“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… Nothing outside you can give you any place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.” – Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
Gothic Americana, whether in Southern literature or the alternative folk-rock music inspired by it later, is a genre rife with an unsettled sense of place. O’Connor’s work often revealed the grotesqueness of human nature through its description of landscape, and how “the trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.” It would be an understatement to label the South as just another character in O’Connor’s fiction. The harsh and indifferent absolutes of the world, which almost all her characters fight against, are the South. They’re the decaying plantations, reflected in the degradation of a family who once had “old money.” Or corrupted churches, that lead a lonely boy to find salvation in a river that drowns him instead.
The newness of the American sense of place, coupled with the ghosts of suffering that still haunt its landscape, results in a genre that remains relevant to this day. And I can think of no better entry into the genre for videogames than the upcoming Fallow, a PC game that focuses on exploring unsettling environmental set-pieces inspired by rural life.
Developed, written, composed, and designed by Rook, Fallow is the kind of Americana that is “aesthetically pleasant but tonally disturbing.” The dark Americana music that inspired its tone originated from close thematic connections to Southern gothic literature of the past. Rook cites Denver musicians Jay Munly and David Eugene Edwards as major influences on the game’s atmosphere, confessing that “most of my work on Fallow is a kind of ramshackle, second-hand interpretation of the imagery I get from their music.” She listens to their albums constantly while developing the game, and describes the music as “eerily sincere.”
Fallow‘s art style was inspired in large part by the simultaneous feeling of isolation and wonder that comes with being in the countryside. Initially, it began as just an idle attempt to render the sense of that landscape into a top-down JRPG visual style. The game has since kept certain aspects of the JRPG, with some light item puzzles. But predominately, Fallow is about exploring tone and setting through the protagonist’s journey.
The story follows Isablline, a farmhand who hopes to be a fiction writer one day. In the spirit of the gothic, the surreal layers of Isa’s world blend indistinguishably with the mundane. After sleep walking, she wakes up in different locations in a half-hallucinating state again and again. The odd occurrences that follow carry an inextricable link to the landscape around her since, “the world of Fallow itself is in a state of transition, culturally and technologically. It’s a place someone like Isa would want to escape from, but also a place that she is very attached to.” Like the restless clash of heritage and place that characterizes the Southern narrative, Fallow is about “going against your roots but also maybe feeling like you can never get away from them.”
Even Rook’s description of her real-life inspirations for Fallow mirror the ambiguous sense of place, as she admits to believing she was born in an expansive farmhouse while her parents insist that it was just a house on farm property. Recalling another memory, she says that she and her family “used to pick blackberries in these weird half-remembered expanses of field and forest that, I dunno, I might have imagined too or something.”
But like O’Connor’s quote suggests, the deepest truth and sense of place will always stem from something more inward than the facts ever manage to capture. According to Rook, Isa can only find escape from the constant tug and pull of in her heart when she writes fiction. Perhaps that’s true for all creators seeking a home in America’s most gothic landscapes. I think O’Connor put it best, really, when she said “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”