Behind the Red Velvet Curtain

[TW: This piece contains discussion of sexual abuse, trauma, misogyny, transphobia and racism]

“A day in the FBI was never like this before! You are Special Agent Dale Cooper and you’ve found yourself trapped inside the Black Lodge, a surreal and dangerous place between worlds. Try as you might, you can’t seem to find anything but the same room and hallway no matter which way you turn. Worse yet, your doppleganger is in hot pursuit! You have no choice but to keep running through the room and hallway (or is it more than one?) and above all else, don’t let your doppleganger touch you!”

That’s from the extensive and beautiful instruction manual of freeware gameBlack Lodge 2600 by Jak Locke. The game, stylized like an Atari 2600 title, is an adaptation of the decisive final scenes from the second season of Twin Peaks, in which Agent Dale Cooper is running through the Black Lodge, a supernatural haven for demons and other manifestations of evil which have for so long been terrorizing the eponymous northeastern town.

The top-down game begins with your avatar inside the Red Room where the Man from Another Place sits in his armchair and a crooner sings a tinny chiptune version “Sycamore Trees”. Before I begin, I often like to let the crooner finish his song. Touching my keyboard will cause him to stop, and I feel like that would be rude and spoil the gravity of the moment.

Every hallway or room I walk into as I keep pushing forward, pursued by my demonic doppleganger, appears to me as a semi-random collection of set pieces. Sometimes the room is flashing. Sometimes movable chairs block me and I have to quickly push them out of my way. Sometimes the doppleganger of Laura Palmer cries a horrible cry and knocks me down. Sometimes an apparition of Leland Palmer stands in a hallway protesting that he did not kill anybody. Sometimes the room is completely empty.

All I can do is run.

It’s not immediately obvious that, even though I enter every room at the bottom-left corner, I have to exit every room at a specific spot at the top-right corner. Fishing around for it can feel like looking for a crack in a concrete wall in the dark, especially when I’m on the run and unbeatable, sometimes invisible enemies thwart me, knock me down or knock me back or render me immobile. When I’m caught, I have two chances to redeem myself. I can use my Lodge Ring, according to the manual, to shoot beams like slingshot pebbles at either the doppleganger or Killer Bob, supernatural scourge of the Twin Peaks universe. They face each other, walking slowly toward each other, and if a beam catches one, an owl comes to knock him down and I’m momentarily saved. If I get caught again, I still have a life that I can protect. A third time, and I’m rendered powerless, made to watch my doom in slow motion. The pale horse of death stands before me and then an abrupt cut to black, a game over screen, and a filtered, robotic-sounding loop of Agent Dale Cooper repeating “How’s Annie?” over and over, and laughing.

As an adaptation of a TV show from the early ‘90s, Black Lodge 2600 succinctly captures so much of what that enigmatic, inscrutable and sometimes meandering show was all about. Black Lodge 2600 distills those scenes from the show’s finale, of Dale Cooper chasing his man—or rogue demon—down the winding black-and-white tile and through the velvet red curtains of the lodge hidden in the middle of the forest. Every little touch—even that “Game Over” screen—borrows symbols and settings and characters for those that are familiar with the show, and can act as little more than a fun Easter Egg hunt. But the game manages, as essentially a piece of fanfiction (which adaptation often is), to transcend many of the defects of its source material, paring them away to express in pure, sweet and simple terms Twin Peaks’ core ideas in videogame form. Doing this takes a deep understanding of what the show was trying to do with its tools, but also an understanding of how to effectively reframe that in a videogame context and specifically, how to reframe that in the style of a top-down, Atari 2600 game.

It’s for this reason that I’m excited by the fact that the game is set where it is. The Black Lodge is not only one of the most memorable environments on the show, with its seductively eerie red curtains and continuous black-and-white zigzag that hypnotically paved the labyrinthine path of one identical room to another—rooms that focalized in stark relief the confusion and dread that Dale Cooper must have been feeling, all while trying to heed the warning of benevolent spirits to keep his heart pure and free of fear. With fear in his heart, he hesitates, and evil can take hold.

