PAX Aus 2016, “Press X to Scream”: Full Presentation Content

With a Terrible Fate was honored to present a panel at PAX Australia 2016 entitled “Press X to Scream: Horror Storytelling in Video Games.” In the months since our presentation, we’ve been publishing our work from the panel in argument form, for the benefit of those viewers who were unable to attend. Now that all of the PAX Aus content has been published, we’ve aggregated it all in once place so that you can experience our entire presentation in written form.

  1. From PAX Aus: The Psychology and Neuroscience of Jump Scares
  2. Mythology, Horror, and the Unknown: Horror Traditions in Video Games
  3. Bloodborne, Lovecraft, and the Dangerous Idea
  4. From PAX Aus: Horror in Majora’s Mask
  5. From PAX Aus 2016: Guilt & Inequity in Silent Hill 2

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.

Conclusion

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.

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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! . . .’”  http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/dh.aspx (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.

 

 

“Video Games are Better without Stories”: A Reply

Jane Austen wrote her first novel, Northanger Abbey, at a time when novels were a young medium, not taken seriously as a form of art of storytelling. Acutely aware of this stigma, Austen had occasion to criticize this dismissal of novels. I quote from Chapter 5.

“Although our productions [i.e., novels] have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.–“And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

I think the best way to read Austen here is this: she’s suggesting that novel’s were dismissed primarily because they were a young art form, and as such, some people were apt to dismiss its value out-of-hand. Something similar, I want to suggest, is going on in Ian Bogost’s article, “Video Games are Better without Stories.”

No doubt, Bogost isn’t suggesting—as others like Roger Ebert suggested before him—that video games aren’t art. He suggests that they are well suited for artistically “taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” But his insistence that video game aren’t narrative media strikes me as somewhat antiquated in the same way that Austen’s imagined opponents of the novel are antiquated: they voice a doubt about the medium of video games that has long since been disproven. It’s telling, in this regard, that Bogost frames his article with the theme of video games achieving what Star Trek’s Holodeck achieved: even if he didn’t intend this, the framing can’t help but evoke Hamlet on the Holodeck, an influential book that Janet Murray wrote about interactive storytelling twenty years ago. Video games have evolved radically as a medium since then, and it’s evident that, contra Bogost, there are robust stories that “need to be told as a video game.”

To be fair, Bogost isn’t alone in his view: there is a whole tradition of video-game theorists who call themselves ludologists and claim that video games are fundamentally games, not stories. Ludologists, in the tradition of Espen Aarseth and Jesper Juul, tend to think that the stories present in video games are just facades pasted over the gameplay, and that trying to understand video games using the tools of narrative theory is a category mistake. Bogost puts himself in the ludologist camp when, near the end of his article, he slides from talk about video games to talk about games simply: “[to] use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose,” he concedes, “but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects.”

I think the ludologists’ position is only attractive when you attempt to analyze “video games” as the huge category of every possible sort of electronic game, from Tetris to PAC-MAN to BioShock to online chess. When you ask what unifies all of these different things, it’s easy to suppose like Bogost that video games are just in the business of “[showing] players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.” And similarly, when people like Murray insist that all such video games are storytelling objects because even Tetris tells a story as “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s,” the case for video games telling stories can seem a little silly (Hamlet on the Holodeck, p. 144).

But there’s no reason to suppose that this is the right approach to analyzing the storytelling capabilities of video games. Why should we suppose, after all, that there’s anything especially interesting in common between online chess and BioShock? Instead, we should focus on just those video games that clearly tell stories, and ask ourselves whether Bogost’s claims about all video games holds true for these particular, storytelling video games. Is it true that those video games that clearly tell stories accomplish no “feats of storytelling”? Is it true that the stories these video games tell are “stuck in perpetual adolescence”? Perhaps most crucially, is it true that the stories of these video games could be better told through the medium of the novel, or the medium of a film? I want to look at three such video games—Spec Ops: The Line, Bloodborne, and BioShock—and show why Bogost’s arguments against video games as a storytelling medium don’t hold up.

Spec Ops is something like a video-game reimagining of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. The avatar is Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a Delta Force team sent to evacuate hostages and find a stranded Colonel John Konrad in post-disaster Dubai. As the player guides Walker and his team through Dubai, they are repeatedly confronted with the horrors of war: brutally disfigured people, insurgent fighting, collapsed neighborhoods, and so on. Although the player doesn’t realize it at first, Walker is slowly driven insane by these horrors. And, as Walker loses his mind, he commits unspeakable atrocities: murdering civilians, fellow American soldiers, and so on. Eventually he reaches the location of Konrad’s distress signal, only to find that Konrad was long dead, and Walker was hallucinating Konrad’s voice over his radio. When Walker reaches Konrad’s dead body, a hallucinated Konrad appears before Walker and confronts him about his war crimes. Walker tries to defend himself by saying that he “had no choice,” and Konrad counters that he always had a choice: he could have stopped, given up the mission, and gone home, but instead he chose to keep going.

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What’s crucial about this story is that Konrad’s criticism of Walker is even more appropriate when conceived as a criticism of the player. Spec Ops has a storyline that’s largely (but not entirely) linear, which is to say that there are many events in the story that the player is unable to avoid as she plays through the game. Because of this linearity, the player has no option to make Walker (for example) spare all of the American soldiers as he progresses through Dubai: if she wants to play through the story, then she has to make her avatar, Walker, commit the horrible actions that he does. But just as Konrad said to Walker, the player could have at any point stopped playing the game: she knew that her avatar, Walker, was committing morally repugnant acts, and yet she chose to keep playing the game. Ultimately, the player ends up being morally blameworthy in a way that even Walker isn’t: whereas Walker was insane while he was committing war crimes, the player was perfectly sane, yet chose to continue to allow Walker to commit war crimes in virtue of continuing to play the game.

Spec Ops does something that traditional storytelling media like novels and film can’t: it makes the player responsible and blameworthy for the content of the narrative. A novel like Apocalypse Now might make you feel guilty about war generally, but it won’t make you blameworthy or responsible for the actions of Walter E. Kurtz. Moreover, this special feature of video game storytelling—that is, making the consumer of the narrative responsible for the content of the narrative—is possible in video games precisely because, contra Bogost, the player really is “able to exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot.” There are more obvious examples of this—e.g., the player being able to actually determine which of multiple narrative endings obtain in a game like Dishonored—but the Spec Ops example is instructive because it shows that the player is able to exert agency over the narrative simply by playing the game. To play a video game is to actualize various possible events within that game; without the player’s input, these events would never be actualized, and so it follows that the player is responsible for those events obtaining. (I’ve argued for this further elsewhere.)

