A Failed and Unintelligible Analogy

The Phenomenology of Virtual Space in Kitty Horrorshow’s ANATOMY

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Braden Timss is an essay and fiction writer who recently graduated with a Bachelors in English Literature and Creative Writing from Western Washington University in Washington state. They spend many hours of the day thinking about the space inside Disneyland, the scary parts of games that aren’t scary, and whether it might be possible to produce out-of-bounds glitches in the real world. In the upcoming Fall, they will continue their studies at Western Washington University within the English MA program.Follow the author on TwitterMore about the author

In crude gestures of poetic surgery, the house within Kitty Horrorshow’s ANATOMY is saddled with sinew, sensation, and the vestigial burden of human psychology, all to quell the harrowing unknowability of experiences alien to our own. Recorded onto collectable cassettes scattered throughout the house, a lecturer forwards a thesis with the question “why do human beings of our modern age foster this tremendous sympathy toward their homes?” An extended analogy relating the structure of the house to that of the human body and the function of its organs proceeds, painfully, as a theory based in sympathy strains and reveals its shortcomings.

Upon collecting the last tape of ANATOMY’s first cycle, the red walls of the spacious master bedroom bare framed images of human canines and dog teeth (fig. 1), closing in around players threateningly. In this final moment before the game shuts itself down, players listen to the lecturer explain the function of the room that has trapped them: 

 [Here in the bedroom] we are at our most vulnerable. Each night we shut our senses to the world for hours at a time, trusting in the house to keep us safe… during these hours, the bedroom seems less like a mind, and more like a mouth …it is here that we place ourselves most at the house’s mercy and spend each night hoping that it will not bite down.

Conflating the mind with a mouth, the limits of the analogy are reached at the same time the house reveals itself to be more than a hollow structure and space to inhabit. This place lives, but it is not human. The image of the house that this analogy conveys is confused, contradictory, monstrous; in this form it is difficult to imagine a basis of actual sympathy because, despite possessing human anatomy, the house is an entirely different thing.     

Listening to the last tape of ANATOMY’s first cycle from within the master bedroom.

Listening to the last tape of ANATOMY’s first cycle from within the master bedroom.

This living house, the virtual space players explore, and the files of ANATOMY comprise the material foundation of the digital artifact and site that bridges the archaeology in and of video games, or archaeogaming, and the study of the conscious experience, or phenomenology, of space. The unique textuality of digital games is instrumentalized by ANATOMY to foreground the heavily mediated, and often underappreciated, relationship that exists between players and the games they play. Players of ANATOMY collide with the hard limits of procedurality like the shifting walls of an unfamiliar house as the game articulates its unmitigable individuality. By studying the material limits of procedure and space in ANATOMY, I hope to underscore the signs of a living agency. In our attempt to approach an understanding of the house, we need to extend our capacity to empathize with unfamiliar experiences and alien things, with a form of life that is digital and also material, and whose conscious experience we can only begin to understand by searching beyond the confines of a sympathy founded upon human similarity.  

Materiality can be understood as both the constituent stuff that things are made of and, in the specific context of digital games, as games scholar Ollie Leino suggests, all that which “does not fall apart as a consequence of a change in the player’s psychological landscape.” Digital materiality endows single-player digital games with a tangible sense of solidity based in procedure and code, a trait that distinguishes them from traditional games which are malleable and subject to reinterpretation by rule modification, i.e house rules. Through materiality, we can conceive of digital games as discrete, interactive artifacts with an immanent agency that functions autonomously and exists regardless of developer intent (Leino). 

When the player of ANATOMY is cornered in the master bedroom, a dramatic articulation of what is effectively a struggle between two agencies, that of the human player and the digital-material agent of the game, plays out as the conditions of success (collecting and playing tapes) are suddenly transformed into the conditions that lead to their failure by forceful ejection from the game. Leino refers to instances like these, where games counter a player’s desire to continue playing, as expressions of material resistance.      

As players proceed through ANATOMY’s cycles the house responds by assuming different shapes, arrangements and attitudes.

