Conference report: Gaming the Gothic, University of Sheffield, Friday, April 13, 2018
[Reports also contributed by TJ Matthews, who can be found on Twitter at
@teej_matthews. Panel reports which have been written by TJ are indicated as such next to the panel title.]
Held in the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, Gaming the Gothic placed a great emphasis on inclusion, with pronoun and name stickers at the door, catered food with clear demarcations for allergy sufferers and vegans, and a Code of Conduct outlined in the programme. Event organisers Emily Marlow and Lauren Nixon opened the conference by welcoming guests and speakers, and by introducing themes which were revisited by speakers throughout the day: the wide spectrum of definitions of the Gothic, the new and interdisciplinary nature of games studies, and how studying the intersection between the two can further the evolution and mutation of the genre.
Panel 1a: Post-Millenial Gothic – by TJ Matthews
Stephen Curtis – “Narrative America Great Again: The American Gothic Origins of the USA in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine”
He begins by exploring how the self-fulfilling mythology surrounding the origins of the US has been betrayed by presidents like Trump. “Give me your tired, your poor” vs. “they’re not giving us their best people.” There is nostalgia for a non-existent era of America, particularly Reaganism at present, but this harking to a mythical past is embedded in the history of the US. He then goes on to explore the supposedly conflicting conflicting genres of gothic and transcendental literature, and exploring how early American mythos writers, Walt Whitman in particular, are able to intersect and explore themes of both simultaneously. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine serves as an excellent example of gothic transcendentalism, where you explore the stories of a diverse cast of American peoples, written also by a diverse cast of games writers and, interestingly, games critic and academics. The act of storytelling in the game allows the tellers to ‘unburden’ themselves of their mortal bodies as the player discovers the layers and complexities of each tale. There is a true gothic sense of uncanny time, the game doesn’t exist in a particular era and instead fulfils its purpose as acting as an interface to this mythological American past.
Thomas Brassington – “You know what I need? Some heels without guns: Reading Bayonetta as Queer Happy Gothic”
One of many talks during this conference to discuss and frame their talk around Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic, a book which explores contemporary Gothic texts as a celebration of Gothic themes and sensibilities. Thomas uses this lens to explore Bayonetta as a gothic celebration, furthered by intersecting with queer theory, and discussing the concept of ‘gothic drag’, where texts (re)use gothic themes and tropes in a performative manner (see Max Fincher, “The Gothic as Camp: Queer Aesthetics in The Monk”). Bayonetta exists as a text in a state of conflict: in its presentation and game content it can be read as queer feminist camp – Bayonetta herself is unapologetically sexual and unwilling and uninterested to be controlled by or even interact with men – whereas with its production it is impossible to ignore the facts that it was developed by a majority straight male staff (who boast over having spent 30 hours sculpting the perfect female derriere, for example) for a respective young, straight male audience. Thomas disagrees with Susan Sontag’s defining of ‘naïve camp’, arguing that all performative queerness comes with political connotations, and asks us to explore what connotations comes from a title like Bayonetta which is performatively queer, performatively feminist, and performatively gothic.
Nia Wearn & Esther MacCallum-Stewart – “Quoth the Ravenhearst: Nevermore”
This talk explores the gothic customs of Hidden Object games, paying close attention to the Mystery Case Files: Ravenhearst trilogy, and how they often adopt and subvert gothic tropes, themes, and in many cases, uncopyrighted gothic texts, characters and locations. For example, there is a whole range of Hidden Object titles featuring Edgar Allen Poe and the physical manifestations of the titular figures from his works. Giving a comprehensive but far from exhaustive list of oft copied gothic signifiers (hooded men, black crows, creepy castles, etc), Wearn & MacCallum-Stewart discuss how these games fulfil the same role for an audience of predominantly middle-aged women as pulp gothic fiction would have done in previous generations. Keeping in mind that these games are often produced by European studios dedicated to just this genre, and that the majority of these games are played on portable devices like Android or Kindle tablets, it’s clear that Hidden Object games are a, well, hidden genre because of its audience, but that it is no less important to both gothic studies and games studies alike (see Shira Chess, “Uncanny Gaming: The Ravenhearst video games and gothic appropriation” and Mia Consalvo, “Hardcore casual: game culture Return(s) to Ravenhearst” for more on this topic).
