Rough, discontinuous edges; looming architectural masses; bulging swathes of colour—all of them luminous, or cast in shadow. These are just some of the effects you encounter in the growing genre of freeware horror and landscape games, spearheaded by the likes of ceMelusine, Kitty Horrorshow, and Connor Sherlock. Together, they constitute a “glitch art” known for its lethargic smearing-together of retro graphics with dreamlike and impossible aesthetics. As both “art” and “game,” they express a mix of design constraints and aesthetic choices that elect to make things brash, rough, and beautiful.
But this aesthetic strategy—to paint with a pallet knife, in blocks and smears of colour, rather than with a fine hair brush—has echoes with pre-existing forms of design, and with the architecture, painting and output of the German Expressionists. Those who painted reality with emotion and exaggeration; dream painters.
I first properly thought about this last year, as I walked out of the cloistered, Modernist spaces of London’s Southbank cinema. I stood for a while to take in the fresh winter air over the Thames. The river was a slick, black, wet mark into which lights shone and were swallowed up. A train clanked beneath the tapering glass edifice of The Shard. I had just watched a digitally remastered release of the 1920 German film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. This dark and psychological horror blurs the boundaries between dream and reality; the eponymous doctor, travelling across 19th-century provincial Germany, displays his prisoner “somnambulist” to eager crowds; Cesare (played by gangly, hollow-cheeked Conrad Veidt) beguiles audiences with his half-sleep of death. He follows Caligari’s commands, his word, but shows no signs of waking life, though he answers many of the audience’s questions. “How long will I live?” asks one. Cesare replies, “Until dawn.” That night, the man is found stabbed to death in his bedroom.
The film plays dreamily on its psychological topographies: its architecture of bulging, stark sets, pitch-black recesses, of lines and forms which twist and lean in peculiar angles. Light and shadow are painted directly onto the set in rough and impossibly oily, resinous daubs of white and black. It is as if, under the peculiar presence of the somnambulist, that the entire town has assumed the appearance of a nightmare. Together, the set designers, writers and director agreed to pursue a directly Expressionist style, intending to make the sets as eccentric as was possible. The film was a bold, popular success. Many commented on its jagged transitions of form and perspective, its oblique strategy for twisting and dementing its visual aspect. The early film critic Lotte Eisner has argued that the sets appear to be alive, and “seem to vibrate with an extraordinary energy.”
The hyper-concentrated, jarred and dream-like design has been hugely influential in terms of shaping subsequent horror and expressionist design, in film, photography and art. It’s unsurprising that many freeware and altgames have aspired to create a similarly expressionistic aesthetic, whether consciously or not. These games make seemingly deliberate use of exaggeration, intensity, and contrast, where hard, thick lines replace naturalistic curves and hues. Where gradients are dismissed in favor of blocky swatches of color and masses of shadow. Expressionism—as an artistic practice—was designed to give vent to the dream-like, interior lives of both artists and the modern subjects who were often—but not always—the subjects of their art. Each work was intended to represent not the “thing itself” (the object or landscape as it would appear in a photograph, for example), but the landscape as it might appear in a dream or a nightmare. The intensely feeling modern subject would see stark, bold contrasts where photographs might depict slow and somber gradients. They gave “expression” to what the subject was feeling. An attempt to see—and so to design—the world a little differently.
Kitty Horrorshow and Connor Sherlock have been two of the designers who stand out to me as having really driven this exaggeration aesthetic, creating intensive and dreamlike landscapes which share a number of design references, mechanisms and ideas which the Expressionists, especially architecturally, also pursued. They’re defined by non-linear landscapes, reflective and explorative gameplay, dreamlike visuals featuring impossible geometries and physics. The Tate’s charmingly brief description of Expressionism is helpful here: it represents an art “in which the image of reality is distorted in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas.” One of the perfect possibilities of this is contained in the videogame Glitchhikers, which consciously places you in the role of a driver, late at night, “thinking thoughts you’d never have anywhere else,” as the game’s designer’s describe it. A dream highway as much as any “real” road, lit up by glitch horizons, angular blocks, smeared colours. It is a “mood” landscape, and the game, mechanically, sets you up simply to explore that mood and how emotion and ambience interact with landscape and perception.
