Let’s Study Horror Games, ep 9

Moving right along! This episode adapts some material from this post, but also includes plenty of new material, as well. Script below the jump.

Hello, everyone.

In this video, I’m going to discuss two games that are on the fringes of the horror genre. Neither of them really qualify as “survival horror.” But although they don’t share a lot of gameplay mechanics with other games I’ve been looking at in this series, they do both play devious tricks when it comes to positioning the player in respect to their fiction, tricks that other, more standard horror games could learn lessons from. I’m going to be discussing the endings of both of these games, so spoilers ahead.

But before I get to the spoilers, I want to make some general points about the fourth wall in games. Partly, this is an introduction to this episode, and partly it’s setting up some themes that will be relevant in the next one.

Two Ways of Breaking the Fourth Wall

The expression “breaking the fourth wall” comes from theater. According to traditional norms, the proscenium arch acts as the “fourth wall” to a room, a wall which the audience can see through, but the characters in the play cannot. Through this wall, the audience gets to surreptitiously view the drama. The characters themselves don’t know that they’re characters, their lives and struggles being witnessed and appreciated by a viewing audience.

Except, sometimes, they do. Sometimes an actor can wink at the audience, make an aside to them, acknowledge that they’re being viewed. The separation of audience and characters is violated, at least for a moment. The agreed-upon ontological line between real-life and fiction wavers for a bit.

Although the literal “fourth wall” is specific to the theatrical stage, the phrase “breaking the fourth wall” is applied pretty widely, across a variety of media. It generally refers to moments of meta-reference, when fictional characters become aware of, and start referring to, the material and cultural conditions of the medium they are portrayed in. Along with theater, there are prominent examples of this in live-action cinema, animation, and, indeed, video games.

At this point, the term “breaking the fourth wall” is ubiquitous—people use it to refer to a wide range of techniques, applied in everything from children’s cartoons to high modernist theater. It is so broadly applied that it’s not very precise. So I want to take a moment to point out two divergent trends within the larger category.

First, there’s deflationary fourth-wall-breaking. In this mode, fictional characters assert their own fictionality. With a wink and a nod, the spell is broken. The fiction just sort of collapses, at least for a moment, usually for the sake of a joke. The audience is momentarily released from any pressure to imagine that the depicted events are real.

In contrast to this, there is inclusive fourth-wall-breaking. In this mode, the spectator (or reader, or player) is directly addressed. But the fiction doesn’t collapse. Or, at least, it’s not supposed to. Instead, the fiction makes an attempt to invite us inside its magic circle. Maybe a better term for this isn’t fourth-wall breakage, but fourth wall expansion. We are invited into the space of the fiction, which now envelops us. Our actions become a part of it.

This mode of fourth-wall-breaking is difficult to pull off well. Some people are prone to rejecting it outright, just as a matter of personality. In a famous passage from her book Feeling and Form, the philosopher Susanne Langer recounts the visceral rejection rejection she had as a child, during a performance of Peter Pan. Although she initially found the theater-going experience to be an “absolute and overwhelming” illusion, “like something supernatural,” this shifted abruptly at the part of the player where spectators are asked to clap to bring Tinkerbell back to life. Langer writes:

“Instantly the illusion was gone; there were hundreds of children, sitting in rows, clapping and even calling, while Miss Adams, dressed up as Peter Pan, spoke to us like a teacher coaching us in a play in which she herself was taking the title role. I did not understand, of course, what had happened; but an acute misery obliterated the rest of the scene, and was not entirely dispelled until the curtain rose on a new set.”

Langer falls into the group of art theorists that insists on the need for the spectator to maintain an “aesthetic distance” between themselves and the art they are viewing. Historically, there’s been a lot of disagreement among different theorists in this area, and honestly I think a lot of it comes down to taste. And, also, to genre. Works of art that are highly sentimental, or aim to inspire a childlike sense of wonder, generally have the most luck with inclusive fourth-wall-breaking. And this applies to games. Most of the games I can think of that successfully implicate you, the player, as a moral agent, with a specific relationship to the fictional characters populating the game, are games that encourage some sort of sentimental bond with those characters. They’re games that are very sincere, and this sincerity provides them with leeway in what they’re allowed to ask of their players, how they’re allowed to address them, the ways they can implicate them in the games’ emotional economy, and invite them into an intimate relationship with characters.

What Can the Fiction Account For?

There’s one other complication I want to add here.

In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Matthew Broderick will occasionally turn to the camera, and speak to it directly. This is an instance of fourth wall breaking. Ferris is speaking directly to us as an audience, even though he shouldn’t know we’re watching him, in the logic of the fiction.