Panel 1b: Tyranny, Terror and Death
University of York PhD student Coward’s paper, ‘Survival Horror and Surviving Horrors: Wolfenstein, Traumatic Play and the Social-Gothic’, opened the panel with a discussion of the games’ depictions of struggles against a monstrous ideology. Wolfenstein, a franchise which has existed since 1981, is not so much a ‘survival horror’ as it is about ‘surviving horrors’, Coward posits. The Gothic horror of war is parallelled with surviving personal, mental and physical trauma. Coward also discusses Wolfenstein’s representations of ‘Gothic bodies’, of Hitler’s physical presence as a monstrous encounter, and presenting bodies altered by Nazi experimentation as a commodity.
Medical humanities met video game narrative in Alex’s paper, ‘You are always on my mind: Neuro-tyranny in The Evil Within’. The speaker, who is from Kingston University London, outlined the model of the ‘Gothic tyrant’ – a character usually male, a ruler of a castle, egocentric, mad, threatening, and an abuser of power (Manfred of The Castle of Otranto is a classic example). 2014’s The Evil Within is a psychological survival zombie game, set in Beacon mental hospital. Alex focused in on the character of Ruvik – a play on the twisted Rubik’s Cube – and linked the neuro-tyrant to Foucault’s theory of panopticism. The neuro-tyrant character often has scary eyes, which are a symbol of their control and corrupt power relations, a clear link to the surveillance of the panopticon prison structure. The panopticon, Alex argues, is made an instrument of tyranny by Ruvik, who uses STEM as a ‘neuro-instrument’ to control characters from within. The speaker linked Catherine Malabou’s theory of the ‘new wounded’ with ideas of a destructive neural plasticity in Ruvik, following his sister’s death. This link between Malabou’s ‘new wounded’ – brain lesion patients who experience metamorphosis in their identity – and The Evil Within plays out in several ways: the game’s ‘trauma’ monster, zombies as the ultimate form of the ‘new wounded’, and Ruvik’s desire to make others suffer as he cannot. In this reading, Alex argues, the neuro-tyrant becomes a sympathetic figure – and perhaps we can use this analysis to understand other gothic characters as traumatised.
Theodorou, a British Library Labs researcher, discussed life and death matters in his paper ‘“You Died”: Reimagining Death and the Value of Humanity Hollow in Dark Souls’. The speaker discussed the games’ reimagining of dead and undead corruption, as well as how Dark Souls depicts the selling and consumption of life. Allegorical reference to fears of moral degeneration through the character of Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, was analysed.
Panel 2a: Tabletop/Analog Gaming – by TJ Matthews
Freyja McCreery – “The Silent Majority: Haunting in Critical Role’s Briarwood Arc”
With over 68 million views on YouTube since the first live-playing in 2015, Critical Role is perhaps the most popular tabletop role-playing game stream series on the internet. It is hosted by a collective of professional voice actors whose Dungeons and Dragons team is aptly titled Vox Machina (Voice Machine). The Briarwood arc follows the group as they return to the hometown of one of their members to find Lord and Lady Briarwood ruling over the town. The couple turn out to be a vampire and necromancer and thus the ensuing campaign pits the team to defeat them and return peace to the land. Apart from the obvious gothic narrative in such a story, Freyja explores how the very act of streaming role-play fits within the discourse of gothic and, in particular, of hauntology. The voice actors themselves describe their role-playing characters as being ‘channeled’, almost like a seance, and fanworks and interpretations mean that these characters distinctly exist with voices outside of their creator’s own. Furthermore, there is a blurring between fiction and reality as the characters created often have traits, notably mental health issues, belonging to their actor counterparts. This creates a group of uncanny doppelgangers that simultaneously exist with and outside of their creators, a concept described by Joohan Kim as “res digitalis”.
