The Macabre & The Mundane: Lynchian Video Games

I’m a huge fan of the work of David Lynch. If you’re not familiar, he’s a filmmaker with a very distinctive style. It’s a style that’s very influential in a lot of media, and particularly important in film studies, so much so that media reminiscent of his style is called “Lynchian.” The term is difficult to describe, but this article offers a good definition: “[Lynchian] refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”

I’ve become a big fan of Undertale since being introduced to it through my group’s game share, and today a friend sent me this article about it because it mentioned Lynch. I was so excited! [spoilers, but the author tried their best to keep it vague]:

Certainly, a filmmaker like David Lynch is no stranger to using inchoate or obtuse symbolism to hint at a more complex metanarrative, and Undertale definitely contains its fair share of Lynchian horror—a distinct, often unsettling blend of the familiar and absurd. I’m thinking here of a specific late-game act only accessible after beating Undertale once, a haunted area full of worryingly vague monster amalgamations and veiled psychic disturbances. The kicker, of course, is when a companion shows up to shoo the foes away—these abominations are simply antsy from not being fed. This act is kick-started when some friendly bonding draws the player into a tense scenario, which is subsequently diffused at peak horror by—you guessed it—goofy witticisms. This delicate push-pull happens again and again in Fox’s work, but never feels canned or tiring. Just as a Lynch scene can pull together the disparate ends of fear and farce, often becoming nauseatingly dissociative along the way, a similar thread of unnerving direness moves silently below the surface of Undertale. It’s a game that draws you close to its secrets with an unassuming sheen of friendliness, piecing out the disturbing bits between bigger bites of humor so it’s easier to swallow.

I realize we’ve moved on from this reading by now, but I think this ties in really well with the piece about video games as avant-garde art. As Schrank said, “the avant-garde uses materials that resonate with the time. Because videogames are both caused by and result from change within technoculture, they are especially relevant to contemporary avant-garde practice.” In the case of this section of Undertale, the material resonates with the time in that it draws on the body horror intrinsic to a world in which it seems that our bodies are becoming obsolete to technological advancements. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s avant-garde—I think that kind of description will always be a matter of debate because the term is so slippery—but I would argue that at least a little bit of that is at play here.

Plenty of other games draw on Lynchian themes. Deadly Premonition and Alan Wake are considered by many to be almost a rip-off of his TV series Twin Peaks. Silent Hills PT (RIP to the game that could have been, the full game was cancelled) encapsulates Lynchian themes by introducing the mundaneness of the same hallway, repeating over and over again in the same way that we experience our homes over and over again, and injecting it with more horror each time you pass through the door again. Even games that we’ve been playing as a class take things from Lynch’s style! Jonathan Blow said that Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive was a big influence on Braid because of its dreamlike tone that his game emulates.

I would go as far as to say that it only makes sense that many games can be described as Lynchian. In games it’s very easy to include tropes that Lynch uses a lot, such as nonlinear storytelling, cryptic conversations that are often vague puzzles or foreshadowing, and heavy reliance on the uncanny valley. In fact, I would venture to say that games, more than other types of media, are able to use tropes such as these in their storytelling and gameplay in a way that is more emotionally compelling, easily followed, and engrossing than movies or TV, because the player puts themself in the position of a cast member.

Anyway, I realize this ventures far off from the course set in this class, but I wanted to write about this and didn’t have any other place to share it! I’d like to submit this as an example of how games go much deeper than the surface level, and how our understanding of them as cultural artifacts can be seriously improved by, well, taking them seriously.

P.S. ………watch Twin Peaks

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