Notes on Cho-Am: The Myth of Closure

[TW: discussion of genocidal violence, exploitation]

My body is nearly featureless and glowing like a light bulb. I think I’m tall; I’m definitely bald. My expression is fixedly placid, a little dreamy. I’m not sure if I’m some kind of ghost, but it feels ephemeral. Nothing feels particularly solid or permanent. The camera is generally isometric, capturing the uncanny movements of my naked phantom corpus at a downward tilt. Sometimes, I’ll click on an area of terrain for my character to walk over to, and the camera angle will suddenly switch from the god’s eye to very low to the ground. The filter will abruptly switch to a grainy black-and-white, like old-time war footage, and then switch back to beautiful technicolor again once the walk animation comes to an end. Sometimes, as when I come across an old wooden shrine or seemingly for no reason at all, a picture-in-picture will appearagain, it’s slightly off, just a few millimeters above the bottom left-hand corner of the screenand it’s always facing outward. I’m face to face with my inscrutable avatar, its pleasant detachment, and the features on its perpetually overexposed body coming in and out of focus depending on the angle of its movements. It can seem like it’s looking at me or through me, never fully provocative and never fully comforting.

Its shadow stretches across an environment made up of 2-dimensional green or brown square tiles organized in what appears to be a series of steps, although walking along them evokes no sense of an incline. They are grass or they are dirt, perfectly misaligned to show a glimpse of the grey fake world on which they pretend at solidity, never so separate from one another that I may fall through them.

Choam Ksant is a district in Cambodia and home to, among other things, the cremation site of former totalitarian dictator Pol Pot. The site is, as developer Aaron Oldenburg describes it on the page for his game, Cho-Am, “a place of contradictory spiritual and political significance.” He notes that it’s generally treated as a good-luck shrine, attracting people who, for all sorts of personal reasons, look to the spirit of the autogenocidal dictator for blessings and assistance. It is, as Oldenburg describes it, “a way of dealing with the memory and presence of someone responsible for pain and destruction that is outside of the realm of forgiveness and punishment.”

I’ve never visited Cambodia, let alone Pol Pot’s cremation site, so I can’t say with any certainty if Oldenburg’s reimagining accurately represents it. It’s possible that Oldenburg was going for a sense of sublimity or quiet reflection in this game, a kind of cheap set of aesthetic tricks meant to capture the spiritual quality of the site. But I think there’s something a little bit more subtle going on. Cho-Am is very quiet, sonically made up mostly of rustling nature sounds punctuated by the odd chime of a bell or gentle plucking of guitar strings upon discovering some new site or item. The chilled out tone and ethereal texture of the game suggest a certain degree of pensiveness and maybe even transcendence.

But then what to say about all those strange camera cuts, or the changes in filter? What to say about the weightless, floating and yet jerkish movement of the glowing ghost protagonist, or the fact that clicking to move it across the map does not appear to result in any specific distance traveled? It could stop short and sit down suddenly, only to awkwardly pull itself back up as if boneless and made of rubber. It could move for a fairly long distance, only to come across a brick wall which, after stopping in front of it, will proceed to float right through. Or, it could walk across an apparently empty field when suddenly another cut is triggered, and I’m transported momentarily to a black void. In there, it’s just my ghostly apparition and some item I’ve stumbled upon. It’s not always clear what the messy illustration is supposed to represent, but it usually evokes something fairly mundane.  A microphone? A paper fan? A pair of glasses? It floats in the void and so do I, jerking and waving like a leaf, clipping through the thing. Maybe I’ve found god in the everyday, or the discarded junk of some former visitor.

I keep saying that I’m a ghost, although Oldenburg notes that the game is meant to follow the dreamscape excursion of a sleepwalker. It’s convincing: Cho-Am  is sleepy, half-conscious and hallucinatory. I’ve written about dreamscape games before, for that matter, which tend to come replete with leitmotifs, ambiguously symbolic objects and “meaningful” spaces. Dreamscapes in games are kind of Freudian in that way: the meaningful object usually implies some kind of tension or vague narrative catalyst that imbues the architecture of the game with emotional or thematic subtext.

Cho-Am has its ambiguous symbolism and airy sensibility, but what sets it apart from other dreamscape games is that, obviously, it presents us with a vision of a real and specific place. This is the place where the body of the leader of the Khmer Rouge was burned “unceremoniously in a pile of rubbish”. The Cambodian autogenocideso named because no specific group living under the Khmer Rouge’s regime was targetedresulted in the deaths of almost 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. Nominally, the Khmer Rouge was communist, but the unfortunate reality is that it expressed an exaggerated political agency in the forms of anti-democratic despotism and an ill-fated adherence to self-sufficiency and ideological purity (not to mention the inherent pressures of trying to maintain a relatively independent communist state against the tide of global capitalism). The result was mass death, in many cases as a result of famine, treatable disease and overwork, as well as torture and executions carried out by Pol Pot and other Khmer officials.