As players proceed through ANATOMY’s cycles the house responds by assuming different shapes, arrangements and attitudes.

As a material artifact, ANATOMY affects resistance through collisions that affirm the agency of digital materiality while undermining the player’s own. This is most immediately felt by players when, after having navigated the house to collect every tape, expecting to be rewarded, they are abruptly ejected, because it serves as a subversion of the typical way in which games structure player subjectivity. The materiality of ANATOMY precludes the role of a game-playing subject by eliding the possibility of both, in Leino’s terms, the successful player who is “able to make the decision to keep playing,” and the failed player who “will find that decision was already made on her behalf.” The material structure of ANATOMY is such that play is a ludic impossibility because success always leads to this state of failure, with players stranded on their desktops.

Through the static and distance, screen mediation affirms a separation between the player and this virtual space.

Through the static and distance, screen mediation affirms a separation between the player and this virtual space.

 The virtual space of ANATOMY withdraws from players behind a barrier of static and screen glare where it becomes, in a Lacanian psychoanalytic sense, inaccessible to the process of narcissistic incorporation. In a subversive twist of convention, players are marginalized in order to hold space for the expression of digital-material agency, affecting a critical blow to the psychological processes, as digital media scholar Laurie Taylor theorizes, by which “the connection between the player and the player’s position in game space implies a type of identification.” Overtures of analog noise and VHS scan lines that scroll across the player’s first-person perspective articulate an aesthetic commitment to the affirmation of otherness. An unbridgeable distance stretches between us and ANATOMY, and into this distance tumbles that narcissistic fantasy of a video game designed to transport players inside immersive virtual worlds, where alien subjectivities are embodied firsthand and become sympathetically understood. “Without narcissistic projection,” Taylor insists, “the player remains outside of the screen and can operate on the screen, but not from within the screen,” which is to say that, by frustrating player identification with the virtual space of the game world, ANATOMY does not play host to player psychology, and our interactions with the game are less like playing than interfacing.

These acts of material resistance justify considering ANATOMY as not just a game, but something like Leino’s interactive artifact, a material thing and autonomous agent. Confrontations with ANATOMY’s material agency vocalize appeals for respect that typical play, because of its narcissism, is unable to facilitate. To offer an alternative model of interaction with ANATOMY, then, I suggest that, instead of outlining a way of creating sympathy between inhabitant and space, a model based on empathy can lead us to more profound interpretations of material space both real and digital. 

“At a stretch and allowing for a bit of poetic sympathy…” (Horrorshow). Where within the human body does comparative anatomy place the house’s undulating wall of flesh?

“At a stretch and allowing for a bit of poetic sympathy…” (Horrorshow). Where within the human body does comparative anatomy place the house’s undulating wall of flesh?

There are methods of environmental analysis which, I think, facilitate this change in relationship to games, with respect to our behaviors of play and interpretation within them. In Archaeogaming: An Introduction to the Archaeology in and of Video Games, archaeologist and games scholar Andrew Reinhard conceives of digital games as material, archaeological sites, wherein digital artifacts (levels, plates, glitches, files) yield insight into digital games as objects and spaces to be used or inhabited by human and non-human agents (91). ANATOMY’s narrative conceit, a virtual house with material agency, offers a point of departure to develop and practice new ways to play in virtual environments. Ways informed by digital-material artifacts, which reflect how these spaces are or can be inhabited by human and non-human life. 

But we can do more with this conceit. We can argue that any artifact encountered inside the house, however inchoate or banal like an impossibly shadowy corner or a door that can’t be opened, is comprised of the same lively matter as the bedroom walls that closed around us and felt threateningly alive. The truth is that every part of the house, upon examination, betrays something about its living agency. And here, I believe, Gaston Bachelard’s topoanalysis, his method of studying the phenomenology of livable space (like homes and caves), proves neatly compatible with archaeogaming and my aim of fostering empathy for this non-human thing called ANATOMY

