Non-Normative Gothic (or, Stuff I Like)

I get asked for film and TV recommendations a lot on CuriousCat and I’m never really sure what to say. More often than not, I ignore them, because it ultimately feels quite arbitrary.

I watch everything. Or try to. I used to literally watch everything and my threshold for liking things was low. I paid my dues with French New Wave or Polish Slow Cinema or whatever else. My favourite directors were Kieślowski, Bergman and Lynch but I don’t really want to be the guy who still recommends that stuff at the drop of a hat into his late 20s. (Although, of course, I still think they’re all great.)

If 18-year-old Film Bro me was to give you a list of films that were really influential for me, it would look like this:

A Short Film About Killing (1988, Krzysztof Kieślowski)
The Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)
The Devil Probably (1977, Robert Bresson)
The Sentinel (1977, Michael Winner)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)
Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
Possession (1981, Andrzej Żuławski)
The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
INLAND EMPIRE (2006, David Lynch)
Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman)
Kwaidan (1964, Masaki Kobayashi)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nicholls)
Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicholas Roeg)

I’d still stand by that list, I reckon, but I’m wary of saying it is definitive because I haven’t seen most of these films (except The Thing, which still gets frequent outings) within the last 5 years — 10 years for some. As such, I could just keep going. I’ve seen a lot of films and I’ve liked a lot of films because I was a teenage sponge and there comes a point where a list just becomes redundant because it’s whatever comes to mind first. I don’t want to equate my taste with the effectiveness of my memory. Nowadays, if I watch something and it makes me feel something out of the ordinary, I’ll probably find something to write about it right here.

Beyond this connoisseur-appropriate list, I’ve also really liked The Hunger Games trilogy, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and David Fincher movies — Zodiac, Alien 3 and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I really like Michael Mann’s Collateral — the first (and only) movie I ever saw on a plane! I like the most recent run of Marvel movies — which have finally found their stride, I think, after a load of money-grabbing. The last three films I saw and really liked were The Favourite, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

I could have just said all this when an anon asked earlier if I could recommend some “Gothic media essentials” and, whilst I’d otherwise be happy to, it felt like a good opportunity to offer some broader thoughts on tastes and xenogothic media. Because not all these things are recognisably Gothic and making a list doesn’t really do enough in terms of clarifying that I actually think about the Gothic (and why this blog is called Xenogothic).

I like finding the Gothic in all the telly I watch. My view of the Gothic isn’t that normative because I don’t think the Gothic is — or, rather, it shouldn’t be — that normative. At its best, it ruptures itself. The best examples of the Gothic, for me, are often thrillers and murder mysteries rather than horror movies. More often than not, I end up chatting about the latest murder mystery on Netflix than the latest jump-scare-athon. I’m a big fan of Robin Mackay’s writing on yarnwork in this regard and Robin might be the person I talk to about TV and films the most. (In fact, we shared a folk horror kick last year, watching Blood on Satan’s Claw at Urbanomic’s Cornwall HQ.) He once wrote:

The international thriller and the detective story … present us with a localised object or event that stands out from the ground of normality, suggesting forces as yet unaccounted for. At the same time they transform that vision through abrupt shifts in perspective — the ‘plot twists’ that are the stock in trade of such narratives. This continual interrogation appeals in part because it models the predicament of finite, situated cognition and its aspirations toward universal purchase.

Gothic media essentials are, then, a misnomer for me. It’s about rupturing normality, not finding the best examples of a norm. What I’m interested in is being attuned to the weird as we can find it in the here and now, and the now and then. And there are plenty of examples of media that do that, albeit not being readily seen as “Gothic”. “American Horror Story” never quite got my vote, for example, because it felt so invested in heavy-handed genre tropes. I much prefer the neo-baroque of “Hannibal“, for instance, or, most recently, I liked that new adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House“. Another series I can’t stop thinking about is “Children of the Stones“, particularly for the way that Mark wrote about it on the Hyperstition blog, tapping into a vigilant and militant dysphoria.

I’ve been interested in finding this sort of thing in all kind of films, mostly recently planning to find the American Gothic in Westerns.