Bloodborne is an altogether different beast of a video game, trading in war story for Lovecraftian horror-fantasy. The story follows a “hunter of beasts,” the player’s avatar, who arrives in a land called Yharnam seeking “Paleblood.” Over the course of the game, the player faces countless varieties of monsters before ultimately encountering “Great Ones”: god-like, tentacled creatures existing beyond the pale of human ken, much like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other Great Old Ones. At the game’s climax, the player can either have her avatar submit to ritual execution by the beast hunt’s leader in order to be freed from the nightmare world to which she is bound, or her avatar can kill the hunt’s leader and become the new leader of the hunt, or the avatar can kill one final Great One (a being living in the moon) and be reborn as an infant Great One. Immediately after finishing the game, the hunt begins again: the player and her avatar are returned to the beginning of the story to play again.

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There’s a vast wealth of further lore driving Bloodborne’s story, but the point I want to make is just this: Bloodborne’s narrative, which is structured in myriad ways like a dream, builds on Lovecraftian horror in a way that only a video game could. The game exploits an unusual shift in perspective: when it first opens, the player sees the world in a first-person perspective (i.e. seeing through the eyes of the avatar), and a Blood Minister applies a blood transfusion to them, telling the player not to worry: “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream. The player then hears a voice (later identified as that of an animate doll) say “Ah, you’ve found yourself a hunter,” at which point the player’s avatar—now seen from a third-person perspective (i.e. the player sees the avatar from a perspective external to the avatar)—rises from the blood transfusion table, the story beginning in earnest; the player has a third-person perspective on her avatar and the world for the rest of the game. Elsewhere I’ve argued that this opening sequence and other aspects of the game’s narrative suggest that the game begins with the player—addressed directly by the Blood Minister and Doll in the first-person portion of the game—being put to sleep; the rest of the game is thus a mere dream that the player is having, with the avatar acting as the player’s representation within the dream. This explains why, regardless of which narrative ending the player chooses, she is always thrust back to the story’s beginning immediately afterwards, trapped in a cyclical dream with no real means of waking up.

What does this dream structure have to do with Lovecraft? Lovecraft was quoted as saying that “[the] oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His horror is grounded in this fear of the unknown: not the “unknown” of not knowing that a jump scare is about to happen, but rather the “unknown” of that which exists beyond all human understanding. Cthulhu is horrifying because it poses a question to readers: what reason do you have to believe that there aren’t superintelligent beings existing right alongside us, so advanced that we could never be aware of their existence unless they decided to reveal themselves to you (at which point you would immediately go insane)? Bloodborne develops this idea even further. Consider the position of the avatar: to the avatar within the world of Bloodborne’s fiction, the world seems real, and it presumably seems to the avatar as if she has control over her own actions. Yet the player knows that neither of these things is true: the avatar is a mere dream representation of the player, and the player is the one dictating the avatar’s actions. In this way, Bloodborne takes skepticism about an external world (“How can I know that I’m not dreaming right now?”) and combines it with skepticism about free will (“How can I know I have control over my own actions?”) to pose a new and philosophically challenging question: How can I know that I’m not like Bloodborne’s avatar, trapped in an illusory world and controlled by someone external to that illusion? This epistemic puzzle and the horror that it lends to Bloodborne’s narrative scarcely strike me as symptoms of a story “stuck in perpetual adolescence”; and, like Spec Ops, they rely on the relation between player and avatar—a relation that can’t be replicated in other narrative media.

Let’s turn lastly to BioShock. Bogost is not impressed with BioShock’s story: “The payoff [for gathering information on the story],” he says, “if that’s the right word for it, is a tepid reprimand against blind compliance, the very conceit the BioShock player would have to embrace to play the game in the first place.” This, I take it, is in reference to the revelation midway through the game that, although the player thought she was freely deciding the actions of Jack (her avatar), Jack was actually being mind-controlled by another character, Frank Fontaine (a.k.a. “Altas”). This revelation comes at a pivotal moment when Jack is confronting Andrew Ryan, the mastermind of the underwater world, Rapture, in which the game takes place. At that point, Ryan orders Jack to kill him, and the player is unable to make Jack do otherwise: Ryan exclaims that “a man chooses; a slave obeys,” as Jack bludgeons him to death.

Andrew Ryan Statue

At this point, the reader shouldn’t be surprised in my reply to Bogost. In the first place, to call this sequence “a tepid reprimand against blind compliance” is tendentious at best: it’s certainly neither a neutral nor an intuitive way to characterize the story. But more to the point, we’ve seen that “blind compliance” just isn’t something that players accept or need accept to play video games. Players have real agency in determining events within the fictions of video games, whether the games are linear or non-linear; thus, it’s a fair assumption to make in most games that the player is the most fundamental answer to the question of why the avatar does what he does. To discover instead that (completely unbeknownst to the player) the avatar was a victim of mind-control is to discover that within BioShock’s story the player (at least up to that point) was causally impotent in a way that players usually aren’t. In this way, BioShock is almost antithetical to Spec Ops: in the latter, the player is morally blameworthy for the game’s events, whereas in the former, the player is robbed of any and all responsibility she typically has.

Maybe Bogost would still deny that Spec Ops, Bloodborne, BioShock, and the myriad video games like them tell robust stories, but I don’t see how such a denial could be compelling. I think the key to the special narrative significance of video games, which Bogost overlooks, is the special narrative status of the player as an agent that makes events possible in the story and manipulates the actions of a particular character (the avatar). The three examples we’ve considered all tell potent, rigorous stories that centrally depend on that central status. Video games needn’t “abandon the dream of becoming narrative media” because (unlike Bloodborne!) that isn’t a dream at all: it’s a well-established feature of reality.

The Philosophical Justification for FromSoftware’s DLC

Regulars to With a Terrible Fate know that I tend to be skeptical of the potential for justifying add-on video game content as artistically valuable to the video game experience. For example, even though I ultimately argued that Nintendo’s amiibo are philosophically justifiable, I rejected many of the typical reasons why someone might think amiibo are valuable. So, when it comes to DLC (“downloadable content”), you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve historically been extremely skeptical of its value as well. Like many others, I’ve feared that DLC makes it all too easy for developers to release games that are, in one way or another, incomplete, and then compel the player to complete the game by paying for additional content later on.

