Thanks to my friend, @jacquestristan for the suggestion of Anatomy and for the donation of the game itself. Truly an excellent suggestion.
If you want to buy Anatomy — and you should — it’s availble here: https://kittyhorrorshow.itch.io/anatomy
As I’ve written more and more of these, I’ve realized that there are a few things that I differ on with the rest of the gaming review community. For one, I think most people who write about games are less interested in the games as pieces of art and more as experiences: you can see my last post on hacking games for a worked out account of that difference through the lens of self care. I’m also pretty convinced that I’m less interested in justifying games as art than most critics, despite the near-constant claims that the debate over games’ status as art is over and done with or irrelevant from the get-go. And most of all, I think I’m on an island in thinking about games as extensions of literature.
This latter point will be important today, as the game I’m covering — Kitty Horrorshow’s tremendous Anatomy — has garnered quite a lot of critical acclaim, but all or most of that acclaim has worked to think about the game as indebted to filmic techniques and strategies. I’m going to talk about the game in a way that rejects film theory as a lens for two reasons: first, I think it limits what the game can actually say as a piece of art; and two, I think it makes it very difficult to take the game on its own terms. Far from being beholden to, say, German Expressionism, I think Anatomy produces a critical account of domesticity and the haunting quality of physical media that exceeds any of its anxious influences.
The game itself has a simple enough premise, and is truly a walking simulator — there is no way to die nor are there enemies or the jump scares you’d find in a typical survival horror game. I don’t mean to disparage the game by pointing this out, either. I think the walking simulator genre is a useful expression of the medium’s capabilities to represent spaces and places in a specific way: take out the difficulty and exigency of survival and you open up the player for more serious acts of perception and exploration. And Anatomy is deeply interested in exploration and perception.
The game begins with a clicking and whirring, and it’s unclear if that’s keys opening the house that you find yourself in or whether the sound is the particular clicking and whirring a VCR might produce. The ambiguity between experience and recorded experience is a central theme of the game, as it opens with a blue screen that recalls the blank parts of a tape from a camcorder (only 90’s kids, etc, etc), and the game rolls tracking lines and color degradations that you’d expect to find on an aging VHS cassette. Anatomy, despite its titular promise of body horror, presents a sort of data horror akin to films like Videodrome or even The Ring — the fear that the materiality of data on magnetic spools somehow exceeds its boundaries.
The other twist in Anatomy is that the game has multiple endings that are not determined by user choice. You have one path through the game, but the game restarts you on that path several times, and even ends the path “permanently” (though the readme gives you a trick to restart your game). Spoilers from here, I’m afraid.
The game has four discreet playthroughs: one in which you explore the entire house while listening to fairly legible lectures on “The Anatomy of the Home” and which ends abruptly in the teeth of the bedroom; two, in which you are reborn in the entrance to the house, but the tapes are now noisier and staticky, and glitches are more common; three, when you wake up from being pushed down the basement stairs, and are faced with an almost unplayably (on purpose) home, falling apart at the conceptual seams; and four, after the house has “digested” you and you wake up in its stomach. The final screen is a tracking-laden shot of a tape recorder that tells you a story about what abandoned houses do while they wait for new owners, and after it switches off, the camera does not move and the game is no longer playable (unless, of course, you hit “delete” and start over).
The fascinating thing, technically, is that the game exits completely after every “death” and needs to be rebooted. And at each reboot, it starts again, though with consistently more glitches and mistakes and errors built in, even into the loading screen. By the end, the familiar blue VHS placeholder becomes a blood-red screen with barely readable courier text that says “You never came back.” Furthermore, the captions in the game, as well as the hints — “There is a tape in the downstairs bathroom” for instance — become jumbled and confused, degrading into things like “Hhhhhhhhhhhhurts” by the final playthrough. Anatomy effectively works the tutorial into the meat of the game itself, and the tutorial elements of “Well here’s how you play the game” don’t disappear but get as mangled as the rest. It truly is the total destruction of a form.
Thematically, the game hits on two topics: domesticity and videotape. Domesticity is the one that probably jumps to mind first, given Anatomy’s setting and content, and the game is certainly interested in working out issues of what the home means and entails, especially what the empty home means and entails. I think Kitty Horrorshow has worked out one of the hardest elements of horror quite well, in that she never quite reveals the monster or explains the horror behind the veil (which would, of course, make it no longer scary; cf: every horror writer ever). But at the same point, the literalization of the anatomy of the house — that it even eventually eats and digests the intruding body, that is you — is secondary I think to the parlor play horror happening behind it.
What Anatomy reveals by being totally resistant to jump scares and traditional horror, as well as being totally resistant to the collector mentality of a normal videogame, is that the horror of the house has nothing to do with the stories it holds or the objects it contains. Instead, the domesticity of the horror house in Anatomy is itself the scary part. The reason we’re scared in our houses at night is because we assume each creak or pop is actually something aberrant, something that isn’t part of the house’s normal function. In Anatomy, that fear is realized by way of the malfunctioning of the game, as we watch the house fall into glitches and fragmentation, the purpose of the home falls away and we’re left with an uncanny feeling of home-but-not-quite.
Meanwhile, the frame of the VHS cassette and the trope of audio cassettes inform this unhomliness, as they continue to degrade. What starts as a reference to the natural decay of magnetic tape — audio hiss, visual tracking — turns into the central scary element of the game, as each tape’s distortion and shriek becomes worse and worse. What is in the back of your mind during the first playthrough — god these tapes are terribly loud — oh it’s just hiss — is enacted in later playthroughs as static, high pitched yells, distorted speech, and even otherworldly breaking-in of a second voice without explanation are added. By the end, you find a tape recorder that, when pressed, just emits a static-drenched scream that goes on and on and on. Yes, Anatomy is real Noise.
But this is also what is most scary about the game, to me, who was absolutely cringing and terrified at 3 PM when I played it. Every tape felt like a necessary dare, and as I put it in the tape player to continue the narrative, I was horrified at what it would playback. Not because I expected a murder or gore or anything like that, but because the mutation of the medium of audio and video cassettes felt real, material, and visceral to me. As data is unnerving because it feels ghostly, physical data like tape reels and cassettes are unnerving because they can contain anything, and what they do contain carries the trace of the real. The trope of the snuff film, for instance, is so haunting because on each tape, we expect to find the smallest speck of blood, the trace of the scene itself. The digital in comparison feels clean.
I’m reminded here of the New French Horror, which personally is a bit too much for me to watch regularly. But films like Martyrs hit the same way Anatomy does, albeit through very different methods. New French Horror lays out for its viewer the expectations they should have: these films are violent, unflinching, and unfair. Anatomy does this with its tapes: expect to be viscerally upset not by content, but by sound, and expect nothing but more distortion. In that way, both schools emphasize the body — we are of course most embodied when we are uncomfortable — and both schools emphasize the horror of continuance. We can choose to stop either experience, and we know that if we do we’ll be spared discomfort and really lose no closure or explanation. However, we keep going, and, despite their extreme quality and accomplishment (and both are quite wonderful, particularly Anatomy) what New French Horror and Anatomy both ask by the end is “Why? Why did you finish me?” And this might be the most terrifying question of all.