Review: The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon represents the latest addition to Haneke’s increasingly formidable catalogue. It tells the story of a North-German village on the chronological cusp of WW1, where a series of strange events begin to unravel and disturb its serene moral exterior. Somehow involved are the young children of the village, although whether they are victims, perpetrators (or both) is left to interpretation, and becomes one of the main focal points through the course of the picture.

As with many films from Haneke, succinct summaries are doomed to fall short; their elliptical psychology forbids it. Indeed, to impose a fixed narrative arc captures only a fraction of the experience; to describe it – for instance – as a purely moral examination misses the point also. Just as a musical composition can be said to be produced out of the precise spaces and absences of sound, so Haneke’s films rely upon a similar principle. The visual experience draws upon the peculiar texture of the blank space, demanding an active spectator to interpret its patterns accordingly. Suffice to say, The White Ribbon is a film where narrative threads are rarely succinctly tied.

Its core theme points toward the children and their chronological relation to history, positioned as the nascent fascist generation who would later permit Hitler’s rise to power. Their dramatic charge is a significant one, and as subject matter demands respectful treatment. If the yoke of German fascism is cemented in popular history at the Treaty of Versailles, where the country’s symbolic dignity was signed away from itself, then The White Ribbon seems to be rejecting such a blanket reading. True fascism, according to the picture, is naturalized at childhood, and its formative processes are just as perverse and morally destructive as its outward manifestations at psychological maturity. The source of this toxic development is located primarily within the community’s repressive modes of punishment, where we see a series of disciplinary measures that are distinctly archaic in their perversity: organized spankings take on an almost ritualistic form; children’s hands are tied to their beds to prevent pre-sexual experimentation, and a white ribbon is used as a kind of cleansing ritual by attaching it to a child who has previously transgressed.

A child wears the white ribbon

It is unclear whether Haneke has chosen this generation and its simulacra to make a revised claim against history, or whether it is simply a locus for him to probe certain philosophical windows. One suspects the former, although its commitment at times appears slightly inconsistent. What one would expect, for example, to be drawn as a tragic arc of innocence lost is undercut by over-naturalizing the children as not simply unfortunate victims of historical circumstance, but as somehow inherently wicked prior to their moral abjection. The textual parallel with Village of the Damned feels too consciously drawn, and its presence within the film detracts from the dramatic charge of its subject matter.

Worthy of note is the picture’s haunting use of mise-en-scene, which manages to captivate the screen with silent authority. It is unusual for a film of Haneke to be so heavily invested in the raw seductiveness of the image in quite this way; his oeuvre has always gravitated toward the opposite function: to resist the viewer and their sense of passive oneness with the screen. The White Ribbon, in contrast, maintains the vibrancy of the image in full; resulting in a precise visual collage of golden black and white hues that eminently bleed from the screen, accentuating a pastoral vision of life that has since faded from contemporary view.

Such pictural elegance contrasts sharply with the film’s dark subject matter in a way that is notably disjunctive. One senses that this is intentional, and meant to serve a symbolic function. Indeed, the seductive imagery mirrors precisely historical fascism’s own aestheticized seduction, where the pastoral scene is evoked as part of a unifying myth of Aryan supremacy. In one shot, the hypnotic coherence of a field of harvesters perfectly synchronized in labour immaculately references Nazi propaganda both in message and aesthetic. Shot from certain angles, the village itself betrays the architectural impression of Auschwitz; its inhabitants a timeless spectre wandering aimlessly through history. In The White Ribbon, fascist echoes haunt the screen space as phantasmagorical premonitions

The pastoral scene: a fascist aesthetic?

In an interview Haneke suggests that the rigid moral structures of the community (and their strict enforcement) condition the children into a perverse hyper-censorious state – compelling them towards violent and tortuous acts in response to any perceived infraction to their internalized moral code. The ritual of the white ribbon as a disciplining mechanism must be read within similar lines; where its cleansing function in childhood takes on a pathological dimension in adult life; a destructive fixation on ‘whiteness’ as a symbolic pathway toward moral purity. It sits as a malignant kernel of nascent fascism which the film takes as its central metaphor.

It’s a bold position, and not one that the film is quite able to sell convincingly. However, as a filmic exploration one need not follow its esoteric logics to appreciate the overall force of its cinematic experience. It is a majestically shot window into a previous world and its peculiar rituals of being, and can be enjoyed entirely on such a level. For those who wish to journey deeper into the caverns of symbolism and subtext and attempt to psychologically map the film as a codified portrait of the fascist unconscious, your appetite will be well gorged.

