Lost: Via Domus

[Research] (08.01.09, 11:08 pm)

Ubisoft and ABC Studios released Lost: Via Domus in February, 2008, for the PC and a couple of the major gaming consoles. The game was not received particularly well, getting mediocre ratings and poor reviews. A lot of this is due to a variety of reasons, many of them technical. My focus here is to look at it as an adaptation, and understand whether it is a good or bad adaptation of the television series Lost.

I’ll preface this by pointing out a few of the glaring problems with Via Domus as a game. The gameplay is based off of the adventure format, and places the player within the world, to interact with other characters and objects. The visual feel is meant to have the same crisp, vivid atmosphere as the show, so everything is meant to be photorealistic. This proves to be a major undoing, as the implementation of the game is not quite up to that level of detail. This is not to disparage Ubisoft which developed the game, but the multitude of characters that are present in Lost, and the variety of poses, scenes, and expressions, is far beyond the normal development practice for most games. Ultimately, the voice acting is often off, and the animations and expressions of the characters are stiff and awkward. As Audrey put it, it looks as though the characters emigrated from the uncanny valley. Another problem that particularly irks me is that “Via Domus” is grammatically incorrect Latin. As anyone who has seen Life of Brian should know, the locative case of “domus” is actually “domum.” As it stands, “Via Domus” means “House Road;” to get the intended translation of “The way home,” the title should have been “Via Domum.” Putting these assorted complaints aside, it is possible to examine the game from an adaptation standpoint.

I’ll summarize some important elements from the game, and then will compare these mechanics to the mechanics of the show itself. Judging Via Domus as an adaptation requires building an interpretation of the TV series, and I will try to do that.

To start with, the player has amnesia. This is a little cheap as far as introductions go, many games have used giving the player character amnesia as a convenient method to introduce the player to the game setting without forcing them to know what to expect from it. The player character, Eliot Maslow, who does not even know his name for quite a while, has a complex history. Discovering this history is the primary goal of the game. There are other ways of introducing complex character histories, but this requires making the character having goals and motivations that the player does not know about at the start. This is a slight flaw in the design of Via Domus, because none of the characters in Lost ever have amnesia. Rather, they have backgrounds which direct their actions, but early on, their goals are related to the immediate predicament of survival. Giving the character amnesia puts the player and the character close together, because they will be at the same level of knowledge, and presumably goals. Without amnesia, the player and character are at odds, having potentially conflicting goals, being in a position where the character has more knowledge than the player. This is a strategy used by the television show, where the audience follows one character, observes their behavior, and then gradually, though the flashbacks, comes to understand the motivation, and why the character does what he or she does.

The mechanism for recovering knowledge, and restoring Maslow’s memory, is through flashbacks. Flashbacks in the television show are given throughout an episode, and serve to contextualize the events. The game creates a game mechanic for flashbacks, which is actually very successful. Maslow is a photographer, and in the flashbacks, the player sees a scene which has filters applied to seem hazy and indistinct. Then the player must use the camera to point at some specific and significant detail, and then take a picture of it. This amounts to finding the critical element in a scene. Following that, the player sees the scene play out in focus and in color, representing the return of the memory. Instead of occurring throughout the episode, the flashback occurs in the middle of the episode, so there is a part on the island before the flashback, and then afterward. The flashback is used to give the player some insight or clue as to how to handle the situation on the island. In comparison to the television show, instead of the flashback being a mechanic to explain why a character does certain actions, it explains how the player can do certain actions, or what the player’s goal and motivations should be. I believe the adaptation of flashbacks is successful, that it takes a mechanic used in the series and then finds an appropriate analogue which has an effect that corresponds and is appropriate to the medium.

An issue which is problematic for me is the linear gameplay. The narrative in Lost is linear, and the style of adventure game is linear, and furthermore the episodic structure requires a light-state model (deep nonlinear play would require a heavy use of state). However, the flaw with Lost being linear is that the player never feels lost. The only area in which open exploration is possible is the jungle area, but even this has only two exits: where the player came from, and where the player is supposed to go. Movement through this space is also mediated through the use of a variety of artifacts: trail markers, a compass, and at one point, the dog Vincent. Lostness is usually not a desired feeling in games, but in lieu of that, the player simply will get stuck. With the game being linear, the player is forced to find the correct solution to the paths and puzzles. To maintain cinematic presentation, several areas in the game are designed to be seen from one perspective, and cannot be circumnavigated.

Spatial navigation is only a small part of the issue of lostness. In the television show, the characters are lost, but in several senses. They are lost on the island, in that they do not know where they are, but they are also lost in themselves, in a more metaphysical sense, in that they do not know who they are. While the player does not know who Eliot Maslow is, and, since he has amnesia, neither does he, the player is simply not lost in identity. History is part of the matter of identity, this answers where the character comes from, but it is also coupled with a side of agency. The audience does not know who the characters are, but despite this, the characters know their own history. They only come to know who they are when they confront their history and decide on new actions. The player only has a few potential actions, and ultimately has no agency. Many of the puzzles and plot elements are treated as though there is a single correct solution, which advances the story, and anything that is not this solution is a failure. The result of this is handing to the player a solution, which is given as a result of puzzle solving, not deliberation or introspection. Many characters in Lost have taken an exceedingly long time to grow and mature, and during this time they have avoided and fled history, until finally confronting it and moving on (eg, Charlie, Sawyer), or failing to and disintegrating entirely (eg, Jack). In these cases, there is not a single correct solution or answer to the characters’ problems. Rather, there is a difficult and dizzying space of potential actions, and it is rarely clear as to which of these is the correct or best one. This is why the characters in the television show are lost. By making there be a right answer, the game deprives the player of this possible state.

Another issue, though admittedly a somewhat minor one, is the role of canon. Via Domus has an ambiguous relationship with the show’s canon. Lost’s producers have explicitly stated that Via Domus is non canon with the show. While this makes sense on one level, because the player in the game is arguably one of the most important islanders based on the events he experiences, it does not make sense to write-in a new character on the show based on the character from the game. However, the alternate reality game, the Lost Experience is largely considered canon, so there is some murky territory around the games. Parts of the player’s adventure lead to areas in the world which have not been in the show, some of which may appear at some points, and others which may not. The result of this is that the game does not feel quite at home with the Lost world. Like an “artist’s rendition” of astrological phenomena, it is denied authenticity even if the subject, the text of the game, is itself considered a fiction within the world.

Reading Info:
TitleLost: Via Domus
Tagsgames, adaptation
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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