Gothic Games Part 1 – Clive Barker’s Undying

Posted by Danny Cummins on September 19, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

My aim with this series is to draw attention to some of the best examples of ‘gothic gaming’ produced over the years. Whilst video games have become a universally recognised academic field, there is still a considerable gap between their current circulation and the cultural space held by other forms of media such as books and films. In the first part of what I hope will be an interesting and informative series, I will be examining Clive Barker’s Undying, arguably one of strongest examples of gothic adaptation yet seen in video gaming. Undying was one of the first games to use the first person perspective to connect players’ experience directly to the world of the game, boasting one of the most immersive and atmospheric representations of ‘period horror’ story-telling yet conceived in a video game.

A Bare Bones Review

Publisher: Electronic Arts, Developer: Dreamworks Interactive, Released: 2001, 2002 (Mac), Platforms: PC, Macintosh, PlayStation 2

Taking place in Ireland of 1923, the game sees protagonist Patrick Galloway attempting to help his old wartime friend Jeremiah Covenant reconcile ancient horrors seeded in his childhood. What follows is a journey through classic gothic locations such as a decrepit Victorian mansion, an ancient monastery, a pirate cove and the hidden past of the island itself. In Undying players

House Call: Undying's impressive opening scene hints at darkness yet to unfold.

explore through the eyes of the redoubtable Galloway; both he and the player are invited to open every creaky door in the game’s sprawling gothic mansion and typically of the first person genre, we are not given the luxury of an omniscient, disconnected viewpoint in order to better see what horrors might await us and instead must investigate every half-heard sound and flitting shadow with our vulnerability firmly rooted in Galloway’s feet (and ears and eyes). Undying stays a fresh and exhilarating experience throughout by varying its pace in terms of the trepidation experienced by the player. The mansion, which serves as the lynch-pin for the game in terms of both location and narrative, demands a slower and more careful progression; both to soak up the fantastic digital representation of Victorian Gothic decorum as well as the steady stream of diaries and papers which slowly form a chilling back story culminating just in time for the game’s ultimate revelation. Yet stray too far from the ‘homely’ and you are liable to end up being chased through crypts by a long dead order of monks or through the cyclopean ruins of a burning eldritch city, by things which – even by video game standards – defy conventional description.

Wherein Lies the Gothic

As a video game Undying is perhaps best described as a gothic kaleidoscope; merging and recombining differing elements of the gothic to form a surprisingly rich and cohesive whole. Clive Barker, who headed the writing team, was involved with introducing and combining the literary gothic references, as Lead Designer Dell Siefert describes:

Clive Barker was the first to point out to us that we were crossing genres of Horror. We start with very gothic sensibility (haunted house, family in decline) and transformed it into a more cosmic (Lovecraftian) tale.’ (2004).

These changes of theme within the horror of Undying are also backed up by other creative elements such as the game’s music, which often shifted its mood with exploratory choices made by the player, to the benefit of the game’s atmosphere. Composer Bill Brown praised the rest of the game’s creative whole for allowing his contribution to flourish: ‘The interactivity allowed in

The Haunting: Ghost Aaron is the poster boy for traditional Gothic hauntings in the game.

games creates a new space for musical development over time…The common denominator in my mind is a good story and solid narrative with creativity and vision.’ (2004). Barker also helped to temper the developers’ impulse to create an overly flamboyant leading character for the player; one typical of video games overall but inappropriate for a relatable horror protagonist:

‘Originally our hero’s name was Magnus Wolfram, a stocky barrel-chested man with eccentric clothes and a bald head and tattoos all over his body. We all thought he was cool, but Clive saw Magnus as unapproachable and seemingly superhuman.’ (Dell Siefert, 2004).

What resulted from the literary expertise of Barker as well as the seamlessly bonded visual and interfaced elements from the design team was an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining gothic tour de force.

Moments to Remember

Whilst Undying remained consistently strong in nearly all the elements of its conception and production, it was the afore-mentioned immersion produced by this which stood out as its most striking feature and never was this more significantly represented than in ‘scrying’. By listening for particular cues, such as whispering voices, the player could cast a spell which allowed them to see or hear into the past or ‘truth’ of their current location in the game. Dreamworks Interactive took excellent advantage of their medium’s potential for altering perception to create morphing paintings, ghostly re-enactments of past horrors or just the chilling echoes of dark conversations; notions of the ghost story extrapolated and even built upon, through the interactivity of the video game medium.

Best Left Buried

Perhaps the greatest injustice with regards to Undying’s quality as a piece of gothic horror gaming, was that it went the way of so many critically acclaimed media products; receiving high praise but low sales. Whilst the issues of marketability and video games is one which could well merit an entire book in itself, suffice it to say that Undying lacked the hallmarks of the most popular video games which ultimately prevented it from being a large seller. In a market flooded by ‘war simulation’ shooters such as the always topical Call of Duty series, Undying’s nuanced horror and story-telling struggled to capture gamers on a large

Undying's visuals brought an enthralling beauty to the game's dark proceedings.

scale. Of course this is not to say that the game was without its problems. Certain sections towards the end of the game could drag on to become somewhat laborious and though innovative, certain of the game’s enemies were in danger of becoming over-used and stale towards this point as well. Overall though, these elements were little more than a small blemish on what was otherwise a rich, polished and thoroughly gothic gaming experience.

References

Gamespy Artilcles, Clive Barker’s Undying: The Developer Journals, (2004) [http://archive.gamespy.com/articles/september00/undying/index3.shtm] Accessed September 5, 2011.

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