This is just a short snippet and I may try expanding this out in the future (or perhaps I will do less talking and simply make something which proves the idea better than an essay ever could), but lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about dreams and video games.
Walter Murch in his amazing book “In the Blink of an Eye” theorizes why film editing works. That seems like a strange thought at first. Of course it works! But Murch points out that film works very differently than the way we normally see the world. Reality, as we often perceive it is a single continuous stream of information. Much of early film attempted to replicate this, to eliminate or at least disguise the need for editing. The Hitchcock film “Rope” or the awesome opening scene from “Touch of Evil” come to mind. Both of these examples use very very long takes, take great measures with set and camera movement in order to eliminate the need for cuts.
But of course most films aren’t like that. Most films jump around, from shot to shot. Some do quite rapidly, while others use this technique in it’s most abstract filmic way, such as it’s use in montage, where unrelated scenes and pictures are edited together to create meaning and narrative.
Murch primarily relates this to the blinking of our eyes. The way we cut life up into little chunks. Some neuroscience guys think this may actually be a necessary brain function (sort of like clearing the RAM on your computer every once in a while*). Hence the title of the book.
But Murch also relates film to dreams, saying
The visual dislocations that happen all the time when we dream. I believe that one of the secret engines that allows cinema to work, and have the marvelous power over us that it does, is the fact that for thousands of years we have spent eight hours every night in a “cinematic” dream-state, and so are familiar with this version of reality.**
Now many, perhaps far too many comparisons have been drawn between cinema and video games. That is not my intention. Rather, I use Murch’s example because I think it draws some interesting ideas. Cinema may be a little like dreams, but dreams are infinitely more like video games.
The movie watcher observes cinema. Dreams are not merely observed, but experienced. They are participatory.
Just as strange as film editing may seem once comparing it to normal life, so too video games share more with dreams than they do with reality, and in fact they share more.
I’m not just talking about the psychedelic colors and the mushrooms that increase your size. I mean also how objects take on iconic and symbolic importance. Things are not merely things, they hold distinct meanings. This of course is true in many ways for all forms of art, but for games it takes on greater importance as these items fulfill mechanically and toolish needs.
This is just a brief though thats been sort of echoing in my head. I’d like to develop it more of course. Right now there isn’t much of a conclusion. Its more of a “Hey… thats kind of neato”. If you have any thoughts, my ask is open.
*Excellent RadioLab episode on the subject [here]
** Quoted from an NPR interview [here]
Want to know something weird about video games as an art form? They’re all backwards from the rest of art. What I mean is that while painting, sculpture, film, and books have progressed from realism to abstraction (Leonardo Da Vinci ——> Picasso), video games have progressed from abstraction to realism (Pong ——> Gears of War).
Lets look at one of the first video games.
That’s Space War, one of the first games made. Way back in 1961 when a bunch of dudes at MIT were fiddling around with computers that were meant for entirely different things. Kind of like how middle schoolers like to spell OBOE and BOOBS with their calculators.
That stuff is really sparse. It had to be. There’s limited resources and coding even that rudimentary game was a real pain.
Let me compare this minimalism to painting.
Here we have a painting by Mondrian (1921)
And here we have a game of Pac-Man (1980)
Okay so maybe De Kooning or Jackson Pollock aren’t drawing animated fruit and hungry ghosts. There’s a connection in abstraction though. By necessity video games were when they first began, abstract. Not only in a visual sense but in their narrative sense. The atari game “Adventure” has you playing a colored dot, moving around colored shapes, to hit or avoid other colored dots. Pointing out the weirdness of a plumber fighting turtles to save fungus or yellow mouths eating spirits goes without saying.
Abstraction to Realism:
This seems pretty opposite of how the rest of art has gone. Compare here a Wilhelm Achenbach (1850) painting:
and a Skryim (2011) screenshot:
Look at film. 1941 Citizen Kane takes great pains to create the illusion of reality while newer works like Tree of Life deliberately subvert that. Classical music attempts to create a rational structure for music while Noise Rock attempt to subvert the very concept of music. The relationship here has too large extent been pretty hostile too. If you don’t know much about art, then I’ll just let you know that modern abstract expressionist tend to take a very poor view of realism, while on the other hand realism tends to call all the abstract fellows as snobs.
The Real Point:
I must make a confession. This narrative I’ve been weaving is exactly that. A narrative. A story. A lie.
There are true aspects to what I’ve been saying here and the parallels I draw aren’t entirely void. But it’s an over-simplified story. There has always been abstract art alongside realistic art. The history of art doesn’t have a nice easy 3-act structure. While often times that’s the way it’s portrayed, art has gone up and down depending on the needs of the culture. Here’s a very good example:
Zelda. The Legend of Zelda like all other games of it’s time progresses from abstraction to realism as technological boundaries are pushed. And yet… and yet it can draw parallels to a much different kind of art than Picasso or Rembrant.
Check this out:
Medieval and iconographic art is interesting. They don’t really try to be realistic, at least not in the Renaissance tradition of perspective and proportion.
See how the figures sizes don’t change depending on how far away from the foreground? There is some limited difference for things in the far flung background like the castle but the figures in this picture are rendered on a non-realist perspective.
This was an important tool of iconographic art which was more a symbolic art form than a literal pictorial representation.
See how the abbot is bigger than all the little guys? That’s because he’s the HEAD GUY not because he reigns over a monastery of devout dwarfs. (though that would be cool)
So lets look at Zelda. If I asked you what perspective the original games were from, what would you say?
Overhead view right? Or maybe “top down”?
Woah! What the hell is going on here? Nothing is in perspective, see?
Ganon and Link are from some kind of 2/3rd view, the floor seems to be seen from straight above, while all three of the walls are themselves being viewed as if slightly from their opposing side. And if you look at the bushes outside they’re from straight above too while the rocks are only slightly tilted
Zelda’s perspective wasn’t some clever reference to medieval art. It was an demand of function. They were trying to make as much of the game visible for the player. Cubist work flouts expectations trying to go against the realist tradition. Medieval perspective however is primarily a demand of function. The need to show figures clearly and establish their hierarchy of importance. You could say in more ways than one that Link really is an Icon.
Non-realist perspective and rendering isn’t only limited to postmodern paintings. In fact a large proportion of art falls in this tradition.
So what’s my point here? Maybe nothing at all, except a couple observations about the history art in video games and the options that are still wide open for exploration. Games don’t have to shoot for realism to make engaging immersive experiences. This is becoming more obvious as we begin to hit the peak of technology with diminishing returns.
I’m a fan of realism. I’m a fan of abstraction. Perhaps though what I love the most is the kind of sincere and magical art of medieval tapestry and the Zelda games. Where it isn’t a painting about painting about painting, or art about art, but instead just a story. Monks in the field, or a boy with a sword, those pictures which hover between worlds are the most inviting. Between the Real and the Unreal.
First thought- Performance Art is like a Video Game
Let me tell you about a very strange and weird experience I recently had, and how it gave me an interesting insight.
Last week, I went to a contemporary art show. It had a focus on performance art. I have my fair share of issues with contemporary art. I consider myself often at odds with it, and especially performance art. I even had a friend unfriend me once for a facebook status likening performance art to video games. Read on though and you may be surprised by this thought.
I wandered in, a man dressed like a ramshackle Katamari Damacy sat on a throne next to the door and muttered nonsense to himself. This itself was only whimsical, vaguely harmless, like something beyond the looking glass, but nothing that could harm you. I walked upstairs to the main event.
There was a room. Three women painted white, dressed in white, poured white sugar lines on the ground from a white gasoline can. One directed, one poured, and one cleaned up the mess. Surrounded by this, was a girl, all incased in plaster. I’d actually heard about this from the person who invited me. This girl incased her whole body in plaster, like being buried alive, and slowly broke out of it. The image of a butterfly coming out of its cocoon came to mind. I think often times, people grow numb to the crazy weird fascinating world around them. In order for this to happen, the caterpillar’s body basically liquefies. I guess bugs don’t exactly experience consciousness, but I have trouble understanding what it would be like to remain a thinking being while your body dissipates and reforms. By the way did you know that the last stage of the life cycle, the butterfly is called “imago”, the latin plural being “imagines”?
Anyway, next to all this was a fellow in a crushed blue velvet suit with a slicked back pompadour, playing a white piano and reciting nonsense poetry like some kind of late night jazz singer. If you got to close to him, or looked at him too long, he would stop playing and stare at you and smile. His eye contact was uncomfortable. You had the urge to look away, to ignore it happening. Look away and walk away. Everyone was clustered on the edges of the room, backs to the wall, watching, probably hoping that the jazz singer wouldn’t look at them.
