I passed an accident scene the other day.
“Don’t be one of those people who stare,” I told myself. “You’re better than that.”
Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look.
Oh. No blood, just a nasty fender bender. Police stand questioning a dazed driver.
“Too bad,” I think to myself, and then because I can’t un-think it, and because I think I am a good person, I pretend my morbid disappointment isn’t wrong or doesn’t matter. No one will ever know I thought it anyways.
Chances are, I’m not alone. We can’t help but stare at suffering; we all have a morbid side. Carl Jung called it a shadow side, a part of us we repress, yet it draws us to death and gore, accident scenes and horror movies. Though, as author Eric Wilson suggests, if channeled correctly, it can lead us towards finding meaning in suffering.
“If you look at a car accident by the road, hopefully you think about the suffering of others and feel relieved, you don’t seek out other accidents,” Wilson said. The danger comes when we overlook the monster inside and seek out the thrill, thinking we could never become a monster ourselves.
Ironically, by never admitting to a dark side, by never questioning our ability to be awful, “that’s when we become monsters,” Wilson says.
My great-grandmother died. I was young and it was the first dead person I’d ever seen. I had to touch her.
Like the whirring fan, the bright glowing stove element, my shadow self wanted to know what she felt like. I’ll never forget the shaking up. The expectation of flesh, the softness there, the smooth skin, the consistency of old woman arm.
A single finger edges closer to the casket. Poke.
I never forgot the feeling of cold flesh. It felt wrong, not the deadness, not the colour, but the cold. But I couldn’t help it. I had to feel the blue veins filled with cold motionless, blood.
They Bleed Pixels is gross. Blood, an indication of failure, dying and death is everywhere, for no reason. Yet I can’t look away. A little girl by day, and demon by night, the game’s shadowed antagonist transforms the heroin’s soft pink hands into terrifying two-tonged mandibles that grow from the little girl’s forearms, slick with blood, popping from her skin to claw enemies and cling to walls.
The transformation is torturous and horrible and awesome. The red pixels spill from her bloody stumps of arms, painting the floor, the walls the ceiling with red. The claws give her strength; make her worthy of praise and admiration, turning a helpless, boring girl into a monster/hero. I find her infinitely more fascinating as a demon, and I know that’s not a pleasant thought to dwell on. They Bleed Pixels celebrates the monster inside.
They’re getting prepared to haul a car out of the river…
I’m thinking about the water down below and what got lost.
Did you have to show me that accident scene?
Didn’t I get enough shaking up?
-Bruce Cockburn, “Tokyo”
We elbowed each other to get a better view. Two boys were fighting, nothing special. Just hauling each other over by their collars. The elementary mob of my conservative Christian hometown wasn’t chanting “fight, fight, fight“. Many of us went to the same Sunday school. But we didn’t want to miss anything, and we didn’t want to stop it. The energy, the raw emotion on the boys’ faces, it was electrifying. And we all wanted a chance to see that bright, sticky, blood.
The memory of the school fight came to me while watching Fight Club years later. The wiry Brad Pitt begging skinny little Edward Norton to punch him. And later, I recalled the scenes of bare-chested men beating each other on hard concrete. The blood was so dark it looked like molasses.
The film made a deep carnal connection with me. The darkness held a certain untarnished light of reason; holding a man up at gun point, only to “give” him a new appreciation for life, burning down an apartment full of things we never need, the absurdity and numbness of crass consumerism in exchange for feeling alive.
I was fascinated with monsters.
The levels of They Bleed Pixels are stages of a little girl’s nightmares.
The game begins with her arrival to the Lafcadio Academy for Troubled Young Ladies. Does her arrival at the academy already suggest her mental instability? Is the heroine a monster to begin with? Or does the bloody tome beckoning to her from the library simply complete the transformation that had begun long ago? Either way, the book is brought to life by the dark headmaster’s blood ritual, feeding the curse from his own veins. The curse induces dark dreams, the troubled girl’s hands turn into bloody spikes each night, and the game – the fun part – begins.
Enemies are kicked into the revolving saws, or impaled on the copious amount of spikes that dot the landscape. Everywhere is blood, oozing from your mandibles, always gushing from your enemies, and even your own petite frame as she folds gracefully into a death animation after a poorly timed jump, suspended by a pit of razor sharp teeth.
The one button combat stresses style and skill over mindless hacking, reminding me of a two dimensional Bulletstorm; it is good to kick enemies into sharp things. The sadistic style, the bloodbath and the feeling of accomplishment the difficult platformer imparts makes the carnage impossible to shut out. More so, impossible to not enjoy. If Mario had two sharpened stumps for arms, and bled across mushroom kingdom and wracked up skill points like Bulletstorm, you might know what I’m talking about.
Beating the level wakes you from the nightmare, but our unwilling indulgence in the macabre dream has left her waking hands scaled and horned. Her shadow self is taking over her physical self, and she doesn’t approve. She knows she’s no monster. The monstrous heroine does her best to bury, burn or drown the book, the source of her transformation. Yet every night it finds its way back, and I see her smile at the transformation of her hands from fingers to bloody cleavers, even as I smile.
Each morning she wakes up, her hands bloodier, sharper, even as the player becomes more deadly, and more skilled in kicking dudes into spikes, kicking dudes into the air and hacking them to pieces. The more powerful I become, the more fun I am having and the more bloody pixels come oozing from her mandibles. I couldn’t look away, and I didn’t want to.
UFC champion George St. Pierre beats people until they bleed or fall unconscious. They do it for money, because people will pay, and cheer, if only for a sight of blood.
“Oh my god,” St. Pierre yells as a man goes through a meat grinder.
The mixed martial artist was called upon to help design Sleeping Dogs‘ hand-to-hand combat. When he played the game developers said, “It was like the dark side of George wanted to bust loose…He wanted to get his hands on the game, he almost wanted to take the controls from Mike and play himself.”
St. Pierre said of himself, “When I play video games I like to be a villain. In life I am a good person but when I play I am like the most evil person I can be.”
“Ohhhh” St. Pierre and the developers yell in unison as an enemy NPC is brutally bludgeoned, a fake blood cloud exploding from his head.
I don’t know how my heroine ended up, whether she is forever tormented by her evil headmaster, forced to awaken her shadow self each night, or whether she escaped, defeating her own nightmares and lives in healthy fear of her capacity for evil.
I don’t know because the game is too damn hard. I admit defeat after 20 minutes of frustration and close the application.
I like They Bleed Pixels. The game is like watching a schoolyard fight or rubbernecking at an accident. I experience the little girl’s nightmares second hand, I indulge my shadow self in the gore, I am the most evil person I could be. But am also forced to indulge in her torment and transformation. The impulse for blood in tempered by the cost she had to pay. She is repulsed by her hands, still bloody in the morning.
I look at my own hands and feel relieved. They’re clean. I could never be a monster.