David Langdon, System Override: Detecting Conservative Trends Within Gothic Video Gaming

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In the field of Gothic studies, the Gothic is commonly figured as a force of rebellious escapism. This view is contested with regard to Gothic video games in the following essay, by identifying conservative trends in a number of recent games.

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Within the field of Gothic studies, the Gothic is commonly figured as escapism on the highest level: a force of subversion, a counterculture opposing the tyranny of law and society. This is in evidence both in the eighteenth-century conception of the Gothic, as ‘the archaic, the pagan, that which was prior to, or opposed to, or resisted the establishment of civilised values and a well-regulated society.’ (Punter 1997, 5), and in more recent ones, in which the term has been appropriated to describe a particular type of rebellious counterculture. Maggie Kilgour writes in The Rise of the Gothic Novel that ‘In general, the gothic has been associated with a rebellion against a constraining neoclassical aesthetic ideal of order and unity, in order to recover a suppressed primitive and barbaric imaginative freedom’ (1995, 3). The key words here are ‘rebellion’ and ‘freedom’; the  Gothic appeared to aspire to resist the sane and sensible narratives of its day by introducing supernatural occurrences, or melodramatic, outlandish villain figures. Yet a little later on in the book, Kilgour proposes a second reading of the Gothic: ‘The gothic thus […] offers to its readers a momentary subversion of order that is followed by the restoration of a norm, which, after the experience of terror, now seems immensely desirable.’ (Ibid., 8) Here Gothic’s horrors are figured quite differently: as forces problematizing transgression and difference, and by implication reinforcing society’s core values, by allowing the core ‘system’ of social rules to override the seemingly invincible transgressions. This view represents an intriguing conservative dimension within the Gothic, something particularly relevant to studies of the modern Gothic, given the increasing sense of social vulnerability in the wake of 9/11. It is this latter idea that I wish to explore in relation to the modern Gothic, and specifically, the Gothic of the video game. I have chosen video games to illustrate this point largely because work on the Gothic in games is still largely in its infancy, and illustrating a vein of conservatism at work within them is doubly surprising as a result.

The video game may seem, at first glance, to be an unusual place in which to locate the Gothic. The Gothic has traditionally been located within the novel form, though it has become fairly acceptable to locate the Gothic within film as well, as evidenced by the inclusion of dedicated sections on Gothic film in Marie Mulvey-Roberts’s The Handbook of the Gothic and David Punter’s A New Companion to the Gothic. There are, however, many traits that the Gothic and the video game share. The most obvious, perhaps, is the popular and lasting appeal of each; both have endured in spite of repeated apparent ‘deaths’.  Julian Wolfreys’ pronouncement that the Gothic ‘had a lifespan of approximately 56 years. […] It died somewhere between 1818 and 1820.’ (Wolfreys 2002, 8) is just one example of critical belief that the Gothic is confined to a single historical period. For video games, the Great Video Game Crash of 1983 was an event that seemed to mark the end of the commercial videogame market.  Both these periods, far from marking the end of the form, mark major milestones in their development; the publication of Frankenstein in 1818 was far from the end of the Gothic, as is evidenced by its repeated “returns” at the fin-de-siècle and within the twentieth century. 1818 may, however, have marked the point at which the mode began to diversify into other genres, in this case science fiction. The Gothic, up until this point, had maintained a consistent “model” or “formula”, reflected in a dismissive article published in 1797 which posits a ‘recipe for a terrorist novel’, calling for ‘An old castle, half of it ruinous […] three murdered bodies, quite fresh […] noises, whispers and groans, threescore at least,’ (Anon. ‘Terrorist Novel Writing,’ [1798], cited in Clery and Miles 2000, 184) and so on and so forth. Frankenstein marks the point where the Gothic breaks away from this formula, doing away with, for example, the castle setting and the supernatural dimension for something else entirely – a  kind of literary ‘thought experiment’ exploring the potential of scientific advancement. This quality was preserved throughout later Gothic works, which explored concerns over ‘degeneration’ in similar fashion. The Crash of 1983, on the other hand, caused a number of important shifts within the industry, including a clampdown on third-party game development; proliferation both of gaming consoles and variant types of games is commonly cited as one of the major factors leading to the Crash. Ryan Lambie describes ‘a bewildering array of consumer choice with little in the way of quality control,’ (2013, np), and Nicholas Werner notes that ‘third party development completely shattered the business model the entire industry was based on.’ (Werner 2011, np.) The tighter standards of quality control enforced by companies such as Nintendo after this event meant that individual games began more differentiated from each other, and began to evolve narrative depth as a selling point. Furthering the connection between gaming and the Gothic is the fact that both were met on an academic level with initial scorn and disdain, with Gothic works being dismissed by such luminaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose review of The Monk stated ‘[...] a romance is incapable of exemplifying a moral truth [...] the praise a romance can claim, is simply that of having given pleasure during its perusal.’ (Coleridge 1797). Eventually, however, the Gothic would become recognised as a sub-category of literary studies. Video games followed a similar trajectory, being met with widespread academic disdain until 2001, the year Espen Aarseth declared was ‘the ‘year one’ of video game studies as an emerging, viable, international, academic field.’ (Aarseth 2001 ,n.p.) In light of this, it seems more reasonable to explore Gothic within the videogame.

