Still Life: Dolls and Toys In Video Games

Tuesday 1 January 2019

I remember years ago after I first watched Raintree Country, the compelling drama by Edward Dmytryk, one specific frame stuck in my memory and I would always recall it every time I thought about that film: the one where Susanna (Elizabeth Taylor) is sitting on her bed with an array of porcelaine dolls hanging above her. The fact that Susanna was an adult married woman made the presence of those dolls in her room look particularly creepy; because she didn't have them there as a collection or even a reminder of her childhood, but viewed them as a projection of herself and had them placed above her head as if they were her guardians.

Although dolls, and toys in general, are items that most grown up people tend to view with tenderness and affection, they are mainly associated with childhood and past memories. Probably we all have a vintage doll, a teddy bear or an action figure in our home; but things become more complicated when adult people keep dozens of dolls or toys in their private space, to the point where they dominate the place where they are - like in the case of Susanna's dolls. This usually indicates a persistent denial to accept that they have grown up and a sentimental attachment to their childhood.

Due to its numerous dark and twisted side-effects, this condition is being used quite often in video games, connected mostly to characters of villains. Sometimes, dolls and toys appear as symbols or objects of a specific significance. Other times, while they look like they are just part of the scenery, they may still serve a plot point or indicate something important. In this article, I will focus on the presence of dolls and toys in Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Dark Fall: Lost Souls, Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea 2, Resident Evil: Revelations 2, Resident Evil 7 and The Evil Within 2, as in each of them the items in question have a unique role, indicative of their most frequently used symbolisms and connotations.

In Resident Evil: Code Veronica, a minor villain but a rather persistent lunatic is Alfred Ashford, the commander of Rockfort Island who likes to torture his victims with extreme and sadistic ways. Alfred can be seen in the main building of his mansion's grounds, but he also frequents his private palace, a tower constructed in gothic style that is heavily guarded by zombies and lies well-hidden from the rest of the world.

In the rather unfriendly entrance hall of the tower, there is a glass case with several vintage porcelain dolls kept in there in perfect condition. This whole set comes in striking contrast with a giant doll that is hanging from the ceiling with its disjointed limbs making it look more like a puppet.

The dolls are barely visible in the darkness, and this makes them more creepy

On the upper floor, yet one more doll is waiting to welcome the accidental guests; it is quite big and in good shape, but if we notice how it stands in the corridor, obviously in no connection to the rest of the place, we will undoubtedly receive the most unpleasant vibes. It is as if it is a guardian, placed there to watch who comes in and who gets out. I wouldn't be surprised if it could actually become alive and attack.

The huge doll in the corridor assumes the role of a guardian

In one of the bedrooms that we have to explore, there is again a glass case full of vintage porcelain dolls, and once we gain access to the hidden attic, we discover there a room full of toys with an elaborate carousel in the middle of it.

Alexia's room hosts more vintage dolls

Alfred is a scizophrenic sociopath, who passes his days contemplating the long past time spent with his beloved twin sister, Alexia. Apparently, after Alexia's demise, he fortified the palace which used to be his family home and kept almost everything in there just as it was; which is why the childhood tokens - namely, the dolls and toys - dominate in the rooms, giving the palace the disturbing look of an oversized dollhouse. Pretty much like Miss Havisham in Dickens' Great Expectations, who masochistically remains dressed in her wedding gown, supposedly waiting for the groom who never showed up on their wedding day but in fact refusing to accept her new reality and move on because she is unable to take control of her own life - likewise Alfred is content with looking at Alexia's giant portrait and talking to her while imagining she is there, incessantly bringing to his memory their common past and the happy times they spent together. But he does not limit himself to these moderate expressions of adoration. He goes as far as to wear Alexia's clothes and a blonde wig - an outfit that makes him look almost identical to her.

Alfred's attic is the inner sanctum where he keeps his childhood memories

Whether in good or bad shape, the dolls in Alfred's private palace are a strong indication of his madness and his attachment to the past and Alexia. The vintage dolls obviously belonged to her, and he keeps them in the cases, just like Alexia's body is kept in a capsule after her supposed death. When Alfred wears his sister's dress, he is not simply cross-dressing - he becomes one of her dolls. Just like dolls can be dressed with different outfits, Alfred changes his and for a limited time he identifies himself with Alexia. In that sense, the dolls are a medium with which he communicates with her. The giant disjointed doll that is hanging from the ceiling is a tangible manifestation of his own deranged psyche and mind. Why he had it placed there is not very clear, but it is likely that he did it so as to intimidate potential intruders, warning them that if they proceed any further they will share its fate.

The hanging doll is a creepy feature of the palace

Moreover, taking a closer look at that doll, we will see that it resembles Alexia; while its condition - beheaded, with missing limbs and covered in blood - symbolizes her death. The doll, although hanging from the ceiling, also looks like it is flying, bringing to mind Alexia's final mutation, which is a dragonfly.

