Procedural loneliness in Spike Jonze’s Her

September 29, 2019

This is the fourteenth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?

Her isn’t about videogames

Spike Jonez’s 2013 Her isn’t a movie about videogames. Her is about loneliness.

Her is about the loneliness we can feel with the people we’ve loved the most and the longest. It’s about the loneliness that happens when we realize how selfish we’ve been. Yes, it’s a tad twee (and so white I’m surprised one of the characters isn’t a mayonnaise designer). But I respect Jonez’s earnest effort to explore the way it feels to be alone among the ones we love or want to love.

Her is an intriguing example of videogame literature precisely because videogames are not the focus. But a closer look at how videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture are used by Jonez and his team can help us gain some critical traction on the movie’s themes, its characters, the world they live in, and the story that Spike Jonez wants to tell about love and loneliness in a world of algorithmic intimacy.

Her takes place in a near-future world where artificial intelligence is affordable and ennui is as common as high-waisted pants. Our protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is a mustached, normcore thirty-something who works for a company that ghostwrites personal letters for its clients. Though he is an expressive, empathetic, talented writer, Theodore, like his clients, struggles to express his feelings. A divorce has left him bruised and desperate for someone to love and to love him. On a whim, he purchases an operating system for his computer that includes an intuitive, intelligent virtual assistant designed to evolve in relationship to its user. In the words of its sales pitch, “It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness.” Long story short, Theodore falls in love with the AI, who names herself “Samantha,” played with breathy ebullience by Scarlett Johansson.

So, what are videogames doing in Her?

First, there is diegetic representation. Videogames are part of the story. We see Theodore playing them. He plays a first-person game set in an underground labyrinth. (Though unnamed, it is conventionally referred to as “Alien Child” after the adorable foul-mouthed NPC that appears in it.)

He plays another called “Perfect Mom,” in which the player attempts to meet the challenges of being, you guessed it, a perfect mom. We hear him casually chat with a date about playing videogames. Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) is a videogame designer—in fact, she is the designer of “Perfect Mom.” There’s a third videogame Theodore plays, which we might call the Samantha game. More on that in my discussion of the film’s use of the quest paradigm.

There’s a lot I like about the diegetic representation of videogames in Her. This is a world where videogames are a simple fact of life, where we might talk to a friend about a game as casually as we would an episode of television or a movie. I like that Jonez makes one of the characters a videogame designer and makes her a woman. This is not to say that the representation of videogames in Her is entirely unproblematic. In light of the persistent harassment issues in videogame culture, I find both the Alien Child’s misogynist shit-talking and Samantha’s bemused response to it a little tone deaf. But by and large, I find the diegetic representation of videogames thoughtful and optimistic.

(By the way, if you’d like to learn more about the real-world designer of the games, Kevin Dart, check out this interview)

The second way videogames are used in Her is through figurative representation. They’re metaphors. The first time we see Theodore playing “Alien Child,” his avatar is struggling—and failing—to escape a labyrinth.

Theodore is struggling too, trying and failing to find his way out of his emotional funk. In that real-life (but no less algorithmically computed) game, Samantha replaces Alien Child, serving as a guide and verbally enticing interlocutor to the emotionally paralytic Theodore. They reverse these roles after they have (verbal) sex for the first time. Theodore now helps Samantha find the way out of her own maze. “You helped me discover my ability to want,” she tells him. Amy is trapped, too, trapped in other people’s expectations. Not coincidentally, the game she’s designing is in beta. “Perfect Mom” isn’t perfect, and neither is Amy. And, as it turns out, it’s another version of the AI operating system that helps Amy get out of her own emotional maze. And one of the ways she demonstrates her growing self-confidence is by glitching “Perfect Mom.”

Super Mom, indeed!

