A desperate vigilante fights her way through a warehouse full of assailants. A ’50s prom night turns into a bloodbath of vampire zombies and evil blue critters. A pair of desert cops chase down a werewolf driving a speeding Lamborghini to a defunct video shop. And somewhere in all of this there’s a random guy with a laser flamethrower wandering about.
Confused? Believe us, there are Twin Peaks fans who are bashing their heads on the floor trying to work out what’s going on in the album’s worth of videos for Muse’s eighth album ‘Simulation Theory’. The films reference each other, have running motifs and hint at an underlying narrative, so naturally Muse’s avid fanbase has been hard at work deciphering them. So now, with the release of the album, all of the retro-futurist clips are available to study, let’s try to piece together exactly what’s real, what’s simulation and what in Deckard’s name is happening. And when. And in what order. Spoiler alert: it’s basically Inception with zombires.
What happens: Matt goes to prom
In detail: Although the videos can – and perhaps should – be viewed in a random time-jumping sort of order, since they reflect the ability to easily switch between scenes, scenarios and even decades in a simulated world, for (relative) ease of following whatever story there might be, most dissections suggest that the viewer starts with ‘Pressure’. Here we see an unknown protagonist – presumably Matt, since he’s standing by the same ‘real life’ road we’ll see later – donning a VR headset and being transported into a virtual 1980s homecoming dance. As a Back To The Future style band called Rocket Baby Dolls (which any decent Muse fanatic will tell you was the name that Muse first played together under at a Teignmouth Battle Of The Bands night) take to the stage to a smattering of bored applause.
Meanwhile, a frisky couple of BMXers in the science teacher’s darkened office accidentally spill lemonade on his laser arming computer and fire a beam at the school gerbil, which mutates into an evil blue critter, swiftly multiplies and sets off a prom-wide bloodbath as the swarm of teethy bastards bounce into the hall and start slaughtering the entire school. The science teacher then turns out to be more than he seems, unlocking a secret room at the back of his lab where he’s been perfecting laser flamethrower weaponry, and sets about blasting the furry gremlins to kingdom come. Just as the threat appears to have been contained, however, the dead students start to rise up, turned into vampire zombies by some sort of contagion. Typical.
‘Break It To Me’
What happens: A vampire zombie dances
In detail: Out in the hallway, as his classmates scatter, one infected student discovers that a cool side-effect of the vampire zombie disease is that it makes you dance like nobody’s fleeing. They’ll be injecting themselves with performance enhancing critter blood to cheat at Strictly before you know it.
What happens: Matt is chased by Chris and Dom. Enter the were-Matt!
In detail: Back in ‘reality’ (although since the road sign is scrawled with the legend ‘INFECTED’, the contagion isn’t, it seems, contained to the ‘80s) Matt is standing by that ‘real life’ (but strangely CGI-looking) road charging his DRKSIDE electric car, lost in the VR experience of ‘Pressure’. The ‘80s-themed game he’s been playing from a VHS cassette linked to his VR headset is called ‘Simulation Theory’, and he sets off on a game-like driving mission to return it to the Retrograde Video store, chased en route by a couple of bazooka-wielding Grand Theft Auto cops played by Chris and Dom. The code that emerges when Chris’s bazooka bolt hits the car reveals that we’re still in a simulation here – and hence that ‘Pressure’ and ‘Break It To Me’ took place in a simulation within a simulation – and when Matt drives the DRKSIDE head-on into the police car, he breaks through the code entirely and into a Tron-like world that appears to represent the code of the simulation itself.
The code area acts as some kind of a wormhole to a different zone, where the video store stands in an endless expanse of parched desert. Matt returns the tape before Dom and Chris arrive, having taken the Bill & Ted time-travelling phone box route to the same place, but by then Matt has turned into a werewolf and kills Chris before speeding away, hitting ‘warp drive’ to break back through the sim code. And PC Dom? A zombie vampire gets him. Obviously.
‘The Dark Side’
What happens: Robo-skeletons attack
In detail: On the other side of the code barrier, back in the code zone, Matt is attacked by giant robot skeletons as he drives by, around and even through them on his way to some huge neon city. Are these the creators of the simulation trying to eradicate an avatar that’s trying to escape? And where’s Matt headed in this crazy mix-up CGI world?
What happens: High tech prosthesis
In detail: Cut to a one-legged woman (model and former athlete Lauren Wasser) waking up in a ruined high-security facility, crawling through the rubble to collect her golden foot and taking a lift down to ground level where she fights, kicks and laser flamethrowers her way through a horde of enemies, in what looks suspiciously like an arcade fighting game.
What happens: Everything gets even more meta
In detail: At the start of ‘Thought Contagion’ we watch a guy finish his game of ‘Dig Down’ on a retro game unit and get dragged out of the arcade by an ’80s punk lady for a snog. But still no-one’s getting laid in VR; the girl turns out to be one of those zombie vampires they’ve got now. Just as the guy is starting to realise he might be an avatar – the sort of ‘thought contagion’ that the sim creators might want to crack down on, perhaps – the military turns up to contain this new outbreak, but everybody gets struck by the wonky dancing stage of infection (see: ‘Break It To Me’). As our hero is torn to shreds by the zombires (or vampies if you like) the screen flashes ‘GAME OVER’, we pull out from a second game cabinet and Matt pulls up in DRKSIDE, perhaps there to find a new game to play. Yes, ‘Thought Contagion’ is another video game, ‘Dig Down’ was a video game within a video game and someone’s really starting to take the piss now.
What happens: Montage time!
In detail: A story-so-far piece. Perhaps Matt’s playing all his favourite simulation games again on NG1.
What happens: It was all a game! Or was it…
In detail: And so it turns out that the key to understanding this multi-layered homage to ‘80s sci-fi culture is hidden right at the beginning of the album. It’s all about waking up to the idea that reality might not be as real as you think, but the construct of an outside force beyond your control. That’s where the science teacher from ‘Pressure’ finds himself, wandering his deserted school long after it was shut down following the contagion outbreak, somehow unable to leave. He trains in preparation for the return of the zombires and starts to question his own existence. ‘Are we caged in simulations?’ he asks his computer, and is told ‘Yes. Break the code to escape’.
He breaks the code sequencing the DNA of the evil blue critter he’s kept in a cage in his lab (like, duh) and is rewarded with a schematic for a portal which he can use to break out of the sim. Building and activating it, he bikes out beyond the code, dodging surveillance bots firing extermination lasers at him as Bellamy sings “This means war with your creator”. And what is the ‘creator’ he discovers atop a staircase of light? Another arcade machine, this time called ‘Simulation Theory’.
Questions, questions. So this whole thing has been happening inside a game, which contains several other mini-games like ‘Dig Down’ ‘Pressure’ and ‘Thought Contagion’? Or is the ‘Simulation Theory’ arcade game itself the creator, an AI programmed to procedurally generate itself forever? Whatever, after failing to beat the ‘Simulation Theory’ game, the teacher pulls the plug, at which point the entire code universe switches off (confirming that the machine is the source of everyting we’ve seen), and he steps out into the bright white light of what’s presumably actual reality. Although what the fuck that might be is anyone’s guess. Now can someone please give me a fistful of blue pills and let me get back to analysing the Richard Ashcroft album?