During the middle of July, Valve Corporation held it’s semiannual sale on its Steam digital distribution platform. The Steam Sales are big events, with most games on sale and many at discounts of 50%, 75%, or more. Buoyed by a positive experience with a one-week unit on videogames toward the end of my summer course on comics and digital art, I used the Steam sale opportunity to purchase a few games that have been praised for their art.
With an eye to the visual experience rather than the narrative, a few games stood out (and I look forward to the opportunity to test them out): The Binding of Isaac, LIMBO, Lone Survivor, and PixelJunk Eden. The first three also possess strong narrative, manifested in completely different ways. LIMBO, for example, provides no outward hints to its theme other than its title. When the game starts, the screen transitions from black to a greyscale with a small boy, seen in silhouette save for his bright white eyes, acting as your avatar in a side-scrolling atmosphere. Very little audio, no narration or on-screen text, not even instructions on how to operate in the game space. As you progress through the continuous level you piece together hints of game mechanics as well as antagonists and an expanded diegesis. It’s breathtaking, enjoyable, and incredibly dark for its simplistic graphic style.
PixelJunk Eden is a completely different beast. It has a stronger sense of narrative, more interaction between the game and the player, and is clear on directions and objectives. I can’t imagine anyone would play it for the narrative, though; the point is the bold, interactive visuals and relaxing soundtrack.
It’s difficult to balance the visual and narrative aspects of videogames for the classroom. Many of the most popular game hone in on a compelling storyline or the hook of fun and/or addictive gameplay elements. The visual is seen as a complementary element, unless it’s a game like PixelJunk Eden in which the visual is the only element of note, with a thin veneer of a story laid over it. That’s more of a 20th and 21st century mindset for art, which fits. Coming from the perspective of a scholar of 18th and 19th century art, where a strict hierarchy of academic art placed history painting at the top, it’s an enjoyable challenge to seek out a middle ground. I think LIMBO and Lone Survivor do a good job. They’re not classical, in any sense. If I had to compare them to something it would be the Baroque, Romanticism, or maybe Neoclassic Gothic. Once I actually finish them, I’ll report back.