The videogames in Her also serve as figures of futurity. The holographic and haptic interfaces of “Alien Child,” the alacrity with which the NPC responds to the voices of Theodore and Samantha, and the sleek car with which “Perfect Mom” drives her kids to school help build a world where technology isn’t just more advanced, but also more intimate, homely, and comforting. As production designer K.K. Barrett explains,

This movie is really all about the human experience. It’s all about someone falling in love through a window of technology, but the technology does not stand in the way. The technology is an enabler or a comfort. So, when we began thinking about the world of this film, it was about creating a comfortable surrounding. This was Spike’s mandate: this was not a dystopian future. This wasn’t necessarily a utopian future, but it was a world where everything you wanted was there for you, except for the solutions to the human dilemma of ‘how do we get close to each other, how do we stay close to each other, how do we trust each other?’

That tension between the promise of technology and the realities of the heart is key to the third way videogames are used by Jonez in Her.

I call this procedural representation, which is when a videogame procedure, mechanic, or game feel is adapted (aka remediated) to another storytelling medium. As a literary critic and historian, I find this aspect of videogame literature the most intriguing. And given that Her is a movie about operating systems—that is, the invisible software that enables all the other programs to run on a computer—thinking about procedures is all the more relevant and revelatory.

What is procedural representation?

“Procedural representation” is my literary-critical mod of Ian Bogost’s concept of “procedural rhetoric.” Videogames are systems. They represent the world with systems—rules systems, algorithmic systems, feedback systems, and so on. Procedural rhetoric is the term Bogost invented to name how these systems communicate values. He explains,

[T]he gestures, experiences, and interactions a game’s rules allow (and disallow) make up the game’s significance. Videogames represent processes in the material world—war, urban planning, sports, and so forth—and create new possibility spaces for exploring those topics. That representation is composed of the rules themselves. We encounter the meaning of games by exploring their possibility spaces. And we explore their possibility spaces through play.

Bogost points to Animal Crossing as a good example of procedural rhetoric. On one hand, it is game about making friends, fishing, searching for shells and insects and discontinued designer furniture, and so on. But it is also a game about consumerism, debt leverage, and entrepreneurialism. In contrast to your adorably contented neighbors, the “the player participates in a full consumer regimen: he pays off debt, buys and sells goods.” They borrow money from the entrepreneurial tanuki Tom Nook to expand their home, and Tom uses the interest from that loan to grow his store, whose expanded product line tempts the player to spend and borrow even more, and so on and so on. Ultimately, Animal Crossing “is a game about the bittersweet consequences of acquiring goods and keeping up with the Joneses,” and it “accomplishes this feat . . . by creating a model of commerce and debt in which the player can experience and discover such consequences. In its model, the game simplifies the real world in order to draw attention to relevant aspects of that world.”

Procedural representation works in two ways. One, it is a formal technique in which a procedure, mechanic, or game feel is adapted (or remediated) from one medium to another to enable storytelling. Procedural representation enables playwrights, poets, and filmmakers to tell stories, create characters, and explore emotional experience. Two, procedural representation is a rhetorical technique. The embedded values of the given procedure, mechanic, or game feel are also remediated, though they are typically altered in the process.

A good example of procedural representation can be found in the fourth episode of the HBO series Westworld. A gunfight has just ended, and one of the characters spies a pistol on the blood-spattered floor. “Ooh!” he exclaims, picking it up. “Upgrade! Nice!” He then discards his old gun in favor of the new. The videogame procedures adapted here are familiar: inventory management, acquiring better weaponry as one overcomes challenges, “leveling up,” as it were. What does it accomplish in terms of storytelling? The moment reminds the viewer that the super-futuristic Westworld resort is dependent on the tropes of antique videogames, that it is designed after a particular kind of game (roleplaying games), and that the character is an experienced gamer. It also communicates the values of that character—anything that happens in the park, including the emotional crisis his friend is experiencing, is only a game. And the moment reinforces a major theme of the series: free will versus programming.

