Infinity Blade is a game that repeats ad infinitum. Once you finish the game, whether you win or lose, you start over. Like Ulysses, the thing is a loop. I started playing Infinity Blade during a bout of particularly severe anxiety – it was something to do during train and plane rides, where I’d otherwise panic. Something about the repetitive game play and the enveloping lonely world took me mentally out of the agoraphobia and claustrophobia of the metal tube that held my physical body. In fact, loneliness was one of the primary design principals of the game – the desolate and beautiful post-apocalyptic setting is as much a part of the game as the hacking and slashing.
J. Nicholas Geist wrote about the first version of Infinity Blade when it came out at Kill Screen:
Infinity Blade is a game about human drudgery, the endless process of ordering the same lunch at the same restaurant at the same time, day after day, month after month, year after year, lifetime after lifetime, bloodline after bloodline.
If you haven’t read this review, you need to – it makes exceptional example of what you can do with a text on the internet. As you click through the “bloodlines” the review itself changes, varying slightly, revolving around the same themes, until eventually it reaches a conclusion. While there are only five variations or alterations in Geist’s review, in Infinity Blade, there could be literally no end. But you get the idea.
The first Infinity Blade game is about a hero out to avenge the death of their father and free their people from the tyranny of an unjust ruler – it’s like someone just put monomyth through a juicer. In the second game the stakes go up as the protagonist is trying to figure out how too liberate all of humankind from their immortal rulers called the Deathless. In the third game, the protagonist has realized that his efforts to defeat the Deathless have unleashed a kind of ur-villain – something far worse than what was out there before – and that plot line reveals the complicity of the protagonist over the course of millennia in the repeated destruction of the world.
A key feature of the game play is that you simply keep repeating the same story – losing, dying, and being reborn again – until you win. Then, you can play through it again — you simply fail harder and fail better.
One thing that makes Infinity Blade interesting – and slightly different from most sword and sorcery hack and slash games — is that it’s set on a post apocalyptic earth. You realize gradually during the course of the play that the game is heavily indebted to Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The game revolves around advanced technology in a kind of Dark Age, where one weird egomaniac inventor basically controls all knowledge.
This ur-villain is called The Maker of Secrets – or simply The Maker – and is some kind of technological genius who was born around present day, and was, in his first life, the CEO of some large tech corporation. (I haven’t read the novellas (yes there are novellas) so bear with me on this.) It’s easy to see The Maker as some kind of hyper-capitalist antichrist Steve Jobs figure and the blasted, desolate, future where humanity is nearly extinct as the conclusion of that kind of technological redemption ideology. The empty world is the logical conclusion of hypercapitalism that has converted all of the resources in the world into capital – so that the world can only support a radically reduced population of people. All of the value left in the world is in weapons, gems, bags of gold, and “magical” jewelry.
You the protagonist, along with all the Deathless antagonists, are constantly killed and reborn. You also come to realize, through your endless cycle of deaths and rebirths, hacking and slashing, that the world itself is also endlessly remade. The Maker burns the whole thing down every couple thousand years. The Maker, for all intents and purposes, is apotheosized, and he very well knows it.
The bizarre part of this game is that you realize that you, the protagonist, were allied with The Maker, and complicit in causing the apocalypse “dozens of times” — a literal holocaust where everything dies by “purifying fire.” Your goal in the final game is to break out of the cycle and to end the repetition of apocalypse and death. Not only does this smell strongly of Buddhist and Hindu cosmology and philosophy – it’s also ecologically motivated. A big part of the ecological thought is realizing that you are to blame – and trying to figure out how you can deal with both complicity, responsibility, and guilt.
In Infinity Blade, you can keep repeating the cycle, but ultimately the game is resolved when the memory of The Maker is wiped, using his own technology. This conclusion sort of looks like a back-to-the-land movement dream – all you have to do is forget the technology that has destroyed the world and everything will be all right.
There’s something apocalyptic about repetition. One conception of time, called presentism, is that the world simply doesn’t have a time dimension. Every moment is distinct and new, and the old world is left behind. Every configuration of objects constitutes a new world. The present is the only world.
The repetition of the world constitutes the world; while it is new it repeats. Many things stay effectively the same. Repetition is constitutive of a newness but it also is apocalyptic.
The world is constituted by the present, and the present, and the present, and the present. But the world is ended by the repetition as well.
The first instance of combustion had a relatively negligible impact on our world. Even the first atomic detonation had a relatively small affect. But the first trillion or so instances of combustion have made something more of a splash.
Repetition on a civilization level – say, cutting down a trillion trees or dumping a trillion gallons of garbage into the ocean, or killing a trillion bison – does something different than human. It’s not-human – it’s ungodly and other-worldly.
