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  • Saving Ourselves: Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill

    - Marc C. Santos and Sarah White

  •  Saving Ourselves

    This article's concluding section examines how the different framing and treatment of saving and save points in these games respectively resembles Freud and Lacan's split regarding the relationship between language's (in)stability and the structural properties of the unconscious. Following the model we have discussed so far, Resident Evil will establish a more conservative (Freudian) position, the expectation for which will be subverted by the more radical (Lacanian) Silent Hill.

    Unlike many games of its era, Resident Evil made overt efforts to make saving an integral part of its ludic action, and hence, a more coherent part of its fictional world.[vii] Most 3D action-platform games of its kind required players to save only after reaching certain predetermined areas. Saving was rarely strategic; players had very little choice in exactly where or when to save, simply saving whenever the opportunity arose (in Tomb Raider, for instance, whenever you discovered a large, blue crystal). Resident Evil worked saving into the action of the game-in order to save, players had to find ink ribbons. Ink ribbons could then be used at typewriters located throughout the game. When saving, the typewriter recorded players' progress one letter at a time, marking where and when they were in our story (for instance, "Mansion Lobby-4 hours, 32 minutes"); any player of the series will forever remember that clickety-clack sound. Save points in Resident Evil were strategic for two reasons: first, players were extremely limited in how many items they could carry-picking up or carrying around an ink ribbon sacrificed a slot that could be dedicated to either ammunition or health; second, a player had to judiciously determine when to use a save, else she might not have one before a critical boss battle!

    In addition to incorporating these ludic dimensions into saving, Resident Evil tied saving to its diegetic world. By attempting to formulate a logical connection between the our method of saving and our method for solving the hermeneutic questions surrounding the game's fictional world, Resident Evil attempted to make its method of saving a more coherent part of the game's fictional world. Jesper Juul in Half-Real explains how "many video games present game worlds that are incoherent worlds, where the game contradicts itself or prevents the player from imagining a complete fictional world" (123). Such contradictions can interrupt our ability to immerse ourselves into the game world, potentially shattering the constructed ambiance. Resident Evil's survival horror experience relies on our immersion into the game. Not surprising, then, that the game makes an effort to incorporate saving into the logic of its world.

    Comprehending how Resident Evil grounds saving into the logic of its fictional world requires highlighting the pivotal role texts play in players' understanding of that fictional world. Throughout not only the first installment, but also the entire Resident Evil series, players discover text files that provide clues to the mysterious nature of the game world. Text has a privileged role through the series. The opening cut-scenes of every installment of the series positions game play as a story being typed out-the break to the typewriter is a break to an inevitable future in which we are recording our progress. From this perspective, our game play is positioned as a flashback; we are recording events that have already happened. Why are their zombies eating people? Who financed the experiments producing such nightmarish creatures? How can they be killed? How can we escape from the lab (the mansion, the police station, the city, etc.)? While some answers are provided in cut-scenes, most of the answers stem from text files-typed files discovered during exploration.[viii] Save files, then, have a seemingly logical place in the world; they represent another textual file contributing the mystery's solution- our hermeneutic solving of the narrative's puzzles often relies on finding other pieces of typed text; of stitching together disjointed texts into a unified, linear whole. The way we save ourselves (our progress), from a ludic perspective, contributes to our experience saving, from a psychoanalytic conception, ourselves (our conception of self). Writing is presented as a stabilizing, life affirming force. In a nightmarish, apocalyptic moment, Resident Evil allows us to fall back into the secure embrace of writing.

    This explicit symbiosis between saving and narrating, when considered along side Resident Evil's consciousness of the role of language in perpetuation of the symbolic order, displays their awareness of narrative as a life affirming force. Saving, then, becomes an act of maintaining psychic boundaries; it is the way that we save our selves. This saving mechanism doesn't change throughout the series-every game includes the comforting clickety-clack. Finally, as regards saving in the Resident Evil series, we thought it was too coincidental that the ultimate weapon in Resident Evil 4, a Tommy-Gun style automatic weapon with infinite ammo capable of killing virtually anything in the game with a shot or two, is referred to as the "Chicago Typewriter"... the ultimate textual weapon in ordering the world and protecting selfhood.

