Castlevania: Symphony of the Mike, Part 2 – A Miserable Pile of Secrets

alucard

In the first part of this series, we looked at the psychology of Dracula and how his behavior evokes the feelings that go along with some neurological conditions. I used my own experiences with OCD and tourettes to look at Dracula in a new way. We saw how a history of generational trauma can exacerbate these conditions, and how the stigma associated with both these conditions and with a history of trauma haunts us to this day. But what of Alucard, the protagonist of Symphony of the Night? When we engage the game through this lens, how do we see his family history of trauma, his personal history of abuse and his own tendencies towards neurological conditions shaping him?

Alucard’s first appearance is in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse which takes place in 1476. Alucard starts as an enemy of Trevor Belmont, the vampire hunter come to destroy his father, but after a battle he joins those opposing his father. Upon defeating Alucard, he tells the player that it was a test, and that he has been waiting for someone to help him defeat his father. This is something that has apparently been on his mind for some time. After the events of that game, Alucard disappears for the next four hundred years, sealing himself away because he doesn’t feel fit to live among normal people. While he is hundreds of years old, he is still physically and psychologically only 18, a teenager.

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We don’t know much about Alucard’s childhood, but what we do know is not pretty. Alucard’s mother was killed by an angry mob for consorting with a vampire, and Alucard watched her die. This event is also presumably what pushed Dracula to declare war on humanity, and he raised Alucard to hate and reject his human side.

What does it mean to raise a child to reject a part of themselves like that? I can tell you from experience how much it hurts. My father suffers from pretty bad OCD tendencies. If things are out of order in his work or living space, he gets fidgety and angry. If he’s having a conservation, he may need to repeat the same idea several times or else it doesn’t feel right and he gets angry. If the OCD was bad, he would need to pace and talk, and if he was in any way prevented from doing that then it means whatever is preventing him from doing that is trying to hurt him. None of this would be insurmountable to deal with, if not for the fact that my father has never been able to come to terms with the fact that he has these issues. Remember what I wrote last time about my family’s history of surviving purges and genocides? Part of coping with that was a need to present ourselves as strong and without weakness. Admitting to weakness could get you hurt, cast out, or even killed. Add society’s stigma against mental illness to that and you have a recipe for trouble. Admitting one has OCD, even just a little, is exposing a weakness to the world that cannot be allowed. This meant that there needed to be another, external source for his anger and frustration. Growing up as the only person in the family diagnosed with anything meant that I was often considered that source.

My father loved me and he could be the greatest father in the world growing up, but whenever the OCD crept up there would be a change. If that feeling of dread that comes from the compulsive and negative thoughts came upon him, it had to be MY tourettes and OCD CAUSING him to feel that way. I would be told, angrily, how I was causing his problems or ruining the family because I was so broken. Whenever I had my own OCD thoughts and issues, it would retroactively justify those feelings. This switch from positive father to enraged father could happen without warning over the slightest thing. It could also end just as quickly, and then the universe seemed entirely different. It really was like living with two dads. Worse yet, trying to discuss it could trigger that very switch. As I grew older I learned it was better not to try and fight with him over it and instead to retreat, but even then he would pace outside my room, muttering or yelling about me. I began to feel like a monster. After the OCD feelings ended, he would act like nothing had happened, and if I brought it up it would be dismissed as fantasy, or if those obsessive thoughts remained provoke him into yelling again. If even having it acknowledged could risk ending “loving dad” mode, wasn’t it better to just accept it and internalize it? If he was a loving father most of the time, then wasn’t I bad for judging him when he did go on an obsessive rant? Of course, the reason he couldn’t deal with his condition was the stigma attached to it, which I know all to well myself, and while of course that doesn’t excuse that behavior, it does make it something I can sympathize with conceptually. So how do you interally balance all that? Emotional abuse like what Alucard must have experienced trains you to doubt yourself and come up with excuses for others. 

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Every relationship, be it familial, romantic, friendship or otherwise, has moments of miscommunication or crossed wires. Every relationship requires us to navigate these moments and negotiate or compromise with each other. No one is perfect and no one can be expected to understand someone else 100% of the time, even those we love. But when the existence of these moments is used as an excuse to harm someone or to ignore harmful behavior, it becomes abusive. It warps our perception of reality, creating a mental understanding of the world where one party feels it is ok to hurt. The very existence of another point of view, like that of the victim, is enough to feel like a challenge that must be met with aggression or punishment. It is easier for them to hurt someone else, even someone they really may care for, than confront a perception of reality that is not their own. In time, this can instill a perception of reality within the victim that it is ok to be hurt or that it is deserved.

Abuse isn’t kind enough to be the exclusive domain of literal monsters. It’d be a lot easier if it was.

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Even after my dad came to terms with his condition and began earnestly working to improve his mental wellbeing and his relationships with others, the past had its impact. That training in self-hatred meant that in future abusive relationships with other people as an adult, it wouldn’t be difficult to convince me that I deserved everything, and that it was unfair of me to “dwell” on something those people did like, say, hitting or mentally tormenting. It is surprisingly easy to be told that you’re not “allowed” to mention that you were hit and still make excuses for them. “Good people don’t hit for not reason” I was told in this later relationship, “and I’m a good person, so you need to take responsibility for making me hit you.” Once the entire event was agreed to be “off limits” the next step was to convince me it never even happened. “I never hit you, you would only say that if you didn’t really love me” and even “you would only say that because you have tourettes and therefore are crazy. You can’t trust yourself, you can only trust me.” When someone you love, who may even love you, is abusive, hating yourself is a remarkably effective defense in the short term. Even when you know you did nothing to justify it, you’ll live with it if it means those moments end quicker. Just take it on yourself and maybe they’ll go back to loving you. Isn’t it worth allowing yourself to be defined as a monster if it means less pain?

