The prison of the videogame camera

Techniques such as lens flare or liquids splattered on the camera (usually blood) have become so commonplace in videogames that we no longer pay attention to them. This indifference is a bit disquieting. After all, with videogames, we play two roles at once: the character on the screen, and ourselves in our own body viewing the screen. We act by pushing buttons and at the same time passively watch those actions performed by somebody else through the distancing filter of a camera lens. We accept this double perspective so wholly that in our minds it seems to become one. When blood splats on the surface of the camera in Red Dead Redemption (2010), the effect is that of immediacy, as if the liquid was really there, and we could almost feel it by touching the screen. And yet, at the same time, we are reminded that the screen is always present. Paradoxically then, the greatest immediacy is achieved by revealing the intransgressible barrier of the camera lens. Moments such as these prove that immersion, perceived by the player as the synthesis of game character and physical body, would be impossible without the mediation of the camera. After all, if this blood reached our face, our engagement with the game would be interrupted.

There is no way that we can truly push aside this mediation. Some see such a possibility in virtual reality due to it attaching the camera to the player’s face—the gap between realities tighter than ever. But we cannot truly escape the duality of our role when playing videogames. To do so would either mean to watch without participating, in which case there is no game, but film instead. Or you would fully participate and have to accept that your actions have real consequences, not just virtual ones. And so we are trapped in a limbo of unreality; between the virtual and the real. This impasse cannot be resolved. But it can be exposed. And this is what two games, L.A. Noire (2011) and Outlast (2013), achieve in different ways.

LA Noire Intolerance Set

The world of L.A. Noire exists for the sole purpose of being captured on camera. This isn’t just a figure of speech related to the fact that Los Angeles is home to Hollywood. On the contrary, in the game, the roles are reversed. Los Angeles is subsumed into the film-making machine. For instance, some of the most climactic events of the game take place on a set built for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Looking at a model of this set, the protagonist Cole Phelps says that it’s a replica of a replica. However, we, the players, know better. This model is a virtual replica of a replica of a replica, to be replicated yet further by our camera. Plus, it is a replica of something that did not exist. In reality, the set had long been dismantled by 1947, when the game takes place. It’s hard not to find irony in the existence of this building amid  an historically accurate representation of post-war Los Angeles. This set, then, is an explicit fissure in the texture of the world—an ominous presence whose distance from reality, and its origin in cinematic fiction, makes us aware of the illusory nature of this ostensibly realistic world.

Actually, the game itself rips this texture apart. The Intolerance set is a mere teaser to a cinematic apocalypse. A considerable part of the game’s virtual Los Angeles is going to be destroyed and turned into one big film set. As we explore the city, we are haunted by the ubiquitous logos of the Suburban Redevelopment Fund and Instaheat. Innocent enough. Only retrospectively, by the end of the game, we realize that they are portents of a disaster. Suburban Redevelopment Fund is buying out land and building artificial houses using materials from Hollywood studios. If somebody refuses to sell their property, a brand new heating system, installed virtually in every household, is used to burn this property down. Almost every single important person in the city takes part in this plot. In the game  this fraud is explained in rational terms. Considering, however, that it connects with the themes of film, advertisement, and imitation pervasive throughout, and that it frames the entire space and narrative, thinking about it in terms of how it relates to the real world would miss the point. This plot is supposed to makes us realize one crucial thing: the virtual Los Angeles is a hell of non-existence, a repository of images with no reality behind them.

the city is nothing but images

Since L.A. Noire’s city exists only as a set of images, it would cease to exist if there were nobody to see them. And the main role of the player is exactly this: to watch. We spend a lot of time driving from one place to another and watching the city pass by like a rear projection, a stream of constantly self-effacing images. But this tridimensional rear projection is everywhere and cannot be escaped. If we want, of course, we can stop for a moment and enjoy the landmarks. Enjoy, of course, meaning to watch. Like a tourist. Because we are tourists in this world, consuming its nicely rendered sights. Significantly, a majority of the game takes place in daylight. After all, postcard pictures, into which the landmarks are turned into after being framed by the player’s camera, could not be watched without light. The intense, overwhelming lighting is supposed to blind us to the fact that the city is nothing but images.

