The Angel Looking Backward—October 2021

Meditations on the forgotten or overlooked corners of media

House of God

A screenshot from House of God, depicting a train ascending above a planet.

House of God immediately draws easy comparisons to Hotline Miami (frenetic shooting, high energy electronic soundtrack) and the Binding of Issac (roguelike with a dizzying amount of randomized items, religious theming). I want to resist that, though I have indulged it briefly, because it reduces something that feels curious and powerful to nothing but signs and signifers. For one, House of God is delightfully terse. Your little pixel man makes his way through multitudes of train cars, as tough man bodyguards block your way. As you splatter their blood with shotguns and semi-automatic pistols, they drop the holy detritus of heaven’s own army. Crucifixes, halos, God’s explosive viscera. Outside, angels gather to further test your faith with holy missiles and ballistic heavenly messengers. This barrage of aesthetics and bullets gives the game a postmodern intensity. Meaning is lost; you killed it. When you finally reach God, he carries nothing but a corpse. His many hands do nothing but attack. The multitude of signs, symbols, and sacraments driven to the hard edge of a knife and the sharp ache of loss. Whatever chaos God represents, you overcome him with the same methods. Hands for killing, halos for power. All for the resurrection of dead flesh you may never watch rise. Ascend with your own might. Then fall, as all gods must.

Flesh, Blood, and Concrete

A young blonde girl in a school uniform puts together a snowman in front of a sea of apartment complexes. The frame displays "Sitting between dead apartment blocks and empty streets is a young girl methodically building a snowman with rowanberry eyes and a pinecone nose."

Architecture is part of a bleeding body. People and creatures have to live within walls, whether it was really built for them or not. Much of that essential space is decaying, tenants burned alive in “freak” accidents, garbage not picked up, mail undelivered. Even in sustained efforts to house people there is gentrification, landlords, rising rents. We all need a place to live, but those places are rarely kind to us.

Flesh, Blood, and Concrete immediately concerns itself with housing, particularly the abandoned infrastructure of the Soviet bloc. Lera is a drifter, intending to drive into a snowstorm and disappear, to die warm and alone. Instead, they encounter a massive apartment building just as their car stalls out. In an effort to find gasoline, they wander through a nearby apartment building encountering its inhabitant, a schoolgirl named Nika. Quickly, things get weird. Nika promises to take Lera to her family, but no other human beings appear, instead the walls shine and shiver like muscles or intestines and abandoned bodies writhe with life not their own. The walls shift, hallways disappear or fracture. There seems to be no way out but only deeper in. When Lera finally finds gas, they return to their car only it find it hollowed out and overgrown. 

Thus, the game proper is about trying to find a way out or perhaps figure out exactly what this mystical building is. However, there is no real mystery. All its secrets are open for you to find and none of them will unlock through cleverness. The game lets you pick up innumerable bits of detritus, the corpses of bugs, old coloring books, but none of it really does anything. Despite initial appearances, this is not an adventure game. This building is not something you can control or manipulate, you can only control your relationship to it. For though the game starts as a straightforward haunted house riff, it slides into a insistence on the beauty, and necessity, of death. Corpses grant life, this building lacks human inhabitants but is overgrown with flora and fauna. This is a haunted place yes, but haunted with the shine of death rather than its darkness. The only question is whether Lera will accept its gift or leave it behind. 

Lera stands in a grocery store looking at the nearly empty shelves. A mound of flesh rises up on the right side.

*spoilers follow*

With that choice in mind, the game’s twist is at once surprising and straightforward. This is an apartment complex that wants to eat you, but it also wants to make you happy. True, that might come at the cost of your body, at the cost of assimilation into a flesh beyond your own reckoning. Also being a part of that flesh means being in a community that cares for you, that recognizes you. Here, a useless drifter longing for a quiet suicide might find purpose. Here a collectivism that the outside has rejected can be found. In the real world, such dreams are mangled and dead, the walls are lined with torn propaganda. Lera longs for the utopian visions of early Soviet artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin. What the house offers is becoming a cog in a clock, the teeth of a gear, a piece of a greater whole. Nika is not a monster, she is not the jaws of the house hidden behind a pleasant face. She is instead a lonely little girl, happy with her family of organs and walls but longing for more human contact. She simply offers you a place in that family, within that love. 

In the face of such pleasures, such beauty, selfhood might seem like a awfully small thing to give up. Especially if systems of housing outside deny it, make us inhuman, numbers on a sheet. Here there is a home for those who will enter the flesh. Denying it means a loss that you will not be able to recoup in the world outside. 

So sit down, feel this red, bleeding warmth.

You’re home now.

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