Gothicising the Game: A (very) Brief Introduction

Posted by stephencurtis on March 20, 2013 in Stephen Curtis tagged with ,

I’ve long been a proud gamer. Ever since the 1980s and my family’s first computer, an Amstrad CPC 464 with a green screen monitor, I’ve spent a lot of time growing up (or not) through gaming. Along the way, I’ve somehow also managed to get a doctorate in early modern drama and critical theory but despite that distraction I have also continued my dedication to the videogame. In part owing to the technical applications of Moore’s law (loosely defined as the idea that computer processors will double in complexity every two years) the transformation from the games that defined my initial experiences into the multi-million pound blockbusters that dominate the market today has been astonishing. However, perhaps because games are still often considered to be for children, or perhaps because gaming is still a relatively new cultural form without the history of film or television, there is still a reluctance to consider videogames as the subject of detailed critical investigation. The series of guest blogs that I will be posting between now and the end of the month are not intended to change that in and of themselves but instead will hopefully begin to ask questions about some particularly Gothic aspects of videogaming.

This initial post will consider what connections there are between Gothic and gaming – both in terms of themes and social responses. Following on from here I will post more specific discussions of areas of interest to me: the role of dismemberment in gaming as read through the burgeoning  area of disability theory, and finally the relationship between game, movie and advertising phenomenon in the Saw franchise. These discussions share a morbid fascination with the injured body that characterises my academic work in general and one that is also in keeping with much of the focus of contemporary Gothic study.

As I mentioned above, gaming is a relatively new cultural vehicle. I use the term ‘cultural vehicle’ deliberately to avoid the tangential debates about whether videogames can be considered art, and also as a means to investigate the constructed nature of these ‘texts’ without becoming embroiled in the metacritic.com issues of whether a game is good or not. For me, gaming reviewing has always been peculiarly obsessed with a quantitative analysis of a game’s merits, generally represented by a numerical score. Whilst this is also true to a certain extent of film, the subjective experience of watching a film has tended to ensure that the score is not necessarily the defining element of a review. With games, although this subjective aspect is present, the bulk of critical attention seems to be directed towards the objective or technical aspects of an individual game; the focus on graphics as technology develops is perhaps the clearest example of this. My interests do not lie in whether a game is good or not (as will become apparent through the games I will discuss in subsequent posts) but in the effect it has on the player, or the tropes and themes with which it is constructed. This combination of player response and, for want of a better description, formalist criticism seems to me to enable games to be considered as texts but also to ensure that the uniquely interactive aspects of gaming are not forgotten. Ironically, however, just as gaming is becoming increasingly the focus of critical investigation, the budgets allocated to blockbuster games sees them moving towards a streamlined, less interactive and more cinematic experience.  This can perhaps be best illustrated through the responses to Crystal Dynamic’s recent reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, about which I will say more in the next post.

It is telling, given the marginalised nature of gaming criticism (although, hopefully this is changing), that the recent collection of essays, Twenty-First-Century Gothic (ed. by Brigid Cherry, Peter Howell and Caroline Ruddell, 2010) does not feature an essay that focuses on gaming and the Gothic. A good introduction to the subject can, however, be found in Isabella van Elferen’s essential Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny (2012). I would, understandably, take issue with the opening sentence that ‘computer games have arguable Gothic potential,’ but that such a statement is needed says much about the status of this nascent field. The evidence of van Elferen’s chapter illustrates that the Gothic potential of gaming in general, as well as individual games, is beyond argument.

The gaming industry itself seems to have realised this Gothic potential in recent years. There has always been an important genre of horror based games, dating back to 8 bit examples such as Chiller and Ghost Hunters, through Splatterhouse and Zombies Ate My Neighbours, and then to the likes of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, the latter being perhaps the most frequently cited and studied games in discussions of the Gothic potential of videogames. Perhaps the most interesting recent development, however, is the uncannily Gothic bleeding of horror tropes into other mainstream genres. The huge success of the Call of Duty series owes some debt to the popularity of its zombie deathmatch modes, whilst gaming giants Rockstar saw fit to zombify their critically acclaimed cowboy adventure, Red Dead Redemption, for its expansion, Undead Nightmare. Gothic, in gaming as in so many other areas of culture, sells. The decidedly dark tone of the new Tomb Raider also illustrates this, with many of the promotional images of Lara Croft looking more like stills from Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) than the infamously pneumatic icon of the Playstation One era:

There is a paradox of sorts that as games are moving towards an increasingly cinematic, gritty and ‘mature’ approach to storytelling, they are also seemingly relying more on Gothic tropes to enable this. The interplay between reality and fantasy creates the fascinating gameworlds within which us gamers escape from the drudgery of our daily grind, in much the same way as readers have turned to the Gothic novel for centuries in order to access an alternative to the banal and everyday. The anxieties that accompany media discussions of the possible effects of gaming are also an appropriately Gothic return of the fears expressed about the dangerous results of reading Gothic romances, or of viewing the so-called video nasties of the 1980s. Games, however, do work in a different way to these historical antecedents, and it is the way in which games interact with Gothic tropes that will be the focus of my two discussions.

So, in my next post I will be looking at games that feature dismemberment as a key aspect of gameplay. This falls into two main groups – those that feature the dismemberment of opponents and those that feature dismemberment of some kind to the gamer’s avatar. The former will provide some historical context to the debates around dismemberment in gaming, but it is the latter which fascinates me at the moment, particularly as I interrogate this trope through the relatively recent turn towards disability theory. So, until that post, I’ll leave you with that well-known childhood rhyme:

‘Remember, remember, the games that dismember, NeverDead, DeadSpace and Stubbs.’

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