As with any young form, there are still some caveats. Games vary in narrative complexity; one could hardly expect to derive any deep meanings from Pong or Tetris, though this has not prevented ardent narratologists such as Janet Murray from trying to argue that, ‘All games are stories, even abstract ones like Tetris or checkers.’ (Wardriup-Fruin and Harrigan 2004, 4) Whilst it is perhaps true that games are all stories, it is difficult to apply complex meanings to Tetris or Pong, for the simple reason that both games do not endeavour to relay any information beyond simple geometric representation. If we take H.Porter Abbott’s ‘the representation of an event or series of events’ (Abott, 2008: 13) as our definition of narrative, then all the base game of Pong can be said to represent is ‘a game of tennis’. In order for a game to be termed narratively complex, it must be able to represent something beyond the basic rules of play.

The most immediately apparent way that games can represent events is through their graphical elements, taking cues from both literary and cinematic forebears. This can be termed the narrative context, as it provides a contextual reason for the player to be playing. If the 1978 title Space Invaders is considered as an extremely rude example, the narrative context is simple: aliens are invading. This is only represented by the design of the hostiles, but it is easy to imagine a version of the game using animated sequences or text to deepen this narrative. As Espen Aarseth has noted, what distinguishes a game narrative from these earlier forms is the ‘non-trivial effort […] needed to traverse the text’ (Aarseth 1997, 1). What is often not recognised is that the very structure of this “non-trivial” effort can itself suggest or extend a narrative dimension suggested contextually. 

When considering games as representational artworks, it is important to recognise that a given game’s development process generally begins with a gameplay type or style, with plot and story being worked out around this gameplay concept. Therefore it is as important to consider a given game’s ludic dimension as it is the narrative context the game posits. The “ludic dimension” refers to the rule systems by which a game operates. Some actions are encouraged, others discouraged. The player is given various abilities and obstacles to overcome. Space Invaders, for example, places the invasion fleet as an obstacle- if one of their number is permitted to reach the bottom of the screen, the game is over. The player must use the options available to them-shooting projectiles and taking cover behind shields- to prevent this occurence.

However, the most important form of representation occurs when context and ludic dimensions overlap. For example, the process of defeating the titular invaders results in a gradual increase in their speed, as well as in the tempo of the accompanying music. This very simple alteration means the action required to continue grows more and more difficult and thus creates a sense of impending doom for the player. Essentially, the game’s contextual narrative elements (the alien invaders) intersect with its ludic elements (the process of fighting off the invaders) constructing a deeper narrative dimension (fighting off the invaders is an urgent and dangerous task) Of course, this is only a rudimentary example and offers little in the way of a narrative dimension. But as the form has expanded, designers and writers have begun to embrace the ludic dimension, meaning that the powerlessness of a character can be represented by literal interference with game controls, or a character experiencing delusions can experience hallucinations or shifts in the game environment. This opens games up to several intriguing avenues for Gothic representation.