Night is also present in this world. But this is not real night. It is the stylized night of a movie scene, with inspirations ranging from noir classics such as Act of Violence (1948) and The Third Man (1949) to neo-noir reinterpretations of the genre, such as L.A. Confidential (1997) and The Black Dahlia (2006). Night here is used only to create a cinematic atmosphere. But this cinematic atmosphere transpires at every moment of the game. To begin with, we are detective Cole Phelps, L.A.P.D. We search for clues, interrogate, shoot, and chase. But, what is crucial, we simultaneously watch ourselves search for clues, interrogate, shoot, and chase in an enactment of our cinematic fantasies. However, we do not have control over these fantasies; they have control over us. We are forced to act them out in order to consume them. We are consuming our own actions as images, so it is obvious to us that these actions cannot have any consequences. But we are in a privileged position because we can turn off the game at any moment. The characters, including the avatar, do not have this privilege. They are trapped in the position of simultaneous acting in the sense of doing things, and acting in the sense of existing for the sole purpose of being turned into an image. Even, or especially, when they do something foul, it is still only an enactment of a scene we have seen hundreds of times before in cinema. You can lie, steal, and murder—but no worries, it’s never for real, it is all in the script. And when you die, your corpse can provide a stylish noiresque spectacle. Nothing escapes the all-fictionalizing camera.

LA Noire Screenshot

This would not mean anything as many games consist of scenes taken from the common stock of genre cinema. L.A. Noire, however, goes a step further and self-consciously inscribes into its narrative and structure the entrapment of the characters in cinematic fiction. As we can guess, they are not happy in their state of nonexistence. Why are they unhappy? Because their actions carry no weight. If all responsibility is removed exactly at the moment when an action, or its account, is caught on camera, the characters will futilely try to repeat what they did in order to acquire at least a momentary sense of agency. This leads to compulsion, the constant repetition of a self-effacing action. That is why the game is driven by themes of addiction, serial murder, arson, all based on repetition. More interestingly, however, this is visible in the structure of the game. The game consists of cases only loosely connected by the main plot. They are related mostly on the basis of repetition. The repetition of the murder weapon, a particular place, the modus operandi, etc. Once the case is finished, it’s finished; it has no consequences later on. And if we haven’t got enough, there are yet more inconsequential cases available as DLC. For instance, the murder cases revolve around the story of The Black Dahlia. Contrary to the real events, in the game there is not one victim but five. And there could easily be more or less, as there is no continuity between them apart from repetition. The killer is clearly stuck in a loop of irrelevant actions. No matter how many murders he commits, they are immediately reduced to cinematic fiction; even his death takes place in a highly atmospheric setting of a church and its graveyard, just as the camera likes it.

This structure may also be said to have a simplified psychological explanation connected to the protagonist’s past. Cole enacts his guilt from the war through compulsive action. He keeps condemning people guilty of minor crimes, and often of no crimes at all or at least not the crimes they are accused of, as he cannot face the real criminal: himself. By the end, he confronts the past with the help of a third party, Jack Kelso, and it is only at this moment that the main storyline, told in retrospective cutscenes, starts to connect with the content of the cases. Only the last cases have some continuity. After facing the past, Cole dies, in this way interrupting the loop of his compulsion. The more brutal truth, however, is that even the psychological reality of the game is built on the spectral foundation of film clichés. After all, many renowned directors, including Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Alfred Hitchcock, used psychoanalysis and psychiatry both as an explicit motif and to structure their narratives, and L.A Noire simply alludes to this convention. The game, however, adjusts this structure to the requirements of providing long hours of entertainment by focusing on compulsive repetition. After all, this world exists only in the present. It is neither a place for psychological depth nor for confrontations with the past; even the most deeply buried traumas are turned into images here. This virtual Los Angeles exists in the presence of the camera, and it has no right to exist when the camera is turned off.

built on the spectral foundation of film clichés

Outlast takes the opposite approach. It focuses not on what is in front of the camera but on the camera itself. Ironically, its protagonist, Miles Upshur, is a journalist—somebody whose role is to treat the world as if it were a repository of images. He thinks that nothing can touch him as long as he is protected by the magic lens, just like a videogame player. To emphasize this illusionary distance, we start the game in a car, protected by the windshield. Like L.A. Noire, with its city as a tourist attraction, Outlast promises us a safe thrill ride through a horror movie-based theme park. And this is what we get. However, this time there is a twist. Through the safety of the camera we get to see what would happen if the monsters broke the unbreakable rule and attacked the cameraman.

