An Uncanny Reality

An Uncanny Reality


This video was sponsored by Audible. Stick around at the end for more info, and
maybe my favorite short story ever. “James, honey, did something happen to you?” This isn’t what PS2 games looked like. I mean, it is. This is Silent Hill 2, almost two decades
old, released for the Playstation 2 in 2001. But still. This isn’t what PS2 games looked like. The generally accepted term for what we’re
watching now is an “FMV,” or “Full Motion Videos.” They’re movies that are rendered completely
outside a game’s engine and then stitched back into it. They didn’t need to follow the same rules
as the rest of a game’s graphics, they didn’t have to look anything like it. And while most FMVs were used to pull a player
deeper into the world, there are a few…exceptions to that rule. Scenes that unmoor a player instead, and send
them spinning into a sort of limbo, where everything is equally untrustworthy, and reality
is a promise that can’t be kept. Acceptance of another reality is inherent
in games. To even begin to interact with a story requires
accepting that this bundle of polygons, this loose representation of a human, should be
given the same suspension of disbelief that we give to older, more traditional mediums. And games, for their part, typically make
this as easy as possible. They’re cohesive, they hold together. Even though we’re still far from mistaking
these digital constructions for our reality, they’re reliable enough that we can accept
them as a reality. For basically as long as games have existed,
extra-textual sources have helped form these worlds in our imagination. The art on the side of arcade cabinets gives
context to the abstract pixels on screen, backstories in instruction manuals gave blank-slate
characters some sort of motivation. Megaman might look like a blue robot blob,
but if you check out the box, he actually looks like this augh. And typically, that’s what FMVs were used
for. Lending the environments some extra texture
when the in-game graphics couldn’t quite cut it, giving you a super detailed version
of the character that you could imagine when looking at the normal low-poly ones. They pulled you further into the world, cementing
the in-game world as one that could be believed. And then there’s Silent Hill 2. The word “uncanny” is thrown around a
lot in our modern-day world, and “Uncanny Valley” makes up the lion’s share of that. Animation can look almost perfect, computers
can pretty perfectly fake humanity- “mm-hmm.” “sure, what time are you looking for around?”
“at 12pm.” -Until they can’t. And while these can certainly be creepy in
their own way, to me they feel more like technological growing pains than strange or mysterious,
the way that uncanny is meant to be used. But there’s something special about Silent
Hill 2’s FMVs. They still unsettle me, almost two decades
later. Watching scenes from this game, it’s almost
like the characters are phasing in and out of reality. There are seconds where the lighting is so
spot-on it genuinely looks like a recording, and then in the very next second, they’ll
make an expression that’s so…bizarre you’ll wonder how you ever thought they looked human. But then again, in the very next shot, you’ll
get another one of those near-perfect moments, and you’ll be thrown into wondering again. The “true” game, the part rendered in
real-time using the PS2, falls more in line with what we think a 2001 PS2 game should
look like. And it’s gorgeous too, in its own way. The way James’ flashlight is swallowed up
by the inky blackness, the way the ever-present fog distorts depth, this legitimately unnerving
shot between two narrow buildings…But it is, more or less, predictable. No matter how strong the art direction, this
game just can’t grow more shaders, sprout more polygons. It is bound to the platform it exists on. But all bets are off when it comes to FMVs. Full CGI animation was still really in early
days here. Toy Story was just 6 years earlier, and Pixar
intentionally chose toys because facial expressions were really hard. Games had used them for a while- the juggernaut
of CGI cutscenes was probably Square Enix, who had been pumping out hours of them for
the Final Fantasy series since 7, but always with anime-proportioned characters more fitting
of that series. Facial motion capture was rudimentary at best. We’re still not perfect at creating perfect
digital expressions, but back then it was the wild west. There was no magic bullet for capturing emotion. So when it came to Silent Hill 2, artistic
lead and character designer Takayoshi Sato opted to go use no face mo-cap at all, hand-animating
every scene. He even acted out the character’s expressions
in a mirror, using himself as a reference for all their little details. Because of that commitment, you get these
moments, folds of skin and micro-expressions, that are impressively realistic even today. But for every perfect little moment, there’s
an equally imperfect one. When you watch Silent Hill 2’s FMVs, you
can feel that conflict. An artist, struggling to reconcile the reality
he wanted to represent with the limitations of his own ability and the system he was working
within. But what’s remarkable about this bizarre,
halfway-real aesthetic is that it absolutely works. “See? I’m real.” Silent Hill 2 is a horror game. But as many people have pointed out before
me, Silent Hill 2 is a piece of introspective horror more than any single shock or grotesquerie. Repeatedly, James- the protagonist- is forced
to confront parts of himself far more sick than anything in the town. How long did James treat his wife as dead
while she lay, very much alive, on her hospital bed? Why are the monsters he has to beat into the
ground dressed as pinup nurses, all exposed skin and broken bones? From what dark corner of his psyche did he
pull the idea of Pyramid Head from, the physical manifestation of the punishment he thinks
he deserves? Throughout the game, we’re constantly struggling
