Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Everyone's Mansion: Home is where the horror is

at 4:30 PM
What is a mansion? A house. Nailed it. Mansions are a place where horror movies and games and Scooby Doo are set. They have ghosts for doors and vampires for windows, and there's always a skeleton in every closet! Did you ever notice that "mansion" and "dimension" are really similar words? Coincidence? Or something much more sinister?

What is it that makes mansions so appropriate for games, particularly those of the horror and mystery variety? They're a trope so old that we don't blink an eye to see one, but mansions have a few aces of spades up their respective sleeves. I don't give a shit about being a good writer today so here's a list. That's what paragraphs are anyway.

Rooms
Rooms are a pretty convenient thing for video games. Beyond the obvious conveniences they grant to processors and loaders and whatever is going on in those computer boxes, rooms allow gameplay to be parsed in a logical fashion. A room provides a self-contained experience, be it a puzzle, a showdown, or even SHODAN. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Mansion-rooms are particularly handy because they're so clearly defined, each characterized and remembered by its purpose. "Kitchen" is not the same as "Study" is not the same as "Underground Research Lab". It's basically Clue, with less Tim Curry.

Roomification is one of the strengths of the Legend of Zelda series, games which teach us life lessons like to ALWAYS shoot eyeballs and run from statues. Pretty much the hors d'oeuvres of the Legend of Zelda is its penchant for desolate halls and cavernous chambers. So it should come as no surprise that mansions were a natural fit for Twilight Princess's Snowpeak Manor. Eh. Snowpeak is one of my favorite Zelda dungeons of all time, as the mansion theme synergizes so beautifully with Zelda mechanics, yet manages to provide an experience unlike anything Link has ever experienced. Two bad sentences in a row. Great. The Forest Temple is kind of a mansion too, isn't it? Golem will have to edit in whether that's true. I don't have a great picture of it in my head, but holy shit he never shuts up about it.

Walls
This is kind of a spinoff of #1, but I separate it out because. Mostly what I'm referring to here is a lack of transparency - you never know what the next room is going to hold. For a game like Super Mario 64 that spends most of its time showing off broomy vistas, the player is liable to get downright claustrophobic trapped inside the halls of Boo House. Your situational awareness has shrunken to a screen's width and is doled out in discrete chunks - each room is a sudden revelation. Mario putzes through each door, leaving you to cautiously scan your OHGODTHEPIANOISALIVE
Ha! No one's ever done a "surprised at the piano in Super Mario 64 Boo House being alive" joke before!
Walls don't just control visibility, but access as well. There are fixed point of entry and exit to each room, so if some scary ass shit is going down (teeth-piano again), you better hope you have a clear path to the door - and especially hope that the door is unlocked. It's much harder to scare the player in open areas where they are free to run in circles (RE5). This can also be used to give the player a much needed sense of sanctuary when things get too tense to handle. And better yet, doors can trick the player into assuming a safe haven, only to unexpectedly give way for an especially terrifying scare.

So we've established that the very layout of mansions is conducive to tension, but why are they chosen in the first place? What differentiates them from sunken ships or, hey, I just realized that the space derelicts in Alien or Dead Space are the futuristic version of sunken ships. Crazy.

Isolation 
I don't know the reality of it, but as far as fiction is concerned, every mansion is situated on a gloomy hill in a gloomy glade amidst a gloomy forest with a raven eerily saying "ca-caw". Hey is there like a crescendo (or decrescendo) version of alliteration where you use words starting with subsequent letters of the alphabet? Because I think I just invented it: "hill [...] glade [...] forest [...] eerily". Nice. The player knows that if they're getting themselves into a mansion, they're far away from any sign of civilization, and thus help.

But why not use some old ruins or a carefully placed moat to accomplish the same feeling? The beauty of the mansion is that it is the epitome of high society, yet not a part of society. It is so civilized that it's become a civilization unto itself. It has its own class struggles (servants and masters), its own history, its own body of knowledge. This is fantastic for a mystery: there are rules to this microcosm, but the player doesn't know them. They're adrift in a world that is ostensibly familiar, but contains a heart of darkens.

