Blood, Sweat and Sand: The Politics of Barbarian Horror in Funcom’s Conan Exiles, (2018).

von Gerard Gibson

I find myself naked and alone in a desert, not sure which direction to go. The shadows of vultures circle me on the sands. I have no water, no food, no weapons, and I trudge past the ancient, broken ruins of a roadway in search of shelter and sustenance. Dried branches, fragments of rock and scrubby plants dot the dunes. At a broken monolithic gateway, a huge bat-demon feasts noisily on the body of an armoured man. I run past as it roars and lifts into the hot sky. It doesn’t take long before starved, overheated and dehydrated, I collapse on the shifting sands and die. [1]

Barbarian survival horror?

Conan Exiles (2018) is an unforgiving open-world survival game based on the writings of Robert E. Howard. When first surveying the copious merchandise and paratexts surrounding the expansive Conan franchise, it may seem difficult to believe that this game has strong horror elements, or that it offers any value to discourses of horror or politics in popular culture. [2] It has always been considered difficult to succinctly define moving image horror, whether in film or video games. Carroll (1990) offered a valuable definition of Art-Horror built around monsters, categorical interstitiality, threat and disgust, and while his theories on horrific biologies offer insight, this definition does have its limitations.[3] Hills (2003), extends Carroll’s theories beyond its reliance on the visually monstrous and repellent, noting how the presentation of events and mise en scène can also elicit powerful experiences of horror even when no monster is actually embodied.[4] Taylor (2009), reasons that genre boundaries are by nature loose, and that it is the resemblance or kinship between narratives that indicates their true natures.[5] Taylor goes on to suggest that survival horror games are defined by a narrative and aesthetic focus on horror, and gameplay which emphasises survival in malevolent surroundings.[6] Hand (2004) notes that survival horror is ‘…a game where the player leads an individual character through an uncanny and hostile environment where the odds are weighted heavily against the avatar.’[7] Kryzwinska observes that horror survival games compel players to investigate and fully colonise the game space to uncover the story behind the game.[8] She also notes that in such games death is offered as a transgressive spectacle.[9] While Conan Exiles might not immediately spring to mind as a survival horror game, it meets Taylor’s, Hand’s and Kryzwinska’s criteria. Conan Exiles is marketed using imagery which is consistent with a fantasy Role Playing Game. The title itself, the fonts chosen for its presentation; uncial outlines with patinated distress, and the muscular, arboreal imagery used, all suggest a sword-wielding physical heroine or hero wrestling with the wilds of a primitive, untamed world. The game can certainly deliver these motifs, but there is much more at work here. Exploration of the spatial setting of the game, environments and locations brings players into unavoidable contact with bloody dismemberment, widespread cannibalism, monstrous creatures, contaminative evil and eldritch horrors. It is impossible to play the game without encountering these horrific themes, and they act as narrative keystones which hold other aspects of the game together. Avoiding these themes would also entail circumnavigating large portions of the game map. Without the horror elements in Conan Exiles, the player would not fully experience the text and the overarching story-world would simply not make sense. These factors seem to indicate that horror is an essential aspect of Conan Exiles, even though this text is not marketed as horror. These considerations also suggest that genre identification may be a more complex task than it at first appears. Generic compartmentalisation, however intuitive and understandable, impinges on the critical engagement with a broader range of horror discourses. Mark Jancovich (2002) argues that genre classification in film has a reductionist effect limiting understanding of the complexities of how audiences consume and contest cinematic stories. [10] Stephen Owen (2007) recognises the vital taxonomic role that the concept of genre offers, but persuasively reminds us that any stability that the term might otherwise promise is unreliable and fragmentary.[11] Stacey Abbott and Lorna Jowett (2013) have also astutely observed that the conventions and iconography of horror and the Gothic permeate the most mainstream popular narratives, from children’s cartoons to prime-time police procedurals and that, in so doing, horror has become widely disseminated across mass culture.[12] With games such as Capcom’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017) or Konami’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009) the horror aspect of the narrative is obvious, foregrounded and transparent. Players understand what they are investing in, or avoiding, with such texts. These games are marketed to appeal to horror fans. Horrific motifs and imagery, Abbott and Jowett argue, are actually much more widely and subtly dispersed across popular culture, and often horror is narratively deployed without its presence even being noticed by viewers/readers/players.[13] From graphic operations in medical soaps to the cadavers of the forensic lab in police dramas, imagery and story motifs that were once the preserve of horror now add realism and heighten audience experience. Horror is no longer just a type of story, it has become part of how we tell many types of stories. Conan Exiles therefore is perhaps all the more interesting since it offers a less frequented viewpoint granting a useful reminder of how concepts of genre can subtly bracket, and thereby shape, discourses.

