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The “New Weird” In Videogames

Defining a genre is a troubled process the moment a discussion of its elements begin. Those nebulous divisions that separate detective and gothic fiction, science fiction and horror, adventure and fantasy; all seem built on shaky foundations as tropes and archetypes bleed into each other. More often than not, studying the progression and evolution of genres begins with the understanding that such genres are seldom fixed, codified strictures.

Such was the case in 2003 when a group of writers began an online conversation about a genre known as the “New Weird.” Though the New Weird, like almost every other genre, had its antecedents reaching decades before the movement had a name, its watershed moment was likely the popular reception of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000). Set in a world that blended magic (here, called “thaumaturgy”), complex alien biologies, and Victorian-era technology, Perdido Street Station takes place in the fetid city of New Crobuzon, built on the bones of ancient creatures and populated with humans and convincingly-drawn humanoid characters called “xenians.“

Bizarre technologies and nonhuman beings are mainstays in sci-fi and fantastic fictions, but what feels fresh from Miéville comes from his observant, urgent literary eloquence. Part of his aesthetic comes from rigorous political critique and a refusal to distinguish between the trappings of pulp fictions and the high styles of what are more traditionally considered “literary” fictions. In an interview with 3:AM Magazine, Miéville explained his fascination with genre fiction, saying, “The reason I like SF and fantasy and horror is that to me it’s the pulp wing of surrealism.” For him, these genres remain radical and challenging, and in his writing, he constantly tests the boundaries of literary traditions and styles—whether he’s writing about cities that occupy the same space (The City in the City, 2009) or replacing the sea and the leviathan of Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) with an infinite system of railroads and a giant white mole (Railsea, 2012).

it seems we only seem to have discovered the genre after it has been in effect

So, when writer and noted genre-troubler M. John Harrison posed the question, “The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything?” he—inadvertently or with twisted purpose—brought into question the purpose and function of genre in the midst of its constant reinvention. This question forms the central philosophy behind Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s anthology of the genre, aptly-titled The New Weird (2008). In the anthology’s introduction, Jeff Vandermeer provides a working definition of the New Weird in the 21st century:

New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of setting that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. The New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its own style and effects…New Weird fictions are acutely aware of the modern world…[and] relies for its visual power on a “surrender to the weird.”

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Unlike the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and the pulp horror of Weird Tales that seal the images of horror away in tombs, undersea cities, or indecipherable grimoires, the New Weird brings that weirdness down from the realm of cosmic unknowability and reflects in a twisted version of our banal world. China Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, Michael Moorcock, Steph Swainston, Mary Gentle, and others embrace discomfort by combining the quotidian with the grotesque, defamiliarizing the realities of contemporary life with genre-bending literary prose that never overshadows the surface reality of the text.

It should be unsurprising, then, to see the New Weird stretching its tendrils toward videogames as well. And, much like the literary movement it draws from, the New Weird manifests more often in the fringes. Failbetter Games, for instance, began building a complex world in Fallen London (2009), a chose-your-own-adventure game set in an alternate Victorian London. A catastrophe sent the eponymous city beneath the surface and it now sits on the edge of a subterranean ocean called the Unterzee. In Fallen London the player makes her name through any available means, whether using networks of street urchins to gather information for blackmail, divining secrets in the flight patterns of bats, consorting with devils who made their way to London from Hell, or through politicking among the city’s elite. Failbetter’s next game Sunless Sea (2015) moved the player out of the city and bestowed on her the role of steamship captain who explores the Unterzee, encountering mystery and madness in equal measure.

genres are seldom fixed, codified strictures

While Failbetter’s games focus more on mixing the mundane with gothic fantasy in a way that echoes the New Weird, Kitty Horrorshow’s ANATOMY uncovers a horrific physiology underneath the mundane fixtures of domestic space. The game tasks the player with finding cassette tapes in a suburban house, and as each tape elucidates a complex theory that discusses the architecture in terms of human biology, the house seems to awaken. Horrorshow peels apart the layers of comfort we associate with the concept of “home.” She builds an atmosphere of discomfort that bears the markings of a post-Lovecraft New Weird aesthetic by moving eldritch horror from the unknowable cosmos to the haunted space of a living room.

Each of these games trouble the constraints of their genres, but more importantly, they do so with sharp, insightful writing. Playing Sunless Sea as a game about amassing wealth through successful adventures is almost impossible—or at least painfully dull. Instead, it urges the player to venture out into the black morass of the zee and embrace an inevitable madness in the hopes of finding a good story. ANATOMY similarly asks the player to “surrender to the weird” in a house that appears to be gaining sentience. Few games demand this tacit agreement to embrace the weird instead of keeping her assured in a place of exceptionalism in a bizarre world.

