The Blackout Club and the Perils of Being Seen

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  • The most effective media attune us to their wavelengths with such alacrity that we exit ourselves. Even if just for a moment, we manage to shed our own prisons of flesh and non-stop mental processes, and exist in an otherwise unattainable if not outright impossible to imagine state of being. At this point we are almost at our most vulnerable, because we’ve given up our reflexive instincts for self-preservation. Our flinches will be a half-second later or more, the difference between escape and ending this mortal ride as an alligator’s lunch. We could be targeted and our neck hairs will lie still, our peripheral vision blurred or black-barred into a personal sense of widescreen, a predator’s gaze upon us without a sliver of awareness.

    To settle into such a projection of being, to meld one’s essence with some other shard of the cosmos or consciousness even if for just a moment, can be incredibly freeing and instructive. But to do so, and be confronted with being seen, this is the thrill of horror. It skates the rail between total instinctual terror that serves self-preservation at any cost and an artificial stimulation of those same feelings and impulses so that we might taste the spark without a total descent into chaos. When we scream we are seen, we are caught by the media and made dead by that terrifying zap, but then we can laugh about it and maybe even file the feeling away.

    This is my general experience with scary stuff, and I don’t particularly like it. I’m OK with confronting the worst impulses of humanity and the world, but the uncertainty of the plot or characters’ fates heats my ears past comfort and spikes my muscles into a jittery tangle. My preference is to know how things end, and then settle in for the ride. My deep love for Alien: Isolation is a personally notable exception to this — the soft 80’s sci-fi glow and mostly unpredictable and invulnerable Geiger-ian nightmare balanced the immersion and the terror to the point of tricking me into thinking I had at least a little control in my own grisly murder. And that the alien never exactly slunk around the same way from run to run kept me on a catheter of adrenaline.

    But even when that xenomorph pumped its extra tiny mouth through my face, I shrieked and felt shame, but not exactly seen. I was caught, but this is because I revealed myself by failing to hide or flee successfully. A related but still separate feeling, the more fundamental disorientation of being fully observed by some sort of ethereal panopticon, is something The Blackout Club excels at. A multi-player stealth-based mission objective game, you’re tasked to join a group of runaway kids trying to solve a lot of mysteries: sleepwalking and brainwashed adults, other teens waking up and still feeling completely drained, missing friends, mysterious underground labyrinths and a menacing Shape that you can only see in shadow or through closed eyes.

    The story feels a little like gumbo, though I suppose like most multi-player objective games like this and Destiny and Warframe the thread of the narrative always gets clipped eventually. That’s fine, it’s enough to feel like you’re trapped in strangely secluded cookie-cutter cul-de-sac researching mysteries with your best buds and it works to feel regularly overwhelmed by the enormity of what you’re fighting against. Because one presumes that you’re meant to be fighting it for a long time to come.

    The Blackout Club shines through the Shape, and more specifically, through the mechanic of closing your eyes. As my colleagues in Unwinnable have already discussed in our fantastic podcast, there’s a dedicated button to close your eyes as a way to access another layer of information, while totally cutting yourself off from the rest of the game visually. It’s an interesting idea, and not just because it can show you some truly spooky shit — this is the only way you can track the Shape as it’s hunting you down, and you can also shut your eyes to find footprints or messages that might help you on your way. I’ve also found a moment or two when I’m just a little too spooped and feeling the need to breathe for a second, and cozying up in some corner underground or otherwise and just shutting all this chaos out from your field of vision even if just for a moment carries some truly meditative rewards. Odd that I would appreciate this more as a mechanic in the game rather than using my own eyes, but perhaps I’m just not ready to be seen that clearly yet.

    This isn’t the obvious reason one would shut their eyes in this game. And despite the mostly excellent job the tutorial does in training you in the various ways of getting in and around this neighborhood, using your eyes open and closed, it doesn’t exactly prepare you for everything. Not the least of which is the way developers Question have found to further expose you by (optionally) recording your voice at certain moments to feed back to you or your friends, when you might least expect it and with creepy effects to enhance the surreality of the experience. And beyond that, the game does a fascinating job of scanning through your PSN name and taunting you when your eyes are closed with it, whether it’s threatening to “clip” your pixie wings or calling you out by pseudonym.

    This is what I mean by being seen, in the most compelling ways. It’s not entirely groundbreaking, as we recall when Psycho Mantis roasted our tastes in Konami games by scanning the memory card back in the days of the first PlayStation. I’m glad to have had The Blackout Club approach me in this way, unprepared, and though I may spoil the mechanic for you a bit here it’s not like you’re unaware of the possibility. And what other methods of mental anguish might Question be hiding, or planning for future updates? There’s the Stalker for one, an optional element where a fifth player could join your game as a traitorous teen, which I haven’t really experienced yet but can feel a real Dead by Daylight vibe from already. And other enemy types, weapons and paranormal mysteries and antifascist action to undertake.

    There’s an awkward teen jankiness to the graphics and movement, nothing game-breaking, and in some ways sort of appealing as we are not meant to be super soldiers but kids taking the streets back for ourselves and those who don’t even know they’ve been used as such. Not quite seamless, but more than merely acceptable in execution as well. The maps are growing, maybe a bit bland, but it’s not totally necessary to see a variety of interior design styles while hunting for secret entrances, unlocked doors or windows, running from enemies equipped with varying degrees of sensory input. You’re constantly winding around, scrambling for cover, creeping up and down to awaken your fallen teammates who are scrounging around to rat you out, trying to avoid sinning as a shortcut to your goals lest you awaken the Shape. And just when you feel the most comfortable, flying along in presumed understanding of how this world and its systems work, you’ll close your eyes to an oddly specific and personal taunt. It’s then that you realize the perils and sweet tantalization of being seen.

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    Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. More shenanigans can be found at levirubeck.com.

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