However, as is often the case, FromSoftware, the studio behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne (among other games), has challenged my assumptions about game development. In this article, I’m going to discuss two cases of FromSoftware’s DLC that I take to be imminently justified as aesthetically valuable additions to their parent games: Dark Souls 3‘s “Ashes of Ariandel” and Bloodborne‘s “The Old Hunters.” First, I’ll outline what I take to be the general dilemma that makes DLC so difficult to justify as a supplementary work of art. I’ll apply this dilemma to System Rift, the recent DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, to show how it helps to explain why DLC fails when it does. Then, I’ll argue that our two test cases solve the dilemma facing DLC in surprising and informative ways.

DLC and The Completeness Dilemma

To begin, we need to be more precise with how we’re defining ‘DLC’. After all, all sorts of material could potentially fit the broad label of “downloadable content”–for example, extra weaponry, bonus outfits for avatars, extra songs for a game’s soundtrack, and so on. In this article, I’m only concerned with DLC that purports to extend the narrative of a video game. Granted, that’s a rather broad definition, and I’m not going to try to provide a full analysis of ‘narrative’ for the purposes of this article. However, our intuitions should give us a good idea of what I’m talking about here: these days, many story-rich games feature DLC that “adds on” to the story of the main game by adding a new plot line, either in an old area of the game’s world or in a new area of the game’s world created just for that DLC. Think of DLCs like Skyrim‘s Dawnguard and Dragonborn, or Dishonored‘s The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches. These are all examples of the type of DLC I have in mind.

Why focus this particular type of DLC? As I’ve argued from the start of With a Terrible Fate onward, I believe that video games as a medium facilitate new, robust forms of narrative that wouldn’t be possible in other media. In light of this, I think it’s especially interesting to see what implications DLC has for video games specifically as a vehicle for storytelling. And indeed, I will aim to show here that DLC does have interesting implications and insights regarding the nature of storytelling in video games.

Before we dive into any concrete examples of DLC, I think it’s fairly easy to notice a problem for DLC on the level of pure theory. I call this problem ‘the completeness dilemma’, and the dilemma goes like this: for DLC to be possible, it must be possible to extend the narrative of the main video game to which the DLC is appended. However, video games, as a narrative art form, already have a complete world with a full story that has a beginning, middle, and end. So, for the narrative of a video game to be “extendable,” it stands to reason that the original game’s narrative must, in some sense, be incomplete. And so the completeness dilemma is that either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete.

There are two qualifications I have to make immediately about this dilemma, both of which have to do with exactly what I mean by “complete” and “incomplete.” As written, the dilemma might strike readers as wildly implausible. After all, you might say, countless narratives, in video games and in other media, have sequels, which would also seem theoretically impossible by the above logic. So something must be wrong with the above analysis.

I actually think there probably are substantive theoretical problems for sequels/prequels/etc. based on the above logic, but I’ll set those aside for now because I do think the completeness dilemma for DLC is a different issue than any problems that arise for sequels. The key is that DLC “extends” the narrative of a video game in a different way than a sequel “extends” the narrative. Broadly speaking, sequels tend to tell an entirely new narrative that takes the former game’s narrative as a starting point, whereas DLC tries to enrich a game’s narrative by adding other events that are coextensive with and subordinate to that game’s narrative. This makes sense when you think of DLC as “add-on content”: rather than telling a whole new story, like a sequel would, DLC “adds on” to a game’s narrative, aiming to supplement it with “more” story. So, for example, a DLC might add a storyline that happens during the events of a game’s main story, but that involves different characters than the main game’s avatar. This was the case with Dishonored‘s DLC, which had its own problems as a result. Or, alternatively, DLC might add a new episode that doesn’t strictly speaking occur at the same time as the events of the main game, but that nonetheless coherently fits as a constituent of the main game’s narrative. This is something like what Deus Ex: Mankind Divided just did with their System Rift DLC, which effectively folds a new “chapter” into the main game’s narrative of Adam Jensen trying to uncover details of a global, augmentation-related conspiracy. So the first crucial qualification to the completeness dilemma is that I’m talking about “completeness” in the sense that the self-contained narrative of a game is internally complete: more precisely, its various narrative constituents are more-or-less coherent with one another, and adding substantially more narrative would interfere with that coherency. This measure of completeness has no bearing on the justifiability of sequels to games.

The second qualification to make about the incompleteness dilemma is that this dilemma is largely grounded in the somewhat unintuitive way that the worlds of video games operate as narrative elements. I’ve argued previously that the worlds of video games are fundamentally designed to respond to the avatar in various ways, depending on player choices. This might seem obvious and trivial, but the result is that the ontology of video game worlds functions to create the game’s narrative. And if a designer has created a world that functions to create the narrative of a game, it isn’t at all clear how you could just “add on” more story or more world in order to extend that narrative. Indeed, doing so, one might think, would completely disrupt the ontology of the game’s world. This is the metaphysical basis for the completeness dilemma; once we see this basis, I think the dilemma itself becomes much more plausible.

Deus ExSystem Rift and The Completeness Dilemma

Beyond purely theoretical considerations, many concrete instances of DLC bear the hypothesis out: a large amount of DLC seems unsatisfying, and I think the reason for this lack of satisfaction just is the completeness dilemma in many cases. To take just one example, let’s look at System Rift, the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided DLC that I mentioned above. In broad strokes, Mankind Divided follows Adam Jensen, the protagonist of the earlier Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as he tries to mitigate rising tensions between the augmented and non-augmented in a world of human-augmentation-through-biotechnology. The main thread of the game’s plot is Jensen’s mission to uncover a secret, powerful group of people, the Illuminati, controlling and orchestrating the course of events at a global scale. At the end of the main game, while Jensen has successfully thwarted a major terrorist, he is left with most of the same questions about the shadow organization he’s been hunting for the entire game. The DLC then picks up with Jensen getting a request from an old colleague (from Human Revolution), Francis Pritchard, to help him infiltrate a major data storage bank, Palisade Blades. Though Pritchard has his own motives for wanting to infiltrate Blades, he also motivates Jensen to help him by pointing out that Jensen could well be able to uncover more information about the Illuminati while inside the facility–indeed, the DLC’s ad campaign actually motivated people to purchase the DLC for this same reason (i.e. finding out more about the Illuminati).

