In Douglas Boswell’s Dutch film Labyrinthus, a boy named Frikke (Spencer Bogaert) finds a mysterious video game that comes pre-packaged with an unusual camera. Anything that he takes a picture of can be uploaded to the game, with the caveat that it will leave only an empty husk back on Earth. Frikke becomes much more careful after his sister’s cat lapses into a coma.
Things take an even more sinister turn once the game begins in earnest. Frikke soon learns that his opponent has taken a photo of a young girl (Emma Verlinden) and damseled her into the Labyrinth that comprises the game. She can’t remember who she is or how she got there, but the game master informs Frikke that she will die if he refuses to play. Frikke soon finds himself conducting parallel investigations to figure out who the girl is and who’s pulling the strings within the Labyrinth.
More importantly, it’s an accurate representation of the way people consume games in the 21st century. After finding Labyrinthus, Frikke starts playing before reading the instruction manual and without giving it a second thought. It’s a game. It looks cool. Why not give it a try? He doesn’t suspect anything more nefarious because there’s nothing particularly special about an online game.
That’s also what makes the film unexpectedly poignant. Originally released in Belgium in July 2014, the production predates Gamergate and the violence that followed. Labyrinthus is a work of fantasy without any direct ties to actual events.
However, it’s impossible to overlook the parallels. Labyrinthus speaks to modern concerns about safety and consent in online spaces. Frikke is not informed of the life or death stakes until long after he’s started playing, at which point it’s far too late to stop. The girl – Nola – is trapped in the Labyrinth with a monstrous, razor-clawed stalker, adding a sense of urgency as the game becomes more perilous.
But it’s only dangerous because another player has imposed his own set of rules that the other players did not know about or agree to before the game began. There is nothing about the Internet or online gaming that inherently demands bullying or threats of violence, just as Labyrinthus is relatively harmless absent an opponent.
Yet those who engage in abusive behavior will insist that it’s somehow intrinsic to online experiences, overlooking the fact that it’s a form of violence to force other people to interact in a manner not of their choosing. We’re instead told that we should ignore it, or that death threats don’t matter because they take place in virtual spheres.
Labyrinthus powerfully communicates just how inadequate and nonsensical that suggestion is in practice. Unlike Frikke, Nola was photographed and placed into the game without her knowledge. She is not even aware that she is playing, yet that does not protect her from the life-threatening scope of someone else’s actions.
The same is true for people in online spaces. The Internet is an essential, public tool in our society. That’s how we learn and trade the information that we need to get by. Like Nola, we cannot choose not to play.
And again like Nola, that does not shield anyone from the specter of violence. Trolls try to convince us that abusive behavior is harmless, but it is terrifyingly real for those affected. It transforms discovery into survival horror, an act that causes tangible psychological harm no matter how thick one’s skin is.
Labyrinthus is so potent because it makes the implied violence painfully physical, a literal depiction of comment culture taken to its logical extreme. If you die in the Labyrinth you die in real life, a fictional construction that nevertheless captures the brutally unfair way in which people are singled out for harassment. Women and children are subjected to violence not because it is intrinsic to the Internet, but simply because men are cruel.
The events in Labyrinthus are not natural. They happen because there is a criminal perpetrator setting them in motion.
It’s therefore appropriate that the movie’s villain is a man who cannot accept the rapid social changes that occur when technology becomes more acceptable and accessible. He believes his violence is justified because it will stop a world gone wrong, a world that was perfect and therefore should stay the way it was.
Phrased differently, the villain is a man afraid of change, someone increasingly unsure of his own role within society. He’s unwilling to perform the basic self-reflection that would allow him to find a new purpose in a shifting landscape and therefore chooses to lash out and ruin other people’s lives as a form of vengeance.
Labyrinthus is a children’s film (mostly) free of real-world controversy, so most people will watch without considering the broader implications. It’s a fun flight of fancy that can be watched purely for its own considerable merits.
But that’s not what makes it truly fascinating. Deliberately or not, Labyrinthus is one of the best expressions of game culture I’ve ever seen on film, both for the way it handles violence and the brighter future that it hints at. For Frikke – and for an entire generation of children – games and cameras are not divine, sacred objects. They’re tools that exist without necessarily implying anything about identity or the normative way things are supposed to be.
They’re also tools that anyone can and should be able to use because they are an extension of the physical world we inhabit. To suggest anything else is to restrict other people’s freedom, and there is never any justification for that kind of violence.