A Deeper Kind of Horror

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The first level of the game INSIDE is a terrifying gauntlet of masked men, dogs, and dark woods. A half dozen narrow escapes and near-death experiences later, the game suddenly shifts gears. The second level starts not with violence or fear, but with a dozen chicks following the protagonist around like he’s their mother hen. They chirp encouragingly and served no apparent purpose, other than a bit of unexpected companionship in the game’s lonely world.

After a cornfield and a muddy pasture, the chicks and I made our way into a barn together and were seemingly blocked from any progress. All the barn contained was a few hay bales and a mysterious machine: a machine built to suck in and churn out anything small enough to wander past it.

The chicks, apparently, served a purpose after all.

INSIDE is full of moments like this — initial confusion followed by the stomach-turning realization of what the game expects. It establishes dread. Everyone has seen a horror movie with a “Don’t go in there!” scene, like the attic in Paranormal Activity or the basement in Evil Dead, in which a character makes an ill-conceived and horrifying choice and pays the price for it. The tensest moments of those movies are in the approach, the careful creep down the stairs before discovering what monstrosity awaits.

Over and over, INSIDE confronts the player with a series of “don’t go in there!” moments. Unlike its movie counterparts, INSIDE never let me agonize while a third party did all the uncomfortable stuff. The game made me responsible. I had to turn on that machine to suck in the chicks, and I had to pull a parasite out of a horrible squealing pig, and I had to dive into the deep dark water even though I knew something awful lurked below.

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INSIDE only rarely pressured me into action. It allowed me to linger, staring uncomfortably at the screen and wondering if there was any way around what the game wanted. It has one jump scare, maybe two; it doesn’t traffic in shock. Playdead, the developer of the game, instead harnessed apprehension and anxiety to make truly unsettling gameplay without many of the horror genre’s usual tricks. Fear in INSIDE is a crawling angst, an unnerving drip of images and sounds that broke down my mental barriers and wriggled under my skin . Playdead isn’t new to this either. They’ve been doing it for years.

There’s a moment in their 2010 game Limbo when the spider that’s been chasing the player for most of the game emerges one final time, dying and missing most of its legs. It makes a few weak jabs and then collapses. Even while dead though, the spider blocks the way forward. There is no way back and no way over. The only way to progress is to approach the giant dead beast and pull its remaining limb, pull until the skin and sinew connecting it to the body snap, and push its oblong body until it forms a soft bridge across a pit of spikes. It’s sickening. I would have covered my eyes if my hands didn’t have to stay on my controller. And yet, the most powerful part of the experience wasn’t the detail in the spider’s dismemberment, or rolling its body across the ground. It was the moment I realized I would have to approach (and touch!!) the dead spider if I wanted to progress.

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The best example I’ve experienced of this ilk of preliminary dread came not from INSIDE or Limbo, but a tiny itch.io game called Anatomy (previously written about for Cane and Rinse by Alex Maskill). Anatomy’s only gameplay is walking around a dark house, finding cassette tapes, and returning to the kitchen to play them. Each audio recording details the way a room of the house resembles a part of the human body: the living room, a heart; the bedroom, an unconscious mind; etc. Anatomy gives each room an uncomfortably organic, almost sentient character before asking you to delve into that room and find the next tape. It’s a game built on apprehension, the same kind I feel when I look out a window at night and half expect to see someone looking back.

After listening to them over and over, the tapes in Anatomy start to degrade. The stable monotone of the unknown lecturer turns to static. Tapes hitch and skip, and others occasionally increase or decrease their volume wildly. Late in the game, one snaps. The lecturer’s voice gets louder and louder until it’s suddenly replaced by a woman’s voice, high and cold and somehow speaking directly into the player’s ear.

I look out of the bedroom window and I see a truck approaching. A young man steps out, approaches, and enters through the front door. His body is covered in swollen ticks the size of quarters. He’s walking through the downstairs hallway and laughing… He’s moving through the first floor, breaking and upsetting things. He goes to the basement and stands at the top of the stairs. I’m angry at him, so I slam the door. He falls down. I can feel his bones snapping. The ticks are bursting, oozing cold black blood everywhere. I can feel him being ground up, dissolved and torn, splitting and shredding. I leave the door closed. I close my eyes and try to sleep.

The entire layout of the house has been built for this one moment in Anatomy. The tape recorder sits on a table in the kitchen, and the kitchen sits at the end of a long, dark hallway. There’s no way to see down this hallway while the tape is playing, and so instead I stood in the kitchen, chills running up my arms and down my body as the woman in the tape whispered about this horrible man walking directly towards me.

He didn’t come.

Instead, as she continued to speak, I forced myself to turn to the one other door in the kitchen, the one the game kept locked throughout the entire playthrough. When she finished, leaving me to imagine whatever horrible thing lay below the house, that door swung open. The door to the basement welcomed me in, and my only option was to follow it down. Anatomy.png

 

 

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Five Years of Guilt with Spec Ops: The Line

It’s been five years since Spec Ops: The Line released. Soon after it make its opening waves, I started writing a piece for a friend’s local zine about the game. My angle was how it got in your head, the way the game made you the “just following orders” protagonist as he burned civilians alive, killed American soldiers, and destroyed water supplies. This wasn’t a unique take, and, as I soon realized, it was also far too disturbing content for a high school activist publication. Five years on, I remember the setpieces of the game: the burning Burj Khalifa, the helicopter crash, the white phosphorus. But it was an incidental moment of gameplay, an accident in the heat of battle, that’s cemented itself in my brain half a decade later.

Spec Ops made me into a killer, and it didn’t care.

