Once again events of this story follow the myth of Daedalus. According to the myth, Daedalus was such a skilled inventor and artisan that Minos decided he could not bear losing him to any other city. In particular, Minos could not risk the secrets of the labyrinth being revealed to anyone else. He locked Daedalus and Icarus up in a tower, and put strict controls on all land and sea routes out of the city. Daedalus and Icarus were therefore prisoners in Crete, and it was made perfectly clear that they would never be permitted to leave. It was for this reason that Daedalus invented the wings that they would eventually use to escape.
In our own world we can see this goal being pushed further with every new innovation in entertainment technology. The aim for all products and systems is constantly to add more and more realism. In cinema films have gone from silent and black-and-white, to full sound and Technicolor. High definition is now common and 3D is the next big thing. In video games, graphics are constantly becoming more realistic, and motion capture can be used to give computer-generated characters more life-like movement and facial expressions. This is now so realistic that a detective game called LA Noire has been released, which challenges players to deduce whether suspects are lying based on their facial movements and expressions. 3D has also entered the world of video games, and consoles such as the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinnect are now embracing motion capture to give players a sense of really participating in the game. The latter seems to be the first small step in creating the virtual reality so commonly found in science fiction.
But why create a fake world when we have a perfectly serviceable real one? Ask that to the millions of players of the online game Second Life, which is more ‘realistic’ than other games, with no real objectives, game-play mechanics or rules. In this game, players can literally create a second life, getting a virtual job, creating a virtual house, and even building a virtual family. Of course, the real beauty of virtual worlds is that they can do everything the real world does, and more. Places can be more beautiful, magic can exist, people can fight dragons and find treasure, and everyone can be a hero. Particularly in a world as devastated and depressing as Rick’s, it is easy to see how this can be so appealing.
This is an idea common to science fiction, and perhaps made most famous by the Matrix series of films. However, the question goes back much further in history, and is one of the fundamental problems of philosophy. How can any of us know that our world or our experiences are really real? Rick’s question is similar to that of Zhuangzi in his famous passage about the butterfly dream:
Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! (2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)
In Western philosophy, this question of what really exists led the philosopher Descartes to write the famous saying ‘I think, therefore I am.’ In other words, when a person can be sure of nothing else, the mere fact that they are thinking proves that their own mind, at least, does exist in some form.