When I learned that Tale of Tales was working on a game inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, I grew excited. There are many reasons I love the play, and among them is that when I read it and start staging it in my head (the curse and joy of being involved in theater and reading plays), I can see what themes are important to me. What themes strike me in this play? Looking and sexuality.
My GayGamer.net look over the game Fatale covers this, but I had more thoughts on the matter I felt better for this space.
The game has an assertive Salome who wants to kiss Jokanaan, and will do it with or without his body attached. While the Young Syrian describes the beauty of her body, she describes the body of Jokanaan. She uses her body to get what she wants from Herod, whose motives are lascivious in their own way.
Everyone who is warned against looking comes to a painful loss. The young Syrian jumps on to a sword to end his life, because she loves Jokanaan. Salome is ordered to be put to death by King Herod. Herod loses both.
Looking. I embody Jokanaan, but at no time does the game explicitly tell me I am Jokanaan. Without any prior context of either the Biblical story of John the Baptist or Salomé (to be honest, I know next to nothing about the former outside of how it is represented in the latter), it would be difficult to say who you are in this game. The view is first person, and that decision feels to have been made to put me in this body.
Words linger over me while I am in my cell, and they speak in strange half-truths and realities. I am a prophet, so this makes sense. I am being given words, as prophets are said to be given the speech of gods. At the same time, while I am embodying this ‘game’ body, I am very clearly not meant to be Jokanaan. There exists a grain over everything, excusing the typical fallacies of first-person games and their unrealistic expectations of how I see.
There even include controls, as illustrated in the accompanying text file to the game, to increase of decrease the level of this grainy filter. Jumping is a futile effort, given to me, but accomplishing nothing (have you seen most people actually jump?). There are boxes in this space, but there is nothing to do with them. There is only the grate through which I can watch glimpses of Salome dance, and the door which holds the portent of death by way of a neutral-looking skull ringed in red.
When I am attacked by the executioner, I do not process that he cuts off my head–there is no cutscene to inform me of this fact. The next thing I know when I have control again is that I am floating, being able to move in a full 360 degrees.
The focus is to extinguish the lights; both signifying what I myself have lost, the flame of life, and to allow me to explore this space that was taunting me before. While there was a door, I could not understand what lay behind that door, the grate allowed me a glimpse into a world I was forbidden to explore. Now I play.
There is the ring that stands as literary irony, though still holds the same symbol of the skull that I found on my door. The two are linked, but unless I know the story, it likely could just be the kingdom’s standard (it is not). The little matchbox with Salome’s number? It is outside my cell, with plenty of blood; an allusion to the young Syrian, and to Salome’s interest in me, the person in that cell.
When I do focus on a light, the colors skew, the shadows climb in, and numbers and letters (whose import I have not established) ring around, until with an obscuring black smoke I smother them. Even the light of the iPod, even the candle in front of the instruments, such as an acoustic guitar with amplifier, that beat the rhythm of the angel of death whose flapping wings were accompanying Salome’s dance. These two items, again, draw me out of the game experience.
This is not about the game. This is about what I see, what I notice, at what I am looking–again with how my eye is drawn. For you see, this is about my present day response to what is presented in front of me right here, right now. That includes feminist responses and considerations, looking at the history of art criticism and how interactivity means this is more than just a painting on a wall, a play on a stage, a song being played to me.
What Tale of Tales has done is put me in the game space, deliberately putting me in the first person perspective. Am I Jokanaan? Yes, and no. Yes, I am Jokanaan, it is I who was beheaded, whose spirit bedevils the lights, and who watches Salome dance.
No, I am not Jokanaan. I am Denis Farr, who understands what an iPod is, what a guitar and amplifier are, and understands that electricity did not exist in this Biblical time, so we are not in this Biblical time. The game wants me to remember that I am Denis, the game does not want me to lose sight of that fact.
Yet, the game wants to direct my attention, my vision, through the eyes of a beheaded prophet. It wants to tell his story, the story of a man who starts in the play as a disembodied voice calling out from his cistern. The voice of someone who refuses sight to one who would love him. The voice of a man whose knowledge of the proceedings above him exhibit exactly what the game itself tells me. Yet, I am none of these things, bringing my own context.
This game begs for reader-response, but in the way Brecht envisioned. I am to divorce myself from immersion, because it is an opiate that accomplishes nothing but an escapism and allows me to not think. It allows me to adopt someone else’s thoughts, but never to think for myself. Show me the inconsistencies, remind me it is a game, put me in a body that is not my own, give me only my eyes with which to create a sense of self. Give me the glimpse, but make sure I know I don’t really inhabit this space, and that I need to think to piece together the clues.
As Nels Anderson has stated games should be, this is not fun; it definitely is engaging.
If this is an experience that at all interests you, be engaged.