Jon Garrad – “The Sublime and the Strategic: Gothic Coordinates in Strategy Games”
Going intentionally unscripted for this presentation, Garrad shared his treatise of the concept of the ludic sublime, explaining it as the overwhelming but positive sensation experienced when attempting to understand such deep levels of complexity during, for example, late stages of analogue strategy games. Building upon Victor Sage’s dialogic sublime and Mario Costa’s technological sublime, the ludic sublime fits closely within the discourse of finding flow in the ludic mindset, and can be explored in both games studies and gothic studies when discussing what is often described as The Magic Circle – the space in which another reality with other rules and expectations are accepted.
Daniel Pieterson – “Undead, Forever: Ravenloft and the Gothic in D&D”
Ravenloft is a well-known and critically acclaimed campaign setting for the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, in which a team of adventurers travel into pocket dimensions to defeat Dark Lords and fend off the evil influences of the mysterious Dark Forces. Pieterson picks the three key gothic concepts of “strange places”, “power and constraint”, and “doubt”, and explores how the Ravenloft campaign contains these elements. Unlike normal D&D campaigns, in Ravenloft dungeon masters are encouraged to build distinctly gothic scenes to build fear and anxiety in their players, and the locations are those of loosely-defined ‘domains’. The Dark Powers of these domains also brings a unique mechanic that must be considered, as players will have their actions and decisions morally checked and risk being corrupted and attracting the ire of the Dark Powers. D&D in it’s design aims to maximise player agency – the player can perform any action accepted by the Dungeon Master – but this is subverted in Ravenloft. At crucial stages in the campaign even the Dungeon Master is forced to accept fate and must roll to determine the outcome and future of the team without any sway over the decision themselves. At an event where the lines of narratology and ludology where continuously blurred, Ravenloft is an excellent example of a game that is both narratively and ludically gothic.
Panel 2b: Lovecraft in Games
Irina Straton of the University of Essex gave a paper entitled ‘Lovecraft in Warcraft: A Study of Anagrams and Intertextuality’. In this talk, the speaker connected several of the game’s character names with Lovecraft’s short stories. Names from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Herbert West-Reanimator, From Beyond, Dagon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth are echoed in Warcraft.
Chloe Germaine Buckley
A mysterious book filled with strange and esoteric diagrams and letters was passed around the audience prior to Buckley’s paper, ‘Encountering Weird Objects: Lovecraftian LARP and Speculative Realism’. In this talk, the speaker discussed the process behind creating LARP (Live Action Role Playing) props, costumes and sets, such as a Field Generator from game Professor Lazarus. Buckley spoke about the haptic interactivity of props used in Horror or Cthulhu LARP, and being inspired by the Gothic ‘performance’ of spaces such as Strawberry Hill. Lovecraftian Horror LARP, the speaker argued, produces insights into understandings of materiality – the inauthenticity of LARP props allowing for interaction with in-between spaces. In Eve Sedgwick’s phrase, ‘drawing attention to the veil’. Referencing Graham Harman’s Weird Realism, Lovecraft and Philosophy, and Eugene Thacker’s Tentacles Longer Than Night, Buckley developed an argument which examines LARP props as highlighting tensions with objects in the real world – Harman’s “fission”. Objects such as books and humans slip between realms in Lovecraft, and this also happens with costumes and props which reinvent Lovecraft’s “excessive and shifting surfaces”. The ‘Magic Circle’ of LARP is also seen as a ludic structure which is often thought of as a circle of protection or distinction between separate realms – actually, Buckley argues, the Magic Circle can demonstrate these ideas to be false. LARP has potential for a metaphysical and ontological speculation and disruption, and demonstrates that philosophy can be play, and play can be philosophy.
Stobbart, in her paper ‘“Here we stand, feet planted in the earth, but might the cosmos be very nar us, only just above our heads?”: Bloodborne and the Narrative Construction of Lovecraftian Themes,’ discusses how Lovecraft, a pioneer of the ‘cosmic horror’, explores the fear of the unknown and humanity’s insignificance in his work. The speaker traced a lineage of Lovecraftian themes in video games, discussing Alan Wake, Alone in the Dark, and the “sanity meter” in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which Stobbart suggests reflects Lovecraft’s notions of the fragility of sanity. Examples such as Bloodborne’s mythos of the “great ones” or the “celestial kin”, gothic architecture, and the Shoggoth-like Brain of Menis, are used to demonstrate Bloodborne’s encapsulation of the concept that the Lovecraftian cosmic horror centres on the realization that there’s more to the world than we know.
