Friday, April 29, 2011

The Places We Leave Behind

My current novel, Project Princess, begins in ruins. Not the ruins of some ancient civilization - 遺跡 【いせき】, iseki, or 'historic ruins/remains/relics' - but 廃虚 【はいきょ】, haikyo. The ruins of an abandoned building, or something more recent. In the case of my novel, the ruined building in question had been functional and inhabited mere weeks to months prior to where we join the protagonist, at a time in which the passage of time has not only become unclear, but relatively meaningless. Ruins have spent quite a bit of time on my mind in the past year.
The 'Stairway to Hell' within Hashima Island/Gunkanjima.
Images and thoughts of decay, atrophy, and ruin have been commonplace in my mind for as long as I can remember. Weren't old, run down, rusted, rotten places that you weren't supposed to go fascinating as a child? Nightmares where the world is literally falling apart. The quiet poetry of places where people once lived, learned, loved, experienced, and died. Ruins are the haunting corpses left behind by civilization neglected, abandoned, and forgotten.

Where decay and atrophy are ugly shadows clinging to the backs of the living, the urban decay that turns buildings into ghosts and towns into ghost towns is more transformative. That which never lived cannot die in a literal sense, but it can instead become a captivating reminder of the transitory nature of not only our existence, but that of our very civilization. Too often in our hubris do we assume that we are the ultimate form of life on Earth, that our civilization will be the one to rise to the stars and become more than any other species on our world has ever dreamed of. It is that very hubris that undermines any possibility of our achieving such lofty ambitions, as we shackle ourselves with short-sighted selfishness and comfortable ignorance.

My fascination was only ignited again further through discovering 6 Differences several years ago on Kongregate, which features a good bit of focus on urban decay through its manipulated long exposure photography. There's many things I want to do in my life - skills I want to develop, talents I want to explore, risks that I want to take - and among them is to learn how to do long exposure photography myself. If I can eventually move to a major urban center, as is my goal - New York City being at the top of that list in the long term - I want to have the experience of spending a night roaming the city taking photographs of this particular type. If I can manage that, it'll be one less regret in the long run. I consider this style of photography - especially when coupled with surrealist visual manipulation - to be the still visual equivalent of the mood I wish to set in most of my writing. And mood is very, very important to me.

This fixation only grew further last year when - just over a year and a week ago now - I received Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon for the Wii for my 26th birthday. Focused on its isolated, deeply lonely mood, central to the game was the exploration of haikyo - the ruins of Tokyo and surrounding areas many, many years after an apocalyptic event that largely erased humanity from the face of the Earth. I played the game fairly obsessively for a couple of weeks until I finally finished it, and found myself wishing that it had been even longer when it was over - a rare experience. Games that I feel that way about tend to have one thing in common: a world I don't want to leave, a setting that I feel I can connect to completely. Those are few and extremely far between in video games, and I consider Fragile Dreams to be one of the extreme few games that legitimately succeeds as a work of art, for all the overblown talk we here these days trying to elevate the respect video games get without actually understanding what the pursuit of art means, as nebulous a concept as that is to define. Nearly a year after finishing the game, its main theme still sticks with me. While it's not a game designed for 'fun,' in breaking with the primary function of video games, it works as something only an interactive medium like video games can do that no passive medium can quite achieve - an exploration of intense loneliness that the individual embarks upon and completes themselves, rather than passively experiencing it through another.

Thankfully, I can honestly say I'm not the only person to hold this morbid fascination with decay. Urban exploration and photography have only developed more of a following in recent decades, and for obvious reasons when you see the photos. There are some absolutely incredible, breathtaking images of decay out there simply waiting to be captured. One could certainly argue that it's a bit of a bourgeois pastime, considering how many people in the world have no choice but to live within decay, but I don't personally feel that diminishes the value of urban exploration and photography, as dangerous as it can potentially be. Though I'm not exactly much of an 'outdoors person,' a pinnacle of unnaturalness in the unnatural existence human beings frequently lead, I'd like to do some urban exploration and see something devastating and breathtaking in ruins myself while I'm not yet a ghost myself.

The ruins in Project Princess aren't quite the familiar ones of our modern world, but more those of a developing medieval society suddenly wiped out. I can guarantee, though, that I will write an even more urban decay and ruin-focused novel sometime in the future. With any luck, perhaps I'll finally be a mature enough writer by then to someday take all of you somewhere enchanting and break your hearts repeatedly. Somewhere ruined, with scattered works of Banksy-esque graffiti, and an eerie stillness. Hold that image in your mind and keep your fingers crossed. I've still got a long way to go, and in a world we ourselves are ruining, what could be more relevant than ruins?

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