My problem is I lack direction (What Is Reality?)

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It’s November 24, 1992. Topping the Billboard charts, we have The Heights with “How Do You Talk to an Angel”; Shai, Boyz II Men, TLC, Patty Smyth, and Mary J. Blige also make the top ten. The top movie both last weekend and this coming weekend is Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. In the news today, a China Southern Airline flight crashes, killing 141, all of whom are most likely having a worse year than Queen Elizabeth II, who is thousands of miles away, survives, and yet nonetheless declares this an annus horribilis. To be fair, her house did catch on fire last week. In lighter news, and fitting for this episode, today is Sonic 2sday, advertised as the first simultaneous worldwide release of a video game, namely the Sega Genesis game Sonic the Hedgehog 2. So, of course, the game has been available in Japan since November 21.

I have discussed before the ways in which Batman the Animated Series‘ version of the Riddler falls flat. Let us take that as given and consider, instead, the decision to closely associated him with video games. In a way, it makes sense. Early video games, particularly of the text adventure and later point-and-click adventure genre, the latter of which is approaching the peak of its popularity and relevance at this point with the second wave of LucasArts SCUMM games and Sierra’s SCI engine, were often characterized by exactly the kind of sadistic puzzles the Riddler prefers. Perhaps most infamous is the scene in 1990’s King’s Quest V, in which the player had the option to throw a boot at a cat to stop it chasing a mouse, but only on the first time they visited the screen, and only if they acquired the boot, which is in an unremarkable location in a vast, trackless desert the player has no particular reason to ever visit. If the player does not save the mouse, then a much later scene becomes unwinnable.

By those standards, the Riddler is actually quite fair!

This time around, he is involved in a classic bit of 1990s zeerust–a term coined by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd to describe something intended to seem futuristic at the time, but which in hindsight seems dated and quaint–virtual reality. This notion of immersive, computer-generated environments indistinguishable from reality except perhaps by their fantastic nature was a staple of science fiction of the Long ’90s, from Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s holodecks to the “jacked in” worlds of cyberpunk, seeming to culminate and finally fizzle out with the Matrix movies. In hindsight, the most prophetic things about Riddler’s virtual reality are the use of clunky headsets and the limited red and black palette of his world, and that’s just 1995’s Virtual Boy.

But Riddler’s world is honestly not very much like a video game at all. The logic is a little too freewheeling–the fact that the question marks can be wiped out by getting them in the path of the train, for example. Why would he program enemies to harm one another, if the goal is to eliminate the people who play the game? (I mean, why have a solution at all, but that’s the Riddler’s schtick. It still doesn’t make it likely that he would consider the possibility that perils from one room could be used to impact another. Unless, of course, that’s actually the intended solution to the question marks. How Sierra-like of him.)

The reason his world is not very video game-like is simple: it’s not a video game. Not just in the sense of the show being made by people a generation too old to have grown up with games, but in the sense that it is clearly no longer even trying to be a depiction of video games by people who don’t play video games, but rather a dreamscape, as becomes clear when Batman discovers he can alter his avatar by simply willing it to change. At that point he is no longer engaged in solving a particularly intricate and unfair puzzle, which is what an adventure game basically is, but rather fighting a battle of will and creativity against the Riddler himself.

It is, in its own way, the classic shapeshifters’ duel of folklore. Both combatants take on new forms and multiply themselves in their battle, both are able to become anything they can imagine, and both are trying to imagine something the other cannot imagine a counter for. Inevitably, Batman wins the traditional way, by tricking his opponent into becoming something self-defeating. “I bet you couldn’t become corn,” clever Molly Whupple says to the giant, and then becomes a rooster and gobbles him up.

This passage through a dark dreamscape, culminating in a battle with a shapeshifter, is a journey that figures in a number of esoteric schools. Crowley, for example, depicts it as a descent into the Abyss, where one encounters the shapeshifting demon Choronzon. The goal of this journey through the Abyss is to shed one’s illusions, most notably the illusion of self, and attain enlightenment; but the danger is that one might lose themselves and wander the Abyss forever. In that case, it is clear that Nygma lost. The episode’s final shot reveals a man who has indeed lost himself in the Abyss. And while he will return, it is perhaps notable that he is never particularly associated with video games again. That world, it seems, has truly collapsed.

Or, perhaps, escaped. Batman the Animated Series will be released for the Game Boy precisely a year from now.


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