The Evolutions of Sampling

Calahan Smith

In its infancy, the art of sampling mainly referred to the looping of drum breaks. However, as technology advanced beyond turntables and the genre spread across the world, sampling took many new forms. There are three subgenres in specific which I would like to go over in terms of their effects and appeal, those being Memphis rap and vaporwave.

Starting with Memphis rap, the genre was perhaps most popular in the 90’s, with groups such as Three 6 Mafia taking front stage for the style of music. Characterized by dark lyrics, lofi aesthetics, and eerie beats, Memphis rap was one of the progenitors of the horrorcore genre.

When it comes to sampling, however, Memphis rap has some rather unique components which differentiate it from other sample-based genres. For one, Memphis producers often did not sample drum breaks. Rather, they would create their own artificial drums using electronic drum machines. This was rather unique in hip-hop at the time and has been widely adopted since then by other producers who do not wish to source their drums from already-existing songs. In lue of sampling drums, then, Memphis producers mainly sampled melodies, either from jazz and R&B (which was incredibly popular at the time) or often from horror movies. An example which comes to mind is Body Parts, by Three 6 Mafia, which samples John Carpenter’s classic soundtrack to his 1978 film Halloween.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Memphis production is its sampling of hip-hop, namely Memphis rap itself. Producers, instead of having rap artists sing hooks or choruses for their songs, would simply loop a vocal sample of a previous song for a few bars. Often this vocal sample would consist of a small snippet of one of another song’s verse, however this simple repetition of a phrase was massively popular and influential. It is a hallmark of Memphis and one of the immediate identifiers that the song you are listening to came in some way or another from the region.

All of these factors come together to form the moody, eerie atmosphere that is riddled throughout Memphis rap. It is evidence of the hopelessness that these artists felt from their environments. Feelings of being trapped in a horror film, that you’ve heard these voices before over and over, are focal points of the genre, and it is the height of awful irony that many of these artists have been demonized for the nature of their lyrics when what they are truly expressing is their lack of agency and control over their situation.

Vaporwave, sonically speaking, is a fairly different genre. Popularized in the late 2000’s/early 2010’s by artists such as Daniel Lopatin and Ramona Xavier, the genre is known for its slow, looping, hypnagogic melodies and recontextualization of popular music.

Similar to the drumless movement in hip-hop, in which added drums were foregone to prioritize the natural percussion of the sample, vaporwave is one of the most purely sample-based genres out there. Inspired heavily by the work of DJ Screw, who would slow down and remix hip hop songs, vaporwave producers will take a portion of a song, slow it down and loop it. This creates a rather hazy and psychedelic environment where no sound can really be nailed down, as it echoes throughout your head repeatedly, similar to the phenomena of only being able to remember a portion of a song you heard on the radio. It is a rather simplistic, yet effective, formula, and has been majorly influential upon remixing and TikTok culture today.

Another very important aspect of vaporwave is the nostalgia attached to it. It has been very common, especially in the genre’s infancy, for producers to sample very popular radio hits of the past, or even elevator jingles which everyone is familiar with. Through this looping, hazy recontextualization, the genre was able to turn songs which were seen as soulless pop or guilty pleasures into “high art.”

I mentioned earlier the concept of remembering only part of a song you heard on the radio, and vaporwave’s appeal for many is at the heart of this idea that memories erode, that the past cannot be fully experienced as it was, and that everything one once had attachment to will fade with time. Vaporwave thus places subtext where there was emptiness before, hence being able to turn a generic pop hit of the 1980s into something which people appreciate on a greater level. And while the genre is not as overtly horror-themed as that of Memphis rap, it is this deeper level of nostalgia and the unrelenting and uncontrollable passage of time which I find to be rather similar to the feeling of hopelessness and fear which is so closely integrated into Memphis rap.

To conclude, this post-modern recontextualization of existing music is evident of the times in which we live. The things of the past are gone, the hope of a happy ending is a childhood fantasy for many, and life will simply go on, leaving us behind, and repeating the same thing to the new generations.

Generational Cycles in Outer Wilds

by Josephine Markin

The ending of Outer Wilds is an impactful, overwhelming sequence of revisiting the many stories you encountered in your journeys throughout the solar system. The instruments of the Outer Wilds Ventures explorers you have met are joined by the music of the Nomai civilization in a hauntingly beautiful song, and the universe collapses into the smoke of a familiar campfire until you leap into the infinite possibilities of the future. The final screen shows a new universe born from the death of yours, painted with some familiar images as well as some entirely new creatures and elements. All of existence has begun a new cycle, and from all you have learned about the Eye of the Universe and the patterns of time, you can surmise that this was how your world was born as well. By giving you the willing decision at the end to move into the future, the game reinforces the message that its entire ending conveys: your life, and the universe you lived in, is passed on as part of the existence the new generation inherits. Your time is over, and the stories to come will both carry the familiar strains of your legacy and entirely new ones.

