The mystery and grandeur of Gothic architecture has influenced Gothic literary tropes since the late 18th century. The typical setting of ragged stone tower, its arched windows and pointed roof illuminated by the full moon is found in many examples of Gothic literature. Decades after the peak of traditional Gothic architecture, the age of Gothic Revival architecture gave rise to a new and unique collection of conventions and tropes. Carpenter Gothic is a key American architecture style, and it’s representation in video games draws on a rich history and tradition of American Gothic media.
The original Gothic school of architecture begin in the 12th century. Limited to Great Britain, Western Europe and parts of the Mediterranean, these imposing stone structures were ornamental and intricate. Harsh, pointed lines drew the eye upward, while repetitive stone carvings, statues, gargoyles and grotesques decorate the vast exterior. With the golden age of Gothic architecture ending in the 16th century and many structures destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Gothic style was considered superstitious and old fashioned.
The revival of Gothic architecture and the rise of Gothic literature in the 19th century was a direct contrast to the preference for Classical styles during much of the 17th and 18th century. The Gothic Revival, as it is now known, spread through much of Europe before making its way over to America. A fledgling country, many early American settlements were simple wooden structures. Before long, these wooden cottages and public buildings imitated the pointed archways and harsh lines of the original Gothic style, with advances in carpentry allowing cheap, decorative scrollwork along gables. Called Carpenter Gothic, this style is found throughout America. Churches are the archetypal example of Carpenter Gothic, they are often white with distinctive steep gables, arched gothic windows and decorative scrollwork.
Although a distinctive and widespread architecture style, Carpenter Gothic is easy to overlook. A fixture of rural American towns and heritage trails, it is often overshadowed by flashier Second Empire and Gothic Revival style buildings. Perhaps the most notable example is American Gothic (Wood, 1930), the much parodied painting of a rural American couple. The building in the background of the portrait is a classic Carpenter Gothic house. Although video games have depicted a massive array of architectural styles and locations, Carpenter Gothic is sadly underrepresented. The most popular use of it is in American Gothic themed horror games, using the historic and familiar architecture to contrast the unknown dread the player must face. The ludic element of these games is often tied closely to the games narrative and atmosphere, and the player is often encouraged to be investigative (Krzywinskal, 2013).
This technique is used in Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, 2010) to great effect. The fictional town of Bright Falls in the Pacific Northwest evokes a homely, Americana charm. Many of the buildings in the town are built in a more modern style, but the church and hotel lodge are Carpenter Gothic. Stark and imposing, the church has pointed arch windows and an austere, crucifix laden spire. Surrounded by the remnants of an abandoned village fete, the player must break into the church to escape the darkness, and the creatures that inhabit it. The outside of the church is dark, the blue lighting casting deep shadows. The player’s flashlight is the only light source, along with their AI companion. Inside the church the atmosphere is still gloomy, but candles give off some light. The interior is as sparse as the exterior, with wooden pews, an altar and a few American flags being the only decoration. Although the church is deliberately foreboding, here it acts as a brief sanctuary from the darkness outside.
Theoretically any building or architectural style could have filled this role, but Carpenter Gothic fits the evocative theme. Drawing heavily on the works of Stephan King and “American Gothic ‘back-woods’ horror fiction” (Krzywinskal, 2013) a Carpenter Gothic church evokes the creepy rural village where the locals are a little bit off. Much of American Gothic literature draws on religious themes, concerning themselves with morality, propriety and the unease of a collective Puritan inheritance (Lloyd-Smith, 2004). As Alan Wake is a highly referential game, drawing on many literary devices (levels of the game are organised into chapters, with cliffhangers), it is expected that the architecture of the environment reflects the underlying thematic concerns.
…an obsession with the taboos of occultism, necromancy and demonism stalk the American Gothic psyche
In Alan Wake the horror and gothic themes are subtle; the game markets itself as a thriller over anything else. Many horror games, however, are keen to use the thematic appeals of Carpenter Gothic to their full extent. Blair Witch Vol. 1: Rustin Parr (Terminal Reality, 2000) is the first in a series of games based off the popular horror movie The Blair Witch Project (Cowie, Hale & Myrick, Sanchez, 1990). Set in Burkittsville, Maryland, the player assumes the role of a detective, and must figure out the story behind the local murderer Rustin Parr and the paranormal happenings in the area. Like the real-world Burkittsville, Blair Witch Vol. 1 takes place in a small, rural, Carpenter Gothic style village. The church in particular shows strong Carpenter Gothic stylings – white and wooden with steep gables, pointed arched windows and a colourful glass window. Like Alan Wake, the game takes place at night, or in the gloomy fog of daytime. Although an older game, the lighting design still makes an effort to create creepy corners and harsh shadows.
Much of the story line of Blair Witch Vol. 1 deals with American Gothic themes. Paranormal occurrences, daemons, murder and the dark secrets of a small town are all investigated. It is interesting that the Burkittsville church has a prominent stained glass window, when many of its fellow Carpenter Gothic churches have simpler, clear glass windows. Throughout the 18th century Age of Enlightenment when Classicism reigned and America was founded, clear glass was used almost exclusively, as “the magical coloured windows of the medieval cathedral were rejected along with all the rest of what was considered to be darkness and superstition of medieval life” (Sturm as cited by Tannler, 2009). Burkittsville and the surrounding woods are plagued with supernatural evils, from the Blair Witch to other mysterious legends and stories. It is fitting then, that the church has a quasi-anachronistic stained glass window, a reminder of the fearful superstition the people of Burkittsville live by.
