From PAX Aus 2016: Guilt & Inequity in Silent Hill 2

It ended up taking a while to release all of the material that With a Terrible Fate presented our PAX Aus 2016 panel, “Press X to Scream: Horror Storytelling in Video Games”—mainly because the majority of our presentation was brand-new, unpublished work. With the release of this article, however, the entirety of our panel is now online in article form.

This article is based on the last section of my own portion of our presentation, which I called “The Inequitable Judgment of Silent Hill” at PAX Aus. (Spoilers for Silent HIll 2 follow.) I want to suggest that the horror of Silent Hill 2 isn’t ultimately due to any of the obvious candidates, like the disturbing motif of Pyramid Head or the deep-rooted guilt of characters like Angela and Eddie. Rather, Silent Hill 2 is so haunting because the game’s world constantly judges the player and James in a way that is deeply unfair. By understanding why this is the case, we’ll learn about one of the many ways in which video games can make the difference between a player’s knowledge and an avatar’s knowledge—differences that I’ll call epistemic asymmetries—aesthetically meaningful.

James viewing Misty Day

“I Know Something You Don’t Know”: Epistemic Asymmetries

Before we can appreciate the horror of Silent Hill 2, we need to get a piece of theory on the table. The piece of theory comes from the mundane observation that the player of a video game is not the same thing as the avatar of the video game. This is a mundane observation, but it’s one that’s getting increasingly easy to ignore as developers and critics focus on “immersion” in games, where “immersion” is the degree to which the player of a video game feels as if she is really “in the avatar’s shoes,” occupying the avatar’s perspective from inside the fictional world of the game. People who laud this kind of immersion are basically trying to collapse the player and avatar into a single entity—or, at least, they’re trying to minimize the difference between them.

Nonetheless, there are deep differences between avatars and players. One of the most significant kinds of difference between them in regard to video-game storytelling is epistemic asymmetry: when the beliefs, knowledge, and thoughts of the avatar differ from the beliefs, knowledge, and thoughts of the player. This might seem like a niche concept, but it’s actually remarkably commonplace in video games. Consider, for instance, the following example (which I adapt from my thesis on the storytelling of video games).

Imagine that you’re playing a video game in which you’re guiding your avatar through a dungeon, with a variety of possible routes. Importantly, this game’s world doesn’t feature anything magic or science-fictional like immortality or reincarnation. At one point in the game, you encounter an enemy who was hiding behind a corner; as your avatar rounds that corner, the enemy jumps out and kills him. The game reloads to a few minutes before that fatal encounter; you do the same thing, convinced your avatar can beat the enemy this time, but the avatar just ends up dying again. Eventually, you decide to have your avatar avoid the corner, going a different route so that the avatar won’t encounter that pesky enemy.

Now, suppose that someone saw your avatar avoid the corner, and that person asks you this question: “Why did the avatar avoid that corner?” The more you think about this question and how to answer it, the more it becomes something of a puzzle. On the one hand, you know the obvious answer: you—the player—knew that there was a lethal enemy hiding out behind the corner, and, after many failed attempts to get your avatar past the monster, you decided to simply avoid it altogether. On the other hand, the avatar—the character that actually avoided the enemy within the game’s world—couldn’t possibly know about the enemy in that way, since the avatar was killed every time he encountered the enemy (and, remember, we’re imagining that this is a game where the avatar isn’t immortal, reincarnated, or anything like that).

The point here isn’t to try to solve the above puzzle; that would take us way off-track, and I’ve already offered a full solution in my thesis on the storytelling of video games. The point is just that this very common case of a player learning something about a game through the death of the avatar and then acting on that knowledge is also oftentimes a case of epistemic asymmetry. There are all sorts of differences between what an avatar knows and what a player knows, and they can end up becoming crucial to the stories of video games in surprising ways. This, we will see, is just what happens in Silent Hill 2.

Judgment, Guilt, and Unfairness in Silent Hill

Judgment and guilt are central to the Silent Hill series, and Silent Hill 2 is no exception to this rule. The story brings James Sunderland to Silent Hill, Maine, on a mission to understand a letter seemingly sent to him by his dead wife, Mary; over the course of the game, he meets other characters trapped in Silent Hill, all tormented by guilt over something in their past. James himself, hounded by monsters and the iconic Pyramid Heads, ultimately remembers the truth: he was responsible for his wife’s death, smothering her with a pillow after she, terminally ill, begged him to kill her.

Screen Shot 2017-06-29 at 12.02.02 PM

Silent Hill is a metaphysically mysterious town: it finds its origins in the machinations of a corrupt cult; it enshrouds visitors in a ubiquitous mist; it is intimately intertwined with a nightmarish, interstitial space known as (among other names) the Otherworld; and, most importantly for our purposes, it molds itself to reflect and judge the psyches of its visitors.

In Silent Hill, people are judged for their past and forced to confront their sins everywhere they turn. Pyramid Head, the iconic, hellish poster-child of the series, stalks James as a manifestation of his own guilt, punishing him for killing his wife; Angela sees hellfire everywhere she turns, burdened by hatred and shame brought on by the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her father and brother; and the Otherworld, even more directly, molds itself into something akin to the subconscious terror of whoever enters it. In fact, one of the reasons why Silent Hill 2 works so well as a puzzle-solving horror video game is that, as the player works to navigate and understand the landscape of the bizarre, labyrinthine town, she is simultaneously working to understand the bizarre, labyrinthine psyches of the game’s characters—because (to reiterate) the town molds itself into a metaphysical representation of their psyches.

Angela's Hell

But it’s not just the characters of Silent Hill 2 who are being judged by the game’s world: the game’s world is judging the player, too. I don’t just mean this as a rhetorical flourish of unjustified interpretation: the game literally keeps track of various actions that the player takes over the course of any given playthrough, and it “judges” them for these actions by causing the story to end in different ways based on the player’s actions. To take two examples: James begins the game carrying around a picture of his deceased wife, Mary, which the player can examine on the inventory screen; also, later in the game, James talks Angela out of killing herself and takes her knife away from her, at which point the knife becomes an item that the player can examine. If the player examines the photo of Mary frequently (among other things), then the game ends with James seeing his dead wife one final time and then leaving Silent Hill with Laura, a girl whom he met during his adventure there; on the other hand, if the player examines Angela’s knife frequently (among other things), then the game ends with James seeing his dead wife one final time and then killing himself, driving his car into Toluca Lake.

Silent Hill 2 Mary PhotoSilent Hill 2 Angelas Knife

This is an oversimplification—there are more than two endings, and there’s more than one action that factors into the likelihood of getting any particular ending—but it’s a fair representation of how the game derives its ending from player behavior. Rather than the player being presented with certain decision points that affect later events (e.g., “kill this NPC or let her live”), the game instead collects a series of data points about the player’s general behavior (e.g., how frequently the player examines the knife). In this way, it seems as if the game is trying to reflect and judge the player’s psyche in the same way that it’s judging the characters’ psyches: it’s judging them all on how they think and their general patterns of action, rather than on singular choices taken in a vacuum.

This idea, at first, seems poetic: you’re part of a game world that judges you to the same extent as it judges its characters. However, the more you think about this idea, the more you’re forced to confront an unsettling puzzle. While the game is indeed judging the actions that the player is taking, it’s meting out its punishment and reward for those actions on James: his very life depends on the player’s decisions. You should find it problematic if a system punishes someone else for your actions—in the case of a judgment-based world like Silent Hill, that would be metaphysically unjust in a bizarre way.

But of course, there’s a seemingly easy way to get around this metaphysical unjustness: just say that the player is making decisions “as” James in some way. When the player decides to examine the picture of Mary, for instance, that means James is examining the picture within the fiction of the game. So, on a view like this, the game is really still judging and punishing James for his own actions—it just so happens that the player is deciding what many of James’ actions will be.

That might be able to get around the problem of metaphysical unjustness, but a certain condition needs to be satisfied in order for that to be the case: namely, the player needs to be able to act as a proxy for James, recognizing James’ beliefs, knowledge, desires, etc., and choosing his actions based on those beliefs, knowledge, desires, etc. If that were the case, then James, even when controlled by the player, would be a single, coherent, rational agent, who has certain beliefs and desires and acts on them. In contrast, if the player doesn’t share James’ beliefs and desires and act on them, instead acting on their own beliefs and desires that James couldn’t possibly have, then their actions can’t really be attributed to James in a way that identifies him as a single, rational agent. And, if it turns out that James isn’t a rational agent (doing things for his own reasons, based on his own beliefs and desires), then it won’t be fair for the game to judge and punish him for those actions—that is, as long as we take onboard the fairly standard assumption that this very basic sort of rationality (acting based on one’s own beliefs, desires, knowledge, etc.) is a precondition of responsibility (i.e. being held accountable for one’s actions).

This is where epistemic asymmetry comes in, because it turns out that the player—at least, not a first-time player coming in without full knowledge of the game’s story—can’t act in the way necessary to make James a rational agent. The relevant asymmetries go in two directions.

First, the avatar—James—knows things that the player doesn’t. James has an entire prior history with his wife and with Silent Hill, and the player knows very little of this until the game is nearly over. Ordinarily, the player not knowing the avatar’s backstory isn’t crucially important to the structure of the player’s relationship with the avatar; however, because Silent Hill 2‘s world is metaphysically centered on judgment of the characters inhabiting it, this epistemic asymmetry takes on a special significance because the player cannot use James’ backstory to make him commit actions consistent with his character, beliefs, and desires.

What about the objection that James himself doesn’t know about his prior history at the start of Silent Hill 2? After all, his discovery at the end of the game that he killed his wife and had been suppressing the memory for the whole game is a central turning point in the story. While this seems like a plausible counterargument, it overlooks the fact that it’s also centrally important to the game that James’ suppressed psyche bleeds into the world around him, representing itself in the town through torturous obstacles like the Pyramid Heads. So even though James isn’t consciously aware of his history, his latent knowledge of it is a crucial determinant of his actions—and the player doesn’t have that knowledge on any level, be it conscious or latent.

Second, the player knows things that the avatar doesn’t. Particularly relevant here is the player’s knowledge that she is playing a video game. Here’s what I mean: Silent Hill 2 makes clear to the player very quickly that it’s a game involving complicated puzzles, with many different items and bits of information required to solve each one. So it’s not at all unreasonable, for example, for the player to acquire Angela’s knife and assume that it will later play a key role in a puzzle. A player who assumes that the knife works in this way will probably select the knife in their inventory and try to use it during various puzzles, particularly when she can’t think of another possible solution. And this action, as discussed above, will make it more likely that James kills himself at the end of the game. Presumably, the action of examining the knife makes this ending more probable because it’s supposed to suggest James contemplating suicide, as Angela does when she stares at the knife early on in the game; but in this scenario, the player is only looking at the knife in an attempt to press on and solve the puzzles in James’ way—virtually the opposite of giving up and having James kill himself. This is another instance of epistemic asymmetries in the player and James leading the player to act on reasons that couldn’t be James’: James wouldn’t be staring at the knife and thinking that he got it as an eventual key in a video-game puzzle (he “got it” because he wanted to take it away from the suicidal Angela).