Books are the same. (I’ve written about recent likes here.) Games too. (Here.) All media is the same.

Non-normative gothic is the most gothic.

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Notes on Resident Evil 2

I’ve been struggling with a cold for a week now and it’s mutated into a horrible throat infection so the Reza posts are on hold until I feel like I’ve got the brain power to move forwards with them.

However, speaking of mutating viruses, Resident Evil 2 has arrived in the post and I’m gonna be sinking the limited energy I do have into that game over the next week or so whilst these antibiotics kick in.

I wanted to write about it because, before this cold got worse, I’d promised to stream it. I’ve decided against that now because I can’t talk and don’t want to hold off on playing it for the sake of a video I’ll probably never finish so I thought I’d be better to write up my thoughts on the blog instead.

(I’ll get round to finishing one of my gaming video essays one day — the Bloodborne one stalled months back but it remains promising…)


I’ve had a bumpy relationship with the Resident Evil games. I was reminded of my love for them when I was back at my home over Christmas, digging around all my long-forgotten childhood things and finding a complete run of Resident Evil games released on the first and second generation PlayStation consoles: that’s the first game, the “Directors Cut”, number two, number 3, Survivor, and Code Veronica.

Not counting the Gamecube remaster of the original game, there is an abrupt stop in my engagement with this franchise after this point.

This abrupt stop is no doubt down to the PS2 becoming the console for Silent Hill games whereas Resident Evil had ruled the PS1. The first Silent Hill on the latter platform was mythically horrific to my childhood brain and I didn’t play it until a few years after it came out — when I felt “ready” for it. I remember gaming magazines would talk about it in the same sort of terms as a snuff film. What’s even more memorable is that, when I finally did play that first Silent Hill game, I remember it far exceeding the horrors conjured up by my imagination. It was, at that time in my life, quite literally more terrifying than I could imagine.

It scared me in a way that the Resident Evil games had never managed to do. Zombies were fun and they remain my favourite pop horror archetype but Silent Hill got deep inside my head. And so, Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 ruled my PS2 from there on out because all Resident Evil games after Code Veronica were trash as far as I could tell and they never got a look-in. (Although I regret that I’ve still never played Resident Evil 4.)

I think things went sour for me after the release of the Resident Evil movie adaptation. Stylistically, the film was grotesquely over-influenced by The Matrix. I remember leaving the cinema (having snuck in underage to see it) and feeling like I had recognised nothing of the experience I hoped to see replicated. And then the games following the movie seemed to echo its approach to the franchise’s universe.

However, my distaste for this overly influential cinematic divergence might also be down to the fact that, in my head, I’d always downplayed the role of the Umbrella Corporation — that’s the evil pharmaceutical company at the heart of the franchise, responsible for creating the zombifying T-Virus as a bioweapon to make invincible soldiers which leaked out from their headquarters beneath Raccoon City, seemingly going on to infect 95% of the local population. If that makes Umbrella sound like a hard thing to ignore in this series, you’d be right, but I’d nonetheless get fixated on the environments and the zombie killing and ignore the story all together, as is a no doubt common tendency amongst kids playing way below the advised minimum age limit on their games. For me, back then, the story was background noise to the thrills I was there to receive.

Don’t get me wrong though: I think the idea of a mutated virus is good. It’s noumenal and taps into a historic human fear — a kind of Black Death irrationalism where illness is, in many ways, seen as a haunting inevitability and the things done to resist it are rooted more in superstition than medical science. It’s where that lines blurs that zombie apocalypse movies really hold their own and so of course it’s the most common cause of zombie apocalypses throughout popular culture. (The Walking Dead‘s first seasons captured this atmosphere and its existential despair best, if I remember correctly.)

However, whilst making the source of this noumenal virus the stupidity, greed and recklessness of corporate America isn’t a bad message in and of itself, it always felt really lame to me; cartoonish and unnecessary. Zombies are, on their own, more than enough. Adding Big Pharma to the equation both waters down and constipates the symbolism. It makes Umbrella a largely unseen enemy, reducing the zombies themselves to an eternally irritating smokescreen that persistently distracts you from the threat at large. You can’t get to Umbrella because you’re constantly hampered by the mess they’ve made. In this way, the series downfall was always inevitable. It set itself up for a fall into lame action archetypes when it made its main enemy largely untouchable — an unsustainable premise in the long run: the games had to become more corporate in themselves.

