Brian Crimmins is a freelance video game critic. Much of his work is critical readings of video games, and he focuses most of his efforts on older Japanese titles.
Content warning for discussions of sexualized violence.
Outside a small handful of reviews with each new release, little attention has been paid to the Deception (Tecmo, 1996-2015) series. This is in spite of the critical depth a close reading of these games can afford. In an industry that has consistently struggled with representing women, all but the first Deception game see female protagonists driving the narrative (Zorrilla 2011, Van Name 2013, Statt 2016). And during a time when commercial games like Resident Evil (Capcom 1996), Alone in the Dark (Infogrames 1992), and Clock Tower (Human Entertainment 1995) looked to film for their exploration of horror (Edge 2010, par. 5; Rasa, 2017), the Deception games looked to slasher films and offered players a world in which they both actively perpetrate violence and avoid such threats themselves. However, the connections go deeper than borrowing motifs or adapting the genre to a different medium. As I will demonstrate throughout this essay, the Deception series’ use of violence and choice of protagonist allow the games to interrogate the gender psychology that provides slasher films with their structure. Much of my analysis will approach the games and slasher films through a feminist and psychoanalytic lens, as it is through these lenses that we can best understand the dynamics and assumptions that slasher films operate on and therefore how Deception responds to them. Finally, we will consider the ways in which a female perspective modifies the psychoanalytic dimensions of slasher film conventions.
The anatomy of slasher films
Although most critics trace the genre’s origins back to Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho (Clover 1987, 192), slashers were most ubiquitous and prominent in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. It was also during this time that film critics seriously considered the reasons for the genre’s popularity and asked why audiences sought out and enjoyed the high levels of violence that epitomized these films. Their answer was that slashers are driven by unconscious psychological forces (drives) that audiences would otherwise struggle to express. We cannot directly satisfy those drives because we must repress them if we are to “function ‘properly’ in society” (Karanović 2012, par. 6), but those drives still demand satisfaction.
Slashers indirectly fulfill, or ‘sublimate,’ these desires: by watching somebody else act out the things they wouldn’t do themselves, the individual can satisfy their drives in a socially/personally acceptable fashion (Karanović 2012, par. 2-4). The narratives often reflect this, with killers confusing sex and violence because of some hidden psychological torment, and the camera work directly addresses the viewer’s latent desires (Clover 1987, 196). The perspective jumps from killer to victim to everything in between, the viewer inhabiting the world only insofar as it is convenient to satisfying those desires (Karanović 2012, par. 8).
However, critics also realized the specific consequences this poses for the slasher genre. As Carol J. Clover (1987) observes in “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film”, with slashers as heavily codified as they are, their structure is informed just as much by wider cultural beliefs and mores as it is by the desires audiences may project onto them. So if slasher films afford their viewers an opportunity to gratify socially disapproved desires, then they also enforce the audience’s repression by demonstrating why society disapproves of those desires in the first place. This holds special relevance as far as gender dynamics are concerned. Given the importance society assigns to gender (and the strength it imbues its related mores), not only are the desires relating to it among the most likely to be suppressed, but gender also provides slasher films the clearest opportunity to address those desires by modeling what they see as the healthy expression of one’s gender and sexuality (Karanović 2012, par. 12). This explains the frequent focus on healing the killer’s latent psychological problems in slasher films (see Clover’s discussion of the killer [1987, 195-7] for an in-depth discussion of the topic).
It is for these reasons that slasher films are unfortunately poised to reproduce harmful ideas about gender. For example: in assuming male viewership (and therefore male desires), these films struggle to account for the female perspective and generally render their female characters subject to the male gaze. This means that they present women such that they are primarily interpreted through the desires the male subject – both the viewer and the killer within the film – expresses through them (Clover 1987, 200-201). We can see this more clearly by examining common slasher archetypes, beginning with the killer (here I use Clover’s terminology). Although the rare female killer exists, slashers almost universally employ male killers (Clover 1987, 196). The killer is central to how the slasher functions, both as the major force driving the plot forward and as a model for what masculinity should look like. In spite of his stunted psychological development, according to Clover, he is on some level to be admired as a being of pure action who gets things done because he has the physical strength and resolve to make it happen. By contrast, slasher films model femininity as incapable of taking action, even during life threatening situations. This is especially the case with the attractive, sexually active female characters: when the killer confronts them, their only response is to scream in fear, they make little attempt to fight him off, and they (and their sexual partners) are usually among his first victims.
One important exception that critics have noted is what Clover has termed ‘the final girl,’ who is defined only in contrast to others. While other girls die very quickly as punishment for freely practicing their sexuality, the final girl, because she withholds herself from sex, survives not only to see her friends die, but to confront the killer himself. The killer enacts his goals with brute strength, but the final girl survives or overcomes him with her intelligence and resourcefulness (Clover 1987, 204). Perhaps most notably of all, the final girl is also highly androgynous.
