eXistenZialism: children of the game children

2009 February 25
by Zachary McCune


A congregation of game players in church

The opening title credits give away the film’s preoccupations. At first, one catches “organic” glimpses of texture and color set against a screen of black. Soon after, the entire frame is filled with this same texture and styling, suggesting a progression further into the fabric of this enigmatic visual scape, and possibly, a revelation of what it was we were glimpsing at before. These sensations however, of perceived progression and revelation, are soon complicated by the fact that seeing the entire texture only glimpsed before does not reveal much of anything about what it is we are looking. Except that it is filling the entire visual field (it is pervasive) and that it is layered. In short, the more that is revealed to us about the artwork of the opening credit sequence, the less one really seems to know (or at least concretely know) about the meaning of what we are looking at.

no foundation, no real real

eXistenZ is a cinema-as-philosophy game. It challenges the viewer’s sense of narrative and orienation within the film by never really providing a foundation upon which to operate. Upon which to decode the film’s plot and construct meaning. Consumed as the film is with questions of ‘reality’ the filmmaker seems to have taken pains not to ever really establish any undeniable ‘reality’ for the film, and in the process, the viewer is situated not an a fixed location, but in a position that is constantly shifted. An example would be the opening sequence, which is informed by the sort of swirling, layered title sequence directly proceeding it. In this sequence, the viewer no sooner grasps the plot of the sequence (game being tested, testing to be done with volunteers) when it is complicated by a serious plot event that seems to challenge the entire veracity of this opening premise. It leads to a conclusion that the game is outside of the game about to be tested, or at least, that game worlds are something easily divided from other ideas of ‘reality.’


eXistenZ is almost tragically stuck trying to create both a hip, technological, and edgy world, and an allegorical cosmology. The choice of making the heroine, Allegra, a game-designer from instance, seems to be a product of these two interests, as the game-designer social role feels both cool and metaphorical. It is a certain cyberpunk-deism so to speak, where god is not a (steampunk) watchmaker, but is the coder of life options, the gamemaker. This is religious fascination with who makes the rules and what those rules mean to “existence” and “experience” is made explicit in the film from the very start as the testing for “eXistenZ” is done in a church.

ludic theology

From then on, the psudeo-theology of ludic (gaming) experience is almost unbearable. Ted complains, once brought into the game-proper, that there isn’t much free will. Allegra responds that it is “just like real-life, just enough to keep it interesting.” At an earlier point, when “Gas” meets the couple, he tells Ted that he has adored Allegra since she “liberated him.” He then tells Ted about his favorite game, “ArtGod” which prompts its users “Thou, the player of the game ArtGod” in a pun on religious discourse. He concludes that the game “was very spiritual.”

flesh interfaces

surgical repair of game bodies

surgical repair of game bodies

Almost more interesting than the religiousness embedded in eXistenZ is the film’s fascination with bodies, sexual interfacing, birth metaphors, and mutations. In the film’s primary-reality (first reality presented) game players must interface to their “game pods” using “umbilical cords” which plug directly into “bioports” at the lower of a user’s spine. Everything in this system, from the fleshy, pusling “game pod” to the umbilical cord, and finally to the “bioport” suggests the primacy of the body. These body-technologies appear in contrast to the “hard electronic” appartui which one might expect, such as the cold, digital interfaces of films like The Matrix or the world of William Gibson’s Sprawl. These bodily interfaces, which we see operated upon as a form of recovery and replacement, may encourage us to not see the body as a replacement for computer technology, but rather a system that is already computational. When Ian Holms’ character Viri is surgically operating on Allegra’s game pod he refers to the damage done to its neural web, perhaps conflating the neural innards of the human mind with the inner data structures and processors of a computer.

sexing the bioport

Ted lubes up Allegra's bioport

Ted lubes up Allegra's bioport

On the other hand, plugging in to these game pods proves quite explicitly sexual perhaps emphasizing the physicality and (along religious lines) the flesh-aspect of the system which is to be inherently somewhat lustful. Allegra, in particular, becomes a virile game player who wants nothing more than to penetrate Ted, despite his own expressed “phobia towards having his skin penetrated surgically.” The reversal of the gender roles in this sequence, with Ted aspiring towards chastity and Allegra encouraging sexual awakening, only reinforces her power over his, and her power as the game-designer (read god). When she finally gets Ted to have a port installed, she is eager to penetrate it and eager to massage it. Several times she warns him that it is still a little tight, but that she’ll be gentle. On another occasion, she tells him that the port is excited.

children of the game children

game console as small infant-like flesh pod

game console as small infant-like flesh pod

In all of these events, the bioport is  clearly represented and referred to with a  certain vaginal consideration, a consideration made all the more explicit by the fact that umbilical cords are actually plugged into this hole, and the game pod itself frequently appears like a small living child. Allegra again makes this read explicit. She personifies her game pod away from a status of objectivity we might assign a game system, and refers to it as “her,” and “my baby.” Many of the film’s shots reflect visually this same relationship.


eXistenZ’s ending, at a new but familiar beginning, completes its ponderance of the existenial philosophical school. It is “circles within circles” as my brother likes to say, a muse on the fact that we might ‘just be playing a game.’ But the ending also has a certain finalty. Allegra and Ted (whoever they are in the “real world) kill the designer of “transCendZ” after confirming that he is the world’s greatest game-designer. They ask him if he thinks he should suffer for producing the “most effective deforming of reality” and manipulating the human race. Confused, he fails to answer and is killed.

waking up waking up

Are we meant to ‘wake up,’ escape the game and kill god? That seems to be the suggestion of eXistenZ, particularly as wikipedia has it that that “isten” is god in Hungarian. But we are also led to ask, as Ted tragically realizes in the middle of the film, if there is anyway to know that this is what is really real at the end of the movie.

Or perhaps, more psuedo-philosophically, if that was a movie, or just a part of a movie, game, media, we cannot escape.

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