Let’s back up a bit. Spec Ops: The Line received a huge amount of attention shortly after release, when people realized that past the generic military-veneer lay a pretty scathing critique of modern military games. The main character, a shaved head with a gun and some combat boots, insists on carrying out a series of war crimes for the sake of the greater good. You, the player, go along with these ill-conceived plans because, for the most part, you have no choice. It’s a linear game. In the white phosphorus scene, a drone-bombing segment culminates in the incineration of a bunker full of refugees. It drives home a couple of the game’s theses: war is hell, and any video game that paints war as anything but hell is doing it a gross disservice.

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It’s an important point. It’s also, forgive me, a little on the nose. As the game slow-zooms on the burnt husk of a mother holding her child (see why I couldn’t write about this in a high school zine?), it actually lessens my feeling of responsibility. The game was designed to have you do this. There’s a cutscene highlighting it. If I, as a player, wasn’t able to do anything except this horrific act, it feels a little less horrific that I carried it out.

Maybe this is part of the game’s plan too; since I was just following the orders of the gameplay, I was complicit in the slaughter of its digital citizens and yet don’t feel responsible for it, just as the hundreds of real-life soldiers who claimed they were “just following orders” have said. Honestly, I don’t think this is the case though. Spec Ops wants you to feel this moment in your gut. It wants waves of guilt to wash over you as you contemplate what you’ve done.

Spec Ops actually gave me this gut-check hours earlier though, and it did so entirely without fanfare. Soon after entering Dubai, there’s a battle amidst a tent city of sorts. Precious belongings from dozens of different families litter the ground. Most of the population has already fled from the sounds gunfire, and now there’s just a deadly maze of ambushes from enemy combatants. Pinned down by gunfire and unable to move forward, I snuck around a corner and-

I’ve played many games where shooting civilians is allowed, or even encouraged. Modern Warfare 2’s controversial “No Russian” level had you mowing down people in line at an airport. Open-world titles like GTA or Infamous give you the option to massacre digital denizens of their respective cities. What I’m saying is, I’ve killed my share of innocent bystanders. It’s part of the language of violence video games communicate in. So when a scared woman in a hijab ran out from behind a tent and I instinctively pulled the trigger, it shouldn’t really have been a unique experience. And yet, that’s the moment from Spec Ops that sticks with me.

There’s a tweet from the aggressively political comedian Hari Kondabolu that I’ve thought about almost every day for the past several months.

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There are moments in Spec Ops that have concrete consequences for the protagonist. He’s bruised, bloodied, and burned by the time he shambles into the conclusion. This murder though; there was no consequence for this. No one ever reflects on the woman he killed among the tents, the squad never finds out, the loading screens never throw it back in your face with pithy quotes. This accidental casualty, the soldiers would probably say, is just part of the job.

And unlike the white phosphorus, this truly was my fault. The game didn’t force my hand one bit; I misread a situation and an innocent person died. And it was quick, and it was easy, and in the larger context of the game it meant nothing.

There’s a temptation to make moral choices big things in games. Everything else comes to a halt, as the game presents you with a binary decision: do you give the people the food, or save it for yourself? Do you rescue the school bus, or push it into a river of acid? After the decision, the game reacts. Maybe that school bus had a really neat new outfit, and the kids give you it as a reward. Morality is “gamified,” made easily digestible and karmically perfect so it’ll fit with the rest of the game’s systems. This isn’t how real life works, let alone during the terrors of war.

Spec Ops didn’t treat my murder like that. Instead, this digital civilian was given the same respect as one of the breakable bottles littering the tables of the tent city. And I think the reason this moment has stuck in my head for so long comes from the fear that war could actually do this to a human being. To dehumanize one’s enemies so effectively that death isn’t even meaningful anymore. For the ten seconds that my encounter with that woman took place, Spec Ops seemed to dare me to stop feeling, to become completely desensitized. In fact, this is a real loading screen “tip” from later in the game:

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Spec Ops: The Line taunted me with the fact that war in gaming is often little more than a toy, something to play with and then forget. So far, I haven’t been able to do that second part.

Check out this piece on Cane and Rinse as well!

Shadows in the Mist: The Fantastical, Grounded Worlds of Fumito Ueda

(This is another one that was published on caneandrinse.com first. Go check them out, they’re wonderful)

In the somewhat unlikely event that I experience complete, debilitating amnesia and wake up separated from my friends and family, there are few things I’ll know for certain about my past life. One of those things: my infatuation with the architecture of Fumito Ueda.

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My only tattoo, stretching across my ribs like it does across the forbidden lands, is the enormous bridge from his masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus. The bridge is a perfect microcosm of the world of the game as a whole; beautiful but lonely, enigmatic and foreboding. It seems like an unnatural part of the environment, and yet somehow an indelible part of it.

Despite my love for the structures of Shadow of the Colossus though, the crowded settings of his other works – ICO and The Last Guardian – are where his Ueda’s design sensibilities truly shine. An auteur of ruin and decay, Fumito Ueda has used the unique aspects of videogames to create some of the most strangely believable worlds in recent fiction.

Ueda appears dismissive of his own architectural themes. In the recently released book on Guardian, he was asked why he sticks to the ruined-beauty style he’s famous for. In response, he states:

“I was thinking about the limitations of level design… for example, if a player wants to get to a high place, they first need to get through this narrow place, or they need a bridge. Or places where the player would want a staircase and instead it’s destroyed. I neither love those things nor hate them- it’s not that I have as strong a desire to express a ruined world as everyone thinks I do”

There are a couple ways this quote can be read. On the surface, it appears that Ueda isn’t particularly attached to the themes of his world; he destroys bridges and stairs simply to give the player an obstacle to overcome. What he’s implying though is that the worlds exist, fully formed, before he builds a ‘game’ into them. Unlike reality, there’s no need for a game to have a pre-existing staircase before destroying it. He could design a number of challenges and build the world to fit them. He could, in fact, design levels with no staircases at all. Instead, he makes games in decayed environments because it’s seemingly inconceivable for him to create structures without their own internal logic.