Without diving into too much depth about System Rift, we can pick out two overarching problems with the DLC that the completeness dilemma allows us to explain. The first problem is the selling point of the DLC’s story: uncovering more about the shadow organization that Jensen has been hunting all long. Many people reviewing the DLC have commented in one way or another that the story wasn’t especially satisfying; with our theoretical framework in the background, we can make this complaint more precise and understand just why the story isn’t satisfying. The DLC is predicated on getting answers about an organization that, throughout the first game, Jensen never really fully identified or confronted; in this respect, the main narrative force of the DLC explicitly directs players’ attention to the fact that the main game was incomplete in terms of uncovering the Illuminati. But Eidos Montreal (the developer behind Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mankind Divided, and the DLC) put themselves in a difficult situation, because they also couldn’t provide in the DLC the real answers about the Illuminati that were missing from the main game: to do so would be to effectively treat the DLC as a resolution to the main game’s narrative, and that would imply that the main game had been “missing” an ending all along–meaning players had to pay extra for the ending. As a result of the above theoretical constraints, Eidos Montreal was effectively forced to make the DLC’s answers to questions about the Illuminati minimal: though Jensen and Pitchard discovered a little about Stanton Dowd’s involvement in the organization, there wasn’t much substantive information to be had.

Of course, if a player is familiar with the broader Deus Ex series, she will know more about the Illuminati based on the earlier Deus Ex games that (confusingly enough) take place in the future relative to Mankind Divided, but this doesn’t change the facts-of-the-matter in terms of what information Mankind Divided and its DLC promise and come short of delivering. The upshot here, I think, is that Eidos Montreal probably intends to make another full Deus Ex game more directly confronting the Illuminati–as we saw above, to have any such direct confrontation in any Mankind Divided DLC would just further compromise the completeness of the main game. But the result is that the DLC feels unsatisfying and unjustified.

I said above that there were two overarching problems with System Rift that the completeness dilemma could help us explain. The first, then, was simply that the story is unsatisfying; the second is that there are continuity problems owing to the fact that the DLC is more of a stand-alone mini-game than it is an add-on to Mankind Divided. By this I mean that none of the actions of the player in the main game has any impact on System Rift–in fact, you can even play System Rift before playing Mankind Divided, though the game warns you that you may spoil some of the main game by doing so. So, despite the game being billed as Mankind Divided DLC, it really ends up being a separable narrative. The most compelling way to recognize this is to notice that none of Jensen’s augmentations carries over from the main game to the DLC: this implies that you’re playing two different versions of Jensen, meaning that the main game and DLC actually can’t exist as part of the same reality (unless you hold a view claiming something like multiple iterations of Jensen exist in the same world and have the same relationships with other people, which strikes me as wildly implausible).

Now, there are real issues with continuity across multiple games in the same series more generally, and it might sound like those are the issues I’m talking about in this case. But again, I’m containing my critique here to focus solely on DLC. There may well be a way to make reasonable sense of multiple games in a series even if a player’s choices don’t carry over between subsequent entries in the series (but see this article on Final Fantasy VII for the serious theoretical challenges that such an explanation would need to overcome), but the problem for DLCs would remain as a result of the completion dilemma. Recall that the whole thrust of DLC is that it extends a game’s narrative; in order to do this, it seems to be a minimal prerequisite that the DLC and main game occur in the same reality, unless there are compelling science-fiction reasons why they don’t (e.g., BioShock Infinite and its Buried at Sea DLC). This might seem obvious, but it points to the heart of what makes crafting effective DLC so difficult: DLC bears the burden of staying in the same reality as the main game while also justifying why its narrative content did not exist as a part of the main game. This is just another formulation of the completeness dilemma.

I should say in closing here that I quite enjoyed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and there are plenty of theoretically interesting things to say about the game in a positive light–indeed, I plan to write more on it in the future (and you can read my work on Human Revolution here). My aim here was just to show that the completeness dilemma allows us to understand many of the reasons why DLC tends to fail, along with why it’s so hard for them to succeed in the first place. I encourage readers to take their own least-favorite DLC and see whether this framework can shed light on why it doesn’t work.

The other reason why I dwelled so long on how and why DLC fails is because I think appreciating the extent of the difficulties facing DLC makes us that much more impressed when DLC manages to succeed. I turn to two such examples, Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters, next.

FromSoftware and Ontologically Sound DLC

We’ve seen that DLC, in order to be justified as part of a game’s narrative, must somehow find a way to overcome the completeness dilemma: either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete. I argue here that FromSoftware has recently released two pieces of DLC that found ways to avoid this dilemma, and that the ways these DLCs avoid the dilemma give us insight into what makes for a sound ontology for DLC and its world. I’ll first look at narrative of imposition found in the recently released Dark Souls 3 DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, and then I’ll go a bit further back in time to discuss the narrative of curiosity found in Bloodborne‘s DLC, The Old Hunters. What we’ll ultimately see is that the key to these DLCs avoiding the completeness dilemma is that they make their status as DLC, along with the player’s choice to purchase and play the DLC, narratively significant.

Ashes of Ariandel begins with an invitation for the player and her avatar to enter a new world and take on a new mission: Slave Knight Gael, prostrate on the ground of the Cleansing Chapel, enjoins you to show the Painted World of Ariandel flame in order to cleanse away its rot. The player is given the choice to either accept or reject this request; only once you accept will your avatar touch a scrap of painting and be sucked into Ariandel.

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Sister Friede warns you to turn back.

