It’s funny thinking back to how we used to play video games as kids. When I first started playing games, progression wasn’t really the point. Games — all games, irrespective of their design or style — were what you made of them.
Before the gaming market became overrun by the open-world “sandbox” genre, that’s precisely how I’d play even the most linear of titles: I’d complete a level and clear out all the bad guys, then I’d just hang around for a bit, role-playing, running about and getting to know the level’s layout, exploring every nook and cranny, and making up my own additional narratives whilst doing so. (I’d be curious to know if the often “mature” sandbox genre was not directly inspired by underage players in the way, playing games in ways that undermined developer intentions.)
I remember doing this very explicitly with the Spyro the Dragon series. That was the main thing I loved about those games. When playing the recent remakes, I was struck by how small most of the levels were compared to my memory. I didn’t have the patience to play it like I remembered, spending hours in a single level just being Spyro and pretending I had extra quests or things do to, like he was an action figure for whom I granted an infinitely unfolding internal monologue as I threw him about for hours and hours in the mud.
I only really thought about this difference in playing styles when watching a friend’s child play Mario (and a few other things) recently. It was interesting to see this same approach but from an adult perspective. He was naturally adept at playing the game and using the controls but he didn’t necessarily understand how to read the game’s environmental prompts for progression, instead treating it like a virtual toy box, developing an object-relation with the character on screen and playing out his own story lines as he saw fit, like an illiterate kid “reading” a picture book, making up their own narrative based on the pictures before them, wholly ignoring the worded guide and having no sense of the ways in which they’re usurping the object’s intended use.
Believe it or not, the mansion in the original Resident Evil was another example of this kind of sandbox for me. So was the Raccoon City portrayed in the series’ second and third outings.
It’s weird to think back to these games now in this context — to think that I was playing them at an age when I was young enough still to be toyboxing them — but my parents really did not seem to understand age restrictions. Thankfully, I was also aware of my own limits too. I loved Resident Evil but I left Silent Hill well alone until I was a bit older.
Just like in Spyro, these enclosed and claustrophobic environments felt really expansive within my imagination, and this was only exacerbated by the pervasive sense of fear they provoked. These games were so terrifying that I spent hours trying to buck up the courage to make the slightest bit of progression. The puzzles were also often way out of my league. Somehow, as a kid, I had the patience for playing the game without them.
This is probably why, when my Dad took me to see the Resident Evil film adaptation in the cinema the year it came out, I had no idea what was going on. Where the fuck did all this technology come from? Why was this Gothic adventure, set explicitly in the 20th century, somehow more 2001: A Space Odyssey than Night of the Living Dead?
As familiar as I was with the backstory of the Umbrella Corps’ genetic engineering and supersoldier creation — I loved to draw my favourite “character”: the Nemesis — I just didn’t care about any of that when playing the games how I wanted to play them. I really just liked the mansion and the overrun metropolis. Those were two of my favourite gaming environments ever.
When the HD remake came out on the GameCube — which I recently played again, in its further remastered edition, on the PS4 — I remember playing it a lot differently. After all, I was older; I was a teenager who better understood what he was in for when he loaded up that weird little MiniDisc.
I felt like I knew that mansion like the back of my hand — at least its initial sections — and I remember feeling weirdly disappointed when I got to the point of going underground and entering the Umbrella Corps’ labs. The same was true last year when I escaped the police station and made it underground in the brilliant remake of Resident Evil 2. (As indelibly as the police station was marked on my consciousness, I never made my way passed it in the original PS1 version of the game.)
I remember finding the anachronism so jarring. I remember suddenly being aware that in most narratives like this, the opposite trajectory usually unfolds: you start in the futuristic hi-tech lab and then go down to uncover some ancient conspiracy. This was particularly true when your progress took you underground — doesn’t down mean backwards? The subterranean connoting the past?
This was also the moment of hubris found within just about every action/adventure or horror film I loved growing up: The Thing‘s primordial alien, lying in wait; Indiana Jones combination of Nazis and ancient relics; the Tomb Raider series of films and games also had various storylines in which ancient powers were naively harnessed through modern technologies. There was a similar lesson within each version of this story: the future is not the master of the past; the planetary unconscious is eternal and it will bite you if you try stick a lead on it. But reversing the polarity of this Kurtzian expedition does strange things to that narrative. It doesn’t reverse the lesson; it just convolutes it… The linearity of traveling from present to past does not work in the same way when travelling from past to future. In hopping over the all-important present, the machine jams.