A consistent pattern in the representation of Carpenter Gothic in games is the prevalence of the church. As Americans built their nation, they looked towards Europe for inspiration and the Gothic Revival style was considered by many to be the only appropriate style for a place of worship (Carso, 2015). A common theme in American Gothic media is the fear of the inherent solitude and vast emptiness of a newly born America, the lack of any established history and ‘society’ (Lloyd-Smith, 2004). While Europe is littered with the remains of Gothic churches, castles and cathedrals, America was a relative clean slate. Similarly, an obsession with the taboos of occultism, necromancy and demonism stalk the American Gothic psyche. Both of these pressures have given way to the church as staple of American Gothic literary tropes and gothic design.
This is seen yet again in The Secret World (Funcom, 2012). A massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, players in The Secret World explore a variety of international locations, each one containing puzzles and monsters based on a theme or the setting. In Kingsmouth, a fictional town in New England, the environment and enemies are heavily influenced by modern American horror, the works of Stephan King and H.P. Lovecraft. Similar to Alan Wake, the town contains more modern buildings and some older Carpenter Gothic styles. Kingsmouth Church is a Carpenter Gothic church, although much larger than typical examples, and like Blair Witch Vol. 1, the church features multiple stained glass windows. Many story lines the player can discover take place in and around the church, and most of these involve the occult or supernatural. A core quest in the church has the player placing Illuminati wards around the area to protect them from the supernatural enemies, which another involves stopping mass graves being dug up. Again, Carpenter Gothic architecture is used to reinforce un-holy or supernatural happenings, in a set of distinctly American Gothic flavoured plot lines. The Carpenter Gothic church is a subconscious symbol of the American grotesque, and a key literary device across a wide variety of mediums.
The Carpenter Gothic church is a subconscious symbol of the American grotesque, and a key literary device across a wide variety of mediums.
Just as Alan Wake defined much of its story and gameplay elements through established American Gothic literary tropes, the environment of The Secret World is rich with literary flavour. Stephan King and H.P. Lovecraft are explicitly referenced throughout the street names – Arkham Avenue, Lovecraft Lane, King’s Court. Intertwined with the occult church missions are puzzles “inscribed into the fabric of the town’s infrastructure left by the founding fathers of the town” (Krzywinskal, 2013). The architecture of the town plays a large role in the game, and the closely tied ideas of ‘founding fathers’ and Americana heritage match perfectly with the subversive nature of Carpenter Gothic architecture representation.
Kingsmouth may have a rich and proud history, but the Lovecraftian horrors and paranormal creatures taking over the town have turned it into a nightmare the player must navigate. In addition to this, the founding fathers are members of the Illuminati, one of the three secret factions the player must choose the join. It is ironic that a representation of the prototypical heritage-rich American town is linked directly with the sort of secretive organizations that populate American Gothic media. Here the storyline not only guides the player and gives colour to the game, but “takes on a didactic quality, teaching it’s [players] how to react to and experience the Gothic architecture” (Carso, 2015). The Secret World’s use of architecture elevates it above a mere backdrop, it becomes instrumental to the player’s understanding of the horror and the storyline.
Although Carpenter Gothic is mainly associated with horror and the macabre, an altogether opposite tone can also be applied. Farmville 2 (Zynga, 2012) is the sequel to the popular farming management game Farmville (Zynga, 2009). Like the original game, new buildings and themed ‘packs’ are released for players to buy in the game. In 2013 Zynga released a “Gothic Revival” themed pack. This included a Carpenter Gothic house in a variety of colours, and matching Carpenter Gothic turrets and wings. A pair of scarecrows referencing the American Gothic painting and some homely furniture are also included. Despite the use of “Gothic” in the pack name, it is simply a reference to the architectural style and not an indication of spooky happenings.
The Gothic Revival pack alludes to the nostalgia of a mythical American history; quaint farmers ran mom-and-pop shops and a man could succeed with rugged hard work (Searle, 2014). The romanticization of the pastoral ideal and America’s short history can easily be distilled into a neat bundle of unlockable items for the player. The power of the previous depictions of Carpenter Gothic – Alan Wake, The Secret World and Blair Witch Vol. 1 – stems from this idea. The very core of American Gothic media is the fear of the past and the fear of what is absent. The history of slavery, racism, genocide and the vast, unforgiving landscape devoid of ‘society’ and history. Depictions like Farmville 2’s Gothic Revival items deliberately ignore these truths, giving more power to the grotesque machinations in other games.
More than any other genre, Gothic literature is influenced by the architecture it takes place in. The oft overlooked form of Carpenter Gothic is present in a variety of games, often providing essential support to the American Gothic themed story lines. The sharp points, neat arched windows and carved embellishment are instantly recognizable, and have strong ties to America’s history. Grotesque story lines are given weight through the rich history of Gothic architecture and the Gothic revival, along with social and literary trends. Although these may not be immediately obvious or known to the player, they mesh so well with the game environment it amplifies the player’s experience. Cosier depictions of Carpenter Gothic strip the architecture of its power, but uphold the mythology it represents and makes the subversive uses all the more potent. Carpenter Gothic architecture is a natural fit for games dealing with the macabre, the grotesque and a nation haunted by its history.
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