Saying that, Resident Evil 7 was an incredible experience, playing up to the haunted house vibe that made the original so good and making the Umbrella-infused finale far less like corporate espionage and a lot more Lovecraftian, making it feel like a genuinely satisfactory and supernatural conclusion, resisting the errors of previous instalments which made Umbrella the central part of the plot overall.

However, even today, the very existence of Umbrella just disinterests me. Personally, I don’t need to know the cause of the terrors on screen. It’s the not-knowing that makes it so unnerving in the first place and I don’t actually want that taken away from me. Plus, building a franchise around the outbreak’s narrative cause — the military-industrial complex no less — was always a weak move in my opinion that reeked of bad Hollywood action movies. (It’s the same reason why Aliens is the worst Alien movie — don’t @ me — there’s just something about a premise of “mindless drones versus mindless drones” which doesn’t appeal to me.) I’m not here to have my masculinity massaged by my undead killing spree, I’m here to have my very sense of humanity unsettled.

That’s what’s so interesting about the premise of the very first Resident Evil game. You have a very (very) stereotypical 80s/90s Action Hero cast — made up of precisely the kind of testosterone bozos found in James Cameron’s attempt at a Big Dick Energy Alien movie — who are then thrown into what is a very Japanese haunted house scenario; a place where folklore and modern society rub up against each other uncomfortably.

There is a sense that these bum boils of American masculinity travel through a kind of time warp and that was what made the game so scary: this sense of utter displacement — the silent, arcane, folkloric mansion being intruded upon by a cyberfascist futurity (– that’s in reference to both the goodies and the baddies, FYI.)

In many ways, it feels reminiscent of 1977 cult classic Hausu, the Japanese haunted house horror film directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Obayashi was primarily a director of film and television ads before making Hausu, and the film would be nowhere near as surreal were it not filmed in the cinematographic language of advertising. Resident Evil is the same — transplanting the language of the American action movie into the Japanese haunted house for a similar effect.

These games have always been fun to play despite these very personal plot issues that I have with them, so generally it always feels overly nerdy to get hung up on them. I only mention all of this now because the remake of Resident Evil 2 is the first game in this franchise not to make me cringe when Umbrella becomes the main plot focus over and above your own basic survival.

Umbrella remain a constant presence during the game’s final two thirds, but something about the presentation here changes things. Whether this is rose-tinted (read: HD) nostalgia, an improvement or just a long-held grudge with this series thawing out, there’s something really interesting about this game and its plot — particularly what its bizarre cultural cross-pollination has to say about the world(s) in which it is set. Whereas the Silent Hill series was set in various quintessentially American locations, probing the inside of the American psyche in the process, Resident Evil 2 transplants what feels like a quintessentially Japanese perspective into an American(ised) location where it jars in fascinating ways, precisely because you have this same transplanting of fears, conspiracies and cultural signifiers across cultures.


Now that I’ve got those nostalgic reflections out the way, in the next post I want to talk about just what this remastered perspective says about this seminal Japanese view of an Americanised crisis; of a sovcorp dissolved into a zombie nation…

Yes, I might use Resident Evil 2 to critique Moldbuggian patchwork

To be continued…


UPDATE: I sort of want to eat my words from yesterday. When I wrote that post, I was in bed, having just completed the first four hours of the campaign and about to play as Ada in the sewers.

Now, having just completed the sewers. I’m left with a gross taste in my mouth.

I was slightly taken aback by this sequence because I remember hearing something somewhere about Ada’s character being “fixed”. Perhaps that’s just because of this initial costume teaser.

What appears like an improvement on paper comes across as a hamfished film noir homage in reality and then deteriorates from there onwards when, after entering the sewers, she loses the coat and ends up navigating shit streams in a very short and very tight red party dress and a choker…?