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The result of these epistemic asymmetries is that the player of Silent Hill 2 ends up making James act in ways that couldn’t rationally be attributed to him (i.e. James). This separation of James’ actions (commanded by the player) from his beliefs, knowledge and desires renders him an irrational agent—someone who couldn’t rightly be held responsible for those actions. Yet the world of Silent Hill disregards this irrationality, and metes out judgment on James all the same. That, I think, is what instills the game with such an unsettling sense of horror: when James steps into the metaphysically punishing town, he not only becomes irrational in virtue of the player’s choices, but he also becomes the victim of iniquitous judgment for his irrational actions. Put differently: the town punishes James for what the player did, and what the player did can’t be consistently attributed to James’ own decision-making.

In reviewing Silent Hill 2 through this lens, then, we don’t just get a new understanding of the game: we also get an example of how something that might initially seem like a design defect in games—epistemic asymmetries between player and avatar—can end up being a potent tool of storytelling in the right circumstances.

Breath of the Wild: The Hero Who Never Was


After years of waiting, the world has the latest Zelda treasure that Nintendo promised: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, with a new console—the Switch—to boot. There’s broad agreement among fans and critics alike that Nintendo did what they set out to do with Breath of the Wild: more than ever before, they succeeded in creating what Shigeru Miyamoto famously called “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit any time you like.” Indeed, many players who bought Breath of the Wild immediately upon its release three months ago (myself included) are still returning to it and discovering new features of the world.

Today, Breath of the Wild meets With a Terrible Fate. This article isn’t a review of the game, although its analysis is my best attempt at adjudicating and explaining my many, widely varied feelings about the game. And I think that this sort of response to the game is natural. After all, Nintendo broke from the recent Zelda formula in many ways for Breath of the Wild: they added voice acting; they created a massively open world; they invented a hybrid console to support the game; they told a huge amount of the game’s story through cinematic flashbacks (well, maybe they were flashbacks—but more on that later). Players of the game have a lot to process, and I think it will take a long time before we’ve really wrapped our head around Breath of the Wild.

I think that Breath of the Wild represents a new, philosophically challenging synthesis of (1) game console, (2) open-world storytelling, and (3) Zelda theming. In this article, I’m going to present an analysis of Breath of the Wild that will hopefully go some distance in both explaining why some people love the game and why some people don’t love the game. Put briefly, I want to convince you that the game is lying to you about something: the Shrine of Resurrection doesn’t really “resurrect” people in the way the player is led to believe. Figuring out exactly what the player’s avatar is, then, will allow us to understand both the story of Breath of the Wild and the player’s relation to that story in a new way. Be warned of Zelda spoilers throughout.

1. Two Puzzles

I want to begin by motivating my analyses with the two puzzles in Breath of the Wild that got me thinking about the problem of Link’s identity: fast travel and the Sheikah Slate. Once we get these puzzles on the table, we will be poised to explain exactly how the avatar and the player are connected to one another.

While most gamer’s were justifiably exhilarated by the panoramic view of Breath of the Wild’s absolutely massive world at the start of the game, I was much more interested in a different visual:

BotW Fast Travel

This is what it looks like when Link “fast-travels” in Breath of the Wild—that is, when he teleports from one location on the map to another instantaneously. Such a mechanic, of course, is crucial for a game with a world as massive as Breath of the Wild’s. When the player decides to make Link fast-travel, he is decomposed into a stream of blue particles, which evaporates and then reconstitutes him at his destination.

Of course, this is hardly the first time that a Zelda game has featured a method of fast travel: Farore’s Wind is a spell that lets Link teleport within dungeons in Ocarina of Time; the “Song of Soaring” lets Link travel from one Owl Statue to another in Majora’s Mask; Midna can transport Wolf Link in between Twilight Portals in Twilight Princess; and so on. What’s interesting, though, is that Zelda as a series has always been adept at integrating fast travel into the overall logic of the games’ worlds and stories. Farore’s Wind can presumably teleport Link by harnessing the goddess Farore’s dominion over living beings, since she created them at the beginning of the world; the power of the “Song of Soaring” derives from Kaepora Gaebora’s metaphysically external position relative to Termina, as I discussed in my work on Majora’s Mask; and Link’s wolf form renders him a creature of the Twilight Realm, which presumably grants Midna, as the Twilight Princess, the ability to move him through the twilight at will. Zelda isn’t one for deus ex machina fast travel, where the player decides to have his avatar fast-travel thousands of miles and this simply happens without any available explanation within the story.

With this background, it makes sense to ask what explanation there is for Link’s ability to fast-travel in Breath of the Wild. The game doesn’t give us much explicit information to go on here. We know that it’s facilitated by ancient Sheikah technology, since (1) fast travel decomposes Link into strands of the same blue energy/material that appears in active Sheikah technology, (2) fast travel is activated as the same time that Link activates the Sheikah network of towers across Hyrule, and (3) Link can only fast-travel to conduits of Sheikah technology—Towers, Shrines, Divine Beasts, and laboratories. But this information doesn’t answer our question. After all, how can Sheikah technology decompose and then reconstitute a living being? This isn’t supposed to be a divine power like Farore’s Wind: it’s emphasized in this game more than ever before that the Sheikah developed technology, not magic. And there’s no talk of any universal, Lifestream-like, organic energy that Sheikah technology could harness to move a human being from one place to another. And it’s not as simple as the Sheikah Slate somehow facilitating faster-than-light travel: fast-travel only operates on Link and his equipment; other beings—e.g., Link’s horses—can’t be teleported, either along with Link or on their own. So here we have the first of our two puzzles: Sheikah technology facilitates fast travel, but it’s not clear how it does so.

The Sheikah Slate acts as Link’s most immediate and direct access to Sheikah technology, and it’s through this piece of technology that Link is able to fast travel. So it makes sense to seek out an explanation of fast-travel in an analysis of precisely what the Sheikah Slate is. But here, again, the game doesn’t offer much by way of an explicit explanation. Zelda’s research notes on the Slate just discuss its ability to function as a camera; beyond these notes, all we really have to go on are the Slate’s various other functions: it can activate shrines, acquire regional data from Sheikah towers, and enable the various capabilities of runes. Because Link finds it in the Shrine of Resurrection when he wakes up there at the beginning of the game, it presumably also has something to do with the functions of that special Shrine—but that relationship is far from obvious (we’ll return to it later).

There’s another aspect of mystery surrounding the Sheikah Slate: it looks just like the player’s controller—either the gamepad of the Wii U, or the Switch in its handheld configuration (this analysis will presume use of the Switch rather than the Wii U, however).

Sheikah SlateNintendo Switch

Of course, this fact isn’t inherently mysterious: Nintendo obviously drew the connection between the fictional and real technologies intentionally. Nor is this the first time that they’ve combined their hardware with the stories of the Zelda series in novel ways—in fact, it’s become the norm for them to do this. Phantom Hourglass takes advantage of the 3DS’s stylus by making the player use the stylus to move Link; Skyward Sword effectively turns the Wii’s controller, the motion-controlled Wiimote, into a “sword” that directs the motion of Link’s sword in the game. The mystery here instead comes from the potential for the relationship between Sheikah Slate and game controller to play an important part in the fictional relationship between Link and the player of Breath of the Wild.

Regulars to With a Terrible Fate know how heavily I emphasize the relationship between player and avatar as a central feature of video-game storytelling: I argued extensively that you can’t hope to understand Majora’s Mask without understanding the role of the player in its story, and I more recently developed a theory of video games according to which the player of a video game always plays a foundational, metaphysical role in that game’s story—a role that is different in kind from the role of the avatar within that story. Since the player can be involved in video-game stories and related to avatars in a multitude of complex and narratively important ways, it’s natural to ask whether the apparent similarity between the player’s physical controller and the avatar’s main means of navigating the game’s world has any deep meaning within the game’s story.

So, in trying to solve our first puzzle about the nature of fast-travel, we’ve arrived at a second puzzle: what exactly is the Sheikah Slate, and does it have any narratively significant bearing on the relationship between Link and the player? And now it’s intuitive to take up the task of exploring exactly who, or what, Link the avatar is in Breath of the Wild. After all, we already know a good amount about the player—we are the player, after all—and we’ve seen that direct information about the Sheikah Slate and fast-travel is limited. Link is the one remaining variable in our puzzles of fast travel, the Sheikah Slate, the player, and the avatar. It’s time to take a closer look at what we know about him.

2. The True Blank Slate

I want to convince you that the solution to our two puzzles is a radical idea that contradicts one of the explicit statements affirmed by various characters within Breath of the Wild: I contend that the Link who lived and died 100 years before Breath of the Wild’s events wasn’t actually resurrected by the Shrine of Resurrection. Rather, the Shrine of Resurrection created a mechanical copy of Link that can be “piloted” by the player in much the same way as the Divine Beasts of the game are piloted by their respective Champions. I’ll argue that this analysis not only solves the two puzzles discussed above, but also does a better job of holistically analyzing the technology of the Sheikah and accounting for the dynamics of the 18 Link-memories you can acquire over the course of the game. I’ll then reply to objections that (1) this analysis contradicts the very game it proposes to analyze and (2) the analysis doesn’t have enough explanatory clout to be preferable to the more intuitive view that Link really was resurrected. This will lead us naturally to this view’s broader implications for understanding Breath of the Wild’s method of open-world storytelling.

Here’s what we know (from Impa, King Rhoam, and others) about the ancient Sheikah who developed cutting-edge technology 10,000 years before the events of Breath of the Wild: in a time of societal prosperity and technological innovation, the Sheikah developed a system of machinery to combat the recurring threat of Calamity Ganon. This technology included: an autonomous army of Guardian machines; four Divine Beasts that required piloting by heroes called “Champions”; a network of Shrines and Towers designed to guide and train a chosen hero; a Shrine of Resurrection that is (according to Zelda) “a medical facility with the power to heal”; and Sheikah Slates that somehow serve as a catalyst for much of the other technology. This technology, buried in the earth, led to a prophecy being propagated that “the power to oppose [the resurrection of Calamity Ganon] lies dormant beneath the ground.”

