Saving Ourselves: Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill
[01.30.07] - Marc C. Santos and Sarah White
Imagine wandering through shadowy hallways, with monsters stalking closely behind, desperately running, screaming at the screen for a hallowed "save point." We've come so far, encountered so many clues, overcome so many obstacles, and feel the urgent need to save our progress. How else can we save ourselves?
Two years ago, we presented a psychoanalytic interpretation of the survival horror series Resident Evil and Silent Hill entitled "Playing with Ourselves." Drawing on Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, and Ian, we attempted to illuminate the overlap survival horror games shared with psychoanalytic theorists. The Resident Evil series conservatively positions a player as a defender of Lacanian "symbolic order," the psychological force constituting subjectivity (discussed further below). On the other hand, Silent Hill subverts our anticipation to occupy this position. If Resident Evil comfortably positions us as analyst, then Silent Hill mischievously collapses the distinction between analyst and analysand-undermining with it the surrounding symbolic order upon which such distinctions rely.
This investigation breaks into three distinct sections. The first section further explicates how the poststructuralist divide between Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis plays out in the differences between the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series. We hope to make clear that Silent Hill, like an avant-garde artist, undermines the genre conventions established by Resident Evil. The middle section explores how this divide manifests itself in the two recent additions to each franchise (Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill 4: The Room). The final section examines the diegetic nature of save points in each series, paying playful attention to how saving (as a rite) records (writes) our progress as we progress toward saving the proper (right) subject. And, following the pattern we discuss in the first section, Resident Evil establishes a more conservative (Freudian) position that Silent Hill playfully (Lacanian-ly) problematizes.
The zombies of Resident Evil.
Resident Evil: Authorizing the Kill
In Resident Evil, players and avatars work symbiotically to uphold what Jacques Lacan calls the "symbolic order," the fragile web of symbols that both shapes and limits our psychosocial experiences. Lacanian psychoanalysis often refers to the discursive constitution of the subject-emphasizing the important role that language plays in the instantiation of psychic order. Lacan's writing is often dense and cryptic, but we offer the following passage from his essay "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis" stresses the symbolic constitution of subjectivity:
Symbols in fact envelop the life of man with a network so total that they join together those who are going to engender him "by bone and flesh" before he comes into the world; so total that they bring to his birth, along with the gift of the stars, if not with the gifts of the fairies, the shape of his destiny; so total that they provide the words that will make him faithful or renegade, the law of the acts that will follow him right to the place where he is not yet and beyond his very death; and so total the through them his end finds its meaning in the last judgment, where the Word absolves his being or condemns it-unless he reaches the subjective realization of being-toward-death. (67)
Lacan stresses the power of the Word as structural agent of the subject (writing's role in establishing the right rite). Born into the infinity of existence, it is through the Word (language, culture, history--that into which the subject is thrown) that the infinite presents itself a discrete and finite being--a subject.
Symbolic order, discursively constructed, averts our eyes from seeing the impossible, cataclysmic infinity of existence, known as "the Real." Symbolic order reduces the infinite possibilities of existence into a rationally coherent whole, all the while working to erase any indication of this reduction. Judith Butler explicates the trauma that awareness of this reduction can generate:
This trauma subsists as the permanent possibility of disrupting and rendering contingent any discursive formation that lays claim to a coherent or seamless account of reality. It persists as the real, where the real is always that which any account of "reality" fails to include. The real constitutes the contingency or lack in any discursive formation. (192)
In these survival-horror worlds, the monsters we encounter signify a return of the Real, their near-sexual drive for consumption a constant reminder of the discursive construction of our own desire. A healthy psyche submits to the Law of the Father-the law authorizing conformity to symbolic order, the law demanding we desire. Desire distracts our attention from a nihilistic drive to end symbolically-constructed desire, the law that averts our eyes from the gaze of femininity (understood as something which stresses connection over distinction--this will be addressed further below in our discussion of Saddler, the antagonist in Resident Evil 4).
Furthermore, their abject and freakish forms embody Žižek's description of the Real:
the Real which returns has the status of a(nother) semblance: precisely because it is real, that is, on account of its traumatic / excessive character, we are unable to integrate it into (what we experience as) our reality, and are therefore compelled to experience it as a nightmarish apparition. (Welcome 19) (emphasis original)
The abject plays an even more important role in the worlds of Silent Hill--worlds that frequently oscillate between normal realities and nightmarish Otherworlds. As players, we are left questioning whether such horrific worlds represent objective realities or are subjective, traumatic manifestations of our avatars' psychotic minds.
The evil of Silent Hill.