Although this message comes together cohesively in the ending sequence, the entirety of the game leading up to the end cultivates this theme, building on a time-loop mechanic and a narrative of generational knowledge and legacy. The player starts the game at a campfire, and for the rest of their Outer Wilds experience they will find themselves returning to this campfire over and over to begin a new iteration of their loop – the same campfire, significantly, features in the ending screen image. In the approximately twenty minutes following their awakening at the campfire, the player can explore the solar system and do anything they want on any planet; however, they will inevitably die and awaken once again at the campfire where they started from. The loop is not entirely self-contained, however: there are some actions which can carry on between cycles. These include collectable information like the launch codes; new dialogue options reflecting the experiences the player has had in a previous iteration; the rumors which are permanently recorded on the map; and even small reflections of the particulars of the previous loop, like the player making different gasping sounds when they wake up depending on how they died in the previous loop. In the case of the dialogue options, rumors, and collectable information, these reflect a growing compendium of useful knowledge the player is giving to their next iteration as they explore the world. Diegetically, the player is passing on knowledge to their “next” self through the method of the Nomai memory transfer statues and the Ash Twin Project; this technology itself is also a symbol of passed-on knowledge, as it comes from a long-dead civilization from which the Hearthians have inherited much. The awakening gasp which reflects the previous death is a more natural, subtle nod to this inheritance, because it is not useful, permanent, or discrete information. Instead it is an involuntary sign of the previous loop’s role in the birth of the new one: however the player died in the last iteration is how they were born in their new iteration, just like the way in which their universe dies is how the next one is born.

The Hearthians and Nomai themselves are another iteration of the passage between generations. The player is told in the beginning that they are the newest generation of Outer Wilds Ventures explorers, and in Timber Hearth and then in dialogue with Hearthian explorers off-world they inherit knowledge and skills from their fellow Hearthians. The Nomai, however, provide the structure of the core of gameplay: uncovering new knowledge from long-past Nomai writings and structures. By scanning spirals; tracing the paths of the actions of the Nomai who ended up in their solar system long ago; examining skeletal remains and collapsed space suits; and utilizing the left-behind Nomai technology, the player learns about a past iteration of life in their universe. However, this knowledge is not useless history: the actions and discoveries of the Nomai have ripples that continue to shape the path of the universe as the Hearthians inhabit it. The connections between Nomai and Hearthians are closely traced: notes unveil that the Nomai discovered the evolutionary ancestors of the Hearthians long ago, while Hearthian exploration technology is founded on the devices left by the long-dead wayfarer species. The doom that the system faces is (at first glance) because of the experiments of the Nomai, while the project which revives the player with memories of a different iteration of themselves was built by the Nomai. Outer Wilds explores this connection further by creating a Nomai character who is still alive: Solanum, an explorer residing on the Quantum Moon. Solanum, as she tells you herself, is likely both dead and alive: because time operates strangely on the Quantum Moon, her bones can be found in some places, but a timeless version of her lives on and can be encountered. The interaction between the player and Solanum provides a concrete bridge between the two civilizations, even more explicit than other connections, and the two can exchange a variety of information in their conversation. However, because Solanum cannot understand the player as well as the player can understand Solanum, the exchange is mostly a passing-down of Solanum’s knowledge to the player; the player cannot tell Solanum anything in return. In this way, the generational cycle is reinforced, and the Nomai continue to have a legacy on the Hearthians but cannot ever come back. 

Outer Wilds masterfully uses both a narrative of generations and a time-loop mechanic to create a powerful theme of the forward march of time into new and unique iterations of life that inherit and add to a legacy from past civilizations. The very malleability of time in the game is used to deeply explore the connections between two generations of existence, while the inevitable rebirth of the process and the ending which follows the creation of yet another universe emphasize the unending loop of death, birth, and change. The player finds themselves in a unique position to truly understand and be a part of this generational exchange, and while their story must come to an end, its end is just another beginning.

Love and the Loop: Groundhog Day and the Human Desire for Connection

In Harold Ramis’ 1993 film Groundhog Day, the main character Phil Connors wakes up in a time loop which forces him to relive the titular holiday over and over again in the city of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  Even describing Phil’s predicament feels redundant to a degree because of how ubiquitous the film and its central device has become over the past 30 years;  the notion of using “Groundhog Day” as a shorthand to describe someone trapped in a loop has become so ingrained into our cultural fabric that it can feel at times like there is no fresh analytical points that can be made in regards to the film.  But upon looking at how the film impacted other pieces of media that took advantage of its conceit and took it into new territory, as well as examining the mechanics of Phil’s loop at a granular level, shows how Groundhog Day set a narrative template that impacted American popular culture in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. 

The circumstances of Phil’s entrapment are never explained to the viewer or to Phil himself, which feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the current media landscape where each fantastical plot element is over-explained to the point of losing any sense of mystery or thematic resonance.  It is clear that Phil has an innate pomposity and inflated sense of self that makes him want to leave Punxsutawney as quickly as possible, so upon first glance it would make sense to surmise that the loop is designed on a narrative level to give Phil the comeuppance he deserves and force him to become a more engaged, altruistic person.  And while the ending of the film certainly shows this reading of the film to be at least partially true, it is an inherently reductive view of the film and its themes.  

