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LONG BLOG

Surrealism in Video Games

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While we're still probably years off from Death Stranding's launch, a lot of people are speculating as to what the story might entail. Some people think the game takes place in purgatory, where the characters are suck in between life and death. Others think the game will be set in Norman Reedus' subconsious mind. 

But right now we don't know. The imagery we've seen in the Death Stranding trailers has obviously been very symbolic, and the meaning of that symbolism is being speculated, but we won't know until we play it. Mads Mikkelson says he only understood some of the story of the game when it was explained to him. Maybe it was explained poorly, or perhaps we're going to see some psychological storytelling and a focus on surrealism.

Surrealism is described by the Museum of Modern Art as a subversion of literal and intellectual thought. 

"Surrealism was an artistic, intellectual, and literary movement led by poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. The Surrealists sought to overthrow the oppressive rules of modern society by demolishing its backbone of rational thought. To do so, they attempted to tap into the “superior reality” of the subconscious mind. “Completely against the tide,” said Breton, “in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally.”

When it comes to art, most people will think of M.C Escher, and his sideways stairs. He was known for a lot more than that though, and had a fascination with absurd and impossible architecture, angles and meshing elements together in ways they normally wouldn't. 

Day and Night by M.C Escher. 

Surrealism doesn't have to be abstraction. There needs to be something grounded in reality in surrealist artwork that attracts the viewer. There has to be a familiar element to bend expectations. In Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory, we know it's a messed up version of reality because clocks shouldn't be that way. 

Did anybody watch the episode of Reboot where Hexidecimal tried her hand at art?

Looking at Death Stranding, we can see the surrealist influences. Everyone is connected to each other by cords, and there's an obsession with death and rebirth, with newborns appearing alongside dead soldiers from World War II. Tanks are covered in pulpous matter and elements of our world are twisted. Rainbows are upside down and water appears thick and black. I don't think we should expect a traditional video game narrative from Death Stranding, but something up to interpretation. 

Video games haven't had a surrealist movement. There have been some games that have embraced surrealist traditions, but those games are pretty scarce, though a lot of these games are pretty memorable. For a few reasons game developers have preferred more literal perspectives in their games, despite that many games have embraced surrealist stories and art styles and ended up as cult classics. 

One of the earliest games to embrace surrealism would have to be Japan's LSD Dream Emulator. The game has players walk through dreamscapes with no interactivity. Levels are procedurally generated, based on the dreams of the developers where nothing is meant to make sense and there's no real ending to the game. The player just explores dreams until they've had enough. 

One of LSD Dream Emulator's more terrifying moments. 

The dreams range from terrifying to peaceful, though the draw is the interactivity with the developer's subconcious minds. There's a hook to creating an experience and having others play through your own dreams. I imagine it's like sharing a sensitive piece of art you've been working on for a long time and are very self-concious about. Contrary to popular belief, LSD doesn't seem to be referring to drugs, but stands for "in life, the sensuous dream" or "in limbo, the silent dream." Exploring dreams is the key theme in Dream Emulator, and the idea of exploring another's subconcious thought physically could only be explored through video games. 

While LSD Dream Emulator is probably the earliest game to fully embrace surrealism, not as an aesthetic, but as the core gameplay choice, since then games have used it more sparingly. The Katamari games are a great example of surrealism. In them, you play as the Prince, responsible for rolling up objects so they can be blasted into the sky to form new stars. 

In these games, the destructive act of taking peoples belongings, persons or even continents and obliterating them is turned into a fun adventure. The music is whimsicle and everything is vibrant and energetic. 

This would look at home at a surrealist exhibition at an art museum. 

People sing and dance as they're rolled up into your katamari, and the game blends cutscenes showing the King of the Cosmos as a clumsy buffoon, or a displaced family huddling up together with a little girl who tells you about the powers of the universe. If there is a message meant to be delivered by the Katamari games, it's not explicity told. Instead the surrealist elements, combined with the energy and tone of the game tell the story. In a world divided by politics, religion and greed, there's something satisfying about uniting everyone into one big colourful ball. 

But games have also used surrealist elements to make us cringe or panic. Team Silent used surrealism to make parts of the Silent Hill series and turn our expectations against us. We think the world should be one way, and when you're in the spooky, admittedly normal parts of Silent Hill, where storefronts list their opening and closing times and parks vacantly sit beside neighbourhoods, the town looks normal. But when roads suddenly end, or when we're transported to the Other World and everything feels harsh and unorganic, that's when we become scared. 

Silent Hill 4 receives a lot of criticism, but it embraced surrealism more than any other game in the series. 

Take the enemy in the image above. It's two baby heads, with two big arms used to hold itself up and some kind of curtain or hair covering the front. We know babies shouldn't look like that, and not only does it have symbollic meaning within its own game, but it also undermines what we think video game enemies should look like. I've played a lot of Silent Hill games, but when I saw that I was legitimately scared. 

I think the indie scene has broken into surrealism a bit more than AAA publishers. Anything other than the standard Hollywood-style blockbuster is seen as a risk, whereas small, creative and strange projects are better suited to smaller teams, where they can afford to make dangerous games, since they typically target smaller and more niche audiences. 

The most obvious comparison would be Lone Survivor, a 2012 game that took a lot of inspiration from Silent Hill and made it 2D. Though I feel there are plenty of other games that better represent surrealism. 

PixelJunk Eden was one of the first games I digitally purchased. I bought it in 2009, and when I played it I hadn't seen anything like it. 

The title screen alone says a lot about the game. 

 In Eden, you play as a small spider and your objective is to get to the Spectra at the top of the stage. How you do that is by latching on to plants and swinging yourself upwards. The game is represented in this minimalist artstyle, and the plants flow upwards in beautiful strokes, and grow upwards with the player so they can reach their objective.

The game has a natural element to it. You play as an insect using the environment to achieve its goals. In real-life ants will travel along plants to gather food, so it's not such an absurd concept. In its presentation, Eden shows the natural world as something stylized and artificial. Everything is in strong and bright colours, making it feel manmade. That contrast between the attractive colours and the organic imagery creates a vibrant playset that makes watching the game as active as playing it. 

There are plenty more games that present surrealism, but those are the examples I feel best exemplify the transformation of the art style in the video game world. There are a few games that present surrealism really well that I recommend people try, maybe not for their gameplay, but for their presentation. Anything by Q-Games or Thatgamecompany, Thomas Was Alone, or Proteus present the world both as it is, and as it isn't. They undermine the idea of literal thought in games and ask the player to think with abstract thought. 

And that's something we should be doing more as gamers. We have a multi-billion dollar industry, and while the rare game comes along and blows people expectations away and bends our thoughts of what games are, we should be using that power and technology to also create games that fold our concious thought in on itself. Let's make games that create questions that we'll have fun trying to answer, or maybe just create a setting that flexes our brains a little more than most. 

Let's create games that ask us to think about our own sense of thought. 

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About Casus Gamingone of us since 7:55 PM on 10.17.2015

The word 'amateur' is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to me as a human being.

I'm a writer and a video game player, with that last one taking up way too much time out of the first two.

If you like From Software, Persona and have a hard-on for retro shooters and the N64, I think we'll get along.