The archaeological artifact provides a material analogue to Gaston Bachelard’s evasive, phenomenological mediator, the poetic image. In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard’s analysis of the significance of dwelling spaces in poetry and fiction, the poetic image extends to readers an impression of the image’s origin; a metaphorical window onto the poet’s original experience of the house that is depicted, where “the [psychological] values of inhabited space” imbue the image with an emotional ambiance and tenor (24). Archaeological artifacts mediate the past and present for an archaeologist to derive the significance of a site as it was inhabited (Reinhard 10-11), as the interpretation of poetic images found in literature or in real environments mediates a phenomenological experience of being in that space. If it can be argued that the artifacts and images strewn throughout ANATOMY attest to the agency of its living house, then by examining them we should discover an impression of what it is like for that agent to be both inhabitant and the origin of this virtual space. Playing as topoanalysts—digital archaeologists of virtual phenomenology—can lead to a model of play that is less narcissistic and more willing to extend respect to, and learn from, othered things like digital games in general and ANATOMY in particular.

Because games are populated with the familiar artifacts of human life, poetic images within virtual space will seem especially striking when they possess qualities that are noticeably anti-human.

Because games are populated with the familiar artifacts of human life, poetic images within virtual space will seem especially striking when they possess qualities that are noticeably anti-human.

If we chose to behave as poor guests and relaunch ANATOMY, we can repeat the tape collecting process and be ejected once more, which, by starting the game again, grants access to ANATOMY’s third cycle, where the house exists in its most rotted and contradicted stage. As in poetry, however, “everything becomes more alive when contradictions accumulate” (Bachelard 60), situating this stage, its poetic digital artifacts, as prime terrain for topoanalytic work. Here where the house’s structure has shifted impossibly, where furniture blinks in and out of existence, where a mass of undulating flesh bisects walls of flickering textures, it is as Bachelard said of the phenomenology of houses, that “inhabited space transcends geometric space” (67). In this final cycle the house takes on the shape that players force it to become, transformed through acts of narcissistic transgression into something unrecognizable, a human body never made and then unmade, a failed and unintelligible analogy. The values of its inhabiting are apprehended in the house’s poetry: A dining table set with plates that shatter at the touch, inhospitable to the rituals of human communion; previously furnished, an empty room contains only tapes and digestive sounds, suggesting this room is an organ only for the digestion of cassettes; meanwhile a bed in the ceiling explains this space isn’t home to human dreaming (fig. 5). 

The mouth wanders from the master bedroom, where it was first placed, down into the basement, and contradictions accumulate as the house explains that any room can become a mouth.

The mouth wanders from the master bedroom, where it was first placed, down into the basement, and contradictions accumulate as the house explains that any room can become a mouth.

Even in the previous cycle where things were not as gruesome, the site still yields material artifacts of topoanalytic import that wordlessly convey how this house inhabits itself. In the downstairs bathroom, where the second tape is collected, players encounter a mirror turned sideways and jutting into the wall: the first aberration and ANATOMY’s most significant image (fig. 7). Though it might appear to be an incidental glitch, its strangeness obliges an attempt at interpretation. The mirror glitch is the location of either a break with ANATOMY as something meant for player satisfaction, or an encounter with digital materiality and a window onto an impression of the phenomenology of virtual space. The glitch, like the artifact and poetic image which embody contradiction, is a multistable object. Glitches exist in a temporary, quantum state as “an aberration in which two states of being can be observed simultaneously: what is, and what is supposed to be,” and manifest from the interrelationship between hardware, the game code and the user’s platform (Reinhard 153). 

Interesting but simultaneously mundane, glitches similar to the mirror glitch are common across all video games. ANATOMY, however, reminds us that there is something uncanny when things start to behave in ways they shouldn’t.

Interesting but simultaneously mundane, glitches similar to the mirror glitch are common across all video games. ANATOMY, however, reminds us that there is something uncanny when things start to behave in ways they shouldn’t.

I contend that digital material artifacts, like the mirror glitch, are supreme expressions of the agency of digital games as utterances that developer authorship have no hand in motivating. A destroyed mirror is a particularly vivacious image of psychological complexity for this living and non-human space to possess, and recalls the significance of the player image in the construction of player agency (Taylor).      

