The infamous scene from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's surrealist film is now interactive—but does anyone have the stomach to "play" it?
Whether it be through a genuine interest in surrealist cinema, morbid curiosity, or from that stage in your life when you start Googling Pixies lyrics, it seems that a lot of people have seen Simone Mareuil getting her eyeball slit open.
This, of course, is the gory money shot that concludes the two-minute opening scene of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's surrealist silent film Un Chien Andalou, and the image that burns itself most intensely into the depths of your brain.
Not so deep that it can't be dug up, mind; that sharpened razor and the leaking optical goo will inevitably resurface, unsolicited, years down the line, courtesy of the same cruel and self-hating part of your brain which has you remember 2 Girls 1 Cup every now and then.
'Un Chien Andalou'
It's the eye of a calf, apparently, that actually gets the blade taken to it, not that this retrospective knowledge goes any way toward shaking the scene's uniquely unsettling feeling. What always got me about it wasn't just the natural eww, gross reaction to an eyeball being cut open—although, admittedly, that is a strong impulse—but rather the perverse wrongness of it all.
The victim of this assault isn't screaming, or running upstairs to hide, or skinny dipping in the lake where the previous batch of sexy teens were found dead 20 years ago tonight. Instead, completely calm, she barely flinches. It throws out the rulebook.
It's perhaps unexpected, then, that this most artsy video nasty has been adapted into the realm of the video game—a creative medium which, traditionally at least, thrives on logic and rules. But that's exactly the gap that The Tender Cut, a creation described as "a first-person interactive installation/exploration game" inspired by the classic scene, attempts to bridge.
It's been made at a two-person indie studio based in Saint Petersburg, known as No, Thanks Games. And, as you'd expect of any faithful homage to the 1929 film, it's not the most pleasant experience. However, the development duo behind it—Ilya Kononenko and Yuliya Kozhemyako—are keen to assure me that The Tender Cut is about more than re-creation:
"There was not a goal to translate the movie to an interactive realm," they tell me. "It is a brand new experience inspired by the movie. It was born as a result of our reflection on the scene. An interactive format makes you an actor instead of a viewer, making it possible to experience the scene from the other side and get another dimension of the emotional message."
Like the film, the world of The Tender Cut is presented entirely in black and white. You find yourself in a recreation of the room from the film's opening, sitting in the same chair as Mareuil's character, around which are scattered various significant odds and ends from the scene: most notably the cigarette and lighter as famously used by Buñuel on the balcony, the offending razor blade, and the strop on which it is sharpened.
Only here there's a television playing the infamous scene on a loop.
Perhaps it's the ingrained, "watch and learn" pattern of video game tutorials that drove me to this conclusion, but there's a definite sense that this looping segment of film is telling you what to do. In implying that re-enactment of the scene is the goal, and surrounding you with all the tools with which to do so, the game does the mechanical equivalent of holding your head and forcing you to watch something viscerally repulsive over and over, to ensure you hit the correct sequence of processes.
It's in first-person, but your perspective here is unclear. You're both part of the scene and an observer of it, both the perpetrator and the victim of an act that you're steered toward at every turn. I also noted that the menu screen of The Tender Cut uses the verb "Watch" rather than "Play" to initiate the experience, a move which speaks to the stark sense of powerlessness throughout.
"Powerlessness was certainly one of the reasons for that," the developers tell me. "We wanted players to dive into a surrealistic dream. And we wanted to translate feelings you get when you cannot affect that dream—you may see, or hear, or even do something, but you can't escape and break the dream's rules. The dream begins to control you. A movie may give the same feeling; it makes you feel like you've been placed inside its reality, and are unable to get back."
As they go on, Ilya and Yuliya's focus veers increasingly toward an innovation that would not only make the cut itself all the more startling and realistic, but also make that oppressive dream-world feel all the more inescapable: virtual reality.
"We thought about something like this with major applying of augmented (or even virtual) reality technologies—a real room with virtual stuff," they explain. "Maybe one day we will release it.
"The big advantage of video games is the new technologies and fundamentally new experiences they can give. We think the first well-modeled gutted corpse a player will meet during a walk in VR glasses will affect him or her at least as strongly as Un Chien Andalou's original eye-slicing scene."
"We want to experiment with virtual reality in our next project," they add, confirming the apparent creative interest they share in the technology's potential. "We have a bunch of ideas. One of them deals with the paintings of Max Ernst and Joan Miró, another based on experiments with properties of VR as an expression tool. We also have a plan to port The Tender Cut to Oculus Rift."
Feeling my way through The Tender Cut has to go down as possibly the most unsettling ten minutes of gaming I've ever experienced, and that was with everything contained well and truly within the two-dimensional confines of my laptop screen. I'm not convinced that an Oculus Rift version would be something I'd personally like to experience.
But, at the same time, it does feel like it's set up pretty perfectly for VR. There is, and probably always will be, a woozy disconnection with reality that occurs with headsets such as the Oculus Rift, an unavoidable kink in the human-tech interface which would actually complement the nightmarish experience in this case.
While we wait for that nasty, sweaty future, you can have your very own short surrealist nightmare—with the additional comfort of not having it strapped to your face—free of charge.
The Tender Cut can be downloaded and played for free on its official website.
Follow Matt on Twitter.