It is worth repeating Clover’s argument regarding how heavily social tradition informs slasher film construction. Their victims are victims because of the ways in which they violate traditional gender roles. True, the attractive female victim’s beauty may make her available to male sexual desire, but by freely practicing that sexuality for herself, she prevents the man from fulfilling his role as the sexually active party in such relationships. She may even frustrate his desires by rejecting or teasing him. By contrast, while the final girl may be ambiguous in terms of gender presentation – simultaneously masculine and feminine – in her we see both masculinity and femininity preserved according to the standards society has set out for each of them. Insofar as she is feminine, the final girl’s most defining trait isn’t her beauty, but her lack of sexual availability, thus deferring that sexuality to any potential man who expresses conventionally healthy sexual interest in her. And insofar as the final girl is masculine, she only ever makes use of the masculine traits that enable her survival (her strength and her intelligence) as an absolute last resort (Brewer 2009, 15). Thus, in slasher films, women – the final girl included – exist to model female gender roles insofar as they facilitate the socially acceptable expression of male desire.
Deception and the final girl as killer
Before proceeding any further, I should note that I will not be looking at the entire Deception series. The first game, Tecmo’s Deception: Invitation to Darkness (1996), is simply too different from the others to compare (most notably with its male protagonist), and the series from Deception IV (2014) onward diverges significantly from the previous games in how it sexualizes both the violence and its practitioners. This leaves three games from the series to discuss: Kagero (1998), Deception III (1999), and Trapt (2005). Despite the small selection, they follow a clear pattern: in each case, the main character is a girl in her mid-to-late teens who possesses a dark forbidden power (stylized as TRAPs). That power is always linked with the setting around her (usually but not always a mansion). While the heroine uses that power in a violent way, she only ever commits violence in self-defense against representatives of the society that wishes to persecute her: initially the commoners but slowly building up to corrupt authority figures. The heroines are therefore depicted as victims, whether of fate or exploitative authority.
At first glance, one could argue the games are merely translating slasher film assumptions into video game form. The heroines clearly fit the final girl archetype: they are androgynous, sexually unavailable teenage girls who defend themselves with their intelligence rather than physical strength. In fact, it wasn’t until Deception IV that the protagonist could defend herself at all without a TRAP. The design of the games only carries these motifs further: minor differences aside, each game sees the player roughly re-enacting slasher film narrative beats through gameplay. They plant TRAPs throughout a building and use the heroine to lure victims in while avoiding harm herself. Like slasher films, the main draw to the Deception games is their gratuitous violence. Yet unlike the former, which only changes perspective at certain intervals, the Deception games turn such changes into a central feature of play. No matter what psychological drive the player may presently need fulfilled – sadism, voyeurism, terror management – the perspective is always ready to shift to accommodate that need.
This point is worth examining carefully, as it implies a muddiness in the game’s use of slasher archetypes. The people wandering the mansion aren’t merely victims, but killers who want the heroine dead. Furthermore, the heroine herself isn’t just a final girl: she is simultaneously a victim who must flee from mob violence and a killer in her own right. What we see in the Deception series is therefore a re-evaluation of slasher film tradition. It modifies the slasher film format to depict the perspectives of women that the format regularly ignores, but in doing so, recognizes the significant consequences following that shift. For as much as these games seek to preserve the slasher film’s project of cultivating normative gender roles, they must seriously interrogate what constitutes a ‘healthy’ gender role and what purpose those roles serve in society at large. For this reason, the Deception games see the purely psychological focus of the genre as too limiting, and maybe in some ways naive, and so counterpose a consideration of larger social forces against that focus. Such an interrogation frustrates many of the archetypes and operating assumptions that drive slasher films in the first place.
This is clearest when considering the role violence plays in the Deception games. In addition to the circumstances which turn them into final girls, the weapons they are forced to defend themselves with also make them killers. TRAPs, a form of magic that is often forced upon the heroine, are written directly into their bodies, thus resembling the “pretechnological” weapons the slasher killer often employs, such as knives, bludgeons, chainsaws, anything that would put the killer in direct contact with their victims (Clover 1987, 198). Yet this is where the similarities end. Unlike slasher killers, the heroines find no joy in the act of killing; are almost always forced to kill out of circumstance (self-defense in most cases, but from an abusive mother’s psychological manipulation for Kagero‘s Millennia); and are, psychologically speaking, ‘normal’ girls.