Level design in games sometimes feels at odds with the majestic art of the world surrounding it. Having recently played the Ringed City expansion to Dark Souls III, I was disappointed to learn that I’d only be able to walk through a handful of alleys in the grandiose city; most of the environment is a fancy, but empty, backdrop.

It’s by defying this trend that Ueda’s settings feel so distinct. Despite the fantastical nature of ICO and Guardian, their worlds feel more grounded than any other I’ve experienced. One reason for that is the absolutely exhaustive exploration of these environments.

This exhaustive map of ICO (by the excellent Nomad Colossus) shows that there is almost literally no room in the enormous castle the characters don’t encounter. Similarly, the spruced-up view of the entire game map of The Last Guardian (below) shows, again, nary a place the player hasn’t been. Gazing out the windows in BioShock is lovely, but the sprawling city of Rapture never feels like much more than a skybox. In contrast, I left both ICO and Guardian knowing that my blood, sweat, tears, and/or feathers littered every inch of their locales.

An overview of The Last Guardian by redditor CandyKillerArt

As he’s mentioned in a couple interviews, Ueda has never visited a castle. Nor, reportedly, does he want to. Real-life knowledge, he says, would get in the way of his imagination. Ueda instead cites French architect-turned-painter Gérard Trignac as a major inspiration. Trignac’s arches, waterways, and towering façades are so reminiscent of Team ICO’s games they could be mistaken for concept art.

Another source of design is Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist at the forefront of the surrealist movement. Fixated on sparse environments, unusual buildings, and yellow lighting, Chirico’s paintings have a disquieting childishness that would later define Ueda’s characters. The hand-drawn cover for the European and Japanese releases of ICO (not the god-awful one for the United States) practically screams Chirico.
Trignac, left, Chirico, center, ICO, right

And yet, Ueda’s work isn’t just a static piece on a wall. His worlds are alive, created in accordance with the laws of the game’s own universe, rich with untold backstory and ravaged by time. Guardian’s crumbling structures are intentionally anachronistic, a rusted metal gate inside a tower of cold polished marble. It’s like they’ve been built and rebuilt on top of each other in a sort of rushed architectural colonization. ICO’s castle could have once been warm and hospitable, but generations of isolation and regression has turned it into an unforgiving fortress, retrofitted only to keep its subjects in and outsiders out. None of this is said, but all of it is felt.

Anyone could feel the difference between walking the streets of Edinburgh and those of Chicago; places carry the weight of their stories. Somehow, Ueda has imbued a wordless history within his beautiful, impossible, inhospitable worlds.

Personally, the worlds of ICO and Guardian remind me of Hayao Miyazaki’s flying city, Laputa, from his 1986 film Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Enormous but abandoned, futuristic but overgrown, shockingly beautiful and dismayingly temporary. When I first saw Castle in the Sky I was seized by a profound longing for a place that never existed outside the creator’s mind. Knowing that I’d never get to wander the overgrown streets or gaze up at the vine-covered skylights caused an almost physical sense of heartache. I remember feeling similarly as a kid, when I first learned about the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and then of their subsequent destruction. Fictional or not, the commonalities between these structures that captured my imagination are clear; driven by artistic ambition and/or hubris, humans created buildings that eventually proved to be as impossible as they appeared.

Fumito Ueda’s games have a sort of reverence for nature. In ICO, all that’s visible of the outside world is trees, and the conclusion takes place on a beach- the only naturally formed location in the entire game. Shadow of the Colossus paints the player as the villain for destroying remnants of the environment, and the boy in The Last Guardian simply wants to get back to his quiet forest village.

Artificial structures get no such deference. Like Castle in the Sky or the skyscrapers of Alexandria, each one of Ueda’s creations is ultimately destroyed; the castle crumbles into the sea, the marble tower collapses in on itself, and even my beloved bridge shatters under the feet of those who trespass upon it. Everything created by man is finite in Ueda’s works, and all of that created history is eventually meaningless in the face of the unforgiving environment.

For a few brief hours though, these three games gave me something I could never have from a painting, book, or film. I was allowed to wander. To explore a world that never was, but felt like it could have been.

Ashes to Ashes

This Eurogamer article was a great help in writing this piece.

The Beginner’s Guide and the Falsification of Memory

 

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(Two things- first, Cane and Rinse, a fantastic podcast and website, were kind enough to publish this piece on their website. Check it out hereSecond, like last week, I’ll pair this blog with another musical track from the game. Check that out here.)

I heard a piece on NPR once on a condition called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (or “HSAM”). It’s unbelievably rare, something like 50 cases in the entire world, and those afflicted remember…everything. Where they were on any given date, what they ate, what they were feeling, virtually every moment stays with them for the rest of their life. Like most real-life superpowers, the condition is also something of a curse. Relationships grow and fall apart, but the feelings involved never fade from memory; people with HSAM can perfectly remember what it felt like to love someone who left them,  or to hate someone and have to forgive them. Their lives are never-ending playbacks of the past, with all the joy and pain that brings.

Most of us, thank god, aren’t saddled with this ability. We recontextualize the emotions of our memories as time moves forward, the sting of break-ups and arguments eventually dulling to a manageable level. We are, in a way, lying to ourselves. Painting over the details with a broad brush, we reduce complex relationships to simple mental narratives. With respect to those with HSAM, this aspect of the mind isn’t a flaw; it’s a feature. Finding a way to move past a traumatic incident is necessary to keep living a happy, productive life. Simultaneously though, failing to learn from those experiences is a great way to become trapped in repeated patterns, reliving the same mistakes with different people over and over again. Maybe this is why the truth of those painful events sometimes slips past our mental defenses; it often happens to me in the middle of the night, waking me with an unexpectedly clear and agonizing memory of some long-past relationship.

