On Spiritualism

Calahan

From Telegraphs to Text Chains

The invention of the telegraph brought with it a bevy of confusion regarding its stunning capability to transmit messages over such long distances. People were baffled at how this technology could possibly work, and so, naturally, many turned to the supernatural to explain its function. Wild ideas of communicating with other dimensions and ghosts were popular among those “true believers” who were a part of the growing spiritualism movement of the 19th century. But as ridiculous as these claims may sound today, one would be remiss to say that we as a society have moved past such antiquated notions regarding the paranormal. Rather, it would seem that with every step forward in technology, we take a step backward in our collective reason (depending on your perspective regarding the supernatural, of course). The most prominent of these steps has been through the growth of the internet and social media. In the web’s early days, it wasn’t uncommon to be sent an email chain regarding some sinister haunting or conspiracy. As frightening as it may have been to be a sixty-year-old or especially a young child receiving an email that said if they don’t forward this chain to five other people they will be visited in the night by Bloody Mary, the more damaging messages came in the form of political misinformation. And as ready as people were to believe in ghosts, they were just as ready to believe in any wild conspiracy that was told to them in the email. With this newfangled technology, it was easy to convince and rope people into the alt-right pipeline, and this only continued with the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The internet, with its many niche spaces and corners, is a world full of echo chambers, making it easier than ever to be convinced of something outlandish. Back when the telegraph was invented, as out-there as many claims were, everybody was still living in the same world. After a while, and as the general population began to catch up on its science, these claims became less popular. However, that’s not to say we stopped believing. Technology such as the telegraph, the radio and even the phonograph still carry with them a sort-of “haunted” connotation. It’s common knowledge that self-proclaimed “ghost hunters” try to carry around radios to try and reach a frequency through which a spirit can communicate. We still have an odd obsession with these devices. It would appear that, rather than having fallen by the wayside, we as a society accepted this notion of the telegraph and such as being gateways to the paranormal.

Glass Half Empty

It is important to note the tone of the Spiritualist movement. Today, we might look back and assume that this was a frightening phenomenon spurred on by figures who wished to torment themselves and others. However, the reality is quite the opposite. Those who sought out mediums, or a spirit photographer like Mumler, were not doing so seeking a cheap thrill. They wanted assurance that their loved ones were alright. They wanted to know that they were happy in Heaven, or the like. It was not horror-based at all but rather a quite positive and optimistic movement. Which is why the assumption of horror and spookiness from today’s perspective is so fascinating. Why has there been such a shift in mindset? Why do we view the concept of a ghost as being scary, rather than reassuring? Stanley Kubrick once noted in a conversation with Steven King that any ghost story is surely a rather optimistic one, because it confirms the existence of an afterlife, that we don’t just cease to exist upon our death. And yet, ghosts scare us. Perhaps this has something to do with Spiritualists themselves. As time passed, we began to see these people more as swindlers with bad intentions rather than goodhearted people wishing to help us see our loved ones. But, almost paradoxically, as our mistrust in mediums grew, our superstition remained the same, if not was strengthened. Because we associated the paranormal with these people who we start to view as bad, we naturally began to ascribe those bad intentions to the paranormal as well. We cannot help but believe in ghosts, but humans are easy to lose faith in. Therefore, as the reputations of the people associated most heavily with the supernatural began to sour, so did the that of ghosts. Nowadays, a picture that claims to have captured a ghost will not only be met with skepticism, but also fear, fear of an unknown to which we no longer have a trustworthy human connection. Without that human connection provided by mediums, ghosts become more alien, less like us. We don’t understand them anymore, and so we are afraid.

No turning back now

Audra 

My discussion animation drew from the terminology Alison Gazzard outlined in Mazes in Videogames: Meaning, Metaphor and Design to ask two questions about PT. 

Question 1: Is PT a maze?

Alison Gazzard immediately differentiates between real-world mazes and video game mazes, stating that real world mazes are pathways of experience while video game mazes are pathways to completing an objective (42). PT does not seem to fit into either of these categories; its paths do not stand alone as entertainment because you solve puzzles within them, but the final objective is never explicitly defined. The game just starts from a first-person POV waking up on the floor of a dark room and you are able to walk through a door. 

Gazzard developed a “morphology of paths” that defines set path structures. While PT’s path aligns with the defined structures, “maze-emes”, there are not enough maze-emes present for PT to be considered a maze. The relevant definitions are as follows:

  1. Core path = “any path that has no other use than to guide us between the other parts of the path”, can also contain keys or rewards
  2. Blind turn = “it is a breaking of the direction of the path, while the same path still continues”
  3. Loop-back = “starts to take the walker/player somewhere new, and then continues back on itself”

PT is made up of one core path with a blind turn in the middle. There is a “start door” and “end door”. The end door, when unlocked, opens up to the view of coming out of the start door. The end door to start door travel represents a loop-back, but is physically missing the connection path. See the image below for a representation:

The missing loop-back path and single core path with a bathroom constitute the entirety of PT’s world. Kendrick argued in class that PT is strictly a game of solving puzzles within a space. He said it was not a maze, but a series of puzzles. Building off of this, PT is a single path, not multiple. Gazzard defines video game mazes as pathways to completing an objective. PT does not have pathways, which removes the confirmation of interaction that is present in video game mazes with paths to choose from. PT players do not get to choose their path. 

In class, Ben suggested that if PT is not a maze, it could be a labyrinth: a single, non-branching path that leads to a center. Gazzard discusses two types of labyrinths in video games: spaces of illusion and tracks. There are many video games that exist on a unicursal path like PT, but the game designers have chosen to make the area feel expansive and explorable to give players a sense of freedom. These are called spaces of illusion, which PT clearly does not fit into as it was designed to feel repetitive and claustrophobic. Additionally, spaces of illusion incorporate obstacles to movement that subconsciously direct the player to move along the single path, rather than exploring the false expanse. PT does not have any specific obstacles to movement because the entire space acts as the obstacle. PT is most similar to the space of illusion labyrinth in that “the path is not restricted once it has been walked” (67). This is a superficial similarity, however, because retracing your path in a space of illusion does not benefit the player, while in PT solving the puzzles is dependent on the player re-walking the path. For example, you need to dash between the radio and the phone to trigger the first baby laugh. The second type of video game labyrinth is the track, where the player cannot choose where to go on the single path. The player can control the speed of the avatar or initiate certain actions, but ultimately they do not control the player’s movement through space. PT does not fall into this category because, as discussed earlier, complete freedom of movement and control over the only action, focusing, is imperative to solving the puzzles.

From class discussion, PT does not seem to align with any of Gazzard’s video game maze or labyrinth definitions. It may align with an entirely different video game category, and its similarity to an escape room could be explored further.

Question 2: Can an entire game be a dead end?

A dead end is a closed path with no way through, requiring the player to retread their steps if they want to continue their journey (62). Before discussing if PT overall is a dead end, a potential dead end within the game is the “end door”.