The first thing to notice here is that the Shrine of Resurrection is something of a non sequitur in the suite of Sheikah technology: it’s not a weapon like the Guardians and Divine Beasts, nor is it a guidance/training catalyst like the Shrines and Towers. It’s not obvious why the Sheikah would even build such a healing device to operate on people, given that they had already developed a fully automated army and a team of four super-machines. More to the point, it’s the only piece of Sheikah technology that apparently operates on organic matter: instead of simply being an advanced piece of machinery, this machinery promises to manipulate the vitality of organisms. Of course, none of this is a knock-down argument that the Shrine of Resurrection couldn’t possibly do what it purports to do: the point is just that the supposed functionality of the Shine of Resurrection is somewhat dissonant with the rest of the Sheikah technology presented in the game. So it’s worth at least exploring whether an alternative analysis might provide a more unified picture of Sheikah technology—especially if such an analysis also turns out to shed additional explanatory light on the rest of Breath of the Wild’s story and world.

Here’s such an alternative analysis: imagine that instead of healing someone by putting them in a “long-term stasis,” the Shrine of Resurrection “resurrects” people by generating a mechanical copy of them: an “android” of sorts that mimics their body without capturing the contents of their mind or soul (we know that things like souls exist in the game’s world from the discussion of many characters). The copy could mimic the deceased person’s mind by having their memories uploaded onto them in some way; it could be trained as a hero through the Shrines across the world; and, crucially, it could be controlled by a pilot like a Divine Beast.

Avatar in Shrine of Resurrection

This, I propose, is the best available analysis for the real nature of the avatar that the Shrine of Resurrection created: the avatar is not Link, but rather a mechanical copy of him that the player of the game “pilots.” While this view might initially seem radically unmotivated, it actually has distinctive theoretical benefits. In particular, it casts the Sheikah’s technological program in a new, coherently logical light; it also makes new sense of how the avatar’s identity evolves in accordance with the player’s actions over the course of the game.

Here’s a problem with the story of the Sheikah: if we take Breath of the Wild at face value, then we’re forced to accept that the Sheikah both had incredible foresight and terrible foresight. On the one hand, they were advanced enough to anticipate the return of Calamity Ganon and devise an intricate system of autonomous machines, pilot-driven machines, and a network of Shrines and Towers to combat this return. On the other hand, they somehow failed to anticipate that Calamity Ganon would be able to take control of both their autonomous and pilot-driven machine armies. How are we supposed to reconcile the Sheikah’s technological mastery with this glaring design flaw in their program?

My favored solution is that the Sheikah actually did anticipate the risk of Calamity Ganon wresting control of their machines from them. On my view, the Shrine of Resurrection was designed to combat this specific threat. The logic of the Sheikah, as I see it, is the following. What’s the easiest sort of army to mass-manufacture? An army of autonomous machines (the Guardians). What do you do if your enemy can possess those machines? Build machines with human pilots as a failsafe (the Divine Beasts). And what if your enemy can kill those pilots, possessing these new machines just as easily as the old ones? Build a machine controlled by a pilot who is beyond the reach of your enemy.

Here’s where some console theory comes in. The idea is that the Switch is a representation in the player’s world of the Sheikah Slate in the avatar’s world, linking the avatar to the player in such a way that the player can control the avatar in the same way that the Champions control the Divine Beasts. In effect, this metaphysical correspondence between the Sheikah Slate and the Switch allows the player to control the avatar while remaining in a discrete world from the avatar’s—a world that is safe from Calamity Ganon. Ganon obviously cannot kill you, the player, and thus the avatar is safe from the danger of being controlled by Ganon like the Guardians and Divine Beasts were.

How outlandish is the idea that the relationship between Switch and Sheikah Slate allows the player, within the fiction of the game, to control a Link-automaton? Not especially. First, notice that interdimensional travel and communication isn’t a foreign concept in the Zelda series more broadly: for instance, A Link Between Worlds centrally features the traversing of dimensional barriers between Hyrule and Lorule, and various iterations of the series’ time-travel mechanics (e.g., the cross-temporal communication in Ocarina of Time’s Spirit Temple) come theoretically quite close to communication between dimensions of some sort of another. Even the concept of one sentient being possessing another humanoid being is familiar to the series: recall Ganondorf’s possession of Zelda in Twilight Princess, or the recurring mechanic of Link controlling statues. Moreover, one of the few analyses of the Sheikah Slate that the game gives us invites this kind of analysis. According to Zelda’s research notes, the Slate can produce “Perfect likenesses of the things you point it at.” The most obvious meaning behind this comment is that the Sheikah Slate can photograph the world around Link; however, the language also suggests that the Slate is able to represent reality while also controlling reality through corresponding Sheikah technologies like Guidance Stones (also discussed in Zelda’s notes). It doesn’t seem like a stretch that the Switch, which already corresponds to the Sheikah Slate in physical appearance, and its ability to be carried throughout the world, could also, within the game’s fiction, represent and exert control over a reality: and in this regard, Zelda’s research on the Sheikah Slate gives us an in-game explanation for the functionality of the Switch. The Switch acts as a Sheikah artifact that represents to the player the reality of Hyrule, and, through its metaphysical correspondence with the Sheikah Slate, bridges the gap between Hyrule’s dimension and the player’s dimension, allowing the player to pilot the Link-automaton through its reality.

Notice that this analysis easily explains the two puzzles we considered in the previous section. If the avatar of Breath of the Wild is itself a piece of Sheikah technology, then it makes sense that it could be decomposed and reconstituted across the broader network of Sheikah warp points—we don’t need to invoke anything like faster-than-light transportation of a unique human in order to understand this phenomenon. And of course, based on this analysis, the Sheikah Slate has a very narratively significant bearing on the relationship between player and avatar. In fact, this analysis has the added benefit of explaining why the Sheikah Slate is central to reactivating all of the Shrines and Towers at the beginning of the game: These locations are designed, according to Zelda, “to train the hero who is fated to combat the Calamity.” When the player arrives at the beginning of the game, the fated hero also arrives—because you, the player, are that fated hero.

Wait: isn’t Link the fated hero? Well, not really. First, there’s no indication within the game that the avatar possesses the Triforce of Courage, the standard, conspicuous symbol of Link’s evil-quashing destiny throughout the series (and a symbol equally absent from Majora’s Mask). It’s not even evident that the avatar is “chosen” by the Master Sword, like Link typically is: the only requirement for successfully pulling the Master Sword from its pedestal is the avatar having enough hearts, which hardly seems representative of a chosen destiny. And, further, it makes sense that the Sheikah would want to design a flexible Shrine of Resurrection in the sense of making it able to construct a mechanical mimic of any warrior brought there: the final failsafe in a world-saving system would presumably be best-designed if it were dynamic enough to accommodate a wide variety of potential avatars, adaptable to a wide variety of potential obstacles. (Notice that this flexibility also explains why the Shrine wouldn’t automatically implant its mechanical avatar with all of the source human’s memories—more on that below.) The key to the system’s success would be the competency of the avatar’s pilot—i.e. the player—and thus it is in the pilot that the true heroism rests. (And, as a nice bonus, you get from this the feel-good conclusion that, in a metaphysically deep sense, the player really gets to be a hero in Breath of the Wild.)

So the system of mechanical avatar, Sheikah Slate, Shrines, runes, and Towers all activate in response to the player picking up the Switch and activating the Sheikah’s last failsafe. This analysis thus provides us with the unifying understanding of Sheikah technology that the intuitive, face-value understanding of the game lacks.

Subsequently, we also get an improved understanding of the avatar’s acquisition of memories over the course of the game. To see this, first notice another puzzle with the face-value analysis of Breath of the Wild’s story: if the avatar is really just a revived Link with memory loss, then why is it that his memory can only be retrieved in discrete chunks at extremely precise locations throughout the world? No doubt, it might be the case that a specific location could plausibly jog an amnesiac’s memory; but one would suppose that, once memories started returning, the memories would cascade, emerging and filling in gaps in the amnesiac’s overall identity and mental repository at an increasing rate. The story of the avatar regaining memories doesn’t work this way: the player can find at most 18, discrete memories of Link’s, and they are all capable of being accessed only by the avatar observing a specific location.

If the avatar is really supposed to be Link, then it’s mysterious why he ends up with only 18 memories and can only derive memories from specific locations; buying into this interpretation of the story means we essentially have to throw up our hands here and say that the game admits of no further explanation. On the other hand, the analysis of the avatar as an automaton emulating Link naturally invites an explanation about the dynamics of memory acquisition: we know that the Sheikah Slate (and other technology like the Towers, for that matter) is capable of recording and representing data from the physical world around it; it’s a modest extension of this notion to suppose that the Sheikah Slate could record the experiences of its owner and associate these recorded experiences with the physical locations where they took place. In fact, this method of representing content in physical space is strongly analogous to the Slate’s ability to represent columns of colored light at various points in the world as location markers (or “pins”) throughout the player’s journey.

BotW Map PinBotW Memory Point

On this view, the Sheikah Slate, while in Link’s possession 100 years before the game, recorded 18 of his central memories, associating them with the locations where they happened. When the Sheikah Slate was implemented to create a copy of Link, it also made it possible for this copy to acquire those 18 memories by traveling to those locations. This explains why the game memories are all tied to specific physical spaces, as well as why the memories are discretely acquired without triggering a cascade of further memory recall (i.e. the cascade we would expect if the avatar were an amnesia-ridden Link).

I’ve argued thus far that the analysis of Breath of the Wild’s avatar as a mechanical copy of Link unifies the purpose of Sheikah technology, explains the game’s fast-travel mechanic, illuminates the relation between the player, avatar, Sheikah Slate, and Switch, and accommodates the memory acquisition method uniquely well. But is this enough to make the analysis plausible? You might have two objections in particular: maybe you’re worried about an analysis that rejects the game’s explicit statement that Link was, in fact, resurrected; or, maybe you’re worried that the intuitive value of the view that Link was resurrected simply trumps the explanatory virtues of the analysis I’ve outlined here. Neither of these objections, I think, should deter us for long.

Zelda games, more than most games, are often heavily analyzed through the lens of “canon”: the official, Nintendo-licensed interpretation of how the series’ titles fit together into a coherent set of timelines. This canon mentality, I think, makes some people reticent to doubt any of the explicit information about the Zelda universe provided by the games. Nintendo’s words, and the words they encode in their games, are often taken as law in one way or another.