In order to jump into the thematic complexity of Groundhog Day it is necessary to explicate how the loop itself works.  At 6 am each morning, any changes that have occurred over the course of the day are completely reset, not dissimilar from how a level in a video game will restart once its main character has died.  This was illustrated when Phil broke a pencil and put it by his bedside right before he fell asleep, only to find it intact when he woke up the next morning.  While there is an intrinsically hellish aspect to this existence, in which meaning is drained away and actions have no consequences because there is literally no tomorrow, Phil begins to take advantage of his newfound situation.  He asks a woman named Nancy Taylor where she went to high school and who her 12th grade English teacher was in order to opportunistically use the information the next day to seduce her, and steals money from a Brinks truck in order to buy a lavish new car and Western outfit for a date.  It would seem that far from forcing Phil to become a better person, the loop validates his worst tendencies and causes his vanity to explode in the process.

It is Phil’s courtship of Rita, the optimistic producer who accompanies him to Punxsutawney, that reveals exactly what Groundhog Day has been playing at the whole time.  He attempts to use the Nancy Taylor playbook in order to get her into bed, which is almost successful until Rita catches on to Phil’s master plan and leaves abruptly.  But instead of admitting defeat and moving on, Phil recognizes a desire on his part to be with Rita that doesn’t stem from cheap gratification but instead a profound longing for self-betterment.  Phil’s worldview had become so jaundiced by cynicism that only seeing someone who is genuinely positive and cheerful can be a catalyst for him changing his ways.  As such, the loop doesn’t force Phil to change but instead reveals who he was all along:  a secret romantic who wants to be more engaged with others and his surroundings but is moving too fast to do so.

This perhaps explains why love is so totemic when it comes to time loop narratives.  In films such as Palm Springs and even the Tom Cruise action film Edge of Tomorrow, the core relationship between the two main characters serves as what drives the story forward;  Cruise’s character William Cage in Edge is tasked with staving off an apocalyptic alien invasion but the setup fades into the background over the course of the film as his potentially romantic relationship with his commanding sergeant, Rita Vrataski, develops.  In that film, there isn’t the kind of payoff that comes at the end of Groundhog Day (where Phil and Rita get together and decide to live in Punxsutawney), but in its more piquant ending Edge of Tomorrow speaks to how relationships are the one thing that matter most when it comes to time loop narrative.  Cage sees Vrataski after he has successfully neutralized the alien threat, and laughs when he sees that she doesn’t recognize him;  however, there is a distinctly melancholic look in his eye, and it leaves the viewer to ponder whether he would have traded the fate of the world if it meant that he and Vrataski could end up together.  A loop may mean that nothing changes, yet if there is one thing that Groundhog Day and films of its ilk show is that the desire to find someone else transcends even the most fantastical quirks in temporality, or at least makes a very good story.

— Finn Flackett-Levin

TikTok: The Loopiest App of All Time

By Lyssa

In my class presentation, I talked broadly about how TikTok uses loops in a variety of ways. Here, I want to do a close reading of one video in particular; one that embodies the variety of ways that TikTok utilizes loops. 

In “Please Duet This: Collaborative Music Making Lockdown on Tiktok” D. Bondy Valdovinos Kaye talks about the duetting scene on TikTok, primarily by citing the ways that duetting can produce collaborative results, especially in the music scene. Admittedly I am not on JazzTok or even MusicTok in general, however everyone once in a while, a video that traditionally only circulates within a small subset of people becomes circulated outside of the circles. One example I can think of is the chronically stuck-in-my-head interaction between Megan thee Stallion and Keke Palmer at the 2022 Met Gala. You can click here to watch it.

This duet encapsulates loops in the way that all duetting does: it uses footage already created. Just like experimental videographers who use found footage or music that samples past songs, duetting draws on someone’s original work and the ability to modify it. In this case, the comparison to reusing footage is even more poignant as neither Palmer nor thee Stallion asked for people to “Duet this,” they simply conducted an interview, and other people modified it. Much like Report by Bruce Conner- he uses news footage that wasn’t meant to be changed, didn’t ask for people to modify it.  

But TikTok presents loops in more ways than the duetting that Kaye explores. The first way I’ll talk about is in relation to “sounds.” Sounds on TikTok are what they sound like- a sound that goes over the visual (and sometimes audio-visual) portion of a video. People most often engage with sounds by lip-syncing to them, or can simply let them play in the background. The Megan\Keke sound became a meme in the way that sounds often do on TikTok. People put the sound over their videos to make a joke about not seeing someone in a long time, or as the inverse to give that original meaning an ironic twist by making a joke about seeing someone you see often. Tangentially related is also the way that people used the sound to make a joke about someone who would traditionally be an other in a group.

In these ways, the loop in this video becomes more than just the way that duetting presents loops: it also does it with sound. The sound is widely circulated and shared, a sort of collaboration in itself. Someone sets the standard for how the sound ought to be used, and other people engage with it similarly, making small deviations where they see fit. They create their own versions of the same meme over and over. But these variations are also important: the minor sense of agency that comes with using the same sound and the same video structure but attaching a different meaning- by adding an ironic twist to a meme that possibly didn’t begin that way or by adding a different meaning. And then that meaning is additionally circulated. While I only gave one example of each way the sound was used, there are a little over 190,000 posts under the sound, the sound is used multiple times in all of these categories. 