 

The Stanley Parable, Davey Wreden’s extensively discussed dissection of narrative gaming, is not an experience about memory and emotional pain. His next release however, The Beginner’s Guide, tackles those topics head-on.image

Before we start, two important notes:

One, The Beginner’s Guide is one of the most impactful narrative experiences I’ve ever played. If you haven’t played through the game, I encourage you to do so before reading.

Two, a crucial element of the game’s story is the rejection of attempting to understand a person by the art they create, as detailed by Ian Danskin in this video. Therefore, it would be a betrayal of one of the game’s central principles to try to extrapolate any information about the real-life Davey Wreden, which is made significantly more challenging by the fact that the narrator of the game purports to be Davey himself. There is a separation between the real, living Davey and the character he plays in this game, and it’s important to not conflate the two. Real-life Davey’s motivations are his own. Davey the Narrator, however, has clearly experienced immense emotional trauma. The game we play exists as a response to this pain.

For the first couple “levels,” The Beginner’s Guide doesn’t appear to have much of a story at all. It’s introduced as a tour of sorts through a series of games Davey’s friend Coda created. These games are esoteric, abstract. In one, the player is required to sit for an entire hour in a jail cell before progressing. Another is a simple hallway from point to point, which turns out to be just one in a massive system of inaccessible, and normally hidden, pathways. These tricks and shortcuts to the levels are revealed our narrator, Davey, who often allows the player to bypass the more oblique sections of Coda’s creations. He tells us he’s doing this to reveal a throughline in the work, a mystery hinted at by the consistent presence of identical lampposts. While he may be making minor adjustments to the playability of the games, Davey says, it’s all in the pursuit of understanding Coda as an artist.

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When Coda’s work starts getting tonally darker, Davey tells us that he feared this was indicative of the mental health of his friend. The games represent the isolation Coda was feeling, he tells us, the fact that he was getting stuck in a rut with no way out. In an attempt at encouragement, Davey secretly sent out Coda’s levels to a variety of players and critics; he hoped that positive encouragement would help Coda snap out of his funk. Maybe then he would start making games that were, by Davey’s definition, fun and interesting again.

I used to get so much joy out of watching him create…

Davey says, explaining to us repeatedly why he showed off Coda’s work without his permission, why he felt it was the only option, why this was really the best thing for Coda to experience. His actions, he insists, were entirely based on the needs of his friend.

Coda’s final game is one directed at Davey directly. It’s a cold, hostile tower, a grueling trek through purposely unplayable obstructions. Unlike any of the other levels, it necessitates the kind of meddling that Davey has done with all Coda’s other work. The “reward” for hacking through the tower is a direct confrontation with the narrative Davey has told us all along.

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Up until this point, Davey’s voice is the only one we hear throughout the game. As such, I took his description of his relationship with Coda at face value. But in this final level, we see that Davey’s telling of their story is far from objective. In the one time we get to hear Coda’s voice unfiltered, he’s revolted by what Davey has done. One of the walls reads:

When I am around you, I feel physically ill

This is the Coda that Davey tried to block out. Throughout The Beginner’s Guide, Davey’s tour guide act implies that he knows some greater truth about Coda, one that he’ll try and impart unto us. He has no such knowledge. The Beginner’s Guide spends a long time lying to the player about the nature and purpose of these games. Misleading us is a side-effect though; the true conflict is that Davey has been lying to himself.

Would you stop changing my games? Stop adding lampposts to them?

Coda writes, revealing that Davey has been doing far more than simply making the games more convenient. He’s been (literally) gaslighting himself; changing the games in an attempt to change the reality of his relationship with Coda. His lampposts were an attempt to force an understanding where one simply didn’t exist. His tale of Coda’s self-destruction, an idea based his interpretation of Coda’s games, became absolutely necessary to Davey’s conceptualization of self. With it, he’s a detective, solving the mystery of his friend’s coded cry for help. Without it, he’s just a person who destroyed a man’s safe space through his own selfish need for approval.

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Davey’s need to fill this role of artistic interpreter made him actually manipulate the art he was so desperate to understand. He couldn’t let himself be the villain of his own narrative, and so he simply created a fictional one. Those identical lampposts, which he promised would make sense eventually, were an artificial attempt to shed some light on the story he had already told himself. In reality, he’s completely in the dark.

Davey is the villain of this story. But he’s an unbelievably sympathetic one. I’ve had friendships fall apart over the years, in ways not dissimilar to how Davey lost Coda. He reduces Coda to an idea, a sort of surrogate for all his own emotional pain. And once their friendship is over, Davey is unable to move forward without deifying or demonizing Coda. He can’t understand that both of them are just people, and there are some things that simply can’t be changed.

I know that I did an awful thing, and I’m doing it again right now…That’s how badly I need to feel something again. It’s like I’m an addict.

If I apologize, truly and deeply, will you start making games again?

Davey bargains and pleads, but ultimately runs out of fictional avenues to escape down. Coda just doesn’t come back. There’s nothing else to do except what he’s been avoiding this whole time; Davey finally has to confront himself.

If I knew that my life depended on finding something to be driven by other than external validation, what would that even be?

There is no true closure in The Beginner’s Guide. Davey trails off mid-sentence, leaving us to walk through the epilogue of the game in silence. But there’s hope in the uncertainty. In his final moments of narration, Davey doesn’t try to analyze Coda, guide the player, or make any pretensions of understanding. For the first time, he’s attempting to come to terms with himself.

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Dark Souls and the Consecration of a Virtual Space

(First, an experiment: try listening to this while reading. It should help.)