Panel 3a: Alternative Takes
Wisdom, digital researcher at the British Library, discussed the 2014 Off The Map project, which followed a Gothic theme as a tie-in with the library’s exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. Wisdom’s paper was titled ‘The British Library’s Gothic Adventure Off The Map’. For this project, curators selected maps, texts, illustrations and sounds under the themes of Fonthill Abbey (home of William Beckford, author of Vathek), Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, and Whitby with its associations with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Entrants were invited to submit video games under these themes, and Wisdom showcased the winning entry Nix, which was made for Oculus Rift and invited its players to reconstruct Fonthill Abbey. In 2018, the British Library is collaborating with Read Watch Play’s Gothic Novel Jam. Celebrating the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, participants are invited to make something creative, inspired by the gothic novel genre using images from the British Library Flickr account.
Lindsay, of Stirling University, gave a paper entitled ‘Ghost in the Shell: The Haunted Spaces of Arcades and Emulation Software’. He discussed the retro or nostalgic experience in gaming or ‘resurrectionist culture; focusing on representations of arcades in Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One and in 2017’s Stories Untold – The House Abandon. Lindsay examined Gothic representations of retro 80s gaming, the arcade’s development from an architecture term as an arch of vaulted place, and as well as uncanny doubling of house in presence in Stories Untold.
Manchester Metropolitan University PhD research Hirst took a different look at the connection between ‘gaming’ and ‘the gothic’ by imagining nineteenth century Russian Gothic Fantastic fictions as a ‘ludic form’ which encourages the reader to play a game they cannot win. Her talk explored several themes within this argument, such as the life or death ‘game’ of duals in Russian literature, predestination versus free will, the Russian Roulette emblem of game or gambling, referencing stories such as The Queen of Spades, The Nose, and Shtoss. Hirst’s paper was titled ‘Russian Roulette: The Russian Gothic-Fantastic as a Game You Can’t Win’.
Panel 3b: Uncanny Spaces – by TJ Matthews
Ashley Darrow – “Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Pokémon and Gothic Experientiality” / Kacper Kaczmarzyk – “Gothic Bug’s Life: A Close Reading of Hollow Knight’s Gothic Aesthetic and Influences” / Jonathan Stubbs – “Living and Dying in the City of the Damned: A Close Reading in Mordheim’s Gothic Post-apocalypse”
These three talks are going to be explored in a single batch as they all took a similar approach to exploring the gothicness of their chosen games. They each explored how these games portrayed the gothic in the areas of narrative, atmosphere, and gameplay.
Pokémon as the oldest series contains numerous narrative examples of gothic themes, from Pokédex entries for Haunter and Alakazam, to the infamous Lavender Town with it’s creepy cemetery tones and established fan myths and internet legends. In regards to atmosphere, outside of the aforementioned Lavender Town, there are several instances in the main game series where the player finds themselves in claustrophobic spaces, or exploring almost-hallucinogenic landscapes, or uncovering cult bodies and symbols. Pokémon is a series where there is always something unnerving and creepy when you go a layer deeper.
It should be clear to anyone who sees the art style and designs of Hollow Knight that it is an unapologetically gothic game, and this extends into the gameplay itself. Scenarios force the player to confront what are described as ‘gothic emotions’, like fear of an impending doom, the anxiety of unfamiliar spaces, panic over unsuspected supernatural revelations. In the story it uses gothic tropes effectively to generate a specifically gothic atmosphere that can be best be described as an adult/mature fairy tale in the same vein as Brothers Grimm.
Finally, Mordheim: City of the Damned, the videogame adaptation of the Games Workshop tabletop game of the same name. Death in videogames has many meanings, typically to mark skill, time, or progress; in City of the Damned death is a permanent and ever present threat. Set in a gothic styled city filled to the brim with demons, beasts and aptly named
“horrors”, the player will find themselves growing detached from individuals in the squad they control as characters die and are replaced, and trusted allies soon become more unnamed soldiers as the player succumbs to defending their own emotions against the futility of life in very much the same manner as many gothic texts require.
