Ludic Reviews: It’s Me John Coland

Image of a busy street from behind metal bars.

“Some pain stays so long its absence becomes a different pain -”

Kaveh Akbar

I’d be willing to die on the hill that as long as the independent ARG scene has existed, some form of the “stuck in my house”[1] narrative has been floating around. At the very least, we’ve been deeply obsessed with distorting space since the start of the medium. Perhaps that obsession started with House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski; perhaps it was inspired by earlier psychological horror[2] or electronic literature[3]. Either way, this trope can be traced throughout ARG history from Julia Dapper’s Daisy Brown (2018) to at least as far back as Remedy Entertainment’s This House of Dreams (2012). The purpose of this review, however, is not to fixate too much on the history of this sub-genre but rather to talk about a new work on the scene, It’s Me John Coland (2021). For the sake of ease, I’m going to refer to It’s Me John Coland as IMJC from this point on[4]. IMJC appears to revolve around four characters: John Coland, Mary Sade, the enigmatic “Delta”, and a second allegorical John Coland. I should also mention that the existence of an allegorical Mary Sade is implied as well, but we haven’t directly interacted with her. IMJC borrows from the traditions of psychodrama; both allegorical characters seem to be projections of the latent mental states of their “real” counterparts. The allegorical John Coland is the main character of the series and is trapped within a pocket-dimension that takes the shape of his family home. His primary goal seems to be to escape, or simply survive – his motivation is muddied for reasons that I’ll get into. The play of IMJC is conducted currently via two Reddit accounts[5], a Twitter account, and a YouTube channel. Players are asked to roleplay interactions with the characters and occasionally solve ciphers. What I’m not going to be doing here, or in any of the monthly reviews that follow, is providing a deep-lore/ game-design breakdown – if you want that there are plenty of coverage options that already exist. What we at the Ludic Society care about is the artistic leaps these works are making.

Blending this sub-genre with psychodrama is nothing new – it’s the specific blend that IMJC provides that’s worth talking about. To get at exactly why, I’ll need to explain a little bit about psychodrama and hauntology. If you googled psychodrama on account of this little review, you were probably bombarded with information about a therapy technique by the same name. While that’s certainly one of its definitions, psychodrama also refers to a subgenre of theater performance wherein the interior of a character’s cognition generates the setting and characters for a play. In a 2015 article, “Allegory Plays”, Jody Enders likens the genre to pornography offering, “we know it when we see it”(449). Enders’ serious attempt to define allegory plays relies on considering the allegory in question as a corporeal and material projection of an act of remembering[6](453). That is to say the latent memories of the main character or setting are projected onto bodies, objects, or other more metaphoric constructs. Ender’s definition is broader than just psychodrama, and speaks to genres like morality plays or more specifically poetic performances. Hauntology is also fixated on memory. In “Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker”, John Riley describes hauntology as our way of conceptualizing a repressed past and “our obsession with failed futures” (19). The hauntological text then is a text that fixates on places where either time is disjointed, or places mired with the residue of time (Riley 21). Riley offers a good deal of ideas about what could qualify as “disjointed”, but the relevant category refers to the blurring of subjective experience and objective reality (23). Provided that any given allegory relies on this time based intermingling of the subject and object, we can understand that allegory as both psychodramatic and hauntological.

What makes IMJC unique then, is that it seems to have a critical fixation on talking about what guilt does to a person’s self-concept. While the mechanics of the incident are unclear, we’ve come to understand through Delta[7] that John “made a joke, I’d say a rather stupid one and here we are” (Hdidihsbs) regarding Mary Sade’s sudden onset of depression. This action and it’s contingent memories resulted in the generation of the allegorical John Coland and the corresponding pocket realty.  It’s telling that Delta openly critiques John; it seems the opinion of the art-piece that John’s actions were morally improper. Moreover, the timeless and spatially contained pocket-reality seems to be causing John direct harm. We know that the allegorical John Coland has been experiencing paralysis and waking up with sudden cuts on his body from the upload “Help Me” (00:00:19). While there does appear to be an entity within the space with John, there’s been no indication that the entity is foreign to the nature of the space itself – and therefore a reading of the entity as wrapped up in the psychodrama is fair game. To put it all together, the actions of John Colland caused the generation of a space wherein the allegorical John Coland is afflicted by harm by the space itself; a space where time is out of joint. It’s also important to reiterate that the pocket-reality takes the form of the real John’s parents’ house, which may be hinting at a further story to tell around John’s relationship to his family.  IMJC is still in the early days of its narrative as far as I can tell, and so it’s hard to say where the series is going with these elements. It seems apparent to me that guilt for John’s actions generated the space, and that the guilt itself is causing John explicit harm. If this is the direction that the creator of IMJC takes his commentary, then it will be deeply gratifying to follow a story constructively commenting on the importance of letting go of guilt and finding a more productive way to carry the weight of past transgressions.

