Wagner and Video Games…?
Just look at that title. If it doesn’t interest you at all… well, I guess that means you’re not me. Still! I can’t believe you won’t ask yourself at least once upon seeing it, “What in the name of all that is holy does WAGNER, German Romantic opera titan, have to do with VIDEO GAMES, the most awesome invention since sliced bread?” Turns out, a whole lot. When I started blogging (and reading blogs), I began to really toss this subject around, because it’s REALLY interesting, and the more I learned about both subjects made me keep saying, “Oh, yeah, I never noticed that before…” Which, in the grand scheme of things, is rather strange. I have a feeling that good old Richie Wagner wasn’t really thinking about the soundtrack for the next Madden NFL game when he was writing Tristan und Isolde, and most video game developers probably couldn’t care less about German opera, or opera in general, really. But here’s the thing: Wagner’s view of opera is incredibly similar to how game developers view their games.
So Wagner was a pretty smart guy, and he was really, really well-read. He wrote tons of music, and he wrote tons of prose and books and essays and about everything else imaginable. Turns out, however, he hated opera. He looked at the operas that were being composed in his time, and likened them to kids playing with Legos, when he dreamed of creating the Empire State Building (or something more relevant and Romantic-y). If you looked at the plots of operas back then, they were stupid. I mean, really quite stupid. The drama was nonexistent, and every opera was basically held up by the lead singers (kind of like most movies with Will Smith in them). Something awful happens, and everything stop and the main chick goes, “Oh no, something awful has happened!” And then proceeds to say it 27 more times in different ways, singing very high and low and fast and slow (and this sounds like a Dr. Seuss book), and it’s all very impressive and we have discovered (as if we didn’t know) that she’s a pretty good singer.
Those operas contained as much artistic and literary merit as the Twilight series. Okay. We’ve established how awful they are.
So what did Wagner do? He added tons of things, changed everything about how opera was written, how it was constructed, how it was performed, how it was directed, and even how it was viewed (he built his own theater because he thought the regular ones weren’t good enough). He was like a musical hipster: “OMG, das ist SO mainstream.” Anyway, he had this idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk.” That’s an awesome German word that I feel manly saying, that essentially means “total artwork.” The idea is that every aspect of artistry is present in his operas: the set was designed artfully, the music was written artfully, the singers are also ACTORS, the script was written to be interesting, the plot must be engaging. It must be visually, aurally, and intellectually stimulating. He decided that EVERY aspect of art that was present in opera had to be done as well as it could be done, by the best people. Super brilliant stuff, because (if you dig the whole German thing) Wagner singlehandedly made opera NOT SUCK. Go him!
So what other medium of art can be considered anywhere close to Gesamtkunstwerk? Are you really gonna ask that, after reading the title? In a totally different, more intimate way, video games encompass so many avenues for artistry that I believe they could be considered to be a total artwork. You have beautiful visuals, amazing writing, gameplay, balance, cutscenes, choices, plotlines and sublots, character development, voice acting… I mean, seriously, even the very basic programming of the game can have aspects of artistry, elegance, brilliance. And they’re special and unique because you interact with them. As programming capabilities become more advanced, and our game systems become even more insanely powerful, more and more aspects present in games will be able to be done to an artistic level. As incredible as Pong was, the programmers were severely limited in what they could do. We can’t really call it art. Or can we…?
My dad recently started playing Mass Effect, and came to the same realization that many of us had: it’s almost like watching a movie where you get to call the shots (and SHOOT the shots, as it were). I think that Mass Effect (and truth be told, almost every BioWare game) is getting to where Wagner was going, bit by bit. They are introducing these elements into their games, that do not possess a high standard for only pragmatic reasons, but also for creating art. (Yes, I realize that after the stunt they pulled with Mass Effect 3, we can call them money-grubbing jerkwads, but let’s pretend, shall we?) Their stories are well-written, elegant, and interesting. They often produce unexpected results with plot twists and such, and all of the dialogue is impeccably voiced. The universe is rich with backstory (if you ever visit the “Codex” page, there’s about a Nancy-Drew-novel’s-worth of fully voiced backstory explaining the development of humanity in the universe. REALLY interesting if you care about doing something besides shooting stuff). And let’s not forget how frickin’ GORGEOUS this game is. It’s so graphically pleasing I practically giggled when I saw the spaceship get zapped into hyperspace. And the first time the orange omni-tool turned into a laser-blade-thing. Okay, I actually DID giggle when that happened.
So my point in comparing these two mediums of art (I’m aware the plural is “media,” but it sounded weird), is that Wagner imagined a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” and I think that video games, even moreso than opera, have that ability to produce all-encompassing, engaging work of art. And I think that we are steadily approaching that final goal, of creating a “Total art work” in video games. But I also think that game developers may stop short of that goal, because perhaps they think that “art” doesn’t sell. And true art certainly can be said to inspire thought and self-reflection in the person experiencing the art, and I don’t think there are any video games that TRULY provoke thought of that kind (maybe in some weird people who really like Grand Theft Auto and existentialism, or something). It’s tough to really say that it’s even possible when the genre of video games rarely strays outside the genre of fantasy or science-fiction. Or football. But for all the fantasy and science-fiction novels that simply tell fun, good stories, leaving the reader feeling happy and fulfilled (if not thoughtful and reflective), it only takes one game developer to make “The Lord of the Rings” of video games, and change the genre forever.
P.S. Sorry there aren’t any fun flash games posted to waste your time. No “total artwork” hopefuls there.
P.P.S. The actual Lord of the Rings video game really, really sucked.