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What gifts have videogames given you? This was a tricky question to answer, as the first that came to mind were Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, and Legend of Dragoon. Although these are a great few games, I couldn’t think of much to say. So then I thought on a deeper level; what are my most memorable games? They are probably memorable because they did something important to me. So here we go; Bioshock and Ōkami.
Bioshock, which, as most of my friends know, is my favourite game. Bioshock gifted me with two things; an appreciation of the use of 1960’s aesthetics to produce an eerie and haunting atmosphere, and an (admittedly limited) insight into Objectivism; showing how a game can be subtley educational (even unintentionally), and promote a deeper understanding of not only the gameworld, but our own.
Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is the philosophy of rational individualism. Rand challenged the idea that one’s purpose in life is to live for others, and emphasised individual rights (The Philosophy Book, p. 337). In Rapture, Andrew Ryan takes Rand’s ideals to an extreme level. At the entrance to the city, a giant bust of Andrew Ryan proclaims ‘No Gods or Kings. Only Man’, and a welcome video explains that unlike the United States, Catholicism, and the Soviet Union, Rapture allows all inhabitants to reap and keep the rewards of their hard work. Ryan proclaims that ‘the artist would not fear the censor’ ‘the scientist would not be bound by petty morality’, and ‘the great would not be constrained by the small’, reflecting (in a darker sense), Rand’s view that those who ‘build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas’ are the heroes of Objectivism (What is Objectivism?).
However, with Ryan’s extreme reading of Objectivism and increasing paranoia, Bioshock shows how a society can totally crumble with the rejection of altruism and promotion of the ego (admittedly, with the help of gene-modifying drugs). Writer of Bioshock Ken Levine is not heavily critical of Objectivism; in fact, he finds some aspects of it appealing, and finds himself becoming more of an Objectivist. Bioshock shows how a lust for power, driven by greed, can shatter ideals. The contrast between the obviously once-beautiful and rich city and the horrors within forced me to rethink the whole ‘idea of having ideals’.
Bioshock, along with gifting me with ideas on Objectivism, ideals and Capitalism, showed me the beauty in horror. The faint sound of ocean water slowly leaking into the room, the reflection of a broken sign glowing in the pool. The tune of La Mer… I stand by this game as a display of beautiful, haunting 1960 aesthetics. Bioshock gifted me with the knowledge that beautiful things, grand ideals can easily fall to reality.
Ōkami is a beautiful, somewhat quirky game set in a fantasy version of classical Japan, and has gifted me with an interest in culture; an appreciation for Japanese watercolour and music, and mythology. Ōkami offers an understanding of classical Japanese history, through a captivating tale of good vs evil. As Amaterasu, the Shinto sun Goddess in the form of a wolf, you embark on a journey to heal the world and defeat the evil eight-headed dragon, Yamata no Orochi. Using the celestial paintbrush to defeat evil and traverse the environment, Amaterasu travels from Eastern to Western Nippon, and all the way up to The Northern Lands, based on Hokkaido.. By the time I was in the middle of the game, I was studying Japanese. I remember feeling so proud when I figured out the play on words; – ‘okami’ means ‘wolf’, ‘kami’ means ‘God’, and placing ‘o’ in front of it makes it an honorific. So, Ōkami has a dual meaning of ‘wolf’ and ‘great god’.
Like Bioshock, aesthetics are a big factor here; the game is designed to look like a sumi-e painting, and the music is strongly influenced by traditional Japanese instruments. Ōkami gifted me with an appreciation for the beautiful soundtrack and traditional Japanese music, a renewed interest in watercolour painting, and a mode through which to improve my Japanese language and learn about Shinto mythology. Aside from presenting a beautiful art style and grand, dramatic music, the game fosters a connection with these art forms. Amaterasu paints symbols to use her god powers, transforming a sick-looking tree to a healthy, colourful one, brimming with sakura blossoms. Ōkami shows that realistic graphics aren’t necessarily the be all and end all; rich, vibrant, interactive design makes this game what it is. I can write however much I want about how beautiful the art is in this game, but it’s really something that needs to be experienced. Atsuchi Inaba, creator of Ōkami, claimed he developed the mechanic to match the beauty of the gameworld, and support the concept of a god who is controlling and healing the world (Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine 108). Beauty is key.
For some reason that I still can’t discern, I found myself becoming very emotional during the final credits theme 'Reset'; the theme of repetition of history had me teary at the line 変わらない想いがあるのならば, いつか桜の下で, or ‘If my feelings don't change, I'll see you someday, beneath the cherry trees’. The whole soundtrack is a masterpiece, containing pieces influenced by traditional court music, ‘dynamic and percussive’ pieces, as well as those similar to traditional folk songs (vgmonline). My favourites include ‘Tokyo Game Show 2002 Promotion’, ‘Ushiwaka’s Dance ~ Playing with Ushiwaka’, and 'Twin Devils Moshirechik and Kotanchik’s Extermination’. Ōkami gifted me with an appreciation and enthusiasm for Japanese history, art, culture, music, and language; it’s a must-play for anyone with similar tastes or who simply feels the urge to play something beautiful.
