I’ve been thinking about E.T. as an alien. E.T. is a thing from another place, an other, but also a scientist. E.T. isn’t his name, it’s his designation. We don’t know his name, but he specializes in botany and likes candy. He’s a friend to children. He’s telekinetic, and quick enough to hide from the government and pick up English from watching TV. We don’t know his name and maybe if we did we couldn’t even say it. He’s only what humans can imagine him to be: Extra Terrestrial. He’s a curiosity, maybe a threat, and definitely the main character in a really good story. He, if he’s even a “he,” is all the labels we assign to him.
“People made it a mystery,” said James Heller of Nampa, Idaho. He was the one Atari charged to dispose of the contents of an El Paso warehouse—some 750,000 cartridges of the E.T. videogame adaptation, but also copies of Centipede, Missile Command, Warlords and whatever else—somewhere discreet. A dump in Alamogordo, New Mexico suited him fine until kids raided it, and it was sealed over with concrete before being exhumed by zealous fans 30 years later. Fans that made it a mystery. For years in between, rumours about the cartridges’ existence abounded, as did speculation about the site’s existence. E.T. in particular came to symbolize the industry crash of the 1980s, despite not being the only game at the site, despite not being a primary cause of the crash—it became an emblem of failure and mismanagement, of greed and hubris and a kind of cultural death.
It’s appropriate that the 1982 game features wells or pits that E.T. more or less falls into. Sometimes he finds an essential piece of his interplanetary telephone or a vivifying geranium in them but mostly he’ll find nothing. It’s not just the dramatic irony that a game that ended up in a landfill is full of its own holes, or that the nothing that’s in most of them so aptly embodies the videogame industry’s panache for wasting its own time and resources. Dying in a pit, having this lazy little facsimile of the movie alien turn white and get resuscitated by a lazy little facsimile of the human protagonist Elliot—who seemingly jumps out of nowhere, as if there’s just an Elliot clone waiting in every pit—recalls the scene in the film in which E.T. springs back to life in a ditch. Elliot is watching over him—over us as we identify with him. A geranium restores his life. The music swells. The audience weeps and sighs cathartically. Et cetera.
I’ve been thinking about E.T. as a puppet. Certainly he is one, literally—and then virtually, again, in this bizarre and hasty videogame reproduction. E.T., the character, is a facsimile of someone’s idea of an “other” that takes on these qualities we apply to him. In the film, Elliot and E.T. have this psychic mindlink. When E.T. feels romance, so does Elliot. When E.T. gets sick and begins to wilt, Elliot follows. This might suggest that it’s in fact E.T. calling the shots, telling the audience what to think and where to stand. But in every case E.T.’s agency is authored and discursively constrained. The film makes him a heroic innocent, alienated—believe it or not—by society. Elliot, the little boy, is who we are, but E.T. is who we aspire to. The game unintentionally undermines that aspiration by making him a clunky symbol of entropy. The audience, for better or worse, makes him a myth but as a facsimile, E.T. is always, always, a container. Through film is told the coming-of-age of Elliot, the failure of an industry, the myth-making of an obsessive subculture.
Stephen Beirne recently wrote this piece on the notion of “intentionality,” not just in the way game designers mean it but as a philosophical phenomenon. Critically, he writes,
“As it happens, ‘intentionality’ also exists as jargon within the philosophical world, predating Church and Hocking by almost 150 years. Though originally appearing in Scholastic thinking, it was really the Austrian psychologist Franz Brentano who in the 19th century shone a light on the concept of intentionality in reference to the workings of the human mind. Later, Edmund Husserl took to Brentano’s groundwork and established the school of phenomenology—the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.
To be brief, phenomenology suggests that we don’t experience the world in an objective way, but rather our perceptions are loaded with preconceived notions and emotions and judgements and meanings that characterise the experience one way or another. Whenever we look out and perceive the world, we interpret it, which is to say the objects we see are automatically and immediately run through filters embedded in our minds. It is through this process that our perceptions are in any way sensible to us, since they carry meaning innately.”
Pass an object through any semiotic threshold and it will become a palimpsest of meanings superimposed at personal, political, spiritual, and cultural levels. There was no mystery at all about the landfill, the unsellable cartridges, but the stories and legends created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course it’s symbolic to us that a natural landscape was filled with plastic consumer waste and entombed in cement, because intentionality makes us frame events like phenomenons, and indifferent associations like meaningful juxtapositions. The question of a conspiracy and murmurings and hearsay almost frames the very existence of the landfill itself. Intentionality means we were imposing a quality and value far outstripping any interest in the game itself, a relic, a symbol of a mistake that’s relevant to us partly because we might be making it again.
