*This post contains spoilers. Anatomy is only 3 dollars and takes about 45 minutes. I recommend giving it a shot.*
Even in spaces that are intimate and familiar to us, there are secrets. As we sleep, our houses exist without our awareness. As darkness swallows us, we cannot know what lies within it. It is a familiar terror, present for anyone who has seen a spider in their kitchen disappear, heard a sudden sound they could not identify, or wondered what a lingering shadow was. That familiarity does not make it less terrifying.
Anatomy confronts the player with this fear, forcing them to walk deeper and deeper into a bare and unfamiliar house. In the game’s extended metaphor, that house is a body, breathing and bleeding in ways we cannot see. As the game itself phrases it, the bedroom, our most private place, is a mouth. It is a place that might just close and and leave us in the dark. The game’s lighting is what communicates this unknown terror most visibly. Your figure emits light, but only a foot or two out from you. The windows of Anatomy’s house are black. There is no outside, only deeper in.
By the end, the game flips its terror. The house becomes more alien and strange through each of the game’s multiple endings. By the end, there is no invader in your home, except for you. The house, alive and awake at your presence, will consume you. The voice that once told you that your bedroom could be a mouth, now says that every room is. They are already biting down.
There probably was a time in my life when I felt comfortable in my body, but I don’t remember it. When I still identified as a cis man, I sometimes felt that my body might betray me. That I might just be the things that I hated in other men and that I could not know and could not control it. This is the terror of Anatomy, that the map of your body is drawn by another hand, a hand that can replace walls and move furniture without your knowledge, a hand that writes on your very skin in blood, that cannot be erased. Though this describes the way all bodies are written upon by gender norms, it rings particularly of dysphoria. Especially how trapping and suffocating the closet can feel.
In a way, Anatomy unveils the horror at the basis of most video games. Games that require skill teach us and reward us for completely them a certain way. The marketing of games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins or Horizon Zero Dawn promise freedom, but offer rewards for a series of defined tasks, that are best completed in the way the game lays out. In this way, games condition your body to act a certain way. Anatomy sets out the same apparatus, only allowing you progress by exploring the house and collecting cassette tapes, but offers no reward. No matter how you play, the home’s body will devour your own.
Though Anatomy is bleak and uncaring, it did not have to be. This house of horrors reminds me of the Ramseys’ summer home in Virginia Woolf’s sublime novel, To the Lighthouse. The perspective of the house itself writes the second act of the novel, entitled Time Passes. The house is abandoned after the “normal” summer of the novel’s first act, as both war and disease claim many of the Ramseys’ members. The house stands in for the destructive passage of time. The forces outside of it, that will eventually claim its life, rage unable to be controlled: “summer and winter, the torment of storms, the arrow-like stillness of fine weather, held their court without interference.” The natural world enters the walls and destroys all the family’s plans. The careful, ordered space of the Ramsays left to death and decay.
In both these works, the houses become spaces outside of their inhabitants’ control. The difference is in result. To the Lighthouse’s protagonist, Lily Briscoe, goes through the process of transitioning, of reclaiming her body. Although she is oppressed and demeaned by the men in her life, she reconciles herself to both masculine and feminine selves. By the end of the novel, she “[has her] vision” and has, in part, an escape from the forces that claim her body. Significantly, none of the main characters are inside the house at the end of the novel. The remaining Ramsays and Lily stand outside and look at the titular lighthouse, a marker of a distant, better, world that calls them.
In contrast, Anatomy offers no escape. At the end of its last ending, the house demands that you never return. Yet the game’s final shot is slow forward movement towards a forlorn and distant manor. You might try to move away, but only in vain. There is no way but forward. This makes Anatomy’s tone completely bleak. Although the game’s tension ebbs and flows, it never looks away from its central terror. The game’s form resists this, however. Its brevity and clear divisions (the game auto-quits upon reaching each ending), let you take your time with it. The game intentionally gives you space to process its vision, and thus feels more cathartic than despairing.
I want more games that articulate some form of liberation from the way our bodies are proscribed. Games are particularly bad at this, because they so often function by teaching a body to conform to the patterns it lays before you. Anatomy distills down to the terrible essence of that teaching. In it, my body is not, and cannot be, my own. However, the game honestly and completely confronts that terror and affirms its truth. It does not patronize or tell me that it will all be for the best. Rather, it lets me sit with it just long enough that I taste it, but not long enough that I despair. It is artful honesty. Walking away from Anatomy, I felt euphoric rather than terrified. I felt seen. That is not the same thing as selfhood or hope, but sometimes it is just as powerful.