When I originally watched the show, before I even knew about Black Lodge 2600, the conditioned game enthusiast in me saw the Black Lodge as an ideal setting for a videogame to convey those same feelings of endlessness and creeping horror through winding, narrow space and repetition. So it’s not enough that Black Lodge 2600 borrows a bunch of set pieces and familiar tropes and symbols from the show. The way it makes use of them in a formal context, as well as its specific aesthetic context, is what makes the game an interesting piece of adaptation.

It’s a little cliché to sing the praises of random or procedural generation in games. To be honest, it’s been done to death. But here, it actually serves a really important purpose. Part of creating a sense of real dread in a context as absurd as Twin Peaks means instilling a sense of both entrapment and unpredictability, so that things are oppressively consistent and inescapable. By producing different aesthetically-consistent visuals in a slightly different and unforeseeable order, this makes it impossible for the player to gauge what might be behind the next corridor while also giving them a range of possibilities to torment them with. This makes the player unsure of how to prepare, filling them with a gut-feeling apprehension that the next room may be easy as pie, or it may be their death warrant. The genius stroke of reproducing the doppleganger chase also makes it impossible to linger for too long without getting caught. You have to keep going, but you don’t know if the unknown danger might be worse than the definite danger, and you definitely don’t see an exit.

Other little touches help instill these ideas captured in a very Lynchian way, making them feel obscure, dreamlike, mystical and yet intense and visceral and touching and funny. The top-down view makes the characters feel small, and the aspect ratio makes the world feel confining. The spare, droning and monotonous chiptune adds heaviness to the situation and reinforces the tone of the game as threateningly macabre and sinister. This is a departure from the gentle but powerful swells of Angelo Badalamenti’s original score, but works for the purposes of the game. At the same time, a lighter heart is implied by some of these stylistic choices. The goofy walk animation suggests lankiness, and the lack of refinement and technological sophistication in Atari-style pixel art makes everything look kind of innocent and miniature. It also removes detail, making the world less directly representative than any attempt at photorealism. In a way, this echoes Lynchian vagueness in a way that’s more visual instead of conceptual or thematic—in fact, in those senses the game is pretty straightforward. This keeps Black Lodge 2600 distinct as a work of art while still clearly being expressive of Twin Peaks’ wry weirdness.

I can’t help but feel that Black Lodge 2600 even existing as an “oldschool” videogame tells us something about Twin Peaks. This is a show with a lot of bizarre juxtapositions in it that really made it remarkable as a television drama. For one, it’s kind of a spoof on melodrama, even containing a play within a play—a soap opera called Invitation to Love that seems to immediately suggest some self-awareness that the drama of this fiction is going to be over-the-top unbelievable. One of the most conclusive pieces of evidence of this for me is the fact that lots of people cry—loudly—over the death of Laura Palmer, but rarely do you see actual tears falling, as if to call attention to the farce. And so for at least the first well-executed season, the show uses self-awareness as a satirical dodge against being pure camp in the way soap operas often don’t. Camp, after all, is what happens when a failed work takes itself entirely way too seriously.

At the same time, the show constantly plays on being a soap opera about intrigue and corruption poisoning the heart of an idealized small-town America. But Lynch imbues his characters with too much emotional complexity for them to be simple comedic props. There’s a real, sordid and uncomfortable underbelly to this town that needs to be uncovered, and identifying with its pursuers—Agent Cooper, Audrey Horne, Officer Harry Truman, et cetera—means identifying with a sense of justice that seems to be forever competing against evil and cowardice. So in this way, the show often feels like a thrilling mystery, quaintly casting law enforcement as the eternal “good guys” seeking out criminality and making it accountable. And yet it doesn’t stop there, either. The show also throws in these preternatural, spiritual overtones that are at once metaphorical embodiments of things like “good vs. evil” but also earnestly part of the plot and world of the show. There’s this great line in the second season, when we finally learn that Laura Palmer’s killer and abuser was in fact her father, Leland (possessed by Killer Bob), spoken by this secondary character, acerbic Agent Albert Rosenfield. Cooper is asking Truman, with an almost prayer-like moral revulsion, how anyone could cope comfortably with the idea that a father could sexually abuse and murder his own daughter and have it not be due to some supernatural influence. Albert, simply, suggests that maybe all Killer Bob is is the “evil that men do.” And yet, Killer Bob is there. He’s this idea of evil that infects people, with the show also insisting that he really exists—and when Cooper enters the Black Lodge, finally, that is who he is pursuing and who ultimately overtakes him.