This breadth of sound and video is my next point: there are loops with the way TikTok is set up itself. Once you like one video with this sound you will see more videos with this sound. Even if one just looks at the comments of a video with this sound one will hear this sound more and more. Megan thee Stallion begets Megan thee Stallion. The ever-present loop of TikTok gets even more complicated when one thinks about the ways that the app insists that when a trend happens it becomes a trend. The only reason that trends happen is because TikTok’s algorithm makes possible a user’s engagement with a sound they’ve engaged with multiple times.  Someone who is engaged with the app is aware of a number of videos related to a trend because the FYP cycles through them until the trend cycle is over.

This all leads me to my main point: these loops assist in making TikTok “the zone.” As Natasha Dow Schüll defines it in Addiction by Design: “a state of ongoing, undiminished possibility that came to trump the finite reward of a win.” (Schüll,97). Although there is no “winning” TikTok there is a state of ongoing, undiminished possibility. The knowledge that as long as one scrolls there will always be something new to watch and engage with. TikTok’s algorithm will continue to take what a user had already watched and use that to shape what they believe a user will also enjoy. At the same time, TikTok uses the looping sounds to help curate the zone as well. The video it suggests may be familiar because sounds often cycle through, but even those videos–with their everchanging meanings and new variations–will be different enough to be engaging. 

Tiktok’s curation of “the zone” is even more obvious when confronted with the fact that no other social media that I’ve been on has needed a piece of media to interject all the other media one is consuming to tell people to take a break. When someone has been scrolling on TikTok longer than a consecutive hour a video will pop up on their FYP telling them that they may want to take a break. The captivatingness of the app–perpetuated by its use of loops–necessitates the app intervening so people don’t get too invested. In this way, TikTok is a social media site that is immersed in loops. 

“I am him”, how Majora’s Mask let the player be in control

Besides the mechanics employed, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask made a groundbreaking impact within the game industry. The game was able to impact the industry in how games should approach driving a narrative, along with the sort of resourcefulness and cleverness that companies can employ when creating new content out of older, already familiarized assets.

How Nintendo creates a well-driven narrative is through the game’s main mechanic with time. Since the game runs on a 72 hour cycle (or 54 real-time minutes), it is virtually impossible to do everything the game has to offer to you within one cycle, be it side quests or mini-games. So, to solve this issue, the player can choose to reset the 3-day cycle whenever they so please at the expense of their items gathered during the cycle (rupees, arrows, etc. except for important items such as masks).

This accomplishes two things. The first is that players need to be careful in choosing what they want to do within one cycle. Do you want to save the relationship with Anju and Kafei? Well, you better make sure you have enough in-game time to do so otherwise Termina will be destroyed, and all the progress made within that quest is lost. Even when the quest is completed, players still have to go back in time to further advance in other areas of the game. This sort of mindset helps to establish the player as the main character, not Link. Sure, the player plays as Link, but the choices made are all up to the person holding the controller. Whether it be going back in time, choosing to save Anju and Kafei’s relationship, or even letting Termina be destroyed: all of these choices are made solely by the player. This differentiates Majora’s Mask’s version of Link to the series’ past and future predecessors. Link’s demeanor already makes him a suitable candidate for the player to feel in control, given his silent nature and sort of “bland” personality. However, Majora’s Mask can be played in a multitude of different ways with Link choosing which adventures and quests the player so chooses to go on. In the past games, the story is very linear, making Link go on a sort of straight line when progressing through the game leading to a specific ending. In Majora’s Mask, the ending can be the world being destroyed or it being saved, but the outcome all depends on the player’s actions within the game, not Links. The line to the finish isn’t straight, but instead has loops, curves, and sometimes even gets cut and put back together in different spots, thus creating a new experience every time. To simply put, the player is the main character, not Link, and it is up to the player’s discretion in how the game should be played.

The impact that the narrative described above had on the game industry was quite powerful in how games should approach narratives where the player is in control. Today we see many games where the player is the main character and not the other way around. Instead of adopting the persona of the main character (like Joel in The Last of Us series), games are starting to make the players be responsible for the character’s persona and how they act. The best example I could think of is with V from CyberPunk. The game throws so many dialogue options and actions to the player, letting them fully customize and cater the adventure to their own liking. The main character is never the same when played by a different player, thus creating a new experience in which the player is controlling the story.

The experience leads to the second thing that Majora’s Mask had successfully conveyed within the game, which is the replayability of a game. With the different choices, loops in time, and actions the game offers, it creates a new experience each time the player chooses to start the game. Add in other players, and now each player can have a virtually unique experience when taking up the game. Not only does this help in how often the game can be played, but it also extends the game’s shelf life. Throw in the fact that Majora’s Mask had quite literally used all of its assets from its predecessor Ocarina Of Time, and it is clear to see how resourceful Nintendo was in creating new content that had a lasting shelf life thanks to the unique experiences it creates for each individual player. The adventure caters to the player’s choices and actions.