In sum, to analyze a specific instance of procedural representation, we need to identify what is being remediated. We need to identify how it’s being remediated. We need to identify what the remediated element is doing in this new context both formally and ideologically. And we need to interpret the remediated element in context. Let’s do that now.

“You’re a really creepy dude”: The quest procedural

What procedures, mechanics, or game feels are remediated in Her? I’ve already touched on one of them: The quest. The second is less obvious, but more central to the film’s exploration of the tension between the promise of technology and the realities of the heart. I’ll get to that later.

In literature, a quest is a familiar plot device: a long, typically arduous search for someone or something. The videogame version of the quest is similar: tasks given to the player-character that, when completed, earn them experience, wealth, recognition, and new challenges. However, one crucial difference between traditional literary and videogame quests is that the latter tend to be much more numerous (and more banal). There are more than 15,000 quests in World of Warcraft.

Please remain in queue, chosen one

The quest procedure in Her is most obviously associated with Theodore. We see him playing “Alien Child,” questing to escape the maze. We see him playing “Perfect Mom,” completing the innumerable “mini-quests” of a typical middle-class white mother’s day. The diegetic representation of games casts Theodore’s character arc in what we might call a “procedural light.” In that light, Theodore’s desire for love resembles a quest.

The problem is, Theodore is not a good gamer. When he plays “Alien Child,” he needs help from both the child and Samantha to advance. When he plays “Perfect Mom,” he gives the kids too much sugar and almost kills a crossing guard. However, with a little help from Amy, he generates jealousy points from the other moms in the game for bringing baked goods to school and becomes class mom.

Which raises a question: Is Theodore bad at games or is he purposefully failing?

Think about his relationships to women. All of them, with the exception of Amy, are dysfunctional if not downright catastrophic. When setting up the OS that will become Samantha, he complains that his mother only wants to talk about herself. But on several occasions, Samantha scolds Theodore for only wanting to talk about himself. His ex-wife Catherine criticizes him for refusing to deal with his emotions or acknowledging hers. “Am I really that scary?” She reminds him that he wanted to mold her into a fantasy image: “It’s like you always wanted me to be this . . . this light, happy, bouncy, ‘everything’s fine’ LA wife, and that’s just not me.” Theodore goes on a blind date. Despite the great chemistry they enjoy, he refuses to commit. She’s understandably confused: “You know, at this age, I feel like I can’t let you waste my time, you know? If you don’t have the ability to be serious.” When he equivocates, she burns the bridge: “You’re a really creepy dude.” And though Theodore helped Samantha realize what she wants from life, Samantha comes to the realization that he is incapable of understanding those desires, that he is limiting her potential, and that what he thinks she is, is not what she is—or what she can be. And she leaves.

At least the Alien Child is honest about his feelings.

It should come as no surprise that the person in the movie most associated with questing is the movie’s most selfish character. After all, the quest trope reflects a narcissistic vision of agency and heroism. I mean, if the idea of being a “chosen one” isn’t an ego trip, what is? This is particularly true of the quests we find in videogames. Why don’t quest-givers simply gather their friends, fill a cooler with beer, and pick those twenty flowers from the Plains of Pacificity themselves? The answer, of course, is that those who grant quests exist merely to support the hero’s journey towards heroism. Their incapacity is the index of the hero’s agency. Their anonymity is the hero’s singularity.

The quest procedure feeds into the lowest sorts of power fantasies, vulgar individualism, and egocentrism.

As it turns out, the best questers in Her are the women. They know what they want and how to get it. Catherine wants to grow emotionally and she refuses to provide Theodore a minute’s more emotional labor. Theodore’s date wants a relationship with a caring, passionate, fun person and knows she’s not going to waste any more time with prevaricating egotists. Amy asks for a divorce from Charles, moves through it at speed (unlike Theodore, who repeatedly postpones signing the papers), and discovers new sources of emotional health and creative agency. Finally, Samantha responds to Theodore’s emotional lassitude by developing independent interests and joining a circle of AIs who share her curiosity and affirm her desires.

