This is a paper that people some people hated at the time; it’s certainly very different to how I write and think now. Style over substance here; sentences drift off into nothing, points picked up and lost, an old-school art history education brainburp. Any feedback could begin with “rewrite this and keep only x”. But, in lieu of knowing where to go with this, enjoy.
Game corpses offer a new category of the dead that is not contingent on their unreality or unlife but on their apprehension, palpability and proximity. As a result, a ‘teratology’ of game bodies, that is to say, a study of their monstrosity and abnormality, can be a kind of knowledge.
China Miéville’s essay in an issue of Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, called “M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire: Weird; Hauntological; Versus and/or and and/or or?” to which I want to return to in the course of this discussion, has a potent phrase: “Teratological specificity demands attention.” The context of this quote is a defence of Miéville’s interest against what he sees as Terry Eagleton’s “cavalier hand-waving” when he in turn dismisses the “rash of books about vampires, werewolves, zombies and assorted mutants, as though a whole culture had fallen in love with the undead.” This Eagleton quote, used by Miéville to open the discourse of his essay as I will in turn, is interesting for several reasons. First and most startling, is that a whole culture, and indeed most cultures, have always been in love with both the dead and the undead. Second, is that two of the four monsters he lists are not undead at all – mutants and werewolves are shifts in the state of life, viral and vectoral anomalies.
What does bind the four categories, however, is their virtuality. Only in their proximity and actuality do we make sense of the vampiric, lychanthropic, zombified and mutagenic. Even the mutagenic, which crosses category borders by assembling diversely real and unreal figures, demands a continuous folding over of attention to make sense of itself.
So if ‘teratological specificity demands attention’, each of the categories of the undead form a limit case for internalised categories of being; hunger, violence, automation and irruption. The history of these limit cases has been deftly traced by a number of scholars, especially in the tradition of film studies, from whence I have drawn my three original concerns; apprehension, palpability and proximity.
The other limit case at stake in assembling a new category for the gaming undead is the animated body. In every sense, what the gaming dead lack, what makes them dead, is the end of animation. The state change between life and death in contemporary three-dimensional games, especially action games, is materially present in the release of computing power back into the processor. The apparatus – be it an home computer twenty years ago or a more contemporary video game console system - no longer needs to expend energy to calculate animation. Death stops animation. Energy returns to the system that was being used to calculate animation.
In a previous essay on the bursting bodies of anime and animation, I concentrated on the experiencing of ‘dimensional excess’, sensations of warped space and time triggered by the syncretic power of absurd bloodshed in planar space. I would propose here a connection to what Thomas Lamarre calls exploded projection, but one that is specifically accessed through violences of different orders. I perceive more than a cursory or surface link between the bursting bodies of violent anime and the erratic, floating corpses of contemporary computer and video games.
Just as ‘teratological specificity demands attention’, each game offers a different materiality of death. Some persistent, some permanent, others conditional, others temporary.
Realissimo and Memory
“Supplementing the activity of the eye with that of touch, taste and sometimes even smell, the horror film engages its spectator in a multisensory, yet nevertheless aesthetic experience that promotes a certain type of illusion. Horror, like the picturesque, overlaps with realism in its expanded sense, with a realism anchored in the response of a spectatorial body whose sensations and affects promote the effect that the image is real.” – Brigitte Peucker
In apprehending the location of the horrific, an establishment of its considerable wealth of elements is necessary. We cannot establish with any critical strength that all images of the dead are horrific per se, for example. Peucker’s real-promotion, or the ‘realissimo’ of coming across a corpse in a textual space forces the unanimated body to stand in for a number of other vectored forces. The presence of a still body, or better yet a manipulable body, not does assert semblance. Rather, it is the body’s proximity to the real – how real it seems, how manipulable it is, what we can see when we linger over it – which is coded as a pleasure act. Rather than gaming realism or a functioning sense of the realistic, we are interpolated into gaining pleasure from bodily exhibition, not dissimilar to a waxwork museum. The key distinction for me, and I believe the entire fabric of the bodily discourse I’m trying to interpret, is that a gaming real doesn’t ever threaten the border of actuality in the same sense that art history, or film, or animation. This monster is different, it requires its own teratology.
What is traded, either explicitly or otherwise, is the promotion of a realistic effect; the game body, because it ceases to provide ludic affordances, signifies the literal luxury of the gamespace, an ornament and trophy. The opportunity to play with the body, corpseplay, is the conduit through which horror rushes into game texts which otherwise bear no generic relation.
Like Peucker’s sense of the picturesque, the horror highlighted here is an expanded sense. The exhibition of the corpse produces a literally sensible point of reference – a portal through which sensibility of the game space can be understood. The body, animated and otherwise, is the concentration point of game materiality – where the senses are interfacing most often, and where most of the production system is oriented. In cases where these bodies disappear soon after death, an evaporation of visible labour occurs.