Nintendo and Eiji Aonuma proved to the industry that a solid story can indeed be accomplished with recycled assets and some clever thinking when implementing new game mechanics. It is clear to see the impact Majora’s Mask had on the game industry, and how more and more games are adopting this sort of style in which the player creates the main character instead of them already being established within a story. Letting the player have complete control in how the story should be driven creates a narrative unique to the player along with opening up the possibilities of what direction the game can be taken in.

Grief, Agency and Time in Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was the sequel to Ocarina of Time, released under two years after. In many ways, Majora’s Mask could not exist without Ocarina of Time. For example, many of the game’s character assets have been pulled directly from its predecessor, their characters otherwise totally transformed (one of Ocarina’s endgame bosses runs a swamp boat tour). However, Majora’s Mask goes far beyond what Ocarina of Time was able to accomplish, both narratively and mechanically, and cemented itself as one of the all-time classics of the N64 and gaming as a whole. The gimmick of Majora’s Mask is relatively iconic at this point ‒ the moon is coming crashing down into the world of Termina, and it’s set to impact in exactly 72 hours (54 real life minutes). Link must travel to the various regions of the realm, defeating evil spirits and doing general 3D Zelda things. However, within this relatively-simple structure is a shockingly mature and dark narrative about grief and denial. Intertwined is its brilliant usage of time as a mechanic, which is integral to that storytelling. 

In Majora’s Mask, time is a tool to be manipulated. Link can slow down, skip through and reset time whenever he pleases, even in the middle of combat. Most games do not bother with freeform time travel ‒ time generally just moves forward. Time manipulation makes a game’s story inherently vulnerable to paradoxes and strange contradictions. However, Majora’s Mask handles this surprisingly-elegantly. Resetting time makes Link lose his non-essential material possessions, like his spare arrows and money. He does maintain his key items, but with every cycle refresh, Link starts anew. The few ways in which Majora’s Mask isn’t logically consistent are in ways the player never questions. Technically, Link should move slower when time is slowed down. Or at the very least, enemies definitely should. But they don’t (for obvious game design reasons) and I never even noticed the logical inconsistency until researching for my presentation. Another example ‒ Link should lose his bow and hookshot too upon resetting, but that would, of course, put incredibly arbitrary limitations on how the game could be designed.

Those key items are central to how the game maintains both a legitimately circular game state and legitimately linear progression at the same time. For example, on your first three day cycle, you can’t leave Clock Town. You’re stuck in your Deku form, a race that the townsfolk explicitly discriminate against and view as defenseless. Guards block your path, and you need to get through the first cycle to gain the Deku Mask, allowing you to transform at will. Only once you’re back to child Link and can wield your sword again will they let you through, apologizing for underestimating you. However, on resets, you have to read that text, of the guards blocking and subsequently apologizing, every time. After all, the guards don’t know you have a sword until you show it! But the difference in new cycles is the hassle of earning the Deku Mask and becoming child Link again was already done. Through key items you can save the time you spent in earlier cycles. In every cycle, you’re investing in your future, accomplishing objectives to reach what are functionally checkpoints of progression. This is central to the game ‒ the four macguffins from the four temples travel through time too, which is the reason you don’t need to do all the temples (basically the whole game) in one cycle. It feels natural, and linear game progression is maintained in a believable, compelling and occasionally genius manner inside a constantly looping game state.

The storytelling in Majora’s Mask intrinsically relies on that system. Majora’s Mask is a game about grief and denial. In the wake of the moon’s slow descent to Termina, all of the characters in the world are coping with their inevitable demise. They do this in real-time, growing progressively more concerned, angry, delusional or depressed as the game moves from the dawn of the first day to the final hours. Some characters choose to flee, knowing its futility, while others accept their fate. Very few other games allow the player to watch characters grapple with their emotions in natural, if sped up, time. Even fewer let it happen with no player input. In most games, storytelling progresses through time artificially. The game state fundamentally changes when the player accomplishes objectives. In Paper Mario 64, the Shy Guys aren’t going to overrun the town no matter how long you leave the console running. You need to beat chapter 3 for it, and they will wait for you. 

However, Majora’s Mask’s manipulatable but constant timer makes the feelings of characters significantly more poignant. Their lives are legitimately in your hands ‒ if you leave your game on for an hour or two and never play the Song Of Time, entire civilizations die. When you reset the cycle after defeating dungeons and defrosting the mountains or purifying the swamp of poison, you are plunging entire civilizations back into misery for the sake of the greater good. The story is as much about watching characters cope with calamities while lacking agency as it is about you, the player, coping with the agency you’ve been given in the lives of its NPCs. While you’re saving the Zora, the Gorons are starving to death. While you’re saving the Gorons, the Zora are starving to death. You’re not going to save everyone in every cycle, and you certainly aren’t going to learn everyone’s story without many, many repetitions. All you can do is reset the clock and try your best. Even more than time and its manipulation, Majora’s Mask is a heartbreaking and brilliant game about grief, and the agency you can have in the lives of those grieving.

