Matthew Schwager practices butoh, vogue, and modern dance in Chicago. He is working on his first novel.
It occurs to me that some video games might have a “soul” or a thesis kept out of sight, locked away from interactive or procedural elements. And to access this soul one might have to look at these story elements not as a whole but working in their constituent parts.
Think about the painting, Conscience, Judas by Nikolai Ge, that depicts Judas in a moment swiftly following Christ’s arrest.
Within the mythological weight of this scene are more incidental details, the swept and rocky ground, the soldiers’ torch—boring and normal props. An historian or critic might look at this painting and not remark on how Judas is represented and how this situates the painting doctrinally, or remark on what type of canvas or media was used and how this relates to the artist’s milieu or personal perspective, but would rather ask more literal questions about what things are doing in the painting, and how they may be linked together in collusion.
Ignoring the large darkness and the solitary figure, this critic might focus on that fire in the corner and ask of this insignificant detail—how long has this fire been aflame in anticipating Christ’s arrest, does it too desire this persecution or is it itself an extension of holy light in unlikely hands, is Judas still drawn to it or even aware of it in his own isolation, can one be aware of the fire in this situation, no matter how close one lingers to its beckoning or punishing heat in this desert night?
And here one does not ask how does this fire symbolize angst or longing or self-hatred, quite the emotions to pin on this Judas fellow, but how does it illuminate these things, as flames do? How is this Judas in his turned shawl and attending of the flame similar or different from the other Judases in other times and places and paintings? And this is a valid way to get into this painting.
It is through this kind of archeology of different pieces that one might be put on interesting pathways and come to other conclusions. Asking fair questions of small details, once they are torn from their narratives, allow them to unfold a bit. And this unfolding of small insignificant details broadens their initial narrative quite naturally and faithfully. That, if by the unreceived light of the fire Judas is allowed the black integrity of desire during the arrest, then he is certainly allowed such an integrity before and after it, after the kiss that seals two fates. And suddenly Judas is granted a private consciousness outside his role as Betrayer.
Following impulses such as fires and their owners might lead one to quite reasonably conclude from all this that perhaps the soul of the Passion is not in Christ’s crucifixion or moment of death, but is rather in what Judas was doing and thinking at the time of arrest, just after the kiss, and what Christ was thinking about Judas at this moment in time as well. So a mythological story suddenly includes an exchange of private consciousnesses where there was none before. And this conclusion is not found through firm critical explanation but open exposition, in all its numerous forms.
So it occurs to me that one can also utilize an unfolding sense of exposition with video games as a kind of image, as with Ge’s painting or any painting. And Silent Hill 2, likewise a story of sacrifice, has a “soul” that seems to set it apart from other survival horror games, and I would like to take a look at its own fires in the dark in order to get to the heart of the matter, so to speak.
In Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland explores a town in which memory is replaced by trauma. His motivations are not understood but his forward intention is clear. He is not entirely sure how he got here, perhaps, as we first meet him by an observation deck above the town, and his car is already parked. At least, we are unsure where he came from; his existence is bounded by this town and its geographical limits. James is given a small map, the kind a tourist wears to detect legible sites of interest, and from the partial names of streets and buildings he descends from a hill to the city floor. The town is benighted by endless fog and, later, monsters, and James’ map contains locations but not destinations. Early on, he is able to find a street replaced by a quarried abyss.
Despite appearances, Silent Hill 2 is not a game about narrative but is rather about mapping, or wayfinding. The constricting fog foregrounds this and makes mapping an urgent rather than implicit matter. The primary tools of the game, the ones that end up writing the town, confirm this. As James walks, he finds more map segments to add to his original one. No matter what he pursues or discovers, James actively finds his way through Silent Hill’s quarters and his main weapon is not gun or stick but the constant rendering blade of a flashlight, which illuminates both object and setting. From large to small, this game is a game of mapping.
