The corpse that wasn’t

We’ve spoken and written a fair amount about how successfully Gone Home incorporates horror tropes into a game and narrative that eventually reveals itself to be quite tame. There are no ghosts or kidnappings, and the knife-wielding psychopath was in none of the closets or dark corners I expected to find him. By the time I reached the room under the stairs with the pentagram, I saw the ritual as teenage fun (been there) rather than anything to be afraid of. However, as I approached the attic stairs I was struck by a much more real, much less indulgently fun kind of fear—I was afraid to find Sam’s body upstairs. From our quick class survey and a bit of forum reading, it seems like this was a fairly common experience. I’m interested in looking at why, for me, that fear was so much more affecting than the earlier creaky-old-house fear that the game constructs.

I was at first tempted to say that Gone Home made me lower my guard—that by nodding towards horror but never approaching it, I felt some kind of implicit pact with the game that it would never get to actual horror. I don’t think that’s quite it.

Gone Home, after all, is not simply a tale of teen romance masquerading half-heartedly as a survival horror game. The two genres are linked in an essential way; the game’s horror is exactly the kind that its teenage heroes love.  As her diaries make clear, Sam is a girl who revels in playing with Ouija boards and would think scaring an older sister with red hair dye in the bathtub is hilarious. Her music and zines are scary and violent and triumphant.

By the time I knew her character well enough to realize this, it was also very clear that Sam was not present. This was when a heavier kind of horror began to grow.  Because, of course, the happy horror is dependent on its laughing subject. Sam, with her red hair and riot grrl cassette tapes, made the psycho house into the setting of a love story.

In its eventual assurances of its mundanity and ordinariness, Gone Home forced me into real ordinary mundane human concern and fear. The realization that the horror is within the world of the game and its characters somehow pulled me into the game. enough so that the ascent into the attic conjured up a very real fear. I felt closer to worrying about an actual sibling than moving through a haunted house.

I don’t mean to condemn first person shooters, but do video games above a certain level of violence or horror relinquish the opportunity to make their players feel actual fear? Is it possible or practical to distinguish real fear from (self-indulgent?) mediated fear? Did anyone have different experience about the level or balance of horror in Gone Home?

P.S. This is too late to matter much, but here’s a bit more food for thought from a forum post:

Hmm, I found the ending very dark. Katie comes home to both her parents gone, eventually finds out that they are camping in one of the areas the weather news reported as severe. I definitely assumed they would not be coming home again. Samantha ran away. Katie is now all alone in the world, her entire family gone. She only has this museum of her family’s past, preserving forever the last few days of her family’s trials and tribulations for good and bad before their death/leaving. Home is family to many people. Katie was going home to see family but now literally is just left with this empty space forever. She can never truly go home again. How much darker do people need than that?

I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairy tale

Patrick briefly brought up masculinity in Braid at the end of our last class, and I’ve been trying to puzzle out the way gender figures into the narrative and structure of the game.

I’m working from an (admittedly unstable) understanding of the game in which it works to place you in Tim’s shoes as a creator of the atomic bomb, represented here as the Princess. A player spends the game pursuing the perfection of the Princess, only to discover that, as Tim, they’ve been chasing after something that should not be caught, revealed in the level where Tim chases the Princess up to her window before the player realizes this is not a joyous reunion but the reversed memory of an unwelcome pursuit.

What follows is a series of four paired vignettes that Tim can activate by walking up to a series of books on pedestals. The first half of each is a scene from the male perspective, and the second is the female counterpart. The feminine voice can only be revealed by literally obscuring Tim behind boulders and statues and letting him remain still.

The vignettes:

  1. A couple, perhaps in New York, where the man wants to protect the woman…Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 3.59.09 PM

    …and she finds him stifling and aggressive.Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 4.01.25 PM

  2. A preoccupied scientist obsessed with his pursuit of the Princess…Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 4.02.53 PM

    …who does not notice his female colleague working next to him.
    Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 4.03.28 PM

  3. The creator of the atomic bomb…Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 4.08.40 PM

    …and the bomb herself, unhappy to be awoken.
    Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 4.09.43 PM

  4. A little boy hitting his mother for candy…Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 4.12.38 PM

    …and the mother, refusing the boy for his own good.Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 4.13.09 PM

These four female voices are all in opposition to male pursuit that is either unwanted or misguided. I do think it’s significant that of the active female voices here, none is explicitly referred to or self-identifies as the Princess—for all of the subversion of the classic rescue-the-princess narrative Braid employs (empty castles; a Princess who does not want to be rescued), the Princess never says anything other than “Help!” when she’s finally incarnated.

In its deliberate creation of space to reveal the four female voices of the vignettes, Braid points out how hard its players must work to see them, and not in the Princess character one might expect. Tim is pursuing a female of his own construction, her silence indicating her femininity. It’s only once we, as players, begin to separate ourselves from Tim that we have a chance to obscure him and see the active female voices of the narrative.

