Let’s Study Horror Games, ep 4

Episode 4 is up! And, I have to say, at this point the first three feel like an elaborate throat-clearing exercise. This is where the deep dive really begins. Script below the jump.

Hello, and welcome to the fourth episode of “Let’s Study Horror Games.” Although I wouldn’t say you have to have viewed the previous three episodes to appreciate this one, this episode is going to be the first in a mini-sequence that I’d recommend viewing in order. Earlier in the series, I promised that we would eventually look at some unavoidable limitations that creators working within the videogame medium face, as they craft horror experiences within interactive medium. That look begins in earnest with this episode.

Identification is a concept with a long and rich history in film studies.

In casual use, when we say we “identify with” a character, we mean something roughly synonymous with “relate to.” This character has certain attributes that reminds me of myself—from, say, their messy room, to the way their shyness interferes with their romantic life. Their circumstances are similar enough to my own that I can emotionally project myself onto their situation.

“Identification” in classical film theory overlaps with some of this everyday usage. But it’s also a more expansive concept. Several critics in the classical film theory canon describe identification as something more akin to what we might today call “immersion.” That is: characters in films are not just people we relate to, they are entrance points, and by connecting with them we are absorbed into the fictional world of the film, which engulfs both our senses and our sense of self. For instance, Béla Balázs describes identification this way:

“In the cinema the camera carries the spectator into the film picture itself. We are seeing everything from the inside as it were and are surrounded by the characters of the film. They need not tell us what they feel, for we see what they see and see it as they see it.”

And Jean Mitry offers the following description:

“I am ‘swept along.’ Not just captivated but literally ‘captured,” absorbed into the strange and fascinating space which the screen reveals. The hero of a film is suddenly closer to me than the fellow in the next seat—so much so that he nearly touches me. I closely follow the movements and changes of position of this character or that; I move, see, act with them, like them and at the same time as them; I take part in their drama (which temporarily becomes my own).”

From the 1960s through the 1980s, this basic “folk theory” of identification was made a lot more complicated, as film theory got absorbed into academia. First, it got filtered through the lens of psychoanalysis, as was the style at the time. It got re-conceptualized in terms of Jacque Lacan’s “mirror stage,” with all of the psychosexual baggage that came by that. It got broken into constituent parts. Christian Metz, for instance, distinguished “secondary identification”—that is, our emotional engagement with specific fictional characters—from “primary identification”—that is, our visual connection to the cinematic camera as a seemingly omniscient epistemological window into this world. Then all of this got slathered in a layer of Brechtian and Marxist theory. “Identification” began to be seen as ideologically pernicious, a reactionary form of engaging with art that inhibits critical thought and class consciousness, lulling viewers into preordained positions within the structure of the status quo.

And then feminism came along, and deepened this cloud of suspicion. In her landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey pointed out how films that ask viewers to identify with a heterosexual male protagonist have a tendency to treat women’s bodies as erotic spectacle. Since they exist primarily to provide visual pleasure, spectators are closed off from the possibility of identifying with women as characters, with goals and desires of their own.

“The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed…. [T]he gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude.”

This line of argument dovetailed nicely with Marxist critiques of identification. Asking viewers to identify with onscreen characters was already seen as aesthetically reactionary, but now people had a way of talking about the psychological toll of identification across identity groups, from oppressed to oppressor. When watching a typical Hollywood film, Silvia Bovenschen and Beth Weckmueller argued, a woman “could either betray her sex and identify with the masculine point of view, or, in a state of accepted passivity, she could be masochistic/narcissistic and identify with the object of masculine representation.” Critical race theorists got in on the action, as well. Manthia Diawara claimed that “the black spectator, regardless of gender or sexuality, fails to enjoy the pleasures which are at least available to the white male heterosexual spectator,” due to being given no characters of their race to identify with. And Diawara held similarly essentialist views when it came to Blaxploitation films. In contrast to the traditional Hollywood product, Diawara claimed that these did offer black spectators a chance to see themselves onscreen—but, as a result, were “intelligible to white spectators only if they suspend their critical judgement and identify with the black heroes.”