Mapping contains in it not a perfunctory geometric or rendering function but a responsibility to history, as well. James is, on some level, attempting to locate his trauma in the fog. He will confront a part of his own history rather than continue to be written by it. Post-traumatic stress disorder, Alan Wolfelt writes, is not a psychiatric condition, an Other to be removed or cured, but a form of grief and must be approached as such, as the essential act of mourning (20, 45, 55, 87). Wolfelt thus conceptualizes the relieving clinical professional not as treater or administrator, unintelligible roles in the context of grief, but as companion. This is a figure James might desire to have walking next to him in the fog, even if such a figure would circumvent the surface desire to “finish” the search, fulfill the map, and provide a narrative cure.
Grief cannot be intellectualized. As with the funeral procession or in ceremonial wailing, grief is the act of walking through grief. Even to cover mirrors and sit shiva is to journey into a land without the Divine image. And as one walks, one maps, if not intentionally then somatically, as an implicit interest.
Walking, like grief, is itself not idle transit but active politic. The Situationists in their dérive (drift) re-mapped the city along its flows of desire rather than its flows of capital and practical exchange. Desire is sometimes immersive as opposed to consumptive; as Tom McDonough notes, Lettrists International members would follow urban desire “into the Paris catacombs, where they sometimes spent the night” (5). Consumption entails the object enveloped by the dark, final subject, but immersion evades the finality of an end. It takes what might be a merely consumptive event and parlays it into a greater experience or exploration, a night in the catacombs, of which there are maps but no complete knowledge. Such exploration entails becoming lost for a time. Rather than the linearity of consumption, here, there is the expansiveness of exploration, and this can be a valid, if frightening, desire as well.
Dérive was passionate, a “hurried change of environments,” not the labored disquiet of James’s trek of desires, and so the walks and their energy flows or blockages throughout the town/body differ (McDonough 46). Movements vary. Mapping is not mere recording; there is always extraneous data collected as episteme, and the receptors for this data are the types of movement. The Lakota walked barefoot on the Earth, for the soil was where Mother enfolded the ancestors, and to touch soil was to receive life (Gros ch. 12). Maria Lugones asserts that streetwalkers hang out to gain an enlarged sense of depth in space, to sense “the directions of intentionality, to gain social depth” (209). To hang is not to cease mapping.
The monsters of Silent Hill 2 move strangely in their own mapping. Defined not by their sexual presence (there is none) but by their forms of locomotion, they walk, swing, crouch, patrol, rattle, shiver, and shudder. Quivering and gyrating are not abysmal here but valid. Pyramid Head, a fanciful name for a particularly gymnastic figure, stumbles under the weight of a knife he carries. A roachlike entity startles from underneath a van. And James is given, as quite the graceful and thoughtful gift from this town, a literal paper map, a handicap or guide in his freshness, as he develops his own way of moving through space.
Artaud had his madness and in it he went from mapping his actors’ movements on paper to wounding his opponents by burning holes in it, a mystical turn (Barber ch. 2). The map becomes the body, which is where grief is located. This transformation is not a limiting of the body and its fate to the basic, unchanging dimension of paper. But it is an increase in the body’s malleability; maps can change as methods of moving, collecting, and writing change, and new maps can lead one to new places.
Artaud’s transformative change is not astonishing; Ovid wrote of so many birds and frogs that the issue is exhausted. Butoh, the Japanese dance of shadows, is likewise keen on movement and transit and undoubtedly influenced Silent Hill 2. In butoh, dancers wriggle and contort themselves. Though sometimes choreographed, it is not a dance of choreography but of neurology, an opening-up and shaking-loose instead of shutting-down. It avoids the closing of mouths and perimeters in finality and identity, a process we are likely to assume is occuring when we witness the final jolts of a mangled corpse coming to rest. A mangled corpse, of course, is a likely identity one might take as a stiffened butoh dancer.