This opening interaction with Gael sets the tone for the entire narrative of the DLC: the game constantly requires the player to reaffirm her choice to take on this alternative mission in Ariandel. When the player and her character first meet Sister Friede, who presides over the Forlorn members of the world (and thus, in one sense at least, presides over the world), she asks the player’s character to leave Ariandel, explicitly pointing out the bonfire next to her as a method of doing so: “Lord of Hollows,” she says, “I know not the missteps which led thee to this painted world. But thy duty is all, and thy duty lieth elsewhere. Return from whence thou cam’st. I presume it is visible to thee? The bonfire here, in this room. A meek and faded thing, but ’twill guide thee nonetheless.” Sir Vilhelm, a knight apparently in Sister Friede’s service, warns the player’s character to heed Friede’s words as well. If the

Sir Vilhelm.jpg

Sir Vilhelm warns you to turn back.

player instead chooses to press onward in the world of Ariandel, Vilhelm eventually confronts and attempts to kill the player’s character, deriding the character as he attacks: “I’ve seen your kind,” he says, “time and time again. Every fleeing man must be caught. Every secret must be unearthed. Such is the conceit of the self-proclaimed seeker of truth.” If the player goes still further, she ultimately returns to the Ariandel Chapel where Sister Friede sits; Friede speaks to the player’s character again: “Be forewarned, eager Ash,” she says, “Should this world wither and rot, even then would Ariandel remain our home. Leave us be, Ashen One. Thou’rt the Lord of Londor, and have thine own subjects to guide.” Ultimately, if the player chooses to continue, she encounters Father Ariandel, in chains in a vast room with vaulted ceilings just beyond Sister Friede. Entering the room does not trigger a cutscene or a battle. Instead, the player must walk her character all the way across the room to Father Ariandel and speak to him; only then does a cutscene initiate, followed by a battle (actually, several) against him and Sister Friede. If Sister Friede kills the player’s character during the fight, she tells the character to “Return from whence thou cam’st, for that is thy place of belonging.”

approaching-father-ariandel

The approach to Father Ariandel. You can still avoid fighting him at this point.

I describe all these moments from the DLC in such detail simply to make the point that the DLC figuratively beats the player over the head with the theme that she doesn’t belong in this world, this isn’t the proper quest or duty of the player’s character, and she should leave. The theme of this DLC’s narrative, if you do choose to play it all the way through, is that you are imposing yourself and your character upon a world and mission that don’t rightfully belong to you. The player cannot credibly claim that she just stumbled into the storyline, or that she just had to go along with the plot line: the DLC begins with a conscious choice to take up a new mission in a new world, and you have to constantly ignore and kill NPCs in order to finish the DLC.

What does this narrative of imposition have to do with the problem of completeness and Ashes of Ariandel‘s success as DLC? I claim that this narrative avoids the problem of completeness by, in a certain sense, “making narrative” the fact that the story is DLC and that the player chose to purchase and play it. To understand what I mean by this, step back for a moment and consider what it means for the player of a game like Dark Souls (or any other game) to purchase DLC for the game. Regardless of the player’s more peculiar, individual motives for purchasing the DLC, it’s fair to say that anyone purchasing the DLC wants something “more” than the main game, whether that’s more plot, more characters, more world, or what have you. But there’s something not quite rational about this desire on the part of the player: certainly players want to play games that are well designed and that contain complete, coherent narratives; yet at the same time, these players are eager for “more” in the form of DLC.

Returning now to the case at hand, the crucial feature of Ashes of Ariandel is that the game’s narrative reflects the player’s decision to play it. The player is trying to take a character that was designed for a specific, internally coherent quest, one that endlessly cycles with different possible endings, and put that character in  new environment that, by definition, could not have been a part of that original quest. The avatar, mirroring the player, is leaving its preordained, destined quest as an Ashen One (Sister Friede presupposes the Ashen One’s destiny as the Lord of Hollows, but the argument holds even if the Ashen One chooses a different path through the game) to instead take on an entirely different mission in an entirely different world–a world contained within an entirely different work of art (i.e. a scrap of a painting). Many pieces of the NPCs’ dialogue could be directed to the player just as accurately as to the player’s character: the player of DLC should hear herself reflected in Vilhelm’s words that “Every fleeing man must be caught [and every] secret must be unearthed,” and should recognize that she really is, as Friede says, going out of her way to walk her character through a world not at all related to that character’s initial purpose or design. This union of player and avatar, together with the union of the narrative and its status as DLC, culminates in the long walk down the hall to Father Ariandel: if the player has all been paying attention to the game, she should be acutely aware of the fact that she is choosing, throughout the entirety of the DLC, to disregard the vast majority of voices telling her to turn back.

So FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma in Ashes of Ariandel by turning the tables on the player: recognizing the player as part of the game’s narrative (which I have argued many times is the case in all game narratives, whether or not the game is self-consciously concerned with that fact), the DLC tells the story of a world that doesn’t claim to have anything to do with the narrative of the main game, and of a character who decided to ignore their real quest to instead, for want of a better word, invade a totally different world. In other words, FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma by pointing out that the player has chosen to purchase and play DLC in spite of the completeness dilemma.

Moreover, FromSoftware seems to have generally recognized the above method as a reliable way to develop aesthetically justifiable DLC. Turning to Bloodborne’s DLC, The Old Hunters, we can see that same method alive and well–but, typical of an adept storyteller, FromSoftware has altered the precise execution of the method to better fit with the themes and broader metaphysics of Bloodborne.

Bloodborne DLC

 

I can’t say enough positive things about Bloodborne, and if you’ve read my earlier work on the game then you know some of the reasons why I think it’s so philosophically rich, in the sense of rigorous metaphysical and epistemic themes and explorations. If you know my earlier work on the game, then you also probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was extremely skeptical when DLC was announced for the game. I thought (and still think) that the main narrative of Bloodborne is practically perfect in terms of internal coherence as a cyclical narrative, in which, no matter which ending the player chooses, they can never truly escape the dream of Bloodborne, nor can they learn whatever truth (if any) lies outside that dream. This was the reason why I continue to hope that Bloodborne never has a sequel, and it was the reason why I doubted that any DLC for the game could truly be justified. However, much like Ashes of AriandelThe Old Hunters challenged my expectations by making narrative the facts that it was DLC and that I as a player had chosen to play it; the difference was that, whereas Ashes of Ariandel crafted this narrative in terms of imposition, invasion, and shirking duty, The Old Hunters crafted it in terms of curiosity and the limits of our understanding.

The Old Hunters takes place inside The Hunter’s Nightmare, a previously unaccessible part of Bloodborne‘s world which the player can access by acquiring an Eye of a Blood-Drunk Hunter from a Messenger and using it to apparently lure an Amygdala into grabbing the player’s character and transporting it to the Nightmare. Once there, the player is able to unravel a variety of secrets about the origins of the Healing Church of Bloodborne‘s world: she witnesses the hideous beast that Ludwig, the Church’s first hunter, became; she sees the results of the Church’s covert (largely failed) experiments to transform humans into Kin of the Great Ones (the ethereal beings that exist at the edge of human comprehension and are largely responsible for the madness that infects Bloodborne); and she encounters a dead Kos, a Great One whose appearance apparently mutated the inhabitants of a seaside Fishing Hamlet, destroying their sanity in the process.

