Expressionism in Video Games
A few weeks ago I was in Amsterdam, I have been to the Modern Arts Museum and Van Gogh Museum where I had the chance to have a deeper understanding of what the term “expressionist” means. I don’t want to act like an art guru, as an economist with a love of systems and balances I have little to say about arts yet it disturbs me to see nothing has been said about the expressionism in video games.
Let us start with a definition of the term. Expressionism is a term used to denote the use of distortion and exaggeration for emotional effect, which first surfaced in the art literature of the early twentieth century. When applied in a stylistic sense, with reference in particular to the use of intense colour, agitated brushstrokes, and disjointed space. Rather than a single style, it was a climate that affected not only the fine arts but also dance, cinema, literature and the theatre.1 And apperently video games as well.
EDVARD MUNCH (1863-1944)
‘The Scream’, 1893 (oil, tempera and pastel on board)
Munch’s painting of ‘The Scream’ (1893) was equally influential. It provides us with a psychological blueprint for Expressionist art: distorted shapes and exaggerated colors that amplify a sense of anxiety and alienation. ‘The Scream’ is Munch’s own voice crying in the wilderness, a prophetic voice that declares the Expressionist message, fifteen years before the term was invented.2
As an art movement, expressionism influenced many painters in the beginning of 20th century and derived into other movements such as abstract expressionism, neo-expressionism and mostly viewed in cinema, german expressionism.
According to many sources Weimar Culture was a peak of intellectual production between the first world war and the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. And German expressionism is believed to form its language during that era:
- external representation of the emotion, with colours, forms and acting.
- exaggerated shadows and objects
- use of striking colours, twisted forms, architecture
- painted, false backgrounds
- evil/insane characters
- urban setting
A list of movies shown as examples of German Expressionism:
- ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – 1920
- Metropolis – 1927
- Nosferatu – 1979
- Edward Scissorshands – 1990
- The City of Lost Children – 1995
- Sin City -2000
Video games are far from beeing seen as a form of art. Kellee Santiago in her speech at TED stated them as art yet there are many others that strongly reject that idea. Whereas I don’t want to dive deep into that debate, we as Nowhere Studios believe that games need to find their own language as cinematography uses different camera movement, lighting, scene cuts or as sculpture is manipulating forms. Games need to develop their own area of specialization rather than using techniques and the language of another form of art, in order to be recognized. Although they are able to evoke emotions in players, in their current status, games might be viewed as an applied medium of cinematography, music and literature. If one day, games can proove that they can use interactivity, games mechanics and system design -things that are unique to games- in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, emotions and intellect then no one will dare not to consider games as art.
Let us try to move out of this debate and find out which games in their applied form of cinematography can be considered expressionist. I found the following games adapted all the unwritten rules of German Expressionism ingame and especially in their cut-scenes.
In twisted metal we have an insane character, we see the world in his eyes and there are exaggerated colours and forms everywhere in the game. Main character’s head is burning, what else to say.
Batman : Arkham City and Arkham Asylum
Not a big surprise since most Batman movies are considered expressionist, especially the ones filmed by Tim Burton. We see architecture, shadows and colors deformed in order to give the player according emotions.
The Dark Eye
This old game, with its animations made of clay and deformed objects and characters with unusual colours to reflect the different moods it’s a very beatiful example of German Expressionism in video games.
This beatifully written article from Kris Ligman discusses the expressionism in Limbo and Braid. Altough her ideas about arts and games are very similar to mines, I believe sho could have picked better examples for showing the german expressionism. She does not clearly states why she thinks of Limbo as expressionist. For me, the usage of light, the effects and the forms are used externally to adress the emotions of the player, yet the environment is very dreamlike to think that is derived from reality. So in this aspect, Limbo and Braid seem like to be derived from imagination rather than a distorted view of reality except the city images in the backround of Limbo in later chapters and the different rooms in Braid which seem like gates to the imaginary world. Limbo is more like film noir with its chiaroscuro “the claire-obscure” effect and steamy backgrounds although german expressionism and film noir are often called together. Braid is even far from Limbo to be called expressionist by my understanding of expressionism.
Yet, I can hold myself to think of Braid as a true art game because of its mechanic of taking back the time. This is the step forward that I’m expecting from games, evoking emotions by the unique language of games, interactivity and game mechanics. Such examples I have seen recently exists in indie games here and there. A good example is the indie platformer All that Matters, game is designed so that mom is only able to move away from dad, while dad can only move to the direction of mom. This mechanic has a spirit and gives you references which evantually evokes emotions. Without using game mechanics and interactivity to improve the narration, games would just be an applied form of art like a movie would be a slide show using photohraphy if there were no cinematography.