Keeping this in mind, having a game which is stylized as an Atari arcade-like game, where there’s no end to be reached, says something. An endless, repeating, constant and futile struggle like Black Lodge 2600, reinforces this idea of futility in the show itself. That, in the end, no matter how long you survive in this place, the evil is ever-present and indestructible. It won’t even get tired, but you can and will, and eventually you’ll make a mistake. You’ll get nervous, and fuck up, and that’s when it gets to you. And yet you can always replay, repeating the cycle. Twin Peaks, as personifying the evil that men do, and having vice exist as a thing in this distinct place that’s opposed to virtue, often argues good and evil as these two sides of an ancient and ongoing struggle that forever, cyclically, guides human action.

These contrasts of tone in the game, the anachronism of procedural generation in a game made to look like something from the ‘80s but released in 2011, and the grueling, repetitive difficulty of it, do as much or more to effectively capture the elusive spirit of Twin Peaks than all of its delicately-placed canonical references.Even the fact alone that it is a game means being invited into a fundamentally weird space, where things interact and respond and feel alive and yet are bound by a just-out-of-reach hand of the designer, and the lines of code that restrict how and where I’m able to move, disempowering me, making me an Agent with no real agency, pushing hopelessly against the crushing tide of divine inevitability.

At the same time, there’s some assumed knowledge here. While I think the game stands on its own two legs as projecting a very specific experience, I don’t know that someone who knows shit-all about Twin Peaks would find meaning in any of the game’s symbols. It’s easy for me, knowing the use of certain symbols on the show, to appreciate their application in Black Lodge 2600. But as much as I think the formal framing of the game would work to elicit a similar reaction in the player, it’s very possible that some of the significance might be lost in, say, the owls or the pale horse or the crooner. The show is already coy about explanation but at least provides context for the viewer to chew on these symbols. As decontextualized images in the game, the player could on the one hand find their indirectness appealing and engaging, but a lack of overall familiarity might also render them basically meaningless. It’s a problem of artwork made within specific cultural legacies that they become lost languages to people outside those legacies and that’s one of the risks of making an adaptation. There’s an understanding that this thing is for a particular audience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but might entail the alienation of players and condemn the game, no matter how good it is, to obscurity.

In “The Unfixable Enigma of Twin Peaks” at The Dissolve, Keith Phipps revisits the universally-panned film adaptation of the show, Fire Walk With Me. He looks back on the Twin Peaks legacy in the context of the long-awaited release of deleted scenes in a 90-minute cut called “The Missing Pieces,” writing,

“Maybe the mistake was in wanting Fire Walk With Me to pick up where the show left off, when really, the movie demanded to be seen on its own terms. Yet that isn’t entirely possible, either. Without the series, the film is nearly incomprehensible. (Or to be unkind, even more incomprehensible.) It also doesn’t ask to be divorced from the show, which it references and subverts from the start. Because [Kyle] MacLachlan dragged his feet in signing onto the film, much of the film’s opening section belongs to FBI agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak, whose “Wicked Game” figured prominently in Lynch’s Wild At Heart) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) as they travel to Deer Meadow to investigate Banks’ death, but only after an encounter with Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole), a sour-faced woman introduced by Lynch’s Cole as “my mother’s sister’s girl,” and whose strange outfit and gestures Desmond breaks down as a series of codes. (Though he refuses to reveal why she wears a blue rose.) The scene now plays like an ahead-of-its-time parody of obsessive Internet fandom—and it’s worth remembering that Twin Peaks attracted an early version of one in the prehistoric days of Usenet—and the self-awareness extends to Deer Meadow, a nasty place Grantland’s Alex Pappademas has described as ‘a parallel-universe version of the Peaks pilot, set in a dumber, meaner, uglier small town.’ From the start, Lynch seems to be trying to readjust expectations. Perhaps we should have listened.”