Peeping Tom: A Brief Retrospective

In the present post-modern milieu of contemporary culture, where layers of irony are heaped together not unlike Russian dolls, self-referentiality is almost to be assumed; a meta-generic function of sorts that has slowly seeped into all other contingent forms. With this in mind, Peeping Tom’s playfully self-aware aesthetics of phallically endowed video cameras and the libidinally invested power of the image have, perhaps, succumbed to a certain temporal draining that so often accompanies commendable films via the inevitable saturation of familiarity and time. However, unlike most modern films where self-reflexivity is often seen in no more radical terms than the linear timings of a crosscut edit, Peeping Tom’s carefully orchestrated visual and narrative deconstruction is quite potently and unwaveringly transgressive.

The film centres upon Mark, a professional camera operator by day who also runs an amateur photography business by night, shooting revealing photos of young women who, within the film’s own internal codes of desire (and surely this is part of its overall commentary) find themselves seemingly seduced by the camera’s powerfully virile gaze. As a psychopath, Mark’s own transient masculinity is shown to be psychologically rewired into the phallic economy of the video camera and its concomitant systems of sexually charged representation. A process which is detailed explicitly within the film, as we see his childhood psyche warped by his father’s bizarre psychological experiments that are all meticulously filmed and documented.

There are two psychological layers to be observed here, a quality that renders the picture gladly rewarding of repeat views. On one level a cleverly constructed psychological thriller within the Psycho mould; on another, a critical meta-narrative on the issue of spectatorship itself, where the complicit relationship it upholds with the implied violence of the screen is forcefully examined and probed. This psychological duality brings a playful depth to the onscreen imagery, one where, the more one is familiar with the rules and regulations of cinematic representation; the more one is able to delight in their irreverent and systematic deconstruction.

Like all films that maintain a strict visual economy, its discipline is rewarded by pre-conditioning certain targeted responses from the audience. In one scene, by forcefully conflating the object of the camera with the phallus, a young actress’ attempts to reverse the representational tables on Mark by daring to film him and wield the phallic gaze for herself, conjures the peculiar symbolic power of both the transgressive and obscene. A response that can only be understood in relation to the film’s own internally pre-programmed codes of power and desire.

There are other dualities to Peeping Tom that are more peripheral, yet in their own way command a unique sense of gravity. For a picture which demonstrates such apparent mastery in subverting and transgressing certain cinematic codes and conventions, there are, in contrast, moments of quite spectacularly stilted dialogue and acting. This disjunction between visual economies creates a unique psychological texture for the film; that of a precariously unbalanced diegesis that, when combined, adds to an overall sense of spectatorial unease and discomfort. This response has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, the film succeeds so effectively in unsettling the carefully aligned codes of our relationship to the screen, that its reception in 1960 was one of the quite dramatically scandalous. So much so, that its director Michael Powell was effectively forced into exile from the UK film industry.

It seems an unfortunate fact of cinema that radical acts of aesthetic prescience are so often regarded with indifference at best, or, claims of obscenity at worst. Perhaps, as with other art forms, the obscene is simply that which disrupts the complacency of the centre, calling to attention certain internalized pleasures that have through repetition ascended to the cultural heights of the divinely unquestionable. In these terms, Peeping Tom should be seen as a much needed self-corrective measure, reminding us of the bizarrely perverse dynamics intrinsic of the cinematic-spectatorial relationship. For this alone, it deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

Desiring Machines

A lot can change in ten years. Sometimes it can be difficult to step back and appreciate just how much things have been altered by such a relatively short and innocuous passage of time. For context, little more than ten years ago the humble phone box still ruled the urban cityscape (now nearing extinction in many countries), and the concept of shopping via an electrical cable connected to your home still seemed like sinister alien technology.

These are mostly crude examples; they don’t even begin to penetrate the true inter-personal fabric of social change in response to the radical acceleration of technology in almost every aspect of our lives. In the last decade, technology moved in strange and unexpected ways, and its sites of influence could not always be anticipated. Its most innovative penetration has been within the social sphere, where pervasive technologies such as the internet have, within a short space of time, reorganized, and effectively reinvented, an entire system of social integration.

Those who have bravely assimilated themselves with the appropriate technology already live a largely virtual existence. Their social interactions are mapped by the discursive patterns and instantaneous timings of digital technology; mediated via a keyboard, a touchscreen, a webcam or microphone.

It goes further.

To the extent that others perceive us directly via the mediated interface of technology (a pixelated image, abbreviated text message, onscreen avatar) our existence is not simply part-virtualized, but our essential identity is that of a virtual being. Our technological utterances leave digital echoes that take on a new form of techno-infused subjectivity.

