Existentialism Vs. Nihilism: the videogame

Firstly, I am not a philosophy major. I did take a rather enjoyable philosophy class led by a man who hated the institution of marriage and gave his office hours as “the bar around the corner from after class to 1:00 a.m.”, but this does not make me an expert.
Though I’m sure my definitions are debatable, I’ve always thought of Existentialism and Nihilism as two sides of the same coin- both are predicated on the idea of living in an absurd, uncaring universe with no purpose or meaning to life; both are reactions to man’s realization of this.
Existentialism strikes me as the stoic positive to Nihilism’s angry negative-where Nihilism’s followers believe in nothing(which sort of negates the whole concept of there beingNihilists, really), Existentialists believe the individual has to forge their own meaning by living life honestly, without conforming to anyone else’s ideas of what living life means. One reacts to the void of purpose by giving in completely, the other by fighting tooth and nail against it. All this, of course, can be expounded upon and debated over for hours and hours on end, preferably over too much coffee in the wee hours of the morning, when philosophical arguments seem to make the most sense.
To simplify, I offer a brief table:


The French
Albert Camus’ “L’Etranger”
The Cure’s “Faith” album
”Hell is other people.”-Sartre


Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”
The Cure’s “Pornography” album
“The life of mortals is so mean a thing as to be virtually un-life.”- Empedocles

One of my favorite games of all times is the original ‘Toejam and Earl’ for Sega Genesis. Unlike many games today, with epic, sprawling storylines, ‘Toejam & Earl’s is simple to the point of irrelevancy: two aliens crash-land on earth, and have to find the pieces to rebuild the ship and get home to Planet Funkotron.

The rest of the game they wander around a demented, cartoon version of Earth that I wish everyday would become reality. The music is the best MIDI funk I’ve ever heard, and all the sweet early-90’s backgrounds are straight from the FunPants of my dreams.

I bring this game up because I feel it embodies the Existential life. You, as Toejam &/or Earl, choose to make your own meaning as you wander about the Earthly (literal)planes. You could look for the ship pieces, and this would give you purpose and meaning. One could argue that choosing to do so would fulfill the role the game designers had planned for your character, and therefore free you from forging your own reason(ie-the opposite of being existential), but that’s being quibbly.

Or you could just wander about. And that’s fine, too.

This game is everything those pretentious Godard movies should be. Instead of some stupid couple wandering around Paris not really doing much of anything, maybe running away from the police or some bullshit, sitting in a room for 4 hours staring at the quality of light while making vague references to American cinema from the 1940’s, Toejam and Earl kick it around these strange interconnected island levels, cracking wise and dealing with the local Earthlings. Just as in life, some are good, some evil, and most are unaware they’re even causing damage. You can even sneak up on Santa Claus! Does Godard have Santa Claus? Does he?

Fuck no. I bet he doesn’t even believe in Santa.

The point is not the goal. Yes, if you put the ship together, you get to head on back to the perma-party that is Funkotron. But this game is all about the journey. As they wander around a strange and alien land in what is most assuredly an absurd universe that cares not one whit about their plight, TJ & E learn how to interact with their fellow travelers.

(A point-The existential life, as a result of creating one’s own identity, is by default a lonely one. However, as their goals and actions are one(both TJ & E have to be on the elevator for it to move, for example), I consider them symbiant and therefore one being in two bodies). There is no hope of empathy or true interaction; the Screaming Mother with a shopping cart would just as soon run you down as not, and the Giant Hamster’s isolation is literally translated into the ball it’s trapped in. The most that can be hoped for is a pleasant surface exchange, such as paying the Carrot Man(a wandering scholar in a carrot suit) to tell you what your presents are. There is also the enigmatic and benevolent Santa, but it is nigh impossible to reach him; as you near, he startles, and quickly zips away on his jetpack.

Nihilism takes the form of a roving pack of tomato-shooting chickens(I believe they are wearing German WWI helmets, in a further connection). These chickens are acting against being chickens, but instead of forging a new identity, they choose to maintain a pack mentality and wreak destruction on all who wander near. Alright, that argument is totally shaky and unconvincing, but whatever, I’m arguing philosophy in relation to evil chickens. Alright! Three hours wasted!

