Death Is a Strange Reward

The 'Gretel and Hansel' Series

by G. Christopher Williams

20 October 2010

Most modern versions of fairy tales tend to sanitize the more “questionable” elements of such stories, but David Bae and Nathan Ratcliffe's Gretel and Hansel seems to seek to "moralize" in only the most unsettling of ways.

Many folks are aware that modern fairy tales are frequently sanitized versions of the original tales that they are based on.  Charles Perrault admitted that his version of the story “Little Red Riding Hood” was intended to teach a lesson to children to avoid strangers, especially young women who might be overcome by a predatory male.  Thus, Red Riding Hood is devoured at the close of his tale as a brutal illustration of the lesson to be learned.

The Perrault version is especially disturbing because of its commitment to the potential for the instructional quality of story, as it is a fairy tale willing to not merely put a child at peril but to see consequences for foolishness on the part of the young to a very terrifying and very terminal conclusion.  Even the Brothers Grimm, also not ones to normally shy away from violence in their tales, were unwilling to see their revision of the tale through to this conclusion.  They found a way for a child to ultimately escape despite the errors of her ways.

Most modern versions of fairy tales also revise the more “questionable” elements of such stories, but David Bae and Nathan Ratcliffe’s Gretel and Hansel series returns to the uglier truths of a violent world that is unforgiving of the inexperienced and immature.  Interestingly, the reversal of the protagonist’s names in the title, which signals the developers’ decision to make Gretel the clearly dominant hero in the story, seems to especially beg comparison to Perrault’s type of tale.  It is the female character that is most at risk throughout the games, since that is the character that the player largely controls, making one wonder if there is a similar lesson intended, something about the fragility of children with younger women being made especially vulnerable here.
These games are clearly designed to be unsettling though.  Their aesthetics make this notion abundantly clear from their opening cinematics to the beautifully rendered, but grotesque cartoon imagery to the remarkably strange score of the game.  In the opening sequence and tutorial of Part 2, for example, the player learns how to move Gretel around and interact with items by yanking up what appears to be a weed growing against a stark background.  Instead, it is the head of her brother Hansel that emerges from the ground, as does the head of another older man across the screen.  When Gretel yanks on the man’s head, a tree erupts from the ground, splitting the man’s head open.  Another tree quickly follows, destroying Hansel’s head.  In a cinematic, Gretel flees the violence, but as she disappears from the screen, her shadow lengthens, and the player sees that another shadow now looms over Gretel.  The shadow appears to be that of an adult woman, but a woman bearing an axe.  The opening cinema demonstrates the nature of the world of Gretel and Hansel.  It is terrifying and violent and flight to figures that might seem to offer safety, like an adult, holds no real promise of security.

Indeed, in Part 2, one of the most unsettling moments is one that follows after the player has managed to aid Gretel in avoiding a cannibalistic feast (among other obstacles) and Gretel emerges from behind a treeline to see a house in ruins and the first normal looking adult that appears in the game, a woman dressed conservatively and in a manner that seems to mark her as a possible mother figure.  She has no discernible face though and is separated from Gretel by a fence line.  Thus, Gretel must return to the woods and make her way past scenes of violence that she has taken part in and past a bear in order to finally reach the remains of the house.  That the house is in ruins is appropriate given that upon reaching the seeming security of an elder, the player and Gretel find that the woman stands unmoving and ineffectual, her lack of a face suggests a loss of her own and a wooden inability to help Gretel.  Gretel must do things on her own, and if she fails in any way, the game is quick to punish her in the most brutal of ways.

In part the brutality of Bae and Ratcliffe’s game is expected given their choice to adapt and heavily revise the Hansel and Gretel mythos to the medium of video games.  Protagonists generally must be at risk of death for a game’s conflict to become clearly apparent to the player.  Death is used in games to punish bad play, and in this sense, a video game might be the perfect way to reinforce tales both pragmatic and moral in tone.  Punishing bad play is simply a correlate to the idea of punishing poor judgment.  Thus, making mistakes as Gretel generally has especially unsettling results, especially to modern eyes unaccustomed to the sight of children suffering violent ends.

Since death does not actually set you back in the game though, all of the deaths here are merely present to be what they are: horrific and brutal.  They serve as a reminder that existence is tenuous and that children like Gretel are frail and possibly inconsequential.  Death is also the means of unlocking medals (the NewGrounds version of achievements) in the game, so this reminder also becomes a reward, as if we are intended to revel in the idea that foolish children are to be punished and only in the most upsetting ways.  These rewards suggest that we are to seek out reminders of punishment and take pleasure in them.

This seems an especially hard moral to swallow.

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