The PT end door can be categorized as both a gate and a dead end, at times simultaneously. A gate hides the path beyond it and forces the player to wait for it to open onto the next section of the path. After the end door is unlocked early in the game, the door is a gate because it allows the player to pass through it while hiding the path beyond it. However, upon failing to solve a puzzle, like the “Hello!” puzzle, the end door remains a gate because the player can pass through it, but brings you back to the exact same path. It makes the player double-back while physically moving forward. Gazzard describes video game dead ends as paradoxical because they prompt movement through the denial of movement (62). In PT, the denial of movement is denying progression towards the end goal, like resetting the “Hello!” puzzle. The end door may not be a physical dead end, but it serves the same purpose.

In class, we discussed two ways in which PT could be classified as a dead end overall. PT is a game of puzzles that must be solved with a specific methodology, none of which are told to the player. PT forces the player to retrace their steps until they solve each puzzle. We experienced this ourselves in our class attempt, where we tried upwards of ten times to get the second baby laugh at the end of the game. We never knew if we had failed the attempt or just needed to wait a little longer. Each time we had to choose a time to double back and start again. In this way, PT is a game of doubling back until something in the limited space changes, a continuous dead end. Additionally, my classmates explored how PT could be a metaphorical dead end. PT is a playthrough teaser-trailer for a Silent Hill video game that was never released. Therefore, the final objective of PT, drawing players to a new complete video game, is left unaccomplished, making PT a dead end.

Mother isn’t Mother anymore

by Selma

I found Relic to be a much more interesting film when it ditched the shadowy figure and addressed the audience head on with its commitment to the real horror: growing old. 

Relic (2020) begins in a dark house. An old woman– her name is Edna, but I’ll call her Grandmother– stands naked in the living room, water running from the bath upstairs is spilling down. Grandmother seems unconcerned. She is distracted, looking at a thin, dark figure, unseen by the audience until its hand moves out of frame. The opening scene ends there. It’s disturbing. And it generates a huge question: who is the dark figure? 

We transition to Mother and Daughter, they fill in the other two generations of Grandmother’s relatives. Mother and Daughter are driving to visit Grandmother. The police contact them because Grandmother hasn’t been seen for a few days. Grandmother is old. She is prone to forgetfulness, bouts of anger, signs that some audience members may recognize as dementia in their own aging relatives. Relic traverses the line between supernatural hyperbole and the reality of growing older. 

And that might be an issue for the film. 

I liked Relic but I only started to like it during its final 20 minutes. Throughout the film I was understanding the haunting of the three women to be literal. It’s a horror movie after all, and anything is fair game: ghosts, zombies, demons, you name it. And the viewer was told to expect that in a sense. As mentioned before, the shadowy black figure is established immediately in the opening scene. It seems like it should be an antagonistic force throughout the film. There are even numerous nightmare sequences in which the shadowy figure’s identity could be hinted at. Mother has a recurring nightmare about her great-grandfather whose old house makes up the foundation of Grandmother’s home. The great-grandfather is shown in a horrifying montage of decay and his figure is black and skeletal, it seems like a precursor to what the black figure developed into. 

So with those scenes, the foundations of the old house within Grandmother’s now haunted house, the shadowy black figure, etc. It was hard not to take the haunting as a literal and specific occurrence. However, I found Relic to be a much more interesting film when it ditched the shadowy figure and addressed the audience head on with its commitment to the real horror: growing old. 

After a dizzying and anxiety-inducing maze sequence toward the end of the film. Mother and Daughter successfully escape a deranged Grandmother who has turned completely against them and has been trying to harm them. Daughter wants to run. She beckons Mother to come and to leave Grandmother who, to her, is no longer Grandmother. But Mother can’t. She sees the decay and realizes her responsibility– wonderfully foreshadowed by an earlier quote “she changed your diapers, now you change hers.” A reversal of care from parent to child to child to parent. Daughter flees, seemingly unable to fathom this kindness and grace Mother is showing to Grandmother. 

A disgusting yet tender moment follows. Mother carries Grandmother upstairs to her bedroom. Grandmother is covered with black flesh wounds that have been growing deeper throughout the film. Mother slowly begins to peel the skin away, revealing a black, tar-like skeletal body– just like the great-grandfather’s body of the nightmare sequences. After skinning Grandmother and laying her down on the bed, Mother cuddles her, in a fetal position. The Mother’s duty to her parent has been completed. Now, Grandmother can rest and be at peace. Daughter even returns. She sees the passiveness of Grandmother and realizes that she was no monster, she was just alone and afraid. Daughter joins the two on the bed and completes the generational cycle. As she stares at the back of Mother’s neck, she notices the beginnings of the black decay…

So what does this say? The ending of Relic left me with a really fantastic metaphor for the cycle of aging. The decaying process from the ending scene altered the literal grounding that might have been established by the decay Grandmother undergoes at the beginning. It might be taken as a specific curse, but as the decay spreads to Mother, the film seems to be saying that this is a process that happens to everyone. What is unique is the conditions by which it happens. For the great-grandfather, it seems that he was abandoned, left to rot by his family who could have cared for him but didn’t. Grandmother seemed to be heading towards that fate, but the appearance of Mother and the tenderness of the final scene indicate that Grandmother has completed her transformation somewhat gracefully. Now, looking toward the future, Daughter must maintain the relationship she has with Mother and make sure that she does not have a demented breakdown like Grandmother did. The decay seemed to be presented as an inevitability. What happens during that inevitability of aging is dependent on who is there for you in your older years and the support they can offer. 

Relic sort of misleads you to thinking there is more to the haunting until it tells you, by the end, that this was no haunting after all. It is simply a terrifying reality. 

A QUEST FOR HORROR

by Sterling

INTRODUCTION

Putting Spiritualism and Spirit Photography in conversation with modern-day examples of our interaction with horror experiences, I want to consider humanity’s enduring fascination with its connection to the afterlife and the supernatural realm. By exploring this fascination, one finds that there are a few different avenues and reasons for our desire to interact with the dead. 

ON MEDIUMS, SEANCES, AND PSYCHICS

Going to mediums is a popular form of interacting with the dead. This is indicated by its use in reality entertainment (shows like Long Island Medium and Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry come to mind), but also by the popularity of small shops or stands with psychic readers. Coming from Los Angeles, I can definitely attest to the prevalence of psychics and new age spiritualism all over the city. (I could go on a long spiel about the city itself embodying this fascination with the dead, but that would definitely be its own post!) 

Mediums and psychics are an easy way to engage with the spiritual realm, but this horror experience is one of fascination with the unknown and clearing up one’s insecurities or confusions about what is to come (either during one’s life or in the afterlife). Mediums in particular showcase this fascination in the form of achieving closure. Many people go to mediums in order to have a final chance at interacting with a deceased loved one (just as Mumler’s customers desired a final photo); this opportunity is not a moment of horror for them even though, in and of itself, interacting with the dead is a horrifying concept. Instead horror transforms into a moment of healing, perhaps because of the strength of the emotions one experiences during a meeting with a medium. 

An example that immediately pops to mind from the horror genre is Ari Aster’s film Hereditary. The seances held in the film are both held out of curiosity (does this actually work?!) and in the name of closure (reconnecting with a dead loved one). While the mother, Annie, participates in her friend’s seance with skepticism and fear, this soon turns into excitement and happiness when she is able to channel her daughter, Charlie, through these means. Horror and fascination play with each other in this film heavily, but the classification of mediums, seances, etc. as part of the supernatural realm will always lend a level of horror within its use.