Even while Lynch had, in a not-entirely-successful way, tried to refocus the show’s world for the purposes of film and to accommodate real-world limitations, the expectation of an audience that had wanted answers from that show that ended on a fretful cliffhanger loaded with loose ends drove a particular reading of the film. The film, and as Phipps points out, the show, were never made with any intention of actually answering the questions they posed. Rather, they were to become increasingly complex and frustrate the audience, blocking closure and resolution the more they uncovered and teasing viewers with bits of revelation only to push bigger truths further away. This was the initial charm of Twin Peaks, but also the seeds of its eventual fall from grace.

The second season of the show is widely-regarded as the rails it careened off of. The first half of the season is actually pretty strong, right up until Leland is found out. The show then introduces serial killer Windom Earle into the mix, who would have actually been a really interesting segue into the mystery of Killer Bob had the show not dawdled for episode after episode with uninteresting and tenuously relevant subplots with characters like broody, motorcycle-riding coolguy James Hurley. For awhile, the show was consumed by its own satire and basically sat on its ass just being melodrama. Part of this is due to the increasing drifting apart of the show’s creators, Lynch and Mark Frost, who were chasing other projects, but needless to say the show’s ratings plummeted. It’s a shame, too, because the last handful of episodes, and especially the finale, directed by Lynch, where we see the Black Lodge, reclaims the show’s original brilliance.

In a way, the show’s increasing unpopularity kind of allowed Lynch to get what he wanted. Where evil inevitably returns in the show, failure inevitably had to keep the puzzle of Twin Peaks alive. It was an attempt to lure viewers by offering up this tantalizing cliffhanger, and because it didn’t work and the show never got to a third season, the pressure to resolve those issues in an ongoing series was more or less relieved.

It’s actually interesting to me that people call Access Games’ Deadly Premonition (2010) the “Twin Peaks of videogames,” because inasmuch as it’s a love-letter to the show, the two diverge in too many important ways for it to really be considered an adaptation. It does stand on its own in that everything in it is pretty resolvable. (In fact some of the exposition can get a little overbearing.) It also, save for one particularly inspired, confusing and maze-like dungeon that actually scared the bejeezus out of me, sticks to some pretty navigable and predictable level design of shooting zombies down narrow, dimly-lit corridors and moving crates every once in awhile. Actually, in most of the ways that Deadly Premonition reminds me of Twin Peaks, minus a few on-the-nose references (the Pot Lady from the game is the Log Lady from the show, for example), it’s in its failures. Where Black Lodge 2600 removes a lot of the problems of the show by focusing on one element and just fleshing it out, Deadly Premonition’s expanse and ambition as a title fall into a lot of traps similar to those that plagued the show.

One thing I will actually credit the designers with is subverting the game’s own attempt at photorealism by placing unnerving focus on the characters’ uncanny facial expressions, particularly when they smile. It’s a little touch that adds a creepy slant to the game’s “comedy horror” theme, and helps give the whole world a kind of fake, plasticky vibe. I also appreciate how the open world and driving elements allow space in between critical missions, which can help conjure a sense of dread and “calm before the storm.” On the other hand, these open world bits, especially when I have hours-long time limits in between missions, can start to feel aimless, and actually make dread turn into anticipation. I start to not care about the characters, to see them as dull and lifeless husks for some kind of forced satire of an idealized American life. And so the game begins to meander in these moments, instead of branch (that’s a joke because the game is full of this tree imagery…) and I start to feel like I’m in mid-season two Twin Peaks hell. Compare this with the split-second fumbling of Black Lodge 2600, which uses immediacy and urgency and a strong attention to form in order to conjure the same horror sensibilities.

york smiles

There’s nothing behind the eyes. Nothing.

