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.

The good old opera-man himself, without his hat.

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!

I mean, wow. That is one really incredible set. I don't know what that place is in the background, but dang. A rainbow.

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…?

If you've never heard of Mondrian, this will be less funny for you.

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.

Badass marine, complete with glowing orange letter-opener.

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.

~Another Gamer

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.

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About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on April 6, 2012, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. classicalgaming

    As a professional tuba player, I can actually weigh in on this a bit with some authority (behind 2 meaningless and increasingly burdening degrees in music and what not and a Master’s Thesis on Franz Liszt, friend and “patron” of Wagner.).

    At first I was skeptical. I mean, I’ve read a MILLION articles online about how video games and Wagner are connected. “OMG LIKE NOBOU UEMETSU WRITES MUSIC THAT HAS THEMES AND THAT’S TOTALLY LIKE WAGNER’S LEITMOTIF!!!!111 UEMATSU IS LIKE OUR GENERATION’S BEETHOVEN!!!11oneone” Ugh. Double. Ugh.

    I guess the the point is first and foremost- thank you. This was a well written and informed article about Wagner’s influence, his life and times, and truly what Wagner thought of the world in which he lived. And the video game side of it was just as strong. So yeah, that’s awesome. Like, best one I’ve read on the subject. Period.

    So, while Bioware is producing games that are beautiful and well thought-out and generally games that appeal to everyone (etc) and while I do agree to the idea that there is a certain degree of gesamtkunstwerk in these games, I think Wagner would be an AWFUL game designer. Wagner’s obsession with his own ego (have you seen how long his AUTO-biography is? 700+ pages and comes in 4 volumes usually. I can’t write a paragraph for a bio for my own blog…), his own control over his work, and his arrogance toward the field for which he was talented would have really made his “vision” for a video game difficult.

    Wagner was a guy who saw something, said it, published it, and stood by it. His views are well… he wrote a lot of things back then that today we’d consider pretty racist. I won’t let that take away from the man as an artist… but he essentially wrote an article condemning Mendelssohn/Meyerbeer/other Jewish composers citing that they basically don’t understand music on account of their faith. That would uh… not fly today. But he still wrote it and wanted people to read it. It was very important to him.

    At any rate, to pull off what he did with Der Ring des Nibelungen in video game form or something that monumental, Wagner would have to design his own video game system, his own coding language, his own way to read it, his own character (probably taken from some Nordic tradition), his own story, his own graphics, his own controller,his own kind of TV to display it, his own audio system, etc etc. I mean, this guy had a STAGE constructed in honor of his opera cycle that was completely to his own specifications to perform his own operas. I don’t think he’d be like: Oh, so to program this in WiiWare I just need this little kit?

    The Bioware to Wagner comparison is actually more interesting than you think. Bioware, now under the umbrella of EA but basically autonomous, is very similar to how Franz Liszt essentially funded and kept Wagner afloat. Liszt, with all his money from touring in the 1830-40s, basically funded Wagner as Wagner was exiled for picking a losing party essentially in a political uprising and made sure that the world heard Wagner by offering him many performance opportunities during his time at Weimar.

    Last thought, Wagner didn’t want to write symphonies because he thought that the genre of symphony was dead as Beethoven had exhausted all ideas that a symphony could hold- a view also shared by Liszt, Berlioz, and others who fought against the traditional composers (Brahms and co). This direct comparison can be an example for the gaming industry in general. Where does it go from here? There’s been so much stuff. We’re done with symphonies- let’s make something new. I guess that’s what Nintendo is trying to do? Sorta?

    I could definitely go on and on with comparisons here. Thanks again!

    • I’m glad you liked the comparison haha. And you’re right about Wagner. I would say that one thing Wagner did not consider in his gesamtkunstwerk ideas is his audience. Not to say he wasn’t aware of how they perceived what he was putting forth… he just didn’t care if they liked it. He would be so obsessed with creating a game that is ARTFUL that he wouldn’t care if it was actually an awful game.

      And let’s not forget, if Wagner ever made a video game, there would be way, waaaay too much singing.

  1. Pingback: The Birth and Death of the J-RPG | Another Gamer's Blog

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