The fact that games possess the capacity to function narratively does not, however, mean that every game is necessarily designed to function in this manner. Many games seek only to function as entertaining representations, without feeling the need to posit a narrative. The two primary qualities for determining a narratively designed game are narrative complexity and narrative linearity. Complexity is simple to define but hard to measure; can the game tell a story? Is it trying to tell a story? These days, most games will at least attempt to feature a ‘story’ or ‘campaign’ mode, which will present a structure around gameplay in the form of a plot. (Multiplayer modes and games, such as, say, Team Fortress 2 or the ‘deathmatches’ of Call of Duty, Battlefield et al. are, by their very nature, not narratively complex, as the combat does not represent anything other than combat). Linearity is another important concept. A game may be fully narratively complex, but may give the player free rein to do as they please within the narrative world. The Fallout and Elder Scrolls games are shining examples of this, as they allow the player to choose their character, their character’s skills, their character’s motivations, etc., and act as they see fit within the world of the game. Narrative linearity means that the game assigns the player a set role to play, with a set plot and set of events to follow, and sees them go through it. It does not mean the player cannot interact, only that their interaction has limits which are usually bound to the limits of the character. The protagonists of the Assassin’s Creed series of games cannot elect to join up with the game’s villains, the Templars, and work toward enslaving the world, for example, nor can players choose which gameplay skills they wish to focus on. Their stories are narratively linear. Narrative linearity also means that the game’s narrative content must be primarily non-optional. Optional narrative content may still exist, but it should not be possible to progress through the game without engaging with the plot. The Final Fantasy series of games stands as an excellent example of this; some sequences of player interaction consist of nothing but plot advancement through dialogue. Optional story content exists in the form of sidequests and hidden dialogues, but the base game itself tells a clear and consistent story. The final point might seem trivial and obvious, but it is a vital one to make. The game’s gameplay must reflect or support its narrative content. A game attempting to tell a story about the virtues of peace and tolerance will be rendered utterly nonsensical if the gameplay is focused entirely on murder and violence (the reverse applies, too). The type of gameplay available to the player must fit with the story that is being told.


Conservative Gothic: A Contradiction in Terms?

Now that some basic ground rules for identifying narratively complex games and exploring game narrative have been established, it is possible to ask the major questions: What makes a game Gothic, and how does the presence of Gothic suggest or give rise to conservatism? The key to a narratively-designed game functioning within the Gothic mode lies in the intersection between narrative and ludic dimension. A Gothic game will posit a narrative context that touches upon a contemporaneous social concern or fear, and dramatizes the possible consequences. Whilst it must be seeking to create horror or fear for its audience, it does not necessarily have to fit into the horror genre – indeed, it can prove more effective to utilise a different genre, as will be shown. It must, however, possess a fantastic dimension, a co-mingling of reality and unreality that allows the work to comment on the real world from a position of detached and distanced unreality. But graphical narrative is not sufficient. To be truly considered Gothic, a game’s ludic dimension must support and extend the themes of the graphical narrative. It must itself attempt to disturb and unnerve the player, creating a gameplay experience that complements the Gothic themes of the narrative context.  For instance, a classical Gothic fear, the idea of invasions of the Other into civilised spaces, is represented in Silent Hill 4: The Room by having the player’s apartment function as a safe space for the first half of the game; no hostile elements appear here, and the player’s health is gradually restored over time. However, in the latter half of the game, not only does the apartment cease to restore the player’s health, but dangerous hauntings occur, causing damage and danger. The safe space is thus represented as being taken over by otherness both graphically and ludically, forming a powerful Gothic statement.

 Games, then, prove to be fertile sites for construction of the Gothic. But how is that mode rendered “conservative”? By “conservative” is meant a form of thinking that is resistant to change or evolution, and as such expresses concerns over the consequences of such change. In other words, “conservative” thinking is born of fear – fear  of the future, of changing society, and especially of the imagined negative consequences the changes may have. It would, of course, be naive to claim that all Gothic is necessarily conservative in its outlook; some Gothic works such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper present quite an opposite fear, that society may not change, and may stay in its present terrible state forever. Yet it is still clear that, within many works of the Gothic, a heavy conservative strain is perceivable.The Gothic monster is in almost all cases a force existing out of society, arising as a response to society’s advances or changes. By the story’s close, the monster is defeated or otherwise rendered harmless by forces located within society. The important thing to realise when trying to conceive of the Gothic as conservative is that the Gothic monster, the representative of transgression and rebellion, is always consumed or defeated by society, and whilst it may leave an impact upon the world afterward, commonly the ultimate message of the Gothic is a return to the standard social order, with the consequences of transgression punished by death or censure.