What makes a place feel holy? When there’s such breadth in what different people consider religious or spiritual, it’s impossible to nail down a concrete list of requirements. Holiness is entirely dependent on context; there’s a reason taking communion is a meaningful experience while eating a wheat thins is done in fistfuls while watching infomercials at 3am. As a kid in Yom Kippur services, virtually everything went over my head but I knew there was something going on beyond my comprehension. It’s not strictly necessary to understand the experience- it was just clear to me that the room full of chanting Jews was different, weightier, than a classroom full of chanting kids. A place being holy is wholly (sorry) dependent on an individual’s experience there, but a strong sense of history, power, and scale are particularly common factors. So in a video game, when the world is fake and true “history” doesn’t exist, what makes some places feel so spiritually powerful? What makes Ash Lake feel holy?

Lore is an easy thing to create. Usually in the form of interesting anecdotes, games like Destiny have stories for every gun, side character, and spaceship. These often feel inconsequential however, like they were written long after the other parts of the game were already designed. A meaningful history, on the other hand, has affected the state of the world. To use a commonly cited detail, the now-abandoned city of Anor Londo in Dark Souls was shared by humans and giants. Therefore, it has stairways designed for both.

Never is there a cutscene where a friendly human and giant walk side by side, chatting about the genius of the engineers in accommodating two species. It simply exists, without explanation, because the city’s history requires that it would. Dark Souls is often accused of relying too heavily on lore, but the world of the game is fundamentally shaped by the stories from the past.

So it establishes history, which is great but still a far cry from anything holy. Bennett Place, the location in which the civil war ended, was a couple miles from where I grew up. History-filled? For sure. But I never for a moment considered there to be anything sacred about that field; like most of Dark Souls, it’s simply an interesting place to navigate and learn about but. For it to transcend into some feeling of spirituality, the location itself- not just the activities that took place there- has to hold immense importance for the world and its residents. Often, the place is “before time,” a relic with an origin far before collective memory. In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Link descends to Old Hyrule, an ancient castle that was built long before the earth was covered by an enormous sea. This place feels holy. It plays on religious tropes, with stained glass windows and tall, arching ceilings, but also has a kind of primordial power; like Stonehenge or massive statues of Buddha, its existence feels so impossible that sculpting it required the assistance of a higher power.

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Dark Souls goes a step than Zelda further by establishing a creation story early on:

“In the beginning, the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of gray crags, archtrees, and everlasting dragons”

Now, not only does this world have a tangible history, it has a big bang, a garden of eden. There is a concrete beginning of time in Dark Souls, but much like in real life, that beginning factors very little into how the game is played. I ran around, killed monsters, died a lot, and the metaphysics of the world faded from my mind. Which, of course, made it all the more shocking when I found out that this point of origin still existed.

Ash Lake is unbelievably well-hidden. After trudging through a toxic swamp, following a path into a tree, breaking through two illusory walls, and carefully climbing down the inside of the tree’s trunk, I emerged onto the shores of a beach. My character stood on a sandbar, somehow preserved in the middle of an endless expanse of water with hundreds of trees, just as massive as the one I emerged from, in the distance. There are only two places in Dark Souls outside of boss fights that have music. The first is firelink shrine, a home of sorts that’s revisited several times throughout the game. The second is Ash Lake. The chills I got hearing the unearthly choir and seeing the coastline stretch into the distance…Dark Souls is no stranger to impressive vistas, but Ash Lake is in a class of its own. The area does, in fact, feel infinite.

There’s a machine in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books, called the “Total Perspective Vortex,” that makes a person go insane by showing them how small they are in context of the entire universe. This was effectively how I felt when I walked out of the tree trunk and into this area. The dozens of hours I had spent striving to progress, dying over and over again, ostensibly to have some impact on the world…all seemed so utterly insignificant here. Ash Lake’s power and scale feel almost incomprehensible; within the context of Dark Souls, it’s positively divine.

Made at FreeGifMaker.me

2:22AM and Emotional Abstraction

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There are several times in my life when I’ve stood in front of a piece of art, feeling a lot, without really understanding what or why I was experiencing those particular feelings. It happened once when I was in a dimly lit room full of Rothkos, dwarfed by enormous colored rectangles that I had neither the art literacy, nor the emotional maturity to come to terms with. This is how I end up interacting with a lot of modern art. The motivations and techniques of the artist, to the extent that’s even possible, comes completely secondary to the subliminal ~vibes~ of a painting or sculpture. Galleries like this make me feel like I’m communicating in a language that I don’t actually speak, but can somehow feel. Instead of consciously processing it, my body just reacts to stimuli that my mind can’t wrap itself around.

I’ve never felt this more than when playing 2:22AM.

The game is very loosely a take on late-night television, flipping through different “scenes,” intercut with grainy footage of showers, or empty intersections, or dandelions, or…

It’s a game that plays with the notion of agency. Often, there is no way to interact with a scene. Sometimes clicking performs an action, sometimes it gives full freedom of movement. The scenarios last probably around a minute each, though time is another factor freely manipulated by the game. Occasionally, progressing will actually require accomplishing a task- although this task may be as simple as opening a refrigerator- while other times, it will simply change on its own with no warning.

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The entire experience, which lasts only about fifteen minutes, has the air of thoughts barely-remembered, like waking up and not knowing if a memory stems from years ago or a dream the night before. The scenes rarely aim for a specific emotion. Some have an ominous air, like a shovel that will only dig a grave-like rectangle when clicked. Most, however, exist largely separated from any specific cultural connotations. There’s a ladder that stretches infinitely in either direction, a forest in which the trees start gently lifting off the ground, a vast and empty cityscape full of featureless buildings that stretch in long corridors towards the horizon.

