Death Is a Strange Reward: The 'Gretel and Hansel' Series

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.