Perhaps people with more gaming experience can chime in here—how does the Princess trope work in Mario and related games? Is rescue-the-princess common enough to be considered a narrative genre of videogame, or the equivalent of a literary device? How does Braid’s Princess compare to/contrast with Princess Peach?

I’m also not entirely confident in my interpretation of the second vignette—is the “she” a colleague, or the Princess herself? The bomb speaks in the third vignette—could this also be Mother Nature?

In Treatment isn’t boring enough

To borrow a sentiment from the New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin: “To say that the new HBO drama ‘In Treatment’ is boring doesn’t really get at what’s wrong with the show; the problem, to a great extent, is that the show isn’t boring enough.” (You can read the rest of her scathing 2008 review here.)

In Week One, the moments that hit me the hardest were when Paul silenced his patients with an insight—when he points out to Laura that she began her own crisis, or when he confronts Alex with the fact that he came to therapy to find a commanding officer for his emotional life.

Paul’s nonadventures into his patients’ psyches are a bit too consistently revealing, a bit too action-packed. There’s barely any of the type of small talk and silence that teaches the audience about how hard it is for its characters to go through self-analysis. Week Two continued this trend—Alex can’t simply dislike bad coffee. There are very few throwaway lines or speech acts that are truly characters avoiding questions, and not significant content in their own right. Characters don’t even always say hello or goodbye.

The moments of a self looking at itself are what make the Friday episodes so engaging, and the unstable boundary between the therapist and the patient in Paul himself is an essential conceit of the show. However, In Treatment portrays self-examination as a sparring match more patient and therapist than between the patient and the patient themselves, and its Monday-Thursday patients show little of the type of awkward uncertainty and self-doubt that would necessitate prolonged silences and uncomfortable tangents. This is not to say that Paul’s patients don’t have uncertainty and self-doubt, but rather that the show keeps its conversations moving quickly to the point of artificiality.

David Foster Wallace wrote in E. Unibus Pluram, “The modes of presentation that work best for TV – stuff like ‘action,’ with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire “collage” of commercials, news, and music videos, or the ‘hysteria’ of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter – are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more … well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows and moves through it.” In Treatment is a window into therapy, but an idealized one—its characters have problems, yes, but they’re very good at getting to them quickly and with meaningful banter. Does this create a whispered promise to its audience that in the real world, these sordid problems should be articulated well and fit into a dense, exciting narrative?

That being said, I’ve enjoyed our week of In Treatment. I won’t go so far as Franklin (“I can say no more without causing repetitive stress injuries to the fingers that type the words ‘miscast’ and ‘ill-conceived.’”), but our classroom conversations have been largely without criticism of the show itself, and I wanted to potentially start this conversation online—in what ways could “In Treatment” be more believable? More affecting? More engaging? More intellectually stimulating? More marketable? Would it be possible to improve any of these aspects without losing something else?

Weird Sublime vs. Weird Grotesque

As far as I can tell, cyberpunk, steampunk, and now the New and Old Weird have all been in conversation with science fiction as a pre-established genre. I’d like to look towards two terms often tossed around in analysis of sci fi—the sublime and the grotesque—to help us understand the distinctions between the New and Old Weird stories we read last week.

For the purposes of this post I’ll borrow a few definitions from science fiction scholar (!) Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.:

“The sublime is a response to a shock of imaginative expansion, a complex recoil and recuperation of self-consciousness coping with phenomena suddenly perceived to be too great to be comprehended. The grotesque is a response to another sort of imaginative shock, the realization that objects that appear to be familiar and under control are actually undergoing surprising transformations, conflating disparate elements not observed elsewhere in the world” (The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, 146).

Using this, the world of Cthulhu is dominated by the sublime, while the Lizard’s Ooze is grotesque. When Cthulhu’s tomb rises from the depths, the men bearing witness “were awed by the cosmic majesty if this dripping Babylon of elder daemons, and must have guessed without guidance that it was nothing of this or of any sane planet.” We talked in class about Lovecraft’s tendency to throw up his hands and plead unthinkable horror in place of giving his reader much description, but—trusting this definition—his coyness is in the service of creating a sublime horror.

In contrast, Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” takes a very small, almost claustrophobic setting and familiar objects and rituals—clowns, lizards, eating, defecating—and renders the familiar unstable and grotesquely bizarre. The moment when the timid fisheater morphs into the red-clad, dog-headed, knife-handed clown would be a moment of monstrous transformation.

If Old Weird focuses on the scare and New Weird focuses on the monsters, is it fair to say that one is more sublime and the other more grotesque? Are these terms relevant when pitted in against each other?

A side, undeveloped observation: both stories involve a spatial feeling of descent or a journey into the deep. Lovecraft’s R’lyeh is underwater; his characters sink into dreams and hear calls “from some dark and unilluminated spot deeper with the woods of ancient legendary and horror;” the structure of the story itself is a series of buried notebooks and found papers. Ooze is under “the Cities of the Map,” and the narrative takes us to the Lizard “at the bottom of this great, deep hole” (168). Does one necessarily descend into weird, or is this a coincidence in our small sample size?