The Cognitive Dissonance of Classical Music with ‘The Grotesque’ in Video Games

This is a guest post from Vivaswath Rao.
Viva is a postgraduate student at Royal Holloway, University of London. He recently hosted and chaired William Gibbons’s guest talk at Royal Holloway, which was part of the inspiration for this essay. Here, he investigates how classical music interacts with the idea of ‘The Grotesque’ in games.

Content warning: violent images.

Introduction

The Save Room in the horror video game Evil Within, is a place of contradictions. A washroom within a mental asylum, the safe haven of the game, the room is crawling with cockroaches and pullulating flies. In the midst of the grungy and decrepit enclosure, a large grandiose mirror gleams out with extravagant beams of white light, leaving the protagonist Sebastian silhouetted. What stands out about this mirror is that its prophetic light is accompanied by a looped version of Debussy’s Clair De lune. The situation brings up an interesting prospect, one that extends far out into the real world. Video games have long attempted to push boundaries towards increased player engagement, along with greater intellectual and emotional reward. As illustrated by Michele Dickey, a careful blend of physical, environmental, temporal, ethical and emotional dimensions enable “…a sense of suspended disbelief and provides players with a sense of immersive engagement in the gameplay environment”.[1]


One of the ways by which games have done so is to utilize real world subjects and objects to create intertextual systems. The above scene is one such example. In a world torn apart by bloody conflict, supernatural forces, and exaggerated violence, Classical music is an uncanny misfit. It stands at odds with its surrounding predilection for death, symbolizing on the contrary serenity, virtue and peace. It is this fascinating co-existence of the ‘grotesque’ with ‘Classical music’ in video games that I seek to understand further. Given that terms such as ‘grotesque’, ‘classical music’ and ‘video games’ rest on a shared cultural definition, it is worth investigating what its reactionary cognitive dissonance might suggest about us, or our relationship with the game on a psychological level.


The term ‘grotesque’ has for very long elucidated various explanations and definitions. An idea emergent from European Renaissance interest in antiquity, the term has itself drifted along etymological tides from era to era.[2]

Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis (1915) begins with the main character, Gregor Samsa, waking up to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect. The book is at once surreal in its premise, yet set in an otherwise apparently realistic world. Kafka’s creation is often judged as a benchmark of the modern ‘grotesque’. Describing Samsa’s transformation as ‘grotesque’ reveals not only what the term approximates but also where it is ambiguous. This story that takes place in a strange world that for the most part, appears natural, Kafka’s subject of mutation displays tensions that mingle together horror with humor. While the protagonist insect represents an amalgam of unsaid fears, nightmares and biological deviations, it remains unclear (perhaps intentionally) as to what definitively marks out the grotesque. While some argue that the grotesque lies in the construction of the symbol itself, i.e. ‘the grotesque’ (giant insect), others argue that the identification of ‘grotesque-ness’ depends on its affective response. Following Kafka’s odd and unsettling combination of fantastic and realistic elements, we might consider grotesque to be partly a result of our psychological reactions to juxtaposed, ‘dissonant’ elements.

Cognitive Dissonance in Video Games

A new field of empirical psychological research (VGTx) has begun to explore the potential of commercial video games as therapy,[3] resulting in a growing body of literature that studies relationships between gamers and how they view the game themselves. Anthony M. Bean’s book Working with Video Gamers and Games in Therapy looks into this area of study with the primary theoretical framework being that of a Humanistic and Jungian/Archetypal paradigm.[4]

