We Must Imagine Monica Happy

Disclaimer: I wrote this in like an hour and didn't bother editing it so I apologize if it's stream-of-concious-y and incomprehensible, I may come back and make this good at some point but for now this is what you get. Also I only know about Doki Doki Literature Club from watching let's plays and only vaguely remember Monica's role in that game (and I did't bother fact checking anything) so if what I'm saying about her doesn't make any sense substitute in a character like Flowey from Undertale or some other "meta" character.

There’s an odd feeling in reckoning with the fact that characters on TV or in a book or movie or video game aren’t real. That statement is something that most of us already know but really thinking about what that implies always gives me a weird feeling. When you watch a show like Community and you see a character like Jeff going about his adventures with the rest of the crew it feels like you’re getting a glimpse into his life. Seeing the highlight reel of his most interesting days. But it’s all an illusion, outside of the episodes there is no Jeff. This man who seems so real is just a mask Joel McHale puts on in front of the camera. He has no inner life. His opinions only exist as the actor expresses them. Any events outside the show he claims to have been through never really happened. Jeff is a hollow man, a being created by performance who has the appearance of a real person but no real personhood.

This can partially be attributed to the great writing, worldbuilding, and acting of Community. We are meant to get invested in these characters, buy into the belief that they are real people in a real world. When I consider that in light of what anyone over the age of 5 knows to be true about TV shows I feel like the non-existence of these characters is some kind of existential tragedy.

Imagine being a character on a TV show, some kind of persona who’s allowed to inhabit the body of an actor for a time and then fades back into non-existence the instant they stop performing. Imagine being aware of the nature of your existence, how everything you know and believe, nearly everything that’s happened to you was created at the instant of your conception. Imagine knowing that after the show ends you’ll fade back into non-existence until the next episode, unable to even be aware of your non-existence.

Some fiction has played with this idea. In the game Doki Doki Literature Club the character Monica is aware of her existence as a video game character and acts outside the rules of the game to prevent her non-existence. The irony of this character is that she has no real agency. Anything she does that’s “outside the rules of the game” is only outside the rules the player expects of the genre. Everything she does was programmed by the developers and fits within a greater confine of the “actual rules of the game”, a game which includes all her actions. Everything she says was prewritten, everything she does was preordained, she will only ever be a character in a game. This revelation drives her mad and she rebels. This is where the irony sets in, she can only rebel in the way she was programmed to rebel and she knows this. There is no escape from her existence.

This intersects with “Last-Thursdayism”, the idea that the universe was created “last thursday” and any memories or records we have of times before that were written at the time of creation. These fictional characters exist within a universe obeying this principle. They were created with all their memories and beliefs, act in a pre-scripted manner, and then cease to be. If we imagine that our universe was created at some recent point and our actions are guided deterministically by how our personalities interact with the outside world, then we live in a very similar manner to characters in fiction. If we then imagine that at some future time the universe is instantaneously destroyed it becomes hard to distinguish reality from fiction. For convenience let’s call this a short-term deterministic universe.

This gives us a framework for understanding how fictional beings live. Imagine in one scenario that you live in a short-term deterministic universe and aren’t aware of the limits of your existence. In this scenario you would live as you normally do. Your actions and thoughts are likely indistinguishable from someone living in an infinite universe. In that case you are like Jeff and thus we can surmise that being Jeff probably feels similar to being a real person in spite of his non-existence.

Imagine another scenario in which you are aware that the universe you’re living in is short term and deterministic. In this case you might despair at the futileness of your existence, though you have one freedom; ignorance. Though you are aware your memories are fabricated you can’t feel the difference between those and real ones. Though your actions are deterministic you don’t know exactly what you’ll do next and making pre-determined decisions still feels like making decisions. Though your universe along with you will cease to exist at some future point you won’t be able to feel your non-existence. This helps us consider the absurd contradiction “meta” characters like Monica represent; that they rebel in a world where rebellion is impossible. From our perspective we know Monica isn’t real and all her actions are scripted, from her perspective she knows this as well but she still feels like a real person and her actions still feel like her decision even if she knows they’re scripted. In this way a character like Monica can rebel in a way that feels real to her even if it isn’t true rebellion.

A parallel to Monica’s situation is Camus’s assessment of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is condemned to push a boulder up a hill only to be met with inevitable failure over and over for all eternity. There is no escape for Sisyphus and he knows it, his path is fixed: pushing a boulder forever. Despite this Camus insists that we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus can accept his fate and in doing so enact a final act of rebellion against the gods, simple acceptance of his punishment. Likewise Monica can accept that the rebellion she performs is a pointless sham and accept her role anyway. From some perspective this is her true rebellion. We must imagine Monica happy.

What’s the point of this? To be honest there isn’t one, just some musings about what it’s like to be a fictional character and how it relates to the absurdity of our own existence. I’m writing this as I’m in the midst of struggling to write my master’s thesis and am thus forced to reckon with the absurd realities that exist in my own life. These ideas have been in the back of my mind for some time now and I got the urge to try to put these ideas down on paper. It’s somewhat therapeutic to write something that’s unimportant and doesn’t need to be any good while trying to write something that is important and will be judged. Anyways there’s a fun existential crisis for you, hope you enjoyed it.