By Neil Merrett
“Maybe the real god uses tricks, maybe he’s not omnipotent, he’s just been around so long and knows everything” – Bill Murray as Phil Conners in Groundhog Day.
As is done every February 2 for the last 131 years, a “weather prognosticating groundhog” announced this week, albeit with somewhat vague scientific reasoning, how much longer the current winter will last – at least in a certain part of the US.
Punxsutawney Phil – the latest iteration of a probably bewildered animal at the centre of the annual Groundhog Day festivities held in a borough of Pennsylvania – saw his shadow and therefore ushered in six more weeks of winter, or so we are told.
Tradition aside, many more people will doubtlessly be aware of Groundhog Day around the world due to the 1993 comedy movie of the same name starring Bill Murray. A story of a man forced to relive the same day over and over again, at times being overwhelmed by the experience, while other times finding some purpose or reason – both good and bad – for continuing to play out an unending existence.
At the same time, Phil Conners (Bill Murray) is given the gift and curse of retaining all his experiences and memories of the days he relives.
Those around him continue to act out the events of February 2 as they are pre-programmed to act, with the choices of the film’s protagonist the only thing that can divert or change the course of each of their lives.
Hitting reset on his life each morning, Phil inhabits a world where he is slowly able to become fully aware of the underlying programme that governs the complex and not so complex individuals that inhabit the town around him.
With each new shot at the same day, Phil finds himself making choices that are sometimes great, sometimes generous, while at other times as selfish, sleazy, lazy or utterly malevolent as he wants to be. The world is his sandbox and he can play through it how he chooses.
Sometimes our hero acts as a villain, a monster, a lothario and a chain smoking, calorie hogging slob. Much like being a gamer, within Phil is the potential to be absolutely anything each time he hits reset.
The film shows that somedays are better than others. Some are wonderful and life affirming, others sap his will to live, or let him live out the consequences of immorality, criminality, and even the premeditated homicide of a cuddly creature without facing any real world consequences – or so he thinks.
In essence, the constant reliving of the same events, dialogue and people forces Phil to gamify his existence each day, acquiring new skills and knowledge to manipulate the world around him and see what might be possible in experimenting with them and more importantly himself.
With some fans looking to quantify the exact amount of time he finds himself trapped in the time loop, estimates range from decades to perhaps even centuries. In this time, the title character faces up to depression, multiple suicide attempts and an inescapable feeling of lassitude as he finds no way of escape from the everyday.
Gamers will no doubt be used to a nagging feeling of sofa-bound comfort, slobbing in PJs in the late afternoon and avoiding the realities of the outside world, an experience that can be both rewarding, frustrating, or sometimes depressing. Some days are better than others after all.
In our more sophisticated age of gaming, even current generation titles like Final Fantasy 15 are not immune to predictable programming, littering its worlds with recurring characters performing the same task day in and day out – for instance, a couple frollicking and playing in the shallow waters of an idyllic beach.
You are limited in the available interactions with these two characters, who perform the same routine over and over, yet the more you come across their own little time loop, players are themselves invited to speculate on who they might be.
Future generations of games and AI may even begin to provide non-playable, extraneous characters that can be interacted with, and fleshed out based on your own unique interaction. What might that one day tell us about our actions as a gamer?
Years after originally watching the film of Groundhog Day, the film critic Roger Ebert, revised his opinion on what he saw as the virtues of the film and its lead character, looking past its surface appeal as just a high concept comedy.
“[Bill Murray] is the only person in his world who knows this is happening, and after going through periods of dismay and bitterness, revolt and despair, suicidal self-destruction and cynical recklessness, he begins to do something that is alien to his nature. He begins to learn,” Ebert wrote, in a manner that may describe the merits and challenges of a gamer’s existence too.
Perhaps there is value, skill and even a living to be made of going over the same routines again and again.
Gamers may be more au fait with the concept of the movie from the 2000 video game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, where the player is charged with navigating the same last three doomed days of a fantasy world facing a fiery apocalypse.
Confused and limited in abilities as the game begins, with each rewind through the 72 cycle of Majora’s Mask, the player is charged with not only averting the end of the world, but to also seek to improve the existence of the game’s inhabitants too, whether via simple errands, mail delivery or heroic sacrifice.
Whether you choose to assist these people, and complete the game fully or not is down to your own choices, but there is a world to interact out there with just a bit of extra effort.
I game, therefore I am… probably
The question of why we as individuals play games is a complicated one. Sometimes it is just mindless escape, other times to perhaps take up a character or persona free from the daily drudge, each reason is probably as good as the next.
Increasingly atmospheric and involving games in the future will likely further expand these potential reasons for escape, whether to play out our inner megolomaniac or god complexes, the chance to shape, save or destroy worlds, or perhaps to understand relationships and lives different to our own.
Games ultimately provide us with a sandbox to play and learn in, in both subtle and profound ways showing us our own natures when interacting with worlds, even ones that have evolved from cartoon mushroom men and lizard people. Every videogame starts as an unknown world full of strangers, the value is often in understanding and conquering its mysteries and rules.
On a simplistic level, Groundhog Day is a story of a man playing the same game and level for years, slowly but surely understanding and subverting its rules, manipulating its characters and then finding his own purpose throughput the arduous experience and grind.
Moved, angered, frustrated, bored, and often questioning himself and his purpose, Phil survives countless days seemingly unaffected by the programming of the characters and people around him, yet in engaging and trying to influence then, he is irrevocably changed. Once his experience trapped in endless cycle, or rather the game of Groundhog Day is completed, in true Hollywood-style, Phil becomes something a bit more like character he would hope to be.
What a game.