I like to go about my internet-day pretending there’s a thin veneer of vague usefulness to the posts that end up on this blog, that the words carelessly regurgitated here could be generously defined as at least “A way to use your eyes during a dull lunch break” if not actually edifying. I’ve got some bad news for you: For one post only that already flimsy pretence has left the building. Gone bye-bye. Completely absent. Vanished. Poof. There is nothing of value to be found here, only paragraph upon paragraph detailing how a nerdy woman gets unnecessarily worked up over low resolution brick textures, blocky polygonal skeletons, and static orange glows placed behind 2D flame effects in ancient games.
You have been warned.
There are a lot of things I love about games, but if there’s one thing I truly adore it’s playing virtual photographer in a beautiful environment; give me somewhere pretty and the most rudimentary of camera tools and I’ll take a frankly ridiculous amount of screenshots. How ridiculous? Well… let’s just say I don’t have a screenshots folder, I have an archive. It’s as extensive as it is thoroughly organised, an odd island of digital coordination in the chaos that is my home. When’s my wedding anniversary? That’s… soonish, maybe, I think…? [It’s not.] Want to see screenshots of Fill-In Cafe’s excellent side-scrolling mech action brawler Mad Stalker? Why yes I’ve got over seven hundred images right here, did you want to look at the X68k original or the Playstation remake?
And if there’s one setting I enjoy creating bloated folders full of images that may never be seen by another living being of above all others, it’s the one that’s probably best described as “gothic”. Not real Gothic gothic of course – historical Goths may have been ancient arsekickers but I’m thinking more the “goth” that invokes the sort of mood and location that involves pre-dribbled candles (for the wizard in a hurry) in ornate settings and tastefully placed piles of bones that may only be illuminated by either the aforementioned candles, pale moonlight, a cast iron brazier, or some sort of floating magical orb.
But with all the streaks of blood and discarded remains scattered around crumbling tombs it can be easy to confuse gothic with gory – that would be a mistake. Gore is easy. A room covered in blood and entrails that shows no restraint, thought, or “art” to it (I’m prepared to accept that if this were a dinner conversation I’d be asked to leave right about now) is nothing more than an unhygienic and very sticky red room. Pointless. Or to look at it another way: Mortal Kombat is a series with more bones lying around than a Labrador’s back yard but that doesn’t make it an explicitly gothic experience.
So now I’ve told you what it isn’t, how about I also tell you what is?
It is – and I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with admitting this to myself – a little bit try-hard. Maybe even… a lot try-hard? You can’t really pull this sort of thing off casually, can you? “Oh look at how these carefully placed raven feathers atop my antique writing bureau glow in the soft light of the harvest moon!” isn’t something that happens by accident, not even to the ghost of a woman who’s patiently waited for her lover to return for three hundred years or whatever.
You see? It’s not about the stuff, it’s about the style.
I need to see enormous stone columns adorned with cherubic sculptures smiling from their lofty vantage point (extra marks if their eyes appear to follow you around the room), moonlit towers piercing the night sky (a sudden swarm of bats is not optional), and any combination of blood, flowers, and skulls that wouldn’t look out of place on either tattooed on a biker’s bicep or in a Meat Loaf music video. Blocky abandoned churches, all wonky textures and illegible graves, are another guaranteed way to catch my eye, especially if there’s a weeping statue at one end that’s somehow tastefully lit through the lone gap in the crumbling masonry – and if it’s not cradling an important item that’s got to be because the statue’s actually the secret entrance to an underground area filled with marauding skeletons.
Who doesn’t like that sort of thing?
Of course it’s easy to make a connection between this sort of overworked gothic styling and the horror genre – it’s an effective combination and one designers are quite right to serve up as often as their publishers will allow – but the look can be used just as well over a whole host of different genres from platformers (Symphony of the Night) and arcade games (Vampire Night) to full-on FPSs (the original Quake), all bound together by their shared taste in tastefully-strewn spiderwebs and eternally burning braziers.
If you’ll allow me to briefly plop my sensible hat back on: This approach works so well because it’s a sort of visual shorthand, a grounding in reality that would be absent in something more abstract or unusual, adding more through suggestion and vague familiarity than the raw details would otherwise imply. At their best, these settings are reality taken to a twisted extreme, familiar and unknowable in the same moment.
Which makes them relatable, in their own morbid kind of way. It’s hard for me to come across these details in a game and not think back to all the cold churches I’ve had to uncomfortably sit in on school trips, or the fancy old mansions and crumbling castles I’ve walked (or, on some occasions, been dragged) around. When my avatar’s surrounded by these digital simulacra it doesn’t take a great mental leap to imagine the coolness of the stones, the cavernous silence of an empty hall, or the tang of rusted metal in the air even though the game cannot possibly convey any of those things directly.