There’s of course value in theorizing about the Zelda canon—for example, hypothesizing about how Breath of the Wild fits into the Zelda timelines—but it’s dangerous to focus on canon to the exclusion of all other analytical methods. A common, established storytelling device is unreliable narration: stories in which a narrator or various aspects of the story’s representation are dubious within the overall ecosystem of the story and its world. This is how The Sound and the Fury works; this is how Fight Club works; this, I’ve argued, is how Majora’s Mask works. To focus only on the letter of canon and on the information a game literally endorses is to ignore the nuances of a story’s overall world: oftentimes, making sense of a game’s universe requires reinterpreting various data from the game’s story in order to gain a maximally coherent understanding of the overall work of art. So I don’t take the objection that my analysis contradicts the game’s claims about Link’s resurrection as a compelling counterargument.

Of course, we should be able to offer an explanation of why the game suggests Link really was resurrected, if he in fact wasn’t resurrected. As I see it, there are two possible explanations: either no one in the age of Breath of the Wild was able to uncover the real nature of the Shrine of Resurrection, and so researchers like Zelda and Ms. Purah mistakenly believe that the Shrine resurrects people instead of creating pilotable, machine copies of them; or, researchers like Zelda and Ms. Purah did discover the true nature of the Shrine of Resurrection, and are willfully deceiving the player and avatar about it. My view is that the former of these explanations is the most plausible: presumably the efficacy of a machine replica of a human would be severely hindered if the machine and those around it didn’t genuinely believe that the machine really was the person of whom it was actually a copy. So we do in fact have a plausible explanation of why the beliefs of the characters in the game about the Shrine of Resurrection contradict the actual nature of the Shrine: the Sheikah probably intentionally propagated this misinformation in order to ensure the machine replica could operate effectively.

But even still, are the explanatory resources furnished by this analysis really sufficient to give up on the notion that the avatar of Breath of the Wild is Link? You might think that any argument that concludes that Link isn’t the avatar in a Zelda game thereby defeats itself. After all, what is a Zelda game if not a game in which the player’s avatar is Link?

The point is well taken: it’s hard to make sense of a Zelda game without Link as an avatar. But, in the last section of this piece, I want to show you that this is the most logical, albeit potentially unsatisfying, choice of avatar possible in the overall storytelling of Breath of the Wild: the player’s avatar can become Link, but it doesn’t have to do so. The avatar is a blank slate that can evolve in myriad ways.

3. Open World and Open Avatar 

Finally, when we understand how the avatar’s status as a machine imitation of Link allows players to choose whether or not the avatar becomes Link, we will understand in a new and robust way how Breath of the Wild weaves its story and character development into a vast, diverse, open world. This, as I promised at the outset, will shed light both on why people like the game, and on why people don’t like the game.

As the player accesses the various Link-memories strewn across the world, she gains more access to Link’s history, and the machine avatar comes to more closely emulate the mind and personhood of Link. The result is that, if the player takes the time to acquire all 18 of Link’s memories, she really feel as if her avatar has come into being the Link she knows and expects from other games: the memories have made the once-blank avatar a more compelling copy of the hero of legend. It’s telling, in this regard, that the last line of the game’s initial ending is Zelda asking the avatar, following the defeat of Ganon, “Do you really remember me?” The scene fades to black without the avatar giving a definitive answer; it is only once the player has acquired all 18 memories that a subsequent ending sequence will play, which shows Zelda and the avatar working together—like Zelda and Link once did in the memories—in a post-Ganon Hyrule. This reinforces the idea that the avatar only really becomes a full copy of Link, capable of recognizing Zelda, upon accessing all of the Link-memories left for him throughout Hyrule.

But of course, the player can spend uncountably many hours journeying through Hyrule without acquiring any of these memories, and without pursuing the game’s “main quest” to save Zelda and defeat Calamity Ganon. And from our analysis, it follows that a player who does this—exploring Hyrule without pursuing the main quest—thereby controls an avatar that is not Link in any way but his physical appearance. Why does this matter? Surprisingly, this unusual use of a mechanical avatar ends up circumventing a central problem of modern video-game storytelling in open worlds.

Games these days are increasingly focused on open worlds: environments with a huge number of potential paths and adventures that the player can explore in any order, with little regard to how far the player has advanced in the game’s primary storyline (i.e. the one that consists of the game’s central events and typically ends with the credits). This strategy seems like a promising way to afford players more choice and a more dynamic sense of exploration in the game’s world, but it can bring deep problems for storytelling—especially where tales of destiny are concerned.

Consider as an example Final Fantasy XV. The game is at once about a prince (Noctis) who goes on a destined quest to save the world, and also about that prince going on a roadtrip-adventure with his three closest friends. The open world of the game brings about a challenging tension between these two central themes: in particular, every moment that Noctis and his friends adventure around the world completing sidequests is a moment in which Noctis is shirking his duty and putting off saving the world. A similar problem exists in games like Skyrim, but it’s particularly apparent in Final Fantasy XV because the alternatives to the main quest of heroism are often mere leisure activities like driving in a convertible, fishing, hiking, camping, and hunting—activities that it’s hard to believe could ever justly take precedence over saving the world.

Noctis and friends driving

The mechanical identity of Breath of the Wild’s avatar allows the game to solve this problem of open-world storytelling in an unexpected, surprisingly simple way. So long as the player is focusing on sidequests and not collecting Link’s memories, the avatar remains nothing more than a physical copy of Link’s body; thus it stands to reason that the avatar is not under the same obligation as the hero Link to undergo the hero’s quest and defeat Ganon. It is only once the player begins aggregating Link’s memories, thereby molding the avatar’s identity into that of Link, that the avatar becomes correspondingly obligated to save Hyrule from Ganon. Because the avatar’s identity evolves with the choices of the player to pursue or avoid the main quest, the avatar is not automatically blameworthy for avoiding the main quest in the way that Prince Noctis or the Dragonborn would be.

But wouldn’t a Sheikah-designed machine have the same purpose—and therefore the same obligation—to save the world from Ganon, much like the purpose of the Guardians and Divine Beasts? That doesn’t seem right: as I emphasized above, it stands to reason that the Shrine would have an especially flexible design in virtue of being the last failsafe on the Sheikah’s technological system. The final failsafe would ideally be able to accommodate a wide array of potential scenarios and tasks in order to effectively overcome whatever obstacles might impede the previous technological layers of the Sheikah’s system; thus, it would make sense for them to leave the avatar’s purpose up to its pilot—that is, the player. This would explain why the Sheikah would make the prior mental life and identity of the human on whom the machine copy was based an entirely optional component of the machine’s composition, to be acquired only if the player sees fit. This is why any obligation the avatar incurs is contingent on the player’s decision to incur the avatar with that obligation. (One might be able to make the argument that the player, as the avatar’s pilot, is obligated to use it responsibly by saving the world; but even if that were the case, that would be a stark difference from the avatar being so obligated, as Link is in so many other Zelda titles.)

As I said, these dynamics of the avatar’s identity explain why the game is both likable and unlikable. To the first point, the player is free to explore Hyrule with impunity because their avatar is under no intrinsic obligation to save the world in the way that Link would be. But to the second point, notice how radical a departure this is from the typical (but not ubiquitous) Zelda formula: the series is renowned for giving the player control of a chosen hero who must fulfill his destiny by saving the world from evil. To be given control of an automaton for which saving the world is optional therefore has the potential to be deeply unsettling in the broader context of the series: the freedom to explore, so deeply enmeshed in the ethos of the game, cuts against the grain of good-against-evil destiny: it invites the player to take her avatar and cook food instead of combatting Ganon.


With all the Sheikah technology permeating Breath of the Wild’s world, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising after all that the avatar is a piece of Sheikah technology as well. By analyzing the game in this way, not only do we glean a stronger understanding of their technological program and of the player’s relationship to the game, but we also gain a new theoretical basis for the exploratory freedom central to Breath of the Wild’s method of storytelling. The story may distance players from the real Link, but it only does so in order to give them a new kind of choice: a choice to make their avatar the kind of person who is bound by destiny, or to decline that mantle of destiny altogether.

Nudgy Controls, Part II

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.


In Part I of this series, I discussed some examples of types of games that benefit from the lack of what I’ve termed “nudges,” which is an instance of some player input X that typically yields output Y instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative consistency and Z preserves narrative consistency. For clarification on this term’s formal definition I would suggest reading the introduction to Part I before reading this article. And I would definitely suggest reading Part I before reading this article if you have yet to do so, as this article will assume knowledge of the ideas covered in Part I.

In Part II I will discuss games that have narratives that benefit from nudgy gameplay. There are two principal ways to think about how a game’s narrative may incorporate nudges. First, it may incorporate nudges that help the player, allowing them to perform feats that are potentially outside of their skillset without the helpful nudge. I will term these sorts of nudges “player aids.”[1]

Second, a game may incorporate nudges that cause the player to perform worse than they would on their own. I will term these sorts of nudges “player hindrances.” Importantly, a player hindrance is not simply a lack of a nudge. It is an active change in output from what the player expects that makes the player perform worse. It is not like the examples of Banjo Kazooie or Dark Souls given in the previous article, in which the player likely fails frequently exclusively as a result of their actions, rather than the corrective measures of the game engine.

A nudge can be either a player aid or a player hindrance. I’ll start with a discussion of games with player aids and then move on to a discussion of games with player hindrances.

Games with Player Aids

Player aids exist to make certain potentially difficult aspects or portions of a game easier for the player to accomplish. They are most effective when a task that might be difficult for the average player is not difficult for the avatar the player is controlling. The player aid turns this task into something trivial to accomplish, maintaining the narrative consistency of a game by continually establishing the competency of the character. There are many games that have done this over the past years, notably the Batman Arkham games as well as the Assassin’s Creed games, so many readers are likely familiar with the gameplay I’ll be describing. I will go over two examples of player aids, and then discuss an example of something that potentially looks like a player aid, but is not.

The first example of a player aid hearkens back to the introduction of Part I, discussing the antics of bridge-crossing between Banjo Kazooie and Assassin’s Creed. I’d like to take a moment to look at a related set of circumstances in Assassin’s Creed: whenever the player is making Altair jump off of a building. Usually, the city of an Assassin’s Creed game is such that there is a convenient building to jump onto, or an even more convenient cart full of hay to dive into (and somehow stay completely uninjured, but we’ll ignore that complaint for now). For the sake of example, let’s imagine that the only safe landing space when jumping off a building is one cart full of hay on the ground. If the player runs directly toward the cart, Altair will reliably jump off of the building and land in the cart. However, if the player misses the mark slightly, Altair will jump off of the building and somehow steer his course, mid-fall, toward the cart, even though by the laws of physics in the real world he should have missed and landed with a nice splat on the hard ground. Each of these instances in which the player misses the path toward the cart of hay is a player aid: an enforcement on the part of the game mechanics of Altair’s status as an expert assassin who could not have made such silly mistakes—otherwise, he would have been dead long ago.