We’re all used to seeing women on screen in action roles wearing high heels throughout the entirety of their ordeals, magically without breaking any ankles, but this was really gratuitous, especially during the scenes where she was side by side with Leon, the rookie, with all hip pouches, tools and weapons. Ada is meant to be this superior and mysterious FBI agent but she comes across like some really bad cosplayer.

Then, when Leon and Ada seem to fall in love as they enter the belly of the beast, the cringe peaked. It’s the sort of bad dialogue that you expected from these games in the late 1990s but updated to this level of technical and aesthetic beauty, the outdated narrative comes across even worse than before — even in 1998 you could at least laugh at it.

Hears hoping my play-through of Claire Redfield’s narrative is more palatable.


UPDATE 2: I finished the game in a reasonable 6.5 hours from my sick bed. Unfortunately, I still agree with my childhood self — the police station is one of the best survival horror locations ever and, whilst the gameplay remains fun, the locations that follow it aren’t a scratch on where you start. All in all, a bit disappointed.

Xenogothic Premiere Twitch Stream

I was really surprised by how much fun I had doing the Xenogothic birthday stream last week. Having a few drinks and sitting with some of you going through my records was one of the nicest online collective experiences I think I’ve had in years. I was expecting I’d last about an hour, awkwardly and drunkenly, but once I got into the swing of things, we ended up with a three-hour stream that seemed to be somewhat entertaining? I didn’t realise I had it in me…

I definitely want to do something like that again and the idea is becoming more and more attractive right now as I’ve currently got a really full weekly schedule. As much as I blog a lot, I’m not quite a workaholic. I try to keep evenings and weekends for myself and my own headspace. Filling up every hour of the day starts to quickly feel like presenteeism and, having had a bumpy few months of mental health this year, I know I need to have concrete times when I can switch off and unplug, because it doesn’t take much for me to burn out.

… That being said, if I can make content for y’all to enjoy and relax and look after myself whilst doing it, that sounds pretty perfect to me. This was the joy of last week’s stream and why I’d like to incorporate streams into the weekly onslaught of stuff I put out. But this is not to step on Justin Murphy’s toes. I want to make stuff more specific to my interests and concerns. This has partly been the attraction of doing the radio shows recently but these are also overly scripted and so writing for them tends to stall, just like the writing of posts, when my day jobs take over. If anything, they take even longer to put together with my current work schedule…

Enter Twitch. This was an idea I had about a year ago and remember talking to Nyx about but a recent Wired article about kids learning about climate change via a Fortnite stream has sealed the deal and made this something I want to get into now rather than keep putting it off.

So, I’ve bought an incredibly fashionable gaming headset and, after a load of people asked about Bloodborne in the birthday stream last week, I thought I’d have a go at playing it tomorrow night whilst I have the flat to myself.

I’d initially planned to just play the game alone and then write about it but it turns out a lot of people on Twitter are far more conscientious about form and content than I am and the demand was clear immediately. So, with the confidence boost of last week’s hangout, we’re gonna dive in and Twitch stream it!

I’ve opened up a Twitch account here — give it a like and a follow and all that stuff — and I’m going to use it to play through a bunch of games that I’ve got on the PS4 (and maybe we’ll occasionally do some PC games too) on Wednesday evenings (GMT).

I’m very, very new to this so I’ll have to think about structure and schedule as we go, and feedback is very much welcomed.

My taste in games is pretty predictable if you know this blog. I currently have six PS4 games — The Last of UsResident Evil 7, Fallout 4, Horizon Zero Dawn, Bloodborne, Prey. I have only spent a good amount of time with The Last of Us and Fallout 4 so far — I’ve peeked at the first hour or so of Resident Evil 7 and Horizon Zero Dawn but didn’t get fully immersed — and so I’m quite keen to explore these other games blind with you all.

So here’s what we’re going to do:

I don’t just want to play through these games and that be it. I want to talk about what these games are doing, what questions they pose and how the makeup of the games themselves allow us to experience the implications of these questions in a certain way. Put another way, I want to use these games as prompts for thinking aloud about some of the broader concerns of this blog.