For instance, if I choose to send a digital text message to a friend, upon its reception my temporal identity becomes in that moment physically inseparable from the device and its system of digital representation. Similarly, if I choose to participate in an online multiplayer game, my transposed identity takes on a new hyper-reducted form within the pixelled image of the avatar, where it may coexist with any number of other virtual beings, some of which may be AI controlled. The avatar of the AI, to the extent that it may be visually indistinguishable from the subjective player, creates moments and spaces of subjective uncertainty; the AI expresses itself through the same representational syntax as the virtual being, causing a radical flattening out of the distinction between the real and the virtual, subjective and objective.

In the virtual world, the narrow representational gulf between human and machine is one of carefully disguised agency. There is no concrete identifier of the virtual being, it must be pre-supposed upon ever narrowing criteria of ‘human-like’ functions. The AI, meanwhile, is never far behind in its ability to mimic and replicate its biological counterpart. To the extent that identity is bound within certain processes of socialisation (i.e. how we are directly perceived and responded to by others) then the voluntary induction of the subject into the status of virtual being is made concrete reality.

Why do we desire machines in this way? Beyond the immediate convenience and spectacle, is there a pleasurable, anaesthetizing quality to this voluntary assimilation? Perhaps we should view it as an augmentation rather than a detraction; a sign that we have evolved beyond evolution, reshaping the world via metal and silicon to fulfill a peculiarly undisclosed drive toward total assimilation with the machine. As we approach this sinister precipice of technology, do we jump boldly into an unknown future, or step back before it’s too late?

Dr. Caligari: A Radical Image From the Past

Watching a film with the visual tour-de-force of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, one experiences an undistilled flow of several emotions. There is the sense of awe in the audacity of its own diegetic mastery. There is the uncanny unease of its grainy, almost spectral display of filmic representation, enhanced by an unwavering commitment to raw expressionistic modes. There is also, beneath this, a kind of sadness, a remorse even, that this radically alternative approach to cinema exists only as historical interlude, a brief rupture within the unrelenting march of classical realism.

Dr. Caligari is, of course, a silent film. It is both a tragic and unfortunate commentary on our conditioned response to cinema that this fact alone is seen as reason enough by many to avoid it. It is certainly an argument against contemporary cinema-as-art that the virtue of the image is so spectacularly ruptured via the simple absence of certain aural cues – as if the image itself lacks the necessary force to uphold its own relationship with the imagined spectator.

The march of technological progress encourages celebration of the new and spectacular; it also disavows the loss from within culture that this bludgeoning presence serves to terminally disconnect. Watching a film like Dr. Caligari, one can’t help but feel that such an act of loss has occurred with the introduction, and imposition, of sound within the cinematic frame. While the presence of intra-diegetic dialogue has allowed cinema to grow into the universal medium it exists as today, the primacy of the image has no doubt suffered an ontological suffocation. One wonders to what extent a modern day Dr. Caligari would be possible at all were aural dialogue allowed to freely subvert and distract from the visual majesty of a truly committed expressionism.

The real unflinching beauty of Dr. Caligari is the extent to which it can be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level, without any concern paid to narrative suture. There are very few films that could say the same.

Virtual Tumbleweed

Since this blog still gets a surprising amount of hits, and since I also haven’t been able to keep content flowing nearly as freely as I would’ve liked, I’ve decided that a change in policy is in order.

When I first started this blog my intention was to keep it away from the virtual echo style that merely regurgitates content from elsewhere while hoping that someday, somehow, someone just might stumble across it and care. I wanted to it to be about good worthwhile content. Content that was probably way too serious, highbrow and intellectual to fit neatly within a blog type format. But screw it, I thought. I’ll rage against the machine and do things my way, anyway.

Since then this blog has received a wildly variable amount of attention. From virtual tumbleweed (most of the time) to a mini explosion of hits when certain articles have been lucky enough to get picked up by more mainstream sites. To my residual audience that still visits here occasionally hoping for fresh updates, it saddens me that I no longer have  the necessary time to keep your intellectual appetite sated.

The good news is that I will be attempting to update in a much more regular fashion in future.

The bad news is that it will mostly be in the annoying blogging style that I swore would never befall this place.

Future updates will also be more focussed toward my other passion – world cinema, and other disparate elements of pop culture in general that I feel are worthy of comment. Video games included.

To everyone that has visited and commented so far – be it here, or via other sites where my articles have appeared – I thank you humbly.  I hope that you continue to enjoy the blog, or find one that takes much better care of you than this one has.