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Most big release games shy away from the philosophy of the New Weird, using it more as a colorful place to function as sort of haunted house rather than insist on its normalcy. BioShock (2009) is perhaps the best example with its underwater city of Rapture provided a heavy dose of weirdness to explore, but, since the player only arrives in Rapture after a widespread drug-induced apocalypse, she never has the opportunity to experience the city in a state of normalcy, thus removing the uncomfortable tension between the mundane and the alien so important for the New Weird.

Likely, the most successful mainstream game that samples aspects of the New Weird is Arkane’s Dishonored (2012). The setting of Dunwall, an architectural amalgam of 19th-century British port cities, is replete with otherworldly technologies powered by oil harvested from whales, and ancient magics haunt the fringes of the city. Though the game’s characters and story of revenge and political intrigue is unremarkable, its world of poverty, plague, biopolitics, religious extremism, and hermetic mysticism functions with such regularity that it doesn’t bother with unnecessary exposition. From its opening in which a cruel-looking barge carries the corpse of leviathan for harvesting to an opulent masquerade with lavish, bizarre costumes, Dishonored insists that the player accept a world not unlike Miéville’s New Crobuzon with a similar surrender to a new normal.

Few games demand this tacit agreement to embrace the weird

Dishonored furthers this delve into the weird by encouraging the player to rethink how she explores her environment. Corvo Attano, the protagonist, is granted arcane powers from the Outsider, a satanic trickster who materializes at times to comment on the player’s actions. These eldritch “gifts” and the retrofuturistic gadgetry at Corvo’s disposal allow for complex methods of assassination and traversal. Levels are designed vertically, and they permit dazzling feats of movement and execution. Teleporting across rooftops to set up a perfect kill in which the player can freeze time and move a guard in the path of his own bullet has led to some impressive instances of space/object manipulation. But more importantly, scuttling across the rooftops acquaints the player with a highway system above the narrow alleys patrolled by the city’s guardsmen. The player gains an intimate knowledge of how the city folds in on itself, becoming more entwined with itself as dilapidated roofs spill into impoverished streets. The view from the top shows the city’s history as the wealthy sit above street thugs, but the player can transgress such boundaries through the abilities bestowed on her by an Outsider, an analog for an agent of the weird working to free fiction from generic constraints.

Other games in various genres have, of course, used a similar template, but few offer a world that compliments such style so completely. The best window into the weirdness of Dishonored manifests in the Heart, a mechanized “heart of a living thing” that shows the locations of runes and charms used to augment Corvo’s powers. More importantly, aiming the Heart at certain characters or environments reveals cryptic information about Dunwall and its inhabitants. When pointing the heart at Samuel the boatman, a breathy voice explains, “He has many scars. Some from the phlegm of the river krusts, some from the nameless monsters of the deepest oceans.” The player can learn, too, that Callista “dreams of the decks of whaling ships fast after the beasts of the sea. But alas, she is a woman.” In a few short sentences, the Heart hints at horrors in the depths of the sea as well as the gender politics of a city, a blend of the supernatural and the uncomfortably familiar in equal measure.

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More so than any other tool, the Heart enriches the player’s understanding of the world should she choose to use it. The sadness that saturates the Golden Cat brothel becomes more tangible when the Heart tells us of the madame’s cruelty and the plight of the women who work under her. Whispers of the “doom of Pandyssia,” the Academy that “cuts the flesh of the dead,” the distant screaming of whales, the city’s history of being “built on the bones of the old ones,” and the dark influence of the ambiguously evil Outsider expand the world beyond the player’s limited experience with it. If the New Weird’s project is to de-romanticize what we come to think of literatures set in supernatural world, Dishonored’s delivery of information that refuses to separate the magic and mundane and its aesthetic of gloom and dirt delves into a fiction that is truly unlike its popular contemporaries. It hides its mysticism in trash-filled streets, covers its incantations with drunken shouts and weeping plague victims. In that respect, Dunwall remains an uncomfortably modern version of a fantasy city: terminal, crazed, and mean.

With the release of Dishonored 2 on the horizon, there’s some hope for the New Weird in videogames, but, much like its literary counterparts, it seems we’ve only discovered the genre after it has been in effect. Even Dishonored has its weird antecedents in the Thief games that released decades before it. In acknowledging the aesthetic potential of the New Weird in games, I think we need to look back at what we may have missed or are currently neglecting in the margins of creativity. “New Weird” is only useful as a discussion starter, a curiosity that comes from a love of the fictions we cannot stop prodding in hopes of discovering new aesthetic modes by troubling the boundaries of genre.