There is an economic argument as to whether a lighthouse is a key example of a state run public good, or an effective private enterprise. The reality, of course, is that it has always been both. But, I start here because in narrative and symbolic terms for popular media today the lighthouse sits outside of any argument of economic significance.
The evolution of hazard technology has meant that lighthouses have in the past century morphed from essential infrastructure attended in person, into an automated and increasingly decommissioned form of this technology. The lighthouse of the 1920s that stands strong and unattainable as the site of human desire in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse has been turned off and replaced by another light, without the house, mounted on a steel platform, yet the idea of that lighthouse has not.
For the many that have been decommissioned and automated, they are now preservation concerns, potential homes and atmospheric oddities. The fixation is still there though, but like with many romanticised aspects of the supply chain, stories about them are often couched in fantasy over the reality of the current condition. They are nebulously historical, and even while lighthouse structures still serve to demark danger to ships, the ones that are leftover create this inland creep to their influence on culture.
These stories are instead tied into their nature as points of transition, or even guide marks, but for those on land instead. They are spots on the edge of a map, where human infrastructure meets the wild rocks and sea and time can be seen in long stretches, and so they are like lightning rods for certain types of strangeness. The most popular recent example of this is in the 2019 film The Lighthouse, which reinforces that theme.
The important thing is their imagined state, as working, as alive and shining bright, or a fixation on that as a spot in time, the past. The important thing is that they are constant, hypnotic angels of revolving light and dark, even when turned off. The important thing is that a lighthouse, by its construction alone is something that isn’t for the individual in purpose, but requires solace; it is a warning sign that is an attractor, it is only a light, but is also a house.
These types of structures then have stories attached to them, and there is a curious run in the late 2000s and early 2010s of significant videogame lighthouses with stories about historical time, loss and the question of “can we change?”
BioShock, in 2007, picks up the cultural torch in transforming the lighthouse into a transitory space, through which you enter its Randian nightmare. Emerging from the mid Atlantic, the art deco lighthouse tower is your refuge from a plane wreck, and has a dual purpose for you as a door to somewhere deep beneath the water.
BioShock as a series is ultimately obsessed with presenting a take on the nature of modern America’s obsession with libertarian ideals of technological futurism and free markets. Textually, like Fallout, it’s often overwrought, and unclear where the writers stand, speaking most clearly in its hugely symbolic visual design and characters based in the poisonously regressive ideals of American prosperity.
The lighthouse continues to be an entry point for these stories in the two sequels in 2010 and 2013, to the point that it becomes one of the three constant objects of the game universe at its very end, via its own self indulgent storytelling. “There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city.” This is as the games become more floundering in their critiques and eventually simply replicate a key symbol of toxic American prosperity culture in media – the moralist ur-narrative of videogames of the 2000s so far ‘the little girl and the troubled man versus the nasty people.’
Other games that tell this same tale with a lighthouse at their centre are Dear Esther, Dishonored and Alan Wake.
The game Dear Esther, from 2012 and in production from around the same time as BioShock’s release, hews closest to a representation of the landscape and situation of Woolf’s Lighthouse. This is if only as a text that takes place on a Hebridean island, but which was written and inspired by England and questions of art, (Woolf relating to childhood trips to Cornwall, and Dear Esther originating in Portsmouth University, with arguably a main narrative path about an accident in England.)
This transportation of the idea of the specifically English desires to escape and to create artwork to the North of Scotland is not a new one, relating to the long history of the vision of Scotland’s highlands and islands as a romantic ‘nowhere’. In Dear Esther this is expressed in the creation of desolation and forbidden territory, a ghost story, with the lighthouse there at its opening level now run down, it’s light inaccessible. We have gone to the lighthouse, and found it broken, and yet still a presence of great gravity, and in the distance we see the red light of an aerial tower, a lighthouse made anew. The choice of the building is as a marker of stories that anchor the human to a spot in which loss can be explored outside of the pressures of another life.
In Dear Esther this was ultimately the lofty goal, to make a game where there’s a story, and you don’t have to kill anyone. It was a bold attempt to achieve what interactive fiction writers had been doing for about 40 years. The game builds out from the lighthouse into, ultimately, a story about a man who lost a woman, and who is reunited with her soul, as it travels from light to light as a way of opening this landscape into its narrative.
In 2012’s Dishonored the lighthouse is not a solitary tower giving off a warning light, but the final stronghold of the power that usurped your Empress’ throne and murdered your secret love together. The usual halls of power, the Tower of Dunwall, are built in reference to the British fortification castle, a major staging post of the idea of a divine right of power. During the reign of the insurrectionist Lord Regent, a lighthouse has been built on the fortified Kingsparrow Island however, which is where the Lord and the power of their hold over the empire now resides in their final fortress.
