I mentioned the game Layers of Fear in a previous post. I hadn’t played it but was looking forward to trying a horror game that didn’t become merely stressful. I have most definitely played it now (twice – it’s sensibly short) plus its dlc and enjoyed it very much. In fact the game was the subject of the last Conversation Tree Podcast episode (which I co-host) and I’d like to expand on a few of those thoughts and broaden out to include a few more games.
If you haven’t listened to the episode (and it’s worth it – Lyd loses her shit at the subtext of the game) one of the main things I spoke about was how Layers of Fear fitted very snugly in the gothic tradition. And further still, I idly wondered if games could be the best medium yet for the genre?
Let’s backtrack a little. What does gothic actually mean as a genre label? I went to a great exhibition on gothic at The British Library a couple of years ago and there was a definition from Neil Gaiman along the lines of:
‘If the book cover could feature a woman wearing a nightie, holding a candelabra, running away from a mansion at night, and the windows of the mansion are dark except for one at the top… and in that window is the silhouette of a man…then it’s definitely gothic.’
There’s more to it than that of course, but it’s a good starting point. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto set the genre in motion with an apparently found historical manuscript detailing the plight of a woman exploring a ruined castle beset by spirits. Ancient buildings, the supernatural and ancient tomes are all key features. There’s an otherness too, an atmosphere of slow, dawning doom. Or does doom set rather than dawn?
A great recent film example is Crimson Peak (which I also wrote about). This ticks all the boxes, with Mia Wasikowska’s ghost-seeing ingenue beguiled by Tom Hiddlestone’s aristocrat-with-a-secret. She’s whisked away to his crumbling ancestral home that he shares with his austere sister. Blood red clay oozes through the floorboards. There are mysterious documents and recordings, and the whole place seems ready to morph into The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the twitch of a cloak. There’s a knowing morbidity which stays, for me at any rate, just shy of descending into camp or kitsch.
In Layers of Fear you play as an artist trying to finish his masterpiece: a portrait of his wife. He’s dealing with tragedy and completing this painting is his attempt to move on, but all is not well. As you walk through the house to gather the materials you need fragments of letters and scrawled notes reveal an unhappy home and encroaching madness. The house starts to reshape itself, becoming more and more labyrinthine and ruined as the painting nears completion. Ordinary objects are possessed. A ghost stalks the halls. And the materials you are scavenging? Flesh, hair, bone, blood.
A lot of games have used trappings of the gothic in their presentation – the Castlevania series is an obvious example, stuffed as it is with vampires and gargoyle-studded castles. That’s surface detail though; the Castlevania games don’t have gothic right through the core experience.
The core of Layers of Fear is about something reaching out of the past that the player/artist must confront and either overcome or succumb to. There isn’t much more to it than that – there’s no combat, a few puzzles, little gameplay in the traditional, now almost antiquated, meaning. And boy does it have the gothic trappings.
The house crumbles around you as you investigate. PT is the obvious comparison gameplay-wise, but where that involved looping through the same two corridors with minor changes each time, Layers of Fear substitutes a constantly shifting geography to echo the mental descent of the main character into some kind of psychosis. Reach a locked door, turn around and the corridor behind you has changed into a claustrophobic room. Try the other door which has appeared and find it’s also locked. Turn again and the room has changed once more. You can’t trust the house or the artist.
Bioshock is a spectacular example that works both in more traditional gameplay and in fusing the gothic right into its core. Rapture is effectively a gothic castle, isolated, largely abandoned and haunted by thudding armoured apparitions accompanied by scuttling ethereal girls. Audio logs piece together the history of Rapture, which is itself coming apart at the seams, and you are in a way piecing together something of yourself. These aren’t optional collect-for-a-trophy audio logs, these are crucial for continuing. Finding out the secrets of Rapture is the point of the game – shooting splicers is the set dressing.
This idea of finding out the history of a seemingly abandoned space is one which games do very well. Recent horrors Soma and Alien Isolation play with this to mixed effect – Soma rather better for my money, though the first half of Alien Isolation is a pretty spectacular experience. In both there’s a supernatural horror stalking the sci fi corridors, a personal history to unravel. Alien Isolation is less satisfying because that personal history is less integral to the experience. It’s a macguffin which, rather perplexingly, is resolved half way through.
Witcher 3 played with the gothic well too – it does everything well, so it’s probably not much of a surprise. Even in a game stuffed full of supernatural beasties the quest to Fyke Isle that sees Geralt strolling into an abandoned, crumbling, isolated tower is the gothic nadir. In true genre fashion it’s a story of a doomed romance told by ghostly apparitions, and it does not end well.
Games excel at creating architecture to explore – they’re better at it than any other medium (apart from experiential theatre perhaps, but the architecture is more limited by reality there). Stuff it full of ancient tomes, scribbled notes or audio diaries that illuminate the history of the place, and you’re well on your way to the gothic. Turn the lights down low, make sure the location’s history is intrinsic to the player character in some way and you’re even closer. A sprinkling of the supernatural, a sense that things aren’t going to end well and… yum.
It’s often said that cinema was the best medium for the gothic in the 20th century. In the 21st it is surely going to be videogames.