ON GHOST HUNTING, HAUNTED HOUSES, AND RANDONAUTING

Discovery through interaction with the dead or supernatural is another manner in which horror manifests itself as fascination. 

This is embodied in ghost hunting videos and even videos of people going into abandoned buildings or haunted buildings with the goal of finding creatures or spirits and capturing them on camera (sometimes not finding these entities, but still managing to create an ambiance of fear and anxiety through the viewer’s anticipation). It is not merely for the thrill and adventure of the horror experience, but also as a means of proving to oneself (and others!) that the afterlife indeed exists and that phenomena beyond our understanding are out there waiting to be seen and heard. In the case of those who go so far as to take their spiritual practices in their own hands (i.e. astral projection), one might even argue that this need to interact with the supernatural is also a means of learning and understanding what cannot be taught or understood in our realm. 

Yet what is interesting about all of these adventurous forms of interaction with the dead is that, although they may induce fear and anxiety, often these people go into this experience with a positive excitement. The adventure is not punctuated or defined by the horror involved with ghosts or hauntings or astral beings, instead it offers its participants a chance at seeing what is unbelievable–almost as if it were a spectacle (and, indeed, it is a spectacle for those watching these horror experiences on shows like Ghost Hunters). 

The adventure of hunting for the supernatural is now also becoming a bit more mainstream/accessible to all with the Randonautica App. While, of course, this app does not need to be used to find creepy or spooky items/places, many people set their intention on this type of atmosphere around the location they wish to manifest. So the question here is, “Why?” Why would people want to see something creepy in real life? There seems to be an innate magnetism for horror as an adventurous experience or as a way to pique one’s curiosity even when it’s not necessarily something someone would want to admit.

ON CURSED CONTENT

Continuing on the question of why people want to experience horror, examining horror in the form of cursed content, specifically cursed games like Bloody Mary (or cinematically in Candyman), is one attempt at figuring out our attraction to the supernatural. Interacting with cursed content seems to be a test of bravery and out of everything I have discussed, embodies the purest form of the horror experience. It is engaging with horror for horror’s sake. The goal is to conquer the horrifying while also encountering the horror and living to tell the tale the next day. It is no longer an adventure, but a date with danger (or at least perceived danger). There is almost an empowering component to interacting with cursed content in that one’s survival of the experience makes them transcendent. 

This transcendence can also be extended to those who interact with cursed objects, like those found in the Warren’s Occult Museum. Having the bravery to share a space with an item that supposedly contains dark energy or the soul of a malevolent being seems to elevate the status of the person willing to do this. In this sense, the horror experience here contains the thrill factor of an adventure, while also pushing the limits of human fear/phobia. Implied within these tests of bravery and discipline is also a supernatural component onto the person who is able to endure these moments of fear or battles with malignant spirits. 

Conclusion

Ultimately, I want to point out that, while these horror experiences may go awry, the motivation to have these experiences is not to experience horror. The subject matter defines these experiences as horror experiences, but for the participants, it seems that they are not going into these processes with fear in mind. Much like Mumler’s customers, the desire could be driven by an interaction with a deceased loved one (i.e. seances), capturing something that has never been caught on camera before (i.e. ghost hunters), or simply the curiosity of what the afterlife entails (all of the above honestly). The purest horror experiences that I have listed above mostly entail those regarding tests of bravery when interacting with the supernatural realm (i.e. ouija boards and cursed games).

the horror of voyeurism

jeremy

i’d like to use this space to talk about the topic of the voyeuristic nature of the slasher film that we briefly touched on in class. there were several long, sexualizing shots (often in the killer pov) of multiple campers, especially of terry. we saw terry walking alone in tight short jorts through the woods, with the camera focusing on her butt, terry undressing and entering/exiting the lake, and ginny/vickie undressing alone in their cabins. each of these give a feeling of spying, seeing something we aren’t supposed to see. dr. jones touched on this class, pointing out that the audience (which would presumably be full of horny teenage boys) get to “enjoy the benefits” of taking on the perverted figure’s point of view (in the case of Friday the 13th, Part 2, primarily scott and jason) by viewing the form of a sexy, scantily clad woman. although the audience members (hopefully) personally condemn the spying and observation, they are certainly “benefitting” from the perversion of the characters in the movie. however, it can be argued (especially with a modern viewing) that by tying these perspectives to perverted or evil characters, the films take a stance against this brand of voyeurism. i take issue with that interpretation for the following reasons:

consider that

  1. these films are old enough to be considered foundational in the slasher genre: they were the blueprints that many sequels and much of the rest of the genre were based on. they are not camp; rather, they are the source material that campy movies attempt to imitate and capture the spirit of
  2. these films are primarily (almost entirely) directed by men
  3. sex sells

i don’t think that the form of voyeurism that these films force the audience to indulge in is as intentional or intellectual as filmmakers would like you to believe. my interpretation is supported by film theorists laura mulvey and vivian sobchack, who both wrote (to the effect) that by combining the viewpoint of the camera and characters, it effectively hides the voyeurism taking place by explaining it away not as what the filmmaker is thinking, but passing that title of perversion to the character, when the character isn’t really punished for their actions. in Friday the 13th, Part 2, scott is killed, by not in a horribly more gruesome, vicious, or painful way than any other character. were he not ensnared by the bear trap that paul set, he likely would never have agreed to stop harassing terry, and never seemed to show remorse for his actions even after being caught. only after being put into a position where terry has extreme power over him (essentially being responsible for his life), does he negotiate with terry and agree to stop completely dehumanizing her. there is also no real guarantee scott gave that he would stop his behavior, as he could very easily have been lying in order to get out of that position, and the instant terry lost her physical dominion over him, he could very easily go back to his previous horrendous behavior. scott’s actions are treated with heavy overtones of “boys will be boys”, as a (MAYBE) annoying but ultimately harmless intrusion on terry’s privacy that isn’t taken very seriously. in fact, audience members are often relieved that, after utilizing killer pov, the “killer” turns out to “only” be scott, and not the actual killer (jason) instead. by contextualizing the alternative to the objectification of women as actual murder, it becomes very easily for the audience to swallow scott’s behavior as “the lesser of two evils”, when it’s in reality a far more likely behavior to occur in real life. without even going into the effects of gruesome murders of women onscreen on public perceptions of femicide, i believe that these portrayals lead to attitudes of complacence and apathy, or even an unwilllingness to report/call out these behaviors in real life. terry never moves to punish scott by making his behaviors known to either paul or his peers, possibly because she knows that his behavior would simply be tolerated by them. it’s as if she never even thinks that relying on outside forces to put a stop to his harassment is a possibility, or that his behavior is not a serious enough problem to rely on others to help bring a stop to. ultimately, i feel like the crux of the problem with these portrayals is the deception employed by these directors and filmmakers. by using abhorrent, unrealistic behavior (being murdered by a crazed serial killer), these men are able to minimize the harm and vileness of the blatant objectification of women by opportunistic men, and reduce the likelihood that these problems will be taken seriously by their viewers and audience. if anyone has any other interpretations or would like to disagree, feel free to respond.