The player decides if Alucard is a fighter, a magician, a vampire, an explorer, a hoarder, a sneak, a problem-solver or whatever else defines how they choose to lead him through the castle. What the player has no control over is how Alucard responds to others. Alcuard is not particularly talkative in this game. It is easy to see Alucard’s dialogue when speaking to Maria or Richtor as cool aloofness (even as a stereotypical lone-wolf badassery), but I recognize it as fear. Opening up to others risks being hurt, and potentially even worse it risks you hurting someone else and having every horrible fear you have about yourself confirmed. It is far easier to withdraw inward than take that risk. The idea that someone could see Alucard as cool doesn’t even cross his mind, he’s just trying to get through those conversations as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Imagining Alucard’s entire childhood of one of constant abuse and neglect doesn’t ring true. There had to have been good experiences along with the bad, or else Alucard would have no problem rejoining humanity. Alucard seeks to define himself as everything his father is not, even taking a name for himself that is LITERALLY the reverse of his father. But even then he has his own feelings of affection for his father. While we never see all of Alucard’s past, it is all too easy for me to infer one that is conceptually close to my own. I can’t help but define Alucard’s background just as I define how he moves and fights.

Is this game canon? If so then Alucard's childhood had a lot of happy times as well!

Is this game canon? If so then Alucard’s childhood had a lot of happy times as well!

Dracula is, both literally and figuratively, a monster, which makes Alucard the son of a monster. His childhood was spent hating himself for being half-human, and now as an adult he hates himself for being half-monster. Raised to despise and fear himself, his liberation from Dracula sadly only seems to have changed the source of his self-loathing. He fears he will end up hurting others the same way he was hurt, and so he withdraws.

The ultimate tragedy of Symphony of the Night’s narrative is that being a commercial video game, there is never going to be a way for Alucard to interact with his father or his own feelings other than through violence and platform jumping. There’s no “therapy” button and you can’t equip “confrontational but necessary conversation as adults” in Alucard’s right hand slot. There’s no “fuck this castle shit, I’m going to move to another city and create my own family of like-minded friends” dialogue tree. Alucard can only fight his demons by actually fighting demons. Meanwhile in the real world, I can have an ongoing conversation and relationship with my father about his past struggles, and I can also have other figures of abuse who may as well be pixelated Draculas for all the resolution I can expect there. It would also be in my rights to choose not to have any relationship with anyone, and no one should feel compelled to maintain any relationship that makes them feel uncomfortable. I, and any other survivor, have more agency over my life and my understanding of myself than any fictional character ever will. Alucard has no agency of his own, he is simply a puppet to our commands and perspectives. Alucard’s only hope comes from the players and their thoughts and stories outside the game. Even outside of the player’s input, Alucard has no choice within the narrative as to whether or not he will fight Dracula, much less find a resolution to his past. Instead, that possibility for self-redemption is decided by another character, based on the actions of the player.

"'...I've come to destroy this castle' Stupid! Stupid! Why did I say it that way? Now she thinks I'm some kind of nerd."

“‘…I’ve come to destroy this castle’ Stupid! Stupid! Why did I say it that way? Now she thinks I’m some kind of nerd.”

Both Maria and Richtor are young, good-looking, single people. Either of them could possibly be interested in Alucard as a friend or something more, but Alucard will never act on that. Despite this, it is still possible for the player to insure that Alucard has a happier ending, where he is at least open to the possibility of intimacy again. Symphony of the Night has multiple endings depending on the skill of the player. This is somewhat similar to the multiple, skill-based endings of its spiritual cousin-franchise Metroid, but with one crucial difference. Metroid infamously has its tough, no-nonsense heroine strip down to her skivvies if you beat the game under a certain time limit, serving as an out-of-character reward for players who memorize and rush through the game. Rushing through Symphony guarantees you an ending where Alucard locks himself away from the world, with potential friends simply letting him disappear from heir lives. Instead, the best ending is rewarded to players who complete as much of the auto-map as possible. Each section of the castle you visit brings you closer to an ending where at least one person is willing to put effort into breaking past his shell.

It would be easy to see this ending as Maria putting all the effort into reaching Alucard, and Alucard doing nothing. That doesn’t seem to be a particularly powerful message (and it all but reduces Maria to a prize for the player), but I choose to interpret it a different way. In the good ending, Maria is putting in effort to reach and empathize with Alucard, but Alucard is also meeting her halfway, even if only silently. The difference between an Alucard who has fully explored the castle and one who hasn’t is that the former understands himself enough to know he is worth empathizing with, and that crucial difference is conveyed to Maria.

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Spoilers: People are sad and say lots of periods in this game. Also vampires.

Alucard fears that he is a monster like his father, and that he will only end up hurting others, and yet ironically it is only possible for him to open to the possibility of intimacy through mastering his vampire powers that make him a monster. Without acknowledging his “monster” side and embracing his heritage, he cannot completely map the castle. Remember, this is the same castle he lived in his entire childhood. He is relearning his home, understanding the place that shaped him and confronting the source of his problems. Only self-awareness and acceptance allows Alucard to convey that he is capable of connecting to others.

But what, exactly, does the castle say about Alucard and his childhood? What is Alucard learning as he explores its halls and fights its monsters? If this is where he grew up, why is it all unfamiliar? Or IS it unfamiliar? Next time we’re going to take a closer look into the castle itself and the creatures that live there.

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2 Responses to Castlevania: Symphony of the Mike, Part 2 – A Miserable Pile of Secrets

  1. Pingback: Castlevania: Symphony of the Mike Part 3 – | Video Games of the Oppressed

  2. Pingback: Castlevania: Symphony of the Mike Part 3 – Inverted Hassle | Video Games of the Oppressed

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