The Culture of Video Games

Video games are no longer the culturally empty electro-blocks and easy-to-swallow impulse receptacles that once defined them during their formative years. Instead, as the technology that shapes them as vehicles of variable interaction has evolved over time, their ability to straddle more complex cultural lines and more nuanced processes of thought has accelerated to a point that qualifies them for more serious consideration. Indeed, part of my original motivation for writing these articles grew out of my own despair at the lack of critical discussion video games were being subjected to.

Video Games: From this.

Without wishing to get tied down in debates surrounding the empirical prerequisites for what constitutes ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ forms of art and culture, I want to suggest that video games have reached what I would consider a significant threshold of cultural relevancy that qualifies them, if not to be accepted, then at least to be considered for what they bring to the cultural table. While the trend for games to absorb and incorporate more traditional cultural influences such as cinema and literature has certainly contributed to this ongoing development, I think the real reason for this evolving shift toward ‘legitimacy’ is much simpler, and more universal. That is, interactive games have reached a position of thematic and reflexive maturity that allows them to frame, extrapolate and mythologize upon the cultural wellspring of the human frailties; a process generally shared by all serious cultural outputs. As cinema discovered for itself very early on, prolonged durability as a medium depends not so much on the precise technical particulars of your craft (the raw technological ‘thrill’ of moving pictures as a spectacle in and of itself faded extremely quickly) but in being able to readily address the spoken and unspoken tensions, aspirations and fears of a emotionally perceptible audience. It is this quality that renders film culturally and epochally specific, in a sense inseparable from the context of native time and space; where its thematic scope is rooted to and rises out of a certain cultural milieu which is then reabsorbed by that same body in the form of material consumption.

Interactive games of the more serious type have been gradually moving closer to this form of cultural dynamic. At their very best, their themes and stories extrapolate from a complex and multifaceted socio-political fabric and repackage themselves as compelling, hyper-real cyber realities. The original Deus Ex and Fallout 3, for instance, are both essentially groundbreaking titles not simply for what they were able achieve technologically, but also for their acutely relevant channels into socio-political discourse intensely specific to both time and space. This is not to suggest these titles are necessarily high-brow art forms, but that their thematic sensitivity to wider social predispositions and tendencies should cement them as works of serious cultural discussion.

Deus Ex: Raising the bar

One of the most groundbreaking early studies of cinema, conducted by German critic Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler identified what Kracauer argued was a direct psychological link between the prevailing themes and subject matter of post WW1, pre-Hitler German cinema and the subsequent rise of fascism in that country. Despite minor differences of surface, Kracauer suggested a whole body of films that not only reflected certain ‘authoritarian’ dispositions, but also thematically preempted the dramatic political and social changes that modern history now registers there. According to Kracauer these films exhibited a problematic moral duality that projected the pre-Hitler future of Germany as a binary pathway between wholesale tyranny, or a kind of primitive mob anarchy. This duality suggested, as Kracauer argued, that the German people had perhaps already psychologically ‘accepted’, at least on a subconscious or pre-subconscious level, the inevitability of, or even, the ‘natural’ procession toward a duly authoritarian state.

A Bleak German Future: Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)

I refer to this example from cinema as I think it exemplifies the idea that certain forms of media are able to act as prescient markers for social and political trends and attitudes, something that I dare suggest we are now moving towards, if not in all video games, then at least a select few that represent a high watermark of cultural relevancy. That video games so often straddle the genre of science fiction is also significant. Science fiction, despite its fantastical excesses, tends to be the most socially and politically reflexive form of popular myth; a grand theatrical canvas where the hopes, fears and anxieties of the present are extrapolated and played out within a theoretical, hyper-realized future.

For instance, an entire thesis could be written for a game like Fallout 3 and what is a veritably rich textual and sub-textual layering of themes, symbols and metaphors. It potentially offers, in its broadest scope, a comprehensive treatise on the grand American neo-liberal experiment. By fiercely juxtaposing, for instance, the familiar iconography of America at its cultural and economic apex: the heady, sickly-sweet and nostalgia-bled 1950s, against the engulfing, inescapable backdrop of post nuclear fallout decay, it casts a certain tension and anxiety to the future of this great mythological American dream. Later, when we enter into a direct manifestation of this ideal in the form of a cruel virtual reality prison at Vault 112, there is a sense of uncanny repulsion at the ensuing scenes; that of an impossibly sanitized community of polite 1950s automatons going about their sterile pre-scripted lives, oblivious to their own psychological capture. It is telling that the gameplay that characterizes these moments becomes, in effect, a mission to disturb this polite social veneer via the calculated framing of adultery and the performance of various other social transgressions. It is as if the hero/player is being encouraged in these moments to take pleasure in this perverse social subversion, to break apart its very superficiality. Much like the original juxtaposition, the intended effect of these scenes is a further deconstruction of one of America’s most highly exalted cultural paragons: the typically American aspiration of 50s style suburbia and the picture-book nuclear family recast as a chiefly hollow and synthetic simulacrum of human (non)interaction.

