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A Wild Sheep Chase

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...And So I Watch You From Afar


For all its low budget faults, and lack of ambition, there’s a mesmeric quality to Grasshopper Manufacture’s Michigan: Report From Hell. Your role is strictly supportive, as the only true requirement is to keep filming for a news network’s audience; complete with a simmering subtext concerning the current state of journalism, and the selfishness of our passive nature.

Fascinating as it sounds, Michigan is not the first (the similar, live action, the FEAR preceded it), or even the last, videogame to deal directly with our love of voyeurism. Yet, in an industry that increasingly assimilates the cinematic gaze with an interactive medium, rarely is the act dissected beyond a brief epiphany.

Voyeurism has been, ironically, pushed to the fringes of videogames.

Arguably, the obvious spotlight of voyeurism was at its strongest during the FMV era. Those titles were mostly a technological excuse to put film on to CD, and even though, it was deemed an evolutionary dead end, those years bore some broken delights, e.g. Night Trap, Double Switch, Psychic Detective, The X Files, and Voyeur.

The latter is an intriguing case of turning the passive gaze into an interactive investment, at its purest form. You play a private investigator, hired to dig the dirt on a presidential candidate’s associates, which quickly escalates into a potential Rear Window scenario.

All with the acting finesse of a Shannon Tweed erotic thriller.

The idea was that you watched a movie, with simultaneous scenes, and had to decide which ones were important for the narrative whole. In an effort to engage the player, the metaphorical carrot on a stick was introduced in the form of soft-core nudity and the need to zoom in on documents.

Night Trap wouldn’t have been remembered the way it was without the Scooby Doo events and multiple paths. As a by-product, Night Trap’s campiness did more harm than good to the serious discussion of voyeurism. It had an interesting concept, stalking the villains that, in turn, stalked their victims, but everybody talks about “that shower scene”, instead.

The X Files went further, thus proving that FMV was utilised in the wrong way, by handing full investigative reins over to the player. The first act involved Agent Wilmore staking out a warehouse, and accumulating footage for analysis. He even had to wait for lab results. Yet, for every glacial procedural, there was a tense situation; searching a truck cabin, before the owner came back.

It’s this rare balancing act, of watching in the shadows and taking chances in the open, which interests developers. It’s a formula that works well for players, too.

Tom Clancy titles, like Rainbow Six, always have a mission where one character is sent into a heavily guarded mansion, to place bugs and cameras on key objectives, without being seen. The problem with that is you never really see the fruits of your labour, unless, you’re stacking up outside a door, and marking targets for a tactical breach.

Information gathering doesn’t need to be relegated to intensive combat, though. Personally, a co-operative videogame based on wire-tapping would be an amazing prospect.

You can almost visualise the multiplayer aspect of character classes, working together to set up the perfect sting, gather information, and finally, burst into an explosive situation. A perfect formation of tense and release dynamics waiting to be experimented on.

Forget the idea of searching for the Citizen Kane of videogames, try The Wire, The Anderson Tapes, or The Lives of Others, instead.

The forthcoming Spy Party is a deadly game of Guess Who?, but from an indie developer. The fact it’s not another financially safe retro-platformer suggests people do want to explore the idea of surveillance in unexpected ways.

It’s reminiscent of Gregory Horror Show’s selling point of working out everyone’s routine, by following their daily schedule, preferably without being seen. Throw a spanner in the works with a curious staff member giving away your position, or a disgruntled guest out for your blood, and the whole process of spying becomes an intelligent slow burner; one that was published by Capcom, of all companies.

Certainly, there’s a reluctance to come up with such dedication for minimum gain, and yet, we experience voyeurism in many genres.

Players have watched others through a sniper scope, or a drone, on a mini-LCD screen, attached to a snake camera. They’ve also seen ghosts through magic cameras, spied on people’s routines (solely for FBI purposes, Zach), watched someone else’s survival through security cameras, and surveyed portals to other worlds.

In essence, we’ve observed the actions of others, human or AI, and shaped their fates with the press of a button; usually without them ever knowing.

Though, the act is one of patience, it doesn’t mean that the entire lead-up has to be time consuming, too. There just has to be enough enticement in any given situation, one that can be cut up and returned to on a regular basis; as was the case with Silent Hill 4: The Room and Forbidden Siren.

When voyeurism doesn’t work, it’s when the title is ambitious, and the element is diluted in a competition of ideas. As discussed, the times when we become aware of our “stop and stare” instinct, the games are intensive. They’re set in small locations or situations that aren’t always in the distance.

For all the manic release in a bank robbery during The Heist or Kane & Lynch: Fragile Alliance, there's the feeling that a more methodical approach awaits in the shadows.

Then again, maybe because of the fluidity of voyeurism, an act that permeates every videogame, it really is better off outside our mind’s eye, rather become a gimmick in the spotlight. We’ll never know, unless, people are willing to examine it in such naturally sinister detail.

Oh, FYI, if there’s ever a Sneakers multiplayer game, dibs on being Sydney Poitier.
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About Stephen Turnerone of us since 6:10 AM on 07.15.2009

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