Videogame Gothic

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.

@BornToPootle

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Treat Yourself to Crimson Peak This Year

Halloween Ideas

It’s not a trick, honest.

If you’re heading to the cinema this weekend there’s only one film I’d recommend for the perfect Halloween: Crimson Peak. Yeah, the title gave that away didn’t it?

This isn’t really a review of the film per se, but as I’ve read a few articles about its disappointing performance at the box office I feel duty bound to give it a plug.

Why’s it perfect for Halloween? It’s gothic. All of the Gothic. If it was a person it’d be wearing a black frilly shirt, have kohl-smeared eyes and be listening to Sisters of Mercy on repeat on its iPod (I know they claimed not to be goth, but their audience begged to differ) while doing the change-the-lightbulb two-step.

I wrote a while ago about the Gothic exhibition at The British Library. Now I’ve had time to mull it over I think it’s probably the best exhibition I’ve been to. But for the purposes of this post there’s one thing which stands out. There were various attempts to define the genre, the best of which was from Neil Gaiman. I’m paraphrasing, but here goes:

If the cover could be a picture of a young lady in a nightdress, holding a candle, running away from a castle which has one lit window high up, and in that lit window is the silhouette of someone watching, then it’s gothic.

And that could definitely be the poster for Crimson Peak. In fact it sort of is one of them. See above!

It revels in gothic. It’s gleeful about it, but never falls into camp. Starting with a well-executed Nosferatu homage (so often done poorly) the film bathes, Elizabeth Bathory-like in the blood of its genre-kin.

My personal favourite moment is when Mia Wasikowska’s protagonist (and how about that cast – Wasikowska, Tom Hiddlestone and Jessica Chastain) arrives at the ruined mansion (standard) to find blood red clay literally oozing up out of the floorboards with every step she takes. This is a film that knows how to have fun with foreshadowing.

There are a few jump-scares, but the film doesn’t rely on them. Guillermo Del Toro understands the genre so knows that’s not all horror is. And there’s gore too, which certainly surprised most people in the screening I went to. But look back at his most lauded film, Pan’s Labyrinth, and it’s clear Del Toro is fond of viscera.

Crimson Peak is a visual feast and designer’s dream. My wife is something of an amateur costume historian and in museums can always date an outfit to the right year (for fashion from 1700 – 1950 at any rate). She raved about the accuracy of the costumes – some of them self consciously behind the times, others bang on trend for the year.

Heck, even the sex scene (of course there’s sex, that’s what gothic is all about) lets us ogle more of Tom Hiddlestone than Mia Wasikowska – how grown up!

It’s a film that clearly loves its genre. That loves horror and, most importantly,  respects it. If it’s still showing near you go and see it.

If it’s a night in you’re after, but still fancy something gothic I’d recommend Stoker (which also starred Mia Wasikowska) for a slice of modern-set but no less genre literate cinema.

Those are my picks for a night out or in this halloween. What are yours?

Games for Storytellers and Storytelling for Gamers

The happy game for happy people.

The happy game for happy people.

Storytelling as a game is not something new – it’s been around as long as there have been fires to hunch by on long, dark nights. From kids around campfires trying to scare the bejesus out of each other to improvising troupes taking it in turns to spin a yarn word by word, storytelling has led to games and games have led to storytelling.

For Christmas I received a lovely card game from my other half where the whole endeavour lives or dies on the storytelling element, and it got me thinking about my favourite games where creating my own story was either the point or the most fun part. So, in no particular order, here are my top three.

1. Gloom

This was the present I received. It’s a brilliant, gothy card game, very much inspired by Edward Gorey. The premise is that each player has a group of five characters, and by playing special cards on each character the player has to bring as much sorrow down on their heads as possible and kill them off. At the end of the game the player whose characters died in the most anguish wins. The storytelling fun comes from the nature of the cards – the events you play on characters (who vary from mad inventors to twisted circus-folk) are things like ‘trapped on a train’, ‘torn apart by weasels’, ‘chastised by the church’ or ‘plagued by the pox’. It’s up to the player to construct a story for each of their characters that links each event until their inevitable demise. Add to the mix that other players can play cards on your characters to cheer them up and swerve your story in a different direction, and it’s an awful lot of fun.