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What can a 1930s barbarian offer to survival horror audiences?

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) was a pulp writer of the 1920s-1930s. After decades of neglect Howard’s work is the subject of a burgeoning field of academic study. His creation ‘Conan’ has proved an enduring popular icon for the past 86 years. Howard wrote freely across a range of adventurous topics, and saw his most successful work published in the influential pulp magazine Weird Tales. Like many pulp writers of his time, he enthusiastically wove genres and ideas together to produce energetic and original, if at times somewhat unpolished, results. His correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft and contributions to Lovecraft’s Mythos reflect a shared interest in storytelling, the antiquarian, the exotic, and the horror of the existential. These themes permeate the Conan cycle and the stories shift effortlessly from chivalric romance to sword and sorcery, to science fiction to cosmic horror. Queen of the Black Coast (1934), admirably exemplifies this cohesive fusion of genres.[14] Howard’s writings, with solitary combative protagonists, hostile environments and monstrous foes from incomprehensible dimensions, are very much a core part of the cultural milieu which has informed survival horror game series like Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Infogrames Alone in the Dark (1992-2015).

Conan’s longevity in popular culture also suggests that the character and his setting speak in meaningful ways to succeeding international generations.[15] Howard’s fictional Hyborian Age had its own narrative vigour; a world where identifiable cultures from different eras anachronistically co-existed, enabling Classical Romans to battle Teutonic knights, and Spanish buccaneers to plunder the barges of ancient Egypt. Conan himself and his world were so vividly and fully realised by the author that, after Howard’s untimely death, many other writers added to the canon, bestowing the modern Conan with a unusual quality of collaborative authorial gestalt.[16] Such was Conan’s narrative adaptivity that he became an early transmedial icon.[17] Elliott Winter (2013) argues that the barbarian’s deceptively simple skin disguises a subtle character whose essential Otherness means that, as a disenfranchised and objectified outsider, Conan seldom conforms to conventional male power roles, hierarchies and story functions which subvert his outward appearance and our expectations.[18]

Funcom’s Conan Exiles takes concepts from the Conan cycle and applies them to a sequestered location, the Exiled Lands, where the cultures, history and interactions of Howard’s fictional Hyborian Age are distilled to form the ingredients of a barbarous crucible. This artifice geographically concentrates the breadth of Conan’s considerable story-world and allows game developers and players to exert more authorship. In the Exiled Lands it is possible to craft new stories faithful to Howard’s concepts unencumbered by the inertia of the existing weighty canon.

A hauntological world

Location plays a lead role in Funcom’s text, and contributes as much as any character. The Exiled Lands act as prison, hostile environment, biosphere and resource. This landscape becomes a text which reader/player traverses and within which they must orient themselves. The horror is dispersed throughout the game; the ruined towers, forgotten arenas and dank creature-filled crypts punctuate an environment where a cannibalistic populace struggles to survive. Whilst set in a mythical past, this environment displays clear post-apocalyptic aspects, suggesting an uncanny merging of past and future, offering an interesting variation on a conventional horror genre trope. The land is littered with harvestable resources, almost every rock, twig and plant available for the player’s use. Predatory creatures roam the wild, from the sandy deserts through to the forested highlands, from the snowy wastes to the volcanic caldera. The sandbox is vast, constituted from seven distinct biomes, forming naturalistically grouped communities of flora and fauna. Each biome has its own unique tribes, historic legacy, culture and distinct creatures with their own specific threat and use-values.

Many locations possess a striking visuality evoking hyperreal landscapes and settings, such as Vasquez Rocks, Monument Valley, Kenyan Savannah or Lauterbrunnen Valley; places whose substantial narrative heritage and familiarity in image and on screen almost occludes their existence as genuine sites of geological heritage.[19] Other captives in these lands, Non Playing Characters, are algorithmically dispersed at random across colour, gender, occupation and Howard’s anachronistic cultural models. They occupy niches they have aggressively carved out in this tough world. Camps vary in size with the largest aggregated close to valuable geological deposits, historic remains or near areas of geographic advantage such as river and valley mouths. Larger camps boast skilled artisans. Most denizens repel any approach with merciless violence.  The scale of the Exiled Lands overwhelms and alienates the player. Resources are so scattered and scarce that we are compelled to explore every canyon, gulley and crevice, as Kryzwinska theorises, with every discovery placing the player in greater peril. Dwarfed by the landscape, it is impossible not to feel beleaguered, lost and threatened. It is a vast, aggressive sandbox in which, as Ndalianis (2012), rightly observes, the player experiences the game in emotional, sensory and bodily ways.[20] Combat is graphic and bloody, with dismemberment and decapitation common. The corporeality of the digital avatar is strongly evoked in these brutal exchanges with different weapons eliciting different damage effects. The sword-wielding player may successfully slay a combatant who brandishes mere daggers only to find themselves bleeding to death from unnoticed and unstaunched arterial wounds. In the Exiled Lands the bloody barter of violence is imbued with its own economics.

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Faithful to Howard’s original Conan stories, the landscape is one which Derrida would have recognised as being distinctly hauntological; it is a world scarred by its past. This environment is shaped by forces which still have agency but no agent, generating effects which exert great power over the player’s experience of and interaction with their surroundings.[21] Politics and horror suffuse the game; history has created a deadly, ruined world and the ossified imbalance of power has reduced all to competitive savagery. The extinct elite, despite their absence, still control this realm. The dead past has a choke-hold on the present. Ruins litter the deserts; broken bridges and forgotten aqueducts span valleys and rivers, and occult obelisks dot the map. Cities have decayed through decadence or calamity into haunted wastes clogged with dunes or jungle labyrinths overgrown with huge trees. Encountering the cyclopean ruins, twisted creatures and spectres of past exploitation enables the player to slowly assemble a historic narrative of capture, enslavement, oppression, rebellion and cataclysmic war. As is common in survival horror notes and diaries left by the dead broaden and deepen the narrative. The ruling elite destroyed, the stranded slaves have been trapped, left to compete for survival in the wreckage of war. DiTommaso (2009) notes that the presence of such motifs in narrative often suggests an eschatological dimension at work, and that despite greater cultural diversity and competition, the teleological aspects of apocalyptic themes are undiminished in their appeal to contemporary mindsets, both religious and secular.[22] These factors add particularly resonant political dimensions to the Exiled Lands for post 9/11 sensibilities.

Cannibal politics

Conan Exiles world of broken towers, blasted rock and forgotten monuments, evokes our own world and digitally manifests the material dialectic first clarified in Marx and Engel’s The German Ideologies.[23] This digital landscape, reflects the one observed by Marx, an environment which he depicted as the primary source of all human labour:

‘Thus Nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, one that he annexes to his own bodily organs, […] As the earth is his original larder, so too it is his original tool house. It supplies him, for instance, with stones for throwing, grinding, pressing, cutting, & c.’ [24]

 The Exiled lands, as Marx observed in the European landscape is littered with the artefacts and instrumentalities of previous social economies:

‘Relics of bygone instruments of labour possess the same importance for the investigation of extinct economic forms of society, as do fossil bones for the determination of extinct species of animals.’ [25]

