In most video games you never quite reach the edge of the world. Walls, sure, or places where the trees become impenetrable, where bitmaps strain towards pixellation.
But here I am falling. Down down through soft empty space.
Hamburger Bahnof, Berlin. Exhibition videos of artist Harun Farocki’s Serious Games I-IV are set in zig-zag formation. On the first screen, computer simulations prepare American soldiers for war. Tanks steer across a seemingly empty terrain. What’s new to me comes afterwards: virtual reality exposure therapy. In an attempt to lessen the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, a soldier, immersed in a VR headset with directional 3d audio, retells the story of what he did and saw. The therapist sitting by him recreates it inside the virtual world. “The current application,” the University of Southern California-based project’s website says, “consists of a series of virtual scenarios specifically designed to represent relevant contexts for VR exposure therapy, including Afghan and Iraqi city and desert road environments” . The same technology can be used to treat non-war-related PTSD and anxiety disorders.
Explosions of black smoke against the heavy, too large sun.
“The mood of the light,” the instructor on screen explains, “can be freely selected… Clear day, overcast, dusk, night.” The difference between the simulations for before and after battle, writes Farocki, is all in the light. In the training simulations, the sun over Afghanistan is realistically modelled to respond to its actual movement in the sky over time. Shadows are crisp, sharp data to navigate and attack by. But the simulations for remembering have no shadows.
I discover one of the collaborators on USC Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) project is the same game-making software I’ve played around in, trying to make my own little games of landscapes and buildings to move through. Unity 3d. It’s the same software used to make all of the games I’ll talk about here .
I’ve tried to make my own 3d spaces. I remember struggling to orient myself. Finding myself so impossibly close to or far away from objects that I couldn’t recognise them. Realising after zooming in and out that I’d been pointing in the wrong direction all along.
It’s this lack of skill or uncertainty, I think, that gave my first attempts to recreate the places I was attacked in the colourlessness of memory and dreams.
In game space, the body exists as a seen or invisible object. Something to collide with other objects. It does not shed hair or cells. It can only be abstractly damaged. “We never experience the physical pain of a wounded avatar; only a representation of it (whether a diminishing health bar, a shuddering controller, or blood streaking across the screen)” .
What does it mean to exist in this space? In the VRET simulations, Iraqi and Afghan cities are detailed but lifeless, interchangeable props without history. The instructor flicks between imagined enemies. This, I suppose is the only story the institution and its partners can tell.
“Violence in games is weightless,” writes artist and game designer Merritt Kopas. “It’s described as ‘hyper-realistic,’ but it’s really very light — bodies are puppets that jerk around on ragdoll strings, and the weight of actually inflicting harm on someone isn’t realized” .
I guess the sizes of the rooms it happened in from memory. Draw rectangles that become walls from the top like an architectural floor plan. Find walls that don’t meet up where I thought they would, empty spaces where they shouldn’t be, stairs that won’t fit. None of this is convincing. When. How many times. I draw in escape routes I couldn’t use. Like returning to a childhood home, when I check out the front of the house on streetview I can’t believe how small everything is.
“i dont understand how unity has been out for so long but people havent been using it to make millions of trapped broken claustrophobia sims” wrote game designer Porpentine . She’s recently released tiny games set in fractured spaces, with no escape, no win condition. Like infected Turrell installations. sorry 🙁 pink text says as you fall forever in the light of the sun.
There’s been an increase in the past couple of years in small-scale games, made by people with access to limited resources and technical skills. They’re often grouped under the umbrella of queer games, and many are made by trans women. These are games interested in exploring personal experiences and ways of navigating the world shaped by marginalised perspectives, games interested in creating shared experiences, building community, or questioning the underlying assumptions of what games should be .
So, I wonder, what might games that explore the relationship between memory and trauma and space look like? I don’t find any that engage with this with respect to wars, with that kind of destruction of space, but there are some about other kinds of violence. The games I manage to find are mostly small, low budget. Amy Dentata’s 10 seconds in hell was made over a 48 hour game jam. Gone Home, the most publicised and commercial, features no human figures because there wasn’t the money for it.
10 Seconds in Hell opens with a mechanical voice against a dark screen:
“I replayed the scene in my mind over and over, wondering how it could have gone differently. The only thing I remember clearly was the room where it happened. Everything else was a little hazy.”
You are in a messy second-floor bedroom. The antagonist, another mechanical voice we never see, is coming up in 10 seconds to get you. The game screen fades out when he opens the door and the game ends. Any resolution is only heard through dialogue and sound effects.
I play the game over and over, searching for a different ending. The combination of voice-over at the beginning, and having only ten seconds to act, make it seem unlike something unfolding in real time. Not something that could be solved if only you were fast enough, or made the correct choices. More like a memory visited and revisited.
