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Published May 20, 2010

The time has finally come. Only two and a half more hours of Lost footage remain to be aired before a wild six-season ride comes to a definitive close. As someone who has followed the show religiously since the first season, there are a lot of hopes for closure resting on this last episode. When it somehow turns out to be a “Kate’s Greatest Hits” retrospective, please refrain from leaving nasty comments – I’ll be too dead inside to read them. In the time it has been on the air, Lost has generated the kind of pop-culture merchandising potential that most creators and producers can only dream about. In addition to the officially licensed ABC merchandise that keeps J.J. Abrams’ bedsheets permanently lined with million dollar bills, a plethora of fan created content exists, much of it solely in celebration of the show and the fan community built around it. After the curtain has fallen on our remaining castaways, what remains for the unsated? When making your own knock-off Dharma Oreos and fish biscuits won’t cut it, there’s always Lost: Via Domus, right?

Let’s be honest…Lost: Via Domus doesn’t have much going for it. It’s not part of the official show canon. It’s very short. Some of the sound-alike actors are truly awful; Locke in particular falls somewhere between public-domain grandpa and bored prospector, while Sawyer’s voice sounds, to credit a user review on 1UP, “two jugs short of a Country Bear Jamboree.” And Hurley? Yikes. His character model might as well be a palette-swapped Pizza the Hutt.

 I'm sorry Mr. Garcia...

So what do you get when all is said and done? For about five hours of your time, you’ll net a shamefully easy 1,000 achievement points and a couple of yuks as you exchange pleasantries with some of the digital recreations of our favorite castaways. When The Pack played through in a short marathon session shortly after the game came out, we found Michael’s dead-eyed stare and uninspired “Where’s my boy? Have you seen m’boy? Waaaalt. Waaaalt,” particularly hilarious. Exploring some of the recreations of Lost territory such as the beach camp, interior of The Hatch and some of the Dharma stations is sure to elicit some interest.

However, Via Domus is just full of bizarre gameplay choices. The game has a relatively sophisticated interface for gunplay, but only contains about three bullets and two potential targets to shoot them at in the entire five hours. Reaching some of the optional (and most interesting) locations is impossible without a FAQ detailing which arbitrary objects to trigger in which arbitrary order. I could go on, but you knew Via Domus wasn’t a good game before you even clicked the link to open this feature. Unfortunately, this seems like a project that was doomed from the start. I’m not exactly sure how one would go about making a decent Lost game that wasn’t either a browser-based Alternate Reality Game (ARG) or some kind of Myst clone.

I find the difficulty of making Lost into a game particularly odd. Though it may sound strange at first, what drew me to the show in the first place was the similarity in structure to a video game. As the stories told in popular media grow more complex and seek to connect with viewers on a deeper level, I think we will begin to see inevitable comparisons to elements gamers have been familiar with for years. Now keep in mind I’m mostly referencing old-school Seasons-One-through-Three Lost, but try to follow me here:

Heavy emphasis and story progression through inventory and limited resources.

As with any story with an island castaway theme, there will obviously be a limited or controlled number of resources. Lost is no different, with much of the first season characters being mostly preoccupied with finding enough food, water and shelters to go around. When the story calls for it, a “key” item such as a gun or radio will be discovered. Much like a video game, the specific acquisition of new items has the potential to greatly effect the gameplay or narrative arc. Did you know it was a crew member’s job to keep track of who had which items at what times for the entirety of the first few seasons? Each character could be considered to have their own inventory of items. Although video games are becoming increasingly open-world, the player is ultimately limited to the specific items programmed into the game to achieve their goals and move the story forward. Seeing a pattern?

In a setting like Lost (at least before the off-Island scenes became common), the characters are similarly limited to a set number of resources to work with. As the viewer watches or “plays along” with the characters, they themselves are limited in the ways they can anticipate potential plot points and solutions to problems. “Why don’t they just use X to do Y?” is no longer a valid viewer-to-character interaction – each is only working with whatever items the writers have so far revealed. This kind of limitation invites the viewer to approach the situations and goals of the characters in a more thoughtful, less passive manner.

Discrete “levels” and environments. Goal-based gameplay unlocks new playable areas.

It’s a valid argument that the settings on Lost are nearly as important and memorable as the characters themselves. The movement from the wreckage-littered beach camp to the more secure caves punctuates the first big decision of the season, as does the eventual discovery of the various Dharma stations that dot the island map. The environments themselves are directly related to item acquisition and plot movement as well: The Hatch adds a huge arsenal of weapons and food to the previously meager possessions of the group, the Black Rock becomes a dynamite restock point and the signifigance of mysterious key items such as the Dharma tapes and Virgin Mary statues is teased on a weekly basis. Each character has the motive to explore each new environment for useful survival items and the curiosity of the viewer is fueled by the game-like clues and puzzles found in each.

