Serving your crew: DREAD HUNGER (eight-player cannibalism game)

Imagine you are trapped on a ship surrounded by ice in the Arctic, and some of your friends might actually not be whom they seem. Dread Hunger, a New Zealand computer game in which players can cannibalise their friends, has become a huge success, mainly in China.

I usually blog about cannibal movies here, or news stories about cannibalism when they break. This is the first game I have covered, although I am waiting to see the game “Borneo: A Jungle Nightmare” which is due for release this year – it is scripted and directed by Ruggero Deodato, who brought us one of the seminal cannibal movies in 1980: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. This game was originally going to have the same title, but is not a remake (in game form) of the original, but more like fourth in Deodato’s cannibal saga. Due out sometime in 2022.

Anyway, back to DREAD HUNGER! When the Christchurch company, Digital Confectioners, released the game earlier this year, they were hoping they might reach 10,000 players in the US. To their surprise, they found that more than 260,000 people in China play the game every day. Due to time zones, says Director Sam Evans, the demand is mostly between the hours of 12.30am and 5am New Zealand time (which for computer nerds is a fairly normal operating time).

Dread Hunger is a survival game set during an Arctic exploration in 1847-48. Players can build fires, fight off wolves, and hunt for food, including, sometimes, human flesh from their shipmates.

There are various weapons, and the players can also “pick up severed heads and limbs and use them to kill.”

One of the strategies is:

Betray Your Friends
Feed them tainted food, lure animals to attack them, hex them with blood magic, or if all else fails… just shoot them in the back.”

The game has become a target of hackers, including DDOS attacks and “cheats” where hackers find a loophole in the game code they can exploit to give players an unfair advantage.

Dread Hunger has just passed 1 million copies sold, a figure Evans called “insane”. The graphics are splendid and, well, graphic.

This has led to some new, if profitable, challenges.

“The American market largely treats games like a product. They buy the game, they play the game on average 10-15 hours over a few weeks, then they move on. But in China when they find a game they like, they play it for hundreds of hours, for years and years. This forced us to treat the game like a service. We now have to focus on continual development and regularly updating the game to add more cool features over time.”

The game is mainly based on the 1845 expedition of 129 men led by explorer Sir John Franklin, which left Britain for the Canadian Arctic in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Their ships, the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror never returned.

Rumours that the crew resorted to cannibalism have swirled around the doomed expedition since the nineteenth century. Evidence suggests that Franklin’s crew may have not only consumed the flesh of deceased compatriots, but also cracked their bones, to eat the marrow inside. In 1854, interviews with local Inuits described piles of human bones, cracked in half.

In 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer‘s painting Man Proposes, God Disposes caused a stir at the Royal Academy exhibition for its depiction of two polar bears, one chewing on a tattered ship’s ensign, the other gnawing on a human ribcage. Cannibalism did not get a mention – yet. 

More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers recovered remains of the crew on King William Island. Knife marks on the bones backed up early accounts of human cannibalism. A newer analysis of 35 bones by anthropologists Simon Mays and Owen Beattie suggests that the men did indeed eat each other. The bones showed signs of breakage and heating—indicating that the crew members probably cooked them to extract the marrow. Mays and Beattie published their results in 2015 in the International Journal of Osteology.

Horror writer Dan Simmons‘s 2007 book The Terror was developed as a 2018 AMC television series also called The Terror. The expedition has, over the years, taken on the mythic value to the British that the Donner Party holds in the USA.

One of the lines from the launch trailer (above):

“I have heard it said that this land can change a man. Turn him into a beast. Well, to that I would say—men were always beasts. Some you see, well, they’re just better at hiding it than others.”

Dread Hunger is what is called in games parlance a “social deduction game”. This is a category of game in which players attempt to uncover each other’s hidden role or team allegiance. It’s an ideal formula for a population who never know quite who the agents of their government might be. And also an ideal cannibalism game for the recent history of man-eating, in which the cannibals like Albert Fish, Jeffrey Dahmer, Issei Sagawa and Armin Meiwes all appeared as very ordinary, normal neighbours.