Vault 112: Subverting the polite social veneer

Politics too are drawn with a similarly pessimistic tone and cynicism. The loquacious President ‘Eden’ who can be heard throughout the airwaves as the hero makes his way around the faceless derelicts and wastelands, is later revealed as a nothing more than a form of advanced artificial intelligence; a mathematical amalgamation of personalities, slogans and verbal-inflections of former American presidents (whose election we are told is a matter of state secrecy under grounds of ‘national security’). This display of grandiose political artifice emerges from within a Western culture where political speeches are readily dissected for their cunning rhetorical devices by an army of analysts and speechwriters, and then recycled back into ‘the system’ in the form of newly calibrated political speeches.

In Deus Ex, government bodies are not only cast as hollowed out entities, but also as sinister constructs engaged in bio-terrorist acts against the very citizens they are presumed to govern. Owing to its Cyberpunk influences, its primary dialogue is one between the nature of technology and the relationship it upholds with contemporary systems of power. Its commentary on state surveillance, for instance, is crystallized in the form of the hero, JC Denton, a high-tech covert agent, who is ‘nano-augmented’ with a built in cranial spy camera which broadcasts directly to UNATCO HQ (a kind of Orwellian international police force) in real-time and for official state observation and archiving. Thus, as the player performs various missions within the game world, they are repeatedly made aware of this all-seeing presence that, we are told, cannot be switched off. While simultaneously, agents from UNATCO HQ are able to appear within a personal eidetic display to comment, praise or condemn the player as they perform various actions. This randomized and often unexpected interjection of government agents into the player’s private visual space, combined with a narrative which develops directly in response to this act of digital intrusion, creates a subtle psychological tension that operates within the boundaries of virtual subjectivity. The effect of this complex diegetic arrangement is the creation of a kind of meta-ontology of systemic surveillance, one the player is compelled to operate under as they psychologically and subjectively engage within this morally ambiguous virtual world. In doing so, it actualizes a techno-driven re-conceptualization of the Panopticon; a technical construct designed to create a forced internalization of the very act of surveillance within the subject, described by its creator Jeremy Bentham as a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”.

Presidio Modelo: A Panopticon Inspired Prison

The social relevancy of these titles is tacitly woven yet maintains a direct psycho-active link to many of its unspoken, symbolic tensions. The thematic appropriateness of Deux Ex, for instance, is confirmed in hindsight when viewed through the lens of post-9/11 angst, where its uncanny prescience cements itself as a significant cultural artifact. Consider briefly the techno-fears and anxieties that are drawn so heavily upon here prior to this horrific event, that in many ways now find themselves manifest within physical and psychological reality. The basic narrative framework, that of a devastating terrorist attack against New York City, prefigures an international crackdown on ‘global terrorism’ and an ensuing, indiscriminate curtailment of individual liberties. More eerily, artwork included within the game also shows the Twin Towers markedly absent from the distinctive Manhattan skyline. While the physical parallels to 9/11 are striking, the psycho-social echoes between fiction and reality also suggest a more dynamically rooted interplay. Indeed, that a significant cultural subset now subscribes to grand conspiracies of government involvement in 9/11, for instance, would appear to directly mirror Deus Ex’s own sinister portrayal of shadowy government agencies actively plotting against their own citizens. Its comprehensive treatise is a systematic layering and exploration of the grand act of political conspiracy, locating it not only as mere theme, but at the very core of its ideological drive. It urges the notion that for as much as this is the product of creative choice, it is also a form of reverberated and diffuse mass-cultural response. While I do not wish to prescribe a sense of legitimacy to such conspirational views, it is important to note what is a form of authentic social and political tension, one that would, in this instance, appear to represent a muted and dispersed anxiety in the nature of contemporary political agency at root of the body politic. An animus, in effect, that attaches itself as a form of collective psychological undercurrent in the Kracauerian sense, and finds itself re-manifest through the highly stratified channels of mass production and popular entertainment.