This is the only lighthouse I cover here that requires a boat ride to reach, which is fitting for the game’s steampunk reimagining of the 19th century. The building’s menace is heightened by its construction having the clinical mix of brutalism and hand designed Victorian metalwork key to the series. Resembling in a sense the move towards a panoptic method of justice in this era, an all seeing eye instead of a warning light, the military establishment hold the only child of the empress, your child too, hostage. At the lighthouse you bring a close to the first game’s mix of aesthetic critique and empire serving reinforcement of the era’s values with the type of story that means you can avoid all that mess. The game asks you to free the girl and kill the man, ultimately using this place to fulfil your heroic aims.
In Alan Wake (2010) the lighthouse is the goal in the opening of the game that leads to the similar aim of finding your missing wife, as we enter the tortured writer and Stephen-King-stand-in’s nightmares and run from both a killer and a storm, towards light. Here the architecture of light spells out not just themes but mechanics. The rest of the game is spent traversing darkness, with lights from various sources being able to suck the power from the monsters hunting you, though of course only a gun can land the fatal blow. In this way it literalises the transition of the purpose of the lighthouse from being a warning light and into a cultural safe haven and weapon against personal loss.
The fact that Alice Wake is also afraid of the dark, is totally infantilised along with this, and falls prey to troubled waters, puts Alan in the opposite position, as the masculine provider of light. To serve this purpose, of idealised protection, Alan himself eventually must embody the idea of a lighthouse.
In contrast, in To the Moon, from 2011, which I write about experiencing from the point of view of personal experiences here, the lighthouse behind the main house becomes an anchor point in the life of an old man who needs to let go of his desire to ‘save someone’. In his attempts, and those of his doctors, at fixing his past mistakes as a man who didn’t respect his wife as an individual, nor himself it is ever present until the end. The building throughout is not active, but is there as a reminder of the moments first shared by the couple, and their desire to return there to live, and eventually to die, has led to it being an attached to that relationship and its many potential versions on a deep level.
It’s probably the most thoughtful take on loss expressed in the games mentioned here, showing us, like with Woolf’s lighthouse, which reveals this as its reached at the end of To The Lighthouse, the way in which a location or a desire and its associations can be a distraction from our true feelings.
The last lighthouse I want to point to is that in Life is Strange, from 2015, which diverges the slightest from the story of potential losses tied to men losing women, with a story about two girls and a town. Mirroring the opening of Alan Wake, Life is Strange also opens with a bay at the mercy of a nightmare hurricane, with the central figure of the game, Max Caulfield watching on from a lighthouse. It’s a moment of foreboding that keeps cropping up throughout, and Max’s relationship to the building is tied to her relationship with Chloe Price, the game’s pivot point as a person she has multiple opportunities to save from what the story fates as her otherwise inevitable death.
The game hinges finally on whether or not to finalise the intervention in the stream of time and save Chloe, or sacrifice her in order to save the town from the storm, all in front of the lighthouse which the two of them share as a meaningful memory. If she sacrifices the town, she will also sacrifice the lighthouse, which will be wrecked by a fishing boat in a tornado.
Here the lighthouse is once again devoid of any maritime protection, in fact ironically destroyed by its intended audience (both in the boat and in Max and Chloe), and acts only as the motif of a significant attractor outside of normal architectures for characters’ on land. It’s the harbinger and the safe house, like something that grows up out of the ground to indicate spaces of distinct gravitas, and yet ultimately ambivalent in nature. In a way this makes it so as the only difference between these buildings and that in Woolf’s story is that the struggle of the trip to the lighthouse, the water hazard at sea at least, and the contemplation that invokes instead, is gone.
As a landmark, narratively and literally, these lighthouses don’t need the sea, because the stories these works attach to it are ones that are about the risks of being a person on land. When these buildings become inland facing, their literary meanings, relationships and purposes alter. The themes of warning and danger, and even of safety all become attractors, because without the physical risk of water hazards or the need to haul cargo away, to the individual, going to the lighthouse is fulfilling the entry into a place where reckoning with dreams of loss is possible.
It’s hard not to see in this the influence of these games on each other when they’re put in a line. Whether truly a chain of influence or mere coincidence it’s interesting that that period, as the false hope of late 20th century liberalism morphed into a visible necrosis, and rising tides and floods dug in as a reality, was when the lighthouse became this narrative symbol of loss within a certain type of prestige narrative once again.