It is striking to note that, in many cases, the response of the Gothic to the fears at its core is either ‘things must stay as they are’ or ‘the progress of society brings solutions for its problems’. The first response bears some clarification. The Gothic mode commonly explores the downsides of progress and societal evolution, highlighting the downsides of any given technology or social change. This is particularly evident within works of the fin-de-siècle, which construct fantasies about ‘degeneration’- the regression of humanity down to a lesser form of life, often figured as a result of technological progress. This is a theme explored in various degrees by the writing of H.G. Wells, whose canon often appropriates the Gothic mode to construct sci-fi stories. War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine all posit the idea that humanity may be regressing, as opposed to progressing, as a direct result of advances in technology. The work of H.P. Lovecraft also incorporates modern technological innovations – such as radios and telephones – which  only serve to reveal horrors greater than ever before thought imaginable. The Tale of Randolph Carter and At the Mountains of Madness are both tales of scientific expeditions that utilise telephone and radio technology respectively to discover the existence of monsters pre-dating humanity awaiting their return to Earth.

However, technological evolution is not always the source of horror within the Gothic mode. Sometimes, it is these technologies that are necessary to return to a state of equilibrium by vanquishing the monster of the Gothic work.  Robert Mighall has noted that ‘These [Gothic] novels do not reject the advances of enlightenment, modernity and civilisation […] rather, they cling to these totems more insistently through their troubled recognition of the alternative.’ (1999, xviii) are used to vanquish the Gothic monster, and it is possible to see this both in Dracula, wherein items such as phonographs, typewriters and even train timetables are used to outmanoeuvre the titular vampire, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulu sees the legendary Old God’s rise stalled by a modern battleship. Human society always endures in the Gothic mode. No matter how comprehensively society is threatened or even dismantled, stability always returns by the close; that is to say, the prevailing system always overrides elements of the Other.


Gothic Gaming: Player Roles and Gothic Narrative

Where the Gothic mode meets the narratively designed video-game, it serves as a perfect showcase of this conservative trend within the Gothic; indeed, it is possible to read Gothic game narratives as representing a counter-cultural narrative within gaming culture itself.  The key to analysing game narrative, as stated, is to look at the interaction between narrative content and the ludic dimension from the specific viewpoint of the player. This means asking what role the player is asked to play within the gameworld, and how the avatar they are assigned relates to the world and defines them within it. What is striking about game narratives in general is the dimension of power that is created within this relationship. For the purposes of the current analysis, I propose four categories of ‘role’ to be adopted by the player, as determined by different games; these are in part informed by how games themselves frame player action, and in part the product of my analysis of the gaming experience, The first, the paragon role, endows the player-character with special abilities and traits that elevate them above their peers, and allow them to stand as a vaunted example of a particular ideology or nation. An example would be the Metal Gear Solid series, which cast the player as a powerful, highly trained soldier engaging in acts of fantastic counterterrorism. The second may be termed the renegade[1] role, casting the player as a rebel or outlaw, living outside of society’s rules and endeavouring to use them for their own personal gain. The most apparent example of this would be the Grand Theft Auto series of games, each of which places the player as a criminal seeking to use their skills and criminal contacts to gain money and power. The third role, the variable role, allows players to create their own characters by picking from a range of options. Games utilising these roles are perhaps better figured as narrative ‘storytelling kits’, offering the potential to construct a wide range of narratives from a selection of pre-determined pieces. This third role is not particularly relevant to this essay as the sheer number of permutations available makes it difficult to classify these narratives as works within a specific genre.

It is the fourth role that is most relevant to the video-game Gothic, and this role is markedly different from the preceding three. This fourth role we may term the survivor role, and possesses several unique attributes. Firstly, games using this type of role cast players as an ordinary person, with no special abilities or powers. As such, they typically feature distinctly passive gameplay structures. Whereas most games encourage combat as the primary dimension of gameplay, games featuring survivor type gameplay are focused around reacting to environmental threats and staying alive in the face of loaded odds – for example, facing hostile elements that are superior to the player with a limited supply of weaponry and health restoratives. Combat is generally de-emphasised, with a focus on mobility over brute force.