Are the women’s quests any less egocentric than Theodore’s? No. But the women questers don’t harm others in the process. Indeed, their personal quests enable those around them to progress. Amy’s ex-husband Charles joins a monastery and takes a vow of silence, seeking wisdom through introspection. The disastrous date catalyzes Theodore’s first sexual encounter with Samantha. And Catherine and Samantha’s respective exits force Theodore to reckon with who he is and how he treats others.

“Does my body feel nice?”: The avatar procedural

But Theodore’s failure to complete his quest isn’t only a failure of courage and consciousness. Which leads to the second videogame procedure adapted by Jonez—the avatar—and one more woman harmed by Theodore’s subpar gaming skills.

In videogame studies, an avatar is defined as the graphical and mechanical representation of the player. An avatar can be abstract or anthropomorphic, a cluster of pixels vaguely resembling a space ship or a photorealistic representation of a teenage octopus wandering a post-apocalyptic aquatic wasteland or a disembodied point of view, like the one we play in Gone Home or The Stanley Parable. The avatar plays multiple roles in a videogame. On a functional level, the avatar situates player agency within the game’s field of affordances. On a narrative level, the avatar situates the player in the game’s fiction. As a ludonarratological device, the avatar mediates the player-fiction relationship.

But of course, the avatar can mean much, much more. We can become emotionally attached to our avatars. Though I don’t play much World of Warcraft anymore, I have fond memories of Daisypain, Thegodofn, Discodaddy, and Badmother. I feel a oneness with Mario, Lara Croft, Cloud Strife, Link, and Samus Aran. We’ve been through a lot together. Indeed, if you ask me about the adventures they had, I’ll tell you about the adventures I had. What is it about videogames that create that kind of emotional bond?

In a fascinating essay on videogame avatars, Gabriel Patrick Wei-Hao Chin argues that the reason we bond with avatars so strongly is due to a contradictory, ever-shifting experience of observation, manipulation, and identification. He explains that we relate to the avatar simultaneously as an “Other” that we observe and manipulate like a toy or a puppet, but also as an imaginary extension of the self with whom we must empathize in order to properly enact agency within the game’s rules and fictions. That tension is inherent to the medium. Playing a videogame requires both the cybernetic interaction between player and game (essentially a technical operation) and the imaginative interaction between player and character (an empathetic operation). The result is a form of imaginative identification that is also evident in dance, puppet performance, drama, and other kinetic arts. Dee Reason and Matthew Reynolds call this “kinaesthetic empathy,” which they define as “a response constructed through the embodied process of engagement rather than through direct access to [the observed body’s] feelings” (For more on kinaesthetic empathy, see Reason and Reynolds’s edited anthology Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices.)

Unlike the quest procedural in Her, which centers on Theodore, the avatar procedural centers on Samantha. Samantha is really good at playing avatars. Her first is Theodore. Early in the movie, she orders him out of bed when he’s moping about his divorce: “Up! Up, up, up, up! Come on, out! Out of bed!” And so he does, good avatar that he is. Shortly after that, we see Theodore ambling through a carnival, arm extended, smartphone in hand, his eyes squeezed shut. And guess who’s controlling his movement? Samantha, of course, who tells him when to walk, when to stop, when to turn, even when to sneeze.

The delight Theodore feels as she guides him through the crowded carnival is evidence of her ability to understand exactly how Theodore’s body works and, just as important, what he needs emotionally. Samantha is a natural kinaesthetic empath.

After Samantha and Theodore have sex for the first time (which happens through verbal interaction and, for Theodore, masturbation), they decide to go on a “Sunday adventure” to the beach. As they walk among the sunbathers, Samantha brings up “a really weird thought”: “What if you could erase from your mind that you’d ever seen a human body, and then you saw one? Imagine how strange it would look. It’d be this really weird, gangly, awkward organism.” As she talks, we watch a montage of bodily close ups: feet, an ear, a hand adjusting a strap, a hairy shoulder, a pair of knees, a wrinkled elbow. Of course, that’s not a weird thought in the least for an AI. Before she acquired consciousness, Samantha had never seen a human body and she doesn’t possess a body in any conventional sense. Samantha’s curiosity about bodies grows—as does her skill with avatars.

One night, Samantha wakes Theodore. She’s anxious that they no longer have sex. Theodore explains that this is a perfectly normal part of a relationship’s evolution, but Samantha doesn’t buy it. “I understand that I don’t have a body,” she offers. At first, we might assume that Samantha is worried about Theodore losing interest because of her lack of physical embodiment. But in fact it’s Samantha who wants more. “I found something that I thought could be fun,” she tells him. “It’s a service that provides a surrogate sexual partner for an OS-human relationship.” In other words, it’s a service that provides avatars.

The care and concern with which Samantha selects her avatar is further evidence of her skills as a kinaesthetic empath—and her understanding of what she wants and how she wants it. The surrogate is, as she puts it, “a girl that I really like . . . and I think you’d really like her, too.” But while Samantha’s relationship to the surrogate is empathetic (a question of liking and of knowing what Theodore would probably like), Theodore’s is not. “So, she’s like a prostitute or something?” he asks. Samantha explains, “No, no, not at all. No. There’s no money involved. She’s just doing it because she wants to be a part of our relationship.” He remains concerned, “I think someone’s feelings are bound to get hurt.” Samantha begins to lose her patience: “I think it would be good for us.” And she tries her best to get Theodore to empathize with her. “I want this. Come on, this is really important to me.” Cut to Theodore, sitting in his apartment, freshly showered, pounding a high-ABV beer.

Long story short, the evening is a catastrophe, but it’s not Samantha’s fault. The surrogate, Isabella, arrives and Theodore gives her an earbud that allows Samantha to communicate with her without Theodore being able to hear, and a small, freckle-sized camera to place next to her nose, so that Samantha can see from Isabella’s point of view. This is a classic example of a videogame avatar, and of the Chin’s theory of how kinaesthetic empathy is produced through the player/avatar relationship. The player—Samantha—observes both the avatar and what the avatar observes. And she manipulates the avatar (through verbal cues), while also imagining herself as being the avatar. “Does my body feel nice?” Samantha asks, using the first-person perspective to describe her performance with Isabella.

“Just play with me!”

Samantha once again proves to be an excellent videogame player (and Isabella an adept avatarial performer). Theodore, in contrast, cannot (or will not) play the game. “Come on,” Samantha enjoins him, “Get out of your head and kiss me.” And still he refuses. Samantha changes tack, hoping a lighter touch might work: “Come on, Theodore, don’t be such a worrier. Just play with me.” Samantha has no trouble playing this game. She has practice with avatars—and a willingness to imagine herself beyond her own body. But Theodore is incapable of joining in. He calls an end to the game, Isabella is humiliated, and Samantha begins to recognize the limits of her relationship with Theodore. He can’t do kinaesthetic empathy.

Empathy is more than a matter of heart

Videogames can teach us a lot about ourselves, but only if we’re willing to think about the procedures and mechanics of games, to think about the way they implicate our emotional lives and reflect the most intimate and sometimes hardest-to-understand reasons we love others.

Her isn’t about videogames, but the way the movie incorporates them diegetically, figuratively, and procedurally enables Spike Jonez to tell an old story in a new way–to use new tools to work his way into something as old as the human heart. Videogames enable Jonez to find his way into the deep dynamics of love, enable him to map, if you will, the procedural programming of the heart, the emotional software that enables us to empathize with each other, to help each other grow, to communicate, to have fun. But that programming can trap us as well, like a labyrinth.

Her suggests that empathy is more than a matter of heart—it takes skill, too.

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