One of the largest story arcs of the first season is the discovery of a sealed hatch buried in the ground. It’s one of the first hints of civilization on the island and really marks the transition of the show from a Survivorlike drama to something much more. Given the sealed hatch and a limited set of tools, the onus is on the characters to discover the way in and it’s anything but easy. However, doing so unlocks a new environment and items which in turn widens the field of play immensely. From the initial crash site and cramped caves, the sphere of “playable area” for the characters increases at a careful pace, devoting ample time to explore and chart each new place.

Multi-character narrative with shifting “control” of main players.

If there is a single reason for the early runaway success of Lost, it might be the appealing and ambitiously large cast of characters. The survivors of Flight 815 are a worldly sampling of different cultures, classes, languages and backgrounds. Although the story generally centers around certain key groups of people, there is no true main character. Each individual episode is centered around a different character who takes the weekly spotlight in both the on-island drama and off-island flashbacks. Generally the writers strike a balance between establishing and advancing a character personally within the framework of moving the plot ahead for the cast as a whole.

For the sake of the viewer, these can be considered “playable” – the story centers around them and is told through their point of view. What I like best about this kind of formula is that any character can become a main character. Someone who appears to start out as a simple NPC or apparent villian can become a player in a later episode. If the viewer fails to connect with a particular character one week, the chances are good that one they prefer is not far behind in the rotation. Each viewer naturally forms favorite characters and becomes anxious about learning more about them, once again forming a more active bond between the viewer and the show as a whole.

Establishment of a large player community with dynamic feedback from creators.

If Survivor is a multiplayer party game, Lost is a solo player story-driven game. However, the viewer isn’t the only one playing. At any given minute for the past six years, someone somewhere has been posting something about Lost on an online message board or discussing it over the phone or in person with other watchers. Part of the weekly enjoyment I get from watching the show each week comes from immediately going online afterwards to share opinions and theories with other watchers. The number of sites devoted to this simple function is staggering. Unlike some fan communities, it isn’t just a one way street. The writers keep a watchful eye on the resulting chatter after each episode and tweak the show accordingly in a way that likely has not been done to such a large degree before. It’s not perfect (after all, we still have Kate-centric episodes), but the internet has become a way for creators and writers to receive instant feedback from viewers.

This has resulted in a back-and-forth exchange between creator and watcher that ultimately pays off for both week after week. Additionally, certain clues within the show are meant to be enjoyed outside the context of the show, mostly in the forms of books. In example, when the Flann O’Brien novel “The Third Policemen” was seen in an episode, viewers immediately began to find and read it to try to suss out hints about the show as a whole. In the three weeks following the airing of the episode it appeared in, “The Third Policeman” sold more copies than it had in the past six years. Other books such as Dicken’s “Our Mutual Friend,” Castaneda’s “A Separate Reality” and Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” have enjoyed similar rediscovery following their on-air appearences. The willingness to become involved in the mythology of the show in ways outside of directly watching it once again demonstrates the active connectedness that many viewers participate in while watching Lost.

Focus on games and rules.

More in line with current events on Lost, there have always been set rules in play for the characters. Whereas some series may make conceits or have ‘invisible boundaries’ that keep characters from discovering too much too soon or going to places they aren’t supposed to, Lost has always strived to push these limitations into the open and explore them. Some end up to be bluffs or men behind curtains pulling the strings, while others are still mysteries right down to the last episode. Whether it’s references to Mousetrap, the Egyptian game of Senet, cryptic clues hidden in real-world books, ARGs or hieroglyphics, there is always more of the game to play at any given point. While other shows operate within a given set of rules the viewer is familiar with, Lost fans relish the chance to discover and postulate about the rules themselves.


 Screenshot from the unfinished Lost: Dharma Stories (DS)

The show is now much different than when it initially began airing. In fact, each progressive season feels like night and day when compared with one another. As we enter the endgame of Lost this upcoming weekend, I’m excited as anyone to hopefully have the answers to my questions solved and wrap everything up neatly. We can hope for the best, but even if it all doesn’t pan out, it’s been a fantastic ride. For anyone who hasn’t followed the show this far, I wish I knew how to describe what it’s been like to be part of such a great community. You can always watch the DVDs or repeats on TV, but being in the thick of it week after week has been a hugely rewarding, interesting and occasionally heartbreaking experience. As the internet lights up with posts following the conclusion of the series this Sunday, you can bet I’ll be right there with them for one last hurrah.

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