The polysemous significance of dolls is further explored in Resident Evil: Revelations 2. Although their presence in that game is limited to just a couple of areas, both their appearance and their symbolism are so dominant and chilling that they are rather hard to forget.

One of the secondary but extremely important characters in the game is Natalia Corda, the little girl that Barry Burton meets moments after he arrives at the mysterious island looking for his daughter. Natalia is being pursued by Alex Wesker, the game's arch-villain, who wants to use her as a host in order to be reborn with absolute power since Natalia was the perfect candidate for her personal experiment. After Natalia fleed away in a desperate attempt to avoid all this, she teamed up with Barry and they traveled around the island in search both of Moira and a way out. When they first arrive close to Alex's hideout, they discover a ruined building with a disturbing decoration: there are little dolls everywhere, set up in the most terrifying installations.

The grotesque installation aim at freaking out the visitors

Later on, as they approach the Spencer mansion replica where Alex is lurking, they go through a cave where similar dolls can be seen around them, together with ceremonial candles. The word 'voodoo' comes directly to mind as we notice the way the dolls have been treated, while at some point Natalia spots her beloved teddy bear, Lottie, dismembered and nailed on a board.

It looks as if Alex was carrying out voodoo ceremonies

The dolls here are used by the game's villain as a means to threaten and terrify her victim directly. Natalia is very young, so Alex is using little dolls that will undoubtedly appeal to Natalia and, on a second level, she maybe identifies herself with them. The fact that Alex treats the dolls in such a violent and sadistic manner shows not only that she can resort to all kinds of means to do what she wants, but also that she will not hesitate to act towards Natalia just like she did towards the dolls.

As Lottie is a doll that belongs to Natalia, by 'punishing' it the way she did, Alex shows Natalia that this will be her own fate as well because of her disobedience.

Alex used Lottie to give a threatening warning to Natalia

The dolls are used in a similar way in Dark Fall: Lost Souls. In the compelling metaphysical thriller by Jonathan Boakes, Amy Haven, the cunning and sadistic ghost that haunts the Station and the Hotel in Dowertown, has three dolls which she calls her 'sisters'. Each doll represents one of three missing girls who died in different ways. The Inspector, the game's protagonist, has to find the dolls, place them in their coffins and match them with their missing eyes. This process, which is nothing less than black magic, gives him the means to overtake the demonic force that guards the Hotel's upper floor, where the solution of the mystery lies.

The colorful eyes of the dolls are their most creepy feature

Amy's dolls have a dual role: they serve as magical objects through which first Amy is able to keep the whole place under her control and later the Inspector breaks the spell that binds the Station and the Hotel, but they also are a hurtful symbol of Amy's destroyed childhood. Amy is a tormented ghost but she is also malignant. Instead of playing normally with regular dolls, she uses people as her toys and pretends that the voodoo dolls are her sisters.

In Resident Evil 7, the dolls and toys are as creepy as one would expect them to be in a horror story.  Eveline, the evil force that masquerades as a little girl in order to take over everyone and everything, uses dolls as baits and threats. There is a doll that resembles her and another one that resembles Mia, the wife of the protagonist, Ethan Winters. Eveline manipulates Mia trying to trick her into believing that she is a sad little girl who needs affection, and hates Ethan because his arrival means that she is close to be exposed and exterminated.

The Eveline doll (left) and the Mia doll (right) are used as enigmatic baits

Ethan discovers both dolls while looking for Mia in the Baker house, while close to the end of the story he comes across a giant version of the Eveline doll in the kitchen of the guest house.

The giant Eveline doll is one of the creepiest things in the game

Eveline is a demonic entity and as such is able to use animate and inanimate objects to serve her purposes. A little girl playing with dolls is something trivial, but a little girl using dolls to threaten people is not. Moreso since Eveline is not actually a little girl; this is just one of her forms, the most convenient in order to invade the Baker family home and infect its members.

The theme of distorted childhood can be traced again in the old room of Lucas and Zoe; it is a space full of toys some of which have a rather ominous and foreshadowing significance: the stuffed crocodile prepares the ground for the presence of the actual crocodiles that lurk in the bayou outside the farm house.

There is nothing cozy about the old kids' room of the Baker house

Similarly, the dollhouse that Ethan sees, among several other toys, in the kids' room of the old house symbolizes the Baker home which itself became a toy in Eveline's hands.

The toy house looks like a miniature of the Baker home

The expected voodoo dolls can be seen in a few places in the grounds of the old house, intensifying the atmosphere of evil and horror. Although they are there just for decorative purposes, they are still extremely creepy, and their aim is to terrify the potential intruders.

In Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea 2, the story begins with Elizabeth, the deuteragonist of the main Bioshock Infinite game, waking up in an abandoned toy factory with Booker DeWitt lying dead by her side. One of the first things that she sees is the head of a doll.