Tags: , , ,

  1. Uh-huh.

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote about a bad experience he had by allowing a nihilist to apartment-sit for him. Dude killed his cat, wrote things on the wall in shit, and broke all the windows. It may have been fiction. It was either in “Jailbird” or “Bluebeard” I think.

    Nihilists and anarchists and communists can’t be either of those things 100% of the time, but I think you can be existential all the time. Or a fascist all the time. I don’t think being any of these things consistently would make you a happy person, though. Think about it.


    1. Re: Uh-huh.

      I have thought about it, and I think you can be an existentialist all the time and be, if not happy, at least content. The whole point is you earning your place in the world by carving it out yourself. Jean Tarrou in Camus’ ‘The Plague’ is living through the epidemic along with everyone else, but he gains a better understanding of the human experience, instead of unravelling or becoming desperate. And, against the existential dogma, he even finds a true friend in the doctor. But if by ’100% of the time’ you mean your whole life, then yes, it’s impossible. Change and flexibility are important human qualities. Of course, the negative way to phrase that is embracing hypocracy and rationalization.
      I was just thinking about Vonnegut(no, really, I’m not being pretentious). In the latest ‘Burn Collector’, Burian’s writing about going to a family reunion in the spirit of Kilgore Trout going to the literary fair-’I’ll show them real failure’.
      Anarchy is one of the most ridiculous concepts when put into practice. I don’t think half the kids who support it realize were true anarchy to fall upon us no one would take the time to book their shitty punk band.


      1. Re: Uh-huh.

        I’ve been thinking about Vonnegut a lot while driving, especially “Galapagos” and “Jailbird”. I re-read “Cat’s Cradle” during last month’s cross-country trip, and I still like it, but I feel like its stock has fallen with me since trying to be a Vonnegut completist and reading almost all the novels – I still need to read “Sirens of Titan”. Now I’m hung up on “Bluebeard”, “Jailbird” and “Galapagos”. There are no Vonnegut novels not worth reading. “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” is maybe the least interesting, and it’s still really good. Even the sub-par is good enough to be great. Killgore Trout has a really funny role in “Jailbird” as the guy who’s in prison for life for committing treason by accident. He’s always the epitome of determined of failure. He’s a great character. When you get a character, or set of characters like that, you’re almost obliged to stretch them over a number of books.

        I put down “Lynch on Lynch” and started reading “Sputnik Sweetheart” by Haruki Murakami. I think I mentioned it before, but a whole bunch of different, unrelated sources indicated that I should read Murakami, so I followed the lead. The last time this happened was with Knut Hamsen’s “Hunger”, which I enjoyed. It’s very Japanese and very full of longing and unrequited love.

        Uh-huh, anarchy. There were lots of anarchists in Boulder, asking for change. Whatchoo gonna do when anarchy happens and the change isn’t worth anything, you smelly dumpster rat? Huh? Then they have the nerve to ask for “nuggets” after being turned down for change. Do people ever actually hand them free drugs in the middle of the sidewalk, or is it like gross old men hollering at young girls – just wishful thinking?


      2. You need to come pick up your chainsaw and gasoline and laundry hamper and also your records. Living with the smell of gasoline is no fun and it takes up space. You should come in and visit me and also pick up your possesions. You should do it as soon as possible. I’m going to Massachussetts on Saturday so come not on that day.


        1. pick up a phone, why don’t you?

          You are telling me this on Livejournal. You have my number. Use it.


          1. Re: pick up a phone, why don’t you?

            No. A boar ate my fingers.


            1. Re: pick up a phone, why don’t you?

              Are you a man or a mouse? Hunt it down, kill it, eat the heart, and reattatch your fingers using its ligaments. Crikey.


            2. Funny that I read this now. Someone called me a Nihilist last week and last night someone accused me of being an Existentialist.