Resident Evil is one of the most captivating executions of this dynamic, leaving the player in what at first appears to be a desolate manor to find all kinds of life that they really don't want to find. This spooky spire exists in a reality of its own, where the dead inhabit the home of the living, sharks are in the basement, and something else. The player is only informed by their short experience with the game - they have no way to guess what this terrible world contains. And, dare you think of escaping... oh god.

Eternal Darkness' Roivas mansion is the prototypical old-world New England dwelling. The story tells us it's been around for like a million years, and then some. As the game progresses, we see the mansion in different eras, see it take on a life and growth of its own as it and its inhabitants are increasingly pulled into the epic struggle against the Ancients. All that appears normal in the mansion hides a sinister underbelly - the servants turn out to be monsters, the phone lines fake calls, and the library stores books (and more) not of the human world. This chasm between real reality and the mansion reality is further deepened by the perceivable deterioration of the protagonists' sanity. The house is weird enough already, and as things get weirder, the player has no means of determining whether what they're seeing is actually there or a figment of the characters' imaginations.

It's not a home, it's a house
The contents of the mansion are so carefully wrought and extravagant that they create a sense of the foreign, even in the presence of familiar objects like "sink" and "chair". What makes us uncomfortable is that we can still recognize and identify with the homey function of the setting. The mansion starts to make us feel at home, as ostentatious as it may be. Which makes it all the weirder if there aren't any residents. An empty hamburger factory or missile factory doesn't feel unusual to explore, as we don't really relate to those settings. An abandoned house just feels wrong.

Of course, I'm assuming you didn't grow up in a mansion. Anyone who did isn't really a part of society. Fuck those assholes.

I hate to use the same example twice, but Eternal Darkness is again the ultimate execution of this discomfort. As the story repeatedly returns to its overarching frame in the present-day Roivas mansion, we begin to feel at home - compared to Egyptian catacombs and Cambodian jungles, it certainly feels relaxing. When the game jumps from the frightening climax of one of these embedded tales back to the mansion's bedroom or study, we feel a sense of relief. Which makes it all the more disturbing as Alex (our protagonist) begins to experience violent visions and uncovers the history of what we thought was sanctuary. The chapter which shows one of Alex's ancestors being driven off the cliff of sanity sheds a completely new light (or darkness) on our supposed home base.

Decadence gone wrong
Ah shit, that's a redundant header. "Decadence" already implies extremity to the degree of corruption. One final point that strikes me about mansions is something that simultaneously delights and dismays us: the notion that all the success, riches, and status in the world are so easily twisted into something evil. On one hand, we plebeians like to imagine that you can't buy happiness. So we take a sociopathic pleasure in watching the downfall of those more well-off than ourselves.
Even brownies can be decadent to the point of terror. I think.
Third-world slums make a weak horror setting (RE5) because they're sad enough to start with - they don't need to be haunted by a spirit to unsettle us. We go in expecting to be horrified. A mansion should be AWESOME. It's the ultimate symbol of modern opulence - basically a castle. Seeing one transformed into a House of the Dead subverts our expectations that what looks good will be good. Think about it. When you see Batman hanging around Wayne Manor, you're like, "that place is fucking sw33t. I wish I lived there!". Then it's like under the house is a supercomputer and Batcars and Oracle (is she trapped there? I never saw a wheelchair ramp in the Batcave) and like all kind of lazers and shit and you're like "it's even cooler than I thought!". Then you see the house in Alone in the Dark, and you're like "that place is fucking sw33t. I wish I lived there!". And you look underneath and it's like literally Hell on earth. And you say "whoops!".

Conclusion
I actually was going to tie this discussion together with Luingi's Mansion, but I'm honestly not sure it has anything original to offer. It's not all that mansiony. Frankly, it's just too happy. Which is a weird thing to say about a game that tasks you with sucking dead babies out of drapes. And don't say "duh of course it's happy, it's a fucking Nintendo game you fucking stupid-ass dickbrain". Well fuck you too, buddy. Boo House and plenty of Zelda locales capture that nice family-friendly terror familiar from movies like Gremlin and Ploteregeists, which resonate both with humans and children without going over the line to offend. Except actually Gremlins never did seem super child-friendly to me. It's kind of mean-spirited. Parents dying on Christmas is just :/ . Great, now I'm all :/

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