In this tradition, we can consider video games as a medium of a controlled confrontation of the unknown, which involves frequent instantiations of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is defined as a psychological state where an individual’s cognitions—beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are at odds. This is immediately followed by a motivation to resolve inconsistencies between disparate cognitions. Marc Prensky explains, “Electronic games require active engagement in environments, which supports discovery, observation, trial and error, and problem solving.” While video games have constantly strived towards greater artistic realism and narrative nuance, the importance of ‘accomplishing the challenge’ and ‘undertaking the task’ make for its psychological currency and a medium of positive reinforcement.[5] Research reveals that part of the appeal of video games may be attributed to its relatively risk-free goal-oriented tasks.[6] Thus games might offer grounds for studies on affective responses, not only in psycho-therapeutic endeavors but also ludology and game designing experiments. Where video games align with the grotesque in this sense, is best summarized in Wolfgang Kayser’s view of the grotesque, “The grotesque is a game with the absurd, in the sense that the grotesque artist plays, half laughingly, half horrified, with the deep absurdities of existence. The grotesque is an attempt to control and exorcise the demonic elements in the world”.[7] As discussed by Rune Graulund, the grotesque in some way rests in opposition to sophistication. Sophistication lies in the intellectual validation of the ‘known’, symbolized by knowledge, order, control, balance, life. The Grotesque, however, is the demon from the ‘unknown’ that leaps through the cracks of existence, threatening to topple it, i.e. chaos, disorder, or even death.

Classical Music in Video Games

Classical music has long been frequently invoked as an agent of sophistication in video games. While most commonly Classical music and video games have occupied opposing ends on the cultural spectrum of high art and low art, the relationship between the two is by no means a simple one.[8] To evoke the term ‘Western Classical’, brings along with it the suggestion of a canonic body of works. Most often referred to as works by highly regarded European composers between the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. These works retain a status in popular culture as unquestioned artworks.[9] In this regard, collaborations between video games and classical music through the last few decades have revealed a multitude of consequences. A recent resurgence in the game Assassin’s Creed due to its representation of the historical Parisian cathedral Notre Dame in the aftermath of its destruction, gives an insight into one such collaboration between video games and a monument of the ‘classical’.

A news report on the story claimed, “With so much details poured into the game, it’s hard not to see the benefits of video games in how they can also preserve history, even in its own way”[10].

Below, I look at a few examples of popular single player video games where Classical music acts as a propeller of cognitive dissonance in order to intensify player experience of ‘the grotesque’. In all the examples below, Classical music is used as an agent of the civilized, the peaceful, and the victorious. As such, it serves to enhance and articulate the ‘grotesque’ when this emblem of civility is put in tension with other horrific or otherwise dissonant elements. Like Kafka’s juxtaposition and the self-other psychological confrontation that underpins games as therapy, Classical music is here used as a potent agent for forging a grotesque aesthetic experience by representing a symbolic anchor against which horror and irrationality can be contrasted.

Catherine

The involvement of Classical music in the game is best demonstrated by the above sound disk and artbook cover of the game score.

The game is set around protagonist Vincent Brooks, who is caught between an emotionally dormant long-term relationship with his girlfriend Katherine, and a second new relationship with young, attractive Catherine. He must confront in his dreams the demonic manifestations of his real-life insecurities and win over them in order to wake up alive the next day. As William Gibbons has described, remixes of famous Classical pieces are prominent features of the nightmare stages of the game.[11] A combination of normal life depicted through cut scenes, and nightmare in the form of gameplay, it is the latter in which complete manifestations of the grotesque are revealed. Classical music in the nightmare scenes are marked out through an action-film style of scoring. While the rest of the game features music in a piano based smooth jazz-style, the nightmare remixes feature strings and brass — rock-style arrangements. Irrespective of player knowledge of the repertoire, the element of the ‘Classical’ is made unavoidable through the repeated recurrence of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus and extensive use of orchestral instruments.

The game’s narrative teems with allusions to psychological theories in its observation of dreams being a mediation ground between conscious, subconscious and unconscious, and in Jungian terms, the dwelling ground for archetypes. Dreams become the playground where the Freudian id, ego and superego must resolve Vincent’s insecurities. The unconscious impulse, the id, is clearly manifested through demons, with Vincent playing the part of the ego, or the decision maker, while the superego, or the moral center remains un-manifested in material form. This void is filled by Classical Music. Remixed nonetheless, it represents that part of Vincent associated with reality, conscience, order, balance and victory. On completion of each challenge, Vincent opens the ‘door of faith’ to the sound of the Hallelujah Chorus. Each demonic form represents a twisted representation of the central subjects of the Vincent’s fears, sexuality, marriage and child bearing. While each of the three form essential symbols of life, joy and pleasure, in other words sources of positive emotions; in Vincent’s dreams they are manifested as enlarged disembodied forces of destruction, capable here, of taking a life. They emerge from within the darkness of the unknown below the surface of reality and wield not only an instinct but weapons to slay – sharp teeth and sharp knives. With contradicting ideas of the sophisticated and grotesque, battling it out, the player is left guard-less in the line of fire, reaping in return maximum psychological rewards.