Horror games are great for this, obviously, but I don’t want to just stick with those. A lot of this year was spent writing about the “New West of Westworld” and the fragmentary subject of the American Frontier so you know that Red Dead Redemption 2 is getting a stream next month.

The first episode of this twitch series will be starting with Bloodborne, as promised, and I’ll be playing it through for the first time so excuse any n00b teething problems. We’ll start off getting a feel for it together, talking through it and seeing what questions come up that we can carry forwards into future streams.

Some of the questions I already have in mind are concerned with the aesthetics — having a bias towards the British Gothic, a lot of the tropes of Japanese horror games remain totally alien to me (why are swords always so big?) — I wanted to think about the affects of such a pronounced irrealism / surrealism, and how this game — from what I’ve already seen of it — combines this Japanese Gothic with an obvious reinterpretation of explicitly European stylistic tropes. I want to think about how this game fits into — and perhaps extends — the notions of the Gothic that I think I know and we think we know.

Discussions about this and whatever else comes to mind are actively encouraged in the stream chat. Also, I’ll hopefully figure out a way to put these streams on YouTube as edited videos but I want to emphasise that this is something to do collectively. Games requests and tips are welcome for future streams too.

Come hang out!


Xenogothic Premiere Twitch Stream
Bloodborne
20:00 — 17 October 2018 — ~3hrs

https://www.twitch.tv/xenogothic

Deep Assignment #6

I’m sat in a Starbucks in Bristol city centre right now. I have a few hours to wait before I catch my bus back to London and I’m doing everything I can to preserve the energy of the past week within myself.

On our early — early — morning drive out of Cornwall, continuing to channel the psychedelic folk horror that has erupted from our discussions of Mark’s work, and particularly The Weird and the Eerie, we listened to the Incredible String Band’s third and most famous album, 1968’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.

When “Mercy I Cry City” came on, Robin joked: “This’ll be you in a few hours.”

I was already feeling it.

“Oh, I can see and touch you / But you don’t owe reality much”


It’s funny that before arriving in Cornwall, I’d been haunted by a childhood memory of the place which I couldn’t locate in actual space. Acquiring fragmented and inchoate bearings over the course of the last seven days, I’ve begun to remember more and more of my time in Cornwall as a child. I had all these vague half memories and feelings and now, sat here perusing Google Maps and retracing our Kurtz-gradient, it has all begun to slot into place.

I once spent two weeks in Portmellon and it rained the entire time we were there. My parents had preempted this and, hoping to ward off my only-child utter boredom in the inhospitable weather, I was allowed to bring my PS1 with us as a rainy day emergency measure.

I remember the house was freezing and the wind blew straight through it. It had a dusty TV in an alcove in the tiny front room we watched the Graham Norton Show on one evening. The only other time it was used was to plug in the PS1. With it, I played a demo of Alone in the Dark: A New Nightmare, making up my own narrative variations as I role-played my way through the game’s first 20 minutes over and over and over again.

I also listened to a lot of Limp Bizkit on that holiday…


Watching the above Let’s Play, in true 21st century Proustian fashion, I’ve also come to remember the days out we had on that holiday.

We went to the then-recently-opened Eden Project, of course, and also did a tour of locations associated with Daphne du Maurier such as the Jamaica Inn and the particularly memorable Menabilly estate, near Fowey, reportedly the inspiration for “Manderley”, the primary location in her novel Rebecca.

Looking at pictures of Menabilly today, it is very different to what I remember and, as I continue to explore Google Maps, I think that what I have done is conflate my memory of Menabilly with an image of Manderley from a very Gothic stage adaptation of du Maurier’s book I saw once at Hull New Theatre and also the nearby St. Catherine’s Castle, a 16th-century ruin.

Undoubtedly, it was a very Gothic and very formative staycation.


I think I’ll be revisiting Du Maurier’s books soon, as a surefire way to hold on to some of the energy of the past week as we consider what this “unnamed project” actually is or might be.

It’s actually quite astounding how many influential stories she wrote, so many adaptations of which remain some of the best horror films around: Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” being two particular examples highlighted by Mark in The Weird and the Eerie. 

