Near the end of of the 1991 horror film “Silence of the Lambs”, there’s a segment where the protagonist, Clarice, is cornered in a pitch black room with the main antagonist. The entire film has been leading up to this confrontation, so tension is high for both the characters and the viewer. However, director Jonathan Demme kicks up the intensity about twelves notches further by deciding to switch to a point of view shot.
POV or “first-person” shots, when used correctly, offer an unparalleled sense of ‘becoming’ the character whose body and eyes we take on. Obviously, a viewer is unlikely to actually forget that they’re watching the movie, not living it, but the effect can still be pretty profound. Personally, I find that the effect is strongest when viewing scenes in a dark theater, where the screen is so massive that it effectively replaces my own field of vision with the one on screen.
Anyway, Silence of the Lambs has one of the most brilliant and discomforting POV scenes I can think of, largely because of whose perspective we are forced to adopt: the villain’s.
Yep. For about two minutes, we peer through the night-vision goggles of Buffalo Bill as he slowly and silently stalks Clarice around the building. It’s downright disturbing for a number of reasons. For one thing, by this point in the movie, we know just how deeply demented Buffalo Bill is. He’s the last person whose perspective we want to take on, especially when our strong and resilient heroine is stumbling around helplessly in the dark. Things only get creepier when Bill raises a sinister hand toward Clarice, who is a mere inches away yet still painfully unaware of his presence. The addition of Bill’s body to the frame only further reinforces the viewer’s own helplessness and lack of control – both over the outcome of the film’s plot, and over whose eyes (and body) we get to see it from.
By the end of my playthrough/reading of “The Baron” in class on Tuesday, I was feeling a similar, if not even further heightened sense of powerlessness. After I killed the Baron/myself (spoilers) and was teleported back home, I went to talk to Maartje in her room. Naturally, I chose the dialogue options that I sensed would put an end to this awful cycle: the lines that confessed the father’s guilt, confirmed the need to seek outside help, and acknowledge the likely irreparable damage to their relationship. I fought tooth and nail to “be” the good guy until rather abruptly, “The Baron” deprived me of that very ability.
I can’t remember the lines exactly, but I got to a point where I had only two dialogue options, and both suggested a continuation of the father’s evil behaviors. I believe one option was to say “this will be the last time” (which I read as meaning “this time that’s about to happen will be the last” not “that last time was the last”). The other was something to the effect of “forgive me, it’s just something in me that I can’t control.”
At that point, I couldn’t go any further. I simply refused to select either option, and closed out of the game. The initial realization that I had been playing as the father the whole time was disturbing enough on its own, but I’d kept reading with the hope that I could correct the situation. When it seemed like that wasn’t a possibilty, at least on my playthrough, I couldn’t bear to effect the ending I knew lay just around the corner.
As seen in both of these examples, film and interactive fiction posess the ability to induce intense discomfort in the viewer/reader by forcing him/her to assume the role of a despicable character for at least some time. Each medium, I think, benefits from its own unique features that amplify this effect. Films, as largely visual, image-based texts, can flood the viewer’s vision with a highly realistic simulation of a foreign perspective.
Still, watching a film is by and large a passive experience. Interactive fiction, on the other hand, is – well, interactive. Just the simple action of typing out “Yes” or “Attack wolf cub” is enough to grant the reader a very real sense of responsibility for the effects of these decisions. Soon enough, of course, we’ll get the ‘best’ of both worlds, where you can put on an Oculus Rift and use some motion control wizardry to chase Clarice around in the dark. You guys have fun with that – I think I’ll pass.