The doll head is like a reminder for Elizabeth

The doll once belonged to Sally, one of the girls who involuntarily took part in Frank Fontaine's brutal experiment, and its head appears crafted and painted in vintage style, as Sally originally lived decades ago. It also looks a lot like Elizabeth.

In the overall haunting and nightmarish atmosphere of the episode, the doll head in Elizabeth's hand becomes a rather ominous symbol of her own fate, as well as serving as a guide which will eventually lead her to Sally. When the episode starts, Elizabeth is in a bad shape but the discovery that she is bound to make is even worse: she sees her own self impaled to death in a dark corner of the toy factory.

In another reality, Elizabeth was a young girl locked in a golden tower, living in absolute safety but completely alone - almost like a doll. That was the state in which Booker found her in the main Bioshock Infinite game. In the Burial at Sea 2 episode, she may be living in a new reality, as an older version of herself in another time and place, but she still carries the consequences of the actions of her other, younger self. Regardless, as it turns out she is still a puppet in someone else's hands, as Atlas, the heartless villain of the story, orders her to carry out certain dangerous missions on his behalf promising that he will then let her go, but in the end he brutally kills her anyway. In the final scene, as Elizabeth dies, Sally shows up holding her doll. As she approaches Elizabeth, the doll's head disappears from the rest of her body and appears in Elizabeth's hand. While Sally goes nearer to comfort Elizabeth, the doll head slips from her hand, signifying both the fact that she finally found and saved Sally and that she herself sacrificed her own life to do this.

As Elizabeth dies, the doll head slips away from her hand

The dolls have a similar role and significance in The Evil Within 2. There are three recurring dolls in the game: one depicting Sebastian, the protagonist, one of Myra, his missing wife, and another one that has the form of Lily, his daughter.We get to see two of these dolls, the Lily doll and the Sebastian doll, very early in the game, in one of Sebastian's memories, where their presence is realistic and they are simply Lily's toys, made by her mother.

In Sebastian's memory, Lily is playing with her dolls

It is not until Sebastian enters the virtual world of Union and starts investigating the place that the dolls begin to have a more complex and symbolic role. While searching for Lily, Sebastian searches a warehouse and there, in one upper room, he finds the Myra doll in a pool of blood.

Sebastian finds the Myra doll in the warehouse

Still in Union, but getting closer to discovering a valuable clue about his daughter's whereabouts, he finds the Lily doll, again in a pool of blood, in the backroom of the cafeteria of a gas station.

The Lily doll is first found in the Pit Stop back room

Both of these dolls act as baits for Sebastian, as they have been strategically placed where he found them by Stefano, the villain who dominates the first part of the game. Stefano, who wants to take advantage of the potential of Lily's brain, wants to lure Sebastian towards him so that he can realize his evil and twisted plans that will supposedly bring his photographic art to another level.

However even after Stefano is exterminated, Sebastian finds one more Lily doll in the dark void. The doll lies on the bloody floor of the bottomless pit below the Marrow Laboratories, in a space that looks like a simulation of Lily's actual room.

The second appearance of the Lily doll is the Bottomless Pit

This time, it is Theodore, the game's main villain, who placed the doll there, in an attempt to bring Sebastian closer to him, to make him feel guilty for Lily's fate and persuade him to help him get rid of Myra and join his cult.

It is characteristic that Sebastian won't come across his own doll anywhere in Union, and the only instance where it appears is close to the end, when he finds Lily sleeping peacefully in her room, in the safe space previously guarded by Myra. The Sebastian doll can be seen sitting on Lily's bed, as Sebastian is taking his daughter away.

The Sebastian doll on Lily's bed is like her guardian angel

The dolls go back to their original, realistic role in the end, when all is over and Sebastian leaves with Lily. Before waving them goodbye, Juli gives Lily the Myra doll, as a token of her mother.

Lily takes the Myra doll as a reminder of her mother

The dolls in The Evil Within 2 illustrate the state of the characters they depict. The Sebastian doll, as it appears sitting passively in Lily's bedroom, represents Sebastian's status: Sebastian is sedated in a STEM tub while his virtual self, or his mind's self, is taking action in Union. On the other hand, Sebastian comes across the Myra doll and the Lily doll and finds them lying down, as if dead. This hints at their actual state, because although they are not dead, they are trapped inside STEM and the only way for them to get out is by Sebastian's intervention. Sebastian has to defeat the Matriarch, Myra's monstrous self, so as to allow the real Myra take control. Subsequently he is the only one who is able to take Lily out of Union, and once Myra destroys the system from inside, he is the one to bring his daughter out of the Core capsule. In the end, the only doll that appears is the one depicting Myra, as she voluntarily stayed behind and presumably perished with all the STEM system. 

No comments: