So I’m squatting behind a boulder on top of this mountain looking for someone I can snipe and this crow lands right next to me on a patch of snow. It’s just sitting there and I think I could shoot it with the E-11 blaster that’s good at close range. But the crow’s not real of course, it’s just an object with a packet of code that makes it resemble a crow. Just ones and zeroes. And when I shoot it it turns into a piece of meat that looks like a turkey wing and says HUNTED WILDLIFE, +40 xp on screen. And I’m satisfied in a way gambling addicts are by the sound of bells and blinking lights, the sense that all this feels so much bigger than real life. Better, even.
And that’s how it’s been with me and technology since the start of the plague. Since I quit seeing people and started playing this game. It’s a battle royale style competition where 100 players get dropped onto an island. The goal is to collect loot (weapons, potions, coins) from treasure chests, to solve quests to earn experience points (xp) you can use for new avatars, and to stay alive. The last one standing wins, gets a victory crown, and bragging rights. You do get to interact with other players, but only in the sense that you’re trying to kill them.
As the multiverse concept re-emerged to coincide with our collective dystopia from COVID, some pointed to this game (Fortnite) as one example of a multiverse. It combines characters from Marvel and DC comics universes, the Star Wars universe, Stranger Things, the Dark Knight Trilogy, G.I. Joe, Tomb Raider…it goes on and on. But it’s more than just throwing together characters from different fictionalized universes, it’s bringing together random, real people in a digitized space to compete against each other.
This idea, that real people could manifest concurrently on screen, each with their unique virtual experience, blew my mind. Video games in the 1980s pitted you against computerized things but for the most part, you were always alone. Here instead you fought real people. And for that I felt bad at first for killing them, but soon got over that.
I got invited (everyone does) to a special concert with Ariana Grande so I attended, but it was just a different screen where a bunch of other people (avatars) were flying around, emoting at one another, theoretically hanging out while an Ariana Grande avatar sang. It was kind of stupid tbh, but I got more xp for attending.
So why am I spending so much time on this game? Escapism, or another form of numbing? Is it because there’s an instant cause and effect happening in my brain, the dopamine hit gamblers get from ringing bells, instant rewards? Or is the appeal of the multiverse more of an existential desire to be somewhere else, somewhere better than here?
In researching the multiverse I learned the term goes all the way back to 1895 but was obviously not used the same as it is today. While the term was coined then, the meaning has expanded to include the theory of multiple, concurrent universes potentially overlapping, or changing (with ill outcomes) based on the actions we take.
And this theory of multiple universes becomes rich material to yield how many Hollywood scripts and storylines combining themes of fate, alternate realities, past lives and so on. It is interesting to witness, as we resurface to the cinema, what kinds of stories and themes rise to the top.
The latest Doctor Strange film features the multiverse, but more interestingly for me is the way it’s handled in the absurdist comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once. (The title alone seems to say it all, about our current society.)
What’s interesting is how the multiverse theme is used as a platform but the more compelling conflict lies in the lead character’s relationship with her teenaged daughter and soon-to-be ex husband. Without spoiling it, the multiverse becomes a place, or the occasion, for her to consider multiple identities she might possess. And which would she choose as the ideal version of herself, given the chance?
It’s been said before that every generation believes their time to be unlike any other. It is always feeling like the end or beginning of our worlds: there have been and always will be plagues. But for where we are today as a people, it is a unique time as we reconcile the existential impact of COVID and reflect on how it’s shaken our identities. And what role technology plays in our identity-making, from the subtle to the extreme. I believe it is necessary to reflect on, so we can be the best versions of ourselves as a race.
While the theme of multiple universes isn’t anything new, the age we find ourselves in feels unprecedented. Unless you believe we’ve already lived this life and what we’re experiencing now is just a simulation our future selves created, a form of virtual playback, because our future selves are nostalgic or bored—or that our future lives are bleak by comparison.
And sadly, that’s one likelihood I’d entertain.