Games which place the player in the survivor role strike a very different core note to other types of game narrative. Placed in any of the other three roles, the player is a very powerful, active agent within the gameworld, placed above the other inhabitants. They manipulate the environment around them to achieve their objectives. In survivor roles, the player is placed very much at the mercy of the environment, and must expend considerable effort in order to simply continue to exist. Oftentimes the key objective of the protagonist of a survivor role game is to endure against the horrors they encounter, deal with the situations they find themselves within, and, ultimately, return to ‘normal’ life. The Silent Hill series provides excellent examples of this; the decidedly survivor-role protagonists of the first two titles in the series are prompted to enter the eponymous haunted town by the loss of a loved one, a fleeing daughter in the first game and a dead wife in the second game. Their struggles are shown clearly to be fuelled by a desire to return to a state of equilibrium or “normality,” in contrast to (for example) Myst, a game where the player’s objective is to first discover and then solve the problems of the world they find themselves within. The first Silent Hill title does feature a problem separate from the protagonist’s attempt to locate his daughter (an attempt by a cult to summon a demon named Samael), but the player only becomes involved with this due to the protagonist’s daughter’s role in the story. The second game does not even attempt to posit a struggle or problem outside those of the protagonist’s struggle to move on following the loss of his beloved wife; all the other characters the player encounters are themselves suffering similar fates, and the only true evil force at work within the game is the protagonist’s own guilt.  Whereas other roles place the player comfortably above or outside of society, within the survivor role the protagonist is decidedly uncomfortably placed outside of society. The struggle to survive may be viewed as an attempt to return to the society they have been removed from, and their success largely depends on the player’s prowess at gameplay.

The difference struck between survivor roles and the other common roles presented within games is itself a form of conservatism. Rebellion, resistance, and power are the norm within video games. To posit a situation wherein the player is disempowered, and finds themselves vulnerable once again, is to act as a counterpoint to the expected escapism that occurs in more typical game narrative. Instead of empowering the player’s fictive self, the hostile elements of the world they are inhabiting are empowered in order to create a more dramatic sense of vulnerability. Yet the fact that the protagonists in the survivor role are able to triumph over evil at all suggests support for reality over fantasy. In most games, the player’s unique skills or powers are the key to victory. Presenting a scenario wherein a conventional, normal individual may emulate a similar feat with only the tools available to them echoes the demonstration of support for the values of conventional society mentioned earlier. Having located and explored the Gothic mode and conservatism within the video game, it is now necessary to explore the conservative Gothic within some sample games. 


Amnesia The Dark Descent and The Problematisation of Learning

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010, PC) is a game firmly rooted in the Gothic tradition. It features a rich panoply of Gothic stylistic tropes (a castle setting, a thematic focus on darkness and trauma, a vampiric villain, and so on). The player’s survivor role is as Daniel, a man awakening within Castle Brennenburg with no memories. On exploration, the story of how Daniel came to be in this situation is revealed. In a tale clearly drawn from nineteenth century fin-de-siecle narratives, the player learns of Daniel’s background as an explorer who discovered a mysterious artefact, an orb, on an expedition in Algeria, which awakened an ancient force, the Shadow. Daniel was offered protection by Alexander, the reclusive Count of Brennenburg, an occultist, vivisectionist, and mystic, and willingly performed torture and murder in return for protection. The horrors of guilt that later arose prompted the loss of memory that begins the game proper.

What is intriguing about this game’s context narrative is the emphasis that is placed on ‘fear of learning’. Both Daniel and Alexander are characterised as ‘men of science’. Daniel’s archaeological explorations bring forth evil in the form of the Shadow. Alexander, meanwhile, is revealed as the player progresses to have been performing various experiments; his study is filled with dog corpses, a note lamenting their ineffectiveness and worrying about the risk of acquiring human subjects, and a drawer filled with human skulls (Video 1, here). He has penned treatises on various types of torture, and is heard schooling Daniel in the correct way to maximise suffering whilst minimising risk of death to ‘subjects’. The purpose of Alexander’s experiments is both his own survival (he requires, vampire-like, a substance known as ‘vitae’, made from suffering-infused blood in order to survive) and an escape from our reality. Both characters reveal the dangers of learning, either the danger of discovering forbidden knowledge, or the danger of attempting to gain knowledge relevant to one’s own problems or issues without a regard for human life. Alexander has caused unimaginable suffering to numerous individuals, and Daniel’s part in this as a willing apprentice is all the more horrible.

The fact that the player is encouraged to piece together this truth by searching for and locating diary entries (located within a hostile and forbidding environment) only serves to further dramatize the perils of curiosity. Not only is the process of learning fraught with danger and turmoil, but what we learn adds to the player’s horror. It is, of course, possible to entirely ignore searching for the diary entries, but the player’s curiosity is frequently piqued by non-skippable flashbacks that occur when the player reaches certain locations in the gameworld. Without the surrounding context, these flashbacks present numerous unanswered questions, tempting the player into searching the environs for answers. In a sense, the player takes on Daniel’s dimension of curiosity in playing the game, meaning that the threats and dangers they encounter become contextualised as the consequences of such curiosity.

