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Video Games in Horror Films
by Survey of Interactive Media

Horror films subvert the lines between operator actions, machine actions, and diegetic vs. non-diegetic game space. By Jesse Kapp

By Jesse Kapp

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and the segment Bishop of Battle” in the anthology horror film Nightmares both break down the barriers between operator and machine as well as diegetic and non-diegetic action. Although these transgressions are fairly simple, they serve as the basis of what it means for a game to be scary in the cinematic space of the horror film.

 

In the clip from Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Spencer is sucked into the TV and transported into a video game operated by Freddy Krueger. In the realm of the horror film, the tension is located in the blurring of what Alex Galloway, in the first chapter of his book “Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture”, would refer to as machine and operator actions. At first, Freddy controls Spencer’s motions in the game with his controller, making him walk to the right in a classic 8-bit video game style. Freddy even says “jump” out loud as he makes Spencer jump over the rats. Here the rats are a machine act, and Spencer’s movements are operator acts. This setup does not remain consistent after Spencer falls down the pipe. Spencer is no longer controlled by Freddy, but is free to move in his normal life-like manner. Freddy has now taken control of Spencer’s 8-bit father who attacks him. Spencer even locates and consumes his own power-up apple, an action that Galloway would typically credit to the usual game operator (Freddy). Losing control of one character and gaining control of another is already unusual, but perhaps the more frightening prospect here is trying to place Spencer somewhere along the machine/operator division. Typically the video game character being attacked by the operator-controlled character would be machine driven, but here it is an actual person. Spencer is a player, the operator of his own body, but he is operating from within the physical space of the machine. Freddy is perhaps given even more operator control considering that he also becomes a character in the game machine, but unlike Spencer is able to control his character's actions non-diegetically with the controller from outside the machine space.

 

While the clip from Freddy’s Dead presents operator action performed within the space of the machine, Nightmares features sequences within a video game that question the level of operator passivity from the outside looking in. In “Bishop of Battle”, the titular arcade game establishes moments that are seemingly instances of operator passivity before subverting this supposition. The grid-faced Bishop of Battle character appears in brief animations between levels. All of these segments through level twelve appear to be what Galloway describes as “time-based, linear animation” that render the game operator entirely irrelevant and forgotten. Since we see J.J. Cooney, the game’s operator, go through the first twelve levels twice in the film with the same apparently cinematic, linear level interludes, we initially assume during Cooney’s second run through the levels that these segments certainly do not actively engage the operator.

 

The thirteenth level interlude is our first clue that something is amiss, as we hear the sound of the segment emanating from the broken machine. Later, after Cooney has been chased by the space ships into the parking garage, we see the face of the Bishop once again. His appearance, though outside the actual machine space of the console, appears in the same manner. For the first time, however, the Bishop actually sees the operator as he/it envelops and destroys Cooney. This throws all of the previous segments into question. Could the Bishop see the game operator all along? The implication is that the Bishop repeated the level interludes in exactly the same manner with each play, but was not simply a linear narrative animation that disregarded the operator but a sentient being stating his lines in real time while actually perceiving the operator facing him. While the Bishop consciously employs a narrative tactic from cinema, so too does the film itself add another layer of remediation that struggles to understand the interactions between machine and operator using a platform that is purely cinematic.

The Final Nightmare - Freddy's Video Game Kill by Rachel Talalay (1991) Freddy stars in his very own video game and uses it to kill Spencer.
Nightmares "Bishop of Battle" by Joseph Sargent (1983) The Bishop of Battle breaks out of the video game before the fabled thirteenth level.