Promise me this, Flesh
Flesh is a 2009 Half-Life 2 mod developed by “Flesh HL2 development group” and published through Moddb.
Here are Flesh’s inspirations in order of increasing infringement:
1. Silent Hill
2. Metal Gear Solid
3. Resident Evil
1. Every non-combat game with enemies bent on combating you for entering their personal spaces.
I have the vague idea that my avatar is supposed to be a middle-aged man in a dirty suit, but he’s a bit off. I can’t find any desire to control any of his inhuman, uncanny limbs. But! But he has a car and that’s a mighty good thing, because at least he’ll look normal some of the time tucked away at the wheel. This is my only connection to him.
He can’t fight, but he’s not especially scared of the world around him. The best, the very best he can do is hide. This is all he can do actually; this is all you can do too.
Introduction: This nameless hero stops at a gas station bathroom and stares into a mirror. Nameless hero wishes he had the physical aptitude to move those disjointed fingers of his. He wishes he could move them across his face and sigh and pull out a letter addressed to James. He really wishes he could solemnly read it as the camera moves back and pans away. Instead, he stands there and stands and stands staring. Then you realize it’s time to play the game. Maybe that’s the first puzzle. Or maybe installing the game was the first one. This was the second then. There are puzzles.
Frosty pavement cracks and icicles droop outside in the night where your shit-brown Ford collapses under the weight of an invisible wall. The world around here is awkwardly dark. “In dark trees,” like that. Sometimes the lights fade away too fast and the color palette hurts the back of my eyes and the pressure builds and I have to look away. Piles of dead, stretched skin don’t help and I take breaks because of them too. But nameless hero just stares.
He waits for enemies to move and waits and stares behind strangely lit shacks and frozen trees. His numb stare makes me numb to the entire experience. Tell me what to feel, damn it! You chose to put a face on the person I’m playing, so show me a grimace or some bags under his eyes. And if that’s too much effort, why is there a third-person perspective in the first place?
Short answer: why not? Seems like that’s the overarching theme anyway.
Things I learned from Flesh:
1. Raising the dead is totally possible.
2. Paper is both less convenient and, impractically, weighs more than everything else.
3. There’s no better way to explain real conflict than to simply stamp “MAGIC, DO NOT TOUCH” on everything that’s even just slightly unrelatable.
Like in some blistering Silent Hill fantagasm, the dead are eroticized and some old man in a mansion just wants to fuck his dead wife. Being the bad guy that the old man is and all, your hero really would like to murder him, but (and here’s the catch) you can’t murder him with violence. Uphold chivalrous moral ambiguity instead. Do it and the game lasts a bit longer than five minutes. Don’t, and that means the game is off and you’ve gone to do more important things.
Play it for that five minutes, though, and something becomes very apparent. Something is missing. Really, it doesn’t matter that one of the main characters only speaks when the wind whooshes and some high-frequency ringing from god-knows-where makes my ears bleed. It doesn’t matter that characters are tossed side to side, dumped on the world to fill it with substance and stuff. What matters is that Flesh is filled with shit that I just can’t understand. And that’s very much so intentional.
I can easily forgive the aleatory mess that video game mods tend to be, but I can’t forgive the persistence to alienate me with some supernatural vision of human pain. Just tell me how bad it hurts and I’ll get some help. I have empathy and bandaids and the agency to put them together. It’s not even Flesh’s singular fault; it’s trite and stupid, sure, but that means it’s everywhere, and in all mediums.
Pure navy blue is the color of the very first room. Nothing like that exists anywhere in the world for any practical reason. It hurts, is why. If there’s a point to the absurd color use all over everywhere, then maybe this is it: that we’re so far below the recommended dose of reality, even the lights are complaining and warping to whims. Maybe this is where your hero drops acid like in some sketchy venue bathroom. Maybe Flesh is about drug abuse.
Or maybe it’s not. Probably not.
Flesh, I get the impression that you’re trying to ask me something profound. I don’t know what it is that you’re asking so I’ll ask you a bunch of questions instead. Flesh, In your world, what does it mean to be human? Are outsiders incapable of understanding through violence? Is that the idea? Instead, should we find runes and glyphs and busts and place them in order on shelves to unlock hidden passages lit by grieving sconces? Is the key to understanding others hidden by layers of puzzles? Is there really a formula for that? Can I approach any random stranger and will re-arranging their key-ring keys show me that inner light?
Flesh, why make me walk through your world if the only thing you have to offer me is the experience of being thrilled by your story? I already know. It’s not the masturbatory routine that you’re getting at. I already know the beauty left to chance thing and how well you employ that – yea, irony – and I know that that doesn’t matter to you.
You kind of just exist there in your own league, neither high nor low, sometimes lauded, sometimes hated. But you don’t know why. And everything you do, you do because… why not? Why not write a ballad and walk the player through it? Why not? Why not color this room purple and that one green? Why not display racks of human flesh as seen fit by a tailor? Why not…?
It’s that lack of purpose and what it creates that makes me want to love this game, but there’s a limit to how much crudely-drawn everything I’m willing to plow through. It all stains the experience with some tainted cast of resin resembling some mainstream games that I adore. And before you tell me that I’m being unreasonable… why shouldn’t I compare Flesh to its inspirations? Flesh, after all, tries hard to be like those games – Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil – instead of staking out its own jungle to prune. To me, Flesh will always be straddling that line between overly-ambitious homage and unintentional mastery of fanfic and that’s about it.
Promise me this, Flesh: that you’ll stand by that ambivalence for a long, long time. And promise me that you won’t shudder when the realization of this comes back, after you’ve grown accustomed to everything you are and the strange steps you took to achieve whatever it is that you are. Flesh, you’re unique in one way: you just don’t give a shit.
So maybe you’re really asking me if I’d mind taking a look at what you vomited up.
And my answer: not really. What’d you eat?