The Shapeshifting Detective: Voyeur Fantasies

Content warning: sexual assault

Alright: last week we talked about The Shapeshifting Detective in terms of genre, and this week we’re talking about the form. If you’re not familiar, The Shapeshifting Detective is a full motion video game, where everything takes place in a filmed, live-action setting, as opposed to being animated like everything else. And at first it does seem a little kitsch. The acting doesn’t feel natural – it often feels more appropriate to the stage than the screen. But after ten minutes or so, you sink into it. There’s something hypnotic about watching these actual people – and talking to them from the other side of a computer screen. Normally when you have a conversation, it’s a two-way thing. You speak and you are spoken to. You think about how the other person is perceiving you, how you’re coming across, and you often change your behaviour accordingly. In The Shapeshifting Detective, you can have conversations without all of the attendant social pressures. You can observe the people you’re talking to without being observed in turn. You can be a voyeur.

This voyeurism theme takes shape in a few different ways. It’s part of the character conceit, in that you play a shapeshifter. You can take on the appearance of other people and have conversations without being identified for who you really are. By taking on another person’s identity, you obscure your own, in some sense guarding yourself from the normal social consequences of your behaviour. You can upset characters while impersonating a third party, and those consequences never come back to you. Voyeurism is also part of the cinematography. Most of the game takes place in a first-person perspective, as if you’re seeing what the main character would see as you interview the suspects. But whenever you’re given a choice of responses, the game cuts to B-roll footage. It’ll be a shot of the suspect from the side, or a close-up on part of their outfit. In the image above, you can see a character’s hands and ring through the slats on the end of her bed. In these moments, the camera is liberated from the strict perspective of your character’s point of view. You can inspect a character’s dress and appearance even in the middle of this first-person conversation. It’s voyeuristic cinematography, releasing you from the feedback loop of normal conversation and allowing you to inspect the people you’re talking to without any social consequence.

The voyeur concept also comes up in that this game is fucking horny. I mean:

Everyone’s bonking in this game. There are relationships, affairs, one of the characters has a voyeurism kink – and you can join in too. You can have some sort of sexual encounter (attempted or otherwise) with at least six of the eight suspects in this game. You can watch sexy videos made by the murder victim, or deliberately misinterpret witness testimony as double entendre. By the end of the game, you can even start a romance. And there is, again, a voyeuristic quality to your actions. You can initiate these relationships without any threat or danger to your actual self. It’s fiction, right – it’s just characters on a screen. You are insulated from the relationship. You have distance and control. You can explore these sexual relationships without the risk, without the exposure of self and the social consequences that characterize any real-life encounter.

And yet The Shapeshifting Detective isn’t necessarily enamoured with voyeurism or the voyeur. The character Zak Weston, the local photographer (above & below), is objectively the creepiest guy in the village. He is, like the player, something of a voyeur. He takes photos, insulating himself from direct relationship with the people in front of the camera by taking just their image. And that disconnect leads him into some shitty behaviour. He expects sex from the girl he’s dating, as if he has some inalienable right to her body. He’s very happy sharing the sexy lingerie videos of the murder victim. If you impersonate one of the female characters and go to his place during the night, he’ll talk you into a topless photo shoot and then roofie you. He’s scum.

Let’s talk further about that last one, actually. About halfway through the game, you can shapeshift into one of the female characters, Lexie, and go to see Zak. If you’re not too accusatory, he’ll invite you to be photographed. That’s a weird thing to consent to, given that it’s not your body. Would we call it an invasion of privacy? And then when Zac asks you if you want to take your top off – I mean, Zac believes he’s dealing with a consenting adult, so he’s not doing anything wrong by asking. But if you say yes, you’re committing a sex crime. It’s someone else’s body, and you’re showing it off without their consent. That’s pretty clearly a crime.