The overarching message, therefore, becomes ‘the process of learning may bring harm to others or yourself.’ In a 21st-century society where learning is only ever a keystroke or mouseclick away, problematizing the process of learning, of self-improvement, of awareness, strikes a strong conservative note. Ignorance is bliss, according to Amnesia the Dark Descent, and to attempt to change that state is dangerous. Alexander is very much characterised as an agent of change, both for Daniel and for the world at large, and his casting as antagonist is very much indicative of a conservative Gothic mindset.  Indeed, the final act the player must attempt to perform is an act of annulment, preventing Alexander from culminating his researches and successfully opening a portal to escape through. The only end to the horrors and suffering of the narrative is to prevent their culmination, stripping away any purpose to them. Scientific research, here, is only permitted to function as a method of creating suffering, and the only response to it is to try and prevent its completion.


Bioshock and Science Unbound

 The first person-shooter Bioshock (2008, Xbox 360) transports the player, lone survivor of a plane crash in the Atlantic, to a corrupted underwater utopia, built as a safe haven for society’s great and good. Here, the suspension of all codes of ethics and social constraints, as outlined in an introductory speech from the city’s founder, Andrew Ryan (Video 2 from 1:00 here) has led to rapid advances in technology, specifically biological engineering. It is this rapid scientific advancement, combined with the city’s poor treatment of its underclass, that has caused the downfall of the city. The player explores the ruins of Rapture, encountering former civilians who have been rendered insane mutants due to overuse of genetic splicing, and guided by Atlas, a friendly revolutionary seeking to escape the city. Ryan’s speech identifies Rapture as a rebellion against conventional systems of religion, government, etc. Straightaway, it is possible to perceive this game’s narrative context as reflecting the conservative Gothic. Not only does the player assume the role of an outcast from conventional society (represented by the firey plane crash that deposits them into a literal Gothic underworld) desperately seeking a return to the surface, but as with Amnesia before it, inhuman science is a driving force for the plot.  Central to the functioning of Rapture is a process which involves the use of young girls as incubators for parasitic sea-slugs. These creatures produce the substance which drives the city’s genetic economy, and it is up to the player to decide whether or not to euthanize or attempt to heal the girls. It is made very clear that the residents of Rapture have given up their humanity, undergoing both mental and physical degeneration in exchange for this ‘plasmid’ gene modification technology.

All this may be easy to figure as demonstrating a conservative viewpoint in the way that it demonises scientific progress and appears to suggest that limitations on research are necessary- the child factor draws parallels with stem cell research. However, this is far from the most potent articulation of conservative Gothic fear in this title. Bioshock’s most intriguing narrative development reveals that the player character is just as much a product of Rapture’s corruption as anything else. It is revealed that they are essentially a genetic weapon, bred from Ryan’s DNA only a couple of years prior to the beginning of the game. Atlas, the player’s guide, is revealed to be a business rival of Ryan’s under an alias, who has created the player character for the specific purpose of killing Ryan. He has in fact implanted mental conditioning into the player character, meaning that they must obey orders delivered with a certain phrase. The sequence which reveals this can be seen on Video 3 at 0.32 here.

 These revelations change the player’s interpretation of the game considerably. By the game’s end, it is entirely possible to return to surface society, but in this moment the player feels the seeming loss keenly. What is most interesting about this aspect is the way it problematizes the ludic dimension itself.  The player of a first-person shooter is accustomed to having linear objectives, which are never questioned or subject to change by the player. They are also accustomed to having waves of hostiles to outgun without thought. Therefore, to reveal that these feature is a mark of the essential inhumanity of the player character inspires a rethink of the standard features of the ludic dimension. We are made aware of the degree to which we have come to take this gameplay model for granted. As with Amnesia, the act of self-discovery is linked with a powerful moment of Gothic horror.

What is seen in Bioshock, therefore, is a narrative that demonstrates the pervasive and subtle dangers of unfettered scientific advancement (specifically linked to bio-engineering technology), stating outright that even if a person seems unaffected by an issue, they may be affected in a way they do not realise. This also builds in to a problematisation of game narrative structure itself. The player is asked to question their mindless acceptance of violence something which, as will be demonstrated shortly, builds into a wider conservative Gothic theme of concern about video games themselves.