2:22AM doesn’t feel crafted by human hands. Much like a Rothko, there’s something innate about this game, a sort of gravity that’s always existed and has just happened to be shaped into this form. It’s a testament to the ability of art to elicit feeling simply by being, to have resonance without tying itself to pre-existing touchstones. 2:22AM stands as a complete work that defies analysis or dissection, but still managed to elicit a viscerally emotional response from me. The hair stood up on the back of my neck for the majority of my playthrough of 2:22AM. I don’t think it’s important that I understand why.

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You can find the game here.

The Evil Within and the Growth of a Medium

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It’s easy to forget how young the medium of gaming is. Given the fact that we can see pores in character’s faces, that individual raindrops have physics in Uncharted, that entire universes can be simulated and rendered down to the snowy peaks of mountains in SpaceEngine, it certainly feels like video games are as incredible futuristic tech. Compared to the next most recent artistic medium though, games are just getting started. Let’s say Pong is to gaming what The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station was to movies; an extremely basic technical demo of the potential of a new technology. Using this timeline, 2017 would mark the release of gaming’s equivalent to 1940’s Pinocchio or The Mark of Zorro. 1940 was a great year for movies- 2017 is already a great year for games- but imagine showing the audience of Pinocchio a screening of Inside Out, or swapping out Zorro for Mad Max.

The point here is that the language of mediums evolve, as artists learn new techniques and perfect old ones. Games are constantly figuring out new ways of expressing themselves, using techniques literally inconceivable just years ago. Maybe gaming is still waiting for a David Lynch or an Akira Kurosawa, to push the form that much further into the future. It’s an exciting time to be paying attention.

So. What does this have to do with The Evil Within? The game released to middling reviews and a story described as “not good. Nor is it self-aware…it is genuinely, earnestly bad” (GameSpot, 2014). It’s an attempt by Shinji Mikami to follow up on his near-perfect Resident Evil 4, and yet The Evil Within manages to offer less compelling gameplay and fewer interesting situations than its 12-year old spiritual predecessor. One thing it does exceptionally well however is an oft-neglected aspect of gaming: transitions.

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Games use a couple different methods to move from scenario to scenario. Sometimes, the levels are completely disconnected, with no context given. Mario was in a desert, now he’s underwater? Cool. More and more often though, games simply turn into movies to move from place to place. Once the gameplay section is done, there’s a non-interactive cutscene in which the game provides some explanation for the scene transition. Nathan Drake and friends get into a car and the game cuts to the French countryside. It’s easy to follow and can throw in some good story or character-building along the way, but these kind of edits aren’t using any of the unique tools that video games offer. Watching Drake drive around isn’t functionally any different than watching Dustin Hoffman drive around; that is, they’re both just watching.

In its best moments, The Evil Within transcends these film-turned-game conventions. The levels in the game, though tonally and geographically disparate, flow together like a stream of consciousness. Platforms over bottomless pits give way, only for the pit to become a hallway through an asylum. Doors, deep in mansions in the forest, open to reveal vast sunflower fields. The corners of dark rooms become portals to lonely country roads, never giving the player a chance to catch their breath. It’s an incredibly surreal playing experience, and only elevates The Evil Within’s focus on horror. There is no security in a constantly changing world.

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What makes it exciting as a game is the fact that these transitions feel new. Game worlds, even when they’re filled with dragons or aliens or space nazis, stay relatively grounded. What The Evil Within is doing is sacrificing that grounded-ness in order to make a game that edits itself on the fly. Technically, it would be possible to do this in a movie- essentially, all the game is doing is a non-traditional method of changing the world around the character. But the move is so powerful because of the the interactivity unique to gaming. If a player never relinquishes control of their character, then they never have to step outside of the world the game has created.

The Evil Within doesn’t pull off full immersion. It still has bad cutscenes, weird level-end splash screens with your accuracy and death total, and a host of bizarre other issues. But its scene transitions aren’t just cool, they’re indicative of how much gaming as a medium is growing into itself. Maybe it’ll take 70 years for gaming to get its Mad Max, but compared to “Arrival of Train at a Station,” Zorro is still pretty fucking revolutionary.

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Wolfenstein and the Persistence of Trauma

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It’s hard to comprehend the impact an event will have the moment it happens. Enormous-feeling discoveries and decisions may be forgotten within a week, while seemingly inconsequential conversations can result in sleepless nights years later, haunted by the prospect of a sentence unsaid, or an offer accepted. Knowing the impact on oneself is difficult; understanding what it meant to another is near-impossible. Sometimes, it’s only while picking up the pieces of a shattered life that the gravity of a single decision can be understood.

Christ, what a depressing way to begin a blog. Let’s try again.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game where you can shoot dual-wield shotguns and shoot a swastika-branded robot dog with them. It’s a game in which a fictional branch of Judaism called “Da’at Yichud” makes power armor and laser beams and giant anti-gravity cannonballs. It’s a game in which the main character delivers the line “I’m coming for you, you Nazi fucking spaceman.”

Despite all this, however, it’s a game that drips with pathos. Its premise, that Nazis took over the world and now it’s time to take it back, is unbelievably campy. So much so, in fact, that the emotion in the game, the empathy and sadness and pain that seep through its narrative, is shockingly effective. The game promises a first-person murder simulator, and then ambushes the player with truly exceptional writing and character work. Despite the fact the protagonist, BJ Blazkowicz, is a 6’3, 250 pound mountain of a man, he carries with him the weariness of a soldier in an endless war. He spends a lot more time looking like the guy on the right than the guy on the left.

