Plug & Play: On Juxtaposition

This past week I’ve been reading Richard McGuire’s Here. It’s a 2014 comic about all the different events that happen in this one specific room throughout history. And it kinda intersperses different scenes, such that a moment from 1912 might have an overlay from 1970, taking these events from across time and putting them next to each other. The technique is used sometimes to talk about our shared common humanity, and sometimes to show the diversity of our experience. There’s one page near the end with people kissing in the same room through all these different decades, or another where several generations of kids play Twister. And it’s brought me back to this concept of juxtaposition – the idea of making meaning simply by putting two things next to each other.

Juxtaposition is not something you see frequently in video games. It’s a technique that in some ways feels most at home in specific media – for instance, comics (you could argue) are at their core just a series of juxtaposed panels, where the temporal movement from one moment to the next is signified by the physical juxtaposition of two images. Film and TV similarly use juxtaposition as a basic building block of their storytelling: when one shot cuts to another, the two shots are juxtaposed, placed beside each other to create a continuous chain of meaning. You see it in Family Guy cutaway gags, where the joke is in cutting to something quickfire and unexpected, or in narrative framing devices, such as the grandfather telling a story in The Princess Bride. You get moments where, for instance, Westley and Buttercup kiss, and the kid being told the story goes whoa hold up you didn’t tell me this was a kissing book. In that instance it’s used to puncture the moment for laughs, and also kinda to break up the story’s rhythm. But for video games, there aren’t really that many contexts where that sort of technique fits naturally. We discussed this last year, when we were talking about how Wide Ocean Big Jacket handles dialogue – that was about juxtaposition as well (Wide Ocean Big Jacket: Evoke, Don’t Show). But for Ocean, juxtaposition was used really specifically to make the game evocative, creating narrative gaps to be backfilled by the player’s imagination. That’s not the case with this week’s game.

Plug & Play is a 2015 game made by artists Michael Frei and Mario von Rickenbach. It’s about ten minutes long, and I’d most readily describe it as an interactive art piece, the sort of thing you’d find in a gallery. Plug & Play is essentially a series of short sequences, some of which are intercut with each other. You could call them ‘scenes’, if you wanted, but there isn’t like an overarching narrative or anything. They aren’t scenes as you’d find in film or theatre: for example, in the first scene of Plug & Play, two fingers stretch across the screen towards each other. They are slightly misaligned, but if you tug one of them in the right direction, they touch. That is the first scene.

So I want to do two things here, right. I want to talk about the themes at hand in Plug & Play, and also the process by which it conveys meaning – because it’s not a super common approach in this medium. Thematically, Plug & Play is a game about connection, about relationships and the different ways we touch each other’s lives. It’s about sex, and it’s also about plugs and computers. Okay? Let’s switch gears for a second and talk about the juxtaposition. There are six sequences in Plug & Play, and the fourth opens with a male and a female plug socket, which you are supposed to plug into each other. Once you do that, the scene cuts to two plug-people attached to cords that trail off each side of the screen. You tug them by their cords, and they come together and hug (as above). You can then pull the plug cords out of their heads, causing the lights to turn off, and revealing the figures to be male and female respectively. They take a step back, look at each other, and then plug their heads together (turning the lights back on). A third figure, with a male plug socket on his head, then enters the picture. He stands and looks at the pair. The scene cuts back to the actual plugs; a third plug swings into view. You plug it into the back of the male plug, and the scene switches back to the people again. The male sticks his plug-head into the guy’s butt, and the lights switch off.

It’s – a very weird game, right. Some of the imagery is really strange and bizarre – it’s part of why I think this game is relatively well-known. It did the rounds on the gaming side of Youtube when it first came out – both Jacksepticeye and Markiplier put out videos on it, with (at time of writing) about 23 million views between them. But despite the weirdness, the basic parallel I think remains fairly obvious – at least in this initial piece. You repeat actions between both the literal plugs and the plug-people, which are juxtaposed in such a way as to make you transfer meaning or associations between the two scenes. P-in-V sex is like how plugs work. There’s a bit that pokes out and a bit with a hole, and they fit into each other. The binary off-on state of an electrical circuit (indicated by the lights switching on and off) parallels the binary nature of the male-female pairing, and there’s also this idea that sex is electric – that it creates a circuit or current between two people. It does start to get weirder after that, with the head-in-the-butt guy kinda queering the whole image – although maybe it’s not meant to be read in a purely sexual manner. There’s nothing particularly sexy about these drooping figures, who look like they’ve got the texture of carrots – it’s not non-sexual, but it’s clearly not meant to be titillating either. Maybe the point is that plugs are kinda like sex (rather than the other way around); maybe it’s just a startling way of exploring the implicit sexual connotations of multiboards.

We could go on to build a deeper reading of Plug & Play, but in terms of understanding how it uses juxtaposition, I think we get the idea. It’s not just a random storytelling tool plucked out of the box – arguably it ties in itself to the binary motif, as many scenes are spliced into each other – like the one (or rather two) explored above. The game draws on an aesthetic of electricity and binary to build up a really fascinating exploration of humans as electric people, and to deliver that exploration in a really weird, remarkable way. It’s not something we see often in video games, but the more you dig into it, in some ways the more natural it feels.

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