(if the lowercase formatting is a problem i can reformat it, i just think it’s a kind of nice stylistic choice)

Porpentine Twine: Shedding A Light In Dark Spaces

Written by Celeste Montgomery

If you haven’t heard by now, Twine is a pretty well-established storygame platform that houses the unique, odd and especially expressive creations of newbie and experienced game designers alike. Their creations could be described as a crossbreed between hypertext fiction (games like Patchwork Girl) and interactive fiction games (like Galatea) as is with the game designer Porpentine Charity Heartscape, who has taken advantage of Twine’s easy accessibility to people from marginalized backgrounds. Porpentine has used Twine as a stage to not only tell fantastical stories like that of an artificer who has been tasked by the Skull Empress to share their talent in the palace, but also to explore dark themes like child abuse and trauma which can be taken in by players in way not too overwhelming or direct. This is the case in many of Porpentine’s Twine games including Howling DogsUltra Business Tycoon IIISkulljhabitWith Those We Love Alive, and Love is Zero

Howling Dogs

Howling Dogs is Porpentine’s first Twine game created in 2012, written in the seven days after she started hormone-replacement therapy. Many of the themes behind Howling Dogs can be connected to mental health, as you play from the perspective of a patient in a mental hospital whose day-to-day actions are limited to simple self-care habits and a VR visor that allows the player/patient to experience realities outside of their own. 

When gameplay begins, the setting of the room you reside in is described and clickable actions are prompted through specific words that stand out on the screen. Players may first feel gravitated towards the activity room route but are thwarted when you are told you must eat and drink first. Players will come to learn that this action is habitual and necessary for each new day that the patient wakes up in order to be able to reach the VR visor which seems to be what the patient, and soon enough the player, actually wants to do. The limited actions available give players the feel that they have been admitted to a hospital where they don’t have free reign to do what they want or really any variety in their daily schedule. 

The settings and vibes of the VR environments the patient plays through vary by each day, but they usually point to greater themes of violence, death or even religion. This could be Porpentine’s way at alluding to certain struggles in humanity, whose misuse and abuse, has affected many communities today. Ideas of escapism, mental illness and coping with solitude are all touched in Howling Dogs and by playing it, players, including myself, may start to recognize the ways in which they habitually seek methods of escapism in their lives, and what the causes of wanting that disconnect may be. 

Skulljhabit

Speaking of escapism through Twine, Skulljhabit is another one of Porpentine’s creations that touches upon very similar themes like that of Howling Dogs, except the difference being that those themes are even more hidden under the narrative that players are experiencing in the gameplay.

In Skulljhabit, you play as a worker in the skull pits whose everyday tasks are limited to working by digging up skulls, visiting the village square, well and store, going to the train station, exploring the outskirts, or going home to your hut which contains a knapsack with a letter from a girl who appears mysteriously in little different ways in the game. Although at first this seems like an exhaustive list, after “days” spent waking up and having the same limited options that have no clear path of progression in the game, players may start to feel like the game’s redundancy is too dramatic. This idea of unsatisfaction while playing through the game because you are not getting what is expected through suspected endings is exactly what Porpentine seems to want players to draw their attention to. While playing Skulljhabit, one way players may think they can complete the game is by working in the skull pit and just continuing to earn as much money as possible. However, this doesn’t seem to do much but allow you to shop for items like a shovel or calendar which end up seeming to not have much of an effect on “winning” or “losing” the game. After repeated attempts of gaining more and more money and buying up everything in the store, nothing happens. 

Another route players may think to take is saving up enough money to buy a ticket in the hopes of leaving the town. After players have earned enough to buy a train ticket, the player does get to ride the train, but it just leads to the player being told that they end up walking back to the hut leaving the player to just accept the outcome once again and return to the options first prompted to them in the beginning. 

The final option I encountered while playing Skulljhabit was the path that led to the outskirts of the village. This route, like the others, took many days in the game to complete as you need to break away at a wall found in a cave day by day. After breaking this wall down, you return down this same route the next day to find a statue and get a bloody nose. You continue to go deeper and deeper in the cave until you fall in a pool and finally wake up at home. 

Players will likely attempt to play through all these routes in the game thinking it will lead to a completion of the game, when it just throws the player back in the original game opening screen. However, the game does eventually tease at a satisfactory ending when after playing through all these routes, you get offered a promotion which takes you to live in a new place. But when arriving, your everyday options are even more limited and the game mysteriously ends with a dream you have of dancing on the moon with a girl, most likely the same one who wrote the letter in your hut, and her wondering if she will find you again. 

If not clear from the description, the gameplay reveals that there is a lot of labor involved in the game that doesn’t lead to what is usually desired from a game. Again, like Howling Dogs, Porpentine created Skulljhabit to show an everyday truth in a different way. In this game, it is the everyday routine of life and the seemingly never-ending pursuit of meaning or satisfaction that is tackled through the themes of this game. 

Love is Zero

With Love is Zero, Porpentine takes a different approach compared to Howling Dogs and Skulljhabit and creates a twine that uses a lot of visual and audial effects to give players an experience similar to the vibes of the topic of the game. In Love is Zero, you are in a vampire clique at an all-girls tennis school on the moon, where you live because Earth was wired by mega corporations. According to the title screen, you’re going to live forever, and you’re extremely hot.

After the title screen, and all throughout the game, players have three options to click: Study, Play Tennis, and Bully. Every choice clicked prompts a scene that happens at the school and adds a word or phrase to your description at the top of the screen. For example, pressing bully may cause you to suck blood from someone to look good and this adds “gorgeous” to your list of words. After choosing several selections in any order you get a screen asking, if you are all the words that accumulated after all your choices. The player has no choice but to accept that they are all the above and the game ends. 

My first play through I didn’t quite appreciate the quick and vibrant energy that the game provided, but after a few run throughs you can begin to see the game’s attempts to express teenage struggle through the everyday choices of these tennis playing vampire girls who feel the same body image issues and lack of confidence as regular teenagers in the real world. I think like Skulljhabit and Howling Dogs Love is Zero does well to intermingle heavy topics like depression, and mental illness into readily accessible twine games that can reach a multitude of people and tell stories in very uniquely expressive ways.

Umurangi Generation: Photographing the End

By My-Nhi N.

Umurangi Generation is a first-person, single-player photography game, available on PC via Steam and on the Nintendo Switch. The game takes place in Tauranga, Aotearoa (traditional Maori name for New Zealand) in the “shitty future” amidst a kaiju apocalypse. As a player, you take on the role of a photo courier, taking pictures of the various scenes of this apocalypse as you travel from place to place, earning money from your photography. 

BACKGROUND.

Developed in 2020 by Naphtali Faulkner, also known online as Veselekov or “Ves”, an independent Maori developer, the game was produced within about 8-10 months. The initial idea for the game came about from Faulkner teaching his younger cousin how to use a DSLR camera, to which he likened the experience to teaching mechanics in a video game. Faulkner then first approached development of the game with the idea of creating a photography-based game. The concept and themes of the game then changed course with climate crises, including at the time the Australian bushfires, which destroyed his mother’s home, and the Australian government’s overall lack of action and willful ignorance towards the fires until they affected the wealthier neighborhoods. Completion of the game unintentionally overlapped with the very first COVID-19 outbreak, escalating the themes of the game for players. 