Because it was created in only 48 hours, details are missing, the graphics simple, which Amy Dentata says, although unintentional, added a layer of abstraction to the game which made it easier for people to relate to . To me, it feels like a scene revisited so many times the edges become sharp.
“Triggers”, Kim Cunningham writes, “are connective tissue” . As I learn about writing C# to interact with the game world, I think: what is the algorithm for being thrown across the room? What game objects can I attach it to?
I cannot answer this. So I make point lights that move through walls like angels.
In Gone Home you’ve returned on a stormy night from a year-long trip abroad to your family’s new house. But no one’s there. You move through rooms that are both familiar and unfamiliar, looking for clues. Mostly, you’re waiting for the attack that never comes: turning round corners waiting for the monsters to jump out, mistake red hair dye in the bath for blood. The surface story, as you work through the house, is refreshingly positive and empowering: the triumph of riot grrrl love. Other stories need more time and work to piece together, hidden family histories. The feeling of moving through congealed memories. What does a house remember?
Curtain is described by its creator @dreamfeeels as “a lo-fi narrative about destructive relationships” . Blue and purple and pink shimmer in squares. As you move you feel as though you’re drunk or underwater. Text narrates you and your girlfriend Kaci returning home after performing at a punk concert, but no figures ever appear on screen, giving it the quality of slipping through a memory. Once you enter the flat the door locks behind you.
You look out the window at the distant lights. “We can see the city from here. This apartment didn’t exist 10 years ago, we didn’t really either. It looks like any city, we can pretend we are wherever we want.”
You interact with objects that tell the story of the unfolding relationship. It’s unclear what’s happening now and what’s memory. Kaci’s presence is like a ghost or god, an insistent voice taking up a third of the screen, commenting on each of the objects.
At first, moving through the flat feels like a fairly straightforward representation of space. It took me a while to discover the passageway: that when you get in the shower you can move past the water to a narrow corridor of light. The square-block texture interferes with depth perception, so the journey feels endless and uncertain, like a death sequence, moving towards the end of the tunnel. But this is also a space outside of the logic the apartment, outside of objects and their histories. A place where no one else can find you. You keep going until you emerge in the bathroom again but the colours and time have changed.
You go back and back to this small, impossible space that’s yours, in this apartment where there is no unobserved space. This is the space and movement you need before you can leave.
When I first import the house I’ve made into Unity the mesh physics is not set properly. The controller keeps falling through the ground. Softly down in the dark. The inverted world shrinks above me until I hit escape.
It was early morning when I ran out. Although in my mind the room was full of afternoon light. That’s the only chronology I can assemble.
Slave of God plays with space and disorientation. You enter the nightclub and it’s bursting with colour and patterns and music and when you move around you don’t know whether you’ve come to the corner of walls or passageways full of light. It’s like reaching the stage of drunkenness that’s not sure if it’s a memory. It’s ecstatic, redemptive, staggering from a club out into the night air and finding you are the city streets that speed past you.
When I get the gravity to work I move through the bare rooms where it happened. Lights stark as underground parking lot stairwells. I’d wanted to add furniture and objects but didn’t have the skills or memory to create them. It’s better this way. Like when you’re moving house and everything is packed up outside and everyone’s waiting and you’re walking through the empty rooms for the last time and all the memories you’d mapped onto the space can’t exist there any more because there’s nothing for them to hang on to.
I try to work out the code to fall from room to remembered room, to wake and wake. The pathways are not windows or doors but points you won’t know until you stumble upon them.
In the games I’ve talked about I like the places at the edges most. In Curtain the city lights and the path at the beginning you can’t follow but that looks like a pier leading out to the sea. In 10 Seconds in Hell the window and the cupboard. In Slave of God the space outside where the streets blur.
I roam around the house I’ve created and it feels like power but what I like most is still the empty spaces that I haven’t coded away yet, the darkness I can still fall into, warm and safe and indistinct.
- Bravemind, virtual reality exposure therapy
- Although I’m not sure what its relationship is to the project other than being one among a list of names.
- Farrow, Robert, and Ioanna Iacovides. “Gaming and the limits of digital embodiment.” Philosophy & Technology 27.2 (2014): 221-233.
- A couple of resources on this: (i) Interrupting Play: Queer Games & Futurity, (ii) Just making things and being alive about it: the queer games scene.
- Amy Dentata discusses the making of the game in: Millions of Tries: A Post-Mortem for “10 Seconds in Hell”, and a Plea.
- Cunningham, Kim. “Should We Be Triggered? NeuroGovernance in the Future/(Tense).” Social Text Periscope, April 1. (2012)
Wren Hart is a writer and library worker based in London. Wren writes about cities, coding, gender and magic and is particularly interested in the possibilities of hypertext and interactive fiction. Wren’s writing can be found at foresthexes.tumblr.com.