An article on the Holocaust Museum Houston website notes,

“People were divided into categories that reflected the trust that the Khmer Rouge had for them; the most trustworthy were called “old citizens.” The pro-West and city dwellers began as “new citizens” and could move up to “deportees,” then “candidates” and finally “full rights citizens”; however, most citizens never moved up. Those who refused re-education were killed in the fields surrounding the commune or at the infamous prison camp Tuol Sleng Centre, known as S-21. “

Choam (the spelling of the game’s title is stylized to indicate a pronunciation) is a real village, a place with a real history. Oldenburg’s game is, with all its formal messiness and ambiguities, attempting to reconcile actual, ongoing, collective historical trauma. So it doesn’t seem adequate to limit any discussion of this game to aesthetic or formal considerations alone, or to treat its thematic content as if it’s contained within a convenient fiction because it’s simply not. Cambodia is, to this day, a poor and class-stratified country where a growing resistance movement of mostly female garment workersnamely in the form of musical activist group Messenger Bandare fighting against exploitation and abuse carried out in textile factories where clothing is made for, in large part, Western consumption. It is a country which is subject to the less direct although no less forceful or brutal exigencies of global capitalism, whose government only opened up the cremation site to the public as a tourist attraction in 2010a move that prompted criticism from, among others, Youk Chhang, Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and a survivor of the autogenocide. The Independent even quoted Chhang in 2010 as having said,

“Using genocide to attract tourists is irresponsible. These [events] have to be preserved; they have to be documented. But if you allow this to be commercialised then you dehumanise and victimise us. For a long time we have been struggling to become something else.”

One can’t turn away from those tensions, and there is a certain enigmatic pull toward this kind of tragedy when we ourselves are not embroiled in it, because it seems so inconceivable. Then there’s the additional seductiveness of taking that pull and turning it into cold, hard cash. It’s why, as much as I admire how Oldenburg has constructed Cho-Am, I can’t feel totally comfortable with it as a work of art without also feeling somewhat complicit in the selling-off piecemeal of a tragedy born of the convergence of economic, geopolitical and ideological violence.

Oldenburg does not indulge in that violence in a direct way, but it’s just there under the surface. He submits that the game is open-ended, that one is meant to explore the virtual site in search of their own meaning. Cho-Am is firmly embedded in the design philosophies of environmental storytelling and the game as a “possibility space” in that way. The result is a bit disturbing. If I come upon a shrine, or the cremation site itself with its rust-patched aluminum hood and splintered wooden posts, nothing seems to move in the world itself except my dreaming avatar. I’m surrounded by the implication of death, and the swift changes in camera or filter or gesture or the strange focus on small, mundane objects all serve to disrupt any feeling of gentleness or calm. I’m not really allowed to forget, in subtle but jarring ways, what this place is a simulacrum of. And yet it is a simulacrum, a designed space with its aesthetic and formal affordances. So I can’t feel entirely comforted by having played Cho-Am either, or that my playing and finding any meaning in it reflects on my thoughtfulness or goodness as a person.

It’s my belief that unresolved historical trauma has a sort of collective transference property. That is to say, the original pain doesn’t really go away. It just sort of gets moved somewhere else; attempts to rationalize or contain it usually burst at the seams, and all that latent hurt spills over into something that can freshly exploit it. Cho-Am has to be a dream space because it can’t be the real thing; it can’t even hope to be. Maybe that abstracts and reduces things in a crude waymaybe that turns someone else’s painful reality into a locus of conceptual self-indulgence. But maybe that’s also part of the effect of the reproduction of images without context. I can look at pictures of the site and surrounding field on historical fiction author Peter Allan Lloyd’s website, and where Cho-Am risks detachment in an ephemeral, intangible way, these photos depict the banality of decay and overgrowth. Lloyd, to his credit, buttresses these photos with a brief historical understanding of the complex rivalries and strategic alliances that led to the rise and eventual fall of the Khmer Rouge. Still, it can be hard to mentally connect what the place is with the thing it’s a constant reminder of.  

Cho-Am, I think, captures some complex and not altogether noble feelings evoked by engaging with historical trauma of this magnitude. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around, and feels far away, and yet there’s the lingering phantom of something terrible just out of view. There’s the sense that it’s not my story and yet it is a very human story, and yet it’s not just a story. There are ongoing literal genocides taking place right now, in 2016, and the West is still profoundly complicit in perpetuating them. Questions of economic justice and national self-determination are not resolved. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is still in the process of investigating certain now-elderly perpetrators of the autogenocide. This is not clean or beautiful for anybody, and so I think Cho-Am is suitably messy and unrefined. But I have no right to demand meaning from it.

Across the way from the cremation site, there’s a casino. Oldenburg left that part out of his game, although if one walks too far away from the site toward the dirt road, one is given the option to quit out of the game. In its absence I go back to the uncertainties of my own capitalist life, and I mostly take them for granted.