 The ruins of the Exiled Lands promise the player influence and power, but not without an ethical  cost. The Non Playing Characters encountered here have outlooks and actions consistent with desperate individuals unwillingly cornered in a land with limited resources and overwhelming competition. Trapped in a desolate landscape by the remnants of fallen institutions, survivors bereft of resources or security, alone and in loose social groups, struggle violently to subsist. This low-ethics, high-toxicity environment has distinct resonances for a society still recovering from recent economic collapse. Aggression and cannibalism thrive in the Exiled Lands shattered social framework, where all are objectified, having become mere utilities for exploitation. This is a bleak vision of the moral disarray of a fallen materialist culture, where everybody is out for themselves. In times of economic hardship, it seems ethics are an unaffordable luxury. Every body is, in fact, a resource to be exploited and many Non Playing Characters see the player as nothing more than a walking feast to add to their larders, vocally greeting you as such. Cannibalism is a natural part of the politicisation of the landscape, and is presented as a viable option for prospering in the game. This too resonates strongly with many current economic practices, such as zero hours contracts, which exploit the precarity of the individual and the availability of a mass of potential replacement workers. While cannibalism is an isolated feature of some horror, in Conan Exiles, it is very much part of the broader mise en scène. Players may fight over resources, but they can then harvest, cook and eat their fallen enemy. In lieu of more technological weapons, a severed leg is a serviceable melee weapon. This anthropophagia evokes unresolved discourses and questionable representations surrounding colonialism while foregrounding some of the most anxious psychological dichotomies of personal human experience. Cannibalism is a powerful narrative motif which disturbs core perceptual boundaries; differentiations of subject/object, living/dead, consumer/consumed, mind/body, nature/culture and self/other.[26] The act of carnivorous violation of the body of others also carries an inherent aspect of biological violation of the self. By consumption we violate that which we are. Certain recipes in the crafting-tree, such as the creation of shamanic animal companions, can only be achieved by the harvesting and processing of human flesh. Being offered these options challenges players to reflect on the cost of their survival and even provokes a consideration of personal mores. Cannibalism emphasises survival over all other priorities. This in turn relegates all other factors such as ethics, morality and respect for the individual. It emphasises continued singular existence at the cost of a wider, collective responsibility and culture, a particularly resonant and relevant theme in present times.

The dialectical landscape

Location plays a pivotal role in the game, a reminder of the spectres in our own landscapes. Jellicoe and Jellicoe (1996) theorise that land has been used by humanity, since ancient times, to create structures which reflect our abstract thought.[27] The Exiled Lands, whilst a digital simulacrum, can be seen to mirror contemporary geographic and anthropological theories. Steffen (2013) comments that the environment can be recognised as a ‘layered entity’ on which history has been written and erased by disparate groups.[28] Nora (1989) implies that the changes in landscape, such as exploitation of resources or abandoned development act as a collective archive for the diverse groups which contest its control.[29] The Exiled Lands, in their verisimilitude, offer the player a digital metaphor for our own historically cluttered biological and economic environments. They offer a fresh viewpoint affording the player a chance to wonder, to perhaps look deeper, to see past the too-familiar streets, bus lanes and fields we hardly notice, and to identify and re-evaluate what lies beneath: an environment which bears the marks and lesions of millenia of hierarchical socio-economic struggle. The polygonal game environment invites us to intellectually excavate the similar traces found in our landscape, to recognise the archive of material contestation which has been rendered invisible to us by our inhabiting of it. The Exiled Lands throw into contrast the geophysical and cultural scars written on our own world.

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The ruined cities and damaged environment of the Exiled Lands evince, as Marx observed:

‘Instruments of labour not only supply a standard of the degree of development to which human labour has attained, but they are also indicators of the social conditions under which that labour is carried on.’ [30]

We see the social politics at work by examining its ruins. Their gargantuan size of the ruins in the exiled lands diminishes the avatar, reducing them in the visuality of an embodied social order, objectifying them, reinforcing individual insignifigance. The player discovers, through exploring these ruins, uncovering parchments and finding coded megaliths, that humanity were disposable commodities for the ruling elite, inconsequential slaves supporting an economy focused on the acquisition of power by occult means. This detail is evocatively resonant of the modern digital credit economy, where investment ‘wizards’ spirit theoretical millions across accounts around the globe, and of hierarchical relations between manual labour and financial institutions. Like radiation or debt, the mysterious sorcery of the elite lingers, unnaturally polluting the land, entrapping humanity within an inescapable fence, forcing them to fight for the limited remaining resources. This aspect of the game is particularly coincident with Marx’s writing in Capital (1887). The Exiled Lands, with its plants, rocks and mineral resources act as:

‘…a universal instrument of this sort, for it furnishes the locus standi to the labourer and a field of employment for his activity.’ [31]

And the player labours in this setting poisoned by past mistakes. The allegorical landscape of The Exiled Lands offers the player a digital lens through with a perhaps fresh view of the material world, to look anew at its history and question the mechanisms at work in shaping it and its inhabitants.