In This Is Spinal Tap, the various musicians will sometimes turn toward the camera, and directly offer their thoughts to it. This is not an instance of fourth wall breaking, because Spinal Tap is a mockumentary. It’s part of the fictional conceit of the film that there are cameras following these characters around. Spinal Tap forthrightly acknowledges the technology and production process of cinema in a way that Ferris Bueller doesn’t, so it’s robustly insulated against certain types of fourth wall breaking. Sure, if one of the actors were to actually drop character, and acknowledge that this band isn’t real, that would be fourth-wall-breaking. But directly addressing the camera isn’t enough, because the presence of the camera is accounted for within the fiction.

In the vocabulary of film studies, the division between what the fiction does or does not account for is expressed as the distinction between what is diegetic and what is non-diegetic. One of the most easy-to-grasp examples here is music. Sometimes, the music in the film comes from a diegetic source within the fiction—for instance, a live band playing in the space that characters are in. Other times, the music is non-diegetic: that is, it can’t be heard by the characters in the film, and is only there to influence our emotions, as viewers. It doesn’t break the fourth wall to have a character interact with a source of diegetic music. (“Play it, Sam.”) It would break the fourth wall if a character commented on non-diegetic score—for instance, if the protagonists of Jaws tracked down the titular shark by realizing they just had to listen for its leitmotif.

This is something that’s played with in comedies. The distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music can be a great source of upended expectations—where the fourth wall is not necessarily broken, but ends up being in a very different place than we imagined.

If music the clearest example parsing diegetic and non-diegetic elements in cinema, then death is one of the clearest examples when it comes to this distinction in games. The fictions of most games don’t attempt account for the death of a player-character. If your character dies, you start over, and just pretend that last bit didn’t happen. It’s not an actual, canonical part of the story the game is attempting to tell.

Some games do attempt to account for player failure and death within the game’s fictional diegesis. It’s part of the overall plot of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time that the Prince is able to undo fatal mistakes, with the help of the magical sand inside his dagger. But he can only undo things a limited amount of times. If you fail and have no more undos left, you’ll get a “game over screen,” and the Prince can be heard saying—“No, wait, that didn’t happen.” He outright says that the events you just saw onscreen aren’t canonical, that they shouldn’t be taken to be a part of the game’s fictional diegesis.

Subsequent games have taken things further, trying to avoid “that didn’t happen” moments altogether. In FromSoftware’s Souls games, the player is undead, forced into cycles of repetitive actions in vain attempts to break ancient curses. So, for instance, when you die in Demon’s Souls, you lose your body, but can continue on in “soul form,” with a significant penalty to your hit points. You can repeat a level as many times as you need to in soul form, until you eventually kill a boss, and are able to resurrect your living body. Over the course of playing Demon’s Souls, you’ll likely die, become a ghost, and get resurrected many times over. And all of this is accounted for in the game’s diegesis. You’re an undead warrior, undergoing a Sisyphusian struggle, being punished for every mistake.

Then you have examples like Until Dawn, or the other games I mentioned in episode five—Heavy Rain, Aliens: Infestation, State of Decay. In these games, if a character dies, they stay dead, but you have other characters to continue the game with. The fictions in these games are robust. They can acknowledge and account for quite a lot of developments, and they don’t have to constantly say “no, wait, that didn’t happen” when the player fails. If you screw up and kill someone in Until Dawn, their death can be acknowledged by other characters, without the fiction falling apart.

Who Am I?

First up: Chunsoft’s 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. 999 is a visual novel, with large chunks of dialogue broken up by periodic escape-the-room puzzle sequences. Although it doesn’t fit completely comfortably within the horror genre, the game certainly isn’t lacking for gruesome descriptions of gory violence. The overall scenario that the game’s characters are trapped in is a twisted one: they’re forced to solve puzzles and negotiate alliances with potentially deadly consequences, not unlike the average setup for one of the Saw films. Even if the game isn’t based around typical “horror” mechanics, it’s still a horror story, in many respects.

Beyond the puzzles, the other main main form of input the game offers its players is the ability to choose between different routes. Due to the convoluted rules of the sick game that the characters are forced to play, this means that you’ll be broken into different teams, opening up different doors, and ultimately solving different puzzles. Each these routes eventually leads to a different ending—most of which are bad. In three out of the game’s six endings, our protagonist, Junpei, dies horribly. Or, if he miraculously survives, other sympathetic characters have met terrible fates, meaning that the endings are still pretty bad.