We all need to do some social deductions, it seems.

“I like to watch them”: EYE WITHOUT A FACE (Ramin Niami, 2021)

Has there ever been an era when people were more connected and yet more alone? A person I know (no names – you know who you are) subscribes to social media posts but never, ever posts or comments. The ultimate loner, though, is the geek sitting in a darkened room and relating to people on his screen, people who don’t even know he exists.

That is the plot of this quirky movie, which brings Hitchcock’s Rear Window into the twenty-first century. In that film, Jimmy Stewart played a photographer who is confined to his apartment in Manhattan with a broken leg. He watches his neighbours, without their knowledge, even giving them nick-names. A harmless hobby, until it isn’t – one of his neighbours seems to have murdered his wife.

In EYE WITHOUT A FACE, it’s not just a guy with binoculars and a zoom lens. That little hole on the top of your laptop screen? Yeah, it’s a webcam, and it comes on when you Zoom or Skype. What does it do the rest of the time?

Well, the nightmare scenario is that it can be hacked and used to see what is going on in your home, WITHOUT YOUR KNOWLEDGE. Is it true? I’m a blogger, not a hacker, so I can’t say for sure, but I know a couple of programmers who have band-aids over their laptop cameras. So there’s that. Also this article.

Anyway, for the sake of enjoying this movie, assume that it’s not only possible but common. You’re going to get the band-aids now? It’s OK – I’ll wait.

The protagonist (he’s no hero) is Henry (Dakota Shapiro – who, IMDB tells me, comes from Byron Bay!), a hacker, a stalker or perhaps more accurately a voyeur as he likes to watch. Henry wouldn’t have even noticed COVID lockdowns as he almost never leaves his home except to walk the dark, melancholy streets of LA, thinking about his angry, spiteful father, a man he sees in a devil mask.

Henry sees himself as the “guardian angel” of the women whose cameras he has hacked. And yes, not coincidentally, all those over whom he watches are good looking young women, and he chats with them. For the first few minutes of the film, it looks like a dialogue, a Zoom call in which he wishes them a polite good morning and comments on whatever they are doing, but we quickly realise that they don’t answer – they don’t know Henry is watching. They don’t even know he exists. They are so close, yet totally unattainable to a shy introvert like him.

Henry’s flatmate is, Eric (Luke Cook, another Aussie, who played Lucifer in Sabrina) and he is almost Henry’s opposite – more interested in putting his own selfies and vodcasts on the web than seeing what anyone else is up to. He meets women on line, but doesn’t remember their names after one-night stands. Henry reaches for his monitor to stroke their hair, Eric wants to seduce them.

Eric warns Henry that he is staring into the abyss, and if you do that too long, as Nietzsche said:

What does Eric, the struggling Australian actor in LA, mean by quoting Nietzsche? Well, he does do a lot of drugs, but there’s still a point to his warning. Nietzsche is perhaps best known for stating that

“God is dead… and we have killed him… Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Nietzsche was warning that a world without supernatural judgement could easily descend into nihilism, a feeling of alienation and hopelessness, an abyss that has no meaning or purpose. Darwin had disproved the superstitions about humans being somehow higher than animals, leaving us as just smart apes, and Nietzsche urged a further evolutionary leap: to become the Übermensch, the super-man who will rise above the mob. We need to become gods, or at least angels. Hannibal Lecter has a bit to say on the subject.

But Henry is no god, nor is he, as he thinks, a guardian angel. He stares into the abyss of the empty, depressing lives of the women who unknowingly show him their own forms of despair – one is a singer whose partner sees her purely as sexual relief, another sells tawdry on-line sexual fantasies, another seems to be killing people to make head-soup. He has the eye of a god, his computer and their webcam, but none of the powers. The abyss of their lives and deaths is what Eric is trying to warn him about. It’s a world of alienation and superficial relationships involving intimacy, often remotely, but without love. He laughs and cries at their antics and their awful boyfriends, as if he is watching a series of soap operas. Perhaps he is. The abyss is gazing into him, and seeing only death and darkness.