2. Storytelling dice

I bought a set of these for a friend’s child, but I think they’ll work for any age. It’s a set of nine wooden dice, with different symbols etched on each face of each one. The game is to roll the dice and construct a story based on the elements you roll, and there are magic/fantasy, pirate and space-themed sets to choose from. It would be interesting to use this as the basis for a pantsed NaNoWriMo novel if November comes around and I find I’m at a loose end. You can put the story together in any order you want, or in order die by die – trying to get it to fit a generic plot structure would give you an instant (if, possibly, rather odd) novel outline.

3. Fable 2

A slightly different beastie, this one. I love videogames and Fable 2 is probably my all-time fave. There are many reasons why, but prime among them is the storytelling capability. The humour and scripted quests in the game are compelling enough, though fairly standard, but it’s what you can get up to along the way that really made me fall in love with the game. The amount of different ways you can make your character express themselves, coupled to the reactions to those expressions really set this apart from other games, even the other games in the franchise, and it’s perfectly possible to construct your own narrative around your exploits. So, during the first part of the game you could find true love, get married and have kids, then (spoilerish alert) you get taken away for a while and traumatic things happen. Depending on how much you’d worked on your relationship before being taken away your wife might be waiting, or she may have vanished. So then you can do what you like – pursue your true love or go and get drunk, belch and fart your way through the next few days in a haze of drunkenness, shag half the town and wake up in a same sex relationship, or become a monk-like ascetic, swearing off relationships lest you hurt someone again. I tried the latter and then finally, having given in to temptation and found love with a barmaid, was leading her off to get married when we were attacked by bandits and she was killed. All of this is completely extraneous to the game itself and relies on the player to construct the narrative and put the work in themselves.

Those are my favourite storytelling games – none of them have directly led to any novelling inspiration yet, but should I ever run out of ideas then it’s great to have some ways of getting my storytelling brain kicked back into gear. Have you tried any of these? Or have you got other recommendations? I’d love to try some more!

@BornToPootle

An Injection of Gothic

Or, Bela Lugosi’s dead…

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Subtlety is not the gothic's strong point

I mentioned in my NaNoWriMo Hacks post that I visited the Gothic exhibition at the British Library recently. I’ve got some pretty strong gothic credentials as the first short story I ever wrote (the result of a school project many moons ago) was a Poe tribute – though I didn’t actually take writing seriously until a fair few years later – and for a couple of years in the late 90s I played keyboards in a band called Purity of Decadence who looked like this:

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That's me on the left. Bloody loved that coat

The exhibition, called Terror and Wonder, is definitely a stop off if you’re into the weird or fantastical, and it’s worth picking up the accompanying book – it goes into a lot more detail than the captions could manage in their limited space – I’m going to have a very long reading list when I’ve worked my way through it.

Amongst the novels and images and artefacts was an object owned by Horace Walpole, the author of the first generally accepted gothic novel (The Castle of Otranto). A piece of polished obsidian, jet black in a darkened glass cabinet. It might have been quite easy to miss, there were certainly lots of other great images and objects tearing at the attention. Fortunately I was being thorough, because it turned out to be John Dee’s Aztec spirit mirror, one of his primary means for contacting the dead, either for his own ends or for Elizabeth I for whom he sometimes worked. I caught my reflection in it, but nothing more – I wonder how many visitors see something other than themselves in there?

What struck me about the exhibition was the way the idea of the gothic has changed as the centuries have rolled past, starting off with classic haunted medieval castles in novels that claimed to be translations of ancient manuscripts, through to burnt heathland, into fog-cloaked cities and even in to body mutation. What seems to be the linking factor is the idea of location and atmosphere, a pregnant sense of dread hanging over proceedings.

That’s something that I think I’m writing towards, but can definitely stand to bring further toward the front. The sense of location is quite important in the novels I’m working on – in A Calling-on Song it’s a calmingly familiar town whose charms start to rebel against the protagonist, and in Lord of the Dance it’s pretty much the opposite; a town which functions as a prison for my protagonist starts to reveal secrets that end up making the place alluring.

Or failing that I’ll stick an ancient Aztec spirit mirror owned by a long-dead mystic into my characters’ hands early on and see what happens. The exhibition is on for a while still, so pop along if you’re in London and let me know what you think.