Once you reach the first ending, the game throws up some text assuring you that there are more. Then it dumps you into the same screen you see when you pause to save. It’s a pretty bare bones screen. But the one thing it does do is track the endings you’ve seen, by giving you a little icon for each one. And this serves an important function. It lets you know, as you play through multiple times, that there’s more to this game, that you still haven’t seen. It encourages you to keep trying. It holds out an implicit promise—not an explicit one, just an implicit one—that there is a “good” or “true” ending, one in which all of the characters live and successfully escape. Or, at least the ones we care about. If the game didn’t tempt us with the knowledge that it has six possible endings, 999 would be a very different game. This screen quietly insists that you should keep trying different choices and permutations.

So if you’re a completionist like me, you keep playing, seeing through to the end multiple times. You will probably assume that getting the good ending is just a matter of choosing the right sequence of doors, which will ensure that everyone ends up in the right place at the right time. But then, something weird happens.

On the way to the game’s “true” ending, the game expects you to remember the solution to a code. If you remember it, you can put it in, and continue on. But you have to remember it from a previous playthrough of the game, where you reached one of the bad endings. Up until this moment, the game hasn’t been anything like Prince of Persia or Demon’s Souls or Until Dawn, where your failed attempts at challenges are canonically part of the game’s story. Junpei’s memory a previous failed run seems to occur without any motivation whatsoever. And, indeed, Junpei himself can’t explain it, and can’t stop wondering about it. He has no explanation for why he remembers something that, from his perspective, didn’t happen to him.

As the true ending continues, things get weirder still—and the full effect of this weirdness can only really be appreciated on the DS version of the game. Until late in the game’s “true” ending, 999 has been consistent in how it divides is storytelling between its top and bottom screens. The top screen is used for dialogue. The bottom screen has two uses. It’s where the player can input decisions at branch points, using the touchscreen. And it’s also used for textual narration. The narration is pretty straightforward. It mostly describes character’s movements, gestures, reactions—things that might be tricky to portray using the game’s limited character animations. It’s in third-person, it’s past tense, it’s limited to Junpei’s immediate knowledge, and it’s otherwise stylistically unremarkable. Basically, it does a good job of never calling attention to itself.

But late in the “true” ending, the character Santa asks a series of questions of Junpei. And suddenly … the narration slips into first-person. Until now, the narration has been so stylistically unremarkable that it never called attention to the narrator as narrator. But now all of a sudden there’s this “I” dangling there—and the question of who this narrator is becomes a pertinent one. Indeed, it’s a question that the narrator subsequently poses to us, straight on.

Along the way of answering who, exactly, they are, the narrator describes what it’s like to be them. They don’t characterize themselves as omniscient, but they do characterize themselves as experiencing everything that Junpei experiences. And not only one particular thing that he experiences—instead, multiple possibilities, branching out from decision points, into different futures, parallel concurrent presents.

During the whole game, we have assumed we’ve been playing as Junpei. But the end of the game teases that apart, and suggests that, effectively, we have been playing as this other character (whose identity I’m not going to reveal, just to leave a tiny bit of mystery, and not spoil the game thoroughly).

It’s their experience that more closely resembles our own. Junpei doesn’t retain any of his knowledge from prior runs—at least, not until the very end of the game. But this character does. They’re gaming the system from a vantage point unstuck in time, searching the multiverse for the optimal outcome. Their description of how they interact with Junpei sounds very much like a description of the player-avatar relationship. “My mind, my consciousness, was inside of him…. I was him, and at the same time, I was an observer.” Every time we’re booted out to that save menu, we’re greeted with something that looks decidedly non-diegetic. But this revelation raises the possibility that, although this character probably wasn’t seeing something that looked exactly like that screen, they were at least tracking different outcomes, in a way that maps on to what we see in this screen. Like us, they’re trying to see all the endings, and plot the course to the best one.

999 would go on to have two sequels, which together form the “Zero Escape” trilogy. Both of its sequels sport much better menus, designed from the bottom up to facilitate quickly switching between decision points, following multiple branches of the story with only the barest minimum of repeated dialogue scenes, and no need to ever repeat a puzzle sequence. They’re much more functional, and their user-friendliness ultimately paves the way for much more complicated branching narratives. But they’re inferior to 999’s humble menu in one respect: they immediately give the game away. Since these games are sequels, it’s no longer a twist that we’re playing as someone whose consciousness can flit between different parallel realities. As clunky as it is, I think that 999 needed its less-elegant menu system, purely as a matter of keeping its true themes hidden until the right moment.

When those themes do finally arrive, 999 butts up against its fourth wall. Much like the comedic examples I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t outright break the fourth wall, but instead gets playfully coy about its positioning, making us question the division between diegetic and non-diegetic elements, suddenly allows the fiction to account for things we didn’t previously assume it could account for. But it doesn’t do this in service of a laugh: instead, it does so to make us feel included in the depicted events in a new way, a way that’s startling and strange, and a bit unnerving. It makes you grapple with your relationship to these characters and their plight in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible in a medium that didn’t support branching narrative.