Altair jumps into a hay barrel.

One will note that the pattern I described in the previous paragraph holds for an uncooperative player as well as for a less-than-competent player. If the player intentionally attempts to miss the safe landing, the game’s engine corrects the player’s actions to be more narratively consistent. I have personally attempted to cause disasters in Assassin’s Creed, and can note from experience that one must actively attempt to cause harm to Altair in order to do so, as the game liberally aids an uncooperative player to a safer output than the one she was attempting to incur. In this case, input X is forcibly shifted from output Y, the output in which Altair is hurt, to output Z, in which Altair is not injured, even though the player did not want this to occur.

Another example of a player aid is seen frequently across shooters on consoles: aim assist, which is any instance of a game engine helping the player to shoot at enemies, rather than shooting into thin air. While aim assist often exists simply for the purposes of making multiplayer shooting games balanced across skill levels, or just making a shooter game more approachable for beginners, aim assist (lack thereof) often serves an important purpose in narrative consistency as well.

To see how aim assist can act as a player aid, first note that it fits the mechanical model described in Part I. The player can try to move her targeting in any particular direction, and when an enemy target is not on screen, the engine consistently moves the targeting in the direction of the player’s input. However, when an enemy target is onscreen, the game engine aids the player by making an output that differs from the direction of the player’s input, so as to make the player aim at the enemy target. In this way, in some circumstances input X, which often yields output Y, yields output Z instead.

What we need now to see how aim assist can be a player aid is motivation for why aim assist may preserve narrative consistency. Rather than point out a particular game for which this is the case, I will construct a category of games in which aim assist preserves narrative consistency. Imagine any game in which the protagonist is a well trained, expert marksman. For any game in which this is the case, aim assist will preserve narrative consistency, because expert marksmen rarely, if ever, miss. Aim assist works to prevent, to a degree, an incompetent or uncooperative player from undermining the expert status of the marksman.

In contrast, if a game features a protagonist with little-to-no training with guns, it would not make sense narratively to include aim assist. Aim assist would actually make the protagonist too competent, and would thereby undermine narrative consistency.

To further understand what player aids are, it will help to see an example of something that one might initially think is a player aid, but actually is not. Many games with action-filled cutscenes, such as Resident Evil 4, Uncharted, and even Final Fantasy XIII-2, have sections that demand user input in the form of action commands. These are sections of gameplay in which the player acts by pressing a button in response to a visual input on-screen. In response to a single button press, a player may run up the arm of a goliath while dodging bullets, do a backflip over an Indiana-Jones-style boulder rolling down a hill, or deliver a finishing blow to an enemy. These sections are usually designed to allow for player involvement during sections of gameplay in which the actions being performed by the protagonist are too actiony and cinematic for normal gameplay. Initially these seem like they may be player aids, in the sense that the game engine is making it almost atrociously easy for the player to perform incredible feats.


Leon prepares to dodge a boulder.

However, cutscenes with action commands do not thereby contain player aids, because these sections always have one specific output for the player’s input. If a player presses ‘B’ in response to some prompt, for instance, this button press is mapped to a specific output, there is no potential other output that might occur. Because of the one-to-one mapping of player input to game output, there is no nudge taking place. A nudge requires a shifting of output that is not occurring in this case. Simply making some complicated avatar action easier for a player to accomplish is not equivalent to a player aid. A player aid fundamentally changes how a player controls her avatar by shifting the output of some input to something that better fits the narrative than the usual output. To use an analogy, one could think of player aids as a proofreading system akin to error-correcting on a smartphone. A game with player aids corrects the player’s output to what is more correct for the story, rather than simply making it easier to give the correct input to yield said output.

Games with Player Hindrances

A player hindrance exists to disrupt a player’s actions, making simpler tasks more difficult to complete. A game may include a player hindrance to show that a character has difficulty with or is unable to do something, regardless of player ability. They are most effective when the player is controlling a character who is in some way less able than some standard (as defined by the game) regardless of player ability. There is a variety of potential reasons for the gap in ability, usually having to do the current bodily status of the avatar—in particular, when a character is inebriated, in some way physically injured, or close to death. The difficulty in diagnosing a player hindrance, then, comes in correctly identifying what standard it is that the character is failing to live up to. I will go over two examples of a player hindrance, both from NieR: Automata, in which the standard being compared to is the normal functioning state of the avatar. Then I will go over one example from Resident Evil 4 that is more difficult to diagnose. Finally, I’ll discuss one crucial example of a situation that initially appears to be a player hindrance, but actually is not.

At several points in NieR: Automata (a game with multiple avatars), the player’s avatar, an android, is hacked, EMP’d, or injected with a computer virus. When these events occur, various capacities of the avatar get removed, from the ability to attack, to the ability to jump, to the ability to see shapes with edge detection. While there are several instances of this throughout the game, I will focus on one in particular: when 2B, one of the avatars in the game, is infected by a virus that is threatening to control her entirely, leaving her unable to operate normally, on the verge of death. Thus player hindrances are warranted in order to make clear that 2B is no longer able to control her own body sufficiently, regardless of the actions of the player.

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 12.20.25 PM.png

2B losing functionality from a virus.

In particular, when attempting to walk in a straight line, 2B will suddenly stop in her tracks, and sometimes when attempting to stop, 2B instead just keeps running forward. In this way, the player’s usual input can yield one of two outputs, either stopping or continuing moving forward, in a way that is not predictable to the player. The simple task of moving from one spot on the map to another becomes significantly more difficult, regardless of player ability, and so we can say that this section of the game contains player hindrances so as to preserve the narrative of 2B losing control of her body.

Again in NieR: Automata, the avatar is at times a robot with only very limited maneuverability, in contrast to the usual android avatar, who is very agile. The agency of the robot is much less than that of the android, evidenced by the robots’ slow movement speed, simple attack patterns, and a camera angle close to the robot that doesn’t allow for much peripheral vision. While the player is “hindered” in that she is less able to act through the avatar than before, these are not player hindrances: they are simply instances of the player being given fewer options, or simply fewer effective options, in accomplishing any particular task. They are akin to an avatar getting into a car: the control scheme and abilities of the avatar change, but that does not constitute a nudge in the gameplay. Changes in control scheme are not instances of player hindrance.

One particular way in which the player will be hindered by the gameplay when playing as the robot is when attempting to carry a bucket of oil. Usually, the robot can walk over pipes on the ground without falling over, but this action causes the robot to fall over when carrying a bucket full of oil on its head. In this way the output for the player’s input has shifted, meeting the first requirement to call this gameplay a player hindrance. Initially, the shifting output is surprising for players, who do not expect carrying a bucket of oil to be sufficient reason for tripping and falling over a pipe. But, the gameplay reinforces the narrative conceit that many of the robots are weak and relatively incapable individually. In this way the shift in output is narratively impactful: it shows that carrying a bucket of oil is a sufficient hindrance for the robot that even skilled player inputs cannot lead to success at walking over a pipe. The robot’s status as a pathetic being is at least maintained, if not more forcefully asserted, by this moment.[2]

In both of the examples given above, the avatar is not able to operate at their usual standard, in the case of 2B because of her near-death state, and in the case of the robot because of carrying a bucket on its head. But the “standard” that a character is not living up to does not actually have to be inherent to the character themselves. To see this let’s consider another example. Those who have played Resident Evil 4 may remember that the protagonist Leon Kennedy’s aim with a gun is often not great. When the player pulls out a firearm, even when giving no input, the location that Leon is aiming can move in any direction: up, down, left, right, and any diagonal mixture of these. So one can see that the first part of the definition of a nudge has been met: when the user is giving an input (in the form of no input), any of many directional movements of the gun is possible.


Leon (attempts) to aim at an enemy.

There are three potential ways in which this gameplay could maintain narrative consistency. One might initially think that perhaps Leon is not trained in using a firearm, and thus it would not make sense for him to have rock-steady aim. But this theory does not seem correct, since Leon was trained first as a police officer and then as a special forces agent. So his aim should in theory be very good. One might then be tempted to think that the explanation for his terrible aim is the frightening situation that he is in, fighting for his life against parasitically controlled people and monstrosities wielding chainsaws. But again, this theory isn’t coherent plotwise, as Leon must have been trained to manage his fear in combat situations as part of his training as a special forces agent.

Many players do not consider the third potential reason for Leon’s terrible aim, which I will explain in the following paragraph; as a result, these people believe that either Leon must be either a terrible shot or a coward. The lack of explanation for Leon’s terrible aim has plagued the impression that people have of him since the game’s release. Many people explain the existence of the nudge as being indicative of Leon’s actual incompetence, even though his attitude and demeanor appear competent. I recognize this as a weakness for the game: it’s easier to embrace the idea that Leon is incompetent than to recognize the larger theme that Leon’s shaky hand speaks to.

In the Resident Evil series as a whole, there is an idea that, in order to improve humanity and win wars, one must create biological enhancements for people as well as biological weapons. Many of the game’s villains describe normal humans as inept and/or weak. Leon’s shaky hand speaks directly to this theme, and grounds the player in the body of a human person (albeit a very well trained human person), who is subject to imperfections and up against biologically enhanced enemies. The fact that Leon’s aim is bad maintains the consistency of the idea that Leon is physically inferior in various ways to his enemies, and only stays alive through clever use of weapons, supplies, and his own smarts. The gameplay has less to do with Leon as a person, and speaks more to the world in which he is embedded. The standard that Leon does not live up to ends up being the standard of the ideal military combatant, which in the world of Resident Evil must be biologically mutated/enhanced.[3]

One may worry that this analysis is problematic in that presumably every character in a story has uncountably many arbitrary standards to live up to, and since these standards don’t all align, the character must be failing to meet at least one of these standards. In this way it would appear that all gameplay should be instances of player hindrances. But this is clearly not the case, since intuition tells us that most gameplay is not a player hindrance. This is where narrative consistency comes into play. The narrative should define the specific standard out of the uncountably many out there that the character is not meeting, so as to justify the use of a player hindrance.

In the case of Resident Evil 4, this standard is created through dialogue with a character named Lord Saddler in particular. At one point Saddler shoots down a helicopter arriving to rescue Leon and says “Don’t tell me you’ve never swatted a bothersome fly! In essence, it’s the same thing… When you’ve acquired this power, you too will understand.” Through this line, Saddler communicates to Leon that humans are no better than insects, and that there is a power greater than humanity out there to subscribe to. Leon does not meet the standard of this greater power. Leon’s shaky hand keeps this narrative consistent to make it believable that a power greater than humans—greater than Leon—could conceivably exist out there.


