I'm not a particularly voracious reader of fiction. Most of my reading is in the form of books and magazines about science or history. But I do try to squeeze in a novel here and there -- usually something from the canon of classics. I never write about them on this blog because I doubt I have anything of value to say about them. Besides, being predominantly a video game writer means that I lack the vocabulary for expressing critical opinions of non-interactive media. I struggle to get by with the reviews of movies and TV shows that I write.

However, I read a rather unique novel over the summer that I do feel I can discuss. In large part, my willingness to talk about this particular novel comes from the fact that this particular novel actually has an interactive element to it that makes some of my video game criticism lingua more applicable. The novel in question is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, published by Pantheon Books in 2000.

I was introduced to this book by a YouTube video from Noah Caldwell-Gervais about the 2019 Blair Witch game on the XBox. Towards the end of the video, he talks about the conclusion of the Blair Witch game, which involves surreal, looping hallways. He goes on to talk about the recent fad of looping hallways, which has been seen in games ranging from Blair Witch to Layers of Fear to P.T.. He then talks about a novel which may have served as an inspiration for these games, and which attempts to simulate the feeling of being lost in a corridor (and the ensuing madness that it brings on) through the structure and organization of the text itself. This piqued my interest, and I promptly hopped onto Amazon and ordered a copy of the book. I was going to have a lot of downtime during the stay-at-home lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, and needed something to help kill the time.

I was inspired to read House of Leaves after watching Noah Caldwell-Gervais' critique of Blair Witch.

Indeed, I ended up enjoying House of Leaves, which has become a sort of paradigm shift for me in terms of how the written word can engage the reader. For me, House of Leaves is a watershed work of literature, in much the same way that Demon's Souls was a watershed video game. House of Leaves is my first encounter with true "ergodic text" (unless you want to count the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I read as a child) and has redefined (for me) how a textual work (such as a book) can go about engaging its audience, and how it can tell a story in a more interactive manner than other peers in the respective media.

It's impossible to discuss this book and its merits without going into spoiler territory. As such, there will be some minor or moderate spoilers in this review. I'll try to keep them as light as possible, but consider yourself warned.

Lost in the pages

House of Leaves employs several framing devices to tell multiple narratives simultaneously. At the center is a documentary movie, called The Navidson Record about a family (named the Navidsons) exploring a supernatural house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and which regularly changes its interior size and geometry in increasingly impossible ways. This movie is being reviewed and researched by a third party named Zampanò, who is writing a book about the documentary in the hopes of determining if the documentary depicts a real supernatural phenomena, or if it is the work of Hollywood trickery. Zampanò dies while working on this book, and his research is recovered by a third party named Johnny Truant, who attempts to piece together Zampanò's research and finish his work. Both Zampanò and Johnny become increasingly obsessed with The Navidson Record, and eventually go mad.

To further obfuscate the work, the introduction establishes that the original version of the work was a series of scattered pages, photographs, video clips, and audio recordings that were passed around on paper, VHS, and cassette tapes before being posted piecemeal to internet message boards in the mid-to-late 90's. The scattered documents were eventually collected by a book publisher and edited together into a single published work, which is implied to be the novel that you are holding in your hand.

Danielewski employs multiple framing devices to tell between 2 and 4 concurrent narratives.

Zampanò transcribed the events of the film into text, along with his own interpretations and commentary. Then Johnny reviewed Zampanò's notes, and added his own interpretations and commentary on top Zampanò's commentaries, while also maintaining a journal of his daily life (and decline in sanity).

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Blair Witch - title

In my review of Blair Witch yesterday, I mentioned that "there's a genuinely clever video game construct that re-contextualizes much of the game and has an interesting point, but which gets buried under all this convoluted plot spaghetti.". It was hard for me to explain that without going into very explicit and severe spoilers. I could have just put it all in a collapsible "spoiler" section, but I decided to split it out into a separate blog post so that I could publish the review more promptly, keep it more concise, and also give myself more time and space to explain my thoughts on this game's ending(s).

This post will be explicitly about the overall story of Blair Witch and the final couple hours of gameplay. It will be nothing but major spoilers ahead! So consider yourself warned if you haven't played the game yet.

Major spoilers follow for Blair Witch game.

Proceed to Spoilers

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Blair Witch - title

Blair Witch, as an intellectual property, is in a frustrating place similar to the Alien franchise. Both were innovative horror films that set numerous standards and conventions within their sub-genres, and which have been copied and ripped-off numerous times. Sci-fi games from Starcraft, to Metroid, to System Shock, to Dead Space have all taken heavy inspiration from Alien and Aliens. So much of the iconography of Alien and Aliens have been borrowed by these games, that when someone comes along with a game based on the Alien intellectual property, it's hard for that game to not feel like it's derivative of one (or all) of the myriad Alien impersonators.

the Blair Witch Project has similarly left a mark on the horror landscape. It single-handedly popularized the "found-footage" genre against the backdrop of a creepy, supernatural forest. Games such as Outlast, Alan Wake, and even Resident Evil VII all have a little bit of Blair Witch in their DNA. So when a game comes out that actually bears the "Blair Witch" name, it's kind of hard for it to stand out in the larger horror landscape.

Plenty of games (such as Outlast [LEFT]) have used tropes inspired by The Blair Witch Project.

This is the case with Lionsgate and Bloober Team's new Blair Witch game, exclusive to Microsoft platforms. Nothing that Blair Witch does feels particularly new or creative, even though most of the game's ideas are competently executed. Using a camcorder as a tool for navigation, exposition-delivery, and puzzle-solving feels pulled straight from Outlast or Resident Evil VII. Wandering through the woods and defeating monsters by pointing a flashlight at them gives me flashbacks to Alan Wake. Navigating the forest and occasionally picking up other people's trash also reminded me of Firewatch. Eventually, the whole game descends (rather predictably) into P.T. territory -- but, you know, without all the nuance or careful pacing that made P.T. so unnerving.

Who's a good doggy?

Blair Witch's most innovative feature is probably the dog companion (named Bullet), but even that feels pulled straight from Fallout 4. I probably would have been a bit more impressed if not for the fact that Bullet seemed to lose relevance as anything other than a monster compass, for a large chunk of the middle of the game. Without having healing items or ammunition or any other consumable supplies, the ability to send the dog out to find things feels like a sorely under-utilized mechanic.

Bullet is very well-introduced, and is integral to the early levels of the game. He finds clues for you, fetches key items, guides you to the next objective, and warns you of potential danger, all completely organically and without breaking immersion. But after a couple of hours, he just runs out of things to find and things to do. The puzzle shift away from using the dog, and more towards using the camera to do everything from manipulate the environment, to navigate mazes and looping paths, and even spotting monsters.

Your emotional support dog, Bullet, serves an integral role throughout the game.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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