TCB: Mothingness

While I’m semi-stuck in the later, more difficult levels of The City Beneath, let’s take a moment to talk a little about the one recurring character I haven’t said much about: the Pit Thing. This is a booming voice that occasionally speaks to Beethro from the depths of the vast chasms you occasionally find while exploring. Sometimes there are a few eyes on pillars in the middle of the pit, using the same sprite as Evil Eyes but not flagged as monsters. I suppose the implication is that they’re part of the Pit Thing, part of how it learns what’s going on in the world. It definitely has some source of information, because it knows a great deal about Beethro.

The Pit Thing first made itself known back in Journey to Rooted Hold, where it didn’t show much of a sign of personality or motivation. Its dialogue was a mixture of taunts, gibberish, and fruitless attempts to talk Beethro into jumping into the pit. That last theme continues somewhat in TCB, with the Pit Thing pointing out that if Beethro really wants to reach Lowest Point, straight down is the fastest route. Given DROD’s sense of irony, I half-suspect that we’ll eventually learn that the pit has an anti-gravity field or an enormous trampoline or something at the bottom, and that Beethro could have saved himself a lot of trouble by just following the Pit Thing’s advice.

For the most part, though, the Pit Thing seems less insane this time around, and at least a little concerned with guiding Beethro towards discovering the secrets of the underground. At one point, progress is contingent on the Pit Thing’s help, when Beethro gets access to the imperial library but doesn’t know what topic to look up. The Pit Thing guides him to the one part of the Library that’s in the process of being destroyed by briars. It does this, it claims, to teach us a lesson about Mothingness.

“Mothingness” was mentioned in JtRH, but I had frankly forgotten about it by the time TCB came out, and only noticed it this time around because I was watching for it. It just didn’t seem important there, just another nonsense word, or, more likely, a typo. But in TCB, it’s the central concept of the Pit Thing’s message. Mothingness is essential to the actions of the Empire. The citizens don’t know about the mothingness, but it’s “soaked into their flesh”, invisible and unavoidable. What is it? The Pit Thing prefers to teach by example, much to Beethro’s annoyance, so we don’t have a definition. The clearest statement we get comes when the Pit Thing is talking about the Archivist faction: “The Archivists have two jobs. One that was given to them, and one they gave themselves. They were told to collect information, but when they listened more deeply to the mothingness, the mothingness told them to collect all information.” We see the result shortly afterward: a war of extermination on the surface-dwellers, because only when they’re all dead can the Archivists’ records be permanently complete.

What is mothingness? Based on these two examples, I’d describe it as something like “things not going as planned”. Mothingness is entropy, code decay, perverse incentives. It’s the system’s inherent problems building up until things reach a crisis point, and then the system continuing anyway, a parody of its former self, its original purpose lost. Mothingness now rules the Empire, which has become a Recorded Information Maximizer, in the same sense as Paperclip Maximizer.

The Pit Thing sees the sparks that fly when Beethro comes into contact with mothingness, and is amused, and encourages further contact. And so the husk of an empire begins to fall.

2 Comments so far

  1. Jason Dyer on 6 Aug 2017

    Now that I see your definition, it makes sense, but — I always thought the Mothingness was just the Pit Thing being his usual enigmatic self and it didn’t mean anything at all, and while playing I just wanted to get onto it. I suppose this is exactly the attitude Beethro takes.

  2. Erik Hermansen on 18 Oct 2017

    Carl, you may have written the clearest definition of the Mothingness to date. When we started throwing the word around in JtRH, I didn’t feel 100% sure about what it meant, and was content to let the Pit Thing say inscrutable things about the mothingness. But by TCB, I felt a lot better about the word. It summed up how I felt about things like getting phone support from the cable company. In real life, I think we give too much credit to the designers of systems in thinking they’ve set up things perfectly to achieve horrible ends. Most of the time, Horrible happens by the momentum of previous decisions.

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