Nevertheless, there are obviously a few great examples of this anachronism put to good use — and it is worth emphasising that these are very much recent affairs. Cabin in the Woods might be the most perfect example for this context; Westworld is another — but Resident Evil still sticks in my craw as a jarring instance that doesn’t work so smoothly.
These games have a very particular way of dealing with their anachronism — a subtly that any and all film adaptations have wholly missed (the Tomb Raider film adaptations have also dealt with this combination of techno-relic pretty poorly, it must be said). They lose the video game’s sense of downwards progression.
I think the absence of puzzles in all film adaptations actually has a lot to do with this. Puzzles in survival horror games aren’t just quaint novelties but function as a vector for this templexity — the templexity of Gothic sliding bookshelf puzzles being made functional by technological cunning.
What does it mean that these haunted house puzzles, that would typically be the hobby of some eccentric eighteenth-century polymath in more familiar media, are instead part of a megacorp security system? It is a small instance where this time slippage makes sense. Puzzles are timeless; keys are universal, but they allow for a seed to be inserted where the polarity of your usual haunted house narrative is inverted.
Maybe this is purely cultural… When I first started thinking about this kind of survival horror anachronism, I thought: is it just a Japanese thing? Or maybe it’s just a Japanese-view-of-America thing? But then I considered the fact that the shoddy anachronisms of their uber American film adaptations are exacerbated primarily because of a shift in medium.
This kind of anachronistic cybergothicism makes sense in a video game, precisely because the medium progresses along with the latest advances in computer technologies. For many, advances in film CGI will never not be an intrusion — nothing will ever look as good as 2001‘s hand-made models or The Thing‘s bubblegum gore. The strength of film as a material for horror is the way in which it expresses materiality. (As a sidenote: of course it was David Lynch who would first make digital cameras work in the context of cinema by affirming their uncanniness in INLAND EMPIRE.)
So, given that video games are inherently machinic — a coded medium — perhaps it makes perfect sense that their horror matches the immateriality of the format itself: if you dig down beneath the surface aesthetics of a familiar Gothic, you’ll find circuitboard hardware and coded software.
But this isn’t Blade Runner, in which robotics becomes a screen — the machinic unconscious of video games is all too immanent. To dig below the haunted house you know into the megacorp you don’t is to reach into the corporation in your head. It is to tinker with the unconscious of now.
It was hard not to think about all this whilst playing through Capcom’s streamlined but lacklustre Resident Evil 3 remake under quarantine last week. What’s more, I was reminded of Felix Guattari’s introduction to The Machinic Unconscious:
We have the unconscious we deserve! […] I would see the unconscious … as something that we drag around with ourselves both in our gestures and daily objects, as well as on TV, that is part of the zeitgeist, and even, and perhaps especially, in our day-to-day problems. … Thus, the unconscious works inside individuals in their manner of perceiving the world and living their body, territory, and sex, as well as inside the couple, the family, school, neighbourhood, factories, stadiums, and universities… In other words, not simply an unconscious of the specialists of the unconscious, not simply an unconscious crystallized in the past, congealed in an institutional discourse, but, on the contrary, an unconscious turned towards the future whose screen would be none other than the possible itself […] Then why stick this label of “machinic unconscious” onto it? Simply to stress that it is populated not only with images and words, but also with all kinds of machinisms that lead it to produce and reproduce these images and words.
There is a intriguingly philosophical reason why all the Resident Evil games after RE4 and before RE7 were shit. RE4’s European adventure had a novelty to it, dipping into the viral cultural-unconscious of European (that is, proto-American) ancestry — a little view of history, no doubt, but a culturally effective on.
However, as soon as the series went to Africa, it stopped exploring that which was under-acknowledged and instead stumbled over a century’s post-colonial tropes of new savagery — ebola zombies in a land left ravaged by America that only America could fix. In this sense, these games dealt all too firmly with America’s conscience rather than its unconscious. It was clumsy and ill-fated.
RE7 brought the original cybergothic intrigue back to proceedings, injecting a contemporary class consciousness and fear of the bayou with a little bit of state military-industrial complex — echoing the rhizomatic unconscious of the Swamp Thing.
But, at its best, this series has always interrogated the new unconscious emerging at the dawn of the 21st century — the unconscious we newly deserved; an unconscious dragged from film to video games and transformed through the process, from screen to codes and circuitry. Once we dig down beneath the old horrors we know, we find they have a new constitution — and it is hypercapitalist, thoroughly corporate, and tellingly computational…
The real horror is that, once you master this, there is no Infinity Rocket Launcher to help you out of it…