Have you ever heard of Jane’s Retina?
Unless you were big into the home brew floppy disk games scene in the 80’s, specifically in San Francisco and the surrounding Central California region, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of it, let alone played it.
While unconfirmed, it is generally believed that the game was created as a part of an anonymous art project and was secretly distributed by the artist or art team to see what would happen. People who claimed to have owned a copy of Jane’s Retina all agree that theirs have a number hand-written on the disk in white marker, likely for the creator’s identification. The highest number confirmed is 210.
The game starts as a with a simple title screen with the names of the ‘creators’ (John Doe and Allan Smithee), the year 1986, and the company (Cornea Integrated Associates). The only sound is a dull single note drone that some players didn’t notice, perhaps because the note was unusually quiet or they had their sound turned down too far to hear it.
Of course, the most striking thing about the opening title is the image that takes up the full screen – a somewhat grainy picture of what appears to be a human eyeball, complete with long optic nerve trailing behind it, resting on a blue surgical napkin. The eyeball has been extracted with great care, with no damage taken to the fragile nerve endings which are spread out on the napkin to show their size and complexity. As the optical nerve attaches at the back of the brain right above the cerebellum, there is no way to perform a surgery like this without killing the patient, unless the patient was already dead upon extraction.
The eyeball (brown, adult sized given the presence of a slightly bloody scalpel) has been skewered on the tip of the scalpel so that it is pointing towards the camera while still giving a view of the length of the optic nerve. People who have recreated the title screen photo by drawing it from memory have pointed out that the placement of the pupil to the way the nerve is curled and frayed on the napkin and angle of the scalpel seem to follow the Golden spiral ratio, meaning that someone worked very hard to position the photograph in just a specific way to their liking.
Something that many who have studied the game point out is the sheer amount of work taken in creating the photo. Someone went to a great deal of effort to find a body, find a surgeon with immense skill to remove an eyeball without damaging a single nerve ending, and position the slippery organ by piercing it with the object of it’s removal to an artistically pleasing ratio must have had this image in mind for a very long time. This was not taken by an amateur photographer, but by someone who’d studied the craft and possibly had a career in the trade.
Once choosing ‘New Game” (the only option on the title screen), the title screen disappears with a spiral wipe and the new image arrives with the same style of wipe, revealing another slightly grainy photograph. This time of a woman, presumably ‘Jane’ from the game’s title, from the neck up. Players report that the way the photo is taken in itself is unnerving. The bottom of the frame does not include the outward curves of her shoulders, giving the optical illusion that her neck is far longer than it should be. Players describe the woman as in her mid to late 30’s with permed dark brown hair that extends below the frame. They say she looks to be Hispanic or possibly multi racial, but as the photo was grainy it is difficult to tell. She faces the camera, looking directly into lens. Players describe her expression as calm and controlled, similar to a driver’s license or passport photo. They all describe a strong sense of intelligence in her face, as though she wasn’t just posing for a photo, but looking directly at the players behind the screen. The background is the same shade of blue from the surgical napkin on the title screen.
There are only two options – ‘Closer’ and ‘Stop’. Choosing ‘Stop’ closes the game and send you back to your desktop. Choosing ‘Closer’ focuses the camera about half an inch or so closer to her face. This is not immediately apparent, as the distance moved is so small it looks like we’re just getting the same picture each time the button is pressed, not becoming noticeable until the twentieth or so click. Rapid clicking is not possible, as the button remains indented for about ten seconds before being available to again.
Every time the player clicks ‘Closer’, the camera moves the same distance. This is not simply enlarging the photo – we are actually getting a new photograph each time, as players point out by how the woman’s eyes adjust focus on the camera at each new distance. After clicking ‘Closer’ roughly two hundred times we see that the camera is aiming for the woman’s left eye. By this time at least thirty minutes of clicking has been performed. Many people who have played the game have given up out of boredom by this point. By an additional twenty minutes the blue background can no longer be seen, with the woman’s face and hair taking up the entirety of the screen. By another ten only her face is visible, continuing the calm expression. After a combined hour only her left eye is visible, staring directly into the camera.
It is here that some remaining players say they’d quit the game, as the camera was so close to her eye that it seemed absurd that the ‘Closer’ button was still available. Remembering the shocking image of the severed eyeball from the title screen, they stopped the game from not wanting to see what happens any further.
The ones who persisted, either from curiosity or from not wanting to admit they’d wasted an hour of their day, say that the camera continues to the surface of her eye. Although there is no obvious change in camera, the image now gives the impression that we have entered the woman’s eyeball and are seeing showing the interior surface of the ball with pink veins branching from the retina. Continuing to push ‘Closer’ takes the player through the eyeball and to what appears to be the optic nerve in it’s socket, though given that all surfaces are pink it’s hard to tell.
This would be a simple enough illusion with modern graphics, but in 1986 practical effects must have been used, making the passage from exterior to interior all the more impressive. A small endoscopic camera must have been used to get this effect, though such technology was difficult to access in 1986. Where and how the makers of the game received an endoscopic camera is yet another mystery.
The ‘Closer’ button is still available, leading the player to follow the optic nerve through the skull and under the surface of the brain (some players say this moment, as opposed to what they’ve seen previously, is what made them physically ill), to eventually reaching where the nerves fray and fan out into the occipital lobes. Players who have studied pictures of this part of the brain afterwards point out that this entire ‘journey’ must have been performed on a living person, or at absolute least one that had died very, very recently, as there is no graying or discoloration at all in the tissues.
It’s at this point, having reached to occipital lobes, where the ‘Closer’ option vanishes. A new button appears on the opposite side of ‘Stop’, reading ‘Further’. The rules for ‘Further’ seem to be the same as ‘Closer’, as it can only be clicked once every ten seconds but the distance between clicks is significantly longer. The first click sends the player back several inches to where the eyeball had once been, now a red but carefully cleaned empty socket. Another click brings you to see both the socket and the other eye. The third shows us her full face, though the calm intelligence is no longer present. The forth click is a return to the shot of her face, hair, and neck, her skin tone sallow and jaw slack in death. The fifth click takes us further back, farther than the opening image, showing that her head has been severed right below where the initial picture had cut, showing a small stain of blood on the blue background behind her. The sixth click shows the head alone on the many blue surgical napkins. The ‘Further’ button disappears at this point, with the only option being ‘Stop’.
Given the way her hair is hanging from her scalp, there is no way the head it lying down on a surface with the camera suspended above. Players of the game and tried re-creating the image by having a long-haired person lie on their back and take a photo from above verses having them stand and taking a photo from straight on. The hair would be spread out at least a little, leading players to believe that the head was somehow suspended against a wall of napkins.
The creator(s) of Jane’s Retina have never come forward, likely out of fear knowing they would undoubtedly be arrested. The woman in the game has never been identified, though several missing persons cases have been applied as possible leads. The most haunting aspect of the game, which all players who have completed it agree, is whether or not the woman knew she was going to die. Her expression is either that of someone who believed she is only participating in a harmless art project, or is someone absolutely at peace with her fate.
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