Lord Saddler.

As evidenced by the example of Resident Evil 4, player hindrances can be tricky to diagnose, for it isn’t always clear whether there is a standard within a narrative that an avatar is failing to meet. Further, player hindrances are uncommon: outside of characters who are in some way gravely injured, intoxicated, or afraid, or simply incompetent, it is difficult to imagine when a player hindrance might be used. This is especially true since players tend to find player hindrances frustrating, and so developers have a tendency not to design them, as evidenced by the number of players who bitterly complained about Leon’s aiming in Resident Evil 4, followed by the subsequent removal of this feature from the studio’s future games.

Now that we’ve considered some games that incorporate player hindrances, let’s nail down exactly what player hindrances are by considering a game that initially might appear to be one in which player hindrances are warranted, but actually is not. One may be tempted to think that the example of Octodad, from Part I of this series, may be a game that would benefit from player hindrances. As a reminder to the reader, Octodad is a game about an octopus masquerading as a normal human suburban father and somehow succeeding. The game has intentionally very difficult controls, so as to put the player in the shoes of the octopus. The player’s experience navigating the difficult controls mirrors that of an octopus trying with only minimal success to be a human father. However, there is a crucial reason that Octodad does not fit in the schema of games that benefit from player hindrances.

The games with player hindrances discussed above all drive home that the avatar is unable to perform some particular action regardless of the input of the player. In the case of Octodad, however, a key part of the narrative is that somehow the octopus manages to successfully act in the role of the human father, even though there are numerous physical difficulties present in doing so. Unlike the example of 2B given above, the octopus father actually does manage to accomplish his goals so long as the player succeeds, even with all of the obvious obstacles in his way.

octodad yo.jpg

Octodad shrugs.

The intrigue comes from the hilarious attempt of the player to succeed at being a normal human father even with the intentionally difficult controls. As mentioned in Part I, to introduce nudges into this gameplay would take the player out of the shoes of the octopus. Like the octopus, the player must fail of their own merit, rather than being forced to fail by a player hindrance. If the player were forced to fail, the nature of the story would be very different.

A Non-Obvious Similarity Between Player Aids and Player Hindrances

The reader may notice an apparent discrepancy between player hindrances and player aids. It initially appears as though player hindrances are always relative to some standard, whereas player aids are more “absolute” in that they do not seem to be tied to any particular standard. This is actually not the case. Both player aids and player hindrances are relative to standards. But with player aids there is not much need to specify the standard in question, since it is relatively easy for most people to recognize an avatar with superhuman capabilities (notice the implicit standard of “human” in the word “superhuman”). In contrast, in order to understand a player hindrance, especially those similar to the Resident Evil 4 example where the standard is something the character ought to meet, it tends to be necessary to more explicitly identify the standard. So while identifying a standard seems to be less pertinent in analyzing a player aid than a player hindrance, the difference does not arise out of the theoretical grounding of these terms, but rather just the process of analysis.


In Part I and Part II of this series, we’ve defined nudgy controls, considered games that importantly do not use nudges, and considered how some games use nudges in one of two forms, player aids and player hindrances. In Part III, we will explore how this paradigm of game controls allows us to better understand the challenging control scheme of The Last Guardian.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.

[1] Thank you to my good friend Luke Wellington for the suggestion of this term as it applies to helpful nudges, as well as providing criticism to my first article which led to its theoretical grounding.

[2] As an aside, from a game design perspective, this particular choice is designed to be frustrating. The designers know that the player has no way within the game itself of knowing that the robot will trip in these contexts. When the player takes these actions to save time (as the environment is set up in a way that encourages these actions to make traversal faster), the player will spill the oil and waste time. This sort of design decision is frustrating for players, and many developers avoid it so as to keep their players from quitting playing the game. The designers of NieR: Automata likely designed this section intentionally with the goal of frustrating the player in mind so as to put the player in the shoes of the robot.

[3] Thanks to Brendan Gallagher for pointing out that this analysis is not canonical or based on the author’s intent. My analysis is agnostic to author intent, and with that disclaimer the argument presented should hold.

Mythology, Horror, and the Unknown: Horror Traditions in Video Games

-by Laila Carter, Featured Author. The following article is based on Laila’s portion of With a Terrible Fate’s horror panel at PAX Australia 2016.

Horror is always an interesting genre: it subverts all the norms that we are used to, goes against human nature, and forces us to confront our own fears. When video games embrace horror, they enable players to willingly embark on a journey that thrives off of dread, thrills, the grotesque, the abnormal, and the contrary. What I want to explore is the storytelling elements behind this, and how the horror genre has transversed different media, from the ancient myths all the way down to present-day media. Storytelling tropes come together in gaming in a fascinating way, creating the fundamental aspect of the horror gaming genre: something that I term “Daemonic Warped Space.” Various mythological elements correlate to various aspects of this idea: specifically to the warped, to the daemonic, and to the combination of the two. In the paper, I will explore how this is the case, demonstrating how ancient and modern mythological tropes can produce horror atmosphere in the present-day storytelling of video games.

Mythological Roots: Horror Tropes

In ancient mythology, the first stories ever told, certain events or occurrences appear in several cultures, thus establishing themselves as common myth anecdotes. Whether these elements were shared between cultures or came about separately in isolation, these anecdotes are widely recognized and still used to this day. Here, we will examine three of these anecdotes in order to understand how they form the atmosphere of the horror genre.

One of the most prominent motifs in almost all mythologies is the descent to the underworld. A hero must embark down into the abyss, into the land of the dead to encounter its mysteries and overcome some obstacle that is keeping her from progressing. The Underworld is the most famous type of “Otherworld” – a supernatural realm of spirits, of the soul. It is a realm opposite to reality, one that makes regular mortals question their judgment, sanity, and existence. Most of the time, the Underworld is portrayed in a religious light since the afterlife is one of the greatest mysteries in all faiths. The Underworld can be Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory in the middle (like in Dante’s The Divine Comedy); it can be Limbo, the Spirit World, the Realm of Shadows, or it can be Hades in Greek mythology. But it doesn’t have to be religious: the Underworld is simply a place of no return, where the spirits of those forgotten tend to wander; if characters ever do escape, they come back up as changed people (and if they don’t escape, then the story is badly written). It is Frodo’s journey into the horrid land of Mordor, where the land is covered in ash, fire, and brutality; it is Limbo – the deepest layer of dreams – in the movie Inception; it is Harry Potter’s literal death and meeting with Dumbledore one last time. The Underworld may appear very differently in each medium, but each place has one thing in common: the realm serves as a place of spiritual undertaking, forcing the hero to deal with internal struggles and psychological roadblocks, whether those be identity crises, relationship issues, or lack of faith in others or oneself. As Clyde W. Ford says:

“Mythological journeys of descent into the world of the dead are symbolic of movement from the light world of ordinary reality to the dark world of the unconscious; there, just as when we fall asleep, we die to the world of wakeful consciousness and awake to the marvelous world of evanescent forms and symbols within. The challenge met by those who successfully travel these corridors of the psyche is to claim some boon or gift from this inner realm: an insight or revelation that will release the energies pent up in the labyrinths of personal and social crises; the marker of a new direction that offers reinvigoration where old ways have grown stale” (Ford, 20).

Once you enter the Underworld, it is very hard to escape. Successful characters learn to look within themselves for the way out of this haunting, confusing, and dreaded place. The hero’s descent, then, is not only to uncover whatever secret she needs to in order to progress in her physical quest, but also to overcome her fears and the crisis of mortality. She must accept who she is, including her faults, yet also realize her potential for growth—that it is not her time yet to stay in the land of the dead, but rather to find meaning in the descent as a way to challenge her current mindset and change it for the better. The journey to the Underworld helps the character cross the threshold into a “personal land of the dead…dying one’s former self so that a new self may be born in its stead” (Ford, 26). The character must confront the personal hell within herself before she can save the day. This does not necessarily mean defying death outright (though sometimes it does), but more of accepting death as a possibility. Characters learn to let themselves change in order to succeed in the normal world, whether they initially like it or not.

The descent to the Underworld is such a universal theme that is appears in almost every single mythology that exists: heroes rescuing (or attempting to rescue) their loved ones from death, immortals dying and becoming gods of the Underworld, or demigods trying to prove their resistance to death and courage. A famous example of the descent to the Underworld lies in the Odyssey. Odysseus must travel down to Hades in order to figure out how to get back home and restore his life. He meets all the fallen heroes of the Trojan War, as well as his late mother; from them, he learns to be a bit wiser, and to take a good look at what it means to be a (Greek) “hero.” Was the glory from the Trojan War really worth it? Does acquiring riches and killing all those people amount to such glory? Odysseus takes these questions to heart, and because of this, he is able to approach the problems at home with a new perspective, enabling him to win the “glory” of his home with tactics different from the Trojan War (except at the very end, but that’s always controversial). The Underworld and the meeting of the dead help Odysseus succeed in completing his goal of returning home and protecting his family. He has to overcome inner struggles and change his old self into a different man before he can leave to continue on his quest.

The second mythological trope of horror is hard to explain, given its nature. The Unspeakable “It” is a presence that permeates throughout the entire setting, invading all space with its terrible presence. This entity is usually never directly seen, but instead felt: the character is overcome with an inexplicable sense of dread as she feels something on her skin, something watching her every move—yet she cannot say what that something is. The Unspeakable “It” is an amorphous being contaminates the very air you breathe and surrounds you with its unsetting power. It has no shape or boundary, and it tends to make up its own rules as it grows into something overwhelming. There is no true escape from this creature: there is only unwilling acceptance, complete assimilation, or mad obsession.

The Unspeakable “It” appears in all forms of storytelling, though some incarnations are much subtler than others. In mythology, this creature can be a force of evil that constantly tries to consume the world—for example, the chaos god Apep from Egyptian mythology. It can also be a being who exists throughout the whole world and is not constrained to one specific place, like Gaea from Greek mythology. Many times, the Unspeakable “It” is simply “The Darkness” or “Chaos” with a capital ‘C’, as nothing else can really describe such forces. They just exist and usually try to thwart the heroes of the story. The most famous portrayal of this mysterious entity, however, comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraftian horror appears at the very beginning of the story and never leaves: it haunts the narrative to the very end, even if the characters somehow “kill” it (spoiler: Lovecraftian monsters never truly die. Their existence is permanent throughout the world). These monsters are made of a conglomerate of pieces, from tentacles to eyeballs, from disjointed arms and legs to inhuman mouths, from ordinary animals to creatures never seen before by a human.[1] These monsters can be unimaginable, as Lovecraftian himself can barely describe the creatures in his stories – they do not fit into a coherent description that humans would comprehend. For example: “It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualised by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions” (“The Dunwich Horror”). Most importantly, Lovecraftian horrors are ancient, huge, and everywhere. When describing his creature Yogo-Sothoth, Lovecraft states that it “was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self—not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence’s whole unbounded sweep—the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike” (“Through the Gates of the Silver Key”). Lovecraft’s horror features creatures of unimaginable amalgamation and limitless possibility, threatening the entire earth and space as we know it.