The Hunter’s Nightmare is a realm for hunters who have been driven insane; the player and her avatar are guided through it by the one remaining hunter with some apparent sanity, Simon the Harrowed. At the beginning of the Nightmare, he warns the player’s character to turn back, “Unless, you’ve something of an interest in Nightmares?” The player can choose to either respond that “I’ve no interest” or else that “Nightmares are fascinating,” and it is only in the latter case that Simon continues to guide the player through the DLC (though the player can of course progress on her own). Simon thus sets the tone of the DLC, albeit perhaps more subtly than the characters of Ashes of Ariandel did: only the curious player has any purpose being here.

lady-maria

The player’s character investigates Lady Maria’s corpse.

So, if the player chooses to continue in the DLC, it’s fair for the narrative to assume the player is curious: and indeed, the DLC punishes the player precisely for being curious, most notably in two specific instances. First, after seeing the Church’s experimentation facility, the player encounters an apparently dead hunter slumped in a chair at the far end of a clock tower: this is Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower. The introduction to this boss fight is notably similar to the introduction to the Sister Friede/Father Ariandel boss fight: in both cases, the player must approach the boss

brador

Brador, the Church’s assassin, imprisoned.

from the other side of a long room and choose to interact with the boss before the fight actually begins. In Maria’s case, the player’s character must inspect her corpse, after which she rises from the chair and says that “A corpse… should be left well alone.” She continues: “Oh, I know very well. How the secrets beckon so sweetly,” concluding to the player’s character that “Only an honest death will cure you now. Liberate you, from your wild curiosity.” Later, as the player investigates the Fishing Hamlet, an imprisoned  Church assassin named Brador periodically invades and attempts to kill her character. Whenever Brador kills the player’s character, he proclaims that “Unending death awaits those who pry into the unknown.” Both Lady Maria and Brador reinforce the narrative of the Nightmare as the player’s tortured attempt to proceed through countless deaths and eventually satisfy her curiosity for secrets that don’t want to be uncovered.

orphan-of-kos

The Orphan of Kos, having just emerged from a deceased Kos.

In a very broad sense, The Old Hunters justifies its DLC in the same way that Ashes of Ariandel does: it tells the story of the player and her avatar trying to get something out of the game that they shouldn’t rationally expect the game to provide. But, as I said before, the details of how they tell this story are different because the narratives of Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne are wildly different animals. In The Old Hunters, the narrative reflects the player’s desire to answer the game’s unanswered questions, combined with the overarching Bloodborne theme that the answers you seek often lie outside of your epistemic capabilities. The DLC does this in a tricky way: it promises that the Hunter’s Nightmare holds secrets to uncover, but what little the player uncovers only leads to further questions, showing that very little of the original curiosity has actually been satisfied and very few explanations provided by the DLC have been adequate. The DLC pretty obviously shows a connection between Lady Maria and the animated Doll who guides the player through the main game: the characters look the same, have the same voice actor (Evetta Muradasilova), and, once the player kills Lady Maria, the Doll exclaims that she feels liberated in some way. Yet the exact nature of the relationships between these characters is left unexplained. The exact relationships between the various, titular “old hunters” are left unexplained. And, most pointedly, the DLC ends with a battle against a Great One, one of the beings whose very existence is beyond the pale of human comprehension. The ending in particular points to the fact that, even if the player were able to parse out the entire history of the hunters and the Healing Church from the vague hints of the DLC, they would still have gone precisely no distance towards truly understanding the otherworldly Great Ones, the ultimate grounds of Bloodborne‘s horror and narrative force. So the DLC plays on the player’s curiosity by hinting at some explanations of plot elements while also highlighting that the entire crux of Bloodborne is that some great and terrible things–e.g., the Great Ones–are entirely outside human frameworks of explanation and understanding. The player can learn that Kos cursed the hunters who investigated and mutilated the mutated villagers of the Fishing Hamlet, but she cannot learn the truth of what Kos itself truly is.

The world of the Hunter’s Nightmare is not separate from Bloodborne‘s main world in exactly the way that Ariandel is separate from Dark Souls 3, but the framework remains the same–albeit thematically transformed. The base assumption is that the player who has played Bloodborne wants more answers than the game provides, and purchases the DLC in the expectation of having that curiosity sated. Yet the DLC tells a story of explanations and forces that ultimately prove elusive, feeding the player scraps of new information while ultimately returning to the same incomprehensible plane of unknowability that grounded the main game. Just as in Ashes of Ariandel, we have a narrative grounded in the player’s choice to irrationally want more from a complete game–in this case, it’s just couched in terms of the limits of comprehensibility and the madness that follows curiosity, seamlessly marrying its themes to those of Bloodborne.

Conclusion

The completeness dilemma isn’t easily overcome, and those DLCs that simply promise additional story content face a serious challenge as a result. This makes it all the more remarkable that FromSoftware has managed to develop DLC in which not only are the narratives are interesting and engaging, but they are also narratives that would only work as DLC. The narratives overcome the completeness dilemma by inviting the player into the narrative, and telling a story of how bizarre and paradoxical it is that the player would want an extra story to extend a world and story that was already complete. The amazing result is DLC that is justified both intrinsically and also in relation to the main game. Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters set a high bar in this regard, but they also show us that DLC falling short of this bar just won’t work. Try these DLCs out if you haven’t already, and, as you play, reflect on your choice to buy DLC in the first place; and the next time you buy a new DLC, ask yourself whether and how it avoids the completeness dilemma.

 

 

Explore Horror with Us at PAX Aus

I’m thrilled to publicly announce on the site that With a Terrible Fate will be presenting a panel at Pax Australia this weekend. We’ll be talking about video game horror in the Dropbear Theatre to 7:30PM-8:30PM, and we hope to see you there. Right now, without giving too much away, I want to give you a taste of what you can expect if and when you meet With a Terrible Fate this weekend.

