I can still recall a video I saw on Newgrounds of animated hamsters, because it was the first time I ever heard of bukkake. (Warning: NSFW content.)
The strange human-mouthed rodents on the Flash video site were already unnerving and bizarre to 10-year-old me. But then, when I looked up what bukkake was, I felt like I'd discovered something. I wasn't sure what, but I definitely felt something that wouldn't go away.
That's the feeling that game designer and rapper Lena NW chases in her games. She posits that these experiences cross wires, alienating us from ourselves. In a sense, it's liberating — you're free to explore new fetishes, for example. In her new browser-based game Viral, Lena tries to shock us in a way we haven't been since we were kids exploring things we probably shouldn't have on the Internet.
Content warning for discussion of sexual assault and suicide, and for extremely graphic, possibly disturbing imagery.
As the game loads up, you're given a half-serious, half tongue-in-cheek trigger warning. It doesn't come off as abrasive or dismissive, so much as your first sign that things are about to get really damned weird. The loading screen sports a pulsating anus. Soon you'll see tons of mangled, distorted genitalia.
Lena NW stands at the uncomfortable intersection of feminism and 4chan, and Viral, like much of Lena's work, is often coarse and pointed. She fervently critiques rape culture, and broaches often taboo topics like pegging and oral. Both Viral and her debut game Fuck Everything channel the abstract imagery and photoshopped body horror of the AlbinoBlackSheep and Newgrounds era. With each, you're presented with a series of surreal vignettes that attempts to capture a more tangible feeling or idea. They use shock — mangled pictures of genitalia, for example — to express a feeling of alienation with one's body and with sexuality broadly.
These days, as adults, we're probably generally familiar with basic human anatomy. We understand what goes where, when, and how. It's difficult, then, to shock an adult with the basics of the human form, the way we would have been shocked when we were younger. So, channeling some of these sites, Lena molds and morphs bits of us to craft her message.
Embodying its creator's digital fluency, Viral is packed with allusions to early web videos and net culture. Together, they explore the otherworldly experience of learning about, and growing up with the internet as a portal to, sexuality. Everything from the commodification of bodies to the way it allows us to cultivate an image that more closely matches and fulfils our ideal. Viral doesn't have anything concrete to say about these experiences, but it does highlight them and, in so doing, attempt to normalize them.
Viral presents itself as a visual novel with multiple branching, dialogue-heavy paths. Your goal is to go viral by building up your social media presence in various ways. You can write venom-laden manifestos, post cute selfies, or just vlog about your daily struggles.
As you play, you'll shift through a few different faux sites with obvious real-world analogues. Instead of YouTube and Instagram, you'll be uploading snippets of your life to MeTube and Instacam. Your goal is to leverage each to build your brand. It's not clear if you're doing this purely for personal or commercial reasons, but in either case the use of each site feels like a grind, like something you're obligated to do. Occasionally, you'll create something inspirational or make a valuable connection, but you'll have to sift through a lot of shit to get there.
Rape, body horror, slut-shaming and the like are all recurrent themes, but here they're distilled to their most extreme. You're a woman on a date with a dude, but he's a fedora-tipping caricature, so over-the-top as to be ridiculous. But everything in Viral is so: the scenes are uncomfortable, disturbing and extreme. There's a lot of gore, struggles with feeling valuable and healthy, body image issues, and even rape.
Playing Viral is often nauseating, but evocative. Lena doesn't condone the practices she explores in her game, but she does use it as a sort of psychic sandbox.
At one point, she said in an email, "the main character shoots up a fraternity house infamous for sexual assault ... She throws ping pong balls into their arseholes (she's playing 'beer pong' except their stretched open arseholes take the place of the solo cups) before shooting all of them and then killing herself."
Lena says that a lot of her work comes from trying to make sense of her own sexuality, her own feelings. Lots of media includes graphic depictions of women being subjugated and tormented, so she wanted to flip the tables. At the same time, a good chunk of this, she says, aligns with her own taste in media. She happens to like a lot of brutally violent and sexual media, noting the gore-centric "guro" genre of manga as a major inspiration.
As a result, Lena's work wrestles with the inhumanity of digitised and mediated sexuality. Each segment offers up of a slice of a larger idea. Posting a selfie, for example, is gratifying because it (both the game, and the literal act of taking a selfie) gives you agency over your presentation. At the same time, it can feel hollow and empty as if you're cutting up parts of you to sell, essentially, in the marketplace of time. Viral doesn't claim that either is better, but it does want you to understand how both feel against the backdrop of body horror-inspired sexuality.