-Braden Hajer

The Human-Divine Dichotomy: Journeying through Iteration and Recursion

Essay by Noah Naranjo

Before we begin this (personally) intellectually stimulating journey, I’d like to preface it with a quote we’ve seen before that has been resonating in my mind: “To iterate is human, to recurse is divine.” While this sounds profound, what does it even mean? I mentioned this quote in my presentation last week, but I don’t think I explained it very well. And admittedly, I didn’t fully understand the difference, either. So, let us journey through the labyrinth of Iteration and Recursion together to discover why the latter is at the heart of divinity.

Iteration and Recursion are two distinct approaches to repeating actions at the heart of programming. Iteration is to walk a well-worn path over and over again, whereas Recursion is to walk a spiral staircase, with each step leading to a smaller or larger version of itself.

Now, If you’d humor me for a second, imagine a row of ten apple trees in front of you. If I were to ask you to ‘Iterate’, you would pick an apple from the first tree, then move on to the second, then onto the third, and so on until you had picked one apple from each tree individually. In the world of Recursion, however, you’d instruct an invisible ‘mini-you’ to pick an apple from each tree, beginning with the next one while you pluck from the first. This ‘mini-you’ would then order their ‘mini-mini-you’ to do the same, and so on until the last apple was plucked.

Recursion may now appear a little more complicated, and with good reason. Recursion is a labyrinthine mystery buried within itself, a matryoshka doll of orders if you will. But then, why is it regarded as divine? To answer that, let’s think in terms of philosophy and metaphysics. Recursion is a mathematical concept that reflects the processes of nature, the cosmos, and perhaps even the workings of God, just as a single-cell can replicate itself to form complex organisms. The spiral galaxies in the universe, the nested layers of human consciousness, and the fractal pattern on a fern leaf are all examples of this endlessly repeating pattern.

Iteration, on the other hand, depicts our humanity, our daily routines and habits — the boring linear progression of time as we perceive it. Everyday we wake up, go to class, go to work, go to sleep, rinse, and repeat. We live our lives bound by loops, bound by the constraints of time and physicality.

However, Recursion transcends these limitations. Just as a Zen master uses koans to reach enlightenment, Recursion mirrors the endless cycle of creation and destruction, existence and non-existence. It’s no surprise Recursion is equated to the ouroboros, the divine dance of Shiva.

If it’s so divine, then why don’t we use it as our primary structure in programming? The answer is the inherent limitations of our systems. Like humans, computers have a limited amount of memory and resources available to them at one time. Each Recursive “mini-me” we create needs its own chunk of memory, so too many Recursive “mini-mes” would overwhelm the system (kinda like how too much introspection results in existential dread hahaha jkjk unless). As a result, we’re forced to follow Iteration, the well-worn, well-known boring linear progression, and the methodical apple-picking labor.

Regardless, it’s important to appreciate Recursion’s beauty and potential as the divine algorithmic component. It challenges us to think outside the box and imagine the infinite within the finite. Recursion is the core of creativity, the soul of inspiration, and the manifestation of the divine in the human mind. Recursion, therefore, is a window into the divine, an indication of the infinite, and a whisper of eternity within the fleeting world of binary code.

“To iterate is to human, to recurse is to divine,” perhaps then, symbolizes iteration as the pulse of our humanity and the rhythm to our lives. It is the practical, grounded, and methodical procession of human thought. As for Recursion, it is a window into the supernatural and a doorway to the infinite. It is the reflection of the divine in the building blocks of our mind and the imprint of the cosmos in our mental blueprints.

To end this adventure, we can put it like this: the dichotomy between Iteration and Recursion reflects the contrast between humanity and divinity, the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal. It’s a taste of the metaphysical and philosophical dichotomy that has captivated philosophers and artists for as long as time itself. This contrast is a reminder of our humanity, our divinity, and the delicate balance between the two as we delve deeper into the world loops.

We exist in a loop of loops, a Recursion of Recursions in the grand net of existence. We are the algorithm and the programmer, the query and the response, the firing pistol and the finish line. In the never-ending circle of existence, we are both human and divine.

So keep this in mind the next time you find yourself in front of a row of apple trees (or lines of code): Iterating is living in the world; Recursing is seeing beyond. Achieve balance between the two because it is in this place that existence’s essence, the beauty of the loop, and the form of the formless are found.

The Search for a “Good” Ending in Save the Date

by: Madelyn

In most games, it isn’t possible to sit down for two minutes, make a couple choices, and get to a screen that tells you it’s “The End.” In Save the Date, that is just about the only thing that can happen—but just because the player has reached the end of a storyline, this is far different from having reached the end of their gameplay experience. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Save the Date is built around a core gameplay loop that expects the player to feel unsatisfied with the narrative ending they receive and play again to try to get a “better” one. However, one could argue that the player will never reach a satisfying ending, if their goal is to “save the date”—to successfully go out with Felicia while keeping her alive.

The game includes a variety of narrative paths that ultimately lead to (as far as I am aware) twelve different main diegetic endings—eleven of which involve Felicia’s death in some way or another. The twelfth requires only a single choice from the player, choosing to not go out with her in the first place. This option feels intuitively “incorrect,” as a player’s natural response would likely be “How can I save the date if there is no date?” However, after repeated failed attempts to go on the date without Felicia dying, one returns to this menu dialogue option with a different perspective—“maybe the only way to save the date is not going on one at all.” While this option does keep Felicia alive, it is still unlikely that players will find it satisfying.