The avatar of Outlast carries a camcorder. When it’s on, the screen switches to a low-quality handheld cam aesthetic, which in cinematic vocabulary connotes realism. Outlast exploits a crucial flaw in this technique. Namely, even though this aesthetic is meant to convey a sense of immediate contact with reality, it still relies on a camera: an unbreakable shield granting immortality to the person who holds it. The camera can show exploding buildings, bodies torn by bullets, and other symptoms of infernal mayhem, but it itself can never be broken. That would mean the destruction of the film. Even during an apocalypse the camera would remain invincible. This pursuit of realism paradoxically fulfills the unrealistic fantasy of immortality. This is what we expect when we turn the camera on in the game. And it’s due to this very expectation that we feel so uncomfortable when the camera gets broken and our avatar’s head torn off. Just as children might think that looking away is enough to make the danger disappear, we want to neutralize the monster through the camera lens. The horror of Outlast is based on this contemporary iteration of a primal fantasy.

Outlast screenshot

As I have already mentioned, L.A. Noire relies, broadly speaking, on two kinds of light: the oppressing, inescapable daylight turning the city into a set of postcard photos; and the night of stylish noiresque images. Outlast does things differently. It plunges us into impenetrable darkness. Literally impenetrable as we cannot really move without getting stuck on the nearest wall. If we want to see anything, we have to use night vision mode on the camcorder. In L.A. Noire, the world exists for the camera, but in Outlast our interaction with the world is dependent on the camera. And this interaction is explicitly about avoiding interaction. We are to record as much as we can of the asylum we’re trapped in without being seen ourselves, as being seen can mean death. This is, again, a reversal of the situation in L.A. Noire, based on the irreducible distance between the camera and the world—irreducible because L.A. Noire’s world owes its existence to this very distance. In Outlast, the world exists apart from the camcorder. The avatar has to use it in order to see, so it is he that would cease to exist without the camera. But there is no denying the fact that the camera and its user are only fragile objects in the world of oppressing physicality and carnality.

L.A. Noire turns its world into a set of images. Everything that happens there happens for the camera. Outlast, on the contrary, gives even the most intimate and elusive images a palpable reality. In order to understand this contrast better it may be worth taking a look at the role of psychiatry in both games. In L.A. Noire, one of the main antagonists is a psychiatrist. He takes part in morphine trafficking in order to keep people safe in the state of cinematic unreality, or perhaps prevent them from the realization of the fact that they are already in such a state. Apart from that, he uses the war trauma of one of his patients, whose destructive urge is meant to help in the aforementioned project of turning Los Angeles into a film set. Outlast takes place in an asylum. The story revolves around an experiment meant to exploit the patients’ mental images in the creation of a creature called the Walrider. This experiment, however, not only brings Walrider to life but also physically deforms the patients and the doctors. Contrary to L.A. Noire, in which even the darkest recesses of the human psyche are turned into self-effacing images, Outlast turns every image into flesh.

our interaction with the world is dependent on the camera

Well, not every image. There is one crucial image that cannot be turned into flesh. The image seen from the player’s camera. The one camera that can never be turned into an object and destroyed. Even when the avatar’s head gets torn off, we still see this performed. Outlast plays out our fear and fantasy of total immersion, that is, a direct experience of the game reality, by showing what would happen if the magic lens were to lose its invincibility. But this makes all the more pertinent the realization that, in fact, this is yet another horror story—built on the most overused images—to be experienced from the split perspective that has us both acting (in the game) and observing. L.A. Noire, on the other hand, gives us a detailed open world with every pretension to so-called “realism,” only to start hinting that perhaps this realistic city is nothing more than a set of images. In both cases there is no escaping the camera.

Header image: Monday March 25, 84/365 by Evan Blaser