Though Lost very easily could have been a fictional version of Survivor, the producers decided to go a step further by incorporating worldbuilding strategies. For one, Lost gradually and masterfully expands its hyperdiegesis. After much of the show’s action was limited to the Losties[1] on the beach and in the caves, viewers were shocked when Sayid, an ex-Iraqi communications officer, stumbles into a trap set by Rousseau, a woman living on the island for sixteen years. This revelation – that the Losties were not the only humans on the island – introduced a larger mythology to the show. Rousseau reveals that she lives in isolation to avoid the dangerous “Others,” thus expanding the world of forty-eight survivors to become a world complete with scientific expeditions and native, “hostile” people. Later in season 1, Rousseau finds the Black Rock, a British trading ship located inland on the island. Again, the world of Lost expands to include a history dating back to nineteenth century. And yet, Lost’s world continues to build. When Locke blows open the hatch in season 2, he also opens Lost’s world to encompass the underground scientific bunker of the Dharma Initiative. The man who lives there, Desmond, has been pushing a button every 108 minutes for 3 years in order to “save the world.” Finally, at that moment, Lost’s world was more than the events on the island—it was about all of mankind.

This “gradual world progression” has the powerful effect of stimulating viewers’ imaginations. Lost begins with a small, contained hyperdiegesis and slowly expands it to create a sense that the island has an extensive geographical, environmental, cultural, and chronological history. One might think of a role-playing video game like Baldur’s Gate or Diablo, where players can only see the environment immediately in front of their avatars. Beyond them exists an abyss of darkness, until the player moves forward, and a little more of the spatial environment is revealed.  Crucially, Lost does not expand its world with definitive answers. It would have been very easy for Rousseau to know exactly who the Others were and why they were on the island. Instead, Lost leaves many potential storylines open to create more possibilities within its mythology.

In particular, Lost references many institutions existing off the island, including the wealthy and powerful Widmore Industries, the Dharma Initiative, Oceanic Airlines, and even a candy brand. These institutions suggest an extensive expanse that is not seen but still operates “according to principles of internal logic and extension.”[2] For example, when Hurley, the comic-relief character of Lost, finds an abandoned Volkswagen van in the jungle, he notices that it is filled with beer. Instead of Budweiser or Bud Light however, the beer cans are marked by the mysterious octagonal Dharma Initiative brand. Even the VW logo is replaced by the Dharma symbol.[3] Derek Johnson points out that avoiding product placement not only creates a ‘Lost brand’, it also expands Lost’s universe and makes it more naturalistic.[4] As I discussed in 3.3, hinting at institutions facilitates the emergence of alternate reality games, making it possible for hard-core fans to participate in the world of Lost without interacting directly with the show’s characters or events.

In addition to its hyperdiegetic depth, Lost also creates spatial dimensions by mirroring the conventions of video games. Steven Jones, in his book, The Meaning of Video games, points out that Lost’s Hawaiian setting seems virtual since the landscape is a mixture of computer generated images and actual footage. Geography and topography plays a huge role on the island. There are multiple ‘levels’ below and above ground, in bunkers, and on top of mountains. Man-made structures are scattered throughout the spatial dimensions of the island, and, as of season 5, they are also dispersed across temporal dimensions of the island. All of this encourages viewers to map out and navigate the space. One blogger even created extensive iconographical maps of events and structures on the island.[5] But whereas casual fans might be satisfied without knowing where the Black Rock is located in relation to the beach, hard-core fans are hungry for more narrative information that would help them analyze the island’s domain.

Lost’s narrative structure is also similar to a video game. As ex-writer Jeff Pinkner says on the special features of the season 1 DVD: “the island would be a dramatic version of a videogame…you could find the hatch but it could take you several weeks before you had the proper tools to open the hatch.”[6]   Indeed, Locke, a paraplegic before crashing on the island who is miraculously healed after the crash, obsesses over opening the hatch in season 1. Then in “Deus Ex Machina,” Locke kneels over the hatch and expresses a similar frustration as many gamers who can’t seem to find a way to get to the next stage of the game: “I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to do! Why?” Turns out, just like a video game, Locke and the Losties must go on a journey to find “the key.” They salvage dynamite from the Black Rock and blow open the hatch, moving on to the next level.

Throughout Lost, rarely do major events of one season happen in the same place or time period as another season. The characters are constantly traveling to a new location, often with a new goal in mind. Whether the Losties are moving to the caves, following Rousseau to the Black Rock, tracking the Others, getting back to the island, or planting a hydrogen bomb to change the future, they always seem to be navigating the narrative space in order to complete a mission.

Thus, Lost masterfully employs gradual world progression and borrows structural conventions of video games to create an environment that encourages exploration. This environment propels hard-core fans to seek out more information, draw connections, and gain a better understanding of the fictional world.

[1] A term for the 48 passengers of Flight 815.
[2] Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures
[3] Johnson, Derek. “The Fictional Institutions of Lost.” Reading Lost.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Adkins, Jonah. “The World of Lost.” Mapping Lost. 27 January 2009. <>
[6] Quoted in Jones, Steven E. The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Strategies. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Posted by Aaron Smith on July 5, 2009
Tags: Uncategorized

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