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The Game Effect Editorial

When was the Last Time a Game Warped Your Sense of Reality?

How surrealism and crazy-art could effectively make it's way onto the canvas of video games.

By Justin Hellstrom on 2/5/2011
Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

That's how André Breton defined it in 1924 when he was busy crafting the Surrealist Manifesto.

Surrealist art is full of vast landscapes (not all the time, of course) with things that by all rights and means shouldn't exist (even couldn't exist) but do. It's a good bit different from straight up fantasy, too; all fantasy worlds are still based off logic, laws and rules no matter how far they stray from our ordinary lives. Surrealism entails the freedom of expression of thought that can exist in the absence of those things. It's an aesthetic that seems hard to grasp while thinking about it, but it's relatively easy to feel when you're looking at it. Well, you might be wondering how the hell this pertains to video games in any way shape or form, but if you watch this video and read on you may start to get an idea.

                                                           Prepare for weird at 0:25

Welcome to the Twilight Zone. Glitches. Bugs. Bits of code that aren't supposed to be there and usually take the player out of the game, or ruin the vivid and continuous dream it's supposed to create. But what if that wasn't the case? Some people quite enjoy running around games looking for things they're not supposed to see. They'll hop, jump and even ram vehicles into walls to break through the barrier of the game world and see what's behind the scenes. You'll find highways that dead end in the middle of the sky while infinite lines of cars drive off the edge and fall into nothing. Architecture might be deformed with random objects half stuck in them. Physics engines will go haywire and create frictionless environments or distort gravity, all with a landscape that stretches out forever into strange colored horizons. It's weird and it's fun, and it's somewhat surprising that there isn't a game that takes full advantage of these effects, exploiting the nature and logic of the game world and the mechanics used therein. 

To see the potential of surrealist game levels just take a look at some of the art (just Googling "surrealism" will work pretty damn good). Imagine playing a level designed like the work of George Grie or  Jacek Yerka. You wouldn't run out of insane enemies to fight if Vladimir Kush, Salvador Dali and Yerka had anything to do with it. But games aren't all about fighting; the sense of wonder that came from exploring a game would be blown out of this world, giving players the weirdest (and maybe even disturbing) environments to romp around and play in. Games like Myst , Limbo and Alan Wake (to a degree) come to mind with puzzles and mysteries that take a good bit of thought and time in order to uncover all the secrets. But surrealism seems to have steered clear of the gaming realm and remained stuck in books and paintings. You know that if  Super Mario 64 took place in a surrealist museum your mind would've imploded, and Salvador Dali's Final Smash in SS Brawl would definitely involve this [NSFW]: Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Waking.  

                   Max Ernst dreamt up a boss fight for you. You're gonna need a huge bottle of Tide.
Controls in the game could get pretty interesting, too. Being able to do things like melt clocks (that's a joke, sort of), create doors out of thin air, use weapons that drop random objects from the sky, and manipulate the strange things in the environment, could be pretty fun. You could even use music to fight certain enemies by making them change form, attack each other, or simply cause them explode, could be awesome. Getting away from the standard weapons you're used to could be pretty refreshing; instead of using a grenade of one kind or another you could have something else, say, a ship in a glass bottle that when broken caused said ship to become life sized, cannons and all. Or, again, take Salvador Dali's final smash (Dream Caused by...) and toss a pomegranate that fish bursts out of and vomits out a tiger that vomits out another tiger that vomits out an old school rifle. Even things as simple as coffee mugs, that when spilled made bottomless pits or black holes would be more interesting than throwing another frag grenade for the fifteen-thousandth time. The new XCOM game by 2KGames looks to at least be doing this with their enemies, with the black, liquid magnet looking things slaughtering suburbanites and the giant floating monolith known as a Titan (although the player does toss a weird glass object that lights everything on fire). That thing looks and sounds nuts. 

                                       Stanley Kubrick's ghost is probably controlling that Titan.

However, one of the problems with incorporating surrealist principles into a game is that there isn't much logic to create a story. Most games have stories, even though some games' stories suck, but having that structure is a comfort and easy to work with.  Some don't have that though, and just have engaging controls or mechanics while looking really pretty. Finding the balance between the two wouldn't be easy, but it would be very unique and a big departure from most games that are coming out today. Child of Eden seems to be heading in the right direction for it though.

So what game might first take a big leap into surreal territory? One word: Inception. Christopher Nolan's latest masterpiece is the perfect setting to create surreal environments and gameplay. We're talking about entire worlds built consciously and filled with subconscious things, with some people able to control the world of the dream and others only able to play in it. That sounds like a pretty awesome idea for a cooperative mode. Imagine if the architect wasn't mentally sane, or if you fell into limbo, or were forced to attack people or things you love. It really has the potential to have crazy situations and gameplay that add to and coincide with an amazingly rich story. Exploring those landscapes and discovering their secrets while tampering with them (with a soundtrack with lots of "Bwaaarm" in it) sounds like one hell of a good time.  

It wouldn't be easy to align disorder and chaos with reason and structure but it sure would be innovative. You have to take all of the elements that make a game great, which is hard enough to do as it is, and string it all together with the unreal, dreams and pure, unaltered thought. It may take a while for any of those elements to make a major debut in a video game. But when it does you'll be sure to notice it floating amidst a seemingly endless sea of first person shooters and sequels. 

                                                        All your gravity are belong to us.
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Jtpup0 on June 11, 2011
game devs try too hard to hide or prevent glitches, they should only allow glitches where it won't interfere with gameplay...
P.S. i glitched zero gravity out of a zero gravity room once =D
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calfyk on May 15, 2011
that is a very cool glitch in Dead Space. Personally, i didn't encounter any glitches when playing the game
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