    The Silent Hill series problematizes this conception of saving established in the Resident Evil series. Just as Silent Hill frustrates our expectation to unquestionably secure symbolic order and provide narrative closure, so does it subvert any conception of saving (or writing) as an unquestionably life-affirming force. In the original Silent Hill players record their progress with notepads rather than with typewriters. Given our inclination to see psychoanalytic theory at play in these games, these notepads reminded us of Freud's essay "Notes Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad'." A toy writing-machine, the mystic writing pad was a special tablet which separated temporary marks on a celluloid surface from permanent marks impressed upon a wax surface underneath (think Etch-a-Sketch meets carbon paper or more contemporary technologies such as the Logitech digital pens). Freud describes it thusly: "the surface of the Mystic Writing Pad is clear of writing and once more clear of impressions. But it is easy to discover that the permanent trace of what is written is retained upon the wax slab itself and is legible in suitable lights" (210-211). Explicating Freud's metaphor, the role of the analyst is to enlighten the subject toward these underlying impressions, recorded far below the level of consciousness, that are traumatizing them. For our study, the most intriguing aspect of the brief essay is its opening discussion of writing:

    If I distrust my memory-neurotics, as we know, do so to a remarkable extent, but normal people have every reason for doing so as well-I am able to supplement and guarantee its working by making a note in writing...I have only to bear in mind the place where this "memory" has been deposited and I can then "reproduce" it at any time I like, with the certainty that it will have remained unaltered and so have escaped the possible distortions to which it might have been subjected in my actual memory. (207)

    Again, returning to the metaphor, while consciousness copes with the insecurity of its memory, its inability to completely recall (perhaps we should spell it out and say "load") that which it has saved, the unconscious records all. (Of course, since some of them might be Real). While consciousness might not be stable, writing is. Freud, like Resident Evil, conceptualizes writing as stable and permanent. We were surprised, given this perspective, that Silent Hill might grant such a secure ontological status to writing, especially given the series' disdain for narrative coherence.

    A still moment in Silent Hill.

    We concluded that Silent Hill, along with Lacan's poststructuralist rendering of Freudian psychoanalysis, acknowledges that the proposed stability of writing is itself a fetishistic investment, a petit object a. Furthermore, the phallic totalization that writing proposes is as potentially threatening as the maternal abject since its "perfect" record risks a return of the Real. Butler reminds us that myriad memories escaping conscious reflection need to be overlooked to maintain a symbolic order and avoid a traumatic interruption. In Lacanian theory, those objects in reality that instantiate such threats return to us as stains upon our subjectivity. Seemingly undermining the Freudian connotations of the notepads in the series' first installment, the save points in Silent Hill 2 appear as glowing red blotches-stains appearing in an otherwise normal reality. Often, these stains will be incorporated into the environment-players might not initially see them. They appear in window panes, as chair cushions, in television screens, as placemats on tables. We argue that these save points represent the Lacanian "stain"-"strange, suspended, oblique objects"-anamorphic disruptions of everyday reality.[ix] Žižek explicates the implications of these Real intrusions:

    The detail that "does not fit," that sticks out from the idyllic surface scene and denatures it, renders it uncanny...the element that, when viewed straightforwardly, remains a meaningless stain...that "denatures"...rendering all its constituents "suspicious," and thus opens up the abyss of the search for a meaning-nothing is what it seems to be, everything is to be interpreted, everything is supposed to possess some supplementary meaning. The ground of the established, familiar signification opens up; we find ourselves in a realm of total ambiguity, but this very lack propels us to produce ever new "hidden meanings": it is a driving force of endless compulsion. (Awry 90-91)

    The save points in Silent Hill 2 are anamorphic intrusions-disrupting an otherwise "normal" environment (extending even into the murderous and abject Otherworlds). Whenever we use one of these stained save points, the screen is washed over by its uncannily bright red taking us to the save screen. Unlike the Resident Evil series and the original Silent Hill, there is no clear effort here to rationally position saving as a part of the fictional world. It is violently disconnected, and at the save screen, rather than looking at a typewriter or notepad (instruments of stability); we stare into our avatars face as we blankly stares at us. The titles of our save file are distorted and superimposed onto the background, he looks through them at us. For a moment, in the rite that writes our progress, our play gazes back at us, blankly questioning if our subjectivity is any righter (more proper, Žižek might interrupt), more secure, than that of the character we direct. The game itself becomes a stain, potentially interrupting the security of our own symbolic orders, leading us to question if anything orders our movements, or if we are merely subjects of (by, through) play.