Kerry Dodd – “Excavating an Infinite Universe: No Man’s Sky, Xeno-archeology and the Ontological Haunting of Cycle Narratives”
A significant part of this talk explored specific story details of this recent game, so for the purposes of this report those will be excluded to avoid spoilers. Archeogaming is a discipline that, as the name suggests, brings together the fields of archeology and games studies in three ways: as a tool to uncover narrative via exposition, examining its use as an in-game mechanic, and in the excavation of game materials. No Man’s Sky is an odd case in archeogaming in that it intersects with all three of these. The aim of the game, or at least the only story direction given, is for the player to make their way to the absolute centre of the galaxy. Along the way a nearly uncountable number of randomly generated planets exist to be explored and exploited for resources, with which upgrades and tools can be build and exchanged to assist on the journey. Unlike the colonialist reading that might be applicable, in No Man’s Sky environments are never really claimed or owned, and only in rare cases is the player to return to the same space twice. The entire play experience is that of unfamiliar lands and unknowability, and, much like Lovecraftian protagonists, the player is positioned as no more than an insignificant visitor pitted against the horrors inherent in the sheer scale of the cosmos.
Panel 4: Victoriana
Emily Jessica Turner
I will be editing my talk, ‘Trapped within the Victorian Gothic: How Video Games Reimagine The Yellow Wallpaper’, into a separate post which I hope will be available soon!
Crofts’ paper, ‘Whipping Dracula in to Shape: Appropriating Dracula for Video Games’, examines how the Castlevania series reinvents the iconic character. The speaker demonstrated that although the emphasis for the games is on setting rather than character, there is a narrative focus on ancestry and family secrets, and the games pay homage to the original Universal Horror Dracula character in its credits. Symphony of the Night’s aesthetic and title, Croft argues, also demonstrates a growing sympathy for Dracula, who is reframed as the ‘tragic lover’.
Keynote from Dr Ewan Kirkland
Kirkland’s paper, ‘Going Home: Gothic Tropes in Contemporary Video Games’, began by exploring the absence of a special Gothic genre in film and television, instead discussing examples such as Desperate Housewives or Ruby Gloom which have Gothic elements. Understanding the Gothic as the language of ‘the peculiar unwillingness of the past to go away’ (Sage and Smith, 1996), Kirkland discussed the theme of the ‘Ludo-Gothic’ in video games, and the economic reasons for Gothic themes in such media – darkness and fog, for example, are easy to generate, and there are lots of ruins in video games as they make good puzzle spaces to navigate. Kirkland, who teaches at the University of Brighton, referenced the accidental gothic nature of Jet Set Willy (1984), which includes a house built on hell and a bug in the attic. The speaker’s paper focused on three games: Gone Home (2013), What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), and Night in the Woods (2017), and explored the gothic themes of female characters ‘going home’ in each. The hunt for Sam in Gone Home is told through the relics found in the house, as well as the forbidden spaces of the attic and basement, and the game invents a horror fiction within its own fiction. Kirkland also explored the uncanny architecture of the house at the heart of What Remains of Edith Finch, which is haunted by absent inhabitants who have fallen to the Gothic hereditary curse, and whose rooms are sealed as shrines. Night in the Woods features daily nightmares, with the character May as a tiny figure in a vast landscape with a giant demon, following the cosmic horror mode. Halloween also takes place halfway through the game, and Possum Spring, the home to which May returns, is dying, analogous to a decaying Victorian mansion –the decline and decay narrative, a Gothic theme, illustrates a community falling apart.
The evening saw a Charity Arcade held at the Jessop West Building, an event which was raising funds for mental health charity Mind. This event featured a series of laptops set up with Gothic themed games a zine library, card and board games, a retro controller playing games such as Friday the 13th, Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania, and Sweet Home, and a table top role playing game, which saw six alchemists hunt for a mysterious ingredient for eternal life in the mansion of a strange, sinister baron.