Thinking After Dark: Day 1

Montreal is a beautiful city.

I have logged a lot of time in the air this month. I flew from Japan to the Bay Area in early April, then flew up to Oregon to see my family, and now I am sitting in a hotel room in Montreal. On Sunday I return to the Bay Area and on Tuesday I will get back in the plane and fly back to Japan. Hello frequent flyer miles!

I am in Montreal, which is a fantastic (but very cold) city, for the first time in about eight years, to attend the Thinking After Dark conference, which is all about horror video games. Today was the first day of the conference, which runs for three days. On Saturday I am giving a (very short) talk about using horror games to study Japanese culture, a topic that I think is a pretty predictable selection for me. The conference is located in a neat old building that was selected because “it looks like something out of Resident Evil.” I can tell that I am in the company of friends, though I have to admit that some of the lingo is so academic that I have trouble understanding it.

Today’s talks were all interesting, and I took a ton of notes. In fact, I have so many notes that rather than trying to describe each individual talk, I am going to just record some of the key interesting points that I heard today. I’m going to break the notes up into separate posts because there’s just too much information. Also, even though there’s a lot of content here you should understand that I am applying a pretty strict filter; these talks have way more info in them than I can possible transcribe here.

The first keynote, by Barry K. Grant of Brock University, was about horror cinema. Grant is the author of numerous books on cinema and had a whole lot to say about horror films. Some points:

  • Grant believes that “video games constitute the future of cinema.” He sees them as “the eighth art,” after cinema. Cinema is spatial arts + temporal arts, and games add interactivity to that formula.
  • Horror has the most extensive network of extra-cinematic institutions (next to Sci-Fi): magazines, web sites, zombie flash mobs, etc.
  • Like comedy and porn, “horror is defined in terms of its intended affect,” making it a “body genre.” Contrast that with crime or mystery films which are about the narrative.
  • Consequently, a “good” horror movie is one that is scary, even if it’s not a particularly well-made film.
  • Grant shows how German expressionism, for example the painted-on shadows, artificial lighting, and hard, distorted angles in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) jumped to Hollywood when German filmmakers fled to the US in the early 1930s to avoid the Nazis.
  • “Horror movies are more about the time and place that they are made in rather than the time that they are set.”
  • Classic monsters are no longer scary because in the 1950s onward they were

    The venue. Not shown: entrance to underground laboratory.

    “juvenilized”: put on cereal boxes, made into toys, etc.

  • Psycho changed genre films by suggesting that monsters didn’t have to be aliens or monsters. The horror still descends from the gothic mansion on the hill to arrive at the regular Bates Motel though.
  • New vocabulary word: “splat-stick.”
  • Interesting idea that William Castle films (The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, etc) are early experiments in interactive cinema.

Second was a talk by Tanya Krzywinska of Brunel University. She has also written extensively about games and film. Her talk covered tons of bases and is difficult to summarize, so I’ll just list a few interesting points:

  • “Orchestrated” (= linear, pre-scripted, pre-determined) game play sequences vs organic, open-ended sequences. Phantasmagoria is extremely orchestrated, even down to the points in space that you can visit (as the motion is all based on live film), and borrows much from cinema. 3D free-roaming games, on the other hand, are harder to orchestrate and thus were unable to directly apply shock and tension lessons from cinema and had to invent their own.
  • Krzwinska calls gamers “close readers,” that is, games require attention to detail and pattern recognition. Compare that to TV or film which can “take you places” without effort. In games, your life depends on your ability to “read” the details of the game.
  • She makes a distinction between game “grammars” for mechanics and for the genre. This is a similar idea to my idea about ‘mechanical challenges’ and ‘cognitive challenges’, but she’s framed it very well. The game grammar is “how you play” and the genre grammar is “what is happening in the game.” It occurs to me that game grammars must be as readable as possible (to avoid the frustration of not knowing how to control the game) while genre grammars may be intentionally misleading or obscured (in order to misdirect the player’s understanding of the environment or story).
  • She has a point about sound provoking action in games, as opposed to in films where it causes you to imagine an action. The radio in Silent Hill foretells of an approaching enemy which you can then encounter, etc.
  • She’s a big fan of Lovecraft and of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. But she points out that the game grammar and genre grammar are somewhat at odds (e.g. you must investigate things to learn about them, but looking upon horrors causes you to lose sanity points). Lovecraft doesn’t fit well with game grammar norms.

I’ll save the rest of today’s talks for a future post. In fact, at this rate I might just have to move everything to an article or present a less informative but more concise summary of the day’s events. Which would you prefer?

9 thoughts on “Thinking After Dark: Day 1

  1. Montreal is a fantastic city, totally loved it when I visited it last summer. Lots of cute girls, hehe.

    Anyway I think you should break it into articles just so its more saturated, and since you haven’t been posting a lot lately, you ought to write more. Love the content.

  2. Sounds like a great place to be. I agree – breaking into article format with as much content as possible would be great.

    I particulary like the comments on game grammar. I have been playing some FIFA recently (I know its not a horror game) and the way it communicates its system of rewards and punishments is very confused and unrealistic and it makes the game incredibly frustating to play. With horror games, that often rely on atmosphere, effective communication is so important or else you risk ruining the atmosphere.

  3. Interesting points.
    I’d love an expanded article if you have time.
    It’d be interesting to hear a further elucidation of “body genres”.
    (I Google’d some of Barry Keith Grant’s books- and I don’t see this subject crop up- at least as a main thesis.)

  4. ‘Grant believes that “video games constitute the future of cinema.”

    A lot of people have said that. All are wrong (and too many of them made bad FMV games on the way :). Basically they miss the point that narrative cinema (and novels) are explicitly about having no control over the fate of the characters. There are areas of aesthetic overlap shared by all these forms, but this reception difference is the biggest one. As much as videogames rock, we will never cease to need stories that we have no control over. Cinema can’t evolve into gaming – it’s not the same evolutionary branch. But games and films can certainly steal lots of features off each other.

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