Let’s get a little more specific! Naturally I’ve got some favourites that I feel embody this sorta-genre well so we’ll start with the one that, relatively speaking, is closest to home. There aren’t many games set on this soggy little island I call home and fewer still that are aware of parts beyond a Mary Poppins-like London that never was, so to have been graced with a beautiful survival-horror-RPG (I made that genre up, but it fits so it stays) location like Koudelka’s fictional Welsh monastery warms my dark heart. The place is a twisted labyrinth of dirt, ruins, and fractured remnants of horrors long past that practically seethes with malice; the forgotten corpses, torture chambers, and discarded journals you discover along the way working overtime to not only feed into the ominous aura that permeates every last deep shadow and haunted room but also goes on to create some sympathy for the lost souls you encounter, even when they’re all armpits and teeth. The ghosts here – and there are so very many of them – are angry and vicious and what’s worse is that they have every reason to be.
If you prefer to tackle undead-infested nooks and crannies head-on then it’s well worth taking a look at Dragon’s Dogma, AKA “What happens when the guy behind most of Devil May Cry gets to make the world’s greatest unofficial Dungeons & Dragons game.”
At first blush it looks like your typical medieval fantasy adventure as a dragon shows up one day at your quaint fishing village and plucks out your heart, leaving you
dead virtually immortal and the latest unwilling piece in a puzzle wrapped in an enigma of a mystery that stretches as far back as you dare to look, but it doesn’t take long before you’re wading through dark mausoleums with nothing more than the weak glow from your lantern to illuminate the broken coffins and forgotten shrines you stumble upon – pray that light isn’t extinguished as you plunge into deep water or that you run out of precious oil along the way. Gransys is a beautiful and deadly land, the air feels like it’s thick with the dust of ages and you are forever an unwelcome interloper within its grand vaulted chambers and lost places, silent statues the only witnesses to your struggles in the dark places under the world.
To go back to an altogether more intimate affair, Haunting Ground definitely has one of the greatest closed locations I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. Plush carpet all rucked up and embroidered curtains by the windows catching some silent breeze? The sinister coziness of an unexpectedly well-kept bedroom giving way to libraries stacked high with forbidden knowledge and exposed courtyards dappled by the moonlight? If I could distill these glorious things into a gold-rimmed goblet to rest on the arm of my elaborate throne I would do so in a heartbeat.
Belli Castle just by itself is an imposing structure, all built-in chapels and secret alchemy labs, but it’s the minor details the breathe life (death?) into the place and make it far more than mere stone walls and fancy rooms: The suspiciously realistic “wax” anatomical models. The unknown meat in the soup Fiona’s served up for dinner (it’s probably her mother, by the way). The life-sized and incredibly realistic “doll” dressed in beautiful clothes and propped up on a plush red sofa. Unlike the other examples mentioned above Belli Castle isn’t disintegrating or deserted but that only makes for a far more uncomfortable truth – the mess of half-formed not-life and forbidden magicks that threaten to send Fiona into a blind panic at every turn are calculated and deliberate.
The environments these adventures take place in of course play a key role in conveying that delicious “Dracula with filly cuffs spouting bad poetry” atmosphere I love so very much but a really good gothic experience touches every single aspect of the game, and I think the second best place to see that sort of thing has got to be in the enemies that roam these decadent moonlit halls. Think of Vagrant Story‘s Quicksilver puppets – who didn’t have one creepy toy or supposedly adorable ornament in the house as a kid? For me, it was a classic nutcracker soldier, with its huge teeth and a blood-red mouth, ever watching, just waiting for your fingers to get too close… I digress. Vagrant Story’s malevolent children brandish tiny swords as they dangle on strings they can never cut themselves free of, and their in-game description “Dolls possessed by the souls of children who lost their lives to war or illness“, as with every other delicious morsel of text in that excellent game, only adds to their already intimidating presence.
Dramatic boss battles with guitar-riffing themes can be super-gothic too, just look at Devil May Cry 3: It’s just you fighting a tragic boy wearing a billowing long coat in the moonlight on top of the most gothic demon tower that ever goth’d. Oh and of course it’s raining. And he’s your estranged twin brother. That you don’t want to fight nor can you save from the further tragedy. That’s not a just a boss fight, that’s a playable angst-filled power ballad.
Castlevania: Lament of Innocence somehow goes even further than that as the final boss is no less than capital-D Death himself, revealed at last in all his terrible glory. There’s no subtlety to his design at all which is why his look screams “The latest album from VIRUS GOATS OF SATAN” (I did check after I’d written that to make sure it wasn’t a real band first, and I’m not sure if I’m delighted or disappointed to learn the name’s not been taken yet). He’s a monster unleashed, broadly human shaped yet distinctly other, bones where bones should never be all framed by a ragged cape, stained blood-red and bearing the image of gaping skulls (which is a bit like Death wearing a t-shirt with a photo of his own face on it, don’t you think?), as you engage in a climactic duel on top of nothing less than a giant magical seal. It’s exactly what all last boss battles should always be, which is ultra badass.
Some people love sci-fi. Some people love gritty urban settings. For me if it looks like somewhere a sad-but-pretty vampire would write poetry by candlelight, the scratching of their flamboyant quill on parchment interrupted only by the sounds of distant thunder, then I’ll probably love it. Or at the very least plaster a million screenshots over my Twitter feed before shelving it forever – y’know, one or the other. Sadly gothic games tend to be few and far between, sentencing me to an existence of wandering through gaming back catalogues forever, like a ghost chasing ghosts. I can (un)live with that.