Spec Ops: The Line and Techno-fear

Spec Ops: The Line (2012, Xbox 360) is a game that masquerades as a ‘standard’ third-person shooter title. The player is cast as Captain Martin Walker, the head of a three-man team investigating the disappearance of an American Colonel in the city of Dubai following a sandstorm. The role of Walker seems initially to be a paragon role, before an abrupt narrative shift reveals us to be a survivor-type. This juxtaposition itself heightens the differences inherent between the two types of gameplay narrative role, and makes the eventual reveal all the more horrifying. What is most interesting about this game, however, is the degree to which it problematizes the established gameplay genre of the third-person shooter, seemingly asking its players to question the violent content they have come to accept as standard.

The point at which the façade is dropped comes at the game’s mid-way point. The player-character, Walker, encounters a large enemy force, and is told to utilise a white phosphorus launcher to defeat them. After doing so, the horrific discovery is made that the base was a civilian refugee camp, and Walker/the player have caused the deaths of many innocent civilians (Video 4, here). A sequence which, in any other game, would be seen as a reaffirmation of the power and moral superiority of the player-character, is here used to deconstruct the power structures of the game, and reveal the dangers of blind assumption. The game then proceeds to dramatically simulate the effects of shock and stress upon the psyche, creating scripted hallucinations: enemy soldiers moving erratically and impossibly about the battlefield, (Video 5 at 11.00 here) or taking on the likeness of allied soldiers and begging the player not to attack (Video 6, from 6.25, here). In both these cases killing remains the only way to progress through the game; the effect of the hallucinations is to problematize and draw attention to this fact, and so invite feelings of guilt and doubt. This is designed to mirror the emotions experienced by Walker during the narrative. The endgame reveals that many of the events of the game did not occur, as they were presented owing to Walker’s poor mental state, and the player is left doubting everything that was seemingly firmly established at the beginning of the game. Walker is not a paragon role at all. The ‘enemies’ the player engages are really innocent men being slaughtered over misunderstanding and miscommunication.

This dimension of altered perception/mental instability is similar to that featured within Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The difference here is that, instead of learning about the negative actions in the protagonist’s past, the player actually commits these negative actions in real-time. The difference seems superficial at first, but by implicating the player within the action, a new dimension is created that expresses concerns specifically related to the video-game form. Several elements of the game form itself are utilised to further implicate the player in the horrific acts that occur over the course of the narrative. For example, the player’s ‘gamer profile’, an identity that is used outside of the game to organise the gamer’s game library, saved data and so on, is used unexpectedly by the game in the opening credits, being listed as a ‘special guest’. This disruption of the boundary between the ‘real’ and ‘game’ worlds serves as an unexpected intrusion of reality into what should normally function as fantastical, escapist narrative. The element of self-awareness introduced here is expanded upon later in the game. On loading screens, gameplay hints and tips are displayed; after the destruction of the civilian camp, they randomly display disconnected sentiments such as, ‘Do you even remember why you came here?’ and, ‘How many Americans have you killed today?’. A particularly poignant message reads, ‘To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your country is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless’. The clear intent is to highlight the problematic nature of this assertion (which is itself a standard assumption for many other games) and so draw attention to an aspect of war gaming that is not commonly consciously recognised.

The key fear that drives Spec Ops: The Line is ‘techno-fear’, the expression of concerns surrounding technological innovations. The impact of technology on society becomes an increasingly common theme of Gothic works in the twentieth century. In fantasies of degeneration, there is a general sense that modern society in general was to blame for the creation of monsters such as Jekyll and Hyde and Dorian Gray, but as the Gothic progressed into the twentieth century, it became very clear that technological advancement was being held to account. The harnessing of nuclear power brought forth monsters like John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, who threaten all of humanity and hint at powers beyond the scope of humanity. The development of mass media only served to give Gothic monsters more methods of manifestation. Spec Ops: The Line serves as an extension of this theme, with a specific focus on the video-game form. The player learns, in progressing through the game, how many common assumptions they have been conditioned to make in beginning a new game of this nature. The fact that the very act of progressing through the game is itself what drives the game’s central tragedy showcases the dangers of an entertainment form cycling around violence.  As in Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Bioshock, learning, specifically learning about the self, creates suffering for the protagonist. This lesson, however, is taken to another level, as the player themselves is also prompted to examine their own self-image, and question their enjoyment of simulated violence. Like their avatar, Walker, the player undergoes a process of self-analysis which is intended to radically dislodge their preconceptions of themselves, and by extension, those of modern culture. Drawing attention to the problematic nature of video-game violence seems to be echoing concerns over the consequences of the proliferation of violent gaming in recent years. Spec Ops: The Line functions as an example of the conservative Gothic owing to its visceral demonstration of the problems facing the form, the dangers of blind assumption, and its giving voice to gaming’s critics.