In a similar way, Kitty Horrorshow’s Sigil Valley struck me precisely for its expressive dreaminess, for its fuzzy re-imagining of depth, perspective and perception, as well as for its unusual use of color and shadow. The game—a first-person landscape exploration—has no narrative, only a location. The valley is scattered with strange, tangled forms—architectural follies set in a blasted moonscape doused in a beguiling purple light, ringed in by sharp-edged and distorted mountains. We are led to believe that this valley is not necessarily a valley in any real place; it is an emotional rather than actual landscape. And the forms that we pursue, and activate, reflect dream echoes of objects that perhaps exist “out there” in an otherwise real world. It’s like dreaming, when you recognize things—people, places, memories—from your waking life, but they have become distorted, whether emotionally or simply because of their remove. A sort of psychological databending, the taking of one set of references and their visual exaggeration. No buildings, no valley, look like this. We are witnessing, and playing through, a distorted echo of them because it seems—for the designer—to better explain how landscapes can pull on us in strange and sometimes emotionally tantalizing ways.
The use of peculiar massing and complicated form echoes not only the jagged painting practice of the Expressionist artists, but the product of architects working in “brick expressionism” (backsteinexpressionismus), seen in the massive, jutting form of Walter Gropius’ “Monument to the March Dead,” constructed in 1921. The design work of Bruno Taut and Paul Scheerbart was equally important, imagining a poetry of glass architecture of impossible, massive and complicated form. Horrorshow’s Dust City features massive, impossible black skyscrapers clustered in a dust bowl of a gold-yellow smoke. The interiors of these building masses—some of which float—are a variety of dream-like environments, far larger on the inside than the outside. Halls of black and blue boxes and platforms; a black lake beneath a red sky; a tumbled island of green grass and pushed over Grecian columns. This amalgam of signs and strange architectural components is precisely expressive of a dream; albeit, the expression of dreams in a digital form.
Like Horrorshow, Sherlock has been making some of my favourite “art” games for a while. His landscapes are almost always filled with some form of sonic and spatial exaggeration; such as the floating, gyrating cubes of Sanctuary, which also calls to mind games like Dream.Sim and sonam. The Rapture Is Here and You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home (or, TRIHAYWBFRFYH) remains one of his most compelling dream-scapes; a misty, rural landscape above which a massive black form descends, as you encounter chunks and dispersed fragments of HP Lovecraft. It is eerie and shocking and quietly terrifying. Little to no exposition means that the expressive landscape becomes one of horror but also, crucially, of reflection. You have to think because, put simply, it’s all you can reasonably do. As the black mass descends, the environment becomes increasingly incoherent, increasingly emotional. A moving painting. Landscape is used to reflect an increasingly perilous emotional and intellectual perspective.
A similarly dark, oneiric landscape is encountered in Marginalia, of a forest diffused by a black-purple light. As ever, trademark dark ambient music threads and compounds the experience. These are textures and collage, of both form and sound. These are games which explicitly unfold through mystery and anxiety. The mysterious sublime is an environmental sublime—of form, mass, solids, light, and how we gauge and respond to them based on our uncertain and wavering perception. These games pull on your emotions; fear, isolation, curiosity. A search for signs amidst the crash and rush of closely compounded images and sensory elements. These games play on the darker, more nightmarish built and designed forms of cinema—the output of German UFA studio, the films of Fritz Lang and Wegener. Like the Expressionists, who were rejecting conventional artistic hierarchies, methods and narratives, freeware developers operate under a mix of resource constraints and aesthetic strategies designed to re-conceive what a game, emotionally, intellectually, and formally, can necessarily be. It is no surprise that the darkest Expressionist films (such as Metropolis or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) were, too, concerned with questions of deceit, betrayal, insanity, and fear.
So, like the Expressionists, freeware art-game designers have often thought about the relationship between an architectural sublime and the emotional environments which are divorced from conventional commercial concerns and game-like conventions—no obvious victory conditions, no stats, not even enemies to encounter and defeat. The self—the intensely feeling, emotive and beguiling subject of Expressionist art—is locked into the center of the game. Everything we see as a player is an expression of this personal, emotional encounter with an intensely emotional artistic practice which is designed to unsettle and to relocate our perspective as a gamer. There is a feeling that, for the freeware designers, modernity has failed as a project. What we are left with is an intensity of disarray and fractured experience and an attempt to re-approach them through a more appropriate, subjective language. Sense-making through all of the static.
Expressionism is an art transformed by our moods. It is the artist or designer seizing control of the means of representation, and using it to convey horror, anxiety, and pain, but also to communicate—however partially—a sense of transcendence and ecstasy. To give artistic life to dreams. It’s like asking someone, waking from such a dream, to paint what they had seen and remember. The picture that emerges is necessarily partial, fragmented, and deeply personal. In this way, freeware and altgames specifically work like Expressionism because they are not about commercial or popular appeal, but about channelling the designer’s unique and emotional vision—their moods, anxieties and ideals—into a digital space which the player can download and explore for themselves. To walk around in their dreams.