What becomes notable within these titles when taken together is their apparent mirroring of a similar moral dualism to the one characterized by the pre-Nazi Germany films discussed by Kracaeur – that of the ideological juxtaposition between a world defined via anarchy or tyranny. In Fallout 3, for instance, the player must choose whether to cooperate with the shadowy ‘Enclave’ (the de-facto ‘government’ and fascistic overseers of the Capital Wasteland) by helping ‘purify’ the remaining population with aid of the FEV virus; or, assist in securing the ‘Fountains of Life’  – a clean water supply free from toxic radiation that would ensure the survival of all within the Wasteland; a future which ideologically rejects the Enclave and the promised ‘stability’ of centralized government. In Deus Ex, similarly, the player must decide whether to ally themselves with shadowy global entities who seek to control the world through advanced cybercratic means, or else, destroy the ‘Global Communications Hub’; an action which would – the game informs us – plunge civilization into a new ‘dark age’, effectively crippling all form of structural government.

In each case, the narrative structure of these titles can be seen to accelerate toward a kind of thematic ‘polarity’ where the individual must decide, essentially, between a world of liberty underpinned by chaos, or conversely, a world of order governed via tyranny. As players, we are positioned as dynamic agents occupying a transitional space in and between each of these binary points, where ‘completion’ of the game involves the performance of tasks that fall ambiguously within either side of this complex ideological spectrum. In some instances, players must perform certain ‘quests’ without explicit knowledge of their precise ideological footprint. A mission to hunt down an ‘evil’ character, for instance, will often reveal a far more sinister plot which, in turn, implicates the very individual(s) that assigned the original mission; a kind of ideological reversal where the ‘evil’ character becomes, in essence, an ally in pursuit of a far greater ideological threat. Such reversals are often nested like Russian dolls to the point where all ideological foundations are rendered systematically hollow, as merely temporal points which serve to highlight the subjectivity inherent within all moral reality.

Tough Decisions: In Fallout 3, a mission to cure a horrific disease depends upon the kidnap of an innocent.

The ideological dualism on display within these titles represent not isolated cultural events, but an emerging pattern or myth within the domain of the video game – one which forms the basis for some of its most popular and endurable outputs. That some of the most successful and influential titles of the last two decades – games such as Half-Life 2 and Final Fantasy 7 also heavily incorporate this same dualism into their narrative framework, confirms the presence of a form of emerging cultural mimesis. Together with Fallout 3 and Deus Ex, the significant economic success of these titles should be seen, I would suggest, as an indication of an active psycho-social channel, in the Kracaeurian sense, between media object and consumer subject; one which, in its heavily codified form, is able to speak to the popular techno fears and desires internalized by the mass video gaming audience. Indeed, it is their thematic relevance to this cultural milieu that has not only secured their economic success, but also cemented them as a form of modern ‘cyber myth’ that underpins the subconscious political fabric of this emerging cultural subset. Like the films of pre-Nazi Germany, the mass production and consumption of such inimical ideological binaries suggests a form of psycho-social tension within the boundaries of the political conscious, one which draws upon an ambiguously circumscribed moral aesthetic and broadly inflected iconographic array to express many of its unspoken anxieties.

However, the event or consumption of such forms should not be viewed automatically as a kind of fascist predilection or tendency. On the contrary, it demonstrates an anxiety and distrust toward all forms of structural authority, and of any attempts to naturalize or make legitimate its own branded ideology.

Surviving Horror: The Problem With Games That Scare

As humans we often relish the bittersweet rush of fear, that surge of adrenaline heightening our senses, making us feel all the more present and alive. Game designers have, historically, been rather slow in tapping into this most primary of human emotions; perhaps due to the limitations of technology, where for the longest time graphical capability was just too crude, too ‘plastic’ – naturally precluding it from reaching too far into the depths of horror.

The appetite for such games is certainly ever-present. Indeed, one of the first titles to penetrate these darker psychological places – Resident Evil – is widely regarded by many as a landmark in gaming and one of its perennial bestsellers. After a surge of similarly stylized titles followed suit  – dubbed ‘survival horror’ – it seemed as though a new genre had begun to emerge; a mini explosion of games which sought to capture the slower, more meticulous pace of isolation and horror, over more perennial gaming tropes of big guns and bigger action.

Resident Evil: A memorable scene

Unfortunately this horror renaissance was to be short-lived. It would be disingenuous to suggest a single reason; industries mature, gamers evolve. While, true, the quality of these titles remained steadily consistent with the material, numerous sequels (at least six in the Resident Evil universe alone) have a tendency to de-energize a particular format, emptying it of its original force and impact. Thus, Survival-Horror, with its distinctively down-tuned pace and almost obsessive attention to atmosphere and nuance, gradually gave way to ‘Action-Horror’, an altogether different beast.