Like Lovecraft’s monsters, the Unspeakable “It” is a “kind of force that doesn’t belong in our part of space; a kind of force that acts and grows and shapes itself by other laws than those of our sort of Nature” (“The Dunwich Horror”). It is an entity that invades our world like a parasite, consuming and overtaking everything in its virus-like corruption. The best thing to do it get rid of it as quickly as possible; however, you can never truly destroy the horror that is the Unspeakable “It,” because once it’s here, it is here to stay.

The last mythological story element we will consider is the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. Blaming Athenians for the death of his son, King Minos of Crete required seven young men and seven young women from Athens to feed to his Minotaur—an abominable half-man, half-bull—as payment. After the second round of sacrifices, Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, decides to go as as one of the young men in order to kill the horrible beast and end the sacrifices. Unfortunately, the Minotaur resides in a labyrinth created by the genius inventor Daedalus, and escaping from its confusing halls is impossible. Luckily for him, Theseus has the help of Princess Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, who gives him string so that he can retrace his steps to escape the labyrinth. Theseus navigates the complex maze, kills the Minotaur, and becomes a legendary hero.

The Journey to the Underworld and the Unspeakable “It” trope have features of obvious relevance to the horror genre, but The Minotaur and the Labyrinth might instead seem like a very specific, heroic story. I argue that the monster-living-within-a-hostile-environment narrative is one of the main elements of horror, one that makes a story enticing and tense. The Minotaur knows the layout of the Labyrinth, having lived there all its life, while Theseus does not. He, and others before him, had a great disadvantage as they had to navigate an environment that was foreign, confusing, and treacherous. The Athenians did not know the “puzzle” of the Labyrinth, whereas the Minotaur could easily find its way around. Theseus had to figure out a trick to solving the puzzle (i.e. using the string) in order to survive. However, unlike Theseus, many characters have a hard time finding “string” in their world’s labyrinth. These characters did not have outside help, and instead had to make their own string—sometimes on the spot, and other times through dangerous games of trial and error. All the while, they must escape from a terrifying force that wishes to destroy them. The danger can take place in a literal maze, like in the story The Maze Runner (which is the entire plot of the book). For a more figurative type of labyrinth in the same genre, The Hunger Games presents an open world of survival; there is no “maze” per se, but the setting remains hostile and foreign to Katniss, filled with murderous enemies and lacking any plausible means of escape.

For a more concrete example of the Minotaur and Labyrinth trope, in Neil Gaiman’s fiction book Coraline, Coraline must somehow find a way out of a distorted world that mirrors her own small neighborhood: a world that is controlled by the Other Mother, a grotesque, button-eyed figure who wishes to consume the girl’s soul. Coraline must traverse the twisted and changing hallways of her Other house, encountering decaying forms of her Other Father and neighbors, and saving her parents from the dark distortions of space and shadows. The Other Mother created the eerie version of the house and watches Coraline at all times—she knows the “labyrinth” that Coraline has to navigate, and is fully aware of the girl’s every move, putting Coraline at a severe disadvantage. Coraline also has no string at the start of the perilous journey, no way of knowing how to defeat the Other Mother and escape her realm; over time, however, she manages to overcome her fears, find a few allies, and collect resources to fight against the Other Mother and escape.

The Minotaur and Labyrinth story element, when used in horror, creates an atmosphere that keeps the reader/audience on the edge of their seats. The monster and the setting have combined into one force that the heroes must overcome in order to succeed, even though the monster has the advantage of knowing where it is in terms of space and time, while the heroes do not.

Horror Atmosphere: The Daemonic Warped Space

Next, I am going to discuss atmosphere in horror, because it is arguably the most important storytelling aspect to the genre. Horror (good horror, at least) has a specific type of atmosphere, one that creeps directly into the skin and leaves readers/viewers/players on the edge of their seat, not trusting anything that they see or hear.

The first element of horror atmosphere deals with the setting of the narrative: the Warped Space. In his essay “Lewtonian Space: Val Lewton’s Films and The New Space of Horror,” J.P. Tellote explains distorted or “warped” space as “the site of those ‘subject/object disturbances’ that distort our conventional experience of space and open onto a decidedly disturbing world” (Tellote, 5). The conventional setting—something the audience expects—has twisted into a new environment, one filled with unknown variables and situations, one that the audience does not recognize and thus fears. These spaces are “‘not empty, but full of disturbing objects and forms’, yet not so much real objects as amorphous projection of ‘all the neuroses and phobias of the modern subject’…(Vidler2000:viii)” (3), meaning the space of the medium distorts reality with the viewer’s own fears and imagination. People see one thing on the screen—an open doorway, oddly placed furniture, or a long dark hallway—but they project “phobias” that linger in their minds, creating a twisted space that blurs the objective reality on the screen and the personal fears of the audience. Lewtionian space has the “ability to place [viewers] in a space where the imagination is free to play – and to confront our very fears” (6). The space plays with the vulnerability of the human psyche. It leaves people to their own horrors, to their inner demons, and lets their fears run wild without any way of justifying their existence. This space “warps” the rational and the irrational, blurring the line between logical understanding and madness, preying on the audience’s fear of concealing darkness, eerie emptiness, and strange camera movement. The audience projects imaginative horrors into these spaces, and they then have no choice but to confront them.

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This irrationality of human fear ties into the concept of the “daemonic,” the second element of horror atmosphere. The daemonic is something Eugene Thacker describes as “fully immanent, and yet never fully present…[the daemon] is at once pure force and flow, but, not being a discrete thing itself, it is also pure nothingness” (Thacker 35). In this conception, daemons are not physical creatures with horns, hooves, and pointed tails; instead, they occupy no space, have no physical presence, and are something that humans can neither touch nor describe. They are a force parallel to our human existence, much like abstract concepts of chaos, luck, or, in this case, nothingness. As a non-human entity, daemonic force is “a limit…both that which we stand in relation to and that which remains forever inaccessible to us. This limit is unknown, and the unknown, as the genre of horror reminds us, is often a source of fear or dread” (27). Daemonic force is so against the natural laws of the world that it doesn’t exist in the same realm as we do, and yet human existence is defined and haunted by its presence. It is everything we are not. This situation of a non-human and intangible force that violates all the known laws of nature frightens us, for it is human nature to fear anything that is not like us, especially if its features remain a complete enigma. Humans cannot grasp the concept of the daemonic and they never will, but it is a force that constantly surrounds them. In order to understand human existence in the horror genre, we must acknowledge the presence of the daemonic.

In horror literature, film, and gaming, the two concepts of Warped Lewtonian space and the daemonic force fuse together that twists the environment into a twisted version of imagined, psychological fear. Everything combines into one realm, one entity that I call the “Daemonic Warped Space”: A place not empty, but filled with forces that are both incomprehensible and inaccessible to humans, forces that distort our perception of reality and fantasy. This new setting is everywhere; both physical and mental, it will follow the characters as an encompassing entity with a mind of its own. Characters can never touch or restrain it because of its ubiquity. The Daemonic Warped is both the hideous monster waiting to attack, and the creaking walls that trap the character within. It is both the darkness that hides everything in shadow, and the hallucinations stemming from a character’s tormented psyche. It is the embodiment of a character’s limit, subconsciousness, and fears, and it is nearly inescapable. The Daemonic Warped space is crucial to the horror genre because it forms the fundamental basis of good narrative atmosphere: it becomes an entity itself in the fictional world, trapping the characters in a living nightmare in its distorted yet contained presence.

Mythology and Atmosphere: The Storytelling of Horror Gaming

We have discussed three mythological elements that appear in horror storytelling, along with the atmospheric element of the Daemonic Warped Space. These all relate to each other and work together to create the foundation of storytelling in horror fiction, specifically in video games.

The Journey to the Underworld trope remarks on the setting of a hero’s journey, forcing the character to travel down into the world of the soul and the unconscious. The Underworld, then, is a Warped Space: a place of the dead and the supernatural, where a living being creates a conflict of existence between life and death, the physical and the mental, consciousness and dreams. In horror gaming, this descent into the Warped Underworld is the basis for the entire game. The goal for the player is to find a way out and survive the ordeal.

The Journey to the Underworld and the Warped Space come together in the murky, crawling city of Rapture in the video game BioShock. Rapture is a new place, both to the avatar, Jack, and to the player; it is a place with different rules and norms. It is a city at the bottom of the ocean, built in the 1946 and initially capitalizing on the American ideals of prosperity and success in its early days. However, when Jack descends into the city, its corridors are devoid of life and instead filled with corpses. Messages in blood are splattered across the walls, used weapons lie everywhere, and the glass walls separating Jack from the ocean groan against the silence of the city. Not only does the city subvert the norm by existing at the bottom of the ocean, but it is then distorted even further by its emptiness (a city is supposed to be busy, filled with people), its violent backstory, and its murderous inhabitants that have strayed away from both sanity and humanity. Unlike Odysseus, who travelled to the Underworld willingly, the player and Jack are thrown down into this world with neither an explanation nor any way of escaping. They confront the dark and eerie halls of Rapture with no clue as to what they are fighting or why, and yet they know they must fight simply in order to survive.

Rapture also distorts the very concepts of life and death. The life of the ocean surrounds the bloody massacre in the city, creating a conflict of existence between the living and the dead. This is also seen with the existence of Jack himself: (mostly) everyone else in the game is dead, and yet somehow you (Jack/the player) are still alive. You have to survive in a place that has been consumed by greed, corruption, and destruction. Welcome to the Underworld: a land of the dead that doesn’t greet the living lightly, where escape is a daunting and seemingly impossible task. Rapture is a city warped by death and fear, causing the player to doubt every corner, every character, and every action they take.