It felt uncanny, like being in a David Lynch film. Steady repeating of senseless motion with a little weird American kitsch thrown in the corner for good measure. It got stranger still though. One strange, long haired, Japanese man just walked into the middle of the room past the sleeping guy in the kiddie pool (oh yeah, I forgot about that guy, he didn’t move much), right past the white sugar lines and stood there. There was a sudden rapid motion from one of the ladies in white. The other two dashed to his side. The one with the gasoline can laid a line down in front of him, ringing him back in, and hurriedly the other with the broom swept away the line that was behind him. He was back outside the perimeter. What had seemed to been senseless clock work had a rhyme and reason. It had rules.
Like a game.
Video games have had trouble being called Art. One major charge laid against them has been that they’re interactive. They’re not guided experiences like a movie or a poem, or painting.
I decided to test my theory that these were the rules that this game operated on. I steeled my courage, tried not to look at the smiling jazz man and walked, exposed in the whiteness, into the center of the room. The white ladies swarmed around me and did their duty. The line was swept from behind me and a new line was in front of me. I felt a bit like I was on the edge of the apocalypse.
I took another step, crossing that line again. They came back, bustling around me without saying a word. I was winning the game.
Art isn’t interactive. Here though is performance art, and it’s also interactive. Remember that friend who got mad at me? My sarcastic insight has been that a performance piece I had seen a different night was basically just a shitty parlor game that wasn’t much fun.
Video games can be competitive like sports, but they’re also explorations. Explorations of mechanics, rules, understanding “how things work”. Contemporary art could probably learn something from game design. The weird conceptualizing of contemporary art could be utilized with the more structured “experience” design ideas of video game designers. That would be interesting.
What Halloween Houses can learn from Contemporary Art
Here was the second insight. After this weird little game experience, I walked down stairs (The elevator was mostly empty but occupied by a girl dressed as a cheap clown hooker playing 80s UK club music. Most people took the stairs). I headed towards the bathroom. There. In the corner was person. They wore some shapeless white clothes, a torn white hood with a face drawn on it. Behind them was a recorder. A voice spoke, distorted, slow, low, like a kid with Down’s Syndrome being possessed by the devil. She just stared. Every few minutes she would take a sponge, soak it in vinegar and drop in a glass fish bowl filled with baking soda and it would sizzle like bacon, and foam up. It smelled awful. Vinegar smells so bad. It was pure uncanny creep out.
The Uncanny is a huge thing in contemporary art circles. The Uncanny, as used in art circles, is a strange thing made familiar, or a familiar thing made strange. The whole Uncanny Valley thing, which many gamers are familiar with, is very much in line with this. Contemporary art doesn’t like making pretty things because that’s uncool now. At least the uncanny shit is awesome though.
I had two insights then, going to unload the rest of my cautious nervous bowels.
- Smell is fucking important for these kinds of in body experiences. The really creepy thing that cinched it was the smell of vinegar. The smell of death thick in my nose.
- Halloween houses could learn from this.
You know those corny-ass haunted houses? They turn out all the lights and get some guy to rev a chain-saw in the background. They’re really goofy. It is kind of freaky having a man waving a chain saw running at you, but they aren’t really that scary. Often just stupid.
That girl didn’t chase me. She didn’t say anything or even move. She just stood there, and it was one of the scariest things I’ve seen in real life. I was in a bright hallway surrounded by people. By myself? I’d have peed my pants.
I mentioned David Lynch earlier. He’s the master of the uncanny. Could you imagine a haunted house like Eraserhead? If you haven’t seen it, check this out I want a Silent Hill like horror experience. A haunted house like that would be next level shit man.
Wanna help me make one?
Sometimes I go to forums and talk game design theory. It’s just really interesting stuff even if you don’t play games. In the process of one conversation I wrote out a really crazy long reply and I felt like posting it.
So I had a thought I was mulling over in my mind.
Batman has been around 70 years. Comic book characters are revamped over and over and over again. They’re retold constantly, kind of like a modern equivalent of the oral storytelling tradition of mythology.
Many video games repeat in a similar way. That’s a huge part of the Final Fantasy and Zelda series.