It was surprisingly difficult to choose a top horror game, or horror moment. The first that came to mind was ‘of course, Fatal Frame!’. The game is generally very eerie; the ambience is effective; of a breeze drifting through the wooden, creaking abandoned manor would set me on edge every time I played. But I couldn’t think of one specific moment that really stood out. I haven’t played enough of Outlast to choose a certain incident, and I’ve already written about Anna. Suddenly I realised…Slender. Of course, the one game I played with my friend, where we recorded ourselves screaming.
Slender: The Eight Pages is a freely available 2012 first-person survival horror PC game by Parsec Productions. In the middle of the night (and in first person mode), the player has to collect eight pages scattered around a forest, while avoiding Slender Man, a tall, skinny, suited man who kidnaps children. You have a torch with limited battery, and can jog, with limited energy.
The eight pages can be found in ten locations. Once the first page is sound, a stomping sound plays, signalling that Slender is now chasing the player. Slender becomes faster as more pages are found, heralded by this noise throughout the game. Other sounds play when pages are found – a low droning on pages three and four, a loud wind on five and six, and a beeping at page seven. When all are found, there is only silence. (This is taken from Wikipedia because I was so traumatised during the game that I just got more freaked out with every sound, regardless of what it was. Including my chair squeaking). The game ends if you take too long to find a page, you look at Slender for too long, or you come into contact with him. When that happens, his face appears on the screen and static overtakes you. Oh, and while you are avoiding all of this happening, as you collect pages Slender speeds up, gets closer to you, and the fog in the forest gets worse.
What’s really fascinating about this game is the culture that surrounds it. Originally a meme on the Something Awful Forums, it has grown into a multifaceted culture icon- a history has been established, there is a myriad of Youtube series, creepypasta, short films, and books. There's a whole wiki dedicated to the Slender mythos, and a sequel game; Slender: The Arrival, by Blue Isle Studios, and an inspired game called Haunted Memories by ParanormalDev. What is it about this faceless, tall, skinny, suited man that makes him so creepy? Take a look at him. He is out of proportion, and faceless. He is uncanny.
What is uncanny? Tinwell et al, in their paper The Uncanny Wall, examined the origins of ‘uncanny’ and what it means. Uncanny tends to be related to life and death– in 1906, Jentsch claimed it was the result of being unable to tell if something was alive or dead, or animate or inanimate. In 1919, Freud’s doppelganger is similar, as a replica of a human, and implies the inevitability of one’s death (Tinwell 2012, p. 5). Lastly, ‘uncanny’ has been a contentious topic in robotics – in 1970, Mori found that as robots appear to be more human-like, it is familiar, but too much familiarity is eerie, and has a negative effect. After a certain point, the robot is viewed as more strange and eerie than familiar; hence, uncanny valley (Tinwell 2012, p. 6). Slender’s lack of a face means we can’t tell if he is alive or dead, let alone what his intentions are – there is no emotion, no body language, significantly contributing to his uncanniness. He is human-like, but not really human. Kang claims that the uncanny also depends upon a perceived threat; the presence of the uncanny ‘threatens our understanding of the world and the human species, a disruption of our worldview’ (Tinwell 2012, p. 7).
Unfortunately, knowing why I’m creeped out by Slender doesn’t make the game less scary. Take a look at some of the page locations, keeping in mind: you can’t look behind you.
The worst was the rusted tankers. My friend was playing, and I know I saw Slender’s legs poking out from under one of the tanks. My friend didn’t see him though, so we ended up with me screaming incoherently while she ran right at him. Most of the locations force you to move around objects to find the page- a tanker, tree, cross-shaped walls, bathroom complex, silo. Which means that you need to figure out how to approach the object – slow, so Slender is still behind you, but catching up? Or fast, to outrun him but with the risk of him appearing in front of you? Such simple options produce ‘an intense sense of pressure based on overwhelming odds’ (Habel & Kooyman 2014, p. 1).
Other top moments include slowly easing around a tree only to come face-to-face with Slender, screaming, and whirling around to only have him appear even closer. Jumping out of our skins when the moon, or a white shine in the distance looks like his faceless head. For its simplicity and tight budget, the game is very effective. If you haven’t played it, I definitely recommend having a go – it’s free, and for such a low-budget game, impressively scary. The experience has lasted with me...and will haunt me as I play The Arrival.
‘As a culture we believe in letting nothing go to waste. When we are forced to slay a creature we take what we can to make sure its sacrifice was not in vain. If you wish to learn the proper way to take the skin of a slain beast, then seek out Eladriel in the Craftsmen’s Terrace.’ – Darnassus Sentinel