“Do not Look… or it Takes You”: The Games of Horror Vacui

Braxton Soderman
Braxton Soderman

In the moment when video games became academically visible, game studies had its eyes gouged out, again and again. ‘The pleasures of video game play are not principally visual, but rather are kinaesthetic’, wrote James Newman (2002) while Espen Aarseth (2004: 52) warned of a ‘problematic visualism’ that threatened to render invisible the formal properties of games, their rules and mechanics. It was film theorists, Aarseth (2004: 48) notoriously claimed, that had ‘analysed’ Lara Croft ‘to death’. Even game designers warned of the danger of graphical eye-candy, cosmetics, and window-dressing. The ‘video’ of video games, the ‘I see’ that modifies games, was feminised and disavowed in the (masculine, in this case) birth of game studies. Yet, horror games constantly reanimate the revenant of ‘video’, returning it to the side of ‘games’, often by turning vision into a game mechanic itself and by leveraging the aesthetic technique known as horror vacui.

Horror vacui is the terror of the void, of empty space, of the vacuum that would deny nature its plenitude. The aesthetic concept marks the over-marking of visual space, the excessive decoration that threatens to overwhelm what is being decorated, the stuffing of gaps and caesura with further representation because of the fear to let emptiness reside. It can even induce the physicality of ‘horror’ itself – anxiety, repulsion, and the bristling and shivering of skin. The Path (2009), a PC video game that remakes Little Red Riding Hood, is pure horror vacui. Players guide one of six girls through a forest to encounter her ‘wolf’ as paw prints pulse onto the screen, superimposed faces arise like spectres, and frills and decorative patterns invade the frame. After locating the ‘wolf,’ the screen fades out and in on an image of the girl crumpled, lying unconscious in the rain before her Grandmother’s house. The rain transforms the image into a patina of dense scratches, and in fact, the ‘lens’ of the virtual camera itself is marked with white streaks that persist as the player awakens the girl and guides her limping figure toward the house. Within the house, the third-person perspective switches to first as the player glides past surreal images such as a table fixed to a wall with a raven atop, a chair rocking by itself, glitches of static, and hallways that burn, crawl with patterns, or spin like a fun-house.

The monster is also a visual signifier of horror vacui, the result of an intense spatial gravity that vacuums nature’s plenitude into a motley of representation. As Noël Carroll (1990: 57) writes, ‘Horrific monsters … embody the notion of a violation of nature’, and nothing violates nature more than a vacuum. In The Path, no beasts exist to harm the player within the house because it is the monster itself – where it rains indoors, trees pierce through beds, and even the walls exhibit wormlike agency. Moreover, the switch to the first-person perspective dissolves the distance between the ‘I’ and the avatar. Forced into the girl’s traumatised body – which now appears only in glimpsed shadows that haunt the walls – the player too, becomes an unnatural combination, a monstrous ‘me–she’ punished for the complicity of causing, literally, the girl’s downfall. If the player refuses to press a key to advance through the house, the visual field fades to a terrifying black void, except for fleeting flashes of icons such as lashed eyes, lips, a chair, all accompanied by guttural growls. ‘The point of horror resides in the blind space’, writes Pascal Bonitzer (1981: 58). Thus the fade to darkness leaks blind space on-screen, and the ‘point of horror’ aligns with the player. In horror films, vision is partial and the monster is often off-screen, an absence that causes on-screen space, or ‘specular space’ as Bonitzer calls it, to bristle with suspense. Yet, as Bernard Perron (2005) explains, ‘the entire visual field of the video game is much more dramatised because we can and have to walk-through … off-screen space’. The fading of specular space in The Path embodies this dramatisation, compelling the player to press a key to advance, to return to vision.1 Movement through the house forces one either to confront its visual monstrosity or the monster of one’s own imagination. Here, horror vacui exemplifies the return of the repressed logic of looking in video games.

Horror games were pure vision and blindness from the beginning where, for example, the player controlled a pair of eyes wandering through the darkness in the Atari 2600’s Haunted House (1982). While the survival horror genre draws heavily on cinematic modes of activating off-screen space, many horror games explore vision as a game mechanic itself. The use of flashlights not only illuminates space but also repels creatures (Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, 2001) and functions as a part of a combat system (Alan Wake, 2010). The Fatal Frame series (2001–2008) is famous for the use of a camera as a weapon to damage and exorcise ghosts. The Siren (2003–2008) series uses the mechanic of ‘sight jacking’, which splits the screen and allows the player to see through the perspective of monsters. In other games, looking at monsters or being seen by them will reduce one’s sanity, often causing visual distortions.

