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Column: 'A Journalistic Bent: The Uncanny'

In his latest 'A Journalistic Bent' column, veteran UK writer Jim Rossignol discusses his feelings about the themes of video games and their potential to create disturbing
'A Journalistic Bent' is a regular column in which our roving reporter takes a hard look at all the issues of gaming, games development, and the games themselves. This week's column looks at weirdness and The Uncanny. Unbending Reality This week’s column contains a series of thoughts that were inspired by a couple of gameplay videos that I’ve enjoyed this month. The first is the video that has been released as a trailer for Valve’s latest puzzle-action project, Portal. The linked-teleport portal idea (found in nascent form in Narbacular Drop) is a particularly provocative one. It immediately messes with our understanding of space and the relationship between objects. This idea is unusual in a way that few games have had the technology or the imaginative ambition to be. It is probably, as Valve’s Doug Lombardi pointed out, far more important a development than the Source physics, because it is such a new and challenging idea. (What is also interesting was just how funny the Portal trailer was. Valve have always had the vaguest undertone of comedy in their work, but now that tendency for the odd wry joke one seems to be coming to the fore.) It has struck me over the last few years how often games fail to trick and disturb us. Few games deliberately set out to play with the parameters of how we understand reality. Given their capacity to invade all our senses it seems remarkable that games aim to be as solid and ‘real’ as they possibly can. Things in games are usually what they seem to be and game events will usually follow physical processes quite close to those we’re familiar with. Despite their potential cartoonishness, games are almost too consistent. For most of my experience of gaming those walls are really there, those people are really saying what they mean, and so on. There are a few occasions where my observations fall down – the locked door syndrome in first-person shooters, for example. When is a door not a door? When it is not part of the level design… But these are usually unintended absurdities. For a medium that has such a penchant for alternate realities, games are all too quick to avoid unreality. Games have the capacity to be strangest things we encounter in our everyday lives, and yet they seem all too keen to fit in, to be comprehensible, to be normal. Inside In As I began to articulate the ideas I’m talking about here, I tried to list the games that have played with reality in a significant way. The list begins with a deathmatch level from the game Forsaken, something I seriously considered I might have imagined. The level was something like a Klein Bottle, with its interior linking up, impossibly, with its exterior. Was it even feasible, or had I drunk one too many glasses of Absinthe in the student bar? Only later, after playing Narbacular Drop, did I realise that that it wasn’t just possible, but actually fairly easy to do. How many other games were able to play with reality like this? Most recently Prey managed to mix up reality with its wild level design, but there are nevertheless very few games which manage to deliver the vertiginous feeling of looking at an Escher drawing. (Psychonauts is one candidate, particularly with the looping scalar design of the Napoleon level in which the larger room can be spied inside the lowest level of the strategy in a kind of infinite loop, or the Milkman level whose paranoid themes warp the architecture and NPCs alike.) The potential for grand vistas of weirdness within games are obvious, but technology is nevertheless subject to tight constraints, usually so that we dumb humans can cope with it. But it is not always so truncated – Hellgate London’s promise of randomly generated levels made me think of a JG Ballard short story in which a group of galactic surveyors found themselves aboard an endless space station. Although it’s not likely to be explicitly described as such, Hellgate players are going to find themselves exploring an infinite London. These kind of ideas usually remain undeveloped within games, which is a trend that I find disappointing. It would be enormously exciting if, instead of films, games regarded dreams as their natural competitors. Trying to outdo a flying dream or other absurdist hypnagogic reveries seems to me to be an admirable ideal. But perhaps games need not do anything so bold. Perhaps their real strength could lie in far subtler shades of experience. The Uncanny Watching the recent Bioshock gameplay movie over on IGN made me think two things. The first was, “why does Ken Levine have reverb on his voiceover?” And the second was, “when was the last time I heard 1940s gramophone music in a game?” The answer to the first question, I suppose, was to make him sound a bit more dramatic in the horror-gloom of the Bioshock setting. The answer to the second question is, I think, ‘in a World War II game’. Perhaps it was Hidden & Dangerous 2. It was certainly in the first Hidden & Dangerous because I recall being charmed by a kind of ambient music I’d not previously heard in a game. Of course these days a World War II game is exactly where you’d expect to hear scratchy old 1940s records, so the effect of hearing those warbling notes echo through the Art Deco-versus-Doom corridors of BioShock really plucked a nerve. The soundscape was out of the ordinary and as a result it was oddly unsettling – an unfamiliar connection of ideas had provoked something in my consciousness that other, more familiar ideas could not. These kinds of minor thematic surprises often deliver something that is otherwise missing from games, which is a sense of the uncanny. It’s a sense that something is not right, a sense that our concepts about normality have been upset and that we should be uneasy about what is visible to the naked intellect. It’s a quality that certain films, books and comics seemed, until recently, to have a monopoly upon. This is, of course, a very difficult thing to pull off, and not a challenge to be taken lightly. Silhouette Cool Last week I was playing Auto Assault and reading Antony Johnson’s Wasteland. There’s a sense of threat and eeriness in Johnson’s post-apocalyptic story that is entirely missing from NetDevil’s MMO-carnage. Of course you might think that these two pieces of work are poles apart, but I couldn’t help wonder what Auto Assault might have been like if its art-direction had been entirely different. Instead of brash cyborgs and primary-colour mutants, what it had been framed with silhouette cool of Christopher Mitten’s art, and the stylised, literate focus of Johnson’s writing? I think these kinds of points are particularly valid when contrasting video games with comics because comics are a medium that is leaving behind the kind of ethos that video games currently seem to inhabit. For all our post-Aliens space marine grit, we’re still in the bold-hero Golden Age of our tales. We’re currently in the age of the superheroes and the classic story arcs. We’re going to have to re-learn how to be weird, just as comic authors have done in recent years with the work of authors such as Grant Morrisson and Alan Moore. What Portal and Bioshock demonstrate is that only small remixes of our expectations are required to create something challengingly new. Games do not need a revolution of art or technology to create strange new worlds; they, like comics, simply need to be aware of the palette that is available to them. [Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]

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