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Posted on October 29, 2015

Game Horror, Circle (2015), and Lifeboat Ethics

Dawn Keetley

When Jigsaw, villain of the Saw franchise, uttered those now infamous words, “Want to play a game?” he articulated a particular sub-genre of the horror film that could aptly be called “game horror.” In this sub-genre, a group of seemingly random people are brought together by some unknown person or entity and forced to play a not-very-fun “game.” Sometimes the rules are made very clear; sometimes the players have to figure them out as they go along. Sometimes the game really is arbitrary and the players random; sometimes, though, the players are there for a reason—one they must figure out if they want to survive.

“Game horror” originated in 1939 with Agatha Christie’s mystery novel, And Then There Were None (made into a very good film, directed by René Clair, in 1945), in which ten people are invited to an island and are, one by one, accused by their absent host of the crime of murder. The host uses a gramophone record to lay out his guests’ crimes—a direct antecedent of Jigsaw’s recorded messages to the “players” in his games. Needless to say, in And Then There Were None, as in Saw, punishment ensues.

2. And then there were none

Like much horror, game horror also has roots in The Twilight Zone, specifically the 1961 episode, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (season 3), in which five characters wake up in a large metal cylinder and have to try to find a way out before they starve to death. This plot anticipates the many subsequent films (Cube, Saw, and Circle) in which characters wake up in a strange place, disoriented, and with no memory of how they got there.

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