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The gory hand of the past

Howard recognised change and upheaval as elements which shaped the development of nations, cultures and individuals.[32] The rugged independence of Conan and his Hyborian Age, in as evident in Howard’s writing, reflects an American heritage and the ruthless self-reliance displayed in the colonisation of the North American Continent. This has implications for the game. In Conan Exiles unresolved historic moral dilemmas of genocidal colonisation, exploitation, and slavery receive fresh, narrative illumination, and their political and moral consequences are made bloodily clear. The player has two paths to survival in Conan Exiles; by means of their own expended labour, gathering materials, building a home and foraging, or by preying on other characters. Slotkin (1996), describes similar parallels being evident in the early formation of  American identity, and perhaps Howard’s national heritage and mythology has subtly seeped into the game.[33] Gathered, or plundered, resources form the basis of the game’s complex crafting-trees, recipes in which each material ‘possesses various properties, and is thus capable of being applied to different uses,’ to quote Marx.[34] The collection of simple vegetation enables players to make bedding, twine, rough clothes and basic foodstuffs. These resources may then in turn be combined with other matter to offer more beneficial results from increasingly complex recipes. This creates improved equipment, offers technological development, and make survival easier. Each of these achievements, however, is subject, as Marx also commented, to decay; ‘it falls prey to the destructive influence of natural forces. Iron rusts and wood rots.’[35] These relationships between labour and material, value express an anxiety about materiality perhaps raising questions a consumer society would rather not answer.

Conan Exiles, like many video games, relies on a flexible, object-oriented schemata for environmental and social interaction and resource management. The harvesting of the object, be it vegetable fibre, a node of iron ore or an animal, requires an expenditure of labour and in return offers a use-value when gathered. Non Playing Characters also fit in this scheme, offering both goods from plunder and, as previously mentioned, a cannibalistic source of food. They also extend a third value as thralls, which introduces a distinctly Nietzschean aspect to the game through slavery. The hyperreal landscape which resonates so strongly with the theories of Marx equally facilitates the Nietzschean urge to dominate:

‘…the masses are basically prepared to submit to any kind of slavery provided that the superiors constantly legitimize themselves as higher, as born to command…’ [36]

Conan Exiles seems to encourage this possibility by the inclusion of Non Playing Characters who are high-value artisanal specialists, offering unique skills, recipes and weapons available in no other form. This invites players to view other captive Exiles, as Marx noted of the labour market, as embodied commodities:

‘The continuance of this relation demands that the owner of the labour-power should sell it only for a definite period, for if he were to sell it rump and stump, once for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity.’ [37]

The player is again unsettled by ethical alienation becoming a slave who enslaves. Slavery is also an extension of cannibalism, reliant on objectification, the consuming of another as a means of production. The pursuit, brutal subjugation, capture and ‘breaking’ of another character is made shockingly visual; the bloody club and the collapsed, bound body being dragged away. The inclusion of this distasteful activity evokes the real horrors of slavery and brings to mind still unresolved legacies of such trauma which yet tether our societies to our heritages of slavery. It also stimulates consideration of the inequities of our world and the new slaveries at work in it, which exploit the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised. The Non Playing Character effectively becomes a cypher for other ‘on screen’ characters outside the game: the immigrant, asylum seeker or victim of human trafficking. Contemporary anxieties about the kinds of cultures our society can build are disturbed, perhaps inviting reflection on the balance of the individual and the group; considerations of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and between empathy and apathy.

Reaching a stage where the player has strength, resources and facilities to attempt to enslave a Non Playing Character, does require Herculean effort. It is much easier to kill and consume in the Exiled Lands, than it is to enslave and exploit. Nietzsche would likely have welcomed this representation of the savage human will to dominate, peeling away what he might have argued was the false veneer of civility. Young (2010) admits that, in Nietzsche’s philosophy, slavery is considered the basis for cultural achievement, both past and future.[38] Slavery, as a metaphor and an institution, are widespread throughout Nietzsche’s writings, and his shifting use of the term has led to multiple interpretations which arguably diffuse, dilute and even obscure what Nietzsche might have actually meant. To reach a plateau of success in Conan Exiles, the player establishes a model Nietzschean community in which they are supported on a pyramid of slavery, leaving them better equipped to pursue other activities such as exploration and colonisation. As Nietzsche said:

‘Let us not be deceived about how every higher culture on earth has begun! Men whose nature was still natural, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, predatory people who still possessed an unbroken strength of will and lust for power threw themselves on weaker, more civilized, more peaceful races…’ [39]

The ability to survive in this landscape means encountering other hostile Exiles, who are made peaceful only in comparison to the player’s own violence. Individual Exiles and small groups eventually become a mass, and Neitzsche advises ‘…where there are masses, there is a need for slavery.’[40] It is through slavery that the player gains the resources necessary to widely explore new vistas, and it is these new horizons which reveal the eldritch horror deeply interwoven throughout the game.

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Horrific biologies

Horror proliferates the ecology and history of the Exiled Lands. The predatory, non-human aggressors which are encountered there, embody the transgression of categorical boundaries expressed in Carroll’s fantastic biologies and structures of horrific imagery. [41] From the simple Shaleback, a vegetarian yet aggressively territorial, giant bipedal turtle through huge crocodilia,  giant lizards and snakes to titanic arachnids, simple magnification produces nightmarish and bloody encounters.[42] Waist-high spiders, high round backs glistening with vivid toxic hues or the colour of the desert sands, swarm and mob the player, their massification as disturbing as it is hazardous.[43] Magnification and fusion are used effectively to craft creatures such as the Bat-Demon, appearing like gargantuan bats fused with a muscular anthropomorphic somatotype.[44] Other creatures such as the formidable Sand-Reaper fuse locust, wasp and octopus to create something visually worthy of Lovecraft himself. Carroll theorises that the very spatio-temporal unity of such fused creatures disturbs us, just as horror itself challenges our physical and cultural schema. [45] This unease is reinforced by the vitality, strength and power these creatures carry in the game. Mary Douglas’ (2011) theories of the horror of impurity and decay are perhaps best exemplified by creatures in the environment that were once obviously human – skeletal soldiers guarding a lost, empty city.[46] These undying, yet lifeless figures mounting guard over the shattered towers of an abandoned metropolis are reminiscent of corporate drones carrying on the traditions and practices which wrought the recent financial collapse, unquestioningly serving extinct masters and flawed ideals. The disingenuously named Imps – scabrous and asymmetric creatures that resemble bloated corpses – also have clear human origins, perhaps Exiles who have been deformed by their inability to resist the unnatural radiating corruption in the land. These figures, in particular, unsettle, suggesting what might be the player’s own eventual end in this poisoned land. When exploring the vast, spectral underground ruins which offer the rarest resources, players – just like the Imps – can gain a staining corruption which damages health and energy. The threat here seems more than physical; something about the supernatural character and appearance of the various monstrous creatures encountered hints intelligence, and that they may threaten more than the avatar’s life with destruction. The ghosts that haunt this harsh indifferent land seem to imply that there is an existential aspect to our peril, and that contamination may stain and corrode more than the body. Yet for all these supernatural motifs, each of the creatures encountered, from giant snake to skeletal wight, have a materiality, an expansive but finite corporeality, a characteristic consistent with the original Conan stories. Every creature, though monstrous and strong, has enormous but concrete physical limits and with ingenuity, tenacity, skill or luck even the most formidable may be damaged, defeated or escaped. This might also reflect an aspect of Howard’s heritage; a pioneering, material, American self-belief rooted in Calvinism. In return for effort, the wilderness will sustain. Each corpse offers up unique valuable resources, and even the monstrous plays a part in the Marxist dialectic at work here.

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Monsters, as phenomena with significatory roots have, by definition, many meanings and this very adaptivity can makes them analytically elusive. Tamao Nakahara (2011) recognises that monsters possess cultural qualities unique to their origins.[47] Kendall Phillips (2005) observes that analysis of American cinema would seem to indicate that as cultures develop, their monsters evolve in tandem with them, suggesting that monstrosity performs a social function.[48] Stephen Asma (2009), argues that in a cultural context the monster may represent anxious manifestations of social responsibility, for that which is beyond our understanding and ability to control.[49] He points out that in contemporary society the term carries a prominent moral and ethical aspect, with modern monsters being the products of aggressive secular and religious ideologies which generate personal and social alienation.[50] Asma also notes however, that tradition has shown that where there are monsters, there are also heroic individuals who face them.[51] In the ludo-performative arena of gaming, monstrous creatures offer a challenge and an opportunity, acting as significant way-markers in the player’s mastery of the game. In this way, defeat of the horrific performs an often overlooked but perhaps valuable eudaimonic function.[52]

