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Steam, flesh, screen: trauma, choice and eroticism in 8-bit and VR at CPH:DOX

by Alex Elder

 

For our third and final despatch from CPH:DOX 2023, Alex moves on from the film slate and gets stuck in with two devastating works of interactive media. Check out part one and part two


Content note: This article references sexually explicit content and themes around sex work, trauma and voyeurism

Two men are seen kissing in a steamy room, backlit by a bright white light
'I think that VR should really be a mind game that plays with your brain and your senses'

'In The Mist' (2023, dir. Tung-Yen Chou)


‘In the Mist’ is an erotic VR experience which teleports the viewer into the secretive world of queer saunas within China.


With your field of vision filled by effervescent steam and flesh that seems to rise up and disintegrate in the mist, the viewing experience and nuanced staging of ‘In the Mist’ also poses some interesting questions about spectatorship and voyeurism in the age of VR.


The VR film is quite light on plot points but big on sensuality, mood and transgression. Essentially, you ‘sit’ in the corner of the sauna as men in groups of two or more begin to gaze at and touch one another before moving on to outright group sex scenes.


Chou plays with our expectations of the passive and invisible spectator throughout the 15 minute experience. At one point, you turn your head to the right and see someone staring right back at you as he slowly begins to pleasure himself.


As the experience draws to a close, the sides of the sauna slowly explode outwards to reveal scaffolds of rigged lighting outside of the ‘exterior’ walls. As the sauna members exit from the four corners of the deconstructed house, some seemed to look back at me almost in a scowl. Never before have I felt my position as a stealthy filmic observer been so rapidly shaken to the core.


Speaking in Clot, Chou has mentioned that the power of VR “lies in its ability to take us to places we could otherwise never go to, like someone’s dream or memories, a very deep ocean, or outer space… I think that VR should really be a mind game that plays with your brain and your senses” and I personally couldn’t agree more.

 
 
A pixel art screen shows a topless woman with a shadowy demon passing over her face, obscuring it. The caption says 'I hurt'
'While I’ve never previously been one to champion video games and their potential to be considered high art, the format of HFTGOOM is absolutely ingenious'

He Fucked the Girl Out of Me (created by Taylor McCue)


Taylor McCue’s ‘He Fucked the Girl Out of Me’ is a powerful 8-bit videogame about Ann, a transgender woman, and her early experiences of sex work—as well as the lasting impact it has on her ability to connect with her body and others over a decade later.


Unfolding over roughly 30-40 minutes, this unflinching and deeply personal narrative examines the ominous dynamics of control within the sex industry and presents an affecting portrait of a girl trying to find acceptance and safety in the world.


While I’ve never previously been one to champion video games and their potential to be considered high art, the format of HFTGOOM is absolutely ingenious for several reasons. In terms of narrative design, the fact that the player moves the story forward using directional arrows means that it’s possible to slow down the pace and take in McCue’s acerbic prose or even pause and take a break if the potentially triggering content requires it.


McCue also introduces elements of player choice that are deliberately inconsequential in order to evoke Ann's loss of agency and a sense of freefalling through life. You’re often given choices as the ‘player’ of the game to confess your recent experiences to Ann's mother, or tell a nosey club-goer that you’re 'just a friend' of the client taking you out that evening. More often than not, whatever choice you make yields the same outcome as Ann tries to navigate the situations she encounters as best she can.


The game's 8-bit artwork is rendered only in a handful of colours but every low-res frame is an artwork in its own right. This minimal palette is partly a limitation of the GameBoy cartridges the title was programmed on. McCue has said previously: “The reason I chose that format is frankly, writing about that shit was really upsetting… So I couldn't do a more complicated computer programming thing.”


Narration gets quite meta at times and often comments on the creation of the game’s narrative as Ann tries to work out how best to tell the story. She puzzles over the difficulty of how to communicate what happened to her so it makes sense for her intended audience as well as considering her own self-preservation as she works through this trauma. McCue said:

“The problem is, where do I start? This is always where I get bogged down, because there are financial details, untreated mental illness, culture, emotions and choices that led to the decision. To get into those would make an incredibly messy boring unplayable game”.

‘He Fucked the Girl Out of Me’ is a dense and truly devastating game from one of the most important voices I’ve come across in gaming. If you feel like you’re able to, I strongly recommend you try and play it here yourself. A full list of trigger warnings is available during the game’s introduction.

 

Alex Elder is NTS Radio's resident night watchman, professional content farmer, and film critic. Follow his Twitter

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