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One reason he has those sad, sad, sensitive eyes is the truly horrific nature of the game’s one major choice. Early on, Blazkowicz and his two men are captured by the major villain of the story, the subtly-named General Deathshead. Holding Blazkowicz down in a room filled with partially-dissected cadavers, Deathshead tells him to make a decision: who should be subjected to the horrors of Nazi experimentation, and who simply gets to die.

It’s a nightmare. It’s one of the worst situations you could put a human in. However, at the risk of sounding grossly desensitized, it’s not that out of the ordinary for video games. Telltale’s The Walking Dead has several situations in which you make life-or-death decisions for characters, as does Bastion, Bioshock, and Metal Gear Solid 5. Death is just an emotional shortcut in many games; “that scene must have been important, because someone died.” Initially, Wolfenstein’s version of this trope doesn’t even seem particularly well thought-out. Neither of these characters have had more than five minutes of screen time since the beginning of the game. The player hasn’t had time to remember their names, let alone make a meaningful connection with either. What makes Blazkowicz’s choice special is it takes hours in the game, decades in-game, to understand what an irreversible toll it took on him and the world.

Because the man who wasn’t dissected survives, of course. I made Deathshead dissect the young, idealistic American kid named Wyatt on my team. There wasn’t a lot of thought behind it- the other guy, named Fergus, was Scottish and bristly and had a better sense of humor. The scene cuts away while Wyatt is tortured and killed. In the ensuing chaos, our hero, the invincible BJ Blazkowicz, is knocked into a coma. 20 years later, he wakes up to find that Nazis not only won the war, but control the globe. Fergus is somehow alive in prison in Berlin; he’s 20 years older, filled with hate and self-loathing at the fact that he survived and Wyatt didn’t.

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Fergus is a at first a tortured character, wracked with guilt in a world he feels somewhat responsible for creating. His character arc is an optimistic one, however. Despite everything, he keeps fighting. And when the last-ditch missions keep somehow paying off, he allows himself to feel joy in the act of resistance. He makes peace with himself. Though he, like everyone surviving in the horrors of post-war life, is irrevocably scarred, things for Fergus seem like they might just be okay.

Surprisingly it’s our hero, BJ “God of Nazi-Killing Incarnate” Blazkowicz who ends up being the story’s true tragic figure. Blazkowicz holds trauma close to his chest, only giving hints at the toll that a lifetime of war has taken on him. In a standout (and combat-free) level, he dives deep underwater and swims into the heart of the Nazi war machine. In combat’s stead, the game gives a window into his psyche:

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When I was a kid, the Red Tide was rising. Went into the water on account for disobeying my father. Felt like my skin was on fire…like my skin was on fire”

He swims through the tunnels of the Nazi complex, much more alone than any other time in the game. Without the killing, the violence, Blazkowicz seems lost. Recounting memories of his childhood, glimpses of repressed trauma starts to bubble to the surface

“Thirteen years old, fell in the pond by the stables. Came up covered in leeches. Filthy, greasy leeches.”

His memories from before the war are scary and bleak. Blazkowicz’s wartime experiences have changed his present, but they also twisted and distorted his past. Nothing can escape the influence of the mental anguish he’s experienced.

“Age 11. Swam across forney lake on a bet over tin soldiers. But it wasn’t as dark as this”

The game doesn’t reveal the full depth of his pain until its final minutes. Earlier, after being forced to choose between his two men, the game cuts to black. Just before his last challenge, Blazkowicz flashes back to the scene and now Wolfenstein makes the player watch it in full. The screams of his friend, the coldness of Nazi machinery; only at the end do we understand the profound sense of human cruelty that’s been burned into Blazkowicz all these years.

“Age 19. Dove down the well to salvage father’s watch. But it wasn’t as deep as this”

With the Big Bad Nazi dead and a friendly artillery strike prepared to destroy what’s left of the base, Blazkowicz realizes he’ll never make it back to the home he’s been pining for. It’s not a matter of his injuries- the man has taken multiple knives, bullets, and explosions over the course of the game. Instead, he has to accept that the home he wants simply doesn’t exist. He’s a fundamentally different man than the one in his fantasies; there are no children, no poolside grills, no wife in his future. Blazkowicz is now a man sculpted by war and pain, defined by the thousands of Nazis he’s killed and the friends he’s lost.

“Swam many a water in my days. None as cold as this”

His death at the end isn’t a defeat. For Blazkowicz, it’s a release. For the player, it’s a final realization of the impact of his choices and trauma. Wolfenstein lets its moments simmer. Their power comes, not when first experienced, but when understood through the eyes of its characters. It’s a hell of a way to end a game where you blow up a Nazi moon base.

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Shadow of the Colossus and the Weight of Responsibility

           Hi there! This blog/series of essays/yell into the void is an original project for me, one where I’ll be talking about and breaking down some of the most striking moments in video games. I’m leaving the definition of “moments” intentionally pretty vague here. It might be a level or sequence, or a repeated mechanic that works exceptionally well, or some completely different interpretation of the concept. The important limiting agent here is that each entry on this blog is going to be specific; games are made of so many thousands of moving parts that writing about anything more than a moment in detail seems almost impossible.

            I think memory of specific moments is often what defines a thing for us. If someone is talking about Inception, I’ll think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt running down a spinning hallway. Mentioning Rembrandt doesn’t draw up some nebulous history of the artist, but seeing one of his portraits while playing a family board game about paintings. Any reference to Assassin’s Creed, even with all its sequels and spin-offs, still brings me back to the first clock towers I climbed in renaissance-era Italy. These are more than just points in time, though; they color the entire experience of that work. Moments are important.

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           So with that out of the way, let’s get to today’s topic of discussion (and the source of the title of this blog!). Phalanx, the thirteenth colossus in Fumito Ueda’s Shadow of the Colossus.