In Resident Evil, we defend symbolic order by killing monstrous zombies. Part of these games' terror stems from approaching that which challenges our own symbolic economies-the Real, the abject vilified maternal that threatens the paternal psychological structures upon which subjectivity is founded.[i] In our first article, we analyzed the encounter the first zombie in the Resident Evil series thusly:
The horror of this encounter stems not only from the carnage...but also from the intensity of the perfectly normal blue eyes staring into/through us. They acknowledge us not as another subject, nor even as a fantasy screen...but as a thing to be utterly consumed. The human eyes on the hideously monstrous face horrify us because they reflect a repressed aspect of our desire back at us-the deep repressed desire for nihilistic assimilation, the desire to be reunited with the maternal body, to be consumed (literally in this case) by the Other. ("Playing with Ourselves" 71)
Unfortunately, our wording here was imprecise -rather than referring to "desire" (symbolically constructed), we should have referred to "drive" (that which resists symbolic economy). Also, the word "repressed" failed to adequately capture the implications of Lacan's pronouncement that the unconscious operates like a language. Repression, a key mark of Freudian psychodynamics, implies a repressor, an active agent responsible for excluding the potentially traumatic. It is inconsequential if such an agent is a lone force or a collection of forces, accessible to consciousness or beyond its reach. Regardless of these issues, a repressor ironically acts as a guarantor-ensuring that somewhere in the psychic arena some entity ensures a mythic unity and security. Whether we can address him directly, a Father watches over us, assuring order and control. Poststructural in orientation, Lacan's psychic economy admits no one agent responsible for "repression"; language contains no singularity responsible for masking the play of its signifiers; words drift meaning according to their very substance.[ii] Furthermore, such inherent ambiguity of meaning is a condition of language's very possibility-all existence is predicated upon lack in a generative sense. Consequently, however, Lacan's dynamics lack the comfort of a totalizing Other guaranteeing order. And some of the most traumatic intrusions of the Real concern those moments when we realize that our psychic economies lack any kind of reassuring Father figure who keeps the Real in check.
We chose to work with Resident Evil and Silent Hill since they are the two most significant series in the survival horror genre. Only once we started filtering these games through our psychoanalytic lenses did we recognize that they are significant for entirely different reasons: Resident Evil establishes the genre's primary conventions- creaking door loading screens,[iii] cinematic camera angles, echoing footsteps, conserving of ammo, the sudden "popping out" of monsters, and (as the final section of this examination addresses) diegetic save points. Theoretically, however, the entire Resident Evil series remains extremely conservative-players, through their avatars, were positioned to preserve symbolic order. In no way did it challenge traditional psychic boundaries-as is epitomized in the final battle of Code Veronica: "take your linear launcher, destroy the phallic mother, and your journey to self-preservation will be complete."
Resident Evil further positions us as a defender of symbolic order through our role as what Peter Brooks identifies as the narrative's "sovereign judge." In Reading for the Plot, Brooks argues that every narrative projects a "sovereign judge"-a character or entity capable of piecing the story together, of stitching it whole. The Freudian nature of this projection should be clear: it is that which, even if deferred, ensures the possibility for a totalizing and united meaning. In Resident Evil, surrounded by characters too insipid for description, players come to occupy this role-players collect are the various disconnected clues and order them into one linear narrative. No matter the extent of the insanity in the diegetic world, Resident Evil always assures us that order can be restored.
Silent Hill significance stems from its avant-garde status: it anticipates our familiarity with these conventions and works to subvert them, problematizing our desire for stability and coherence. These subversions work by collapsing the distances between player, avatar, and game unsettling our expectation to retain a clinical distance between the twisted world of our avatars and the sacred normality of our own real world. This is epitomized near the end of Silent Hill 3 when a professorial character inquisitively questions the "enjoyment" that Heather, our avatar, draws from killing the threatening abjections around her. When she responds that she has only killed monsters, Vincent replies with "they look like monsters to you..." Our game play, which until this point has been comfortably positioned as an analytic activity helping Heather work through her traumas, becomes traumatic. Vincent punctures the fictional fantasy screen, speaking not only to Heather, but also to us. Suddenly the game world collapses around us-for a moment we are subjected as murders, potentially as psychotic as our avatar and/or as one of the very psychopaths we so confidently believed we were killing. Nothing can be trusted. No longer is it clear that we are working to uphold symbolic order. No longer is it clear that any such order ever has or could so securely exist. Put simply, Resident Evil maintains desire for a Freudian dynamic (one in which order is out there), Silent Hill opens us up to a Lacanian one (one in which, to quote Derrida, "order is no longer assured" (Archive Fever 5). [iv]
The remainder of this article is divided into two sections: the next section explores how Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill 4: "The Room" relate to the psychoanalytic framework sketched out above. The article's concluding section examines the development of save points over the two series, paying particular attention to how Resident Evil establishes and Silent Hill subverts a presumed relationship between the stability of writing and the stability of subjectivity.