Safe As Houses: Anatomy

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Before I begin, I’m afraid I must announce that this will in all likelihood be my last entry for Spooktober 2016. The way the month was scheduled, everything for the blog needed to be written over the last two weeks and…well, that didn’t happen. Chalk it up to a combination of personal issues and not writing anything that I was satisfied with, but that’s just how things shook out this year. There may be one more post this month, but I make no guarantees.

For my presumably final post this Spooktober, I would like to briefly talk about Anatomy, the little horror game created by indie game dev/bird girl/witch poet Kitty Horrorshow. I first heard about Kitty about a year ago after her name was attached to the game Tangiers as a writer. While I’ve despaired of that game ever coming out, I have sampled several of Ms. Horrorshow’s free games over the past several months, and have found them to be interesting little art pieces experimenting with primitive 3-D modeling, architectural abstractions, mysticism, and issues of gender and mental health.

In all honesty it feels a little weird to just be writing about Anatomy. The complete story of the game only takes about an hour to get through, and given that it only costs a minimum of $3 American, there’s no real reason to not hop over to her site, buy the game, and play it for yourself. (If you really don’t want to buy it, you can watch two big brave men with beards from Montreal play it for your amusement.)

Anatomy is framed as a videorecording labeled “Anatomy” and apparently recorded on August 18, 1994, a date of unknown significance. You appear in the game as an unknown person holding a video camera, standing in the foyer of a darkened, empty suburban home. All the rooms are closed off save for the living room and the kitchen, which has a tape recorder and a tape sitting on the table. You play the tape, and the game sends you off to a new room to gather another tape to play in the kitchen. As you gather the tapes, a narrative is slowly assembled, seemingly of a young man giving a psychology lecture describing the suburban house as a metaphor for the human body. It’s a simple gameplay loop, but the presentation is quietly unnerving. The house seems vast and empty; there are no books in the living room’s lone bookcase, there is no car in the garage, and the bedrooms have all their furniture clustered in one corner of the room. There are enough twists and turns in the layout of the house that even people with good spatial awareness may have a few moments of pause. Instead of a flashlight, your “body” generates a halo of light, which makes navigation easy but causes furniture and walls to slip rapidly into the shadows. The lectures also become concerning; a discussion analogizing the living room as the “heart” of the house makes a great deal of the central role of the fireplace, a feature this house lacks. Rather more distressing is the discussion around bedrooms and basements, which are equated to the conscious and unconscious minds…or maybe not. In any case, the final tape is found in crimson-papered master bedroom, and matters come to a head.

But they don’t. Not really.

When you start the game again, the 8/18/94 tape plays, and you appear in the foyer as before, but things have changed. Every door in the house is unlocked, and there are more details. The exterior walls have windows, there’s a lamp and TV to turn on in the living room, plates to smash in the dining room, and a tape recorder to play in the daughter’s bedroom upstairs. (And as a aside, it is fascinating at just how few details are required to immediately start thinking of the room as a “girl’s” room.)

But the changes are not all beneficial to the player. A low electronic hum permeates the building. The lecture tapes are distorted and scrambled to the point of incomprehensibility. Even the static lines on the “video footage” seem more aggressive. Most distressingly of all, the environment of the house has started to break down. It’s actually a very clever example of what architects call “truth to materials.” The interior of the house has been built in the style of a first-person video game environment from the mid-late 1990s, so its decay is expressed by having the environment glitch out the way a video game would. Bathroom mirrors and ceiling fans are off-centered and half embedded in walls. Windows and wall hangings flicker in and out of existence. Textures will be misaligned, creating seams in the walls or tapes that look like smears. The biggest shock comes with the final tape, when the male psychologist (?) is suddenly interrupted by a woman, who in a throaty voice (are they both the same voice?) reads a prose poem of being consumed by ever-growing teeth and of attacking an intruder in her home.

There are two more loops to play through to get the full story, but I won’t spoil them here. What I will say is that Anatomy is a remarkable little experience. Rather than relying on monsters or scares, it slowly builds a feeling of dread as the player realizes they are trapped in a decaying world operated by gods (or goddesses?) who are not in their right minds, a type of horror story I have always loved since I first heard about Silent Hill 4. It’s also a meditation on our homes and our minds, and what happens to both when they are left in the cold and the dark, to fend for themselves.

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