In some ways, this represents a critique of the final girl concept: rather than functioning as an ideal by overcoming her femininity to affirm the masculine, the heroines of these games exercise autonomy and so violate their expected gender roles and mark themselves for condemnation. For Deception, the individual is of less concern than the wider set of circumstances that individual finds herself subject to. When her victims call her a witch, they articulate their fear of a woman holding power by claiming that power is unnatural. Likewise, we can explain the muddiness in the other archetypes as the result of particular tensions: on the one hand, between the material power the heroines possess as represented by TRAPs; on the other, the societal power the victims wield over the heroine through their beliefs about proper gender roles. Those beliefs are not immutable laws or straightforward indicators of truth, the games contend, but socially constructed and potential threats to the heroines’ beings.
Female psychology in horror
As useful as the games’ insight can be, slasher films are still psychological in nature, and none of our current tools can address what a female psychological perspective would mean for the genre. In many slasher films, the killers’ violence can be traced back to their relationship with their mothers. Norman Bates in Psycho kills because his mother (in the form of a split personality) seeks to keep his sexual desires for other women in check (Clover 1987, 194; Hitchcock, 1960). Jason Voorhees seeks revenge for his mother’s death in Friday the 13th Part 2 (Clover 1987, 196; Steve Miner, 1981). We can attribute this recurring motif to the role the mother plays in psychoanalytic thought. To provide a very general sketch, because the mother provides for her child’s needs as soon as those needs materialize, the child identifies themselves as an extension of their mother and so finds completion through them.
However, this also means that the child is not aware of themselves as an individual, meaning that becoming an individual entails breaking the child’s identification with their mother. For many psychoanalysts, this process also results in an identification with the father or father-figures. According to Freud, the girl child comes to see her mother not as a caretaker, but as a force that imposes itself on her in caring for her and training her to be a woman. The girl then projects the helplessness she feels onto her mother as hostility (Freud 1932, 2). Meanwhile, Julia Kristeva (1982), working in the Lacanian tradition, links language and desire together and argues that children associate language with the desires their mother fulfills for them. As they gain command of language, they realize that they can fulfill their desires directly, and so naturally become subjects in their own right (Covino 2004, 18-19). No matter the theory, psychoanalysts generally agree that such separation from the mother is both necessary for the formation of identity and foundational to it. Slasher films largely affirm this sentiment by illustrating what an incomplete break looks like: unregulated drives and the impossibility of normal interpersonal relations.
There is considerable overlap between the motifs explored in slasher films and those explored in the Deception games. As in the slasher film, the relationship between the games’ protagonists and the mother figures within the story are vital to understanding those protagonists’ arcs. We might even read the moment when they gain access to TRAPs as the moment when they enter the Symbolic Order – the realm of socially constructed systems of meaning in Lacanian psychoanalysis – and become subjects in their own right. Yet on closer examination, the differences between the Deception games very quickly complicates our picture. Where Kagero depicts a mother whose controlling tendencies absolutely preclude the possibility of subjecthood, Deception III shows us a mother whose nurturing qualities provide the only basis for subjecthood to exist. Trapt complicates matters even further by splitting the mother figure in two: one rooted in the past (dead by the time the story begins) and who provided for the heroine’s needs, and one in the present who, in that heroine’s eyes, can never fulfill those needs and expresses no interest in doing so.
In light of this, one could read the games as using motherhood to reject the last remnants of essential womanhood that linger in psychoanalytic thought. Motherhood, far from existing prior to the Symbolic Order as these theories would require, is just as socially constructed as anything else. However, I see a broader argument put forth by the Deception games. If TRAPs mark the point at which these heroines become subjects, then their newfound subjecthood is hardly something to celebrate, as it is often marked by their own expendability. Millennia (the heroine of Kagero) is a tool by which her mother can execute her plans. Shortly before gaining access to TRAPs, Reina (the heroine of Deception III) is sold into slavery and sentenced to execution as part of the King’s ethnic cleansing. To the Symbolic Order, these girls are nothing more than a body to be used up for whatever value it might have. Far from aiding in the expression of their desires, the places these girls occupy within the Symbolic Order precludes the expression (let alone fulfillment) of desire in general.
All of this is to say the Deception games illustrate the limits that a purely psychological approach can have regarding gender roles. In concentrating so heavily on individual psychology, we risk losing sight of the wider circumstances the individual is implicated in. Moreover, because of how those circumstances construct the terms through which individuals understand themselves as subjects, they can often hold greater importance than whatever we might find from a psychoanalytic perspective. If slasher films channel the collective societal thought on gender and sexuality through their characters, then the Deception games turn the lens back on that thought to interrogate the very terms on which gender and sexuality are constructed. And where the psychological motifs of the former suggest subjectification – the process of becoming a subject – as a general good, the latter illustrate how impossible or meaningless that subjecthood can be for some people (particularly women) given the social conditions through which it must realize itself. Without confronting the specific meaning embedded in gender roles in our society and portrayed in our media, it does not make sense to speak of the ‘healthy’ expression of those roles.
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