to get a clear picture of who James actually is. But in response, Silent Hill 2 doesn’t give
us one- it gives us several. The very first shot of the game is James staring
into a mirror, drenched in dark. There’s a reason so many reviews and retrospectives
of the game have centered themselves around this image- it’s remarkable. Between the darkness, the griminess of the
mirror, the greasiness of his hair, it’s initially hard to tell what medium this even
is. Is it in-game? Is it an FMV? Is it a photograph? A couple seconds more inspection will give
you your answer. His hand moves just a little too sharply across
his face, the lighting loses a lot of its luster when he steps away from the mirror. But the initial power of this image is undeniable. For a fleeting moment, the player and James
are on exactly the same wavelength. He stares into those dark pools of his eyes
alongside us, searching for something, anything, to hold onto underneath. It makes our very first seconds in this world
one of questioning- and no matter how many hours we spend there, a concrete answer always
eludes us. This is not the only time mirrors are used
to fragment reality in Silent Hill 2. In another FMV, just seconds long, James finds
a woman named Angela lying on her side, staring into the blade of a knife. What you can’t immediately tell from this
shot is that we’re not seeing either character directly. Instead, Angela and James are only visible
from this angle because of the wall-sized mirror in front of them. We open the scene by seeing their reflections,
doubles of themselves, bathed in dark just like James in the opening. Not to be outdone, Angela is in fact facing
two different versions of herself, the reflection in the mirror and her own image, distorted,
on the knife’s blade. And this is just in the FMV! Seconds later, it switches to in-game graphics,
giving us a whole new set of characters and reflections to contend with. It’s like Silent Hill is trying to break
us, throwing so many different versions of the same character at us that we completely
lose track of what’s real. Even the framerate is at odds with itself! The FMVs run at 60 frames per second, twice
as fast as the in-game 30fps. The game refuses stability at every turn. As the cherry on top, Silent Hill 2 renders
reflections by simply creating a perfect double on the other side of the mirror. If one happens to break out of bounds, the
question of which James is real becomes even more impossible to answer. The FMVs are particularly unsettling because
the game refuses to foreshadow their appearance. This scene comes in the middle of a long trek
through a confusing building. James finds a shelf he can push to the side,
revealing a long ladder into darkness behind it. But when you press the button to climb down
the ladder, you’re met with- “James” “Maria? Oh, Mary. Sorry, I thought you were- anyway, I’m glad
you’re alive.” Despite the fact that nothing particularly
horrifying happens, this scene is basically a jumpscare. It happens so quickly. One second, you’re a predictable, 2001 model
of James. The next, you’re in an unfamiliar room with
an unexpected aesthetic and the unexplained reappearance of Maria, who you haven’t seen
for hours. And even the scene itself is so weird. James, like always, seems supremely unaffected
by all the awful things he’s seen in the town. Maria, in contrast, is all over the place,
wildly oscillating between grateful, angry, and distraught- her reading of ANYWAY is maybe
my favorite line in the whole game. You just can’t get comfortable playing Silent
Hill 2. “No, I-” “Then stay with me! Never leave me alone!” This recurring motif of wavering reality creates
a powerful sense of insecurity. Through all the different visual mediums-
the uncanny reality of the FMVs, the abstraction of the in-game figures, the swirling layers
of fog, the drowning black of the game’s interiors- there’s never one that seems
to hold legitimacy over the others. Each is just another layer of the darkness
that is Silent Hill 2. It’s not the only game that’s played with
reality, though. Devotion, created by Taiwanese developer Red
Candle Games, arguably does so on a much more fundamental level- because Devotion, in some
ways, doesn’t exist. Released on February 19, 2019, it was available
for purchase for all of one week before being pulled off digital storefronts on February
26. The reason for the axing, a small piece of
graffiti that compared Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh, was quickly patched out, but not
quick enough to avoid the dissolution of Red Candle Game’s chinese business license,
and the disappearance of Devotion from all store shelves. It’s a terrible shame. Because not only is Devotion’s takedown
a suppression of art and a quashing of political speech, Devotion as a game is really freaking
good. It’s a game that deserves to be played. But, as it happens, hanging in this limbo-
finished but not available, released but not for sale, is somewhat thematically appropriate
for Devotion. It, like Silent Hill 2, is a game that bends
reality. The basic setup for Devotion isn’t complicated. We mostly play as Du Feng Yu, a man who lives
with his wife and daughter in an apartment in Taipei. He was a moderately successful screenplay
writer. His wife, Gong Li Fan, was a singer and pop
icon. Both of their glory days are behind them though,
and now it’s their daughter- Mei Shin- who’s attempting to enter showbusiness by singing
on a reality TV competition. But Devotion isn’t a game about healthy
family values. Feng Yu in particular seems to be saddling
his 8-year-old daughter with his crushing hopes and dreams of getting back into the
limelight. Mei Shin, wanting her parents approval but
terrified of actually performing, gets sick- physically, psychologically, some inextricable
mix of the two. Li Fan leaves, and Feng Yu commits both himself
and Mei Shin to a cultish treatment plan, one that only results in tragedy. Why am I talking about this though? What does this have to do with reality? Well throughout the game, representations
