Horror in Video Games: There’s Seeing — and Then There’s Realizing What You’re Seeing

My wife finds Dead Space nauseating. On the face of it, I can’t say that I disagree. Despite writing positively about the Dead Rising series’ excess rather recently and being a champion of last year’s Deadly Premonition, I’m not really a fan of horror as a genre in games, or in any other media for that matter. In particular, I don’t care much for gore. I don’t mind being scared — that’s kind of fun once in a while. But I don’t really like watching surgeries, and particularly ones that are being presented to somehow “turn my crank” or that revel in human suffering.

That said, I’ve been playing the Dead Space titles because the Moving Pixels podcast has been slated to discuss them in the coming weeks, and I’ve found myself largely enjoying the experience. This is due more to the unique and innovative tweaks on common elements of gameplay more than the aesthetics, though the level of environmental detail in these games is also pretty nice, barring all the squishy organic ceilings and floors and the fact that so many walls are painted in crimson.

However, my ever patient wife, who watches so many of the games that I play, just can’t hang around to watch this one. Given the fact that she has watched a host of violent games with me, and given that I do play titles that don’t really stray away from some degree of brutality, I had to ask her what was bothering her about this one. She began describing the bodies of the game’s antagonists, the Necromorphs, and things like the fact that one of the more common forms had a fissure across its stomach and a set of hands clawing their way out of that fissure. What surprised me about the response was not that she found this a bit more grotesque than she could bear, but that I (who had been playing the game for hours and had fought a whole bunch of these critters) had not noticed this detail at all. I just shook my head, asking “Really?” And I really did ask in serious confusion.

Her description is exactly right, too. The Necromorph known as a Slasher does appear to be “decorated” with a kind of vaginal opening (an especially common motif in Visceral’s body horror aesthetic in both Dead Space games as well as in Dante’s Inferno, which probably deserves a discussion of its own) in its abdomen with something crawling out of it. She’s right; it is extremely gross. Yet — again — I never saw it.

When I recently mentioned this phenomenon to Moving Pixels contributor Nick Dinicola, who has played both games, he reported that “I only just realized that the standard necromorph was missing its bottom jaw when I saw a GameStop commercial for Dead Space 2“. This possible tendency on the part of Dead Space players to not really “see” the Necromorphs in some way, while “seeing” them more completely as spectators, suggests a simple enough explanation. It relates to the mechanics of the game itself and the manner in which the game requires an attenuation to particular details in combat.

Basically, player “blindness” can be attributed to the evisceration mechanic that is central to the combat in the game. In order to effectively destroy Necromorphs, you must (as you learn early in the first game from a message scrawled in blood on the wall of the Ishimura) “Cut Off the Limbs”. As a result, Dead Space becomes a game about watching the edges of any attacking creatures’ bodies very closely. Armed with a plasma cutter that must be adjusted to make horizontal and vertical cuts, the player must take rapid actions to target an area, adjust a cut appropriately, and then sever a limb. Most Necromorphs require more than one limb to be removed in order to die. Thus, this process repeats itself by focusing on one limb and, again, very rapidly making another quick assessment, adjustment, and execution. In other words, because of the frantic quality of the action, the player never really gets to study the most horrific details of his opponents.

While all of this certainly reads like a rather gruesome description of the limitations of player perception generated by effective play in Dead Space, to be quite honest I’m kind of glad that the game has forced me to not actually see all that it has to offer. It is a funny mechanic that diverts the player from the very aesthetic and its consequence that the developer of a horror game so obviously wants to emphasize, repulsion in the face of the grotesque.

Giving this experience some further thought begs for some exploration of how certain visual imagery in games is appreciated, ignored, or possibly missed in general as a result of gameplay itself.

Certainly, there are some more positive examples of imagery that I actually want to see in games. I find myself really appreciating grand vistas in games, for example. A recent playthrough of Assassin’s Creed, for instance, left me somewhat stunned when coming over a hillside to be greeted by the full expanse of Ubisoft’s recreation of Damascus around the time of the Crusades. Likewise, there were many moments in Red Dead Redemption when I reined in my horse just to get a gander at a sunset, or to look in wonder at my first encounter with a snow-covered landscape when I finally reached the northern mountains of New Austin.

However, I rarely pause for long to just appreciate a view in Red Dead Redemption. Because Rockstar has created a living and dangerous world, pausing for any extended period of time tends to not be particularly good judgment. Unlike the real world, where I’m generally not afraid of being attacked by bandits or a bear on a semi-regular basis, this artificial world requires you to be on your toes at all times, aware not of all your surroundings, but of the ones that count for gameplay. Like Dead Space (but to a slightly lesser degree), it is not a game in which one can easily shift between being a spectator and a player.

Serious video game critics (myself sometimes included) tend to take umbrage at the idea of comparing video games to movies. While both forms of media have some similar components (like visual and aural storytelling) that other kinds of storytelling media (like the novel or the closet drama) may not, the kind of critical language that film critics use is often insufficient to describe a participatory medium. After all, film requires spectatorship, while games require direct interaction. Some of this anxiety about video games being misunderstood also often bleeds over into a general distaste for cinematic sequences. Some game critics insist, for instance, that full-motion video cutscenes and the like should be purged from gaming altogether. Games, after all, should be games, and not pretend to be movies; they should tell stories as a game might, not as a movie might.

While I fully appreciate the way that games like the Bioshock titles are able to tell their story through gameplay, revealing itself through the details of a world that I get to directly investigate, I still think that there is something to be said for cinematics as well. Recent critical reception of Enslaved seems a particularly useful example in this regard. While most responses to the game seem to acknowledge that Enslaved boasts some very mediocre gameplay, folks that frequently agree on what are good games and what are bad games found themselves divided over the narrative of Enslaved.

Some hated that Enslaved largely disconnects its play from the story being told (see Eric Swain’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West‘s Thematic Failure” at The Game Critique, for example), while others (myself included) still admired the story being told by Enslaved, even if much of it was told through cinematics rather than through gameplay.

In particular, I’m of the opinion that Enslaved really does require the player to shift into the role of spectator in order to understand and fully “see” the nuance of its storytelling. As a game featuring some very good motion capture of some very good real actors practicing their craft, part of understanding the story is by being given the chance to really watch the performances, especially of the two lead characters, Monkey and Trip, as their relationship develops over the course of the game. Since Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw are actors who actually convey a lot through facial expression and body language (and often in this game moreso than any of the dialogue), watching Trip and Monkey interact becomes important to following their developing romance.

Indeed, while games have frequently “dressed up” cinematics in ways that make them appear more interactive (by allowing the player to “participate” through single-button mashing real time events or by being able to “unfix” the camera and control how the player views a dialogue or by letting the player move around while characters interact with him), all of these activities would detract from Enslaved‘s story. Much as the player becomes distracted from the horrific details of Necromorph anatomy, being able to jiggle the camera would allow the player to miss significant details and the nuance of a complete performance. It seems to me that at times the camera needs to be fixed to focus the player on the details that matter, a problem that frequently does come up in games in which the player “participates” in moments of direct narrative, assuming that these details do convey information necessary to better follow the plot or understand a game’s themes.

For some performances to work, for some aesthetics to be appreciated, the player does need to shift into the role of spectator, at times. Maybe I should know that I’m playing a game full of copious amounts of monstrous vaginas. Maybe that actually means something or maybe it would mean something to my sense of what Dead Space really concerns itself with if I just had a moment to look.