October 8, 2023

Seven (1995) as the origin of Puritanical torture porn, not Saw (2004)

Continuing on the theme of disgust vs. fear in horror, the origin is really Seven from 1995, not Saw from 2004. Maybe you'd say it's a bridge between two eras or styles, since it could be a noir-ish suspenseful crime thriller without the gross-out scenes. But so many of the defining torture porn tropes are already there:

Disgusting rather than dangerous or violent scenes. Horror / thriller used to do the opposite -- depict the chase and violent act, but not show the disgusting gory result. Sometimes both were shown, but rarely only the gory result without the dangerous / violent / fear-inducing act.

Only disgusting, not even potentially violent, scenes -- like cockroaches showing up where there's a dead body (which doesn't even need to have died in a violent manner to trigger cockroaches showing up).

The main negative physiological reaction in the audience shifting from elevated / pounding heart-rate, sweating, etc., to the gag reflex.

Degradation, corruption, debasement, and humiliation of victims, which does not need to accompany violence, danger, and fear. Deliberately spoiling and contaminating and staining their purity. Contaminated purity involves the emotion of disgust, not fear. So this reinforces or compounds the literal contaminated purity (i.e., the disfigured body) with figurative disgust (at the person's dignity being degraded in such a way).

The shift toward sadism in the villain, rather than psychopathy (meaning, lack of empathy or remorse, and/or a psychic break with reality), revenge, anger, opportunism, etc., which could induce a person to violence -- but not toward the humiliating and debasing behavior they show toward victims.

Villain is a self-appointed moral crusader who wants to shock the normies out of their complacency, and instigate a grand purification, which will put grand meaning back into our humdrum dull existence.

Puritanical focus on vindictive punishment of sin, rather than on preventing it through cautionary tales about how seductive and tempting and sensorily pleasing sin can be. We never see the seductive side of pigging out on tasty food, of lazing around the house and procrastinating at work, of getting your brains fucked out by a hot lover, and so on and so forth.

In fact, the Puritanism goes further in assigning a lustful motive to a prostitute, rather than a woman who is obviously having sex for money. It should have been a promiscuous / nymphomaniac party girl -- but to self-appointed moral crusaders, prostitutes are just having their cake and eating it too. Ditto for their view of girls who have sex on camera, even though they typically aren't that into it and are just faking it long enough to collect their easy money.

Director David Fincher did a better job in The Game of just two years later, at creating the disturbing mood of being targeted by someone who's toying around with you in a probably malevolent way, potentially roping others into the job -- who you were first inclined to trust, all in order to shock a comfortable normie out of his complacency and security, to make him take bold actions that will provide Existentialist meaning to his otherwise humdrum life.

And all without appealing to disgust, which would have gotten in the way of all the suspense, danger, violence, and fear.

October 3, 2023

Why are puzzle video games most immune to the cult of ugliness & crappiness? And horror the most susceptible? And why are there puzzles in horror games?

There's a puzzle game that's trending among Japanese streamers, in the same rough family as Tetris, with very kawaii graphics (fruit pieces with emoji faces). It's currently only available in Japan, and was created there.

(I can't easily find pictures of it because "suika game" and "watermelon game" bring up older unrelated games of the same name. But search YouTube for "suika game" and you'll find not only pictures, but videos of how it's played.)

A cutesy-looking game being made and going viral in Japan is no surprise -- aside from the late '90s and early 2000s, they have largely been immune to the cult of ugliness and crappiness that is plaguing the West during the declining phase of the American Empire (torture porn movies of the 2000s, related video games of the 2010s, and so on).

Mumei and Mori have streamed the game on the English-speaking side of Hololive, but we'll have to see if it catches on as popularly as it has in Japan.

I was trying to think of an alternative game that *would* go viral in the empire-collapsing West, due to its ugly and crappy nature... but not only could I not think of anything recent, I don't think there is a single game in the entire history of the puzzle genre that is ugly, disgusting, off-putting, uncomfortable, debasing toward the player or toward a streamer's audience, deliberately made to look and play like crap.