I need to think more on these two stories anyway, particularly “Don’t Look Now”, which has already emerged as being exemplary of one of the most knotted facets of Mark’s analysis, in which the eerie and the weird orbit and spiral around each other, tied to the powers of fate, via which the typically spatial encounters of the weird and the eerie are entangled with “an intensity upstream of time”, as Robin called it.

Robin writes in our notes: “The question of fate is eerie because its also a question of agency — who, outside of time, weaves the pattern that we are a part of, inside time.”

As I sit here surfing on a swell of memories, echoing down the years, close to twenty years later, I can’t help but feel this agency on my shoulder.

The Museum in Post-Apocalyptica (with Some Notes on Gaming)

Gaming is weird and seems to have only gotten weirder. It used to be my life as a kid with many a Saturday spent in Hull’s old Gamestation shop — a little goth cave off the high street, tiny, blackened walls, no windows, full of metal heads, games for every console in existence everywhere you looked, somehow smellier than the Games Workshop down the road but also always populated with Mums trying to understand their children’s obsession, looking mighty intimidated by the crowd of towering, burly regulars. I never thought I’d have such Proustian memories over that particular early 00s flavour of teen BO…

Gamestation got bought out by Game in 2007 and I don’t remember spending time in any other gaming shop so it’s safe to say that that’s about the time I stopped following gaming as an industry quite so religiously and got priced out of keeping up with all the new developments. To be honest, it didn’t even feel like an industry then. It had managed to avoid the cringeworthy, performative professionalism of a medium trying desperately to be taken seriously.

I think I bought an Xbox 360 around that time and the last game I bought for it was Skyrim… I have remained more or less in an out-of-date timewarp since that time, sticking by my Bethesda games, Half Life 2, my N64 and GameCube also getting the occasional outing, and not much else… So I’ve mostly been watching the weird controversies of the last few years from the sidelines, totally bemused by the hills that gaming culture has chosen to die on: its general defence of mental health politics coupled with a violent rejection of feminist input feeling like the central kernel of evermore convoluted displays of cognitive dissonance.

Not to hate on contemporary gaming culture too much. It’s extremely bone-headed reputation is not mirrored in the games it has to offer. It’s a weird, fucked-up but nonetheless beautiful subculture, if you’re looking in the right places.

Just like everything else, those who shout loudest are the ones everyone with sense wants to tie in a bag and throw in a river…

Anyway… I’ve evidently not been entirely disconnected. I’ve instead moved into a sort of child’s wide-eyed but broke engagement with the culture, having no money to spend on it and instead watching Let’s Play videos on YouTube and pushing my 2015 laptop to its absolute limits for the past few years. (Dying Light was the limit of what it could handle and the only new-ish game I’ve spent a lot of time with although now it weirdly triggers my anxiety, having perhaps spent too much time with it during one too many a depression.) A few months ago, however, my girlfriend’s brother lent me his Nintendo Switch with Breath of the Wild in it and that got me itching to catch up and see what I’ve been missing behind the headlines.

Because, subcultural fuckery aside, gaming is a fascinating medium and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, the current generation of console gaming has raised the quality in games to happily rival film and television — an opinion long held by fans but now with more than enough evidence to back it up, even if those who seemed to miss the initial boat in their teens or childhoods remain stuck in a mire of indifference.

I write about books, films, TV and music fairly frequently on this blog, folding observations around these mediums into all kinds of posts on the regular, and the only reason gaming has been omitted from this so far is down to my access to what’s new in games. Commenting on stuff via Let’s Plays alone feels like cheating. If I’m to write anything, it needs to come from my own player experiences.

That being said…


As recently tweeted, the office where I spend a few days a week here in London has entered a week-long summer shutdown — not sure what for but I’m not complaining. It’s a week off I’ve started strong, buying a battered second-hand PS4 for about as cheap as I’ve ever seen it with Fallout 4 secondhand and The Last Of Us Remastered — the former I failed to get to run on my laptop (I really love Bethesda RPGs for all their buggy flaws) and the latter is a game I’ve wanted to play ever since bingewatching a surprisingly affecting Let’s Play series of it when it first came out.