Now of course not all video games do this. Particularly in western developers you tend to have more arc based stories with a finite stretching point. And technology changes, and so games series are constantly going in and out of fashion. Sonic has been nearly beaten to death, and despite it being the 25th Megaman anniversary, you don’t see a single game coming out for it this year. Even so I think we can probably expect new games to be coming out for those series.
Zelda, Metroid, Megaman, Castlevania, alot of these games have just celebrated their 25th anniversaries. That’s a quarter of a century. I would bet they’re probably going to stick around for awhile longer.
What I would like to discuss is a little more specific than “What is the future of gaming/these franchises?” I’d like to take the discussion further.
It’s a given that the tech and game design mechanic innovations are going to change, and trying to predict is going to be hard. So what is going to be the future of these games from narrative and mythos perspective.
Think about how Batman has changed in 70 years. Pulpy villians of the week, campy weird TV shows, gimmicky gadgets, brooding macho psychopaths, deep character driven stories. There’s this deep well of history behind this character, just acquired over time.
Where do you think the video game equivalents might go? What would it feel like to watch your great-grandkids play the newest Zelda game? Or hell you play it with them. The name Hero of Time takes on a new meaning, eh? Or Final Fantasy XXVI. That was a hidden joke in Deus Ex, but that might actually come out someday.
I think we can expect Final Fantasy to expand as a brand more and more and more. They’re constantly adding direct sequels and side stories to the franchise. I think eventually you are going to see a dissipation of the hardline numbered series into a vast franchise brand, similar to Disney. Final Fantasy has a lot of affinities with the Disney brand, not just in their Kingdom Hearts involvement. I think the corporate philosophy behind them is also pretty similar. Disney loves to market and monetize their IPs as much as possible. SquareEnix also has a similar drive to create physical loot and swag for their players. They reissue games, they’re more agressive than any other third party on the Nintendo platform for getting their games redistributed. Much like Disney limits the number of DVDs they let out of the vault, Square Enix loves their limited editions.
I think Zelda is probably most analogous to Batman in these examples because the focus on non linear, nonsensical, un connected mythology enables the mythological retelling of Link to go pretty much uninhibited ad infinitum. Batman doesn’t have to worry about continuity because comic book continuity is so freaking crazy that the average fan doesn’t know it and doesn’t care. Batman is recreated so many times that people don’t see him as “a man but a symbol”. The two most iconic version of Batman in the last 20 years have been Nolan’s movies and Frank Millers Dark Knight, and neither of those is even canonical. Link doesn’t give a fuck about canon (though the new timeline is interesting, lets face it. It’s going to get weird again before long). I think in 70 years Zelda will probably be still around, but the number of incarnations will be so huge and multifaceted that it’s going to take on a particularly different tone in peoples minds. Zelda has that repeating mythology at it’s heart and thats just going to grow deeper and deeper.
Mario? I guess he’ll be around, but I don’t know how. He’s called the Mickey Mouse of video games, and that’s probably a good clue. Last time I check Mickey doesn’t come out in anything new anymore, but I don’t think Nintendo is just going to stop making Mario games. Though maybe they will. Mario already is beginning to take on an absurd level of abstraction in his stories. At the beginning of Galaxy 2 you can practically hear him groan “Ugh. Not this again.” While Mario World felt like it took place in a real kingdom with continents, geography etc, Mario Galaxy 2 has you running around blank space riding on a ship made out of your own head. Which is pretty absurd. Maybe he’ll just be like the Monopoly Guy or something, where no really pays attention to him, so abstracted and repeated that he ceases to be a character and just becomes a trademark.
Metroid, Castelvania, and Megaman all have much more tenuous futures I think. They haven’t been given quite the same attention or esteem as the rest. I’d say we might very well see Megaman become like Felix the Cat. Everyone knows him but doesn’t really care.
But then again, what do I know? I’m not a wizard.
Prompt by Dan Noar: jackie chan adventure talismans but with the western zodiac
Aries—The Ram: Juggernaut like abilities, where forward momentum allows the talisman bearer to charge through almost any obstacle. This talisman works it’s greatest strength with willful or stubborn personalities. Those who are most narrow in their vision and driven to their task will gain much, both in power and peril through this strength.