The Evil Within

On few occasions in the game The Evil Within, the player witnesses chilling occasions when famous pieces of Classical Music not only meta-diegetically underscore the scene but add to what would have otherwise been intensely cognitively dissonant.

In Chapter 1, hanging upside down from the ceiling, the lead character Sebastian is about to be hacked to death by serial killer Sadist. Sadist is a large and muscular man with a metallic mask, bloody outfit and gory appearance. Sadist, much like Catherine, represents a human form of a demon except this time, the weapon is a chainsaw. While Sebastian hangs alongside rotting hacked bodies and putrid carcasses, a nearby gramophones resonates with an orchestra, the tune of Bach’s Air in G. Playing on the pun with the name Sebastian, the music itself has nothing more to do with the narrative than to intensify the already horrific and disgusting visuals into an articulation of artistic irony. The music in the scene symbolizes the death of civilization itself. The game takes place in Sebastian’s home town where all inhabitants have either perished, mutated or have turned into evil monsters.

In The Evil Within, we see another common theme across a multitude of video games, including GTA, Fallout, Bioshock Infinite and the Far Cry series. This is the old radio machine or gramophone that is the mouthpiece for Classical music. The two symbolize not only the ‘archaic’ but also something of the prophetic. Seen across both futurist and historical period games, the radio is something of an artificial conjunction of human machine and transcendental classical music, in other words it is the object of grotesque, often tattered in appearance and giving the sound a distorted and desolate quality.

Conclusion

The grotesque is a term that defies a clear definition. It bears a place in common usage that stretches across object and subject, noun and adjective, video game stimulant and human respondent. What may be observed throughout these cases is that even ‘the grotesque’, exists on a spectrum of ‘grotesqueness’. Outside the question of intention and authorship, lie strong reasons to suggest that any combination of Classical Music and video games is in itself something of a “grotesque” and places it on this spectrum of grotesqueness. Games like Catherine and The Evil Within exploit this triumvirate, to place themselves higher on the grotesque spectrum. As audiences for video games continue to grow, with more individuals voluntarily engaging with video games at deeper levels of emotional involvement; as the influence and usage of Classical music in/on video games continue to grow; cognitive dissonance becomes an increasingly important factor in putting each video game on the spectrum of grotesqueness and thus, putting Classical music itself on various spectrums of modern human experiences.

Notes

  1. Michele D. Dickey, ‘Engaging By Design: How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Design’, ETR&D, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2005, pp.  76
  2. Geoffrey Harpam, ‘The Grotesque’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp.461
  3. Matthias Jaeger, ‘Commercial Video Games As Therapy: A New Research Agenda to Unlock the Potential of a Global Pastime’, frontiers in Psychiatry 8:300 (2018)
  4. Anthony M. Bean, Working with Video Gamers and Games in Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2018), pp. 2
  5. Michele D. Dickey, ‘Engaging By Design: How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Design’, ETR&D, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2005, pp. 78
  6. Ibid, 70
  7. Philip Thomson, ‘The Grotesque’ (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1972), pp. 18
  8. William Gibbons, ‘Ultimate Replays: Video Games and Classical Music’, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 4
  9. Ibid. pp. 174
  10. ‘How Assassin’s creed could save Notre Dame’, Stuff, https://www.stuff.tv/my/features/how-assassins-creed-could-save-notre-dame
  11. William Gibbons, ‘Ultimate Replays: Video Games and Classical Music’, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2018), 101–113.

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