S1: No Sightlines in Folk Horror

Folk Horror is often a form of arboreal myth-making, where the trees become a barrier that curtails sightlines; working against Rennaissance perspective. Folk Horror landscapes are sentient and agentic. Trees. Boundaries. Create visual and territorial barriersthat are purposed towards limiting human reach and agency. As in The Witch with its cold grey misty palette and where the trees form a dark and impenterable barrier echoing MacBeth’s forest and Tolkien’s Fangorn. Skeletal branches trace wyrd’s fateful tendrils. These are combined with a dazzling, blinding light in the opening of Witch Finder General. Is this God? Alien? The Seeing Eye? Whatever it is deigned to blind us, to castrate, to humble and undermine agency. Whatever, The Big Other. Much like the image of the unblinking, uncaring sun ‘gazing’ uncaring on Wickerman’s final shot of sacrifice.

In most games, ‘presentness’ is defined by player performed actions involved in coping with and mastering what’s thrown at them. This is not the case in folk horror and folk horror games, and it is why I claim that the player of Rapture is more ‘witness’ and ‘sight-seer’ than ‘player’. Doing is not the goal, nor winning. In pursuit of this deeply pessimistic sense of loss, the game presents its version of England through the language of British landscape painters, such as John Constable, affording the player lush and multi-layered pastoral vistas. In addition, it accords with the way in which landscape painting positions their views and their viewers.

Moralde writes, ‘landscape makes an ideological claim that human intention both frames and leaves its traces on the land, and ‘nature’ fills in all the spaces between. This specific conception of landscape flows from the conventions of Renaissance perspective in a landscape painting or photograph, the elements of the land converge towards the viewer’s position in a pleasing way, and in doing so implies the singularity of that static viewpoint as an ideal abstract position of power. (2014: 2)

By contrast with Moralde’s final point about power, I would argue that in Rapture the singularity of the viewpoint is configured as ultimately isolated, fleeting and lost rather than a powerfully agentic gaze and it is this position that suits so well the context of ludic folk horror . Rapture’s sight-seeing is not surveying – it is an act of witness, of elegy and mourning and the landscape is put in the service of this end. Tolkien’s gardened Middle-earth village of Hobbiton, where the trees let the sky in, presents an idyll of the pastoral home that is worth battling for, and it contrasts with the wildwoods of Mirkwood, or hostile Barrowdowns or of course Mordor.  Rapture’s landscape cannot be fought for however, as that agency is not available to the player, providing that all important pessimistic counterweight to the usual heroic patterns of games. All a player can do is bear witness and this is a major ludic way that the game links to the pessimism of folk horror . The game does not proffer the usual Vitruvian design of space in most games – it is not designed for exclusively to enhance player action and performance (Vitruvian in the sense that the real world/gameworld is designed expressly to serve human agency of the human mind and body). Rapture’s landscape is therefore very palpably in excess of player-based gameplay mechanics and in this its landscape becomes monstrous and Othered; no longer in the pay of the sphere of the human. The ludic mechanics underline this: there is no sense of progress or victory architected into the player’s pathway; the game therefore draws and innovates on the ways in which the pastoral landscape functions visually in folk horror in other modes.

Breaking the subservient connection between landscape and human agency is the guiding principle of the visual schema of the game.  Rapture evokes but does not show the festivals and ritual traditions of agrarian culture that we see in many folk horror texts, rituals designed to control nature. Summer fields of ripened corn suggest Lammas time offerings, and it is in one of these fields that the player encounters the streaking lines that indicate that someone dissolved in that space into pure energy, consumed into or becoming nature as it were. This sense of the landscape as outside human agency is signified visually in ways familiar to film-based folk horror. The use of dazzling light to heighten a sense of otherness as with the shimmering gold of the unharvested ripened crops, a mode of lighting also used in film such as Witchfinder General and The Wickerman to suggest that the sun is implacable to human agency and suffering. The use of visual barriers also suggests the otherness of place – the human eye cannot survey, predict or penetrated beyond the dark line of trees; again suggesting the limitations of human agency and omnipresent in The VVitch (2015), Black Spot [Zone Blanche] (2017), Blood on Satan’s Claw and imprisoning the characters of A Field in England (2013). In all these cases, recalling the army of trees in Macbeth and acting as a visual challenge to the sovereignty of human agency over the natural world.

By tanyakrzywinskablog

After working in the computer industry and spending some years conducting research into cinema and digital media, I became convinced that the innovative qualities of videogames as participatory media required closer academic attention. As such I have spent most of my career championing the inclusion of games within the academy, and arguing for games as an art form, a role I continue as a Professor at Falmouth University. Alongside this, and my scholarly work on the Gothic, I also maintain, in various forms, a visual art practice. This blog comes out of enrolling on the MA Fine Art degree programme at Central Sr Martins. It is mainly a record of my reflections on the work that I have undertaken for the degree. After having written about folk horror in games and cinema as an academic, this blog will focus on folk horror as a focus for my art practice.

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