Save the Date also has potential for two nondiegetic “endings”—both of which come to a less tragic conclusion than any of the twelve narrative endings, but it is debatable whether either of these endings can be considered a legitimate ending of the game to begin with. First, there is the “hacker ending.” The player can navigate through the game’s directory to find a file named I_AM_A_HACKER.rpy, and by editing a line in this file from “False” to “True,” the player will now have access to a new dialogue option at the beginning of the game—to suggest having “an awesome dinner in [their] floating sky castle because [they are] a hacker!” If the player chooses this option, they and Felicia will both become extremely wealthy and live out all their wildest dreams, so it may at first seem like a “good” ending. However, this route tends to leave players unsatisfied as well, because the game makes them feel like they cheated to even get this option in the first place. After experiencing this ending for the first time, the player encounters an unexpected new catalyst for repetition—a search not just for a “good” ending, but for a “good ending” that they feel like they have earned.

Finally, once the player has repeated several iterations of the loop and they go out with Felicia to Moore’s Hill (where she will still eventually die), being truthful with her about their intentions and about the loop will lead to a deeper, more philosophical conversation than anywhere else in the game. In this conversation, Felicia attempts to help the player find an ending that they deem to be “satisfying.” If the player chooses the dialogue option suggesting that they just want a “You Win” screen, Felicia offers to simply say it to them and asks if this will solve the problem (interestingly, this is not considered an actual ending to the game—the dialogue keeps moving forward past this point). Further, Felicia suggests that maybe the way to get a satisfying ending is to close the game and imagine an entirely different ending if they don’t like the one the author created. Ironically, this is one of the few endings that the creator of the game himself deems to be the “true” ending of Save the Date. However, it is once again debatable whether this can even be considered an actual ending of the game, when it solely exists outside of the body of the work itself. Does this mean that any alternative ending we can think of for any piece of media is equally as legitimate as the ending(s) of the work itself? Is this case different because the creator of the game specifically wanted people to create their own endings? Is Felicia even really meant to be saved? These are all valid questions that arise from considering this abstract “ending” to Save the Date, and there is no objective answer to any of them. Some players may be satisfied with the idea of the game allowing them the creative freedom to think up their own ending, while others may find this unfair or illegitimate and argue that Save the Date simply has no happy ending.

At some point, the player will no longer feel the desire to keep looping through the game in search of a “good” ending—they will either accept or deny the one in their imagination, but after they have completed all of the diegetic storylines to the game, this is when their playthrough truly “ends.” At this stage, they have experienced twelve to fourteen endings, depending on which they consider to be legitimate, and all that is left is for them to decide which ending they liked the best. Many players will likely choose to accept one of the more controversial endings, such as the imagined ending or the hacker ending, but some may also choose to take one of the death endings and interpret it as their version of the game’s canon, simply because they found it the most entertaining. As the player chooses their macro-level ending of the game, having experienced micro-level endings many times, Save the Date’s gameplay loop finally draws to a close.

Save the Date’s Groundhog Day Style Loop

By Spencer

I find Save the Date to be very fascinating in terms of how it relates to the Groundhog Day style time loop. One of the most important parts of Groundhog Day’s time loop is that Phil doesn’t understand why it’s happening or how to end it. Thus, if we accept the common assumption that the way to break the loop was for Phil to become a good person, Phil’s only option is to naturally achieve this goal. He can’t just come up with a precise strategy to get through his goals for the day or a way to “quit” the loop by dying. By comparison, the interactive fiction the loop can teach you a lesson or skill, but they’re rarely necessary to reach the loop’s end point. For instance, in Majora’s Mask, you know that you’re constantly working towards the goal of becoming skilled enough at the game to stop the fall of the moon, or in Diablo you know that your loop is constantly improving with the goal of fighting Diablo at the bottom floor of the dungeon. However, because you know what your goal is in these loops, there’s always a direction you can force your way towards. Instead of understanding the intricacies and skills needed to beat the game, it’s possible to simply memorize the patterns of actions you need to take, or brute force your way through with saves and loads. In Groundhog Day this would be equivalent to Phil’s failed attempt at having a good date with Rita by memorizing specific pieces of information that he knows will draw her interest. Similarly, in these games you never need to achieve the goal of the loop. It’s always possible for you to give up when you die and stop playing or take a break and never come back. In Groundhog Day, this corresponds to the times Phil attempted to end the loop by dying. These sorts of solutions don’t work in the loop put forward by Groundhog Day.

In contrast, in Save the Date the only way out of the loop is to, on some level, have arrived at the loop’s purpose. Since you don’t have a specific end goal, you can’t know that the decisions you’re making are progressing you towards ending the loop. You can make what seems like progress, but ultimately it doesn’t amount to anything substantial. In the end you can’t memorize a set of decisions to progress further, because you don’t know if you’re going in the right direction in the first place. This is of course assisted by the nature of the way to end the loop, quitting the game either to imagine a good ending for yourself or to stop the bad endings from continuing to occur. Since the goal of the loops is to teach the player that they can’t rely on the author to give a satisfying ending in a collaborative storytelling experience, the endings are only achievable if the player understands this at some level and makes the choice to stop playing the game. Even if the player quits out of frustration, lack of time, or some other reason, this means they’ve implicitly understood the message, as they’ve made the decision that whatever ending is waiting for them isn’t worth the work or time they’d have to put in. In this way, Save the Date’s loop is one of the most similar to that of Groundhog Day in any piece of interactive fiction, since the only way out of it is through understanding the loop’s message.