Eric is intrigued by Henry’s hack and wants to meet these women. Henry swears him to secrecy, so of course we know this is not going to end well.

One of the women Henry watches, Tessa (Ashley Elyse Rogers) does webcam porn – men pay her to fantasise oral sex – with a strawberry or a peach standing in for their cocks. Eric finds her on Instagram and brings her home to meet Henry, who freaks out.

Eric hasn’t mentioned the webcam; he’s told her that Henry is an Instagram follower. But later, Henry calls her on her paid sex-line, hoping just to chat, and this time she freaks out when she realises he knows where she lives. Hanging up the sex line, he watches her on her hacked webcam as, terrified, she loads a gun and puts it under her pillow.

Henry only leaves the house at night when he goes for his creepy walks, clad in hoodie and avoiding eye contact. But on his return that night, he catches Eric watching “his” women. Upset, he turns the screen to Laura (Vlada Verevko, who, fun fact, was in the movie Hacker). Laura seems to have a lot of different boyfriends – she gives them a drink and then takes them up to her room, but Henry never sees them coming down again. This night she puts what looks like a human heart in a bowl in her fridge, then he sees her dragging what looks like a body bag out of the apartment.

Next day, Laura is cooking dinner for friends – kale pache, literally “head and hooves”. It’s usually from a sheep, but whose head is it this time? Is Laura a cannibal serial killer?

The following morning, Henry and Eric watch her prepare a drink for a young man, and are convinced he is going to be drugged and become her next victim.

Henry texts 9-1-1 (apparently you can) and the cops bust in and find – ginseng. But now she knows she’s being watched and she puts tape over her webcam, but not before promising to find Henry and turn him into dog-food. The rest of the film is the chase, with a twist – you’re going to have to watch it to see the denouement.

What is this parable really about? Henry thinks he is a “guardian angel”, yet he does nothing to assist any of the women with their issues – abusive men, drink, failure or sex. He just watches. The theme here is theodicy – a term invented by Gottfried Leibniz in 1710 when attempting to explain why an all-powerful, loving god would allow evil and suffering. It’s one of the favourite questions of believers, particularly when something terrible happens to them. A common view, particularly in Christianity, is that humans are sinners and evil arises from our failure to repent. It points to a time when evil will be abolished by the coming (or second coming) of a messiah, who bears and cleans away our sins. Henry as Isaiah’s suffering servant?

A variant of this discourse says that God gave humans free will, and although he hates to see us suffer, he can only watch, because intervening would revoke that free will and leave us just puppets. This view sees God weeping in the death camps together with his people.

Then there is the devil, whom Henry identifies as his violent father who brought him up with threats and fists. Henry wishes he could save his “friends” from this avenging, fallen angel who seems to stalk them. Then as he watches, someone starts slitting the throats of the women he has been watching.

Henry think he is the silent, suffering, guardian angel. He sees the women invite toxic masculinity into their lives and begs them (from behind his screen where he can’t be heard) to cease their wicked ways, but he “grants” them free will and does not intervene. Plato said that evil exists because of human “intimate indolence” – we can’t be bothered to combat it. Henry doesn’t try to intervene.

Until he does. Once Laura, the eater of heads, knows he is watching, it’s time for the final judgement, the battle between good and evil.

Is Laura killing and eating people? Is Henry’s dad really dead and gone? Why does Henry keep lathering up and wielding his father’s razor, yet still has a week-old stubble in the next scene?

Don’t miss it. It’s one of those films where nothing much happens for most of it, yet I found it impossible to turn away. The direction, the photography, the acting and the music are superb. It’s not a gorefest, nor is there (much) cannibalism involved, but the unravelling of the story is fascinating, and the idea that we are being watched, by a god, a devil or a hacker, makes for a fascinating story that stays in the mind afterwards, raising all sorts of metaphysical issues, including: why is it OK to eat sheep, but not their heads and hooves? Why is it OK to eat sheep, but not humans? And who is watching and judging us, anyway?