of the outside world- and especially of Mei Lin- happen through “altered” reality,
just like the FMVs of the game. Except in 2019, representational graphics
in games are far closer to Silent Hill 2’s CGI than its pixel-y in-game visuals. So, to emphasize the uncanny, Devotion goes
one step further. It uses real life. Mei Shin’s performance on TV represents
a turning point in the lives of all three family members. For Mei herself, it’s when her anxieties
began to crystallize and manifest in her mysterious illness. For Li Fan, it’s when her concern for her
daughter’s well-being outweighed any vicarious wishes of future showbusiness success. And for Feng Yu, it’s when he decided to
double down on the treatment that would define his, and his daughter’s lives. For each, this performance is the Big Bang
that would ultimately shape their fate. It’s easy to imagine that each thinks about
this program on a daily basis. So it’s only appropriate that in the game,
it takes on a completely uncanny aesthetic. The ramifications that have rippled outward
from this show have retrospectively magnified the recording’s importance, giving it a
life of its own in each of their memories. What happens on the TV looks fundamentally
different than everything else in the world. There’s the apartment where they live, their
possessions, their selves. And then there’s how they exist with their
names in flashing lights. Repeatedly throughout the game, your character-
Feng Yu, at this point- comes to on a couch, watching his daughter perform. He’s obsessed. And when we learn about his wife’s former
career as a pop icon, and all of his attempts at screenwriting, this fundamental difference
in aesthetic makes sense. Out there, in front of the cameras, the performances
in public; that’s legitimate. It is more real than anything else in his
world. Everything he does, and makes his daughter
do, is an attempt to break back into that reality. Disturbingly, this isn’t the only representation
we see of Mei Shin. She’s “real” when she’s on TV, but
in the house, where she lies sick or listens to bedtime stories from her dad, she’s a
literal doll. Unmoving, unfeeling. We even get to watch the doll go through a
automaton-like day’s routine. Each event in the day is unsettling on some
level, but the doll itself doesn’t emote, doesn’t smile or frown or cry. Like with her performance on TV, Mei Shin
exists here, in Feng Yu’s memory, in an altered state. But unlike the recording, with all the details,
character, and imperfection of reality, here he’s made her inanimate. An object to be puppeted around. he is moving her further away from “realness.” Is this the way Feng Yu sees his daughter? A doll, only alive when it can be made to
perform? There’s no doubt that he cares for Mei Shin-
the sacrifices he makes later in the game viscerally drive that point home. But what version of his daughter is he making
the sacrifices for? The doll that he interacts with on a day to
day basis, going through the motions of fatherhood while she lays sick in bed? Or the one on TV he keeps returning to, his
real daughter that only exists on a videotape, the one that performed in the public eye so
beautifully? “I think there are two main factors that
evoke fear: first, to see something beyond their understanding; second, to see concealed
their true-self.” -Takayoshi Sato “The world you inhabit is not true” is
a horror conceit that expands far beyond Silent Hill and Devotion. Countless stories, tales of ghosts and the
ravages of time and other realities, have understood how destabilizing that concept
is. But I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced
that conflict firsthand as acutely as when confronted with the multiple coexisting realities
of these games. The fear it evokes, as per Sato’s quote,
is absolutely unique as well. It doesn’t come as a shock, nor does it
have the distinctive lump in your throat, the cold sweat, of rising suspense- although
both these games do have both of those. This fear, instead, is a dense forest, one
where you think you’re only feet from the path and then you turn around and it’s just
trunks and underbrush and twisted roots stretching out in every direction. It’s the realization that this place, which
you thought you knew well, is as strange and unfamiliar as it has been to everyone else
who enters it. We are led into these uncanny worlds by the
promise of familiarity, but the more time we spend in them, the more off they feel. Every emotion is an alien interpretation,
every reflection is wrong. And also unlike a jump scare, unlike rising
tension, there’s no release. These works introduce us to this forest, they
lead us in, and then they just end. And we’re still in the woods. Like I said earlier, there are far more existing
examples of the “multiple realities” idea than what I talked about in this video. One of my absolute favorites is the genre
is the short story “We Men of Science,” from the unbelievably good collection “Someone
Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory.” “We Men of Science” blurs the lines between
one world and another so effectively that, after listening to it, I felt like I spent
the next few hours wandering around in a daze. And you can get the whole collection, and
a 30-day Audible Trial, absolutely free by going to audible dot com slash jacobgeller,
or texting jacobgeller to five hundred five hundred. One of my favorite things about Audible is
the bananas level of production value these audiobooks has. “Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged
Glory” has stories performed by Stephanie Beatriz and Kimiko Glenn and Raphael Bob-Waksberg
himself. And since these are short stories, they’re
the perfect length to listen to on your commute or on a run, especially if you like, uhh,
sobbing on your commute or on a run. Start listening with a 30-day Audible trial. Choose 1 audiobook and 2 Audible Originals
absolutely free. Visit audible dot com slash jacobgeller or
text jacobgeller to five hundred five hundred.