They all look nice -- some are on the cutesy side (like today's suika game), some have a more refined look (like the Japanese-made Columns from 1990), but none of them look bad, ugly, crappy, let alone on purpose as part of some self-aware meme appeal.

The worst you can find is one that looks bland and clinical and bordering on a sensory-deprivation chamber, like Portal from 2007 (created in America). But it's still not ugly and crappily made. That game is not pure puzzle, though -- it's also in the "dark sci-fi" genre, and as we'll see, the closer to horror, the more susceptible it is to ugliness and crappiness.

It's not just the visuals that are pleasant in puzzle games, though -- they also have pleasing, sometimes catchy background music and sound-effects. While the arcade release of Lode Runner in 1984 did have primitive background music, the ancestors of the trend for background music in puzzle games are both from 1989 -- Tetris on the Game Boy and the Nintendo (created in Russia), and the Adventures of Lolo series for the Nintendo (created in Japan). Both of those remain some of my favorite games, and I occasionally play them despite hardly playing games at all after my 20s.

Speaking of the refined and glossy look of Columns, it reinforces this in its soundtrack, whose composer created not 1, not 2, but count 'em, 3 pieces to choose from, inspired by Baroque / Classical music.

Pretty much every puzzle game has a soundtrack, including today's suika game, which is light, inoffensive elevator music. To be a great puzzle game, it would need a musical update with something catchy and melodic like Tetris or Columns.

The only puzzle games without soundtracks were made for home computers, where the creators might have thought the user wouldn't have a sophisticated enough set-up to play melodic music, or not enough memory on the disk to hold a musical score (in the '80s). Or where the point was to create a mindless diversion -- respectful of office-space noise levels -- instead of a well-rounded aesthetic experience (like Minesweeper or Solitaire or Taipei / Mahjong from the '90s Windows days).

The sound effects and audio levels in puzzle games are also pleasing, not an anti-aesthetic "ear rape" that is rampant in horror games. That term is very appropriate, since it highlights the reliance on disgust, debasement, and humiliation rather than fear, danger, and violence as the basic emotion and tone in the horror genre across all media since the 2000s.

In fact, as many streams as I've seen from the series of Amnesia, Outlast, Dead by Daylight, and Phasmophobia, along with the lesser single-entry horror games of the 2010s and '20s, I can't remember the music at all. Their Wikipedia pages do list composers, but don't mention the music in the body of the article, unlike Tetris or Columns, which are games you can still remember from the music alone, without the graphics.

Horror movies also used to have memorable soundtracks, even in the West -- before the decline and collapse of the American Empire. Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, The Omen, the Argento thrillers, you name it.

Horror video games used to as well, whether Western ones like Doom / Doom II or Japanese ones like Clock Tower (the 1995 JP-only game).

Portal is one of the few puzzle games without a true soundtrack, but vague non-musical atmospheric sounds instead, not very detectable at the time or memorable after. It has that dark sci-fi / horror influence, which resulted in the non-soundtrack that it has, compared to every other puzzle game.

* * *

So why are puzzle games so immune to the cult of ugliness? And why are horror and other dArK sPoOkY genres so susceptible to it? Puzzles appeal mostly to our sense of reason, not any of the various emotions.

And since the cult of ugliness relies so heavily on disgust, an emotion, it is completely at odds with the puzzle genre, which doesn't allow any of the emotions to enter into it. Well, other than the occasional bout of anger, but that is incidental, not fundamental -- puzzle games are not designed to piss you off throughout the game and elevate your rage levels as a necessary part of the experience.

Why horror among the non-puzzle genres? Because there is a natural entry-point for disgust in horror, namely gore. Horror is fundamentally about violence, danger, and fear, but the outcome of such threats may incidentally lead to gore and disgusting things. On the non-gory side are the thrillers, where disgust has little room to get its foot in the door. Thrillers can be slick, glamorous, seductive things, even if there is an occasional fleeting bit of gore, like the giallos from Italy in the '70s and '80s, or Basic Instinct from pre-collapse America.

