According to Deleuze and Guattari, reality is structured like a potato.
The dawning of the late 20th century called for a rethinking of how we experience the world. Prior to endless cold proxy wars, prior to complex world wars based essentially in bureaucracy and inferiority complexes, prior to the revelation that the world was much older than we thought, the general consensus was that reality was like a tree with a system of roots, and worked in binary fashion. From some "Oneness" - religious or political authority, perhaps - knowledge was passed down, and the further down you got, the further away you got from the source. It was like the 'One' made two lines, and those lines made two other lines, and so on, burrowing down into material reality. There was still a clear line to trace between you and that Oneness; it was just that you were at the bottom.
Deleuze and Guattari reject this notion in favour of what they call the rhizome. Biologically this refers to an organism that can be cut in half - or quarters, or whatever kind of division - planted, and grown back from those fragments. So if you cut a potato skin into four and plant those skins in the ground, you'll get four whole new potatoes.* From a part of the whole another whole can be constructed, all the way into infinity. One potato equals an infinite number of potatoes.
For my pals Dolce & Gabbana, this is how knowledge and reality works. Instead of being 'passed down' from some hierarchical source, knowledge of reality is instead like a web of lines. Each line can be connected to every other line; each 'plane' of knowledge can lead to any other plane of knowledge. All lines are equal, and perhaps most importantly, it is impossible to distinguish an original 'source' for this knowledge. (Identify the first potato for me, please.) If you were to picture this web it would form a sort of whole, but the trick is that none of the nodes in the web form a centre. This was their argument; that by rejecting the notion of an 'original source' of knowledge and constructing reality like a weird, infinite web of random shit that was all connected, there is still a 'whole' to be found.
Why is this important?
Because games - all games - broadly fit into two categories. The first is progressive. This kind of game intends to send the player on a linear experience which has a beginning and an end. The second is emergent. This kind of game establishes a number of rules and presents the player with a wide, open plane upon which those rules can be played out in a variety of different ways.
I posit that these categories, at their core, replicate the systems of knowledge that D&G talked about.
In what sense? I'll use two recent examples to demonstrate exactly what I mean.
INSIDE was the follow-up to LIMBO, released last year. In INSIDE, the player controls a nameless, faceless little clay boy running from left to right through a little clay world. The game deals with obscure themes surrounding control, authority and transformation, and if anybody has actually figured out what is going on in INSIDE, they might not even know it - the game obscures this information and asks the player to simply experience it. Theoretically the only group of people with this kind of knowledge is the creative team at Playdead, and they're not going to let the cat out of the bag. This is because the entire experience that a player has with INSIDE is constructed as a kind of hierarchical 'tree' system wherein you, the player, and by extension the boy, can clearly trace a line from the beginning to the end of the game without really breaching the upper echelons of knowledge that the game hints at. You are small. It is implied that you and the boy have no control. You have no power. The only thing you can do is follow the path given to you and try not to die. When Umberto Eco appropriated D&G's theories to talk about literature, he compared the tree system to a 'labyrinth, with many blind alleys' that requires trial-and-error to overcome. And there is only one exit.
In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the player - and Link - is given a number of tools at the beginning of the game and is then asked to explore the open world it presents, wherein those tools will allow the player to solve problems in a multitude of ways. By taking place in an open world, and encouraging the player to focus on exploring this world rather than focus on ending the game (which can be theoretically ended very soon after it begins), the game presents the player with a flat plane of networked interactions, all of which can lead to many other interactions. The world is essentially populated by 'nodes' of experiences (shrines, towers, etc.). Starting from any of these points and working your way outwards in any direction will lead you to further experiences, which will lead you to further experiences, and so on. In this game knowledge is presented as an open field which can be entered from any direction, and the point is that the player may choose to follow whichever they please: the player has great control, and gains great power. YOU play the game, you follow the paths, and you transverse the web; you 'play the game'. In contrast, INSIDE plays you.
It's not as if we are in the middle of a transitionary process wherein games are suddenly evolving from a progression-based to emergent-based systems: some of the earliest known games have emergent rule-sets. In fact, the progressive game is most likely a more modern conception of games than the emergent game.
What do these two types of games teach us? One of them teaches us that we are small, and that we must follow the path that the creator sets down: it tells us to do things and we do them. Sometimes, these games can play with this format incredibly well. The ending of INSIDE seems explicitly to imply a kind of transcendence beyond the boundaries of this caged system, the striking and grotesque imagery of strands of arms and legs massed together into a potato-like rhizome being particularly noteworthy. It puts us in the role of the masochist who plays servant to an authority figure in order to acquire our pleasure from it; we rely on the game feeding us things. The other type of game teaches us that we are the hero, and that we can transverse the web of knowledge set before us with little effort, eventually becoming more powerful than the systems around us. This kind of game makes sadists out of us as we bask in the pleasure of destroying the game around us using the set of tools we have been given. We rely on ourselves feeding rules through the game's systems to gain our pleasure from it.
And yet Breath of the Wild has an exit. There is a finish line, once you are done transversing the web; you choose when it ends. This is similar to a great deal of emergent games, although there are distinct counter-examples (many tactical games like Disgaea or X-COM have 'endless' functionality). But for D&G there is no exit from this system. We are irrevocably trapped within it. If we try and escape the potato all we'll find is more potatoes.
Far from paralleling life, games represent life. They are like imperfect and malformed attempts to recreate life in a multitude of different ways dependent upon the people creating it, the tools they use, and maybe most importantly, the amount of money they are given. This is why we stop playing games after a certain amount of time; because life really is infinite, there are an infinite number of things that can happen in it and an infinite number of potential futures. If the universe keeps expanding forever and ever, there will even be an infinite number of copies of you on an infinite number of different earths all across the cosmos**. Games are limited in their scope and, perhaps, progression-based games that set the player down a limited path recognise their own limitations and work wonders within that structure. Emergent-based games eventually peter out because no matter how many multiplicities they contain, there is always a limit. Maybe one day some mad engineer will simulate an infinite universe within a digital plane, and it'll be the most excit- oh.
Thanks for reading this, if you did. I hope it was at least semi-coherent and made some kind of sense. I needed to get it out my system.
*There's a tip for when we're all living in scavenging communities outside the MegaCities, begging for the transnational private security firms to give us food.
**I'm placing my bets on some kind of undetectable cosmic crunch that will happen in an instant and annihilate everything, but maybe I'm just an optimist.