Both Jack and the player have no idea as to what is happening or why they are in Rapture in the first place. All they know is they somehow have to get out of the horrid, decrepit place before someone out for blood kills them. The player must survive and press forward in order to discover the secrets of Rapture, of Adam, and of Jack, someone about whom the player has very little information. Rapture, then, represents a realm of complete mystery, one that you must unearth as you proceed through the game. It is the embodiment of the Jack’s troubled psyche, dark from his amnesiac state and corrupted by his haunting previous life. His subconscious leaks into the atmosphere of the place, reminding him and the player of his tortured and distorted childhood, of his criminal tendencies, and of his “hacked” mind.[2]

During one moment in the game, the player finds the powerful shotgun lying in the middle of the floor. Once Jack equips the new weapon, however, all the lights shut off. The player can hear footsteps and sounds emanating all around, and tenses—an ambush is coming. A spotlight then switches on, lighting a small circle of the room while the outside remains covered in pitch black; from this cover, enemies pop out and attack. This switching off of the lights and revealing only a small portion of the scene portrays Rapture’s trickiness as a whole, and how the city messes with Jack’s mind throughout the game. Jack will remain “in the dark” about certain people or history of the city (and of his past), only gaining concrete knowledge through audio recordings that deliver snippets of information. The player can choose to ignore these audio logs and proceed through the game blindly, or he/she can slowly piece together the misses pieces of the puzzle, “illuminating” the story bit-by-bit. Rapture, however, will only show the parts of the story that it wants to show, not giving Jack what he wants—his past in Rapture—until the end. Before that, the avatar must deal with the “patches of light” that make his path clear, that clear up his mind about the truth of the city, and that help him discover who he is as a person. The rest of the city, though, will remain in the dark throughout much of the game, where hauntings of the city and of Jack’s past sneak out and try to destroy him. Rapture portrays Jack’s distorted psyche, and he must descend into its darkest corners in order to escape its traps and leave the demented place behind.[3]

If the Journey to the Underworld and the Warped space complement each other in storytelling, then the Unspeakable “It” Trope and the Daemonic do as well. Both the Unspeakable “It” and the Daemonic permeate the entire setting, existing everywhere and with no chance of escape. Both come together as one force in the horror games, as a monster that is both in the walls and has a physical form, hiding just around the corner waiting to scare you.

The Unspeakable “It” and its Daemonic presence appear in several games where the enemy is seemingly everywhere yet nowhere: In Metroid Fusion, the X parasite inhabits every biological organism and hunts you. In System Shock 2, the Many infect the dead to attack the protagonist while SHODAN hacks into cyberspace throughout the game. In Bloodborne, everything is a Lovecraftian horror waiting to pull you into its sick realm. Yet one game in particular stands out for portraying the Daemonic, Unspeakable “It.” SOMA, by Frictional Games, follows Simon throughout the claustrophobic halls of PATHOS-II, a(nother) facility built underwater after an apocalypse occurred on the surface of earth. The moment he wakes up in this place, he is confronted with a slimey, tarish growth on the walls, one that pulsates and quivers to the touch. The substance is the far-reaching extension of the WAU, an organic AI computer that consumes the entire PATHOS-II research facility. The computer grows and expands on walls and through computers mainframes into horrid creatures (who were former humans), within both deceased and living staff members. It infects nearly everything, and all your actions/decisions are based on its looming presence that either helps or hinders your progress. Even when you (might) decide to “kill” it in the end, its murky goop is still present in the corridors, in the systems, and in Simon. The WAU will continue to live on, and humanity will be corrupted by its organic technology.

The ever-consuming presence of the WAU is due to its programming: the computer’s main goal is to “save” the remainder of humanity by integrating humans with itself. It amalgamates with any organic form, whether living or dead, to produce a being that can survive after the apocalypse. But, are these beings really human? At one point, Simon comes across a woman who is still questionably alive, for tubes and wire run through her body, and her breathing is synced with the WAU’s organic goo that she sits upon. Other encounters with humans show their organs completely replaced with gears, lights, and machines. Catherine, the AI copy of a previous human mind that you find, is infected with the WAU on the device that houses her. Even Simon replenishes his health through the WAU at specific sites, because he too is a copy of a former human mind. Barely anyone in the game is fully human anymore, and the player can feel this shift into non-humanness as the story develops. Simon cannot escape the ever-present WAU, both physically—as it covers the walls and blocks his path—and mentally—as it constantly makes him question what he is. Is Simon a copy of a human, or another extension of the WAU’s organic components? Is the WAU really “saving” humanity, even though it is taking away basic human parts? The computer and its effect on the PATHOS-II make Simon, Catherine, and player question what it means to be alive, serving as a questionable boundary of human existence. The WAU’s consuming appearance is the daemonic force that Simon and the player must survive against, one they cannot truly escape but which instead allows them to examine their complicated existence as human and machine.

Lastly, the atmospheric element of the Daemonic Warped Space corresponds to the mythological story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. With the Minotaur representing the Daemonic and the Labyrinth the Warped Space, both come together to illustrate the perfect balance of physicality and psychological tension that a good horror game needs in order to make the player fear for their virtual safety.

These two elements of horror will appear in every (good) horror game, but Amnesia: The Dark Descent masters the performance. The player must walk in the shoes of Daniel, an amnesiac who must wander through dungeon hallways in Brennenburg Castle in order to uncover the truth of his past. The corridors of the castle are all giant puzzles, which the player must “solve” in order to proceed forward, serving as the labyrinth that will eventually lead him to the “Minotaur” he has to defeat. Eventually, the player comes across the iconic monsters of the game: The Gatherers, deformed humanoid beings with disgusting, gaping mouths. Unlike the avatar in BioShock, however, Daniel cannot fight against the Gatherers. His only tactic for survival is to hide behind boxes or run to a safe area. Given this and the total eeriness of the mansion, the monsters and the setting of Amnesia: The Dark Descent create a collective sense of dread for the player. You must avoid the monsters in layered, environmental darkness, making the monsters hard to pinpoint. The darkness blocks the visibility of entire rooms sometimes, and yet the player can sense when a monster is present. Most of the time, all you have to go by are the sounds the Gatherers make, a door creaking open across the room, or soft footsteps. And, because of the nature of a labyrinth, it is incredibly hard to know when and where a monster will appear. The player can only move forward by guesses, inferences, and imagination. To make matters worse, Daniel cannot stay in the dark for too long or else he will lose his sanity, blurring the lines of reality and causing hallucinations to appear on the screen. Daniel does have a lantern to light his way through the complicated maze of the mansion, but this help is no Theseus’ string: the lantern needs to be constantly replenished with oil (a resource that’s hard to come by), and the Gatherers can spot you more easily with the light on. Darkness is both your friend and your enemy, helping you hide and helping the monsters finding you. Amnesia: The Dark Descent perfectly captures feeling of terror in a game where the monsters know the “puzzle” of the environment better than you do. The Gatherers understand the tricks and complexities of the maze-like hallways, and surprise the players in rooms with undiscovered entrances. They use the long hallways where darkness covers the end to ambush you; they conceal themselves in fog-filled rooms; and they corner you into one-way corridors filled with boxes, planks, and other items that thwart your progress and bring you closer to death. The Gatherers and the mansion work together as the Daemonic and the Warped Space to create the sensation of all-encompassing danger, consuming darkness, and inevitable death for the player, bringing out the sheer dread in anticipation of a monstrous encounter.

The Daemonic Warped Space works effectively if the two elements, the Daemonic and the Warped Space, are together. If they are separated, however, the atmosphere quickly falls apart. Unfortunately, this situation can be seen in The Dark Descent’s sequel, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. At one point, the enemy pigs, the equivalent of Gatherers, leave the manor where the avatar wanders and begin to attack the neighboring town. The initial setting of the Machine is now left behind as the avatar walks through a more open space of the outside village, hearing the massacre of the villagers by the various pigs off-screen. The once-horrible monsters have abandoned the space, no longer using the environment to their advantage; the setting is no longer blocking the player’s path and producing suspense situations around the mechanics of the game. The Daemonic and the Warped Space are no longer using each other to create the basic element of fear: the player does not feel threatened, and the horror of the situation is lost. In order to create the tense and chilling atmosphere of the horror genre, a game must keep the Daemonic and the Warped Space together. Only when the two play off each other’s strengths to create one dreadful enemy can a player be immersed in their own fear.


In closing, I will look back upon one of my favorite horror games, one that represents the ultimate form of the Daemonic Warped Space and demonstrates how effective it can be in a video game. P.T. is the perfect example of the daemonic forces and warped setting fusing together to produce pure terror in the minds of players. What the game so extraordinary is it was only a demo for a much longer game (that got cancelled!), and the player does not actually do anything in the demo except for keep walking. The Warped Space distorts onto itself and repeats, causing the player to walk down a seemingly endless loop of the same corridor. You are stuck in a weird limbo where the rules of reality collapse and the dark subconscious reigns. The hallway projects different phobias and scares in each iteration of the loop, growing darker each turn, having a once-closed bathroom door now open, or inputting a different sound in the air. The monster is nothing specific; rather, it is an unknown force that you cannot fight against. It keeps changing, and the threat against you is vague in nature, making it even more terrible. Yet the “force” of the daemonic feels everywhere, like it’s the very hallway itself because it keeps messing with you. You experience the Daemonic according to its own will: it produces fears and monsters regardless of your decisions, acting alive in its own hauntedness. The only way to overcome this loop nightmare is to keep journeying, surviving the loop and experiencing the sadistic presence. The continuous, warped hallway remains alive with the Daemonic and keeps morphing to throw you into further torment, producing scarier circumstances at each turn. Your psyche does all the work, trying to piece together the story, the monster, the setting, and the way to escape, yet halting when confronted with an unknown entity due to your imagined fear.

The best example of this occurs on the fifth iteration of the loop. You turn the corner to face the exit door, and instead spot the first being in the game standing your way: a deranged, mumbling, crooked woman sways in your path. You know approaching her is a bad idea, but that is the only way to continue. So you walk forward, and, right before you reach her, the lights shut off, leaving you in pure darkness. It is the most terrifying thing because the setting and the monster are both fooling with you, and you as the player know that there is nothing you can do about whatever will happen next. You simply must continue forward in a darkness where a monster may or may not be, and that is utterly horrifying. The Daemonic Warped Space is an essential atmospheric element to horror storytelling and gameplay mechanics, for it makes you confront the fear of the unknown, and, no matter how hard you try, you will be going against monsters beyond your control and knowledge—monsters that work with the dreadful environment to make your life absolutely miserable.


Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.

[1] From “The Dunwich Horror”—Someone describing the invisible monster terrorizing the village: “‘Bigger’n a barn . . . all made o’ squirmin’ ropes . . . hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step . . . nothin’ solid abaout it—all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together . . . great bulgin’ eyes all over it . . . ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’ . . . all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings . . . an’ Gawd in heaven—that haff face on top! . . .’” (Seriously, read this story).

[2] I am not trying to spoil the game entirely, but instead just hope to give readers a hint of the story. If you want to know more, you’ll have to play the game for yourself.

[3] Or not, depending which the ending the player gets.