I’ve largely binge-played The Last Of Us so far this week. It’s a beautiful if relentless game that tells the story of one man’s journey through a post-ecozombie apocalypse where most of the population has become infected by cordyceps.

It’s an inspired idea. The spectacle of nature taking back the world from human civilisation is a common and now ubiquitous trope within zombie movies, but here this trope is folded back into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style flora-infecting-fauna twist.

Wandering around the game’s beautifully rendered natural environments, there is a distinct unease that this beauty is both the result and cause of the world we’re currently existing in. Whether in the inner city or the outskirts, buildings and nature itself seem to — somewhat unnaturally — tower over you, far bigger than you would otherwise expect, with nature’s ruthless drive towards reclamation making even the man-made feel newly intimidating.

Fallout 4‘s version of post-apocalyptia is very different to this. Nothing seems out of reach. Rather than being in constant peril at the bottom of some new food chain, in Fallout 4 it seems that, instead, the playing field has been completely levelled — the most notable difference to existence being that everything is still there for the taking.

This is very much a part of the franchise’s parody of capitalism, to an extent, although here the sense of parody feels like it is waning somewhat… Or perhaps it has intensified… I’m on the fence.

Fallout 4 takes the franchise back to its beginnings. We begin in pre-apocalyptia, in an alternative universe where the USA has fully — even excessively — embraced nuclear technology, using it to rapidly advance technology in general and power absolutely everything from the automobile industry to the superhuman armour of the army’s foot soldiers. There is a Metal Gear-esque narrative here, but one that (again) places the nuclear on a level with the human rather than looming precariously above it. It is not just a gateway to technological monstrosities but rather remains accessible to the everyman, powering his desires.

The world of the game has, notably, not advanced aesthetically past the 1950s. When I say that literally everything is nuclear-powered, that seems to include a newly robust American Dream as well. Social consciousness runs on the power of the atom. It’s a marvellous demonstration and parody of the extent to which nothing is beyond the reach of capitalism, particularly a capitalism run on the fundamental but also radical power of nuclear fusion — an atomic capitalism, in every sense of the word.

Even the game’s currency of used bottlecaps feels like a hilarious example of the way capitalism might smuggle its own longevity into its own suicidal detritus. Capital continues to run, albeit at limited capacity, on its own death drive.

This societal love of all things nuclear further defines the landscapes in which human influence continues to permeated far beyond the reaches of the human. In the game’s back story, China attacks and invades the USA, blasting most of the country with nuclear weapons and so, as with every game in the series, you begin your journey into post-apocalyptia in a numbered Vault, used to (nefariously) house future generations who emerge on a new world very much full of life but mutated beyond previous recognition.

Other plants and animals might have been “advanced” and made more dangerous by nuclear fallout but the position of humans within the world seems largely unchanged. There is little embarrassment about the ruinous effect of human civilisation on the world. Everything is taken in the stride of the American psyche which permeates all and so society seems to continue advancing undeterred by even the most violent of events. Infrastructure has broken down but the will of the individual, the true backbone of American society, is stronger than ever!

As such, these two games offer a fascinating contrast when played back to back. In The Last of Us, nature fights back and is our downfall, humiliating us, curtailing desires to their absolute minimum.

For example, children are central to the story of The Last of Us and when our protagonists — old man Joel and teen Ellie — meet another man and his ward, their relationship for the viewer is defined by the way that the boy in is care is not allowed to be the kid that he nonetheless inherently is. Ellie, on the other hand, the game’s young, female co-protagonist, is a symbol of hope and retains a child-like wonder and enthusiasm for all of life, as fascinated by this new Nature as she is by comic books and other remnants of pop culture found strewn throughout the landscape. Her new friend, Sam, however, also her age, when caught picking up a toy in a toy store, is told firmly to put it back. The number one rule of “taking stuff” in this universe is “take only what you need”.