Funcom’s Conan Exiles is a gaming experience which has revealed some surprising depths. Player interactions throughout the game’s hauntological sandbox have a political dimension conforming to a chiasmic coincidence with aspects of Marxist and Nietzschean theory. The player labours in the landscape gathering material, creating use-value and struggling with the spectral forces at work. They are also presented with a game which, unlike most survival horror games, does not situate the player within a moral occult defaulting the player to the side of good or normality.[53] It offers an ethically neutral sandbox enabling the player to exercise moral, immoral or amoral choices. In so doing the game invites a range of moral and cultural reflections. It is clear that Funcom has laboured diligently and skilfully to carry over the ideals of Howard’s writing, and in so doing have revealed concepts and traits within Howard’s texts which allegorically reflect anxious aspects of the American identity; colonisation, violence, genocide and slavery. Notwithstanding its prominent fantasy aspects, Conan Exiles beds all these narrative experiences onhorror, confronting the player with bloody combat, cannibalism and the monstrous. The player is given an opportunity to write their own story on this abundant but morally blank landscape. Whichever path the player takes, as they struggle for resources, colonise the game environment, and uncover the deeper storyline, horror is an inescapable part of their tale. This analysis suggests that while horror may be understood to transgress the boundaries of cognitive and social categorisation, its hybridising nature seems to be just as able to break the boundaries of the concept of genre itself. Conan Exiles is a unique open world game without the obligatory moral compass; an energetic, bloodthirsty and compelling experience, shot through with thought-provoking political resonance and horror.


