don’t think Harnette’s cynicism in that LitHub article, pointed at the pernicious consequences of Wallace’s “cult of sincerity” is the whole story. She’s not wrong, but there’s more: if you’ve got the right eyes to see it the outline of the Prestige is there, the empty space where the third act didn’t happen. The part where this long, drawn out paean, begging for sincerity and authenticity and “simple awareness” reveals itself for what it is, a cry for help from somebody whose inner monologue does not shut up or take its foot off the gas so much as a millimeter for anyone or any reason ever. A plea for a simplicity from somebody whose mind simply won’t, that nobody saw.
Because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know; you want to be fooled. I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a video game review is supposed to sound. But it’s just about capital-T Time to stop using this gag.
[ https://www.youtube.com/embed/30iHXafyXlw – Superliminal teaser trailer ]
I’ve played through Superliminal twice now, and I spent a lot of that time thinking about Wallace’s call for simple awareness as the game hammers on its tagline that perception is reality. I’ve got mixed feelings about it.
Superliminal opens in an obvious homage to both Portal and The Stanley Parable, guns on the mantle that never go off; in some ways it feels like the first Assassin’s Creed, an excellent tech demo that paved the way for the great AC2. It’s brilliant and frustrating, playing with the nature of constructed realities in ways that are sometimes trite, sometimes – the knife, the parking lot – unsettling and sometimes genuinely distressing. Like Portal it’s only a few hours long but they aren’t wasted hours, novel conceits and engaging mechanics flourishing through the iteration and conceptual degradation of the dreamscapes you traverse.
But I can’t shake the feeling like some part of the game is missing, that there’s a third act we haven’t been allowed to see.
As with Wallace’s Kenyon speech it’s the final conceit – in Superliminal, the psychologists’ summary – that ties the game together in a way that feels thematically complete, grandly inspirational and woefully unearned; where all of us can be empowered, if only for an instant, by the notion that the insight we lack has been here all along, if – perception being reality – we could only see it. And just like the Kenyon graduation speech, I can’t shake the sense that the same sleight-of-hand has happened: that what we’re not seeing, what we’re choosing not to see, is that this sincere inspirational anecdote isn’t really something meant to inspire us but something the author desperately wishes they could believe themselves, a rousing sermon from a preacher desperate to escape their own apostasy.
And how hard could that be, really? All you’ve got to do, after all, is wake up.
It’s a pretty good game. You should play it. I hope whoever made it gets the help they need.