One of the primary characteristics that constitutes metal, the music genre, is repetition. There’s a kind of meaning making that goes with repetition and a kind of bottomless horror. When something starts repeating, you simply don’t know when it will stop – if ever. In metal, repetition takes place in both small scale and large scale. It’s especially evident because many other meaning making tools – words for example – are obscured.
Cold of Ages, the second full-length record by Arcata, California’s Ash Borer, is as good a place as any to consider repetition. The apocalyptic record works in waves, and it starts with the impeccably orchestrated 17 minute long opener, Descended Lamentations. The song rolls in with lilting synth chords that drone in and out, simply, almost innocently, repeating. After a few minutes of rocking back and forth in anxiety there’s an explosion of fury and blast beats, that comes in waves, both comforting and frightening, for the next ten minutes. There’s no real climax. The words are incomprehensible. The listener is just assaulted by various gradations of desperation and grief, repeated, and repeated.
It’s this way that Descended Lamentations accumulates something like signification. If you consider another composition that comes from grief and rage, The Disintegration Loops, by William Basinski, it’s easy to see a meditational aspect to metal. There’s a concentration in both Basinski’s work and the work of Ash Borer that’s rarely given in the venue of popular music. Repeating a mantra like “Raise your hands if you feel that happiness is the truth” for three and a half minutes is a far different kind of thing than listening to a tape loop over and over, recording over itself, dying and decaying for an hour while filming the World Trade Center collapse.
Buried in the Assistens Kierkegaard in Copenhagen’s hip Norrebro neighborhood lie Hans Christian Anderson, Niels Bohr, and Soren Kierkegaard.
Niels Bohr helped to create quantum theory. His model of the atom effectively lead to modern particle physics. Soren Kierkegaard was one of the first existentialists. Kierkegaard also wrote on repetition. In broad terms, in the book Repetition, Kierkegaard argues that repetition isn’t even possible – that if you do the same thing a second time, it will be a different thing all together. His argument is somewhat like presentism – while Kierkegaard doesn’t think that the only world is the one in the present configuration, he does think that every moment is different enough to preclude repetition.
This looks a little bit like Zeno’s proof that movement is impossible. It’s like – I can move, right? So, don’t be ridiculous. But there’s something undeniably logical about this position. It’s like a thing that’s right in front of your face that you just have to ignore. You know that you can’t repeat anything precisely, even if you’re just repeating the same set of blast beats and tremulous guitar – you simply can’t repeat because by virtue of being a repetition the thing changes. The repetition is an event that changes with each instance of repetition. These weird logical non-places are where language breaks down.
Niels Bohr became one of the people that helped to destroy the world. The conception of the atom demolished the classical definition of the atom – an atom was initially conceived of as the smallest bit of matter – and Bohr needed the atom to be made up of a bunch of different bits of matter with distinct properties moving around each other. But that’s not where it ends. Somehow things keep being made up of smaller things and space – it’s hardly possible to find the bottom, the quintessential smallest bit. The closer you look the more everything looks the same. And in the other direction, the bigger the scale, the more everything looks the same too.
The crappy old axiom about insanity being the same thing over and over again, usually attributed to Einstein, is simply bullshit. Not only is it tired – especially in journalism – it simply doesn’t make any sense. In fact, the opposite should be said to be true: if you do the same thing enough times you can be sure that something different will happen.
Another illustration would be the old Sorites Paradox: if you keep butting grains of sand together eventually you’ll have a pile. When do you have a pile? Who knows. But you can bet that if you keep doing it you’ll have a pile. If you start digging, you’ll have hole. When will you have hole? Who knows.
The real rub of the insanity axiom is that it’s essentially the fallacy that capitalism is founded on: if we keep jamming our drill phalluses into the earth sweet crude will continue to spill out like rich blood. If we keep capitalizing on the world’s infinite resources, we’ll keep capitalizing on the world’s infinite resources. It doesn’t take a much thought to see that this is patently absurd.
Repetition does something. It accumulates. In the world of materials science you have a property called fatigue strength or fatigue limit. If you keep stressing a material it will break. It may take thousands or millions of stress cycles, but basically no matter what you’re testing, it will break eventually.
A common example of a fatigue limit that’s very human and universally acknowledged is smoking cigarettes. That one cigarette won’t likely kill you. You may even like it. But it’s sure as hell not good for you, and when you add another ten thousand or million cigarettes worth of carcinogens to your body there’s a good chance you’ll die of cancer, emphysema, or something cigarette related.
So that’s not strictly a fatigue limit, but you can see the application of the term in this venue helps us bridge the gap to large-scale non-human level objects. Burning fossil fuels on an epic scale for a century has essentially destroyed the world as we know it – the cool chain-smoking teenager is now dying of emphysema.
Sure, you can do the same thing and expect a different result — in fact you have to expect a different result. Because repetition is on one hand impossible and on the other hand very possible and manages effects more profound through accumulation than any single action could.