The economics of looking becomes thematic in Five Nights at Freddy’s (2014) where the player accesses a series of security cameras to keep track of evil, animatronic bears that roam a pizza restaurant after midnight. Blind space abounds since, unlike a typical control room with multiple monitors, the restaurant’s surveillance cameras can only be accessed individually. The partial vision emerges through the denial of the total vision ideologically promised by the multiple windows of multitasking. Gameplay becomes analogous to clicking frantically through numerous tabs on a web browser. Once the animatronic bears begin to roam the restaurant the player often confronts their disturbing gazes at the camera, or in the case of Freddy Fazbear himself, his glowing eyes in the dark. ‘The forces of evil do not stay unseen in the video game’, writes Bernard Perron (2009: 126), and given the constant switching between cameras, encountering evil is multiplied, as are the scares. The horror is subtended by the fear and anxiety of missing something, and not having the proper information to thwart the movements of evil. Thus, the mode of looking is similar to what Tara McPherson (2006: 204) calls the scan-and-search of web browsing, which concerns ‘a fear of missing the next experience or the next piece of data’. Here the horror vacui is less about what is visually seen than the over-abundance of seeing.

Scan-and-search visuality is also present in Slender: The Eight Pages (2012), where the player searches through space to collect pages of scrawled text and image, seeing only through the fading halo of a flashlight. Especially in the forested sections, the visual field becomes a horror vacui of blind spots, each illuminated tree (or cluster of trees) suggesting a void behind which Slender Man might appear. The player’s halo of vision scans feverishly in a staccato fashion. This frenetic visuality (also present in Five Nights at Freddy’s) invokes the mode of perception operable when viewing horror vacui, which Minissale (2007) discusses in terms of ‘saccadic’ vision ‘where the eye darts from one place to the other’. Given that Slender Man teleports from location to location, the flashlight occasionally alights on him, causing the screen to fill with static as the player tries to escape. One page reads, ‘Don’t Look … Or It Takes You’, which not only signifies the mechanic of looking at Slender Man that causes vision to fade into static and end the game, but also the threat of being overtaken by compulsive ‘looking’ if one seeks the transmedia phenomenon of Slender Man in his true lair, the forest of details that compose his online hauntings.

Horror vacui, today, is a generalised condition where the endless circulation of images and the visible is catalyzed by a profound unease surrounding, as Alexander Galloway (2011) might say, the invisible, unrepresentable network itself. This digital darkness and the difficulty representing today’s expansive networks catalyses different forms of visual excessiveness in contemporary horror games. The titled merely P.T. (Kojima, 2014), a playable teaser for the new (now cancelled) Silent Hill game, trades in the currency of this form of horror vacui. When first released, P.T. demanded the collective intelligence of a network of players to unravel its arcane puzzles. Undoubtedly many ‘eyes’ were required to tease out the solution to this teaser. Indeed, P.T. constantly foregrounds a surplus of looking. The first thing the player sees is a double-headed cockroach, an insect with a thousand lenses per eye that allow it to see multiple things simultaneously. The only action that the player must perform, other than walking, is to press a button that slightly zooms in the player’s view – on numerous pictures that hang on the walls of an endlessly looping hallway, detritus spread on dresser tops, a clock, a radio that sometimes speaks narrative snippets and so on. This ‘close up’ look can trigger different events, like viewing a photograph of a man and woman that gouges out her right eye. The ghost that haunts the hallway is missing her right eye as well, a pregnant woman shot in her abdomen when a father lost his job and killed his family. At one point the hallway turns into a labyrinth illuminated in red light with each painting containing a single, rolling eyeball. ‘An over-abundance in representation’, Gregory Minissale (2007) writes, ‘reproduces an over-abundance of eyes, of moments of looking.’ While the multiplicity of eyes creates visual horror vacui, each painting contains a lack of representation, a reminder of the ghost is gouged out an eye. Again Minissale (2007): ‘The horror brings the vacui to mind by the marks it uses to cover it up.’

Bonitzer (1981: 62) notes that ‘empty sockets, are also a way to concretise the blind spot of the subject’ and thus castration anxiety as well. However, the ghost only has one eye gouged, which seems fitting, since in horror games the player not only fears blind space, but must look into it, explore it (Chien, 2007; Perron, 2005). After searching deliriously for an escape from the twisting, red hallway, the only unique ‘painting’ – a sideways, blinking eye easily mistaken for a vulva – falls to reveal a peephole. Zooming-in, the view switches to a circular frame, and the player sees the bathroom where at one point a bloody fetus writhed in the sink. Yet this time the player sees only an empty, dilapidated room as he or she moves the frame around just like the rotating eyes in the hallway paintings. The uncanny seeps as the player is forced to gaze into this visual ‘vacuum’, the vacant room/womb where, ostensibly, the mother was shot. A haunting occurs with sounds of tearing and screaming and the radio voice narrating a political unconscious mixed with a ‘fear of the archaic mother’ and ‘her generative power’ (Kristeva, 1982: 77): ‘I’m talking to all the fine, upstanding folks got their welfare cut, got their jobs pulled out from under ‘em. Yeah, you! You know what to do! Now’s the time! Do it!’ (P.T., 2014). While there is nothing horrifying to see as the player gazes into the empty room, fear emerges because the unseen ghost could be right beside. This fear is augmented by the horror vacui of P.T. and its excessive visuality, wherein this moment of ungratified voyeurism the player is being observed observing, by the roving eyes in the hallway behind, by the ghost’s accusatory eye. Horror vacui reminds us that vision is not ornamental but foundational to one’s experience of the horror game, the glaring return of the repressed ‘I see’ of video games.

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