The game combines a low-poly art style and cyberpunk visual aesthetics to create surreal environments and frame the concept of a “shitty future”. It takes inspiration from other games such as Jet Set Radio (2000) and Death Stranding (2019) and additionally draws references from other media such as Godzilla (1954) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995).

GAMEPLAY.

The gameplay can be summed up as “FPS meets I-Spy”, in which the game combines FPS (first person shooter)-esque mechanics with I-Spy-esque objectives. The game itself is separated into 9 unique levels, with the expansion pack adding 4 new levels to the game. Each level has its own set of unique objectives and obtainable rewards, including bonus rewards not necessary to progress in the game.

When walking around the map, the player screen takes on the look of your typical FPS game, with what would be a weapon replaced by a camera instead. When the player clicks to take a photo, the player character brings the camera to their face and the screen then imitates that of a camera display. In this screen, players are able to manipulate common camera settings such as zoom, focus, and angle or tilt. The tilt mechanic differs on the PC version and the Nintendo Switch version, the PC version utilizing keyboard controls to tilt the camera and the Nintendo Switch version allowing the player to tilt the camera by physically manipulating their Nintendo Switch device. Taking the photo moves you to a new screen in which players can edit the colors and effects of their photo. This screen also allows players to save the images they’ve taken and edited to their photo gallery. 

Photo editing screen, seen after taking a photo.

Players are allowed a lot of freedom in how they approach the gameplay of Umurangi Generation. Players are free to take pictures however they like of whatever they like within the mechanics of the game. In the game tutorial, it is made clear that there are no strict creative or composition guidelines for taking photos and that photos are graded and rewarded instead based on the amount of colors in the photo and the overall mood of the photo. Players are only ‘punished’ for photographing bluebottle jellyfish, Portuguese man o’ wars.

The game does include a ‘point system’ via money earned through taking photos, but there isn’t any explicit place to spend this currency, thus making it largely irrelevant aside from the bonus objective that can be earned in each level. This means that players are essentially allowed to photograph anything they’d like. 

EXPLORING SPACE.

Progressing through the levels of Umurangi Generation involves exploring the spaces and maps of each level, taking photos, and clearing the level-specific objectives. Each level has its own unique map that requires players to explore each time they progress. The maps do not not have any clear and distinct boundaries or edges, effectively making each space feel like a part of a larger, expansive world. Of course, the maps do still have boundaries, and when players cross this boundary or fall off the map, they will respawn back at the starting point of the map. Movement controls in the game are limited to walking, double jumping, and crouching and do not include sprinting, forcing the player to slowly explore the space. Within these controls, players are allowed to explore the space however they like, including climbing stairs and jumping to high places. 

Objectives from Level 8, depicting the the increasing difficulty of the Photo Bounties.

The objectives of each level are an incentive for players to further explore the spaces in each level. The objectives required to progress to the next level are called “Photo Bounties”. As you progress through the levels, the bounties get harder and more specific. Players have to explore the space to find specific angels to capture certain sets of things in order to clear the bounties. For example, in the first level, one of the bounties is to take a picture including 2 boomboxes, a relatively easy task. However, when we get closer to the end, players must capture a picture of something like 11 candles and 2 boomboxes, a task that requires players to explore a bit more to find a location that can capture all the objects in one frame. Additionally, each level is laced with many, many details, further driving player incentive to explore the space and discover new details.

NARRATIVE.

The story of Umurangi Generation makes use of embedded narrative. As players advance through the levels and explore more of the spaces, the narrative becomes more apparent. In each level’s map, we piece the narrative together through the various objects and messages littered throughout the map. Some of these messages are more explicit than others. For example, players are able to find news pieces in some levels showing the recent events in this world, expanding the lore, or players can find messages in graffiti.

When we view the progression of the levels and maps as a whole, we see the use of the transformation of space in aiding narrative development. We see this when objects are taken from one scene to the next or when maps recur but with a different atmosphere and context. For example, the map in Level 2 is reused in Level 5. In Level 2, the map takes on a stale, grey-toned color palette, depicting a military zone at standby. In Level 5, this map is transformed into a pitch-black kaiju warzone rimmed with blood-red lighting. Players are given hints that this is the same area through details such as graffiti and landmark objects. Similarly, in this war-ridden Level 5, players are tasked with photographing a bodybag in order to progress. In the next level, players can find the same bodybags as they explore the train on its way back from the warzone. Players can then begin to see that there is a linear narrative playing out as they progress through the levels.

Photos on the left taken from Level 2, and on the right Level 5. They depict areas taken from similar angles, showcasing the transformation of the map.

WORLD END.

“The end of Umurangi Generation is explicitly anti-cop, anti-capitalist, and anti-fascist.”

– Naphtali “Veselekov” Faulkner

The final message of Umurangi Generation is the inevitable end of the world. The title of the game is taken from the Te Reo Maori word “umurangi”. Although the word does not have an exact translation, it directly translates to “red sky”, and its meaning akin to “witnessing the end of the world”. The word “umurangi” also makes reference to the Huia, a bird that was hunted to extinction. With Umurangi Generation, Faulkner wanted to depict a generation of people who are essentially living out the last moments of the world, the world’s inevitable end caused by the inaction of world governments in response to crises in addition to the dangers of spreading neoliberalist ideals and thought. On the game, Faulkner has said that “the end of Umurangi Generation is explicitly anti-cop, anti-capitalist, and anti-fascist.” With its seemingly free style of play and creative freedom that Umurangi Generation promotes through its gameplay, the theme then provides an interesting take on the problem of player agency against the inescapable narrative of the game. What importance does personal freedom play in a world that is doomed to end? That is the ultimate question of Umurangi Generation

A shadowy bird-like figure representing the Huia bird cloaked by the red sky.

SOURCES.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umurangi_Generation
  2. https://www.indiegamewebsite.com/2020/06/05/talking-climate-change-and-maori-culture-with-umurangi-generation/
  3. https://www.thegamer.com/umurangi-generation-interview-fascism-colonisation/
  4. https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkdvgv/how-umurangi-generation-captured-2020s-despair-and-neoliberal-decay
  5. https://medium.com/vistas-mag/the-umurangi-generation-is-asking-you-to-care-e9d02c5d2fff
  6. https://eggplant.show/76-seeing-for-yourself-with-tali-faulkner-umurangi-generation
  7. https://etao.blog/2021/06/29/podcast-112/
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZequjU73rBY

Before Your Eyes: A Tragic but Fulfilling Tale of Benjamin Brynn

By JJ Abu-Halimah

“So when he knew he was going to go, he was okay, because he’d already lived a great life a full life.”

Before Your Eyes is a marvelous game about Benjamin Brynn, a 12-year-old child who died young due to terminal illness. We first experience the grand life that Benny wishes that he had before reliving the dark reality that he actually faced before dying. At the game’s core is its eye-tracking system which allows players to traverse and control the narrative at their own rate to create a greatly immersive experience.

Immersive Storytelling

First Person Point-of-View and Choice

“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”

We never actually see what Benny looks like in the story. We instead see Benny’s life through Benny’s eyes. This strategic form of storytelling already makes us feel as if we are Benny reliving Benny’s life, immersing us in recalling his life story. We feel more emotion and better feel how Benny’s feelings by playing this way.