I, With a Terrible Fate Founder Aaron Suduiko, will team up with Featured Authors Nathan Randall and Laila Carter to discuss what makes horror storytelling special in the medium of video games. We’re each going to take a distinct methodological approach to analyzing video game horror based on our academic backgrounds; my hope is that the combination of our very different analytical perspectives will demonstrate how much people can learn about games by considering them through a variety of theoretical lenses.

Nathan Randall

Nathan will be applying the studies and theories of neuroscience to explore what makes for a really effective jump scare in video games. He’ll discuss various learning and fear mechanisms in our brains, and how games are especially well-positioned as a medium to capitalize on these mechanisms. Along the way, he’ll analyze 5 Nights at Freddy’sUndertale, and even JazzpunkEver thought about the science behind a really good game? There’s a lot to it, and Nate will show you just what makes it all so cool.

 

 

 

 

laila-carterLaila will be exploring how horror storytelling in video games fits into broader, long-standing traditions of horror in folklore, mythology, and literature. What does BioShock have to do with the Odyssey? How does Lovecraftian horror come about in S.O.M.A.? What insight can a Minotaur give us into Amnesia? Laila has answers to all of these questions–oh, and she’ll be talking about “daemonic warped spaces” and P.T., too.

 

 

 

suduiko-video-game-art-presentation

Lastly, I’ll be applying the tools of analytic philosophy, together with my body of work on video game theory, to explore the ways in which games can use the metaphysics of their worlds to generate especially deep-seated and cerebral horror for the player. I’ll argue that the horror of Bloodborne is actually much more realistic than you thought (and you’ll wish I hadn’t shown you why that’s the case). I’ll argue that the metaphysics of Termina imply an interpretation of Majora’s Mask that strays outside the realm of Legend of Zelda canon and instead finds its home in nihilistic terror. I’ll argue that the horror of Silent Hill 2 isn’t fundamentally about James’ relationship with any of the other characters in the town–rather, it’s about his relationship with the player. If you want to get primed for this section (or spoil it for yourself), you can check out my earlier work on Bloodborne and my comprehensive analysis of Majora’s Mask.

We’ll all be hanging around after the panel to answer any questions you may have, and we’ll be around throughout the rest of PAX if you want to keep the conversation going. We’ll also hopefully be able to get the presentation documented in some capacity, so look for that online in the coming week if you can’t make it to PAX Aus.

To all you PAX-goers: see you Saturday.

 

“Bloodborne,” Lovecraft, and the Dangerous Idea.

(A word of caution:  spoilers for “Bloodborne” abound here; while I do not normally give such warnings, much of the very aesthetic that I discuss can be lost by knowing the particulars of the game prior to actually experiencing it for yourself.)

The influence of H.P. Lovecraft, modern father of horror by most accounts, transparently dominates FromSoftware’s latest work, “Bloodborne.”[1] This is not, in and of itself, a new observation – at this point, only a few months after the initial release of the game, you can throw a stone in any direction and hit a piece pointing out that the game pays due homage to Lovecraft. FromSoftware knew what they were doing with the Lovecraftian aesthetic, and they knew it to a meticulous extent. To wit: the game’s global release was organized between March 24th and March 27th, 2015; in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” this interval at the end of March encompasses the time of madness when Cthulhu awakens from its subterranean tomb, driving sensitive minds beyond the pale of sanity. Lovecraft’s mythos radiates from “Bloodborne.”

Cthulu Rises

While I do not wish to disparage previous critics and analysts who have pointed out the Lovecraftian elements of “Bloodborne,” I must confess that I find Lovecraft-oriented analyses of the game up to this point has been largely superficial in nature. Certainly, the design and origins of the Kin mirror those of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones; certainly, the interplay between Insight and Frenzy reflect the Lovecraftian aesthetic of cosmic knowledge countervailing sanity; but to equate such features as these with the Lovecraftian motif in “Bloodborne” does justice to neither the author nor the game. To that end, I wish in this paper to defend the claim that “Bloodborne,” by virtue of being a video game instead of a novel, actually extends the notion of Lovecraftian horror beyond the domain that was available to Lovecraft himself. “Bloodborne,” I will argue, exposes the essence of Lovecraftian horror by bringing into focus the total inefficacy of agency – that is to say, it makes us question why it ought to matter at all that we seem able to make choices in our real lives.

Follow me down a rabbit hole to find the dangerous idea that sits at the heart of the Lovecraftian horror in “Bloodborne.”

The Amygdala

First, I will provide a baseline of what I mean by ‘Lovecraftian horror’ before we begin. Lovecraft was famously quoted as saying that “[the] oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In broad strokes, Lovecraftian horror is this “fear of the unknown”; but this does not mean “unknown” merely in the sense of, say, not knowing that a serial killer is waiting to jump out at you from behind a corner. Rather, Lovecraftian horror isolates the fear-of-unknown as it relates to the outmost bounds of what it is possible for us to know. Imagine, for example, that you are a sunflower. Insofar as one can imagine this in the first place, it stands to reason that you qua sunflower would lack the faculties necessary to acknowledge or understand the existence of humans: plants lack the consciousness and complexity to comprehend (and perhaps also to apprehend) that humans exist right alongside them. Lovecraftian horror takes this argument and applies it to our position qua humans: it asks the question, “What if extremely advanced beings exist right alongside us, and we lack the perceptual faculties or sufficient complexity to comprehend their existence?” This is the inspiration for his Cthulhu and Great Old Ones, beings that lived on earth far before humans, that still exist in the earth’s recesses, and the very knowledge of which can drive humans mad. Some beings may exist just outside our door while also being far beyond the scope of our reason, Lovecraft suggests – and there may be no cause for these beings to be friendly toward us.

Besides ancient, tentacled, extra-dimensional beings, Lovecraft is also known for his usage of dreamscapes as an outer bounds on the human capacity to experience the cosmos. “Bloodborne” is also set in various levels of dreams and nightmares; but again, to offer this observation as the game’s Lovecraftian legacy does justice to neither the game nor the man. As it happens, considering the dream-state of the game is a useful path into what makes “Bloodborne” a compelling extension of Lovecraftian horror, but for reasons much subtler than the existence of “The Hunter’s Dream” as a central hub, or “Nightmares” as late-game areas. In fact, we need go no further than the game’s opening sequence to dig into what makes it interesting as a framework of dreams.