Special thanks to Alex Hera, Ash Black, Lili Ardat, and Amberly Thomas for their edits on this review. I deeply appreciate their assistance in ensuring that this is accessible, well written, and grammatically sound.

Endnotes:

[1] One of the editors of this piece, filmmaker Alex Hera, disclosed to me that he and Nick Nocturne had been toying with the term “emotional lockbox” for this subgenre. I think that’s a snazzy term, and it lets the person be locked in more things than simply their house. As someone who floats between academia and being a community member, I try not to make any moves to establish terms. I think that’s your job, reader. Just give it some thought, certainly we should acknowledge that this setting and allegory is persistent in our scene.

[2] In this moment I’m thinking of Jacob’s Ladder (1990) by Adrian Lyne.

[3] And in this moment, I’m thinking of  Hegirascope (1997) by Stuart Moulthrop.

[4] As an aside, why the hell do we keep naming ARGs with such ridiculously long titles? Is it only an ARG if the title is long enough to be a 64-character password?

[5] These Reddit accounts include u/JohnJColand as well as u/deltaspirit123.

[6] Specifically, Enders is recalling the “ars memoriae” of the Aristotelian rhetoricians. To best recall speeches at length these classical performers had to develop a series of techniques to allow for massive recall of critical information. It’s something of a lost art in the modern era, but our obsession with it as an idea lives on. You might be familiar with it through the memory palace concept.

[7] Delta is, themselves, a bit of a personae. In psychodramatic performance, it’s common to have allegorical characters whose names indicate what they are a personification of.  While it’s unclear in any sense of “lore” what Delta’s name means, it’s impossible not to think of the Greek Δ – which is commonly used on mathematics and scientific studies as a shorthand for change. I might offer up the conjecture that Delta is a personification of change, or at least is intimately aware of the cognitive changes John Coland and Mary Sade are experiencing.

Works Cited:

Akbar, Kaveh. “An Oversight”, Pilgrim Bell. Minneapolis, Grey Wolf Press, 2021.

Enders, Jody. “Allegory Plays”, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500 -1900,  vol. 55, no.2, 2015, https://doi.org/10.1353/sel.2015.0018

Hdidihsbs [ @hiitsjohncoland]. “Either way, John made a joke, I’d say a rather stupid one and here we are.” Twitter, 15 Apr. 2022, 2:09 p.m., https://twitter.com/hiitsJohnColand/status/1515044686339051522?s=20&t=Mv_tcx73zzBvjuvIpZYlFA

It’s Me John Coland. “Help Me.” YouTube, 9 July 2021, https://youtu.be/roKtYcj1yfM

Riley, John. “Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker”, Journal of Film and Video,  vol. 69, no.1, 2017, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jfilmvideo.69.1.0018

Wren Dalton

3 Comments

  1. This is awesome Wren! I feel like the “stuck in my house” narrative could be traced even further back to dramady/satires (like The Metamorphosis) and horror narratives (Turn of the Screw). Both feature protagonists “stuck” in a space that reflects their state of mind in some ways. So I wonder how the genre or setting gets situated historically in different settings. One thing I’m thinking of is surveillance: lots of these kinds of narratives now focus on the surveillance of tech, while Turn of the Screw features surveillance from supernatural entities and other humans. Interesting stuff!

  2. Hey guys, creator here, a regular fifteen year old off the streets with nothing but kind words to give. Anyways, back to the show, he’s correct about most of it but the main stuff you should look out for is the entities in the house, it’s not implied, two to three of them are explicitly shown, along with a void dimension connected to the house. Im saying this not to undermine Wren’s work here but just to give some fuel to the fire of gossip and theories

    • I appreciate the correction! I’m certainly not perfect and uh, have a tendency to miss some important stuff – so it’s good for you to set the record straight.

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