The nature of reality is amorphous, open to and yet immune to definition or explanation. The human mind still perplexes and eludes our greatest thinkers; narratives that explore the intangible ideas of reality are themselves abstract in nature. In anime we have an art form that is itself both conceptual and hyperreal in its depictions and signifiers, making it a fertile medium in which to explore ideas of reality and the human mind. Despite series like Ergo Proxy, Serial Experiments Lain, Paprika and others exploring the nature of reality and identity, it’s the trapped-in-video-game trope that I want to explore in this context.
I’ve covered the idea of reality being a simulation in a previous post, particularly in how it corresponds to the concept of living inside a video game. Despite similarities, these two ideas aren’t equivalent; a simulation is a passive reality, while living inside a video game gives the individual power over their own existence, or at least the illusion of it. Although the trope dates back some three decades, perhaps longer in more tangential forms, it is only within the last few years that the idea has evolved from the preserve of science fiction and into the realms of possibility. With the proliferation in wearables, virtual reality and two-way media, the gap between reality and entertainment is increasingly blurry.
Whilst video games can no longer be fobbed off as the underdog of the entertainment industry, it’s still a veritable youngster compared to the cultural juggernauts of cinema, music and print media. Gone are the days of gaming as counterculture, of media suspicion and gone, thankfully, is the notion of the ‘gamer’ as identity. Instead, the video games industry has converged with traditional media and laid the foundation for the digital world we all now inhabit. We may now be living gamefied existences, but there was a time when gaming was either a curiosity, dismissed as a passing fad or outright dangerous. This paranoia fed into narratives and cautionary tales, feeding into our collective consciousness. Popular opinion places the .hack franchise as the beginning of this trope in anime, but that negates more embryonic forms in other series. I’d even argue that Digimon was ahead of the pack with its cast getting sucked into a digital world. But a more unlikely entry is with literature.