The process of observation is important with art or anything similar. By witnessing something, the viewer becomes one of the most important parts of the equation. How the viewer experiences art is as much a part of the creative exposition as the brushes used to paint or the lens on the camera. With video games this is even more applicable. They rely on creating an experience for a player, an individual who must interact with the world in order for the work to unfold. It relies on specific actions of the player, and so arguably involves them in the creative process. This seems even more applicable with open world RPGs, huge titles such as The Witcher III or Fallout 4 which rely on a player making their own way in a huge sandbox world. These titles give the player choices, moral dilemmas and multiple ways to achieve their goals, ultimately affecting the overall outcome of the story. In this sense they become part of the story itself, often resulting in a player forming their own opinions of the characters, the setting and carving their own slice of exposition (even if it has already been pre-written for them, but that’s another debate for another time.) But this seems even more in play when the Playstation VR was announced – a headset for players to wear so that they hear and see in a physical first person view point – they literally experience the world as the character. It’s a huge step for technology but it’s even more so for establishing the artistic element of video games. Sure they’re played for fun but the VR aspect opens up more story driven games to provide a literal experience for a player, like letting someone walk into a painting.
So you can imagine my excitement at hearing that one of the titles released on the Playstation VR is ‘Here They lie’ (Tangentlemen, Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2016) a self proclaimed surreal horror experience which tasks the player with exploring a disturbed world full of abstract nightmares and a dark, complex story. Of course I had to have a look. Now it’s important at this point to say that I haven;t actually played the game myself with the headset, only watched multiple playthroughs on YouTube without commentary. I’m afraid I don;t have the money to go out and buy something like that so I had to get as close to the experience as I could. Obviously that meant I didn’t experience the game as a player is intended to, but i’ll make sure to consider that experience when looking at it. Remember that everything I describe is meant to happen right in front of your eyes, every sound comes directly to your ears and when you move your controllers in the real world, your hands move in the virtual one. I suppose just remember that everything I describe is happening closer both physically, sensually and metaphorically than you’d imagine.
My first point is a slight negative, the story is complicated – I mean it’s really hard to follow. Perhaps complicated isn’t the word but it feeds you barely anything and relies on the player observing countless notes and interactions in order to understand what’s happening. I’m usually a fan of this, but it did make the story hard to digest after finishing the game. It’s also that the world you’re exploring feels dream like, it has no real geography and happily transcends your expectations form the dark subway at the beginning to the golden halls and fiery sea of the climax. It has no qualms with frequently disturbing your perceptions and twisting the world to reflect the metaphysical. But to be honest this was mainly a strong point for me. I think I have an idea of the story, but I could definitely be wrong about several elements of this, so feel free to comment if you have a better idea because i’m actively looking to find one.
From what I gather you’re in some kind of physical manifestation that acts as a metaphorical allegory for the ills and the dreams of human kind. You move through deserted places and interact with an ambiguous man on the phone who seems to be your friend, but the phone calls seem to be from a different time, a memory perhaps. Either way you’re waved off by your love, Dana, who you continue to try to find throughout. Moving through the streets of a deserted city, and the horrific underground roads too, the player has to find Dana but more importantly uncover what exactly is going on. But when i say what’s going on i mean with a moral decision not with the world itself. You see remnants of humanity wearing animal masks, acting out their primal desires of violence and lust while being stalked by monsters, one in particular who seems to symbolise primal urges (i’ll go into that later.) The game (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS) ends with a decision. You must allow your friend, who’s trapped in a mirror, to be released, or you must smash it and refuse him redemption for whatever it is he’s done wrong. You get the impression that this guy has made a mistake, and you also learnt that Dana broke up with you a while ago and is considering getting back with you – with definitely brings home the sense of choosing between the two characters.
For me I found that it seemed like the game showed someone trying to fight between their base instincts and the idea of moral responsibility. It feels like you made a mistake too and you’re trying to work out if anything you’ve done, or this friend of yours has done, can be forgiven. Dana seems to represent an ideal of adult responsibility. So you have to decide between the two of them, whether to choose what could be seen as the easier option of satisfying your own fear, lust, or desire or trying to resolve your conflicts, despite it not necessarily benefiting you directly. But the conflict is more complex than that. By satisfying desires I don;t just mean traditionally ‘evil’ ones, i mean even just a boyhood fear of the dark or a desire to hide and stay safe. It’s the idea of doing something for a moral code, not just a sense of self-preservation. Perhaps that’s where our protagonist went wrong last time, and is now given a different choice when shown the metaphorical exaggerations of both sides of the argument.
