In the early 1960s, a movement began to stir beneath the streets of France, led by Guy Debord. A resistance against the growing tendrils of capitalism permeating an ever more concealed reality, the ideals of the Situationist International were far-reaching, covering significant ground over its 15 years of existence. One facet the SI confronted was the perception of time. We are forced to live in circular time, or the time of the proletariat: you wake, you work, you get paid, you pay your rent, repeat until death. In contrast, the bourgeois live in linear time, shackled to no cycle, free to move forward through this world unburdened by society, free do to as one wishes.
For Debord, there also existed play: moments outside of both linear and circular time. One praxis for manifesting this was what he termed dérive, French for “drift,” where one detaches from the material world and its bindings, searching out the psycho-geographical pushes and pulls of an environment, to “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. We see this exemplified in Even in Arcadia, a game that serves as an immersive play, in which the player finds themselves somewhat aimlessly meandering from room to room, scenes flittering between each in real time, the player’s movements drawn by nothing more than curiosity.
Drenched in these ideals, Phoebe Shalloway (@GirlDebordGames) presents shining examples as to what Debord’s theories of time can explore. Arcadia sets itself up as a story about capitalism at its endpoint, unchecked by anything or anyone, gone so far as to commodify all of natural life that has existed far before humanity came to be, a nostalgia for something essentially hauntological as far as this society is concerned. In the future of Arcadia, humanity has left Earth far behind, ditching it for the greater expanses of space, uncorrupted yet by our consumption. We colonize distant, pure worlds, then hop off them for the next Big One as it comes. Migration is dictated by big-budget advertisements and branding, in a societal consumption akin to how we chug through phone upgrades.
On the planet Arcadia, Colonization Corporation Interpis have set their sights on recreating all the flora and fauna of Great Blue using stored DNA, for our entertainment and amazement; something of an ecological zoo, a chlorophyllic Jurassic Park. CEO of Intrepis and key investor in the project, Ozymandias Z-Tag, plans to push Arcadia as the “next big thing” over current hot planetary commodity Metropol, and drive real estate investment on Arcadia through the roof. Over the course of some 30 minutes or so, a story plays out amongst several key figures within the grand opening showcase on Arcadia. It’s up to the player to then choose when and where to go, whom to follow from room to room, and what parts of the story to uncover.
Over the course of the story, we come to see how this universe plays out on a human scale. For the designer, Lio, and architect, Jack, the creation of Arcadia serves as nothing more than a prison that exacerbates the true issues at the heart of their society. It’s a cathedral to consumption, a parody of every world humanity had left to rot at the edges of the universe. For Kanami, who dictated the layout of Arcadia’s lavish halls, it becomes a stage for her to grapple with the torment of a life ripped from her by force: as her parent’s planet became an “obsie” and was to be turned into an interstellar garbage dump, Ozymandias ripped her from the hands of her fathers, and brought her out to the stars so that her parents’ “legacy” may continue. M-Oshana, who conceived of Arcadia, finds the place becoming more and more of a burden to her, the showmanship of Ozy and Intrepis distancing reality from her original dreams.
Ultimately, however, for all of them, this place becomes an infinite loop of trauma played out again and again, never ending except for when the program is closed. You see, as the play reaches its conclusion, all the actors return to their original positions and the night’s events repeat without a hitch. For them, this evening of what was to be debauchery and revelry becomes a prison in which they’re all faced with insecurities, regrets, failures, and one another. They are forever stuck in their own form of circular time, unable to break free by any means. It is then that the player takes the role of one of Debord’s Situationists, on the outside looking in during their own dérive.
With this freedom, the player is able to uncover a greater truth of the world, albeit a necessarily subjective one. We’re able to take in the environment itself, the flimsy projections of nature as 2D sprites, furthering their lack of authenticity in an absurdist way. Players can interact with several objects throughout the place: taste testing a variety of Earth-foods, prodding plants that close up from touch, or read brochures. However, the one interaction that permeates the station is the ability to throw things away. Constantly, this prompt fills the screen as there are garbage cans littered everywhere, a never-ending reminder of the waste that this event is generating.
Overall, Even in Arcadia tackles quite a few heady subjects. It manages to roll through them effortlessly, enrapturing the player in its surreal take on an “ironic dystopia.” By grounding its lofty philosophical musings within base human dynamics, it manages to never lose itself to the greater academic thesis it plays with, instead achieving its ultimate goal of exploring an unfamiliar world through the familiar, juxtaposing its oddness against the banal to express the absurdity of both. Well worth the time spent with it, Even in Arcadia beckons the player to delve ever deeper into its world and characters, as well as the points it makes.
Shalloway has written a thesis paper about the work, serving as an excellent deep dive into everything about the creation of the game and the inspirations behind it.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.