But what psychology might be gleaned from that original, understated space of ANATOMY’s first cycle? A television and lamp in the living room cannot be turned on, so this space is to remain quiet and dark. The dining room table is not set and maybe there is no need for it to be. Every door is locked until the necessary cassette tape is collected, until there is one less tape in the way of the player’s inevitable ejection. The player cannot interact with the front door; it does not shut, it does not open, and was never a point of access.    

The poetic images of virtual space are not always concrete but diffuse, non-localized and sometimes appear more like noise than signal.

The poetic images of virtual space are not always concrete but diffuse, non-localized and sometimes appear more like noise than signal.

Interpreting the images drawn from ANATOMY’s materiality, it might be inferred that, in the fourth and final stage where players begin immobilized on the basement floor, totally neutralized and allowed only to observe or quit, and the house speaks of loneliness and shame, it speaks of virtual spaces other than itself when it reflects: “What happens to a house when it is left alone? […] Though a house may hunger it cannot starve. So in fever and loneliness, it may simply lie in wait. Doors open. Shades drawn. Hallways empty. Hungry” (Horrorshow). Despite its talk of mouths and hunger, we can interpret from its locked doors that the house within ANATOMY has the eternal patience of an ascetic and would prefer there were no guests to swallow at all.

Topoanalysis probes the phenomenology of inhabiting which distinguishes one house image from another, a process where virtual space is interpreted to yield impressions of its digital-material agency. Thus, we may situate the house in Gone Home (The Fullbright Company), for example, as an inversion of ANATOMY. At first, this family home is inaccessible and unfamiliar, but Gone Home is satisfying because it is a locked chest rife with secret complexes to uncover. Exploring the site unveils a spare key, hidden beneath a ceramic duck, a homey artifact beckoning players beyond, towards even more locks and secrets. Bachelard said “all locks are an invitation to thieves” (131) and Gone Home is a house made of locks for thieves to pick. 

ANATOMY no longer resists players persistent attempts to gain access. The conflict is concluded, they can remain for as long as they want to and leave when they’re bored.

ANATOMY no longer resists players persistent attempts to gain access. The conflict is concluded, they can remain for as long as they want to and leave when they’re bored.

ANATOMY’s neutralizing of the player on the basement floor and its subsequent refusal to shut down is a lock that no digital-material key exists for (fig. 9). Outside of virtual space, however, there is a document in the directory of the game where one can learn that the key to accessing ANATOMY again is to “hit the Delete key in this [basement] scene to erase the game’s memory and start over from the very beginning”(Horrorshow). However, having  witnessed ANATOMY’s agency in the form of material resistance, apprehending its phenomenology through the site’s artifacts and poetic images, and after cultivating the empathy to recognize its vitality, using a key upon this house should be understood as the act of narcissism and violence that it is.

A digital-materialist mode of interpreting virtual space is not in opposition to play—it is a means to envision alternate ways to play that derive not from objective markers and score systems, but from the materiality of the site itself. Ascertaining the phenomenology of virtual space may, in the same vein as the situationist concept of dérive, lead to exciting appropriations of virtual environments generative of new behaviors of play within them. Because if play is a social function, an enculturing process, my aim and concern with articulating this method is to prevent the reification of this process and the spoiling of our good time. What fun, or what else, I wish to suggest, may result when familiar virtual spaces are made bewildering and once again unfamiliar.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston, et al. The Poetics of Space. 1957. Penguin Books, 2014.

Fullbright Company, The. Gone Home. The Fullbright Company, 2013.

Horrorshow, Kitty. ANATOMY. Itch,io, 2016.

Leino, Ollie Tapio. “Death Loop as a Feature.” Gamestudies, vol. 12, no. 2, Dec. 2012.

Reinhard, Andrew. Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games. Berghahn Books, 2018.

Taylor, Laurie. “When Seams Fall Apart Video Game Space and the Player.” Game Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, Dec. 2003.