In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
In my final year of university in 2006, I had the dubious honour of having to write a ten thousand word dissertation on a subject of my choice. Naturally, being a film student who was actually quite bored of writing about films, I decided to look at the way interactive media was emulating cinema. I used my favourite genre, survival horror, as my best example since it best merged cinematic storytelling with your basic gaming mechanics. I have to admit, the more I wrote on the subject, the less I became enamoured and supportive of developers who pushed the medium into ‘mature’ realms. The idea of games emulating movies became a moot point as the evidence of developers’ limitations became more apparent (they are after all ‘developers’ and not ‘film makers’). That said, as I looked at the way the Eastern view of Western horror became more than a perspective and eventually an assimilation, I found that videogames could essentially create new visual sub-genres that pave the way for serious interpretations and media acceptance.
Anyway, these are excerpts from that paper that I’ve had trouble getting published over the years because I’m not exactly high in academic pecking order. If you need to know where the quotes are from, I’ll let you know through PM and only if I know you well enough. Sorry, but I’d like to avoid plagiarism for both sides (I don’t want anybody to steal from me and I don’t want to see people get caught for something they could easily theorise on their own...which is what happened to at least five classmates originally...naughty).
This opening chapter might seem dull (hell, it probably is) but it lays the groundwork for the next part and the case study later on. So enjoy (if you have the time!), the next part is either tomorrow or Wednesday.
Chapter 1: The Eastern/Western Horror Assimilation (Survival Horror Foundations)
At the Game Developer’s Conference last week, Akira Yamaoka gave a presentation about how the atmosphere in the Silent Hill series was constructed...Yamaoka called Silent Hill “American Horror through Japanese eyes,” and explained that he had set out to make a Japanese-style American horror game.” (4)
Survival Horror is one of the few videogame genres that focuses heavily on character, location, mis-en-scene, plot development and other associated cinematic traits. Below is simplified list of comparisons used by Yamaoka in his lecture. (Editorial note: originally, the two lists were side by side, but I can’t make that happen in the blogs)
From this small example, we can see that the views on horror are nearly polar opposites. Though, as always, there can be exceptions to the rule when needed. While American horror tends to play on physical presence, be it physical or ‘body horror’, Japanese (or J-Horror) tends to focus on unseen, spiritual, menace. But, obvious tropes generated by the recent J-Horror exposure aside, the difference between the two run much deeper; involving tradition and history.
He (Tudor) finds psychoanalytic accounts to be ‘inordinately reductive’ in as much as they presuppose the credibility of a particular outlook to which the widest possible range of cultural phenomena are to be subordinated. (5)
With Western horror, there is a tendency to explain everything within the plot structure. With that approach, the genre loses its mystery and confusion; both being primary generators of terror. We, the viewer, become less terrified through the awareness of facts. If used effectively, the lack of information steers us away from anti-climaxes and tension release associated with the final reel of horror films. The recent Western horror remakes are a prime example of this inherent fault, e.g. the remake of Ringu (1998). This however is not a direct criticism, since the remake purposefully reunites an estranged couple who are bonded by horrific events. As it stands, the ideology of family in US horror is a symbol of strength against an outside force (which is the opposite of the original film’s social commentary on broken families under stress).
But while Western horror does optimistically give the viewer an abundance of information, it also offers analytical viewpoints. Its main concern is with the physical, relentless presence and the objective to antagonise the vulnerable. They’re either discoveries of the unknown that seek to destroy us (e.g. HP Lovecraft’s dormant Old Ones) because we’re minor obstacles in the way of their ultimate goals or because, like Frankenstein’s monster, they’re shunned by a society that created them. Either way, the threat is physical and within our realist realm. The presence’s antagonism can be seen as a destructive goal for our ‘human’ protagonists. Unlike J-Horror, the West treats these threats as unknown variables that need to be examined, compartmentalised and eventually conquered.
The unstoppable, physical, presence with simple or no motive for its destructive actions will always primarily attempt to strike fear into the viewer. The idea that we cannot delay the inevitable is a frightening prospect, but Western horror tends to revel in the gore when it comes to terrifying the audience. It can be theorised that a sort of residual formula leftover from the early Eighties’ extremes of ‘video nasties’ and their subtext commentary on social issues at the time.
Neale argues that the fascination with the cinematic image itself derives from its play and absence – we know that the events and figures we see on screen are not really there, yet we believe we grasp them as though in some way they were more than real life. (6)
While the resultant death is baptised in gory effects, we as an audience know we’re safe; our conscious mind telling us that it’s not and what we see is a projection. Western horror deaths are always imaginative spectacles and rarely realistic. It can be seen as the unrestrained release of psychological tension. The victim is violently ‘penetrated’ and yet we feel real sympathy through repeated desensitisation of previous imagery. Ultimately, we know that tension has to rebuild momentum after an attack; it’s an idea that’s usually discarded when developers approach horror in their games.