But when horror gets ugly, gory, and disgusting, it prevents itself from becoming slick, glamorous, or seductive. It will also not have a great soundtrack, if gore is the main point. It is choosing to wallow in debasing crappiness, across all aspects of its production.

And if the horror genre becomes dominated by disgusting rather than frightening things, as it has since the 2000s, it will automatically become part of the cult of ugliness. Things that are dangerous and violent are not necessarily debasing, corrupting, and humiliating -- but things that are disgusting are. Ugly / crappy and disgusting / humiliating are a natural fit for each other.

* * *

There's a reason why horror is so over-represented among the B-movies, "worst movies ever made," etc., and why a more cerebral / rational genre like police-procedural or mystery are not. In fact, comedies and romances are not common among worst-ever movies either. They do have an emotional appeal, but it's to positive rather than negative emotions, so disgust has no way to worm its way into the work.

I don't just mean "movies that fall flat," but as in crappy and shoddy production values and technical processes. Rom-coms are never made that terribly, whether naively or on purpose for brown-nosing points with the irony crew. Their makers want to make something uplifting, and the audience wants to be lifted up -- the opposite of tolerating or preferring to wallow in shoddy ugliness.

I reject the claims by the cult of ugliness that one appeal of such garbage is feeling superior to the makers, the schadenfreude or point-and-laugh appeal. First of all, that would be admitting to being a midwit, having to punch down on a midget and thereby confessing to being tiny yourself. While some members of the cult may be midwits, others are not, and nobody would want to brag about being a midwit anyway.

The main reason is all of the fall-flat rom-coms out there that they could point and laugh at. They could sneer at the sappiness, make fun of the corny dialog, point out how illogical some of the plot devices are that put these two in the same place at the same time, ridicule the implausible mismatch between the homely looks of the female protag and the wealthy / desirable status of the male love interest, and so on and so forth.

Somehow, though, the cult of ugliness avoids the rom-com genre like the plague. It's because on a technical level, they're competently made, at worst bland and inoffensive. But they're never ugly, and never shoddily made.

Therefore, it's the ugliness and the crappiness that the cult members truly fixate on and demand -- not a sense of aesthetic superiority. If they enjoy pointing and laughing at ugly crap, it can only be because they see themselves in that, they do not like themselves, and they are externalizing their self-loathing by pointing and laughing at someone else's ugly crap. They are kindred spirits with the makers of ugly crap, not hostile enemies or disdainful superiors.

* * *

One of the most bizarre developments in video games that I've noticed from watching streams is the intrusion of "puzzles" into horror games. Puzzles are cerebral, horror is visceral and emotional -- they contradict each other, right?

Well, sometimes they can operate independently of each other, neither interfering with the other. This approach was used in Twin Peaks, where there is a standard by-the-book criminal investigation, along with a paralogical style like throwing rocks at bottles while reading out suspects' names or heeding the messages of characters from one's dreams. The two styles work in tandem, creating a richer and beyond-the-ordinary experience.

But in horror video games, typically the cerebral component interferes with the emotional horror component, e.g. the player cannot progress away from the villain without solving a math problem first. Forget tripping over your shoelaces while fleeing through the woods, or trying to start a car engine that doesn't want to turn over -- the main obstacle in today's horror is a balancing an equation!

This has been true at least since Amnesia: the Dark Descent in 2010, and the less influential Penumbra series by the same makers from 2007. It borrows directly from Myst (American, early '90s), but that was not supposed to be an emotional, let alone action or horror, kind of game, whose heart-racing pace a puzzle would have halted.

Amnesia is a stain on Sweden's cultural record, which has so much going for it due to Minecraft of the same time, but maybe it's cuz the former creators are from the low-trust / non-standard-dialect region of the country, Malmo. There's a ton of garbage horror games from Montreal (like Outlast and Dead by Daylight), in the low-trust, non-standard-dialect region of Canada.

