Russian Doll: taking purpose from a life of gaming

Image Credit: Russian Doll (C) Netflix

 By Neil Merrett

Russian Doll is not the first TV show or movie to contemplate our overall purpose in the universe, or lack thereof, whilst trapped in a time loop.  However, the show’s first two seasons offer some insightful perspective about the power of playing out the same experiences over and over again – whether in a real world or a videogame – and perhaps coming out changed by the experience.

Spoiler Warning – the following essay discusses key plot points of seasons one and two of the show, ‘Russian Doll’.…..

On its surface, the TV show Russian Doll has only the most tangential of links to videogames. 

It is a show where Natasha Lyonne plays a fast talking, very part-time games developer trapped in a time loop that resets to a very specific point in her life whenever she finds herself dying.

Through this metaphysical meandering, our heroine attempts to play around with the programming of her very existence as if life were a form of code to be reordered until it delivers a satisfying or workable end product.

Along with the recent Amazon movie Palm Springs, the show has taken the template of the beloved 1990s comedy Groundhog Day and made a strong argument for the emergence of time loop movies as a respected and flexible genre to tell different kinds of stories.

More than a remake

It is possible to argue that these latest stories are just a remake or rip-off of the 1993 Bill Murray comedy, or indeed any number of stories about humans being stuck in a time loop.  Why not include 1996’s Twelve Monkeys in that list, a sci-fi parable once described as “a celebration of madness and doom, with a hero who tries to prevail against the chaos of his condition, and is inadequate. “

Who can’t relate to a story like that?

Just as with Groundhog Day and Palm Springs, Russian Doll, at its best, is a show that offers a thoughtful meditation on the purpose of any existence. What is our overall mission or ‘quest’ as a central player/protagonist in our own lives or perhaps even as a side character in someone else’s existence? has previously made an argument for Groundhog Day to be considered as one of the most definitive movies about the appeal and sensation of gaming.  Not bad at all for a movie with literally nothing at all to do with videogames or their characters.

In that film, the main character of Phil Conners – played by Bill Murray – is both gifted and cursed to play out the very same miserable day of his existence, while retaining the knowledge of all his experiences from each redo.

Those around him continue to act out the events of February 2 as they are pre-programmed to act. They are effectively non-playable characters such as those that frequent videogames. 

The choices of the film’s protagonist are the only thing that can divert or change the course of each of their lives, and perhaps his also. 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 he can be as selfish, sleazy, lazy or utterly malevolent as he feels like.

It is ultimately, the character’s quest for purpose that drives his character development and ultimate redemption at least in one character’s eyes.

Russian Doll’s first season, as well as Palm Springs, in adopting their own take on a time loop tale, look at the prospect of sharing the burden of a potentially never-ending existence with another person. The drive for these characters now comes from coming out of the experience of living out seemingly endless days together as content or sane as possible – whatever it takes.

A virtual reality kind of experience

By the end of Russian Doll’s second season, the show’s time loop concept has been abandoned instead for a different kind of metaphysical adventure. 

This time, the main character of Nadia – played by Natasha Lyonne – and her fellow survivor Alan – played by Charlie Barnett – are able to take control of their direct descendants and see the world through their eyes. Their familial history is essentially converted into a first person perspective videogame.

They are free to play out key moments in the lives of their mothers and even grandmothers through their own eyes, as if they were characters in a highly immersive simulation.  At the end of journeys via a metaphysical branch of the New York metro, both characters are able to traverse time and space to live out central moments in their own conception.

Beyond the gnarly prospect of one character giving birth to themselves, the whole experience at first seems like a chance to play through their parents’ lives and address some perceived personal or moral failings in their past.

Ultimately though, it seems that even the characters’ divergence into their ancestors are pre-programmed parts of their back stories.  The future therefore cannot be changed without cataclysmic impacts on the universe, no matter how unjust it might seem.

The opportunity to be their ancestors is less of a game, and more like a virtual reality ‘experience’ that lets them view events that literally made them.

There is no mystery to solve or unravel in the way the game-like structure of the first season had.  There is no overarching quest to set “right what once went wrong” as if in some kind of Quantum Leap. There might no even be a particular purpose for the forays through personal time. There is just the story of their lives.

Not a ‘Quantum Leap’-kind of thing

The ultimate reward at the end of Russian Doll is seemingly to give the main characters a clear understanding of the circumstances that led to their lives being the way they are, for both good and bad.

Perhaps that is no different for anyone plowing through life a day at a time. If our past can never be changed, then at best we have to find peace with the decisions we and those around us take – or perhaps don’t take.

As an ending, it’s a pretty good message to give an audience as they look to make their way through life.

Yet the wider metaphysical nature of the show and other time looping stories is also an interesting glimpse into perhaps why gamers do what they do.

That sense of being able to play a similar scenario over and over with the aim to gain some feeling of control over the world around us – whether in reality or through a digital facsimile.

Yet for many players, much like Nadia’s adventures through time, the decisions we make in videogames and the resulting consequences are often artificial and have very little significance on the wider infrastructure of our lives and those around us.

There is some value, it seems, in living out the same sort of experiences, and learning about a world or person and how they work.

Like any decent media, perhaps it’s the sense of gaining understanding about ourselves and our natures that drives gamers as it does those stuck in endless looping time.

Even with the ever increasing technical capabilities of games to create scenarios and fantasies for players to lose and test themselves in as a solo or multiplayer experience, there are limits to what can become of us during the experience.

On a surface level, games are supposed to just be a form of escapism and that is perfectly fine. But what if sometimes, there is also the possibility of getting a little more knowledge, empathy and understanding along the way.

It is fair to say there might just be value not just in stories about time loops, but also living them out in the form of beloved, or not so beloved videogames

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