As a brief side note, there’s also an actual invasion of the body when death occurs. The vulnerable barrier between normality and foreign is violently broken. Therefore, Western horror (especially when combined with early Martian/Communist sci-fi comparisons) can be seen not just as the penetration of the male body, but also the need to dominate foreign threats before ‘they’ can forcefully infiltrate inner sanctity.
Prominent features associated with the woman as an ’avenging spirit’ include long black hair and wide staring eyes (or in some instances, just a single eye), as long black hair is symbolic of feminine beauty and sensuality, and the image of the gazing female eye (or eyes) is frequently associated with vaginal imagery. (7)
The most easily recognisable and prominent icon of Eastern horror is the vengeful female spirit with her features masked by her long hair. Made popular by the film adaptation of Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge (2000), the idea of the vengeful spirit dates further back to Noh and Kabuki theatre. The face concealed by hair was itself a type of mask often employed by an actor to show a change from a human female to a kaidan (vengeful spirit). Even from this early display of theatrics, Eastern horror starts to separate and differ from the West; grounding itself in myth and tradition, only to eventually run a parallel discourse on modern society.
While spirits are shown on-screen, they’re rarely an actual physical threat in the same manner as other movie creatures. The spirit of Sadako (from Ringu) kills by inflicting absolute terror on her victims rather than physically harm them. She’s the ethereal bounded by projectionist technology, hence her ability to crossover and yet inability to inflict real pain, e.g. the climatic death scene.
The vengeful spirit is female; a male castrator similar to the femme fatale of film noir. Usually, there’s a transformation or onnen (a grudge through violent means) that’s triggered by betrayal. This stems from a man’s weakness through the fear of female sexuality and the un-tapped dominance women gain from such vulnerability (despite the assumption of patriarchal control).
Images of out-of-control madness, bloodshed and mass destruction are often connected quite blatantly by Japanese horror with corporate capitalism’s assault on the very institutions and values its superstructure holds dear; the home, the family, the community, the sanctity of individual life. While there is nothing especially ironic about the phenomenon, Japanese horror cinema’s graphic portrayal of patriarchal capitalism’s rampage is especially compelling within society that has held sacred some positive, now rather residual, traditions. (8)
While Western horror tends to comment on effecting world views, Eastern horror frequently turns its perspective on its own domesticity and it has become increasingly strained under post-war, capitalist advancement. What was originally a traditionalist nation, Japan now focuses on the ideals of economic and technological advancement, abandoning the unity of pre-war Imperialism in favour of modernism and disposability. This swift change of direction from an important event affects society as a whole, with an eventual chain-reaction from government to domestic life.
Eastern horror, most specifically the Japanese element, takes the Kabuki theatre iconography of vengeful castrators and places them, as representations of females, in the domestic arena. Again, Ringu is strong example of vengeance spreading out in society because of the failure of destroying the original perpetrator – a man.
If the object of revenge does not, properly speaking, deserve to be punished, is it even appropriate to use the term ‘revenge’ in the first place? What exactly is the sense of social justice that is being reinstated...? (9)
Kaiden represent the female victim’s vain attempts to strike out at the increasing number of threatened patriarchs. Their seemingly random take on ‘policing’ can also be seen as the justice system’s futility in detecting what is essentially a criminal without obvious stereotyping. Characters that are in law enforcement are never seen as authority figures; their profession is always inconsequential to the story, and so it is left to the dominant antagonist spirit to enforce the rules (hence why its appearance is more representative as a whole system rather than the supporting investigative cast).
Capitalist advancement and post-industrialism in the Eastern horror’s perspective is the real terror to society; the disposing of the old ways in favour of the efficient modern future. Breakthroughs in modern technology are made at the cost of identity, e.g. franchise over independence. Japan has lost some of its original identity of rural orientated agriculture and replaced them with expanding world markets. So it redeems itself, financially, by creating a consumption-obsessed society whose ties with tradition are eroding. The kaiden is considered terrifying because the city dwelling protagonists involved are brought up with a lack of traditional folklore knowledge. Their lack of information is what eventually primes them (and the audience) for horror.
While Eastern and Western horror tropes are fundamentally separate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they do not share the usual genre iconography when required, e.g. body horror, physical manifestations, etc. Horror is universal; it’s there to give us a primal shot of adrenaline that’s eradicated from modern society, to make you question the unknown and to ultimately tell a distorted parable. Videogames are learning to be more like cinematic stories too, amidst the restrictive insistence to create disposable titles. Their interactivity, by use of control pads, is merely an extension that, once mastered, can allow the participant to freely interpret the text in own way.
Survival Horror was a term first coined in the Japanese game, Resident Evil (1996) . Derived from a bad English translation of introductory text (“You have entered the world of survival horror...”), game journalists used the term to describe videogames latest genre. Though it can be argued that Alone in the Dark (1994) was an earlier innovator, the Playstation was a commercial phenomenon and so Resident Evil reached a wider audience. More so than most games, survival horror titles rely on realism as a foundation. While the stories themselves may be fantastical, the idea of near invulnerability is dropped in favour of creating tension associated with cinematic horror.