Then there are the non-puzzle puzzles, which are really just arbitrary and cryptic passwords, which are not solved through reasoning of any kind. You need to use a certain item in a certain place, but discovering this match is done through trial-and-error, and finding the location of the item is also trial-and-error. Maybe another character tells you the info -- typically through a blogpost-long "note" that they conveniently left lying around for no reason other than to unknowingly help you out -- but finding this character / note is done through trial-and-error as well.

These are more like clues used in a mystery -- they narrow down the number of branches in the decision tree, which does reduce some of the uncertainty about whodunnit and what to do next. But that still makes you roam around randomly until you chance upon the crucial person or location or item. Unlike clues in a mystery, however, you don't use reasoning to start your hunt -- as opposed to interviewing the close associates of a murder victim, rather than people from the city at random, or people on the other side of the world. You just roam around at random until you chance upon it.

These cryptic, arbitrary, random searches do not counteract the emotional tone with a cerebral / rational tone, like the true puzzles do. But they still grind the action to a halt. If it were a thriller, such blind exploration could be used to build tension and instill fear in the player, if the killer could be waiting in the area you want to explore.

But when the point is disgust, gore, and humiliation, you are never given a way to attack the villain. It's all about hide-and-seek, because humiliation and debasement and corruption require a power imbalance, as in hide-and-seek, rather than two peers squaring off against each other (as in a generic FPS or fighting game). If horror is about violence, danger, and fear, it could very well involve two closely matched rivals.

When the gameplay becomes a hide-and-seek simulator, the tension comes from that power imbalance itself -- does the killer sense me nearby, is he already chasing me, can I manage to get away before he kills me? If he catches you, the tension ends when you're killed and have to re-start the level. If you escape his chase, the tension ends until the next time he senses you.

So, the point of the cryptic random search for a "puzzle"-solving item, is not really to solve the puzzle itself, as far as building tension goes. It is to give you some flimsy reason to have to wander near the killer, so that he can sense you and start chasing you, which is where the tension actually comes from.

This is why these games never feel realistic enough to be truly frightening -- in real life, you'd simply GTFO, and leave the killer behind. Why do you remain trapped in the same area as him? Because leaving the location requires an arbitrary item which is cryptically placed inside the location, so you can't just leave as usual. It's like a prison, and you need to find where the warden's office is, so you can get his keys or press a button or discover the password to open the gates, but there are enemies on the loose who can pick you off on your way to the warden's office.

Outside of a literal prison, though, these security obstacles and their cryptic solutions are unmotivated. So what actually plausible scenario does this resemble -- being trapped in a building with someone who far outclasses you, and your only choice is to play hide-and-seek long enough until you miraculously get out, but more likely are going to get gruesomely and repeatedly killed along the way?

It's really more like an ancient gladiator arena mixed with a Medieval torture dungeon. But in true humiliating fashion, you have no weapons -- not even David's slingshot. You have been placed there by the sadistic game creators, for their own warped amusement (and any viewing audience who identifies with them), and perhaps for your own warped enjoyment (or the part of the audience who identifies with you), if you masochisticly enjoy being humiliated and degraded by disgusting things with no way to stop it.

There is always a pervasive tone of creepy molestation in these games, rather than just some maniac being on the loose and wanting to kill everyone in his path, like a rabid dog. A rabid dog doesn't want to humiliate and degrade its victims. This kind of horror is specifically about disgust, and barely disguised S&M fetishes (without seductive sexuality, of course -- that would offend the Puritanical morality of self-appointed inquisitors torturing their victims, so it's sublimated into sexless violence and corporal punishment instead).

"Solving puzzles" in these games, then, is not like hunting for clues to solve a mystery, or using reasoning to solve a puzzle. It's like finding yourself in the torture dungeon, and your sadistic inquisitors telling you there's a safe-word you can use to get out -- but they won't tell you what it is, and you have to risk further degradation by groping around blindly for it, while an all-powerful disgusting monster lurks around the places it could be written down.

This is the same amoral, empathy-lacking, remorseless psychopathic mind that enjoys torturing animals. But in true Buffalo Bill fashion, they probably treat animals better than people anyway, in a uniquely anti-social and people-hating way.

It's no surprise that these "solve a cryptic puzzle or you'll be tortured to death by a sadistic inquisitor" elements began in the torture porn movies of the 2000s, beginning with Saw from 2004. Well, you need the key to escape, but you can't walk far enough to the key cuz your leg is shackled, but there's a hacksaw nearby you can use to cut off your foot and solve the puzzle! It's not cerebral or rational to solve, and it's not a "decipher the encryption" attack on passwords. It's just sadism and torture and disgusting humiliation.

Cube, a horror movie from 1997, is also about being kidnapped and locked in a dangerous place, with puzzles to solve in order to escape. But the environment is not ugly and disgusting like a torture dungeon. It does not have gritty low-budget cinematography. And the puzzles are genuine reasoning puzzles, along with what we'd call platforming skills in video games. But not cryptic blind searches with disgusting rape-y monsters waiting for you.

That movie never caught on like the torture porn movies did, because it naively thought "What if we took a nerdy approach to horror seriously?" Turns out, people don't want actual puzzles that are solved by reasoning, and tests of physical coordination to navigate. They just want to see sadists torture innocent people, and the puzzle thing is just window dressing. In the Cube movie, it was the "kidnapped by sadists" that was the window dressing.

October 1, 2023

Portrayals of Hell: empathetic, seductive, cautious vs. callous, disgusting, vindictive (the Nether from Minecraft as an example)

Blogger's comment function is on the fritz again (for me anyway), so I'll start another new post for a topic I began exploring in the comments section of the previous post.

Maybe the algorithm is trying to boost engagement by making me make new posts rather than add comments to existing posts, who knows?

* * *

The Nether in Minecraft is another great example of portraying a non-cutesy look-and-feel-and-sound, within an otherwise kawaii game. It looks like Hell! Not in a gritty and ugly way, but in a sublime and striking and dangerous way.

"Waterfalls" and pools made of lava, dark caverns, undead monsters, striking chiaroscuro lighting from the lava / cavern environment... way cooler than most horror landscapes from the 2010s, in video games or movies and TV. More like a hellscape from British Romantic painter John Martin, in 8-bit pixelated form.

Not to mention the danger of the lava -- one touch and you could not only die but lose all your items.

Speaking of zombies being shoehorned into places they don't belong, this happened in Minecraft as well, with the Zombie and somewhat the Creeper enemies. It was from the early 2010s, at the peak of the zombie apocalypse trend, so zombies made their way into Minecraft of all places -- which is mostly about Medieval fantasy, ancient mythology, etc., like Zelda. They're out of place in such a world, but that's how strong the zombie revival was in the early 2010s.

The aversion to Minecraft among the cult of ugliness is not only due to its kawaii side, but to its striking Hellish side as well -- because that is also a feast for the eyes. It's not sense-numbing, boring, or disgusting, so even the not-so-cute side of the game will not satisfy the crusaders for crappiness.

In fact, the Nether is part of the tradition of making Hell seductive and cool, not to glorify it morally, but to convey how tempting it is, and the danger of falling for its appeal. If it were repulsive to the senses, it would not tempt anyone, and pose no threat to anyone.

The warm yellow and orange tones of the lava, the rich chocolate-y browns of the rocks, the dim mood lighting -- with some warm glowing accent lighting -- it's like being wrapped up in a great big cozy '70s earth-tones afghan blanket!

All sorts of nooks and crannies, as well as open spaces, pique your curiosity and make you want to explore like a tourist in a national cave park.

There's no cold blue fluorescent lighting, no wide-open spaces with nowhere to hide, no desaturated grimy color palette -- in short, the opposite of the sensory-deprivation torture-chamber anti-aesthetics pushed by the cult of ugliness.

That Puritanical approach to Hell is more concerned with moralism -- with punishing sinners through disgusting vile tortures, instead of showing some empathy by conveying how tempting and sumptuous Hell is, in order to caution people ahead of time, before they sin. Preventing, rather than punishing, sin.

The Nether is part of the empathetic warning, not the callous punishment, tradition in the portrayal of Hell.