Surprisingly, this change came not from outside the genre, but within it at its very core. With the release of Resident Evil 4, makers Capcom effectively drove a stake into the heart of its creation, casting aside the carefully refined gameplay that had made them an industry centrepiece, and built a new kind of title from the carefully exhumed skeleton of its predecessor. Gone were the fixed, almost expressionistic camera angles and the lush pre-rendered backgrounds. So too the ‘clunky’ controls, purposely designed so as to make one feel more sluggish and, thus, more vulnerable.

By far the most dramatic change however, was in the relative degrees of action as a proportion of the overall gameplay. While in previous incarnations combat sequences were distributed sparsely against other strings of virtual activity, such as puzzle solving and exploration, this took a much broader stage in its fourth iteration, dominating the interactive space to a far more saturated degree. This had two effects. Firstly, it answered criticism that saw the franchise cemented in ‘outdated’ gameplay, successfully pioneering a form of action hybrid that was part FPS (in all but camera angle) and part survival horror. Secondly – and this is intrinsically linked to the first – it created an aperture of sorts which, intentionally or not, served to empty out much of the title’s more subtle shades of tension, isolation and suspense – severely compromising its capacity to scare.

Resident Evil 4: More action, less atmosphere.

This second point is crucial, and not so much a criticism as it is an acknowledgement of a certain tension in game design; one that is invariably encountered when trying to balance the antagonistic qualities of both the interactive dynamics of gameplay (i.e. action) with horror that speaks directly to the experience of fear. It is one that causes us to question to what extent horror is transferrable to the unique and particular dynamics of gaming, insofar as the presence of one can be seen to directly contract and psychologically dampen that of the other.

Indeed, prolonged and inflated levels of action serve to suffocate horror by severing it from its necessary pre-conditions of atmospheric tension and suspense. It does so by sensually overloading them; by diverting the player’s attention away from a potential, and as of yet unannounced threat, with one that is solid and tangible – and what can never quite satisfy what was subjectively pre-imagined.

Horror is unique in this way among visual forms in the sense that it is explicitly governed by what I like to call its ‘action signature’. Similar to a time signature in music, it is the process that maps the relative and precise levels of action and pace which in turn dictate and control the visual and audiological space. While many games incorporate this concept into their design as a system of controlling and shaping their interactive texture, it is only in relation to horror where this comes under such critical control of the form as a whole, and where adherence to its particular patterns of activity are directly related to its capacity to startle and scare.

The image below is an attempt to represent this action signature as a graph, and should hopefully help to illustrate the idea more clearly. While it might seem logical to include an action signature from a non-horror genre in the interest of comparison, this is precisely the point; it would be impossible to represent a ‘typical’ action signature outside of horror since the respective levels of action and range – even within a genre – have such varying shape so as to render it empirically empty.

The key point to note from the graph is the extreme dynamic range in activity, between the long drawn out depression indicating a slow pace and very little action, to the sudden dramatic spikes indicating a short, sharp burst in visual and auditory activity. It is the fundamental shape that defines the pace and spheres of action in horror, and operates under the same principle whether in a Hollywood movie, or an interactive computer game.

To apply this idea to a practical example: there is an infamous moment in the original Resident Evil, perhaps one of the first memorable big ‘jump’ moments in gaming, where as the player carefully makes their way around the mysterious mansion, looking for clues and items, a pack of rabid ‘zombie dogs’ pounce through a nearby window directly into the player’s path. The sequence creates a panic ‘event’ which forces the player to quickly engage or escape the creatures, while the music bursts into a high pitched screech of discordant sound so as to amplify the overall sense of alarm and distress.

Resident Evil: A classic moment in interactive horror

If we were to map this sequence of gameplay in terms of its action signature it would look much like the diagram shown above, with the slow drawn out depression in activity, leading to a short, dramatic burst in action, before quickly returning again to its previous deflated levels.

This form of action signature is essential to horror for two reasons. Firstly, it allows for the creation of a partial sensory vacuum that serves to redirect attention to the more subtle diegetic cues of atmosphere, environment, and sound – in essence, the necessary pre-conditions for horror. Secondly, these carefully maintained levels of impassivity feed into a player’s sense of apprehension and dread: the ever-potent fear of what may be lurking just around the corner.  This allows for the setup of the ‘jump’ moment, the big spikes in the action signature that give horror its characteristic texture as a medium.

From a design perspective, this particular form of inflexible action signature presents a significant challenge, since to obey its rigid structure serves to severely delimit the type and pace of gameplay that can be inserted therein. It calls for extended periods of low activity which strictly de-authorize the unrestrained action strings of intense virtual combat – unless carefully controlled, meticulously orchestrated, and always sparsely utilized.