The Blood Minister

Note that the game actually begins in the first-person perspective, with the Blood Minister providing the player with a blood transfusion and prompting character creation before reassuring him that “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream”; only then, after the player’s vision fades, does the player’s character awake, with the player adopting a third-person perspective on that character. This frames the entire story of “Bloodborne” as a dream, extending the analogy through game mechanics by making the player shift from a first-person perspective, which is how we see the world in real life, to a third-person perspective, which is how we frequently “see ourselves” in dreams.

This isn’t the only element that “Bloodborne” shares with dreams; in fact, it shares several key characteristics with lucid dreams in particular. By ‘lucid dreams’, I refer specifically to dreams of the kind in which one is fully aware of one’s dream surroundings and is able to perceive oneself as taking actions that yield consequences on the environment of the dream, without being aware that one is actually dreaming.[2] Beyond the third-person perspective and fantastical imagery that the game shares with such dreams, one crucial element unites the experience of playing “Bloodborne” with the experience of having a lucid dream: the perception of agency, on the part of the player in the former case, and on the part of the dreamer in the latter case. This sense of agency – the capacity to take actions that yield changes in one’s environment – is, I take it, the primary phenomenological reason for lucid dreams “feeling real”: as in reality, we perceive ourselves in the lucid dream as agents, rather than merely passively being part of a dream narrative, as is typically the case in non-lucid dreams.

“Bloodborne,” then, is in many regards like a lucid dream – but, again, this insight alone invites the “So what?” question. What makes this analogy remarkable is a crucial aspect in which the game is disanalogous to lucid dreams: namely, the player of a game knows that he acts as an agent constrained within a fictional universe, whereas the lucid dreamer does not necessarily recognize the fictional, constrained nature of the dream-world in which he acts. Although both the video game and a dream are ‘fictional worlds’ in some loose sense of the term, the dreamer is actually more similar to the player’s avatar in “Bloodborne” than the player himself; for, just as the dreamer is bounded by the dream, with no knowledge of the waking world beyond it, so, too, is the avatar’s existence bounded by the dream-universe of the game. The avatar acknowledges no world beyond the game because, to the avatar, there is no world beyond the game.

What ties this framework together and turns Bloodborne into the most innovative piece of modern horror is a single line, which marks the liminality between first-person and third-person perspectives in the game, signaling the end of the game’s introduction and the beginning of the game proper:

“Ahh, you’ve found yourself a hunter.”

Consider the context of this, the first words of the Doll of the Hunter’s Dream: the first-person perspective by which the player experienced the introductory blood transfusion immediately precedes these words, and the third-person perspective by which the player engages his avatar immediately follows these words. Given this context and the overall dream framework of the game, I find the most plausible explanation of this line to be that the Doll is speaking to the player: she is remarking that the player has found a proxy by which to engage the lucid dream analogue that is “Bloodborne.” Besides intuitively tracking with the ‘you’ the Doll addresses, this explanation also has the advantage of promoting the most thoroughly Lovecraftian interpretation of the game that I have seen to date: namely, as I said at the outset, that our apparent capacity to act as agents in the real world could be entirely meaningless.

Recall that the dreamer in a lucid dream, ex hypothesi, lacks awareness that he is in a dream. Just so, if we analyze the player’s avatar not as an avatar, but merely as a character within the world of the game, it is most plausible to suppose that, like the dreamer, he has no recognition of the world external to the limits of the game. Therefore, the avatar is not aware of the player, who is ultimately responsible for the agency and choices of the avatar. The avatar may very well think that he is making his own choices, although they are all the result of the player’s exertion of control on him. This is the dangerous thought in “Bloodborne”: it is not merely that the world constantly expands and reveals new constituents in order to reveal the miniscule limitations of the avatar’s epistemology; rather, it is the subtle indication that the very source of what the avatar as his own free will is entirely outside of himself, beyond the scope of his epistemology. In other words, his actions are not his own, and he can never be in a position to apprehend this fact.

The dynamics of the video game, by which the player extends his agency into the game through a proxy (i.e., the avatar) is uniquely suited to subsume the matter of agency under the domain of the Lovecraftian unknown, thereby accomplishing something that not even Lovecraft himself could do. When one picks up a Lovecraft story, as is the case with most written works, one treats it as an artifact, an account of various agents who discovered beings far greater than themselves, and thereby suffered for it. Although the agents may be rendered impotent by this discovery, the question of whether the free will of the agents actually belonged to them was never raised – print media is not amenable to such questions in the same way as video games, which trade on matters of agency and choice.

The dangerous idea that “Bloodborne” invites you to consider, thereby extending Lovecraftian horror to new dimensions, is that there may be no way to prove that we are not utterly powerless. Not only may the world be complex in ways entirely unavailable to our epistemic apparatus, but the very sensation of free will – the capacity to choose – may be epiphenomenal – that is, our ‘actions’ are brought about by something external to ourselves, like the case of the avatar and the player, though we experience these actions as the results of our will, and will never be in a position to know otherwise. These are not new ideas philosophically, but, within the aesthetic domain, “Bloodborne” is able to break new ground by using the player’s own unique power within the story – the ability to make choices – in order to turn the tables on the player and suggest that, in their own lives, that very own power may be baseless.  Traditional Lovecraft asks the question, “What if humans are so small that our actions make no difference?”; the new Lovecraftian horror of “Bloodborne” starts here and then poses the further question, “What if humans are so small that we have no power over our own actions?”

It is in this way that “Bloodborne” steps up as the true inheritor of Lovecraft, extending his hallmark “fear of the unknown” to our very self-concept as agents in the world. For, if our capacity to act cannot ground us in reality, then on what ought we to base the “realness” of our existence? This is the lingering question that “Bloodborne” plants in your mind before leaving you, which puts a sinister, taunting spin on what is seemingly the most innocuous of the Doll’s lines:

“May you find your worth in the waking world.”

[1] This is not to say that Lovecraft is the only influence on the aesthetic of “Bloodborne” – Van Helsing and Dracula have also been cited, for example. However, such other influences, by my estimation, are far-and-away secondary to the scope and relevance of Lovecraft’s influence.

[2] While I recognize that some lucid dreamers do in fact realize that they are inside of a dream, I have in mind instead lucid dreamers who exhibit agency and awareness inside of a dream without recognizing that it is a dream. This encompasses only one subset of what are colloquially termed ‘lucid dreams’.