The purpose of this essay has been to explore and highlight a strain of conservative thought or attitude within the Gothic It has been demonstrated that this conservative strain has a distinct presence within the Gothic video game. When the conservative meets the video-game, the result is a narrative that runs counter to the ego-boosting power fantasies that are more common in video-game storytelling. The ‘survivor-type’ role is predominant in Gothic video games, something that itself ties in to the conservative ideal. Playing a role where a return to the normal social order is presented as desirable – indeed , as the only reason to progress through the gameworld – demonstrates heavy support for standard social values. What is more, in two of the games studied above, a dimension of trauma and mental delusion is invoked- in the form of a ‘sanity meter’ for Amnesia, and in the form of simulated PTSD for Spec Ops: The Line. Sanity is made desirable by simulating its loss, and demonstrating dramatically how unsettling it is to lose control in this way. In fact, it may be said that creating fear from the loss of control may be one of the core ways in which the conservative Gothic is reflected in the video game. The player of one of these titles will not seek to change the world, or manipulate it for their own ends; they will expend tremendous effort just to stay normal, a clear echo of the Kilgour quote that began this essay, the norm that is made desirable after the experience of terror.

There is another key element to take notice of in all three of these titles: the problematisation of learning. We are living in an age when the transfer of information and personal data has become intensely problematic. Learning is available to the vast majority of the populations of developed countries, but at present attempts to restrict or contain knowledge have met with little success. By presenting the act of learning itself as dangerous, a thing leading to suffering, the games reflect fears about the consequences of this irrevocable social evolution. A central theme for all three titles might be expressed as ‘curiosity is dangerous, and leads to suffering’. The player’s attempts to learn cause great suffering, especially when endeavouring to gain self-knowledge. There is a sense that it may have been better to leave one’s curiosity unsatisfied, something that proves increasingly difficult in our current historical moment.

Curiosity is not the only danger problematized by the conservative Gothic game; our acceptance or tolerance of violence as entertainment is demonised in both Bioshock and Spec Ops. Since the earliest representations of violence in video games, there have been calls for censorship and suggestions that the prevalence of violent games may be leading to increased tolerance of violence in society. We can view this as another type of ‘fear of change.’ In an interview, David Grossman, author of a number of anti-video game works, repeatedly states ‘These things have never happened before in human history’ (Grossman 2002). His concern is that the emergence of video games is introducing into society ‘the skill and the will to kill’; the fear is that of an irrevocable change for the worse, the only solution being ‘education’. For games themselves to begin reflecting this clear conservative sentiment suggests an acknowledgement of this fear, and even, perhaps, a degree of support for it- considering the degree to which both Bioshock and Spec Ops problematize the notion of ‘conditioned response’, it is clear that both titles intend to raise concerns about what is acceptable for modern media to teach its consumer.

                   In summation, it has been demonstrated that the conservative Gothic has a prominent presence within the video game. It represents an interesting counterpoint to the prevalent ego-boosting culture present within most games, presenting the player-character as a weakened, abstracted figure to whom society, sanity and stability are desirable commodities. There is also a self-reflective, critical dimension, suggesting that the video-game form itself could be a problematic mode of entertainment, inviting players to think carefully about the form and their own reactions toward it. The conservative Gothic game is that which warns the player not to take social values for granted; to be aware, constantly, of the consequences of their loss.




Works Cited

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Spec Ops: The Line. 2012, Jager Development. Xbox 360 version.

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Wolfreys, Julian. 2002. Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Gothic, The Uncanny and Literature. Basingstoke: Macmillan.


[1] These first two terms were suggested by the role-playing series Mass Effect. In these titles, the terms were deployed to refer to the main character’s moral character and attitude, which altered according to player decisions. The series itself fits into the ‘variable’ category described above, but its utilisation of the terms has informed my terminology.