One of the saddest moments that stuck with me was reading Benny’s typewriter as we see him call himself a loser and self-loathe. I instantly felt dread inside my body as I watched Benny feel and write as if he was worth nothing. Such emotion was created by living as Benny, and I do not think it could have effectively been conveyed if we didn’t play in Benny’s perspective. A great example to support this is that we didn’t know all the hardships that Chloe was feeling until we were told that her mother died. By living through a character, we better understand them, and the emotional impact of the story gets much, much more real.

To further our experience, the developers utilized another form of immersion: choice. Throughout the game, we are presented with many choices. Although they do not affect the ending, we can create our own artwork, decide to answer phone calls, choose to crumple up and throw contracts/ sheet music, and more. We even get to see the effects of some of our actions such as viewing the paintings that we created in the art gallery near the end of Benny’s idealized life. Such choice further immerses us into reliving Benny’s life, bridging choice to the narrative, making it as if WE are Benny shaping Benny’s story.

The Eye-Tracking System

The game starts us off by immediately introducing us to the eye-tracking system.

Blinking while hovering over the eye symbol on the screen will allow you to interact with objects/ take pictures, shutting your eyes while prompted to (via the shut your eyes symbol) lets you progress through and hear more parts of the story, and keeping your eyes open while the hourglass symbol appears allows you to progress while blinking inhibits you.

Forcing you to keep your eyes open such as when we had to view Benny’s dead kittens and hearing his grandfather died, allows us to better feel the horror and intense emotions that Benny experienced when he lived through those dark times. We usually had to close our eyes to listen to Benny’s parents discuss their depressing, emotional thoughts on Benny that he wasn’t supposed to hear. This made us feel more of the loss of Benny’s innocence as he was exposed to life’s cruelties.

The most prevalent eye-tracking mechanic, however, is that blinking when there is a metronome on the screen moves us to the next memory in Benny’s life, making us miss out on the rest of the game narrative from the previous memory.

One may think: but I want to see everything! Yet, the eye-tracking system hinders you from doing so – of course not so much if you hold the Guinness World Record for the longest time with your eyes kept open. However, this is a great thing narratively.  

The Ferryman tells us early on that while we may want to stay back and see all of Benny’s memories, we cannot. We watch Benny’s lives unfold before us, and the memories they hold quite literally go away in the blink of an eye. The same can be said about our lives. While we may want to stay in the present, we simply cannot and have to pursue the future. Like Benny, we cannot dwell on the great and horrible parts of our past: we must move forward.

What limiting how much we can see and hear does is make for a more real experience in that we better feel the sense of urgency that life presents to both Benny and ourselves. We get a better feel of just how fast the past goes flies away, and this immerses us in Benny’s reminiscence of his life.

Some players opt to use the mouse rather than the webcam, but this greatly reduces the immersion of the game–I know this because I had to rapidly speed through a segment of the game that I already played after the game crashed. Playing the game this way makes it feel less emotional without the feeling of life going by fast, and you miss out more on one of the most defining aspects of the game: using your eyes as a controller to see Benny’s life through Benny’s eyes.

But let’s say that you really wanted to hear everything and feel that you’d get more out of the story by using the mouse. You will reach a point where you have seen and heard everything that the game lets you, and you’ll be stuck there watching nothing new happen. This is quite boring and again reduces the immersion of quickly seeing Benny’s life flash before your eyes.

So if you ever play/replay this game; please play it using the eye-tracking system.

Efficacy of the Blink-Tracking System

While a great tool to create a more immersive experience, the eye-tracking system has both its downfalls and its strengths.

Brendan Keogh describes an “embodied literacy” in videogames where players have to adapt to the controllers/ game’s controls to better enjoy and be immersed in a videogame. While we may adapt to the eye-tracking system, it doesn’t always work smoothly. Such glitches make the game feel clunky and are distracting from the flow of the narrative by challenging our adaptation to the controls.

There are times when you may be keeping your eyes open only for the game to register it as a blink, leaving you to traverse the story much faster than you anticipated, reducing your ability to control the speed of the story. Other times, it makes it increasingly hard to get past parts where you HAVE to keep your eyes open to progress. This reduces the immersion that using your eyes as a controller aimed to initiate in the first place.

Sandy Baldwin details how eyes are “wired and directed, turned left and right” and how images and media in general “solicits my eye before I even look at it”. She says that we must “deaden” our eyes to read screens, inducing the lack of importance of our eyes and their robotic nature to just input and relay sensory information about the media we are consuming rather than playing a part in our experience, viewing the media.

However, in Before Your Eyes, we utilize our eyes as the controllers, using them to dictate the pace of the story, thus removing a barrier between our eyes and the narrative. Our eyes now become more than just machines to accept and relay sensory information to our brain as they also dictate how the media we are consuming, the game, appears to us. By doing this, the eye-tracking system greatly adds to our aesthetic and immersive gaming experience.

The Great Life of Benjamin Brynn: The End

I can’t sign off without writing about my favorite part of the game: the end.

At the end of the game, we hear Benny’s mother give him her own story of his life. Telling a depressed and dying Benny:

“So when he knew he was going to go, he was okay, because he’d already lived a great life. A full life.”

Through the Ferryman realizing that stories, especially Benny’s life, didn’t have to be grand and his mother’s story, we realize that Benny’s life, while short, was fulfilling in that he brought others hope and was thus a great life.

We are then told to close our eyes at the end of the game, overhearing Benny’s father asking, “Why is he smiling like that?”

To which his mother responds, “He must be somewhere he likes.”

Benny died at peace with himself, smiling.

This ending is beautiful. Benny reaches the afterlife, comes to terms with his life, and by closing our eyes, we are put in a position to experience Benny’s death.

This game teaches us a lot. It tells us that we don’t have to change the world or do anything else that’s grand to lead an amazing life and legacy. We can easily live a normal life and die happily even if we didn’t get to experience all the joys that life had to offer. The eye-tracking system teaches us to cherish the moments we have in the present before they go away in the blink of an eye. This ending gave me the ultimate closure I need to finish the game and apply what I learned from Benny’s life to better lead and accept my own.

References

Baldwin, S. (2016). Section 1. In The internet unconscious on the subject of electronic literature. essay, Bloomsbury Academic.

GoodbyeWorld Games. (2021). Before Your Eyes

Keogh, B. (2018). Chapter 3: With Thumbs in Mind. In A play of bodies: How we perceive videogames. essay, MIT Press.

SUPERHOT VR and the Effects of Immersion

By Ivan Messias

Immersion in Storytelling

Immersion into other worlds has been a longstanding tenet of storytelling: in order for a story to be palatable to others, the creator must immerse the audience to some degree in the world that they are presenting. The pursuit of immersion in a story was most notably expressed in The Matrix (1999), where humans are placed into a story that seemed real enough to the point of believing that it was reality. While it was used for ulterior motives within the film, the concept of a world that realistic bred, and still breeds even today, a fascination within the mind – the intriguing concept of being fully part of a world besides reality. SUPERHOT, released in early 2016, was a further extension of this – the story revolved around the player becoming more and more immersed into this world, ending with the player shooting their character in order to become part of SUPERHOT itself.

