This was originally posted on tumblr on 11th May, 2015.
You can play Exquisite Corpses for free here.
Kent Sheely’s Exquisite Corpses reminds me of driving through Death Valley with my family a few years ago: for miles, the endless desert stretching far away, dotted only occasionally with a lone caravan, or shack, or signpost. It was a ruined place, and I felt like we were trespassing there.
In Exquisite Corpses there are no shacks, but instead there are colossal glitched models from Team Fortress 2 that form the game’s scenery. They come from a previous piece by Sheely that goes by the same name:
“When the player’s character dies, the camera jumps to a freeze-frame of the killer. Sometimes the “killcam” glitches and ends up inside other players or objects, creating strange abstractions. I cut some of these images apart and reassembled them.”
They are images of frozen collapse, of the (cartoon) body at the moment of death, with the glitched angles emphasising this static liminality; between life and death, they are ersatz, uncanny. In the game, their place in the background and foreground transform them into monuments to entropy, reflecting the breakup that plays throughout the long drive.
A breakup is an attempt to move, both through the initial, awful moment of failure and then pastthe relationship and onto the next stage of your life. Here, we get the car driving through the landscape of failure, signifying movement as the two people in the relationship communicate their way through the end of their time as a couple. Except, all of this – the scenery, the communication, the driving – seems inadequate.
The dialogue itself is auto-generated, which means that the conversation never feels like a conversation. The language itself is distant in tone: lines like “I hope we’ll be able to talk through it” and “thank you for communicating how you felt” veer into an overly polite register that rings utterly false. Each line is disconnected from the wider dialogue, always reaching out to the others but never quite touching them in a way that feels authentic. It feels like an exquisite corpse.
An exquisite corpse is a piece of writing or art that has been composed by several contributors in sequence; one person starts writing or drawing, covers up a portion of their composition, then passes it on to another person to continue it. The result is surreal, discontinuous, pushing the boundaries of intelligibility even if it comes out technically sound. It is a challenge to coherency and narrative, a deliberate failure of communication between its participants.
So each breakup you drive through is a failure to communicate. And I say “each” because as the car comes to the end of the road it seamlessly goes back to the beginning of the same environment, with the same glitched models in the same places, but this time with a different autogenerated non-conversation. The player is – for as long as they choose to remain playing – trapped in the moment of this relationship’s failure, just as they are trapped in the road between the background and foreground scenery, just as the models of that scenery are trapped between life and death. The scenery and the dialogues are both liminalities, which is why they are both unrecognisable bastardizations of the things that come before and after them, moments that resemble neither life nor death.
It is a game that tries to represent failure: that is to say, something that is failing, rather than has failed. It’s an artist’s impression of a former lover excavating the ruins of a moment, or as Sheely himself puts it, it’s a game about “traversing bad memories, & finding majesty in the trappings of failure.” The failure, I think, is not just of the relationship itself, but of the process of remembrance. The recalled event is not the same as the event-as-it-played-out. Recollection itself changes it utterly into something that we might not recognise, hence the surreality of the whole thing, the disjointedness and artificiality of every aspect of it, the tonal dissonance, the whiplash that you feel when an emotionally flat segment of dialogue is juxtaposed against the head of The Soldier collapsing hilariously.
The majesty is trickier. I think it comes in bits and pieces. You have to parse the entire experience for tiny snippets that stand on their own as triumphs when excised from the chaotic context of the game. In small parts of text here are there are moments of tenderness, of total emotional honesty, that, by themselves, can feel touching, real, genuine. Within the noise and clutter of an exquisite corpse can be found a single segment of text that, on its own, speaks to you with perfect clarity.
Driving through Death Valley, you sometimes forget that you’re moving. After an hour or two on the same road, surrounded by the same desert stretching to the same horizon, you can feel as if you’re trapped in perpetuum: forever in motion, but never moving.