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Fatale: Exploring Salome

(Tale of Tales; US: 5 Oct 2009)

This review contains some spoilers.


This is not a game.


You will die.  But that should go without saying, since you should know what you’re getting into in the first place with a game whose subtitle indicates an interest in “exploring Salome.”  The story of Salome and her connection to the execution of John the Baptist already suggests the terminal as a theme, both in its biblical version and its revision by Oscar Wilde.


However, again, this is not a game.  The readme file that accompanies Fatale refers to Fatale as a “product,” a “program,” or even an “interactive vignette,” but it never calls this experience a game.  I am tempted to call it a meditation, but frankly, that term is inappropriate as meditation implies a passive quality. Thus, the “interactive” quality of Fatale flies in the face of claims of the experience being of a purely reflective kind.  It is a product and is meant to be manipulated (perhaps, in order to adequately reflect on this experience).  And programs are meant to be executed (there’s that death theme again), and this one is fully executed.


For that reason, I think I will go with “program” as a descriptor for Fatale as it appropriately describes the experience as a process that requires execution to get it started (and this program does, literally).


This is a difficult program to review as it is an experience so consumed with its themes that it begs for interpretation, not evaluation.  I can tell you, for instance, that the program is not merely concerned with death but also in exploring the nature of storytelling, especially the inevitability of storytelling, and possibly the inability to change what is written after it has been written.  It is also about voyeurism, but I cannot justify any of these claims without discussing the specifics of the experience.  Doing so, though, will defeat the purpose of “exploring Salome,” which is ultimately what you will “do” in the game and that concerns what you look at and how you see it.  It is the bulk of the program itself.


Indeed, this is part of the reason that Fatale is nothing like a game.  An experience of it is unlikely to produce something like “fun” in its audience.  If any pleasure is to be derived from Fatale, it is likely the pleasure that one derives from the activities of looking and observing, which is in itself a problem if it is about Salome.  The Biblical story indicates that being looked at and observed is the catalyst for potential nastiness and ultimately an ending.


So, let me tell you what I can.  The program has three major segments.  In the first, you take on the role of John the Baptist awaiting his death in a cistern.  In that segment, you will look and wait.  In the second (and probably longest) segment, you will take on the role of a spirit of some sort (possibly John’s) and look around the exterior of Herod’s palace while extinguishing lights.  The third segment is an epilogue, in which you will watch Salome dance.  You can alter the way that you view her by zooming in on her as she dances.  Interestingly, given the nature of the story of Salome, such focus on Salome always results eventually in being repelled from her.  This is probably important to considering some of this product’s interests in voyeurism and and the potential limitations of voyeurism.


As noted before, though, each of these segments largely concern observation and voyeurism.  They also do allow the exploration of the stories that serve as the bulwark of the Salome mythos.  There is a terminal quality to all of them, and as a result, a sense of the inevitability of the story’s conclusion.  In this sense, this experience probably feels antithetical to a gaming experience, since “playing a game” allows players to manipulate and change the outcome of a tale and most often to cheat death (or at least games gives the illusions of such—Fatale may be an effort to tear the veil off of gamers eyes regarding the “scripted” qualities of seemingly multilinear or multicursal worlds).  This story has already been written, though.  Thus, not many choices are really available or at least that is what this “play style” suggests.  Indeed, ending the game becomes important to continuing the game as the third part can only be reached after exiting the program at the conclusion of the second part.  Of course, following loading that third part, the only options left to the “player” are to quit or start over, so a cycle is perpetuated in a story whose conclusions are set in stone occurring over and over again or never again. 


This same concern with a story retold the same way is embedded within the images of the game itself.  One of the more haunting and yet amusing images in the game is one of Salome leaning over a balcony.  Careful observation of her in her seemingly authentic first century Middle Eastern garb reveals that she is listening to an iPod.  A mixture of traditional images surrounding the story with such “updates” to the mythos indicates the idea that the story of Salome might be refashioned for a modern audience.  However, the fact that we cannot alter the outcome of this story or play “its hero” (only a victim) also indicates that refashioning a story does not alter the inevitability of its course.  Slap an iPod on Salome, she is still Salome.


In particular, though, this game builds on Wilde’s vision of Salome and its mechanics support this vision.  Wilde’s conception of the Salome story being in part about Salome’s efforts to preserve her virginity is alluded to in whispered voiceover discussing Salome as virginal and pure.  Additionally, though, the program itself and its very “anti-gaming” approach (with only a limited ability to interact with the world and Salome herself) is suggestive of this theme.  Like the Salome story with its inevitable conclusions, Salome and the various objects in the game’s environments exist more as objects to observe than to manipulate.  With only a “spiritual” form to explore the world, the player is left watching and not manipulating much. 


It should also be noted that the game is indeed very pretty to look at (again, an appropriate if troubling quality to anything that intends to tell the story of Salome).  In particular, Salome’s dance is quite beautiful.  It was choreographed by contemporary dancer, Eléonore Valere Lachky, and, having watched countless virtual bimbos bump and grind on poles in Grand Theft Auto and its various clones, I can tell you that it is refreshing to watch an avatar that can actually dance.  Again, perhaps, I should be concerned about enjoying Salome’s dance, but then again, I enjoyed the experience of Fatale.


That being said, I am extremely hesitant to assign a score to the program.  Like scoring an abstract painting, doing so seems arbitrary and beside the point.  If you are interested in the idea of a program that encourages you to consider the nature of programs, scripts, and storytelling and how those ideas may relate to gaming, then this is an experience that will likely interest you.  However, if your PC exists solely for the purpose of playing Quake (nothing wrong with that, I like playing Quake, too), then this is likely not going to be your cup of tea. 


After all, this is not a game.

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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