This is reflected in the gameplay itself, where collectable items are completely lacking in variety. There are only five or six types, each used for crafting a specific tool or weapon. Ellie’s role as loveably rambunctious little gobshite is to be a new seed for desire, for the libidinal, for a paternal hope in the future. In other words, she is a new hope for the overturning of an endemic post-apocalyptic austerity, both emotional and material.

In this way, it feels like it is deeply inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a ubiquitous influence on pop cultural post-apocalyptia and one likewise cited by Fallout 3‘s dev team — an influence increasingly absent from the series as it has progressed. The inescapable Grey of Fallout 3, often derided as aesthetic mud but something I think worked brilliantly, is now far more vibrant with the neon glow of nuclear fallout.

In Fallout 4, in contrast to the austerity of The Last of Us, every piece of detritus can be picked up and utilised, no matter what it is. This is common to Bethesda games but seems to have been overhauled here. If it exists, it can go in your inventory. It can likewise all be used in crafting weapons and tools but the world is very much your own personal post-apocalyptic toy store. Take what you want and play,

What has interested me most about both of these examples — explicitly related to these dynamics, I think — is the (re)presentation of our own historic sense of ourselves as a species and as a civilisation, despite what we have done to the world we’re now inhabiting.

Halfway through The Last of Us, I find myself fighting hordes zombies and cannibalistic non-infected humans called “hunters”, running through a destroyed museum that is littered with mannequins, paintings and the unrecognisable detritus of a history now largely forgotten — or, at the very least, put out of mind as just another reminder of all that has been lost. The detail presented to the player here is scarce. It remains a beautiful and complex environment in terms of its textures but the signs of the old world are otherwise basic and distant. Pictures on the walls seem to be the most telling sign of what the building was previously used for, but beyond that they are simply wallpaper. History is ever-present but unimportant. Human (but also the specificity of American) culture is diluted, still traumatic.

Fallout 4, again in contrast, presents us with a museum as the first “outside” environment that we are able to explore. Having emerged from the vault and wandered around our desolated former home, the first quest takes you to the nearby town of Concord, surprisingly in tact after the bombs, all wooden frontages and dirt roads. We come across a battle between a group of raiders and a band of survivors who have holed themselves up in a museum and they are the first group of “settlers” you are given the opportunity to help.

Straight away, with this introductory quest, the franchise’s previous retro-futuristic aesthetic is injected with a huge dose of recursive frontierism (reminding me of my previous run of Westworld posts: here, here and here).

American history has always languished in the background of these games but previously as a similarly forgotten discipline and interest, now just a hobby for the concerned few. I’m reminded, in particular, of a quest in Fallout 3 in which you have to break into a museum, now home to a troop of mutants, in order to steal the Declaration of Independence for a jobbing historian. The indifference with which you pick up the document as a now largely unimportant object is funny but distinctly in contrast to the new wild west tone of Fallout 4. Here, this “Museum of Freedom”, complete with decrepit animatronic displays detailing a piecemeal and fractured vision of the American revolution, is transformed into a new Alamo for the 23rd century. This is less a civilisation built from the ashes and rather one which remains very much in touch with its past.

(This seems to be a twist the franchise is now going to run with, with Fallout 76 out in a couple of months, the marketing campaign of which has already played a lot with a theme of America’s tricentennial anniversary — 1776 to 2076.)

There is a somewhat twisted message here, explicitly connecting the threads of capitalist realism and nationalist realism, previously explored on this blog at length: the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of the United States. Bethesda makes great use of this future-proof nationalism to great comic effect but there is a sense that the joke might be lost on some within the fanbase…

As I keep playing, I suspect I’ll have much more to say so watch this space. In perusing the world of games now open to me, I’m likewise aware that post-apocalyptia dominates this market. (Horizon Zero Dawn is next on my to-play list.) The easiest thing to observe is that these post-apocalyptic RPGs and shooters are a symptom of contemporary unease and uncertainty but, as Fallout 4 comically demonstrates, there is nonetheless a belief that much will survive our seemingly inevitable demise. Each game seems to offer a different vision of just what those surviving elements may be and the nuances of those visions are far more interesting than making some analogy based on Trump terror.

To be continued…