Again I know that’s sketchy but it’s the best I could come up with. What I do know though is that these examples of metaphorical morality and primeval nature are beautifully rendered. While the game’s ambition in the story comes across as unclear at times (which does arguably tie into a surrealist trend of viewer based interpretation) it’s ambition in design it where it thrives. Exploring the deserted city and subway as your hear growling sounds and children’s voices singing is utterly creepy, especially when it’s directly in your ears. The majority of the jump scares, when used, are effective – but the game relies mostly on atmosphere. You begin to think that the voices you hear are more like memories of your own past, which further solidifies the players experience and confusion. There’s honestly nothing creepier than hearing a payphone ring in a deserted square and panicking as you decide whether you want to answer it or not.
The underground city as well is excellently done. Again i’m treating it as a dream-space rather than an actual dystopia but the city is lawless. Everyone wears masks of different animals and adheres only to primal desires. The game play often relies on you simply experiencing the sights of this place, like a surreal tour of the disturbed. You view scenes of people throwing other people of high edges and laughing manically or doing the same thing by throwing bricks onto peoples heads down below – at one point you’re even encouraged to do this yourself which results in the player killing what may or may not have been an innocent man. You saw him kill someone, but you still don’t feel right killing him yourself. You’re now part of the madness and that scared me. There are also more subtle examples of primal aspects of our nature. One that particularly stood out for me was when you release a young man from a prison – he’s overjoyed to escape but quickly looks around and sees the insanity of the world around him. He soon becomes so afraid that he locks himself back in the cage. It’s a wonderful example of the darker sects of human nature, violence, fear and sex on a simple, and all the more fearful level.
But the game undergoes a process of transformation, and from the monochrome streets you enter into pure abstract plains of reality. One particularly effective one includes you being knocked out until your vision is overtaken by a great red sun shining over a dark sea. A lone figure gently rises from it’s depths and you’re transported to some kind of desert overcome with a bulging, crimson sky. The game also has you traversing great temples which collapse around you as you sail through their opulent ruins, into a huge hall that expands and contracts depending on where you walk. For me these more grand sections are the territory of Dana, an example f moral superiority compared to the grimy feeling of adhering to base desires. The settings are breathtakingly surreal, as well as the interactions – another scene showing a hammerhead shark swimming in gloomy air over a clifftop. These short moment of hallucinogenic quality only increase your fear and for me that’s the strength of surrealist horrors, their surreal nature makes them hard to anticipate.
This includes the nightmarish beasts that hunt you. One has the horns of a deer and consumes bodies as it scuttles in and out of your headphones, forcing you to check every corner and feel like you’re constantly being watched. However the main attraction is a huge humanoid figure covered in flames carrying a briefcase and warping out of floors and walls alike.Throughout the game you see people encased in magma rock, surrounded by flames. This creature seems the main antagonist and stalks you throughout the dream, at one point appearing as a colossal giant who grins and spits flames at you as you run by. For me he’s an embodiment of the nature of destruction. Perhaps that’s an obvious statement to make but it seem like he;s the self-destructive tendency of human nature. The people you see cremated by him are the animal folk who adhere only to their primal calling. And yet his portrayal with a briefcase helps to form a surreal tone about him, he fits the world and himself is unpredictable, turning up where you least expect him. It’s a wonderfully horrific visual experience that does nothing but panic you into absolute terror.
While it’s a game that falls through on certain elements of play that seem a bit uneventful, ‘Here They Lie’ succeeds in creating a uniquely ambitious, surreal, visual experience that is undeniably memorable. It’s more something that provides a complex experience rather than a complex set of game mechanics. Though the story is difficult to follow you still get a definite sense of characterisation, and a want to both reignite your relationship with Dana coupled with a guilt at potentially condemning your friend to doom. At the least i’d recommend watching a play through of it. Though the VR creates a new sense of experience in the genre, I think you can still achieve the artistic potential of this game by watching it on a screen. In its entirety I loved it for it’s bravery to step out and deliberately call itself a surreal horror, because it does both with passion, pride and success and – despite its flaws – it’s a game that impressed me both artistically and viscerally.