Taurus—- The Bull: Great strength. The abilities of this talisman are fairly straightforward. However, they also come at a cost. The strength of the bearer depends on the their inner strength. This strength derives it’s measure from the restraint of the character. Those with anger issues are most often prone to enjoying this talisman, but only those who control it also can gain its true potential, much like a great bull must be lead by the simple ring in their nose.
Gemini—- The Twins: The bearer of this talisman can exist in two spaces at once. They will be able to be both in the kitchen, and in the backyard, for example. They will retain full control over both sets of themselves, which will be indistinguishable in how “real” they are, however, these two sides of themselves will not share the same knowledge until they come back together. Those who seek this talisman are of two kinds also. They are either deceptive, being people of low integrity and willing to live double lives, or they are thoughtful introverts, people who are used to thinking, talking to, and spending time with themselves as company.
Cancer—- The Crab: Those who use this talisman become unbreakable. Cancer is a constellation set in the sky by Hera, who sent the Crab to fight Hercules. When Hercules smashed the Crab’s shell, Hera honored the Crab by placing his image in the sky. Those who take this talisman will be able to endure infinite trails and never break. Those who are most attracted to its power are the ones who have already endured the most, and have a survivors heart.
“So, where did you get this game?” asked Dan. He was the youngest. He was sitting on the ground his arms wrapped around his legs.
“I got it from mom. She said we were being too noisy. She started making that clucking noise with her teeth. That’s a bad sign. Means she is getting grumpy.” Replied Ben. He was the oldest. In his hands he held a battered box, with little tuffs of furry fuzz around the corners where the cardboard had been worn down.
“So whats the game called?” That was Julie. She was in the middle. She looked skeptically at the box. It looked there might have been water damage.
“Its called “Sir Langolier’s Grand Ol’ Race to the Finish.” A big toothy hick was plastered across the front. Most of his face had been ripped away or stained till it was unrecognizable. His expression was akin to someone passing a kidney stone.
“I’ve never heard of it. Looks like mom got it from the junk heap or the Goodwill or something.” Julie eyed it with disgust.
“Neither have I.” said Ben. He was a little crestfallen but it was his job to entertain the younger kids.
“Me either. It doesn’t look very famous. It looks old. Not like out monopoly game.” This was Dan speaking. He was a little confused by what this game was.
“Why don’t we play that?” he asked.
“We used all the money in that bonfire. No more money.” Ben remembered that. He got in trouble with Mom for that. She had done more than cluck then. Dan and him had decided to reenact Batman: The Dark Knight. It had set off the smoke alarms and left a brown stain in the living room. Mom put an ottoman over it.
“Oh.” Dan started picking at the carpet and looking around
“So how do we play?” asked Julia. She felt she might as well get it over with. Plus having the bonfire brought up again made her want to play it safe.
“Well we roll the dice to see who goes first.” Ben began unpacking the board. It was pretty play. Just a blue piece of cardboard with an oval track with red and green squares on it. There was one set of cards that went with the set. Ben placed them in the center and picked out the sing die. Eveyrthing was a little stained from the water damage. And there was some warping on one of the corners. It was playable though.
Ben rolled a three, Julia a four and Dan a six. So Dan went first. “Then you go to the next space, and pick a card.” Ben pointed to the stack of cards in the center.
“It says, “Go One Space”” Dan read aloud.
“Okay, my turn.” Said Julia. “Give me a card”
“Mine also says “Go One Space”. Now we’re even!” Julia was excited. Even playing field now. Not too far, but she could still pull ahead.
“Mine says…. Mine says “Go One Space” also. Wow. This games is… weird.” Ben looked won at the card in puzzlement.
“I am sure there are different cards. Let me shuffle them.” Ben grabbed the cards and began shuffling them. He then passed Dan a new card.
“Okay and mine says… go one space.” Dan began picking at the carpet again.
“You suck at shuffling.” Julia squinted her eyes and made a face at Ben.
“No I don’t. Let me check.” Ben grabbed the cards from her and began looking through them.
“They… They all say “Go One Space” Ben’s mouth hung open. When he finally closed he just looked around in a daze.
“Boy this is dumb.” Julia sneered.
“Yeaaaah” Dan said, and fell back on the carpet with a thump.
Prompt by Jacob Carr: A group of children gather around to play a new board game, but it is quite possibly the lamest board game ever.