Virtual reality technology was essentially designed with the pursuit of immersion in mind, advancing immersion beyond simply sight and audio – allowing for a literal hands-on experience, with the motion of the body being the form of input into the simulated world. It represented the next leap forward in storytelling immersion – and SUPERHOT was keen to import its story into this format, with SUPERHOT VR being released later in 2016.

To my surprise, after watching a few playthroughs of SUPERHOT VR to see what I missed in the story, I discovered that what I played through myself was New Game Plus, and the story itself had already been told. The story itself proved to be as in-depth as, if not more than, the original SUPERHOT, largely due to the immersive qualities to be had in a VR environment. As such, each story scene will be dissected herein in order to define and understand SUPERHOT’s interpretation of the future of immersion.

Scene 0: piOS

The first “scene” shown in the game is that of an operating system booting up in order to play SUPERHOT: specifically piOS, with the tagline of “operating system of the future (TM)“. This is followed by several screens in a grid being filled with static, prior to the player’s perspective being forced through the center screen and transitioning into the tutorial.

This is not so much a scene as much as it is a brief glimpse into the game’s meta-narrative. This is the first of three (possibly four*) layers of immersion, notable for being the one with zero player agency. There are no inputs required or available save for the motion of looking at the screens, with the implication that this is the player. With this in mind, the OS’s tagline serves not only as a subtle reminder that this is, indeed, a piece of science-fiction, but also as a prediction of what future technology could hold in terms of storytelling immersion.

*This is dependent on whether the person looking into the real-life headset is counted as a layer of immersion.

Scene 1: DEDICATION

After a few levels, the player is placed in a white void, with the words “ARE YOU READY TO PLAY?” and “SHOW YOUR DEDICATION” respectively appearing in front of the player as the player is presented and picks up a gun. As the player shoots themselves in the head, the headset flies off of the person, showing a previously-unseen office space, where four computer monitors are displaying the words “SUPER” and “HOT” on a loop.

This is the first time that the player is shown a perspective outside of the core gameplay. From a gameplay point of view, there is no point to this room, and nothing to interact with save for a floppy disk that loads up more of the game. From an immersive point of view, however, it is a great help in that it presents a sort of “reality” to contrast with the surreal nature of the game up to this point. It provides a grounding point for the player, and while it may not be entirely convincing as a stand-in for real life, the reveal that so far the player has been playing in a headset in-universe does wonders in establishing a link between the body of the person and that of the actual player, using the headset as a bridging point between both forms.

Scenes 2 & 3: Hardware and Software

At the end of the level “Helipad”, a helicopter crashes into the player, killing them and again forcing the headset off of the person in the office. The screens in the office now say “rebooting” and “hardware error” (hardware only appearing for a brief moment).

A few more levels down the line, the player is placed at the edge of a broken window in a high-rise, with “SHOW YOUR COMMITMENT” in front of them as they look down and jump out of the building, once more resulting in the headset being forced off of the head of the person in the office. Along with some messages commending their dedication and potential, as the player grabs the floppy this time, the screens display “BODIES ARE DISPOSABLE”, “MIND IS SOFTWARE”, and the signature alternations of “SUPER” and “HOT”.

The final messages not only present the idea that the mind is transferrable, but that the previously-mentioned hardware error was a failing in the body, and each scene up to this point has reinforced this idea. In each one, the player has died, but the mind has remained to pick up another body. This also leads to the questioning of which body the player’s mind is inhabiting at any given time: is it the one that can slow down time in the levels, the one in the office, or the one currently holding two sticks to control them? The constant shifting between the second and third layers of immersion starts to break down the barrier between the mind of the player and the links to any particular body form; indeed, is not one mind controlling all three, going between them at any given moment? The notion of the mind being software leaves it free to traverse between any of them at any given time, which the player has been doing this entire time.

Scenes 4 & 5: Pyramids and Body Blending

The next two scenes are similar in nature, both featuring text urging the player to reach and destroy a pyramid, as a sign of their worth for an unspecified reward. The most significant aspect of this is how it begins to further break down the links between bodies, as the headset flies off of the office-dweller without any input or death required from the player. Furthermore, the disks gain different properties: in the first scene, one of the player’s hands becomes the disk, only briefly reappearing to put the disk inside the computer; in the second, the disk has to be inserted not into the computer, but rather into the player’s head, an action which briefly causes the office to gain the graphic simplicity of the main game and does not require the player to don the headset in order to go to the next level.

The first scene serves as more of a breakdown in what can be defined as a body, with the hand-floppy leading to a quiet contemplation of what a body has to exactly be, prior to going back into the game. The second is far more blatant, with the world of the person in the office becoming increasingly tied to that in the “game”, mirroring the blending of the perceptions held by the person in real life to that of the game world. The headset randomly popping off of the head in-game, without any requirement of input, further solidifies this, as the lack of “disposal” of the body in the game being necessary to trigger the headset disconnect makes it seem as though the office character and the game character are the same, especially as the office briefly resembles a level.

Scenes 6 & 7: SUPER HOT

Following the final level, in which the player destroys a large pyramid, the headset once more flies off of the character, and a face greets him on the monitors, saying that he did well, and ordering him to answer his knocking door. There is a small pyramid there, which opens to reveal a gun. As he says “Collect your reward”, the office character shoots himself in the head, mirroring the cause of the first true scene. There is now a black void, with “SUPER”, “HOT” flashing within. As the words stop flashing the player is transported back to the office, lit in red, with the screens saying “ONE / OF / US”, “YOU ARE NOW FREE”, “TO REPLAY SUPERHOT VR”, “FOREVER”, activating NG+. The hands in the office are now the same as the ones in the game. There are notes reminding the player that “Mind is software”.

Conclusions

SUPERHOT is a game about transhumanism, and SUPERHOT VR serves to enhance that experience for the player by allowing their own journey into this world. Instead of shooting the person in the headset, the player is the one in the headset. They are the ones that ascend and move between bodies. As they play the game, they bear witness to the disposability of bodies, and their mind is the software that moves between them.

Photo Credit

Playthrough used for screenshots: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGKbGxBBDIw

Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Problem Child

Ben Ratchford

               Child of Eden (Q Entertainment, 2011) is the brainchild of Japanese game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who would be perhaps most recognizable today for his work on Tetris Effect (Q Entertainment, 2018). The game spotlights the music of his band Genki Rockets in its core gameplay and is thematically designed around the band’s (virtual) frontwoman, “Lumi.” It is not an exaggeration to say that Child of Eden is a realization of purely his artistic vision.

               To understand what Child of Eden is trying to do, then, it’s helpful to look at Mizuguchi’s history as a game designer and as an artist more broadly. Mizuguchi got his start making racing games for Sega, where his first big hit was the 3D racing game Sega Rally Championship (1995). After three years of work on this property, Mizuguchi says in an interview with the New Statesman from 2017 that he attended a party in 1998 that turned his gaze permanently to music and movement, to dance, and in particular to “synesthesia” (his word). Following this we saw the release of Mizuguchi’s first musical game in 1999, a rhythm game for the Dreamcast called Space Channel 5 (Sega). This was followed by Rez (Sega, 2001), a musical rail shooter (to which Child of Eden is the sequel), a series of puzzle games, a VR-compatible version of Rez with updated graphics titled Rez Infinite (2016), and eventually Tetris Effect in 2018.

