Playing Reija Meriläinen’s eerie computer game Survivor feels something like being in a bad dream. Starting off in a claustrophobic, fleshy cave, where an over-enthusiastic voiceover explains the rules, there’s a sense of foreboding that you can’t quite put your finger on. It doesn’t help that the sound design is a mix between Twin Peaks-y lullaby and animalistic foley work. The doors seem to growl open rather than creek.
Emerging from the soft tissue chamber into a gallery space, you meet the other players. These uncanny humanoids may act like friends, but they are in fact your opponents. The game’s surreal mission is to complete a number of “immunity challenges” that may or may not save you from being voted out by your fellow contestants. The winner is the last person standing, the sole survivor.
If the format sounds familiar it’s because Finnish artist Reija based Survivor on the long-running American reality TV show of the same name. “For the last few seasons, I became almost obsessed with the show, rewatching some of the seasons as soon as they had ended,” Reija tells It’s Nice That. “I started to wonder what it was about the show that was so intriguing and addictive, and actually even soothing for me, and clearly thousands of others, since it was still on air after all these years and over 30 seasons.”
For Reija it was never the jungle survival element to Survivor that appealed but instead she became fascinated with how the cliques, hierarchies and alliances formed in such extreme situations. “Also, how some people end up being left out, and then either voted out because of it, or kept in as an easy target that then might manage to claw their way back into the game,” Reija says. “The TV show clearly magnifies and highlights the subtle gestures and moments that build the power structures within the tribe.”
“Even though I am very aware of how artificially constructed and dramatised the situation in the TV show is, I find that it reflects a lot of everyday situations and positions that I have also found myself in at times,” Reija continues. “Social structures and the inconspicuous ways they come to be has always been a mystery to me – something I see happen but I do not understand, nor do I know how to navigate it myself. I am often super awkward and uncomfortable with new people and situations unless there are clear predefined patterns of behaviour in place. I have a hard time understanding how some people seem to navigate these social waters so ‘naturally’, when I most often feel really slow at learning to swim in them.”
Taking this rich subject matter as a starting point, Reija crafted the strange alternative universe of Survivor, working with programmer Santeri Räisänen and Eetu Sihvonen, who designed the 3D modelling, texturing and lighting, while she took on the narrative, design and visuals. “All of the characters have their own distinct personalities, but they are all kind of different aspects of myself, but magnified,” explains Reija. “I wanted the characters to be ambiguous in their age and gender representation, so that it wasn’t quite clear whether these were children or adults, male or female.” Making the game in Unity, it took about six months to put together, with sound designer Eero Pulkkinen and Swedish band Aukra adding their eerie footprints once it was completed.
As the game continues the announcer gets more frustrated and rude, bullying you and the other contestants about your lack of social skills and talent. Soon things really start to fall apart. At one point a contestant plummets from the gallery steps to their death – a harrowing action that goes mostly unnoticed. It’s a game that really tests your willingness to win, an as soon as you realise your complicity in the game, you lose morally, if not actually. “If you play this game, you are taking part in, and in a way cosigning the shitty structures that this zero-sum game is built on, that dictates that there is only one winner, and the others are losers,” says Reija. “In attempting to get ahead in the game, you are complicit in others falling behind and not surviving.”
The game, which is currently on show at FACT in Liverpool as part of exhibition States of Play: Roleplay Reality, is a weird and captivating reimagining of reality TV which both sucks you into the drama and critiques it at the same time. You’re complicit in the emerging social hierarchies and it gets increasingly creepy but, like reality TV, it’s hard to look away. “For me, it is a work that does speak about certain aspects of ‘real life’ and our society that I find difficult, or even violent,” adds Reija. “In my mind, this work is actually quite political – not in the way that it would have anything to say about party politics, but in the sense of talking about how life is in a capitalist, neoliberal society, and whether that life is sustainable in the long run, and who – if anyone – this system serves.”