Here at the Nintendo Enthusiast, we think you deserve a better class of miscreant writers. To be honest, it’s our raison d’être — to publish interesting gaming journalism with an occasional hint of absurdity.
Which brings us to what some consider a fairly absurd topic — videogames as art (to be clear, this is a topic deserving a full-length essay, so consider this an opening volley). Just google the phrase and you’ll find virtual page-upon-page of comments on the subject. Unfortunately, this little debate tends to bring out the irascible side of gamers. How can those so-called public intellectuals like Ebert think that games are…well, games?
To be fair, the Eberts of the world have a point, in that art as they’ve known it is passive. Sure, you can internalize some meaning from listening to The Beatles, watching The Godfather or reading Tolstoy, but the artist is taking us for a ride and we are willing passengers. Games are a bit different — we take part in the action. True, we’re mostly following the path laid before us by the game designers, but there is a competitive aspect to gaming more in line with sports than with art (the multiplayer of Call of Duty and Halo come to mind). This is a chasm not easily crossed by non-gamers. It’s possible that it isn’t passable at all. Therefore, instead of trying to tell these folks that games can indeed have the artistic punch of a Puzo novel, why don’t we attempt this from another angle? Why don’t we get a little absurd?
Surrealism isn’t just something games are good at, it’s something games can do better than movies. Better than books. Maybe even on par with the fever dreams of Salvador Dali. You can do more than just observe the absurd in Super Mario Bros. – interacting with the world peels back deeper layers of surrealism. The farther you go, the thicker the madness. Like a painting, this madness doesn’t necessarily have to follow the plot line of a novel, or the narrative of a movie. It just is. Any writer or director would have a hell of a time simply describing the scenery in the most surreal videogames.
However, as Alex touched upon in his retro review of Castlevania IV, games can channel this sort of craziness without losing the overall mood set by the art. The whole Castlevania series works its particular brand of somber Gothic adventuring with distinctly surreal level design and enemies. How serendipitous, then, for our current banner to feature a possible spiritual successor to the Belmonts – Pandora’s Tower. As much as anything, this is why I’ve taken such an interest in this particular title, the last of Operation Rainfall’s trilogy of JRPGs. Yes, its blend of action/adventure gameplay with traditional RPG leveling up has also caught my imagination, but its absolutely surreal world and plot are no less intriguing.
Pandora’s Tower looks to be an acid trip of a fairy tale, with the action and adventure of a proper epic. It plays to the strengths of its videogame heritage by creating a world (and an experience) that simply wouldn’t fit as well in another medium without serious compromise. How many movies would dare hang their central plot point on a vegetarian victim forcing herself to eat raw meat? How many books could ably describe the action and surreal environments without becoming so verbose and overwrought as to be unreadable?
The surrealist nature of game design frees it from these sorts of questions and restrictions. It allows a very different type of art to be crafted and appreciated. Instead of developers aiming for ever-more realistic graphics married to Bruckheimer-esque plots in a pursuit for artistic legitimacy, maybe they could be taken more seriously as “artists” were they to indulge in the freer surrealism that videogames not only allow, but thrive upon.
Couldn’t hurt, though.