Monday, 6 June 2016

Gaming the Gothic!

NERD COMMENT ALERT: This has got stunlock
written all over it, amiright?

In Ron Scott’s interesting book chapter, “Now I’m Feeling Zombified: Playing the Zombie Online”, Scott outlines part of the history of the races and character types in Blizzard’s Warcraft and Diablo franchises. He observes that customer feedback from Warcraft II players did not match expectations when it came to their game race of preference: instead of picking the embattled human race, players were more likely to play as the bad guys, the orcs (172). 

This led to the publisher’s adding an “evil” character to its next instalment of the separate but similarly-themed Diablo, the Necromancer, and later Warcraft III would hit the shelves with a further evil race – the Undead. Again, after reviewing customer feedback, Blizzard found that the Undead were wildly popular, despite requiring different tactics due to their reliance on spells. 

Identification with the undead therefore changed the development of the game franchise. Scott argues that this identification allowed players to further assert a kind of outsider status within the world of online gaming, as the Undead are seen as a lesser race than the standard Orcs and humans (180), but their popularity across gaming in generally makes this problematic. I think there is something particularly appealing – even Gothic – to playing these kinds of roles, and I’ve set out to find out what it is.

There seems to be something performative about the Gothic. Whether we are talking about Halloween celebrations, gothic or heavy metal music, or tabletop games such as those of the Warhammer universe, there is something deeply appealing about being able to put on the guise of something darker than you are.

I think there is some kind of overlap between gaming and the Gothic, and perhaps I will get to investigate it more formally in the future. Scott’s paper is well worth looking up, and there is a sizeable amount of research on gaming, so I thought I would direct my short term “research” of this question elsewhere. As such, I’ve recruited a group of trusty tabletop gaming devotees and begun to run a campaign of Mordheim, one of Games Workshop’s discontinued “specialist” games.

Last person to pick a character has to be the screaming
flayed guy on the left.
Mordheim is certainly a Gothic game in its own right. Players run gangs of ruffians, represented by 28mm figures, and fight over pieces of a mysterious, glowing stone in the City of the Damned. Certain characters can gain experience and develop over games, so the playing of linked scenarios or campaigns allows a story to tell itself through the game play. Suspecting that Gothic gameplaying has something to say about Gothic narratives in general, I wanted to test how far this idea could be stretched, so all the players in the campaign were asked to provide a short back story to their gang. After matches, the most dramatic elements of each round are written into a kind of schlocky, episodic short story, which gives players a chance to gloat over their best moments and to see the narrative twists and turns of the next round hinted at. Just to top it all off, our campaign is not set in the city of Mordheim, but upon a Lovecraftian island, complete with the required amounts of swampland, madness, and tentacles.

The campaign has just about reached its midpoint. The most dramatic moments include a drug-addled aristocrat and “blunderbuss enthusiast” killing his own gang-mates and a mercenary captain being carried away by dead things in the swamp – to date, nothing too far off the beaten path of fantasy narrative – but the most enjoyable part for me has been patching together the story of the gameplay with a general plot based for the most part on the island’s geography. This central story has grown with very little interference from me, and can develop on it’s on in any number of directions based on the permutations of gameplay and the interactions of the players in response to them.

Part game, part choose-your-own-adventure-story, this campaign has swamped the genre borders more than crossed them. And I think the underlying dimension which allows it such freedom is its dark fantasy logic – there would be many more restrictions if we’d played a science fiction plot, for example. The connection between gaming and the Gothic may not turn out to be as profound as I had thought, but I must admit that I like the idea of a game coming alive and telling itself story. So I’ll keep playing. And listening.


“ “Now I’m Feeling Zombified”: Playing the Zombie Online. 169-184. Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Eds. Shaun McIntosh and Marc Leverette. Lanham, Toronto, and Plymouth: 2008, The Scarecrow Press. 

Jason Archbold (our wonderful guest blogger) is a Cotutelle PhD candidate at Macquarie University and the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture at Justus-Liebig-Universität. His dissertation explores morals and ethics in apocalyptic fictions. When he is not dodging zombies as part of his research, he can be found investigating cultures through cooking or buried in a mass of comic books.

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