I’m trying to accept Deadly Premonition from the angle that it is a satire, not only in terms of its homage to Twin Peaks but also as a lampooning of other more earnest attempts at videogame horror. I’m trying to see Detective Francis York Morgan as a kind of send-up of the good-hearted Cooper, a guy who is instead arrogant and pushy and actually kind of a dick—the kind of American hero that’s a little closer to the truth. And yet, I feel like there’s stuff that this game wants me to suspend disbelief for, or to actually even take seriously, and that’s where the satire arguments fall apart for me. The game’s insistence on predominant Whiteness in the world, for instance, is on par with the show’s. While this may be consistent with the kind of social segregation that still occurs along race and class lines in America, where there are actually characters of colour at all they appear only as specific kinds of tokens. On the show, for instance, I can think of maybe three instances where a non-White character had a speaking role, and only one where the character was persistent (Deputy Hawk played by Michael Horse.) In two of those cases, the characters were Native American, and were often reduced to fulfilling appropriative exotification of northeastern Native American mysticisms. In the game, in the whole cast there are two Black characters, and one of them is a weapons dealer. Again—and I admit I don’t feel totally qualified to talk here—but these characters are sidelined in a pretty normalized way in both the game and on the show, only really existing in service to the stories about White people who are the ones who really matter here, who is anyone kidding?

Another representational issue, which I could talk about at length, is the show’s and Deadly Premonition’s playing off of gender, sex, kink and even abuse as dramatic or comedic devices in particularly uncomfortable ways that maybe undermine their respective intentions. Now, the sidelining and general removal of Laura Palmer in Black Lodge 2600, though questionable, is also pretty consistent with what the show does generally. It’s less about Laura and more about the rippling effects of her death on those around her. She sort of hangs over everything like a dark cloud just out of view. Other characters, like Audrey Horne, fall victim to damsel tropes but acquire more agency and influence as the series progresses. But Twin Peaks definitely doesn’t have a good track record with women being fridged or rescued as need be, and seems to play off of kinky sex as something necessarily tragic and emblematic of fallen or “damaged” women.

Deadly Premonition also has this problem in spades, but the most notable of which is one where, again, I’m not declaring myself an expert. I’m referring to the really dubiously-written Thomas, who is a trans woman and is secretly in cahoots with the serial killer. I think Thomas is supposed to echo FBI agent Denise from Twin Peaks, who, despite the regrettable decision to have her be played by David Duchovny, actually exudes confidence, humour and humanity in a way you rarely see on television—especially from the early ‘90s. But Thomas is a much more recognizable trope. Moving from “deception” to “tragic trans woman,” (or maybe, “prop to punching bag” as Samantha Allen wrote about Sophia from Orange Is The New Black) Thomas is maligned as unreasonable, erratic, delusional, damaged and the orchestrator of her own incredibly violent and disgusting death. I don’t know where I’m supposed to laugh and where I’m supposed to feel pathos, instead of just sighing in disappointment at a woefully failed opportunity.

What the fandom of something as elusive and magnetic and inaccessible as Twin Peaks can teach us, is the way that text transforms and is transformed by its own audience. It can push us to understanding the highest successes and lowest failures of a piece, and deepens our grasp of form by asking us to experiment with something’s original composition. Adaptations and homages and works bearing minor influence are the kind of cultural interaction that an audience performs when they keep a work close to them, confirm its importance to them. For a work to be enduring is for a work to be transformative, to be able to become something else entirely and still retain the lasting insights of the original. Seeing this show become a movie, seeing this world be reimagined in games, is to see the limits of the idea be stretched, bent and broken and therefore really tested. These intertextual transformations are vital to the ongoing evolution of a work and when I see that kind of creativity in fandoms today, to me it’s proof that the work is alive and is having a real effect on people, inspiring them and engaging with them.

David Lynch has said that “the town is still there” and I think it is, but it’s not in his hands anymore. Works of art, like ideas, can live much longer lives than those individuals that carry them out, but built into all of them is an inherent decay. There’s the knowledge that over time, all things fade, but what is made of something while it’s around can be close enough to immortality. Maybe that’s beating a previous best in Black Lodge 2600, or a new generation discovering a work, reinventing it in new forms. All the parts are there, but just out of reach, just in the next room over. And who knows what it will look like?