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In my interactive fiction The Warbler’s Nest, which I wrote in 2010, a pivotal scene sees the main character having their attention drawn to an outlier amongst a field of tall plants. They approach cautiously, as the wind blows through the field, carrying strange noises and a sense of quietly escalating dread. When they finally reach the unusual stalk, they discover a bizarre animal crouched there — one whose appearance and behavior sets the tone of the rest of the work.
Here is a scene from Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, a film from 2009 which I had never watched until only last night. (Be warned that this clip contains a jump-scare and realistic animal gore.)
The absolutely uncanny similarity between the scene in the movie and the one in my game struck me immediately; it felt a little bit like watching a film adaptation of my own work! But of course, I knew the whole time that the movie predates my game by a year, so I considered it a delightful coincidence.
With a day to roll it around in my head, though, I begin to settle on the likelihood that I had watched this scene from Antichrist online while the film was new, months before starting my work on Warbler. Back then, after I saw it, I immediately put it out of mind, just as we all do with the thousands of other multimedia bits and bobs we encounter on the web during any year. But my brain found it sticky enough to index, and so popped it into deep-storage, wiring up reference-handles to it in the utterly ineffable ways that brains do.
And to it came to pass that when designing Warbler a year later, it happened to share enough key abstractions with this unsettling image of Willem Dafoe in the forest that my brain duly retrieved it from cold storage — enough that I could more or less adapt it wholesale into my work, but not so much that I had any conscious awareness of the fact! It absolutely felt like completely original invention on my part. Watching this clip today, underneath my own one-paragraph summary of the Warbler scene, I really can’t believe that any more.
I don’t feel any kind of negativity about this discovery. In fact, I feel quietly thrilled — how often does one get to perform this sort of critical archaeology on one’s own body of work, a decade after the fact? It reveals not just something about my own process but, I believe, the creative process in general: we are one and all remix-machines. With both our physical bodies and our creative oeuvres, we are what we eat.
And I really have to get back into watching more movies.
Note: Antichrist is a provocative horror movie containing lots of disturbing content, including but not limited to explicit sex and brutal violence. I liked it, but would not necessarily recommend it.
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