    In Silent Hill 3 save points, still uncannily red, appear as religious symbols tied to a mysterious cult. Thus, saving more tied to the fictional world than in the previous installment (although it is also simultaneously positioned as potentially mystical). This is not the only way that save points are tied to the diegetic world. Our avatar, Heather, searches for her lost (eventually murdered) father (Harry, the protagonist of the original Silent Hill). During her search, she finds several text files, appearing as the notepad save files from the series' first entry, to help her piece things together. Whenever Heather approaches a save point early in SH 3, she writhes in pain, grasping her head, overwhelmed. Saving, then, becomes associated with the return of the repressed. This association is cemented a few hours into the game in a key moment that spurred the present investigation. Early in the game, Heather enters an art studio. One painting hanging on the hall (at the time diegetically meaningless), a landscape of the lake surrounding Silent Hill, is entitled "The Repressor of Memories." We were intrigued by the insinuation of its title, but we only realized the extent of its significance later in the game. Heather revisits the studio while in the Otherworld. In the place of the uncannily named painting is a save point. A question lingered: what memories does saving repress?

    As with Silent Hill 2, we believe that the answer to this question lies less within the diegetic realm or the psychic economy of our avatar than it does in the extra-diegetic realm of the player and her psychic economy. Here we draw again on the narratological work of Peter Brooks. Working through Freud's conception of the unconscious death drive and its opposition to the subconscious dynamics of the pleasure principle, Brooks articulates a relationship between narrative progression and our progression toward death. Each page we pleasurably read, each scene we enjoy, brings us closer to our narrative's end. To sustain our enjoyment, we must repress this movement toward finitude-else our pleasure be tainted by the oncoming inevitability. Thus, narrative engagements mirror our internal psychic struggles between a conscious desire for pleasure and a consciously repressed yet unconsciously welcomed movement toward the quiescence of desire.[x] Returning to our question, then, perhaps it is better framed as "who is repressing?" The answer is that we, players, are repressing, avoiding, postponing the fact that every save brings us closer to a virtual death, to the narrative's end, to the end of our play. Every cleared stage brings us closer to the end. Thus, this enacts Brook's statement that narrative progression (re)presents us with "the knowledge of death which in our own lives is denied to us" (95).

    Although their appearance again transforms, save point mechanics remain consistent in Silent Hill 4. The screen still washes over red, severing us momentarily from the game world each time we save. There is one major change to the mechanics: during the game we can only save in one place-inside the uncanny confines of our apartment. The save point is a red notebook on end table-the irony here seems clear: writing, our hysterical scribbling, becomes just as unstable as everything else caught up in this undecidable nightmare world. Like the psychotic letters passed under our door (which often confuse us more than aid us), saving is only available in a first-person world that keeps the status of our subjectivity in question.

    And there we sit as silhouettes in our rooms, the light of the television illuminating our gaze-existing as subjects both outside of the game in our own psychosocial realities, and within the digitized space of the game, where we are permitted to confront, and an illusory way, control our simulated ends each time we save. In the world beyond the screen, we can finish the game and buy yet another installment-we can "begin" and "end" our selves repeatedly within narrative after narrative-which in turn allows us to repress and avoid, for a few hours at least, our own inevitable ends.

    Sarah White is a native of Bowling Green, Ohio who has her BFA from Bowling Green State University, her MA from Iowa State University, and her MFA from Purdue University. She has been teaching English for over six years and enjoys spending free time with her new XBox 360.

    Marc C. Santos is currently pursuing a Ph.D in rhetoric and composition at Purdue University; his focus is on the intersections between postmodern theory, digitality, and sophistic rhetoric. He and Sarah have authored a previous article examining the relationship between survival horror and video games, "Playing With Ourselves," which appears in the collection Digital Gameplay.


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