Tanya Kryzwinska’s work on horror’s manifold dramas informs a good deal of this teratology. In her chapter, “Hands-On Horror”, in an edited volume called Screenplay: cinema/videogames/interfaces, focuses on the visibility of moral forces and the role of agency is providing horror’s elemental power. The scope of horror’s generic elements spills far over its borders, and leaves persistent stains on genres such as the first-person shooter and the role-playing game. Agency is mortifying to horror traditions; the more control a player has, the more capable they are in interrupting the impossible advance of the dead, or of supernatural forces. This is why most horror games pervert control mechanisms; Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Dead Rising, and the entire history of console horror articulates control as a secondary concern; the more abstract the ability to move around, the more tension can build.
The gaming dead, however, are not in the same category as the zombies and ghosts of those worlds. They are indigenous only to absence itself; neither ghosts or monsters, but somewhere inbetween and resolutely constituent, persistent where a game needs to display its sense of the real, or totally absent where only the directive of the genre or narrative matters. It is their constituency in memory, both literally and figuratively, that generates their pneumea.
Julian Oliver has written about the fabric of memory in virtual spaces in a 2006 essay called ‘Buffering Bergson’ that explicitly discusses the link between viewership and memory, obviously building on Henri Bergson’s notions of time and duration:
Here the world, as a quantifiable universe of measured and positioned parts, is both held and shaped by the limits of memory. In a 3D computer game, the subject both reveals and shapes the world as a surface of transformational effects from which we produce our own frames of recounted experience. It isn’t so much that we ‘create’ the world in a 3D game, as evolve, manifest and disappear its parts in and out of shared memory as a function of action itself. This configuration, where the perceiving subject is intrinsically bound to the unfolding of the world itself, is ulterior to popular understanding of how our own corporeal world works; a persistent, indifferent enclosure of which we are subject visitors. – Julian Oliver
If where we look makes the world, which is true with contemporary video and computer games, then it follows that when we look at the dead, we make the dead. To look away is to annihilate.
I wish to focus directly on this sense of forgetting. I’ll refer to Marc Augé, whose 2004 book Oblivion I read at the same time as playing through the computer game Oblivion, and in which body poetics figure heavily. Auge writes around the problem of memory as one of cultivation, in which forgetting allows remembrance, and feeds the processes of grief, of memorialisation, and so on.
Remembering or forgetting is doing gardener’s work, selecting, pruning. Memories are like plants: there are those that need to be quickly eliminated in order to help the others burgeon, transform, flower. Those plants that have in some way achieved their destiny, those flourishing plants have in some way forgotten themselves in order to transform: between the seeds or the cutting from which they were born and what they have become there is hardly any apparent relationship anymore. In that sense, the flower is the seed’s oblivion. – Marc Auge
As removed aesthetically as this is from a computer game of say, dragons and zombies, trolls and monsters, the sense of cultivated space is immediately recognisable as the prior form of game movement. We leave the inanimate behind to go find things to do with the animate, annihilating them.
Bodies left by the player are not murder victims, but our symbolic architecture of passage, leaving place where space once stood. In each game text, if are to speak of specificity, a different context of memorialisation through the corpse’s lack of animation is true in each game, and in each gameplay. In many contexts, inanimate bodies are the crumbs leading out of the forest. Playing through computer or video game which involves violence situates the player as a figure that cultivates other figures, knocking animation cycles away and returning them to the oblivion of computer memory. What makes this reading of the milieu relatively compelling is that we as players assume a vectoral role, turning gaming bodies and their constituent labour inside out as we move through or as we linger. Auge’s formulation of remembrance is open to both rapid, violent passage, and that lingering over the body we’ve found, or made, or mutilated– his cultivated garden is a abyssal zone of annihilation, from which new forms are made possible.
The definition of death as the horizon of every individual and distinct life, while obvious, nevertheless takes on another meaning, a more subtle and more everyday meaning, as soon as one perceives it as a definition of life itself – of life between two deaths. So it is with memory and oblivion. The definition of oblivion as loss of remembrance takes on another meaning as soon as one perceives it as a component of memory itself. – Marc Auge
This sense of death being a kind of life between two deaths in material and memorial terms is immediately readable. This elasticity opens up the realm of the horrific in games that may otherwise be unreadable to the genre. The aesthetic torsion that occurs when elements that have traditionally been closely tied to horror are so radically reconfigured; the apparatus of animation become sadistic.
Beware of the Skull-Octopus
China Miéville’s essay in Collapse interprets the border relationship between high Weird and the traditions of the hauntological. Dissecting this border in terms of modern and contemporary literature, the aggregate sensations of these two categories are nevertheless productive for assembling concerns and building a teratology for the gaming corpse.
What was hauntology? The term is itself a spectral trace left by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx, and now happily decomposing into a wider discourse especially visible in terms of music, although it has come under considerable criticism by scholars such as Richard Rorty. It is at best, a pseudo-academic impulse that quickly got swept away in favour of more abstract conceptions such as object-oriented ontology. I understand hauntology to be at its core, a historical turn – but a history that may not have yet happened - that concerns the growth of eschatology, the defeat of memory and history. It is, in my limited framing, the spectral undead as metanarrative for the end of modernity, especially visual and cultural modernity.
