Above the Sea of Fog

The New Romantic Era of Video Games

by L.B. Jeffries

27 June 2007

To this next generation of consoles, a challenge has been declared: that the quality of graphics or sound are not gauges for the quality of a game, that they aspire to more than mere satisfaction of a few basic human desires.
"Kratos Above the Sea of Fog"; Photoshop by
Eric Schiller 

“If this is the best of all possible worlds, I wonder what the others are like,” wrote Voltaire. With this joke the movement that would ultimately come to be known as the Enlightenment was kicked off. Philosophers and scientists overthrew centuries of church-dominated doctrine and replaced it with reason, rationality, and science. Taking inspiration from Aristotle, art was declared to serve only as an imitation of life so that it may best inspire and uplift the human spirit to good deeds.

“Dude, you fucking suck at Mario Brothers. Let’s play Duck Hunt,” said my older brother. With these words (or something similar), our own generation cemented the relevance of another cultural movement: that of the video game age. Since the 1980s, designers and software companies have been hashing out new types of games, new methods of interaction, and new ways to best inspire and uplift the modern human spirit. In a recent issue of EGM (Issue 215), psychologist Scott Rigby explains that games can potentially satisfy three psychological needs: autonomy, mastery, and social interaction. Where we fail in our real lives, we are able to attain a certain degree of competence in our digital ones. To this end we seek out the games at which we excel, find a confirmation of ourselves, and find the confidence that we would seek in real life. But are those three senses of fulfillment all they can do? What other emotions and satisfactions could they inspire and provide?

In terms of the next-generation console wars, this question has not boiled down to a simple matter of improving the capacity for fulfillment via better graphics and sound, but to do as Western Civilization did centuries ago and question the very nature of that fulfillment. In response to the Enlightenment, there was Romanticism. The latter movement is difficult to define, but broadly, it is a celebration of art not as a topic or ideal, but rather as an expression of emotion; that poetry, for example, should not be confined to the perfect rhyme schemes of Alexander Pope or strictly PG-13 subject matter, but encompass any number of topics and written by whatever means best expresses the subject matter. Romanticists believed that even visual art could be used to induce an emotional reaction, whether it be horror, fascination, or simply wonder. And to this next generation of consoles, an equal challenge has been declared: that the quality of graphics or sound are not gauges for the quality of a game, that they aspire to more than mere satisfaction of a few basic human desires. That games, as the Romantics believed about art, are capable of much more.

The much-discussed Wii controller

The much-discussed Wii controller

At the forefront of this movement is the obvious contender that is the Wii console, which chose an innovative interface over graphics in its approach to “next-gen”. Keep no illusions close; this has not been a perfect movement. The first-person shooter, using the Wii’s Wiimote controller, becomes tedious as your hand stays constantly upright and lacks the precision of targeting that it only barely makes up for with the capacity for localized fire. Third-person titles retain some degree of functionality as long as the flicking of the remote remains confined to a simple replacement for a single button. God forbid you try to assign physical actions to the Wii-motions at any greater complexity. One quickly ends up twisting and waving one’s arms in every direction trying to get the correct motion for a game. I could discuss the graphics, but every reviewer and his fan site has bemoaned this shortcoming. The Wii’s graphics aren’t as good as its competitors, period. And yet, despite these flaws, despite the Wii’s inability to play or display Call of Duty 3 as your Xbox 360 can, the little box has done something none of these other systems have: it made golf games fun.

This is not to say that golf is all that it will do or that this is even its peak. This is just the first miracle I’ve seen the Wii perform. I realize there is some sycophantic golf-obsessed portion of the population that played these games before the Wii arrived, so this is, of course, referring to my own personal experience. I could not, before owning a Wii, have spared the time for two shits, much less one, over a round of video game golf. But from the moment I first fired up Wii Sports to this very day, I will play the golf portion ceaselessly. Even my club-toting friends with their PS2 versions of Tiger Woods PGA Tour, grimy from beer spills and finger sweat, will admit that it is simply more fun to play golf on a Wii. “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create,” said Romanticism’s poster boy William Blake. Say what you want about the Wii system, but they have indeed created a new means of fulfillment.

The Wii is not alone in this declaration that it will not be confined by the quality of graphics or other traditional values used to judge video games. The internet is rife with titles, fan-created and without massive corporate support, that are not only fun but more importantly different from the simple concepts of mainstream gaming. Shrapnel Games’ Weird Worlds boasts the fascinating combination of space exploration with the time duration of a round of solitaire. Within 15 minutes, you have explored the Universe, conquered your foes, and beaten the game before your boss checks in on your cubicle.

Telltale\'s Sam & Max

Telltale’s Sam & Max

For a more expansive experience, there is Telltale Games’ launch of episodic Sam & Max adventures, each “episode” a brief and anecdotal session that plays more like a television show than one long epic game. And with the increasing prevalence of downloading games onto consoles, who is to say that this style of gaming release won’t become as preferred to full-length games as today’s epic TV series tend to be to the majority of films?

Nor should game length and method of control alone be our gauges. The very heroes we play are subject to change, as numerous games have already demonstrated. No longer do we indulge the easy narcissism of being the sole person capable of saving the world, as much as we play as characters with a rich variety of morals and motivation. The film noir ramblings of Max Payne allow us to connect with a character whose sanity is as questionable as his propensity for Sam Spade one-liners. Kratos, the protagonist of the God of War saga, parallels the tragic nature of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus by giving us a character whose personal flaws fuel an unending cycle of violence. Both are just a few possibilities for the various characters we now play as and explore. Why not follow the route of the show Dexter and play as a serial killer? Or, perhaps, something with a religious theme, placing the characters of the Bible on a third person adventure platform? Video games will allow us to discover new and different protagonists whose stories explore our own nature in new and profound ways.

The chief ordeal of the Romantic artists was to challenge what could be considered appropriate subjects and methods of expression for art. To counter the Enlightenment philosophy of pure imitation and delightful imagery, the Romantics created scenes of terror and conflict. So too must this new generation of games challenge the view that superior graphics and sound are the ends of our gaming fulfillment, emphasizing that they are merely the means. I called Blake the poster boy of Romanticism, but it is only fair that I call up a visual painting that best sums up the movement as well: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. In it, the Wanderer has his back to us as he looks out over a landscape covered in fog. We do not know what lies beneath the clouds except for the barest hints of a wild world of jutting rocks and twisted trees. Lacking the defining standards of graphics, sounds, or typical heroes does potentially leave the average player in the dark about how to define or judge these new games. Yet, thanks to the release of the Wii and countless future gaming titles, there is some semblance of that Wanderer Friedrich depicted; despite the uncertainty ahead, there is a great world beneath that fog to be discovered by we who would willingly follow into the unknown.

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