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Ethos and Riddles talk about video games...
            Can you handle it?
by Ethos

Dirty Words: The Low Art of “Splatterhouse”

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Remember the perverse little thrill you felt hearing the first hushed whispers of Mortal Kombat? A game your parents wouldn’t dream of ever letting you touch, forcing you over to a friend’s house who’s parents were mid-divorce and couldn’t be bothered to do any real parenting? A game where the right combination of buttons, skillfully entered, would result in violent decapitation, or dismemberment, or getting uppercut in to a spiked ceiling, or a lake of acid, or an active wind turbine? If that was a definitive moment in your sordid relationship with videogames, Splatterhouse is going to have you feeling all warm and gooey inside. That, and it means you’re one sick twist.

Namco’s newest is another revival trend game that reboots their classic arcade beat’em up of the same name, with a sinister and ambiguous agenda. You play as Frank, a noodle-armed mama’s boy who’s decided the perfect place to propose to his college sweetheart is the cavernous anti-chamber of her chemistry professor’s labyrinthine estate. The professor reveals himself to be more of the “mad scientist” persuasion and exhibits his questionable ethical standards by snatching up Frank’s steady girl and putting a pill in the poor fellow, leaving him to bleed out on the cold tile floor. Jason Voorhees evidently popped in earlier and must have left in something of a rush, because he left his hockey mask lying about and it ends up seducing poor, bloody Frank in to putting it on, which then transforms him in to a  leviathanic man-rhino. Frank subsequently maims his way through level after level of 3D and 2D platforming, rending limb from splintering limb in a homicidal rampage that lends new meaning to word “gratuity”. Funny thing is, it came ofs as quite artistic at times.

The word “Pandering” ranks among the lowest and most repugnant as can be visited on any work of art, regardless of the medium, but Splatterhouse has forced me to re-examine the term. Traditionally it connotes construction based solely around the market’s demand rather than creativity, with only a financial goal, and not an artistic one. Its what most franchise videogame adaptations are guilty of, unfortunately leading to a generalization that can at times be un-just. In this case, what initially came-off as shameless demographic targeting was later coloured with tones of solidarity and understanding for the most torturous of adolescent, hormonal frustrations. Splatterhouse exhibits an extremely intimate understanding of the appetites of the standard issue pre-teen, to the point that it could easily be imagined as a sort of cathartic exercise in alleviating adolescent angst. The commercial result is easy enough to document, but the artistic result is easily missed.

Grasping at straws, you say? Projecting my own bleeding-hearted desire for videogames to be validated as an artistic medium, am I? Perhaps, but consider this: following his transformation, the mask communicates with Frank, seemingly from somewhere within his mind, suggesting all manner of base savagery (in which you subsequently indulge) and influencing the actions of an otherwise rational protagonist. Call it instinct, ID, or the devil in our shoulder, but its no rare occurrence that the soul of man is divided in to conflicting entities, each vying for dominance, pulling in polarized directions. Being the young man that he is, Frank would be enduring the pinnacle of his life’s hormonal craze. Those of us unfortunate enough to remember it would not be far fetched in equating the experience to a struggle for self-control against ruthless and morally un-sound influences, emanating from within.

Your first vengeful romp through the good doctor’s halls reveals a room with numerous plaques adorning the walls, each with a gibbering, many-eyed maw, cackling away in cruel-hearted ridicule. It is derogatory and direct, aimed squarely at Frank, who must fend off waves of enemies that will only cease when enough blood is spilt causing the laughter to stop, and the way to become open. An arbitrary scenario to most, but to the downtrodden teen male, facing daily ridicule form his peers, however jovial, it’s a cathartic exercise, full of appropriately surrogate parties. Reality would forbid such vengeful violence. Splatterhouse demands it. Indulge your aggression until the sting of belittlement stops; A more accurate appraisal of the teenage dream, if you ask me.

As a game, it didn’t do much for me, but this shouldn’t be considered an assessment of its merit as a means of entertainment, so much as an interpretation. Even with our calamitous puberty behind us, many of us bear sufficient scars, figurative and quite often literal, to be easily reminded of its obstacles. The good folks at Namco remember them too; only they took the opportunity to explore them and extract something that sates every unfulfilled appetite we were left with. It’s a game that creatively illuminates an aspect of the shared human experience, and even though it grew tiresome, there aren’t many of those around these days.


Dirty Words: War and its Mythology in Videogames

Monday, November 15th, 2010

From what popular media has taught me of WAR, I know that it is an environment where in two or more groups of people make proficient use of both large and small machines that were invented for the sole purpose of impeding the existence of individuals other than themselves. They do this so that they can get their way. “Their way” most often includes their own comfort and survival, as well as the comfort and survival of their friends. I also know that it appeals to a lot of males because it is a perpetual opportunity to flex nuts. The millennia have conditioned us to savor the domination of others, ensuring that the strongest lead and ensure the perpetuation of the species. There are many paths to the visceral satisfaction of domination: Intellectual duals, inebriated high-decibel arguments, passive aggressive notes left for your roommates above your infested sink, and so on. The most direct and clear route, however, is violent confrontation. There can be no greater clarity in designating the alpha status then the exertion of control over another living thing’s very existence.  If domination were a drug, I imagine the violence of war would be like spiking a pulsing, juicy, blue vein before collapsing in to a four-post, king-size bed made entirely of breasts.

Unfortunately, WAR is not a bed of breasts. It is a thoroughly pre-meditated and meticulously executed orgy of endings. I could never succeed in an accurate mental replication. I would never and have never tried. In my opinion, neither has any videogame.

The now canonical controversy surrounding violence in videogames often makes the argument that they glorify WAR. Videogames have a unique relationship with WAR so far as they are very particular about what sorts of experiences they chose to simulate. The discrepancies between what goes on in WAR and what is presented in videogames suggests to me that no developer has ever attempted to “realistically” simulate it. A game in which the player spends six months in a desert masturbating and being yelled at before getting their legs blown off by an IED on a routine patrol would not sell well. Videogames have always instead concerned themselves with the “mythology” of WAR, which pre-dates the invention of the medium. A mythology takes shape when a particular practice or institution exists long enough for characteristic details to filter through the bulk of affairs and be circulated as a popular, if not always accurate, archetype. In this case, stories of showing remarkable competence and ability in hostile environments: War stories.

They’ve existed as long as men and women have returned from war to tell them. Their legitimacy is irrelevant. We delight in their telling and they inspire great works of art in all mediums. It is these narratives that contemporary videogame developers strive to simulate. The controversy arises from inarticulate differentiation. I doubt the developers would even know where to divide fact from fiction, nor would they want to.  Any disclaimer outright refuting the game’s factuality would be suicidal. The audience’s delight is built on the plausibility of truth, however remote. It is for this reason that I place the onus for violent behaviour in any way resulting from videogames on the audience. In the cultivation of their maturity, functional adults should have at some point developed the ability to discern between fantasy and reality. They should educate their children to do so.  If they deem the child is not yet mentally capable of the differentiation, appropriate censorship should be implemented.

James Joyce writes in Stephen Hero, ‘the artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances chosen as the most exact for it in its new office, he was the supreme artist.’ This is the province of the WAR game developer. For a parent or guardian to not educate their dependents as to the nature of their art is criminal and can more than likely lead to catastrophic misinterpretation, but with the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops, we have seen the careful and committed hand of a few very talented artists. To otherwise know them would be equally criminal.


“Dirty Words” will be the handle for all subsequent written work from Mr. Lameish. Kay?