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Originally published Tuesday, January 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Fans play TV series "Lost" like an interactive video game

"Lost" is the first television program that owes its soul to video games. Remember the feeling you got the first time you tried a treasure...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Lost" is the first television program that owes its soul to video games. Remember the feeling you got the first time you tried a treasure hunt? For fans willing to "game" the show, it's the same thrill.

Unlike traditionally passive television shows, which expect viewers to zone out in a couch-potato haze, "Lost," which returns with new episodes Wednesday night, has embedded clues throughout. It's these recurring tidbits — and the patterns they form — that make "Lost" the first show to resemble a video game.

"Lost" is known for its sweeping themes. Take the show's title, for example: The characters aren't just lost on a deserted island; they're lost souls. The group of castaways includes a junkie, a lottery winner surrounded by bad luck, a doctor whose emotionally abusive father has just died and a woman who wanted to escape her marriage.

The show likes to play with its audience, inverting our preconceptions. The seemingly fragile and vulnerable young woman, Kate, happens to have a history of violent crime. The knowledgeable and soft-spoken Arab gentleman, Sayid, actually was a ruthless interrogator in the Iraqi Republican Guard. Both also are considered heroes on the show.

How "Lost" are you?

Have you been paying playing close attention — really close attention? Take our quiz and find out.
Warning: This quiz is full of spoilers.

In the episode called "Numbers," the hunter-survivalist John Locke and the nine-months-pregnant Claire Littleton discuss her recent abduction and her amnesia.

"I'm tired of trying to remember what happened to me out there," Claire says.

"How's that coming? Your memory?" Locke asks.

"Bits and pieces here and there — nothing that makes any real sense," Claire says.

"Well, maybe I can help," Locke says. "I'm good at putting bits and pieces together."

Like many "Lost" scenes, this dialogue has multiple levels. While discussing the joy of figuring things out — something that Locke in particular is good at — they're literally putting something together. In this case, they're assembling rough-hewn pieces of wood to make a baby crib.

Locke plays backgammon and works crossword puzzles. He's also the character who's exploring the boundaries, looking for opportunities and patterns. He's putting the bits and pieces together — gaming the island itself.

Some of the themes are explicit, and obvious to just about every viewer, such as a string of numbers that have been repeated throughout the series. But many of the ideas in the show involve much more subtle clues, and some are red herrings, meant to mislead hardcore viewers.

Casual and hardcore

"Casual" and "hardcore" arose from gaming culture. "A casual gamer can be anyone from the frat guy who only plays the latest version of Madden football to your grandma playing 'Bejeweled' on her PC," says Crispin Boyer, senior editor at Electronic Gaming Monthly. "They're more likely to rent a game, play it for a few hours, then never touch it again. And they most definitely don't troll Internet message boards and engage in fanboy wars about their favorite system."

"Hardcore gamers," Boyer says, "memorize minutiae about their favorite developers as if they were sports stars. They'll map out every plotline of a game's or series' story and explore every nook of their favorite games."

As a fan of "Lost," the same dichotomy — casual vs. hardcore — applies. My hairdresser, for example, loves the love stories and fights, and pretty much ignores everything else. It's the equivalent, in video gaming, of racing through the missions to see how the story comes out. But other people take an exhaustive approach, as in role-playing games, investigating every frame of the TV show with a DVR remote in hand. They notice, for example, that a symbol in the background of an underground bunker also showed up on a shark that just swam by. It's this approach that makes "Lost" a multilayered and interactive experience, delivering the same rush as the best video games.

Sure, other shows have had dramatic threads that extended over multiple episodes. And there have been patterns — such as the so-called "red shirts," who always were the first to get killed exploring new worlds in "Star Trek." But most of those patterns were accidental — or because of budget concerns.

And every show has dedicated fans. But the "Lost" phenomenon isn't just fandom. It's about playing the TV show.

Catching up on the clues

"Lost" fans have created Web sites and podcasts that pore over every detail, looking for help in discerning patterns. (There are even fake Web sites, created by the show's producers, to fuel the gaming; see sidebar.)

One of the more clue-rich episodes, called "Numbers," contained enough treasure-hunting to keep hardcore fans enthralled. The main plot line concerned a character named Hurley, who possessed the winning lottery ticket with these numbers: 4 8 15 16 23 42. But this number string kept reappearing in other, more insidious places, including on the island.

What's interesting about the numbers is that they aren't mentioned in only one episode. They continue to show up. There are references to the numbers in earlier shows, before they were explained. They appear in places that you can see only by freeze-framing the television screen. Even the sum of the numbers — 108 — appears as the total minutes on a countdown clock.

This is a new development for television, and a good one. No one ever scanned the background of "Everybody Loves Raymond" for clues that would make watching the show more engaging. It's an interactivity that brings gaming and pop-culture TV into close proximity.

Podcasts: "Lost" world

Ryan and Jen Ozawa, creators of the popular fan podcast "The Transmission," picked up on these themes early. Ryan says he first noticed the patterns in the show "the second time an episode opened with an eyeball. We knew something was up there."

Today, their podcast has cracked the iTunes top 10 list. At the heart of their show are fan theories — from around the world — run amok. Jen Ozawa says, " 'Lost' is a show that is better when watched in groups, and the podcast is the perfect way to do that."

Ryan Ozawa says, "The popularity of our 'Lost' podcast completely shocked us." Watching the iTunes most-popular list, "I was posting updates like a giddy schoolgirl — number 56! 40! 12! Then we broke the top 10, hitting number 7, and practically broke our server. To see our names up next to ESPN and CBS and NPR was incredible."

One of Ryan's favorite themes is "the apparent references to other shows or universes, from 'Forbidden Planet' to 'Peter Pan' to Hitchcock and Stephen King. Some of the parallels are so explicit, the show's creators have joked that they're glad Stephen King hasn't sued them."

Jen Ozawa says her favorite recurring element is the characters' names, which often reference other meaningful real-life characters. "I've always loved how you have Locke and Rousseau and someone named Christian Shepherd," she says. "And how Hurley's last name, Reyes, means 'king' [in Spanish], and he's filthy rich. All these little clues with the names are so cool. Lots of the listeners like pointing out literary and movie references."

These conspiracy theories are so much fun, so much a part of the show's culture, that even a "Lost" cast member called in to game the show.

"We got a call from Jorge Garcia, one of the stars [who plays Hurley], which blew our minds," Ryan says. "But he's always been the coolest cast member, interacting with fans online all the time."

Garcia's theory? "He called as a fellow fan," Ryan says, "and not as someone with any inside scoop, and said that Locke's backgammon skills vs. Walt seemed suspicious. That maybe he, like Walt, has 'special abilities.'

"I love that a prime-time network TV show — usually considered a source of mind-numbing vapidity — is suddenly inspiring average Americans to read up on 'Gilgamesh' and history and Greek mythology and Christianity."

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