“One of the most repeated observations about butoh is that it requires the dancer to ‘become’ something, rather than act like or express something,” writes Bruce Baird. “In the world of butoh, that something could be animal, vegetable, mineral, human, ghost, ogre—really anything at all” (160). A shamanic mode, butoh undercuts the Western assumption that the closest one can get to direct experience is metaphor, and that rituals are merely expressions thereof. Butoh abandons the Western critical distance between likeness and presence, the image of Christ in absence and the healing gaze of Christ in reality, or the self and the self’s death-mask. It does so through the re-mapping power of movement. The resolution of metaphor into Being holds a dark edge; “the word ‘butoh,” Kurihara Nanako writes, “originated as ankoku buyō in the early 1960s. ‘Ankoku’ means ‘utter darkness’” (12).
James’ wife, Mary, was sick with a terminal illness that destroyed her beauty, and it is the trauma of her decline and death that sent James into the town, looking for a way to make the fog lift. The core stress of Silent Hill 2 is that James chose and continues to choose his own individuation rather than identification with Mary’s sick body or, perhaps, with the body of the town itself as mappable entity. This in turn destroyed Mary’s own ability to identify, as the butoh dancer does. James in his insistence on “solving” Silent Hill, in walking endlessly and hesitatingly in unnaturally prolonged grief, believes that this same continued resistance to identification will eventually grant him the pleasure of individualized closure and control. Perhaps this makes him similar to the player of the game.
Instead, it ensures further estrangement. Silent Hill 2 features many individual endings, all of which pursue closure rather than transformation in the wake of grief, a cessation of walking rather than an enrichment of it.
Likewise, the denouement of this story forces Pyramid Head into the unrequested role of Punishment, a crude appreciation of his form. This is a result of James’ further refusal to participate fully and unashamedly in the town, an insistence that the monsters seemingly cannot overcome. Monsters can cope with human demand for narrative and conflict-roles for only so long, it seems, before acquiescing. Perhaps if James never picked up a wooden plank as initial defense against the monstrous, he would have been allowed to walk, unharassed, as a welcomed grieving body himself.
The effectiveness of this non-reactivity proves the true center of trauma is not the assailing event itself. Trauma is not that the unacceptable occurs but that our responses to the unacceptable cannot be monstrous, that we must remain nothing but human. But the monstrous costume, the heavy metal and skirt of Pyramid Head, is not torturous constraint but freedom of movement.
The monsters of Silent Hill are perhaps not enemy but friend, instructor, perhaps even the guiding companions in trauma that James desires and needs. And they provide companionship by showing a slip out of trauma, not by taking it away but by managing a release from the human costume and its chauvinism and insistences. It is a change to the pure freedom of debased movement and the knowledge and satisfaction it brings. For how can one accept and move knowledgeably with the sick or mangled body without becoming it entirely?
Perhaps James could have been well-served not by acting as adversary where none previously existed, but by donning the torture helmet himself, become as anonymous fiend. In that he could have found his own archive of twitching and stumbling, a fate not internment but freedom, an embodiment of map and memory not in repeated neurosis, a circled stumbling in the fog, but, perhaps, understanding and joy. James could easily have become a Pyramid Head himself, not as horror but mystery.
Baird, Bruce. Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh: Dancing in a Pool of Grey Grits. Palgrave McMillan, 2012.
Barber, Stephen. Artaud: The Screaming Body. The Tears Corporation/Creation, 1999.
Gros, Frederic. A Philosophy of Walking. Verso, 2015.
Kurihara, Nanako. “Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh: [Introduction].” TDR (1988-), vol. 44, no. 1, 2000.
Lugones, Maria. Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003.
McDonough, Tom. Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents. The MIT Press, 2004.
Viala, Jean and Masson-Sekine Nourit. Butoh: Shades of Darkness. Tuttle, 1988.
Wolfelt, Alan. The PTSD Solution: The Truth About Your Symptoms and How to Heal. Companion Press, 2015.