Discourse can create phenomena, sometimes by creating new labels and categories and taxonomies. This is something Oscar Wilde was getting at in his dialogue, “The Decay of Lying.” In the piece, a young gentleman, Cyril, asks his friend Vivian if he would like to lie upon the grass and smoke cigarettes. Vivian replies in so many words that he doesn’t want nature to touch him, calling it “imperfect,” an incomplete project refined only by Art, the highest form of lying. Vivian begins reciting to Cyril an article he’s writing on just that subject. Life, says Vivian, imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life:
“As it is with the visible arts, so it is with literature. The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate applewomen, break into sweet shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers. This interesting phenomenon, which always occurs after the appearance of a new edition of either of the books I have alluded to, is usually attributed to the influence of literature on the imagination. But this is a mistake. The imagination is essentially creative and always seeks for new form. The boy burglar is simply the inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is with trying to reproduce Fiction, and what we see in him is repeated on an extended scale throughout the whole of life. Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy.”
The theory espoused certainly can’t be taken literally. Vivian later argues that even Nature takes its cue from Art—that the fog in England didn’t even exist until someone painted it and suddenly everyone started noticing it everywhere. No one can reasonably argue that, for instance, the Alamogordo landfill only objectively exists because a few nerds really wanted it to. Wilde is getting at an idea that wouldn’t be formalized until decades later in structuralist and post-structuralist thinking, that the reality we experience is never truly the world as it is, but one filtered through a perception we are socialized into over time. The fog will be there, and the landfill will be there, but the aesthetic and symbolic attachments are all ours. E.T. is whatever he is, but he is also made up, also plastic, an imagined other on whose shoulders we dump our anthropomorphizing pathos.
As it is with literature, so it is with videogames, these virtual reproductions of spaces, objects and relationships. In and out of games, the structures we operate with now are modes of organization replete with norms and values and standards, but they are all changeable. The rules for how we digest reality are mutable, and we are the stewards, the lead designers of that mutability. E.T. is a facsimile of this idea of an alien but also an outgrowth of an imagined character type. The E.T. game is a facsimile too, as a crafted virtual space but also as something which exists as a reproduction. It’s both an adaptation of a pre-existing thing and a mass-produced product, a computerized representation of an already imagined space. Changing its types and modes involves the crucial steps of changing and then exercising one’s imagination upon culture.
It’s important to understand that Wilde himself was crafting a certain image, a certain outward reality, slyly lampooning the Victorian class system while also pining for it. It’s important to notice that Wilde’s own philosophy can be turned against him. It can be a dangerous thing that can reveal and construct but also erase modes, sensibilities, concepts, and people that its wielders deem undesirable. E.T. in all senses is defined by the meaning we attach to it. It’s impossible to know whether E.T. the signifier is different from E.T. the being in the way that we can distinguish a difference between Klaus Nomi the stage persona and Klaus Nomi the man. Even then, intentionality is arguably too deeply rooted to disentangle all the branches of “personality” and “persona.”
Wilde’s racist classism aside I think the fundamental takeaway when crafting any character, any narrative, any system or any universe is that in doing so we’re crafting a discourse. We’re inventing a way of thinking, of framing and perceiving objects for our use—one that, for better or worse, colours our perception of the real world. Christian Donlon is right that the E.T. landfill was never just a landfill, that the weird impulse to confirm its existence also meant airing the dirty laundry of that company name so strongly associated with videogames, that medium still so dedicated to hyperreal mass reproduction. E.T. is a facsimile of a facsimile stuffed inside another facsimile—a character type poorly shoehorned into a hastily reproduced virtual space copied many thousands of times over. It’s fitting, I think, that the alien is a botanist wanting to know what a geranium is, being chased by government goons and scientists who want to dissect and catalog his squishy plastic body and thereby define him. A flower doesn’t mean anything but this geranium embodies life—an extra life, in fact, when Atari’s E.T. is lying in a pit. There’s movie E.T. lying in the ditch, turned to videogame E.T. dying in a hole, turned to copies of a videogame languishing in a landfill, turned to a culture of excess and mass production and massive inequality and a neoliberal model of thinking so ingrained it’s hard to separate from the impulses that led to our circumstances. It’s the cliche of the flower poking through layers of concrete: a return to nature from industry. It’s an artful lie, a mythos we perpetuate to cope with the plastic-filled pit we’ve dug for ourselves to die in.