Now, I don’t endorse everything academic film theory has ever said about identification. Overall, I think that identification is probably too broadly-defined of a concept—a position supported by the fact that so many theorists have ended up carving it up into constituent parts. And the purported difficulty (if not impossibility) of identifying with characters outside of your identity group is a politically knotty issue, to say the least. Five years ago, I would have said that the idea was politically retrograde. Publishers were using this exact line of reasoning to actively fight against women protagonists in their games, thinking that gaming’s established fan base of young men would reject it. It was exactly that type of thinking that got us to the place where a homogenous lineup bald white male videogame protagonists. At the time, this was considered a commercial imperative. But now the discussion has shifted, and we’ve seen increased public skepticism, not only of artists to depict the lives of people whose identities they don’t share, but also of white audiences’ (in particular) ability to understand and embody the struggles of people of color. So maybe these political conversations are cyclical.

But however much I may agree or disagree with individual theories of identification, I do think that the people who talk about it have pinpointed some very real aspect of viewer’s engagement with cinema. And many of these aspects have proven really hard for videogames to replicate. Here are a few phenomena that illustrate the range of possibilities offered up in cinematic identification:

We might start off a movie following a given protagonist, and feeling great allegiance to their goals. But then our feelings for them change over time. The film remains narrated in such a way that we’re still aligned with their perspective, but we no longer share their goals as uncritically as we once did. (“Stand aside!”) Maybe they grow obsessed, to the point where their goals are warped and reprehensible, and we recognize the underlying ugly parts of their personality. (“Well, Debbie’s your blood kin!” “Not no more, she ain’t.” “Well you can keep your will! I don’t want any of your property. And besides, I ain’t forgetting you was getting all set to shoot her yourself. What kind of a man are you, anyway?” “She’s been living with the buck. She’s nothing but a …” “Shut your dirty mouth!”)

Maybe they do something horrible, and we just decide they don’t deserve our forgiveness.

Maybe we discover, via a flashback, that they did something horrible in the past—previously unbeknownst to us—and we feel embarrassed and maybe a little creeped out for have previously aligned ourselves with their goals, uncritically.

Maybe we realize, with growing unease, that they’re actually psychotic, or delusional, (“My gun …”) and that their stated goals have been nonsense from the outset. (“What did you do to my god damn gun?” “It’s a toy, Andrew. We’re telling you the truth.”)

Maybe they seemed like a rascally rogue at the outset of the film, but somewhere along the way we realize the depth of how morally bankrupt and spiritually barren they are. (“Redmond? Would you mind not smoking for awhile?”) By the end of the film, they’re revealed to be nasty and sad shadows of their former charming selves, (“Redmond?”) that we can now see only hurt the innocent people around them.

On the other hand, maybe we like that a character is a dick. Maybe they’re someone we love to hate. Maybe we consider their goals to be abhorrent, but still find them charismatic. Maybe they’re a magnificent bastard.

Or sometimes, even if we hate a character with every fibre of our being, and want nothing more than for them to be brought to justice, we still can’t help ourselves, in certain specific contexts, from feeling scared or anxious on their behalf.

Films can be structurally audacious. It’s possible for the central character, who we most closely identify with, whose goals we best understand and sympathize with, to be abruptly and shockingly killed off. And then the film will just … go on, with both our point of view into the action and our emotional grounding in the story radically altered.

A horror film can give us multiple protagonists, all of whom are likable, and several of whom the narrative aligns with at various points, but any of whom can die at any moment, permanently removed from the story. (“HoW dO wE kNoW sHE IS aLIvE?”)

Not all of these possibilities are unique to cinematic identification. You’ll also see them in literature, theater, and other narrative art forms. But what links them all together is that they’re really difficult to achieve with videogame protagonists—especially since the de facto protagonist of games is typically the player-character. Games don’t invite us to identify with their player-characters, they invite us to be their player-characters. And this actually restricts some of the possibilities of games. This is particularly true of horror games, since other forms of horror media tend to lean heavily on the ways identification can be bent in productive directions.

Horror films often expect us to be fascinated with, and even maybe partially sympathetic to, characters we’re also repulsed by. Sometimes we watch our protagonist suffer through a slow decent into murderous madness, as they transform into the villain of the story. (“How do you like it?” “What are you doing down here?” “I just, uh, wanted to talk to you….” “Okay. Let’s talk. What do you want to talk about?”)

