Ever Expanding Rather than Moving Forward: The Narrative Experiment of 'The Charnel House'

The Charnel House is a fascinating narrative experiment in video game storytelling, attempting to tell a story not by moving from point A to point B, but by starting at the center of a story and moving outwards.

Mark Danielski's novel House of Leaves is a horror story that begins with one of the novel's protagonists, Will Navidson, discovering that his house is slightly larger on the inside than it is on the outside. This off putting detail, a bending of the laws of the physical universe, signals that which provokes fear, that which we can't know or fully understand. As the novel's story expands, of course, so too does the interior of the house, leading to a seemingly endless labyrinth that is undetectable from the outside of Navidson's home, a space that defies the rules governing architecture and thus what we understand about spatial laws and mathematics.

Of course, the clever thing about the novel is that its title, which alludes only in part to Navidson's house, is also a description of the thing held in its readers' hands. The physical space of a book is defined by an architecture of its own. A book is two walls wrapped around a series of leaves (“leaves” being the term that bibliographers use to describe the front and backside of a page within a book), a house of leaves of a different sort. A book, then, metaphorically parallels Navidson's house. Its interior (since it contains a whole world, its characters, its objects, etc.) is indeed “larger on the inside than it is on the outside.”

After I played Sepulchre last year, a short twenty minute horror game by Owl Creek games, I acknowledged the strangeness of the “architecture” of the game, noting that “travel in and the exploration of the game world in Sepulchre is neither linear, nor multilinear. It is nonlinear. ("Ever Forward on an Unmoving Train: The Horror of Sepulchre", PopMatters, 6 August 2014). While most narratives can be described as linear, beginning at a point in time and moving forward to a final point in time, video games are often described as having multilinear narratives due to the ability of the player to often make choices about how the narrative and their actions in it will play out, leading sometimes to branching pathways through a story. Strangely by adhering to the conventions of the adventure game, which often concerns backtracking through the same environments over and over again, moving forward only to find the need to move backwards again, Sepulchre, instead, seemed to me strangely nonlinear, as the actions taken in the game seem often repetitive, returning to re-explore the same spaces again and again, not moving forward, but remaining in the same spot throughout its tale

This seemed appropriate also to me, though, since Sepulchre is a story about a man on a train, a vehicle that seemingly is moving from one place to another. However, the player discovers that forward progression is an illusion by the game's close, as the main character discovers that the train is really buried in the earth, an unmoving object given the illusion of progress only because its space seems to resemble that which moves one forward.

With the release of The Charnel House Trilogy, the developers at Owl Cave have themselves returned once again to Sepulchre, expanding the plot outwards, rather than forwards, by re-releasing Sepulchre bookended by two other short story games, the first of which is called Inhale and the second of which is called Exhale. Inhale and Exhale sandwich Sepulchre with a frame-tale of sorts about a young woman named Alex who rides the same train featured in Sepulchre on the same night as the events of Sepulchre.

In other words what Owl Cave seems to have done is to have begun a larger story by starting at its center and then working their way, not forward, from the original plot, but outward, from its center.

I can't recall ever running into a narrative structured in this manner before besides a short story written by John Barth entitled the “Menelaiad.” The “Menelaiad” is a story about the Greek hero Menelaus telling a story late one night, following the events of the Trojan War, to his wife Helen of Troy, the woman that was, of course, rescued during the events of that war. As Menelaus recounts his story to Helen, another character in his story begins telling another story of an altogether different nature to another character. Within that story, yet again, another character begins to tell a story to another character. In other words, within Menelaus's original story is another story that contains another story that contains another story and so on. There are six or seven interior layers of storytelling in all, and when the sixth or seventh story is finally reached, the previous story is returned to, so that its narrator can complete the story housing the central story. The next story closes, once again returning the reader to the previous narration and so on until finally after having worked inwards to a central story, the “Menelaiad” finally completes itself as Menelaus completes his own tale, once again, in bed with Helen.

The idea that Barth seems to want to explore is the relationship of events (narratives) to a larger context, the events that contain smaller events (also narratives). Every narrative always begins in some way in the midst of a larger story, since it has to sit within an implied history or narrative of the fictional world. Any given story then is always contained within more stories, a larger universe that itself has a story to tell. This mirrors life itself, of course, as our own personal stories are always contained within an expanding universe of history itself, past and future.

In a sense, this approach to storytelling (or examination of storytelling) seems somewhat similar to what Owl Cave seems to be doing by creating a sequel that doesn't follow the events of the first game, but that contains that story and thus contextualizes it, suggesting a larger mythology and world surrounding the central story. This also seems appropriate given the title of the first game, Sepulchre, an object containing a body that represents a small piece of the past, a human life, and the title of the second game, The Charnel House, a building that might contain a sepulchre, since it is a building that contains the remnants of the dead.

Additionally, this idea maps neatly to the events in the new segments of The Charnel House Trilogy, Inhale and Exhale, since even more so than in the first game, the game's plot concerns a woman confronting pieces of her own past, memories and ghosts, that she returns to while she herself occupies the train featured in the first game in a strangely repetitive, redundant, and nonlinear way. As Alex moves throughout the train, she enters various compartments that hold people from her past, events that have already happened, but that she is also at the same time in the midst of (because those events are moving forward and are being played out by the ghosts that she meets, despite being a part of the past). In essence she explores past, present, and future all in the now

All of which makes for what is at once a very strange story, but also a very familiar one. If we are to acknowledge Barth's thesis that any event retold as a story can always be contained within a larger story (the history of the characters that we talk about that contextualize the events of the central story), then everything about The Charnel House should make sense. If I tell you the story of the time that my brother was bitten on the lip by a box turtle, you understand that my own life story surrounds that brief episode and effects it, that his own life and the things that he has done have some effect on the brief slice of childhood history being retold as well. Stories exist within stories within stories and on and on

The Charnel House concludes by clearly indicating that Owl Creek intends to follow up on Sepulchre and The Charnel House with yet another story about the universe that these games take place in. The “unmoving train” of the first game has managed to arrive at a destination after new life is given to the game's characters in the (again) appropriately titled Inhale and Exhale. I can only hope that this sequel might once again not be arrived at in a linear fashion, but instead explore storytelling from its center.

In other words, I hope that the story expands, rather than moves forward. I hope that the new game might once again be a couple of bookends that contain the slightly smaller stories of Inhale and Exhale and then, within them, the even smaller center, Sepulchre, allowing us, as The Charnel House allows us to do, to reconsider what we have already seen in the new light of the larger context of the game's world. However, Owl Cave may decide to do something unexpected and do something entirely new with the narrative, forcing me to reconsider what narrative structure might mean in these game once again.

I do have to say that, one way or the other, though, I am enjoying this experiment in what seems like a novel approach to building a story, rather than doing so from left to right, by telling their tale of horror from its center and moving ever outwards.

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