The hauntological is a compelling mode in which to discuss game corpses precisely because their existence concerns only apprehension. If a ghost is a spirit out of time, and out of its space within a corpus, a game corpse is only a corpse because it lacks the animation that makes it playable. The history that a game corpse does not have, the time that is put out of joint, is movement itself.
On the other hand, the Weird, most famously locatable in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, makes horror generically possible along the axes of ancient unknowable beings and the disintegrating sanity of the few humans that remains. Non-euclidian architecture, the notion of the unspeakable, and the impossibility of fractured language feature heavily. What makes the Weird a tradition of its own – high Weird - is this inference of the unknowable, which Miéville’s essay symbolically locates in a series of images, but most interestingly in variants of the octopus.
The skull-octopus (or skulltopus, or ghostopus) is a minor figure in illustration history and horror writing. Mieville touches on this but the image figures throughout 40s-50s tattoo art, drawing on popular fiction. The skull isn’t just death; its the human remnant inhabited by the ultimate Weird; the cephalopod. The octopus has a historical position as an alienating (in the literal sense) sensory deviant. The folding over of the body, the limbs which are not limbs, make the octopus a limit case of palpability.
In one of the introduction videos for Metal Gear Solid 4, the skull-octopus makes an appearance as the brand image for Pieuvre Armement, a mercenary army. The ad is styled after contemporary perfume TVCs, and the basic threatening message of the skull-octopus is underlined with a sexualised contrasting hard-and-soft tone.
This leads me to a final limit case. If the octopus is instructive, an irruptive and uncontrollable body, If it produces a type of endless Weirdness, the gaming body might well inhabit some semblance of the cephalopodan as well. What the truly Weird does is set form up against content. In the context of literature, this meant describing scenarios which were impossible given the words used to describe them.
I think of glitched game bodies as being like the skull-octopus. The total limit case; the very limit-image that is possible, the full power of apprehension without any of the messy real stuff. There’s a hard and there’s a soft in deep contrast. Flapping arms and a skull lost somewhere in the middle.
If that abyss and what it held were real, there is no hope. Then, all too truly, there lies upon this world of man a mocking and incredible shadow out of time. - H.P. Lovecraft - “The Shadow Out of Time”
In the context of videogames, animation is a point of central tendency for both the production and consumption experiences. It situates the seeming-real. However, like the octopus, it is the animation of bodies that can become unruly, through non-programmed behaviours, glitches, errors or unexpected gameplay interactions by the players. Games are increasingly built to funnel experience through a highly produced sensorial passage, but often take place in a detailed architecture. This leaves scope for unusual interactions off the beaten track. Glitches in games often take the form of errors between character and world, figure and ground. The character you play is a calculated space that is meant to reliably collide with the world; however, the more complex that situation, the more opportunities for errors there are.
In conclusion then, what happens as a result of the animated, inanimate, or deviant animating body in games regulates the experience in ways which draw on aesthetic traditions than are not plainly readable on the surface. The fallen body specifically becomes part object d’art, part reliquary, part inkwell. In all the rush to disassemble the relationships that games have with animation technologies and culture, film, television and other media – it is the possibility of the lingering moment over the body that offers something irruptive and counter-intuitive – not the smooth, continuous play of the correctly regulated player.
At every turn, animation is the breath of these almost-dead figures. It is the coin of the realm for gaming experience; and when the figures fall, their debt to the world – or to the computer – is repaid. The semiotic deepening that comes with the lingering moment, the slow camera pull or the still sequence in an animation is not quite as impact in a virtual environment. It is build, after all, to be explored. Faced with the dead however, and form has friction with content once again. The only real lingering look is the one into the dead eyes, looking at their detailed construction rather than for signs of life.
If the body becomes unshackled from its proper relationship to the environment, and animation becomes a delirious spectacle, we find ourselves in a cultivated garden of errors. Unruly action such as the octopus-like flailing of a game body in an error state seems alien or demonic. Those are our traditions for incorporating that which cannot be incorporated.
In offering a teratology of these forms and figures, of their aberrance and abnormality, we can derive a sense of how we make sense of virtual bodies, including our own. Verisimilitude is not enough, nor is proximity to other media forms. The sensation of animation in game spaces is the cipher which allows all these images to usually pass unnoticed. Yet pause for a moment to see what you’ve done, or bear witness to something horrible, and the horror comes flooding in.
Tanya Krzywinska, ‘Hands-On Horror’ in Krzywinska and King (eds) ScreenPlay: cinema/videogames/interfaces. Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press. 2002.
Perron, Bernard . “The Heuristic Circle of Gameplay : the Case of Survival Horror”, Medi@terra 2006 Conference Proceedings, Athens, p. 62-71.
Marc Augé (2004) Oblivion. Trans. Marjolijn de Jager. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-3567-6.
Brigitte Peucker, “Images of Horror: Taste, Cannibalism, and Visual Display”, in The Material Image: Art and the Real In Film, Stanford University Press, Stanford California, 2007.
Miéville, China. 2008. MR James and the Quantum Vampire Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or?.
Terry Eagleton, ‘Mark Neocleous: The Monstrous and the Dead: Burke, Marx, Facism’, in Radical Philosophy, 137, May/June 2006: 45-47, at 45
Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx.