ANATOMY Review Impressions

February 26, 2016 by Claris Cyarron

The inherent terror of the places in which we live

Inanimate, everyday objects & scenes are the least frightening things under the sun. It’s the familiarity, the confident knowledge that we understand the situation clearly, that disarms any potential threat. We know their place, and it is to serve us.

And yet… I would wager that all of us have, at one point or another, hidden under the covers, quaking in fear because a familiar object in a familiar room cast a familiar shadow that caught our mind and imagination in just the wrong way -- suddenly it’s familiarity does anything but make us feel safe. “Has THAT always been there, looming over me, watching while I sleep?”

Therein lies the problem, you see. In our moments of weakness and doubt, the horrific visions that live in the darkest corners of our mind infect the dark corners of our environment. Fears both primal and sophisticated escape the prison of our psyche and become… embodied in the objects at the edge of our perception.

It is around this idea of embodiment that ANATOMY, the latest project by altgames creator Kitty Horrorshow, turns. The premise is this: you find yourself locked in an unlit, unassuming suburban home. You stumble and grope your way forward through the pitch black until you encounter an old cassette player and a tape, patiently awaiting human ears.

Like several of her other games, these excellently voice-acted (by Horrorshow herself) audiologs at first seem to provide a dispassionately anthropological accounting of the game’s world and lore. We hear about the role of the house in human evolution, its psychological significance, and metaphorical musings on the house-as-body.

We move from room to room, finding more tapes and exploring the intellectual notions contained in each. But as we do, a subtle shift occurs. Without changing voice, these tapes become less an accounting of The House writ-large and more the establishment of a rapport between This House and you.

As the game warms to its task (of scaring the hell out of us), we are confronted with a more troubling thought: what if these objects do not want to be made into focuses for our fear? What if they are aware of the evil transformation that we pray only exists in our mind? What if they resent us for tainting them so? What if, long after people have gone from them, the memories and impulses that live on most strongly are the horrific ones?

What if, after being so transmogrified by our presence, all they wanted to do was to enact the violence we fear they set the stage for?

ANATOMY is a descent; we must play it four times to reach its conclusion. Each playthrough is wildly different, riffing off of previous iterations to build tension and defy expectations at every turn. We are drilling down, deep into the body of the House, deep within ourselves.

There is terrific interplay possible between darkness and familiarity, and ANATOMY hones in on it with unerring accuracy, tracing its contours like an eldritch map to the human id.

ANATOMY powerfully evokes the spatiality of darkness: it fills the halls of the House with pendulous uncertainty, misshapes everyday objects into Somethings that are monstrously uncertain. It is almost as if we are worried that someone is taking advantage of our relative calm, they know they can hide over by the washing machine that does a good human impersonation. The darkness is as much a creepy, personified monster as The House is.

The tight radius of dim light that surrounds us makes sight a tactile experience. Most visible objects are only seen because they are within arm’s reach. Horrorshow brilliantly leans on the jankiness of altgames as a form to further disfigure and morph objects hidden in the darkness, they phase with repulsive quickness between recognizable shapes and monolithic placeholders.

Beyond the darkness, and the House, and the paranoia, there is another companion travelling with us: the materiality of information itself.

The first moment of the game features the sound of a videotape being inserted into a VHS player. That slapping, sliding, satisfying *click* is the chime which signals our entrance into This Home and the VHS scanlines which get worse and more pronounced with each playthrough are it's reverberations.

The tapes, the scanlines, the static and distortions all evoke Ringu and The Exorcist. Regarding the connection between ANATOMY and The Exorcist, Chris Priestman points out:

“When the devil is inside a young girl it can be conceptually terrifying, sure, but the physical performance carries the distance of drama with it. We know that this is all make-believe and that we’re watching an actress. The more plausible horror, at least for me, is in the idea of something terrible existing inside an everyday object, one that I have to hand, and especially one that so easily lends itself to being rewritten—a constant mundane horror of the ’90s was accidentally recording over the treasured contents of a VHS tape.”

But these graphical artifacts and hallmarks do much more than just nod to other sites of cultural fear.

For those unfamiliar with her works to date, Kitty Horrorshow is an artist fascinated by the horrific and weird aspects of architecture, and the architecture of horror itself. The games on her page often examine our relationships to the built form and the small monthly games she provides to her Patreon backers showcase a deep interest in the artistic and expressive potentials of videogame environments.

“By supporting me, you encourage the creation of magnificent new places, digital realms at once beautiful and terrible,” she says. These explorations, of which ANATOMY is most certainly one, are deeply engaging and enriching to me as an architect, but to my joy, she takes things even further.

ANATOMY is her most ambitious project to date, and it does not shy away from the fact that it is parsing a house -- something ostensibly brick and mortar -- in an artform that is anything but.

It does not apologize for evoking analogue aesthetics and materiality in a digital game. It holds all of these contradictions in an unstable balance, another source of tension and discomfort.

It asks us: in what ways is this real? In what ways is this tangible? Can something as ineffable as our inner thoughts poison the outer world? Can these feelings, like the monsters in Ringu and The Exorcist, escape? Of course they can. Concepts can move unhindered from form to form. And that is in its own way absolutely frightening.

But all of this is not to say that the game is in any way dense or difficult to parse. Far from it.

And behind all of the heady issues it explores, there is a truly scary game. But the reason I think you should play it is precisely because of all the intellectual stuff. Existential dread and architectural shoegazing pair excellently with a fearful nightmare house.

This is a haunted house of opposites: we are the antagonists here, spilling out monstrous thoughts and actions, poisoning the otherwise platonic state of the house; we are the terrifying creature that stalks the halls. The digital and analogue are held in balance for a time but for how long until it all collapses? ANATOMY skillfully rides this wave of horrific juxtaposition, carving and cutting between dreadful moments, each constructed like a spire in glory to one or more of the game’s central themes: embodiment, domesticity, familiarity, guilt, and edifice.

If your heart holds any childish fear of the familiar, any primal terror of the unseen and unheard, any discomfort at how much of ourselves we project onto our surroundings, any curiosity at our relationship to the edifice of our daily lives, then ANATOMY has something for you, and for $3.

This is exactly the kind of horror I want to see games engaging in more of -- smart, incisive, unsettling, provocative, and lingering. Support this game because it is truly fascinating, support it because it is terrifying, support it because it means a better future for the horror genre, support it because Kitty Horrorshow is a genius who I’m certain you will be hearing more of in the future.

Claris Cyarron is a nerdy cutie who loves architecture, design, storytelling, games, art history, and music; she writes about them when they collide. She is the creative director of Memory Insufficient, a magazine for design history and digital culture, and the co-owner of Silverstring Media, a small experimental studio which provides weird digital art, queer stories, and creative expertise.