Sometimes a movie has a nominal protagonist whose goals are straightforwardly noble, while at the same time tempting us to align our sympathies with a malevolent but charismatic antagonist character.

And then there are movies that, from the very outset, we’re well aware that our protagonist is, say, a serial killer. And we occupy a strange form of identification where we perhaps root for them in certain contexts … (“Scopto–?” “–Philia. The morbid urge to gaze. Coined since his day. Now, tell me, are there any of his manuscripts left?” “I should thought it could be cured.” “Usually, yeah. Now, about his manuscripts…” “Quickly?”) … while simultaneously feeling terrified for their victims … (“Get away! Get away!”) and perhaps ultimately wanting them to get their just deserts.

It’s harder to find examples of characters such as these in games, because it’s much tricker to get players to role-play as them than it is to get viewers to identify with them. A handful of the most ambitious horror games attempt this. Silent Hill 2 uses some late-game revelations about James Sunderland’s past that successfully open up some distance between players and some characters. We might ultimately decide that James deserves our sympathy, but we also might conclude that the character we’ve been controlling this entire time is an irredeemable monster, who absolutely deserves his own private Hell.

Both the Amnesia games attempt to do this, as well, gradually revealing over the course of journal entries that the character we’re playing as sold their soul long ago … (“and he answered that things can be done—but at a price”) … and is either partially or fully responsible for the horror they now find themselves trapped in. (“Please, I beg you!”) I personally don’t find this aspects of these games to be particularly successful. Cinematic identification with a monstrous protagonist can create a complicated mix of emotions: our sympathy and disgust mix together into a sort of culpability. We are unsettled not just by what’s on the screen, but by that part of ourselves that is charmed by an evil character, identifying with them despite their malevolence. It’s a delicate emotional balance to get right. In theory, video games would be well-positioned to offer this mix of emotions. Since they allow players to actually take actions within their fictional worlds, it seems like they’d be good at fostering feelings like guilt, culpability, and acknowledgement of one’s own dark impulses. The problem with the Amnesia games is that all we ever do as players in them is run around scared and collect puzzle pieces. There’s not much of an attempt to build a sense of our player-character through gameplay. I mean, we have amnesia! (It’s right there in the title.) So revelations of what our character  supposedly did in the past don’t carry a lot of moral weight with them. When all you’re given is a first-person POV and a player-character who is silent (aside from a few bits of incoherent jabbering) it’s tough to get players to connect to them as character. Our “character” is functionally just a roaming window onto this world. And I don’t particularly care what a window did in its past, as long as I can see through it, and it’s not smudged—oh, god damn it!

As an aside, I think that something like The Last of Us succeeds much better in getting us to feel a complicated mix of feelings toward the character we’re controlling. The Last of Us doesn’t give us any choice about whether to perform the prescribed actions in its climax. The decisions Joel makes at the conclusion are Joel’s decision’s, as an independent character, not ours as players. But it still makes us do the deed ourself through interaction, rather than just presenting it in a cutscene. This forces us into a sense of complicity, and has the potential to inspire the exact same mix of sympathy and revulsion I talked about in the cinematic examples. Because of the way Joel has been written, and because of the visual echoes between the end of the game and its opening, we understand why he’s doing this, why he thinks it’s the right thing, why it’s emotionally cathartic for him: a heroic redemption of his previous traumatic failure as a father. But we can simultaneously recognize that Joel’s actions are monstrous. He’s denying Ellie her agency. He lies to her face about it. And likely dooms what’s left of the human race, just sort of as icing on the cake. Here, we have all of the nuanced complexities of identifying with a flawed and problematic character that cinema affords. (“I swear.”)

And then, separately, there’s the matter of death. Characters we identify with in cinema can die, and their deaths can have actual consequences for the story and how we relate to it. (“During our party here, one of the girls was attacked. That’s where I found the tag.” “Where’s the girl now?” “I don’t know. She’s disappeared—two other girls have, also.”)