If the metaphysics of that scenario are too ambiguous for you, though, let’s move on to another one. Early in the game, you learn that Oscar, boyfriend to the murder victim, has gone to see one of the tarot readers who predicted the victim’s death. The tarot reader herself refuses to disclose what the two of them discussed in their meeting (citing tarot reader-client confidentiality). But you can take on her appearance and go to see Oscar, inserting yourself into their relationship to try and figure out what was said. Oscar doesn’t say a lot – just talks about how the tarot reader tried to contact his dead girlfriend in the afterlife. And then he asks you on a date. “How about soon? How about tonight? I can come to the guesthouse?” Bit of a weird request, but maybe you decide to see where it goes. If Oscar is moving on this quickly, maybe he didn’t love his girlfriend to begin with. Maybe there’s a clue that will help you solve the case. So you can have Oscar over, and host an awkward post-murder date while pretending to be his tarot reader. You can even try to initiate sex. And if you do, that’s rape. People can’t consent if they don’t understand what’s going on. If they’re mistaken about your identity – they think you’re one person when really you’re someone else – that’s unambiguously sexual assault. There are no grey areas here. If you have sex with someone while you’re wearing a mask, and they think you’re someone else, that’s rape. They can’t give consent if they don’t know who you are. The same goes in this situation. The sexual assault is compounded by Oscar’s obvious discomfort. He starts by saying that he doesn’t want to do anything physical, and will repeatedly and explicitly tell you to stop, ultimately pushing you off and running out of the building if you continue with your assault.

So – man, where do you even start with this. There are legitimate questions about whether this game handles its content soberly and responsibly. It doesn’t explore your actions in any sustained or meaningful way. It doesn’t particularly encourage you to reflect on what you’ve done. And there aren’t any ongoing repercussions for you as a player or for your character – because Oscar thinks the tarot reader assaulted him. The Shapeshifting Detective will let you run around sexually assaulting people with little to no consequence. That’s pretty gross. And if you wanted to say that the game was immoral and bad for not taking a heavier editorial hand, I wouldn’t blame you. What I will say – not as a defence, just as an acknowledgement – is that it’s thematically consistent. The game sets up Zac as the resident scumbag voyeur. It gives you a clear example as to how voyeurism can cross the line into sexual assault and rape – again, Zac drugs you, with the clear intention of taking advantage. And then it asks you how you want to play. You can be like scumbag Zac, or you can impose your own moral boundaries despite the lack of external pressure or consequence. A feminist might contend that it is precisely the lack of consequence that is the issue – that we need better systems of accountability. I understand that line of argument. As a supplementary, I’d also suggest that we don’t want people to do the right thing only because they’ll get into trouble if they don’t. We want people to do the right thing because it’s right. We want good action to be the product of a good heart. To that end, I think there’s something in The Shapeshifting Detective. It asks a question that needs to be asked: how will you behave if you know you can get away with it? How do you act when there aren’t any consequences for your behaviour? Do you treat people well because you genuinely care about them, or are you just afraid of negative consequences if you don’t?

Shapeshifting also offers some reflection on the role of fiction in all of this. Fiction is a space where you can explore ideas and concepts under an insulating layer of unreality. We play modern military shooters, where we take lives and fight in wars that would be deeply traumatising in real life. Fiction itself is voyeuristic, allowing us to explore and navigate without the consequences we find in reality. But, as Shapeshifting reminds us, fiction isn’t always consequence-free. It’s maybe not as unreal as we’d like to think. That’s the startling thing about playing a full motion video game – in a medium that focuses on animated or cartoon characters, we’re suddenly confronted by real live people. And they’re acting, sure, they’re just playing a role – but their presence on the screen as real living people, as opposed to the more familiar animated avatars, reminds us of the connection between fiction and reality. There isn’t a clear line between the two. They bleed into each other. They are characters, and they are people. Your actions are consequence-free, but they’re also not. You’re a voyeur, released from direct connection with other human beings, and yet also in dialogue with the whole of society. Ultimately, The Shapeshifting Detective offers a complex interweaving of power, consequence, and the inconsequential. It allows you to look, but doesn’t promise that you’ll like what you see.

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