[1] Conan Exiles, Funcom(2018) may be played multiplayer online or solo, off-line. For the purposes of this article, the game was played off-line for an unalloyed experience of the developer’s ideas.
[2] Genette, Gérard, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans.byJane E. Lewin, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997 ), (p.2).
[3]Carroll, Nöel, The Philosophy of Horror, Or Paradoxes of the Heart, (New York: Routledge, 1990), (p.22).
[4] Hills, Matt, ‘An Event-based Definition of Art-Horror,’ in Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror, ed. by Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw, (Lanham:MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003), (pp.154-155).
[5] Taylor, Laurie N., ‘Gothic Bloodlines in Survival Horror Gaming,’ in Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., Inc., Publishers, 2009), (pp.41-61), (pp.46-47).
[6] Ibid, (p.48).
[7] Hand, Richard J., ‘Proliferating Horrors: Survival Horror and the Resident Evil Franchise,’ in Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear, ed. by Steffen Hantke, (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2004), (pp.117-134), (p.117).
[8] Kryzwinska, Tanya, ‘Hands-On Horror,’ in Spectator, Special Issue: Axes to Grind: Re-imagining the Horrific in Visual Media and Culture, Volume 22, Issue, 2, (Fall, 2002), (pp.12-23), (p.21).
[9] Ibid, (p.13).
[10] Jancovich, Mark, ‘Genre and the Audience: Genre classifications and cultural distinctions in the mediation of The Silence of the Lambs,’ in Horror: A Film Reader, ed. by Mark Jancovich, (London: Routledge, 2002), (pp.151-162).
[11] Owen, Stephen, ‘Genres in Motion,’ in PMLA, Vol. 122, Issue 5, Special Topic: Remapping Genre, (Oct., 2007), (pp.1389-1393), (p.1392).
[12] Abbott, Stacey, and Jowett, Lorna, TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, (London: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2013), Kindle e-book, Chapter 2, Location 708 of 4719.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Howard, Robert E. ‘Queen of the Black Coast,’in Weird Tales, (May 1934), reprinted in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, (New York: Del Rey Books, 2004), (pp.119–149).
[15] Prida, Jonas, Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian, (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013). (p.1).
[16] Authors are too numerous to comprehensively list: Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Björn Nyberg, Roy Thomas, are perhaps the most influential in shaping the popular image of the character.
[17] The Marvel Comics publications Conan the Barbarian, 1970-1987, and The Savage Sword of Conan, 1974-1995, used Howard’s original tales as a chronology, often presenting consistent and surprisingly faithful adaptations supplemented by original comic book material which covered gaps in the larger character narrative, offering transtextuality and transmediality.
[18] Elliott, Winter, ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women: Gender Dynamics in the Hyborian World,’ in Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian, ed. by Jonas Prida, (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013), (pp.51-69), (p.67).
[19] Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser, (Michigan: The University Of Michigan Press, 1997), (pp.2-3).
[20] Ndalianis, Angela, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., Inc., Publishers, 2012), (pp.48-49).
[21] Derrida, Jacques, The Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf, (New York: Routledge, 1994), (p.28).
[22]  DiTommaso, Lorenzo, ‘At the Edge of Tomorrow: Apocalpyticism and Science Fiction,’ in End of Days: Essays on the Apocalypse from Antiquity to Modernity, ed. by Karolyn Kinane and Michael A Ryan, (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009), (pp.221-241), (p.224).
[23] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Frederick, ‘The German Ideology,’ in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 5, Marx and Engels 1845-47, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), (p.xvii).
[24] Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, Book One, trans. by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, (Moscow: Progress Press, 1887), (p.128).
[25] Ibid.
[26] Lindenbaum, Shirley, ‘Thinking About Cannibalism, in Annual Review of Anthropology, 2004, Number 33, (pp.475–98). Available at:<http//:doi.10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143758> [Accessed 6 Oct 2019].
[27] Jellicoe, Geoffery and Jellicoe, Susan, The Landscape of Man: Shaping the Environment from Prehistory to the Present Day, Third edition, (London; Thames and Hudson, 1996), (p.6).
[28] Nijhuis, Steffen, ‘Principles of Landscape Architecture,’ in Flowscapes: Exploring Landscape Infrastructures, ed. by Elena Farini and Steffen Nijhuis, (Madrid: Francisco de Vitoria University, 2013), (pp.52-61), (p.56).
[29] Nora, Pierre, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,’ in Representations, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989), (pp. 7-24), Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2928520.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A6d683864f006a6da6ae12477ed35f22e>, [Accessed: 6th Oct 2019].
[30] Marx, 1887, (p.128).
[31] Ibid.
[32] Howard, 2004, (pp.379-398).
[33] Slotkin, Richard, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, (HarperPerrenial: New York, 1996), (p.4).
[34] Ibid, (p.129).
[35] Ibid, (p.130).
[36] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, with a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, ed. by Bernard Williams, trans. by Josefine Nauckhoff, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), (p.56).
[37] Marx, 1887, (p.119).
[38] Young, Julian, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010),  (p.160).
[39] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, ed. By Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. by Judith Norman, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), (p.151).
[40] Nietzsche, 2008, (p.131).
[41] Carroll, 1990, (p.42).
[42] Ibid, (p.48).
[43] Ibid, (p.50).
[44] Ibid, (p.45).
[45] Ibid, (p.44).
[46] Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, (New York: Routledge, 2001), (p.11).
[47] Nakahara, Tamao, ‘Making up Monsters: Set and Costume Design in Horror Film,’ in Horror Zone, ed. Ian Conrich, (London: I.B.Tauris and Co. Ltd.,2011), (pp.139-152), (p.139).
[48] Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture, (Westport, C.T.: Praeger Publishers, 2005), (p.36).
[49] Asma, Stephen T., On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), (p.257).
[50] Ibid, (pp.251-252).
[51] Ibid, (p.23).
[52] Deterding, Sebastian, ‘Eudaimonic Design, or: Six Invitations to Re-think Gamification,’ in Rethinking Gamification, ed. byMathias Fuchs, Sonia Fizek, Paolo Ruffino, Niklas Schrape, (Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2014), (pp. 305-332), (pp.323-324).
[53] Brooks, Peter, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, melodrama and the Mode of Excess, (New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1976), (pp.20-21).


Empfohlene Zitierweise : Gerard Gibson, „Blood, Sweat and Sand: The Politics of Barbarian Horror in Funcom’s Conan Exiles, (2018)“ in:  Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/670> 20.01.2020.


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