This is a big difference. It’s a big enough difference that I’m actually going to continue investigating it in the next video in this series. But here’s a quick taste, to close out this one.

What is the death of a player-character, in videogame? It’s something players typically want to avoid. But why? For what reason? What are its consequences?

In Resident Evil, the consequence for death are losing some amount of game progress. This is intimately linked to the risk/reward equation of making the ability to save a limited resource, dictated by the ink ribbons in your inventory. You use ink ribbons to save, so that if you die you don’t have to re-play large chunks of the game. But you also have to ration your saving, so that you don’t run out of ink ribbons at an inopportune time. Cautious players end up saving less often than they might like to. As a result, each time you’re swamped by zombies, you panic, thinking “oh no, how much am I going to have to re-play? Maybe I just should have saved back there!”

Which, it must be pointed out, is not the same thing as thinking, “Oh no, Jill is going to die here!” Getting grabbed in Resident Evil is definitely a source of anxiety. But it the scary sort of anxiety? Personally, I would say it leans closer to “frustration” than to “fright.” And I think most contemporary players, unclouded by nostalgia, would agree. It’s a clunky system that produces player anxiety through brute force. It’s not a very artful approach to seeding terror or creeping dread.

So what does that mean? If you just made it so that players didn’t lose any progress upon dying, would the problem be fixed? Well, it’s not that simple.

There’s a moment in The Evil Within when our player-character, Detective Sebastian Costellanos, has an encounter with the game’s main antagonist, Ruvik, and interrogates him: “Who the hell are you?” (“Who the hell are you?”) Ruvik exits the scene, and there’s another character who says we shouldn’t go after him. (“No! Don’t follow!”) But, actually, if we follow that advice, the game comes to a dead halt. We actually have to follow Ruvik for the next scene to occur. This establishes pretty clearly that Costellanos wants to follow Ruvik, that he’s motivated to do so—and that that should be our motivation, as well. That should be the goal we’re pursuing.

After running through some obstacles, we finally catch up with Ruvik. And when I played this bit the first time, I approached him. I thought it made sense, given my player-character’s dialogue. (“Who the hell are you?”) And I thought that maybe approaching Ruvik would prompt a cutscene, or chase sequence of some sort. Instead, he insta-killed me, with a one-hit-kill-touch move that he has.

Which turned out to be … fine? The game had given me a checkpoint just a few second earlier.

On the one hand: From a mechanical perspective, this works. I didn’t recognize the danger posed by Ruvik, so the game politely corrected me. I wasn’t punished in a manner that wasted my time, as the original Resident Evil might have done. The game acknowledged my mistake, and allowed me to quickly revise my behavior. It definitely feels as if the designers placed this checkpoint here after careful play testing.

On the other hand: This is a total mood killer. It trivializes death. I attempted to suss out, in good faith, what the game was asking of me, by considering my player-character’s motivation. And I got it wrong. The designers were forgiving, and removed the punishment for me getting it wrong, but the underlying problem remains: the rules of self-preservation haven’t been adequately established, and my attempt to approach the situation from an in-character perspective resulted in a quick game-over screen. I didn’t recognize the danger in front of me. And if horror games are supposed to be good at one thing, it’s communicating danger. You know? Like … were supposed to be scared of stuff, even before it kills us. That’s kind of the point.

Okay, so, there’s no silver bullet. If death means playing a large section of the game over again, this makes death frustrating, but not necessarily scary. If death doesn’t have any consequence of note, this means that death is trivial, and so definitely not scary.

And both of these things really stem from the same issue, which is the impermanence of the deaths of player-characters in games. Horror games can do this amazing thing that horror movies can’t: In horror movies, through the process of identification, we are scared on behalf of someone else. In horror games, we are in some sense, scared for our own survival. This taps into something very primal. But there’s a central problem at the heart of it. If a fictional character we identify with in a horror movie dies, that’s it for them. We, as viewers, have to emotionally deal with the horrific finality of their death. If our player-character dies, we just reload and respawn, now with new familiarity of the lurking dangers. Designers can tweak the exact consequences of death, but the fact that it’s impermanent is always going to remove some of its weight.

What can be done about this? That’s what we’ll be looking at in the next video. Stay tuned.

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