Who Are You?

Benjamin Rivers’ 2012 game Home is a bit of an odd duck. At first glance, it looks like a low-rez, side-scrolling survival horror game. But despite creepy goings-on, there aren’t any enemies to fight, and your character is never in any physical danger. So it’s really more of an adventure game, or illustrated interactive fiction, where the main task is unravelling a series of escalating murder mysteries.

There’s a long history in text adventure games and interactive fiction of addressing the player in the second person present tense. But Home is different: uses the first-person past tense. As players, we’re not being asked to imagine something happening to us in real-time. Instead, we’re listening to a story recounted by a narrator. And, as far as narrators go, he’s pretty unreliable. In the game’s opening moments, he complains of headaches and memory loss. He has hurt his leg, perhaps quite severely, but can’t remember how—and he continues to not remember things throughout the game’s runtime. Just about the only thing he can reliably remember is that he misses his wife Rachel, and wants to go home to her.

In a curious mechanic, the narrator’s memory loss is what motivates our interaction with Home’s story. Every now and then, the narrator will confess to forgetting a particular detail about his night’s journey. It’s here that players are given a binary choice, prompting him to remember his night one way or another. Sometimes these questions are framed in a neutral manner, but often the narrator will editorialize. Even as he’s offering us choices, he still tries to assert some limited amount of agency, letting us know what he would consider to be undignified, or out-of-character.

Upon finally returning to the narrator’s home, we find his wife Rachel dead, wrapped up in a pile of rags and hidden behind a newly-erected wall in his basement. After this, the player can guide the narrator through their house, interacting with any items they collected during their journey home. Based on different choices of path made earlier in the game, there will be different objects here, serving as evidence to point the player to different conclusions about what happened to Rachel. The narrator asks us a lot more questions here, gradually ceding more and more authority to players. Much as in any mystery story, we are making guesses, based on the evidence that we’ve picked up. But the game’s story isn’t organized around a stable, definitive answer. We’re free to extrapolate wildly, to the point where we’re basically authoring the events that came before. We decide, on our own, the final verdict on who committed the string of crimes we’ve discovered throughout the game, pulling suspicion toward the narrator’s friend Norman, or toward the narrator himself. During any given playthrough, finding one particular item will frequently lock a door behind the player, preventing them from finding the conflicting evidence that litters an alternate route. So the game does nudge its players in the direction of certain conclusions during a given run of the game. Still, we has an enormous amount of agency in the game’s endings to interpret the evidence in different ways, and the final narrative really bends to our whims.

In fact, forget everything I said about Rachel being dead. If you’re feeling cheeky, the game allows you to author an especially egregious twist: If you pick “no” upon the first question that pops up when the narrator finds the crumpled rags in the basement, the game’s narrative goes in a completely different direction.

Here, IF’s usual address of “you” in re-appears. Suddenly, we are expressly implicated as characters in this drama, thanks to a pronoun that hasn’t been uttered until this moment. In this path, the narrator fully acknowledges our agency—and acknowledges that we’re messing with him! We have effectively rendered him mad. We’ve turned him into a supremely unreliable narrator, whose perception of reality is drastically out-of-whack, and we’ve done so by basically trolling him.

In the final denouement of this path, the narrator chastises us for deliberately tormenting him. “Did you know, before the end?” he asks. “Did you mock me when you finally showed me the truth? You don’t know what it’s like, to have everything ripped away from you in a heartbeat.” Despite being a narrator, he’s still a character, and, as a character, is subject to the whims of the storytelling. We, as players, have the privilege of existing outside of the story, and in this moment the game confronts us with our privilege, and the bad faith with which we’ve been manipulating this guy.

The idea of forking paths, of actions having wide-ranging consequences, has popped up in quite a few of the games we’ve looked at in this series, from the “links” screen of Siren to the the “butterfly effect” system of Until Dawn. The therapist character in Until Dawn has a series of monologues that can be read as an attempt to give the game’s choices some moral weight, game’s heavy investment in genre tropes undercuts any sense of moral seriousness. Neither 999 or Home may be straightforward horror games, but I think they both succeed in ways that Until Dawn doesn’t, mainly because they tease the fourth wall in productive ways. Both games encourage the player to question their role, and their relationship to these fictional characters, opening up a meta-space in their fictions that doesn’t completely deflate the stakes of the game’s story, but instead invites us, as players, to have a different sort of relationship to the fiction than we usually do. They take the relationship between player and player-character into some unexpected directions, and I think they’re better for it.

We’ll return to this theme of fourth-wall breaking in the next video, and expand on it a bit. Thanks for watching.

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