This also ties into the way in which the deaths in Save the Date operate. For instance, in class we discussed the seeming contradiction in the fact that the game seems to be pushing the player towards being a better person towards Felicia by telling the truth but still making her death inevitable in these cases. This contradiction is resolved if we consider that the point the game is aiming for isn’t just for us to be honest with Felicia but to actually help her, which means turning off the game. In these cases, by being honest with Felicia the game helps the player reach the point where Felicia tries to dispel their misconceptions about the goal of the game. At that point, almost all paths directly tell the player that they should reset before Felicia dies or stop playing altogether. Thus, if you continue to play the game to help Felicia, you shouldn’t see her die again from this point, at most she should come close. Thus, Felicia’s deaths will continue so long as the player doesn’t understand the point the game is making but will end if they understand. There’s no sequence of decisions you could make to save her because that isn’t the way to save her.

Addictive game design

by: Dylan Martin

Video game addiction is a real phenomenon. The reason why such an assertion must be stated is due to the stigma around video game addiction. It is often devalued, often seen as something that does not truly exist or is not as bad as other addictions such as drugs and alcohol. Without discounting the severity of those other addictions, it is important to acknowledge that gaming addiction has severe social, mental, and physical consequences. If you or a loved one you know suffers from gaming addiction, please seek professional help. If you are unsure if they are suffering from gaming addiction, look out for the side effects: 

  • Poor performance at school, work, or household responsibilities as a result of excessive video game playing.
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as sadness, anxiety, or irritability, when games are taken away or gaming isn’t possible.
  • A need to spend more and more time playing video games to get the same level of enjoyment.
  • Giving up other previously enjoyed activities and/or social relationships due to gaming.
  • Being unable to reduce playing time and having unsuccessful attempts to quit gaming despite the negative consequences it’s causing.
  • Lying to family members or others about the amount of time spent playing video games.
  • A decline in personal hygiene or grooming due to excessive video gaming.
  • Using video games as a way to escape stressful situations at work or school or to avoid conflicts at home.
  • Using video games to relieve negative moods, such as guilt or hopelessness.

As with all mental health topics, please navigate the topic with sensitivity and care. 

This leads to the essential question: what makes video games addicting? Addictive game design is interesting because it is not exclusive to video games but to most games. For instance, gambling, more specifically slot machines and poker, is arguably one of the most predatory uses of addictive game design. Addictive game design capitalizes on the human desire for dopamine, and the natural acquisition of the hormone. Dopamine is colloquially known as the “feel good chemical”, often released in your brain to make you feel pleasure as a part of the brain’s reward system. Any number of things can cause dopamine to be released, but what addictive design attempts to do is capitalize on specific triggers of dopamine. 

Game designers are frequently looking for new ways to trigger the brain into giving the player a dopamine release, making the game feel “fun”. While dopamine can be released from a variety of things, the main trigger focused on during the class animation/screening was learning. The brain is designed to release dopamine when learning a new skill, a feature that has been pivotal to our evolution as humans. However, learning in games is different from learning in real life, as in games we do not have to face the severe consequences of our actions the way we must in real life. This may diminish the anxiety about the unpredictable nature of something new. However, the reason why we do not get bored after we learn how to play a game is because of the idea of looping. A looping design helps foster the need to consistently learn a new skill, as the player will need to continue learning and adjusting when faced with a looping game design. The loop does not have to be explicit or consistent, rather the opposite is true. There seems to be a “Goldilocks zone” when it comes to looping game design.  A loop must be ever-changing and challenging enough to keep the player engaged. A game that does not challenge the player, and remains constant without introducing new patterns of gameplay will eventually become stale and boring. At the same time, a loop much not be too complicated or unpredictable. A game that is too much for the player will become frustrating and push the average player away from the game.  

Moreover, a game can become addicting when it is entrancing. This is known as “the zone”. Famously, casinos are known to put and keep their customers in the zone. The zone is described as a trance-like state, where nothing exists outside of the player and the game they are playing. This is achieved by creating an environment that feels specifically designed for the player. This is famously done in slot machines. The mechanics of a slot machine are very simple and easy to understand, while the outcome is always shrouded in mystery. The risk per turn is relatively low, but the promise of a high reward allows the player to justify their continuous use. Many describe continuous gameplay as a means to stay within the zone more than a means to victory. The lack of time indicators also helps keep the player fully entranced in the game, not allowing them to acknowledge the passing of time. The use of tokens or points allows the player to lose any physical indication of how much money they are spending. 

Games are constantly evolving to keep the player more and more entrancing, stripping them away from a bleak reality and allowing them to obsess over a hyper-reality in which they can experience concentrated joy. The consequences of these developments are severe and should be enjoyed responsibly.