In his early philosophical work Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze writes:
Repetition is not generality. Repetition and generality must be distinguished in several ways. Every formula which implies their confusion is regrettable: for example, when we say that two things are as alike as two drops of water…To repeat is to behave in a certain manner but in relation to something unique and singular which has no equal or equivalent. And perhaps this repetition at the level of external conduct echoes, for its own part, a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound, internal repetition within the singular…In every respect, repetition is a transgression.
What Deleuze means here is that repetition, one of the two linked subjects of Repetition and Difference, is not simply a recurrence of an event or a similar moment in time. For Deleuze, not only do the raindrops crucially differ so as to only resemble each other, even a playback from a digital recorder would, ostensibly, only fit into resemblance instead of repetition due to minute, even unnoticable differences in playback, or degrading of the hard drive the file was kept on. In other words, repetition is the recurrence of something not-yet-heard in the world, because had it been in the world already, the recurrence could only be resemblance.
Confusing right? Yeah, I know — Deleuze is best known for his later anti-capitalist, sexually and psychoanalytically charged collaboration with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which is as difficult as, but far more easy to conceive than Difference and Repetition. Deleuze in his early work here is playing with the kind of philosophical problem that is best handled — as in the work of Walter Benjamin and the older German philosophers who precede him — through theology. So, for example, Jesus Christ would be a repetition of God in Judeo-Christian thinking: son of the father who is also the father at the same time, since the father has never been corporeal.
Or, if that’s not really where your head’s at less than 24 hours before the inauguration of Trump, how about something lighter: videogames. Specifically Owlboy.
If repetition is a sort of metaphysical problem for Deleuze, it’s an existential one for the characters in Owlboy. The game, as we saw in our last installment, is certainly recursive in its formal elements, as the ability to move up and down and left and right literally embodies circularity. But narratively, the game finds itself preoccupied with repetition. Repetition of other games — the opening motif of our hero being woken up resembles Chrono Trigger to mention one of like 80 games — and also repetition of unfortunate circumstances. Otus and Geddy, two of the main characters and playable figures in the game, are perpetually doing everything right only to have the world fall in around their ears. In fact one of the game’s first major missions is an attempt to save the city of Advent that goes wrong; the only catch is, you and your characters do everything right, it just…isn’t enough.
So you repeat this sort of unfortunate bit through the whole game until, finally, you come up strong and save the world. This of course is not particularly different from most games, even if the lack of a fatal flaw for your protagonist kind of is. The really interesting element in terms of Deleuzian repetition is The Loop.
Okay, to take a step back — The Loop is a concept connected with the ancient owls of the game, who you are essentially tracing through their evolution as you try to win back their powerful artifacts from killer robot pirates (that, ah, the owls also made, natch). Like the Protheans of the Mass Effect series, the owls of Owlboy are wiser, more evolved, and more powerful than all of the inhabitants of the game-world. They are also all, mysteriously, gone. We ultimately never find out what exactly happened to the owls, other than a passing reference to a disaster that occurred while they were trying to counteract the society-defining catastrophe their scientists discovered, which is called — you guessed it — The Loop.
The Hex and the islands in the sky define the main conflict of the game, which surrounds the pretty typical RPG-style plot of a world coming apart, but what I’m interested in is the why behind all of this. The Loop is never described or defined, never actually nailed down as a thing, but it strikes me that we can imagine the pressure of the Loop in two distinct ways that inform both Owlboy as a project and invoke Deleuze’s dream of repetition without a repeated object.
First, the Loop might refer to the cyclical quality of social evolution in the game. Owls come and die, and in their place are a series of new beings — bugs, odd cartoonish humans, even owls who are somewhat less than they were before. Furthermore, costuming is crucial: Geddy, Otus’ best friend, is dressed as a soldier but never really sees combat; Alphonse, the pirate who joins Otus’ team after a change of heart, is constantly hiding, worried about being mistaken as a pirate…which of course he is; and Twig, your final character, is a troublemaking stickbug who insists on not just dressing up as but identifying fully and bodily as a spider. Even Otus, your main character is not clearly Owl or Boy, as he has a cape that helps him fly, but which looks just like wings. And he, weirdly, isn’t even the Owlboy the game mentions through most of its arc — a small, but thematically consistent touch. All the characters are living in the not-quite-fitting shoes of a culture or identity that they’ve lost or outgrown, and this suggests a kind of looping recursion in and of itself.
But more than this, I think we can understand the Loop as a meta-commentary on videogames generally, namely the fact that we constantly restart and replay videogames from their beginnings, reliving crises, conflicts, and resolutions as part of replay value. Obviously, the code in the game doesn’t relive trauma in any real way, but the owls’ deep anxiety over The Loop suggests that anyone caught in such an existential loop might indeed want a way out. And the game plays with this circularity, the idea of time folding back on itself, but can only ever distill it into resemblance as opposed to repetition. In the final moments of the game, sure you will die, you relive your life as a white shadow, hearing all the opening dialogue of Otus’ life as an owl that you have not heard before. But the shadow quality, the fact that you are not experiencing an originary moment, matters.
But Otus and his friends are not resigned to the repetition of the Loop. Through the meanderings of the endgame that I won’t bother spoiling, the cycle is broken, and the world returns to the earth. But beyond the simple narrative cues, Owlboy goes out of its way to provide closure, moments of emotional solidity that allow for a departure from the story. Chief among these is Otus’ reconciliation with his mentor Asio, who has been disappointed in him through the entire story. In the end, he admits his disappointment simply shades his own inwardly directed failure, and he hugs Otus who hugs him back.
Far from the schmaltzy attitude you might expect from such a scene, Asio’s gesture feels heartfelt and, above all, final. This is the end for both of these characters; they will never see each other again. Not circularity, then, but narrative continuity. And narrative continuity — what Hegel calls bad infinity or we might call the desert of the real — is not divine repetition; it is mundane difference. If the Loop is an existential threat for Owlboy, the solution is the homogeneity of everyday life, which never changes but never repeats. It resembles.
That said, Owlboy is not simply a celebration of life over repetition. It is conflicted, vague, unwilling to champion a true endgame or a continued story. It isn’t clear who lives or dies. And the player can revisit — via memory, that trickiest ontological object — the past and redo quests even from the final level of the game. Thus, there is going back, replaying, resembling old experiences. Importantly, though, the game distinguishes these from the real Game World, simply providing them as reminiscence so that they player can finish loose ends. Owlboy lives by the logic of The Loop: repetition and resemblance are in fact different; memory, recollection, even friendship does not survive repetition.
But of course, the relics of an old civilization also do not survive repetition; nor do the relics, pace Hegel, become anything more than bones when we resist or reject the Loop. We either face disillusion or destruction, and we get no fantasies of fixing what went wrong in the past in either Deleuze or Owlboy. In a sense, Owlboy is not taking repetition or the Loop on as a moral quandary, and neither is Deleuze. Both texts simply seem to want to consider the possibility of a theological impossibility, a repetition without an a priori object to repeat. What we begin to suspect, in the bottom of our stomachs, is that such a pure recursion might be more horrible than revelatory, more foreclosing than revolutionary.