               Mizuguchi also started Genki Rockets in 2006, a virtual band which featured Lumi, played by (then merely 13 years old) Yusada Rei as its frontwoman and lead vocalist. Like much of Mizuguchi’s work, they enjoyed a rather dedicated cult following that lasted into the 2010s. Genki Rockets concerts, Rez, Child of Eden, Tetris Effect, and even some of the lesser-known puzzle games of Mizuguchi all share a theme—synesthesia. In this case, what is meant is a multisensory experience involving the blending auditory, visual, and in some cases kinesthetic elements to create a totalizing gameplay experience.  Mizuguchi labels himself as a “futurist” or “technologist,” rather than a game designer, and claims to be interested always in bringing the height of interactivity and immersion to his works.

               Mizuguchi’s visions ultimately were realized in VR, a medium which he has strived to work in ever since it became possible to do so. This technology, it seems clear, has been most able to meet his desires for totally immersive games with broad range of opportunity for artistic freedom. Whether these are successful as synesthesia (or, for that matter, as art) is somewhat beside the point; there can be no denying the immersive power that these games have when played with a VR headset, and in my experience with, e.g., Tetris Effect, they really work as coherent and immersive audiovisual experiences. They’re fun games, in short.

               Child of Eden, on the other hand, we might treat with a slightly different attitude.

               Child of Eden was released on Xbox and Playstation, compatible with the Kinect and Playstation Move respectively. The game itself is a musical rail shooter, like Rez before it—somewhere between a rhythm game and an arcade game. The player is meant to time their attacks to the beats in the Genki Rockets tracks which comprise the game’s OST, and by doing so they may score sufficiently high to progress through the game’s six levels. If done correctly, the whole game can be completed in about an hour.

               And with the magic of the Kinect, they can do this using nothing but their hands! Mizuguchi likens the actions of the player to those of a conductor; with the right hand, the player controls a blue lock-on laser attack that is released by a (rather vigorous) flick of the wrist, and with the left hand they may aim an auto-firing purple machine gun. These two attacks share a reticle, and cannot be fired at the same time, which led to some rather frustrating moments of trying to switch from one hand to the other under the duress of timing and having the cursor snap from one side of the screen to the other as the Kinect suddenly recentered its gaze.

As mentioned, the game centers around Lumi, canonically the first human to be born in space (somewhat absurdly, on 9/11, 2019), who lives her whole life on the ISS, never setting foot on earth. Ostensibly, her consciousness and memories are preserved on the internet (redubbed “Eden” by subsequent generations) centuries into the future. This is where the game is set to take place: 22XX, Eden is beset by computer viruses that threaten to corrupt and destroy Lumi and her memories, and the player is set up as a hacker who can traverse Eden and purify it of its viruses. This is rather similar to Rez, which also positions the player as a hacker traversing a futuristic artificial intelligence named “Eden.”

The visuals in game consist of a strange blend of elements. Some enemies (or obstacles, as the case may be) are simply geometries, like in Rez, even carrying through some of the same color palate from that game—orange cubes, purple cubes, grey spheres, and the like. Some completely diverge from this scheme, however, and the game features whales, jellyfish, flowers, stingrays, worms(?), and, most prominently, Lumi herself, in the form of a live action recording of Yusada, in several of the levels, often with corresponding bright colors and full-screen movements and light-shows, all set to-time with the soundtrack.

This divergence in style can be attributed partially to the time past since Rez, and the Child of Eden team wanting to take full advantage of the suite of technology at their disposal. It’s probably also partially attributable to the production teams for each level being totally separate, with Mizuguchi being the only common factor between them.

Whether this all coheres into one singular experience is probably a matter of taste, but for me I the technology falls short of providing the intended experience somewhat. Essentially the problem is twofold: first, the Kinect is not a very good device. Second, the story is totally not fit to the gameplay.

Speaking about the Kinect, it’s useful to bring in Melanie Swalwell’s discussion of the kinaesthetic [sic] sense of gaming in her essay “Movement and Kinaesthetic Responsiveness: A Neglected Pleasure” (2008). Swalwell, in analyzing the psychological responses of gamers in a LAN hub to playing their games, correctly identifies (among other great points) the development of an embodied literacy as a key component to the enjoyment of gameplay. What is meant by this is the acquisition of skill, for one, and a corresponding kinaesthetic sense for what motion is achieved when performing the actions required by dynamic and, often, difficult gameplay. She’s referring to the natural sense that skilled gamers have for the way that their motions in interfacing with the controls for a game influence the game world—this well describes the way that a dedicated tetris player might conceive of what it is like to move the tetrominos, or what a skilled Soldier player in Valve’s Team Fortress 2 might feel as they perform a rocket jump, a technical maneuver that requires skill, practice, and a high degree of in-game awareness. In practice, this amounts to a kind of flow state, an (embodied) identification with the player character and an immersion in the diegetic world of the game.

When playing Child of Eden (as it was intended, with the Kinect), for me this flow state was simply impossible to find, and this experience was common among those who tried it. The simple answer for why this is the case is that the laggy and inaccurate Kinect response to my motion introduced an insurmountable barrier to identification of any kind with the diegetic world. This effect would have been somewhat mitigated if not for the game’s insistence on the precise timing of actions to correspond with the music (that it wasn’t totally clear when the crescendos were is beside the point here. I am not a fan of Genki Rockets, and if you are, maybe you would have a better experience here). However, as things were, I was left continually frustrated in my efforts to control the reticle with any degree of consistency, let alone elegance, and the repeated casting motion with my right arm became more of a physical strain than an integrating element.

Secondarily, there exists a rather severe ludonarrative dissonance in the presentation of the game, in which the Lumi plot, despite being consistent throughout the game, feels like an afterthought. The game would have been totally unchanged if this bit of setting were left out. Aesthetically, Mizuguchi’s creative direction leaves a lot to be desired here, and the whole thing (like Genki Rockets) reeks of new-agey end-of-history type vapidity that I simply can’t overcome. In another interview about the game, Mizuguchi declares that the central theme of his work (besides the synesthetic experience) is, simply, “happiness.” What this could possibly mean is, besides being of no interest to me, beyond the scope of this essay, but I think it is obvious from his work that his talents are best left to game design rather than storytelling.

This is not to declare Child of Eden, or Mizuguchi’s ouvre, a totally unsuccessful project; what Mizuguchi intends to do with the technology, although a failure here, is certainly an ambition worthy of our attention, and sees success in later titles. As VR games grow in number and quality, and as the tools to create these games become available to a wider field of game designers and artists of all kinds, we may look to this (frankly) funny experiment as one of many meaningful efforts into the realm of unknown that helped usher in a new paradigm of game design, the ramifications of which are truly still yet to be known to us.

References

  1. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2017/07/how-tetsuya-mizuguchi-reinvented-video-games-his-love-synaesthesia
  2. https://www.siliconera.com/tetsuya-mizuguchi-interview-illuminates-child-of-eden/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayWV7XNRxK8
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetsuya_Mizuguchi