The Shape on the Ground by somewhat is a very theatrical Rorschach test. The language in the two guides for the game (one for patients, one for practitioners), describes it as a kind of psychological evaluation test, but there is no clinic, nurses, doctor, or for that matter, people. The background bears a menacing red inkblot, or what looks to me like the snarling face of a demon reflected on the darkened damask wallpaper of an old therapist’s office.
The actual game offers up a much different environment. Instead of leather chairs and notepads, the player is dropped into a creepy cardboard diorama posing as the winding streets of a quaint old city district. The sky is dark and the moon is full, and the field of view is short and blurry. It’s not clear if this is the result of fog, the patient’s perspective, or just a general hazy pall as if the air in the place were suffused with a strong sedative.
The task before the patient/player is easy enough to carry out: walk through the city in search of 10 projective test questions, demarcated by 10 swirling pillars of glowing particles. Finding one of these pillars will invariably include the black, blank screen behind them suddenly coming alive with cardboard-theater animations. The imagery contained in these scenes—think a mix of Hieronymus Bosch and Terry Gilliam—is meant to conjure up specific ideas or sensations. These possibilities are captured by a multiple choice question, where the question is always the same but the choices are always wildly different.
The player may confront a scene where angels are falling from the sky. In the forefront, one of them weeps on the ground, and in the background a wide, spiral tower reaches up to the heavens, and everything is bathed in grey and verdigris. Or, the player may encounter a scene containing a wide open mouth with layers of moving teeth, gums, glottis, esophagus, all the way to a mass of entrails visible at the center. Everything is pink and red and white, fleshy and visceral, almost pulsing. These two examples encapsulate the two major aesthetic genres deployed by all of the scenes, sometimes simultaneously: a mixture of body horror and Gothic art. Fire, brimstone, martyrdom, salvation, blood, guts, bones, dirt, rot. Whatever the case, the question is this, “What do you see?”
An ornate text box then provides possible answers listed as A, B or C. All of them are one-word answers describing a feeling or concept—desire, change, destruction, devotion, a lie, the truth, a fall, a rise, and so on. Completing these questions will open up access to a mausoleum found in a small cemetery. Enter through the doors, into a narrow hall draped with red velvet curtains. Walk through the arched pathway, past the candles precariously placed on the tile floor—here the flavours are more Twin Peaks mixed with Suspiria—and you will enter a church that’s totally ablaze. Past that is a small room with damask wallpaper, and a leather armchair which is also on fire. Here, the ornate text box reads you the results of your exam. It’s not clinical, however. Instead, it’s an enigmatic and brief sentence, more in the manner of a fortune-teller than a psychiatrist. I would like to say that this denouement inspired existential dread, the words haunting me for the rest of my days, but instead it felt more like a spooky fortune cookie.
That’s not necessarily damning, though. The results weren’t really scary, but sometimes they did inspire contemplation. The really haunting stuff is to be found in the striking imagery, and the twisting alleys and side streets of the town. The game begins by dropping the player in the city square, right in front of a tall, white obelisk. There’s a plaque with a Latin inscription on the base, but I’m not sure what it says. From here, the player can choose to start walking in any cardinal direction in search of questions. Some will come at the end of a long zigzag through a makeshift tunnel lit by burning trash cans. Others will be found behind rows of identical housing. All is sleepy, lifeless. There are occasional moments of genuine tension. Shadows seem to haunt secret corners, things in the distance are hard to make out. Posters resembling World War 2-era American propaganda posters offer advice and warning.
All of these posters are deeply pessimistic, alternating between maudlin and sarcastic. An image depicting a nuclear family bears the word “Regret?” while the player passes by a fence. They all add to an overall mood of doubt and despair. There’s a strange premeditation to these things, as well as other things to be found in the world. A trail of blood splatter leads to one of the demarcated zones, but there is no body. You notice that the animations that appear on the screens look as though they were made with painted cardboard. You notice signs of cardboard in other places, like the corrugation visible on the edges of door frames. This whole place is a set. Is it even real, or is it a drug-induced vision? Could it be hypnosis?
There’s a question as to where, exactly, the game takes place. It’s a far cry from anything recognizable as a clinic, but present is the authority, fear and confusion that might be present in an abusive clinical environment. A simplistic reading might conclude that the game is calling psychiatry the devil. But something I think the The Shape on the Ground does is recall the sordid history of the practice, as well as the legacy of the Catholic Church when it comes to mental health services. A more personal reading is also possible—imagery like the burning chair or the open mouth may be reflections of a particular frame of mind that the game, I think, is trying to elicit, but will only take on specific meaning depending on what the player brings to the table.
The Shape on the Ground is likely to be less frightening than its promotional material promises, but it is ominous and enchanting, with moments of genuine dread. It blends aesthetics in an intriguing way and pulls on multiple historical and thematic threads through its imagery and through its gameplay. The process of deciding which feeling or idea each animation conjures can be an interesting exercise in examining one’s reactions. If you’re the right patient, maybe it’ll conjure real ghosts.