Horror in Video Games: There's Seeing -- and Then There's Realizing What You're Seeing

My wife is right. The Necromorph known as a Slasher is extremely gross. But even though I played Dead Space for hours, I never noticed it.

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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