The survival horror template defined by Resident Evil relies on keeping the player on a knife-edge between success and failure. It communicates vulnerability by limiting your ammunition and rationing your health – refusing you buffers that most games let you build up... As an approach, it’s strengthened by the way it contradicts everything gaming has taught you: games are the place where you are strong, where you are the hero. (10)
Action games are no different to the cinematic action blockbuster. Both have near-invulnerable characters, inevitable explosive set-pieces and, plots designed to link large scale set-pieces. In videogames, a quick plot exposition draws you in; a piece of escapism fantasy where you are the lead hero. Survival Horror is successful because it’s the opposite; ultimately, you’re not doing anything heroic. Your main goal is self preservation; while you’re in control of your avatar’s actions, you’re never in control of the predicament. For example, SOS: The Final Escape (2003) places you in an earthquake aftermath with a companion who, depending on your actions, might live or die. You can be a personal hero, but you can’t change the overall situation.
Survival Horror doesn’t have to be about fantasy horror; it can be solely realist too. But what makes this genre different to others in the medium is that the stories assimilate Western and Eastern cultures. The eye is clearly Japanese, yet its perspective is fixed on American culture. Videogame genres have the ability to look at new ground and survival horror has shown, accidentally or purposefully, that cinematic horror can be refreshed and reappraised without simulacrum.
It is usually Japanese developers that create survival horror titles, yet with location and character, the B-movie inspired stories are set in American towns and cities, e.g. Silent Hill’s eponymous resort town, Resident Evil’s Raccoon City, etc. The post-industrial landscape of Raccoon City is the setting for a viral outbreak which was, not ironically, genetically engineered by an American branch of a pharmaceutical company. The town of Silent Hill is a forgotten, run down, lakeside tourist resort. The background story reveals that its misfortune is the result of the older residents’s refusal to modernise with the help of capitalist investors. The recurring theme of Western towns collapsing under uncontrollable advancement is from a Japanese perspective. Again, like cinematic J-Horror, it sees America as an instigator of capitalist advancement, with its quick growth breaking down social infrastructures.
There are exceptions when the location is reversed however. Forbidden Siren (2003) is set in Japan, but more specifically it’s set in a traditional fishing village that was lost after an earthquake. The traditional aspects no longer fit in the with the modern protagonist’s views; only characters willing to embrace and learn the old culture survive their ordeal. The Shibito are physical, unstoppable presences but carry a Japanese heritage. So here we have an example of how culture assimilation works both ways; Western monsters with Eastern backgrounds and for other games in the genre, vice versa (be it by accident or necessity).
Leon navigates the capitalist nightmare of Raccoon City
The Shibito villagers use the agricultural tools of the trade to kill the trapped survivors
While cinematic horror can tell such a story without much antagonism on display, videogames need to have such obstacles due to their deepened interactivity. For example, Silent Hill 2’s central plot revolves around James Sunderland’s solitary search for his supposedly dead wife, Mary, in Silent Hill and his involvement with a physical kaiden named Maria. As an interactive story, the player needs to be constantly involved and challenged since wandering around an empty town would be deemed laborious. Therefore creatures are added to the scenario. Their physical presences, especially the invincible Red Pyramid Heads, are there to induce fear to the spectators, cause bodily harm to James and thus punishing both simultaneously.
James fends off the Red Pyramid Head’s advances. This sequence however, the player is actively participating rather than passively watching a cutscene.
Creatures are a necessity in survival horror; it is what creates the gaming aspect. They’re the challengers of survival and progress. Again, we know that they’re not real, but because we increase our input into the protagonists and imprint our personalities to a certain degree, we have a greater need to keep see them stay alive. Technically, we also keep them alive for our own personal progress; a game’s underlining objective is for us, the player, to complete it. So the theory of assimilating physical monsters with a traditional storyline may have been created indirectly, but this doesn’t mean it’s an avenue that is passed over during examination.
As mentioned in the Western horror section of this chapter, we sometimes care little for characters being killed off as we have a selection of protagonists (including the final girl), to carry the story on from their perspective. With survival horror, as well as FPS games, the narrative structure relies on just one character – the player’s avatar. Without the protagonist, the game ceases to move forward, hence “Game Over”. In any of the Silent Hill games, the story is solely from the protagonist’s perspective; the NPC’s actions are rarely seen outside the player’s restrictive viewpoint. One of the few exceptions that follow cinematic rule is Forbidden Siren, where the shattered timeline narrative shifts between eight major perspectives.
Our connection with the protagonists/avatars is built up quicker than in film due to our intensive gaze over a longer period of screen time. Of course, we need this character to progress the story, but without proper investment, we can lose interest. Without the right development, we find ourselves taking up the same view of what this paper is arguing against. When it’s done correctly, as we’ll see in the later case study, games can create memorable adult characters that transcend the cartoon forms of Sonic The Hedgehog, Kirby, Dizzy, Mario and Luigi, etc.