Ok folks. This is going to be a doozy. There is a war going on in the world of video game art and it has parallels to one of my favorite time periods in the art world. The gaming industry is going from the Neoclassical era to the Romantic era, similar to the famous Ingres and Delacroix rivalry. Zelda is a prime example of this.
Here is a quick, low level breakdown of some of the vocabulary I will use and what it means. Here is a link to more information if you feel the need to peruse for further edification.
Neoclassicism – This style harkens back to Classicism (neo simply means new) which is a Western form of high-art. Basically, it’s ultra-realism with either a focus on struggle (serpentinata) or divine beauty (dats purdy). This style is also used to highlight political issues or war (Death of Marat and Oath of Horatii by Jacques-Louis David) and tends to show man conquering nature. You see this style constantly because American government buildings are created in this style since it was popular during the founding of America and French Revolutionary periods.
Current games, in my opinion, are going through a Neoclassical stage in popular media. We have multiple war based games which focus on extreme realism, and games in the RPG vein are going for some sort of divine beauty which may be unreal but still very rooted in realistic rules of aesthetics (such as lighting filters, bump mapping, etc.). Yes, this can go into Surrealism quite a bit but Surrealism itself uses Classicism as a means to an end. Now this is not to say war and politics are only for Neoclassicism – they can be used by both styles.
Romanticism – This style is a bit harder to pin down and explain. The use of personal symbolism and style over realism comes into play far more than anything else. This style also has a real sense of nature vs. man. The artist acts more as the creator and doesn’t ignore all of the rules of realism but sometimes makes choices that a classicist would balk at (3rd of May, 1808 or Disasters of War etchings by Goya) such as turning a helpless protagonist into a giant turkey being tortured by pitchforks to show the horrors of war. Or one you probably know, The Scarlet Letter, forced the letter A as a symbol for “Adulterer” onto the main character. Either way, the artist creates the symbolism and chooses how to portray this ideal in the most forceful way possible.
Current games, in my opinion again, have begun to play more in to the Romantic art style of the game to further either its artistic symbolism or to focus on emotions behind the characters (Wind Waker, Xenoblade Chronicles, heck, even Metal Gear Solid) in a way that pure realism can not. This comes not from a lack of skill but from a desire to push the boundaries of art beyond what is just plainly there or to give more of an immediate effect on the viewer.
With this being said, Neoclassicism has always been an easier sell to the general public. It is immediate, pointed, and beautiful or dire. Most of all, it is easy to understand and admire. Romanticism has always been the harder sell but leaves the viewer more emotionally connected if they get it. The problem is Romanticism is not necessarily something everyone gets or even that the artist wants people to get. If you look at anything by the contemporary artist Sandy Skoglund (just google that craziness) you can guess all day what the painting is, but she wants the viewer to make their own connections, and that takes work.
Zelda’s new reveal is just what I expect to be fully Romantic in the most interesting way possible. It is a game that forces you to forge your own route (with multiple ways to figure out problems) and make your own connection with the world, according to the creator. It has a beauty that takes the rules of realism and applies the artist’s own choice in brush stroke for immediate effect literally (with a very painterly style) or figuratively (look at how disruptive and fast the mechanized/dark magic spider thing is to the almost timeless natural beauty around). I also question, why the blue shirt and hooded figure? We know who it was – but why did Link (or is it really Link? The artist wants us to question this right now) only unmask himself at that point before destroying the obstruction to the natural beauty around it.
Zelda has always been full of artist based symbolism, nature vs. man ideology, and above all strong artistic decisions which leads me to my final reason: we are seeing the Ingres vs. Delacroix movement again.
Let’s talk about Ingres and Delacroix.
Ingres – An artist who uses realism to create absolute beauty. Most of his creations are unrealistic – but only after close inspection, because he makes things more beautiful than humanly possible (adding more spine to the Grand Odalisque for example). Ingres and his kind ruled the art world during his time period.
Delacroix – An artist who used color and brushwork to give immediate effect and mood. While based in realism, he broke rules and innovated to create things that were not merely representations or embellished recreations of what existed. He tried to show how something can be perceived beyond that to instill emotion (not like EA’s “Emotional Sports” I promise). This was unheard of at the time and not very popular to commoners.
You see, these guys were polar opposites vying for attention and trying to control the art world. There was constant bickering back and forth between the two that even escalated to a bit of a spillover at a party once. We are currently going through a very similar phase in the videogame world. While this is not an exact representation of what is happening, it is the closest approximation of an Avante Garde (a massive change or anti-popular-art movement) in the artistic style of the video game world I see currently, and which has slowly been steeping for years.
This generation we are seeing the palette as nearly full. All the colors and mediums (ways to create art such as clay, paints, and pencil) that can be attained in the video game art world are reaching a plateau as we only need to create what the eye can understand. You can create things beyond the uncanny valley now, but you can only see so many pixels at certain distances. Animations are becoming lifelike at framerates that are close to what we can perceive. The time for realism in videogaming is reaching its threshold and will eventually begin to lose favor to the new.
The new is now letting the artist create art. The new is creating worlds and ideas that change how we perceive the videogame world and our world around us. Whether you realize it or not, video games are an art form that is unfortunately catered to what is popular and easy to understand right now. Eventually the Neoclassical movement in video games and those who paint (or create) in this style will wither away to some extent. This is already happening. The only ones who will still be around will learn to change and recreate themselves. You can already see this happening with EA’s move to “emotional sports” or in Call of Duty’s move to sci-fi style because they can only get so much more real visually.
Nintendo has always been the Avant Garde of video gaming. They create new styles and new ideas, and this is what has and will save this industry again. Profit and those who invest in games will go with whatever is popular and refine it until the spirit has gone away and all you have left is a very pretty shell of what once was. Then again we will have a new Avant Garde in the industry or it will die. I hope Nintendo continues to innovate and create rather than refine more than once or twice on their own ideas. The serialization and propagandization of the video game industry is killing it. In the art world there is the Salon, a popular art show, and the Salon des Refusés, the artwork rejected from the Salon. I look forward to the oncoming Salon des Refusés from gaming’s Neo-Salon, E3, its eventual refinement, and what will come next.