            Shadow of the Colossus is, in many ways, a game about moments. It is simply sixteen boss fights, sixteen desperate, lonely confrontations against beasts as big as mountains, and nothing but travel in between. The game has no busy work, no sidequests or minibosses, to muddy the experience of climbing atop and subsequently destroying the titular colossi. Your motivation is powerful, but sparse: told that this forbidden land has the power to bring back the dead, you strike a deal with an old god of the land to bring back a loved one. The god tells says that to do so, you must slay the giants that roam the land. That’s it. And then you’re off, with a bow and a sword and a horse far too big for you, tasked with somehow murdering a skyscraper-sized monster.

           A universal feeling upon encountering one of the game’s colossi is “how the hell am I supposed to attack this thing?” One is a knight, hundreds of feet tall, with stone armor and a sword the length of a train car. Another, an eel that barely surfaces long enough to catch hold of its tail, let alone attack it. But even within that context, Phalanx, the thirteenth colossus, stands out. Only a brief tremor warns of its arrival, a rumble in a lonely desert, before it shoots out of the ground like a geyser. It’s a vast airborne snake, a winged ribbon, an alligator stretched and contorted and turned to stone. It  twists and turns into the sky the way the Golden Gate bridge might, if it decided that it needed to escape into space.

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             A chart of the colossi puts Phalanx at just under 600 feet long, an unimaginable size. Whales aren’t this big. Dragons aren’t this big. It’s by far the largest creature you encounter in a game that bills itself on killing mountains. And yet…it doesn’t even notice you, let alone attack. It lazily circles in the sky, a creature older than time stretching its wings for the first time in a century. More than any other colossus, Phalanx makes you doubt yourself. You could just leave. Yes, there’s an ancient force that commanded you to take down the colossi, but surely this one, of all things, has earned the right to exist. Its wings are the same texture as the sandstone around you, its fur like the grass of the desert. Shadow’s soundtrack is called Roar of the Earth, an implication that the beasts in the game are maybe literally created from the rocks, plants, and dirt around them. Destroying Phalanx would be like killing the soul of this part of the world. But, as stated before: this is a game about killing mountains.

               By the thirteenth colossus, you’ve learned most of what the game the game wants to teach you. Sometimes you have to grab the giants’ attention with a whistle, or an arrow. Usually the area you fight them in holds some sort of clue or key to taking them down. Your horse, Agro, will occasionally play a vital role. Shadow of the Colossus is exceptionally phalanxtemplatepatient however, and only reveals the promise of its various mechanics towards the very end of its story. As the great beast circles overhead, it seems to barely exert itself. Even still, you have to gallop on horseback just to keep up as it rises and falls with the wind. It breaths in and out slowly, drawing air into the giant sacs on its stomach. Maybe the air feels different than the last time it emerged. Civilizations could have risen and fell while it slumbered beneath the world, the earth gone through great atmospheric changes. You draw an arrow, and loose it into its belly..

              In the story The Fog Horn, Ray Bradbury writes of an encounter with a dinosaur, the lone survivor of its species after millions of years living under the sea. Hearing a lighthouse’s fog horn as the call of one of its own, the creature travels for months each year to howl back at the sound. “I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and to all who hear it in the distant towns,” McDunn, the keeper of the lighthouse says of the cry of the tower and the monster. “I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.”

             When the arrow hits Phalanx, maybe it doesn’t cry out. The noise of the creature may not be its roar, but the scream of air rushing through its punctured lungs. Yet it’s hard not to think of Bradbury’s dinosaur as the colossus smashes into the ground, wounded and unable to keep itself aloft. Already, a dozen of these beasts have fallen by your hand, a dozen times you’ve chosen to kill something eternal for a finite reward; the act of killing doesn’t get any easier. Thrust back into the forbidden land again and again, constantly reminded of the toll you’re taking on the world and the toll that it’s taking on you. The colossus’ great sandstone wings drag along the ground, just slowly enough that you’re able to grab hold of one and climb, hand over hand, to the creature’s back. Somehow it finds the strength to soar into the air again, but this time carrying you, the killer of this world’s titans. You stab, again and again, into the soft underside of its ancient stone plating. With the same energy that Phalanx itself initially burst from the ground, blood sprays like another geyser out from under your sword. It twists and turns, finally cognizant of another beings presence, but far too late to save itself.

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            Did the colossus even comprehend what attacked it? Or was it simply thrust into a world of pain, crying out in hurt and confusion with its final gasps of air? Even in death, Phalanx cements itself as part of the world in a way your character will never be, bending into a great ring like those that scatter the desert.

            And then I began to hear it. First a great vacuumed sucking of air, and then the lament, the bewilderment, the loneliness of the great monster, folded over upon us, above us, so that the sickening reek of its body filled the air, a stone’s thickness away from our cellar. The monster gasped and cried. The tower was gone. The light was gone. The thing that had called it across a million years was gone. And the monster was opening its mouth and sending out great sounds. the sounds of a Fog Horn, again and again. (The Fog Horn, 1953)

               Your character is an intruder in the aptly titled Forbidden Lands. Much of Shadow has the air of a breathtaking world you weren’t meant to see. Like the bottom of the ocean or the surface of Venus, Phalanx had existed far before humans existed in that world and would have outlasted them by just as long. Its death at your hands was a transgression, an interference of humans into nature that can never be taken back. Although true of all the colossi in the game, this thirteenth fight makes the contrast clearest of all; you are responsible for the death of this land.

“Ah, the poor thing! Waiting out there, and waiting out there, while man comes and goes on this pitiful little planet. Waiting and waiting.”

I sat in my car, listening. I couldn’t see the lighthouse or the light standing out in Lonesome Bay. I could only hear the Horn, the Horn, the Horn. It sounded like the monster calling.

I sat there wishing there was something I could say

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Art by Sabbatica