In essence, the particular dynamics of gaming – the need for the player to be constantly engaged in activity or ‘doing something’ – is antagonistic to the demands of an action signature that requires extended periods of effectively ‘doing nothing’.

Previous titles – such as Resident Evil – have dealt with this by filling in these spaces of interactive dormancy with other, more sensually restrained activities, such as exploration and puzzle solving. Activities that work by drawing the player deeper into their environment, rather than beating it into submission with guns and bravado.

A puzzle from Resident Evil 2

Systems of combat may still be introduced, however it is essential that they are mapped carefully to the requirements of the action signature so as not to sensually overload the player, and thus breach its necessary shape. Resident Evil (1 & 2) and Silent Hill for example, have a deliberately sluggish and down-tuned pace to their combat systems so as not to undercut atmosphere and tension. They also – due to a purposely designed scarcity of weapons and ammunition – emphasise the avoidance of zombies and creatures as much as direct confrontation, which in turn works to amplify the overall sense of danger and threat they present to the player.

The issue with these solutions lies in the fact that for a majority of gamers – the core market, I would suggest – these gameplay mechanisms aren’t particularly fun or satisfying. The combat may feel awkward and ‘clunky’, while puzzles and extended periods of exploration can sometimes feel forced and demotivating to a player. Instead, these dynamics rely upon a consistently engaging story, with an atmosphere and tension that is thick and engrossing in order to compensate, and divert attention away from their rickety and ever slightly hollow nature.  In the absence of these, the game’s capacity to deliver an enjoyable experience is likely to come apart.

This is why so many titles that purport to scare ultimately fail to reach any significant or satisfying notes of horror; they find themselves unable to maintain fidelity with the precise requirements of the action signature, or conversely, able to establish a mechanism of gameplay that feels adequately gratifying within its peculiar and inflexible boundaries. It is unsurprising then that many games have instead reverted to what I would call ‘Action Horror’, a genre which deploys the visual iconography and narrative setting of horror, but opt instead to fill it with much of the unrestrained and action-orientated gameplay of an FPS.

Doom 3 is particularly illustrative of this type of approach, in that it succeeds early on in establishing a framework for horror, paying service to its necessary pre-conditions and pacing itself appropriately in accordance with the action signature. In these moments it can be said to produce some genuine scares.  However as the game progresses, the pace steadily intensifies and the number of enemies being thrown at the player grows increasingly large, it creates a rupture of sorts which serves to severely undercut and empty out these same carefully drawn shades of tension, isolation and horror – the very conditions it had gone to meticulous lengths to create – by breaching the fundamental shape of the action signature.  The ‘jump’ moments that startled early on become flattened out as the space between them become increasingly over-exposed to the suffocation of activity.

Essentially, the more pace and action are overindulged, the more the action signature is denied its necessary shape to scare.

Doom 3

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ju On: The Grudge is an example of a horror game which maintains extreme fidelity to the action signature by effectively emptying itself of any semblance of traditional gameplay. There is no real combat to speak of (the player is effectively defenceless) while the game consists almost entirely of the player – from first person perspective – shining a torch around a series of dark, creepy environments. While due to its strict adherence to the action signature it is initially able to deliver some genuinely powerful scares, the complete absence of gameplay dynamics renders it thoroughly unsatisfying and empty as a game experience. It illustrates precisely the challenge of horror in a gaming environment, in that even by immaculately preserving its unique patterns of action, this doesn’t guarantee success in gaming terms, and that ‘pure’ horror alone is insufficient a vehicle for which to carry a title to market.

Indeed, gameplay is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, grafting its antagonistic requirements to horror remains considerably problematic.

Ju On: Horror at the expense of gameplay

Left 4 Dead is perhaps the closest a modern game has come to reconciling both these demands. By deploying an interactive system structured entirely around the concept of  ‘panic events’, and  paying service to the necessary depressions of diegetic activity in between, it preserves the shape of the action signature while maintaining a satisfying combat experience that compliments, rather than detracts, from the full texture of horror. Unfortunately Left 4 Dead 2 – as entertaining as it is to play – seems to take a slightly lighter, more humorous tone than its predecessor, and so undercuts the action signature by not supplying it with the necessary pre-conditions, rather than breaching its shape directly.

However, as an example of how structure and patterns of gameplay can be mapped to horror without hollowing out the interactive experience, it is certainly one to be followed and admired.

Left 4 Dead: Horror gameplay that fits the action signature

Left 4 Dead is certainly something I want to look more at more closely in a future update, in light of discussion here and also previous discussions on pseudo-nonlinearity, as I think it presents interesting questions as to the future of both interactive horror and the FPS.

Stay tuned.


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