It’s fair to say recent times, particularly the 2010s, have proven rather... eventful.
From the Arab Spring that greeted the decade’s dawn to the rise of neo-nationalism around the halfway mark, the spherical abode humankind has called home for millions of years is going through a bit of a sociocultural upheaval. Between the left vs. right tug of war, the breakdown in international relationships and the struggle to enact progressive measures (e.g. legalizing LGBT rights, drug use, etc.) in the face of conformity, the rough transition Earth is experiencing is impacting all walks of life and industries, including creative ones. Indeed, with art being a refuge of sorts for many people wishing to absorb and express ideas they identify with and/or that’re implemented in some official capacity in their day-to-day lives, it makes sense that the potential for thematic derring-do is tangibly present in fiction.
You Can’t Rush Art
Such a sentiment hardly went unnoticed in the eyes and ears of creative talents in the realms of gaming, film, television and literature. From the likes of God of War (2018) and Moonlight that tackled and arraigned toxic masculinity, to works such as The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and From The New World (2012) that put a premium on the importance of collective empathy in the face of trauma and/or tribalism, artists felt justified in their desire to have a conversation about topics deeply rooted in sociocultural convention and tainted by the reemergence of historical habits that infringed upon the individuality of others in the name of a complacent and stable society.
As the Aristotelian saying goes, “Art imitates life” (or “life imitates art” if you’re more of an Oscar Wilde feller. Take it outside, i.e. the comments).
This, I believe, is something I greatly appreciate. While countless people may argue that their art ought to be devoid of the politics and messages they believe don’t belong in entertainment, they ignore the fact that media, as a product of individuals with sundry beliefs and background shaped by their environment, is inherently political. More importantly, to purge one’s works of this kind of commentary would also reduce the number of chances for learning and increased empathy in human beings.
The former is especially critical given that the whole reason lessons are even a thing is because there exists an ill that people need to avoid if they wish to lead fulfilling and stable lives. Since humans are natural thrill-seekers, having such lessons (subtly) baked into entertainment can be convenient and efficient without hampering the immersion factor. It also doesn’t hurt that they bypass the preachiness and boredom that may entail from learning them in a less colorful context mostly devoid of emotional involvement such as attending classes and consuming academic content.
But as beneficial as the need to address relevant themes and topics in entertainment is, this mustn’t of course come at the cost of embodying a unique tone or audiovisual aesthetic that may juxtapose with the solemnness and seriousness of the message, especially given how bleak and baleful the current state of affairs is ‘round the globe. Unfortunately, and it pains me to say this, it’s a problematic trend that’s been cropping up in sundry works of art and it’s one that can ultimately rob whatever message they’re conveying of flavor and subtlety. These are two elements that are indispensable to preventing the symbolism or commentary from becoming on-the-nose or uninspired in its delivery.
Setting The Tone
As literary meister K.M. Weiland expounded in her write-up on unique themes, making use of timeworn motifs in a fashion identical to past works can result in the participant not giving much thought to the artist’s message since they’ve already been exposed to it beforehand (and more often than not in a superior form). Such missteps may include employing a tone that’s either too po-faced, cloying or similar to what’s come before for the book/game/film/show to stand out or present familiar themes in a fetching context. While falling prey to this mishap will not outright undo the artwork’s storytelling merits, it’ll have an impact on its “feel”, one that’ll likely mold the narrative’s attitude in a way that makes it gradually more akin to its contemporaries and less noteworthy as a whole.
This is something that affects pieces in a particular genre/medium more frequently than others, with superhero/animated flicks, post-apocalyptia, romance novels, Japanese role-playing titles and many anime shows being prime examples. To be fair, they do respectively host sizable and loyal fanbases that logically want more of the same and the hefty budgets foisted upon games and movies don’t leave much room for risk-taking, but they can serve as creative inconveniences that can prevent artists from realizing something that goes against the grain and/or sets itself apart from the competition. Of course, one would be remiss to ignore the likes of Black Panther, A Quiet Place and Crazy Rich Asians which did stand out within their genres, save for one thing.
Tone is something that must be handled carefully in any medium for it is the phenomenon that sets one’s expectations for subsequent events and governs the kinds of emotions the audience will feel as they witness the conflict unfold before their eyes. The latter is particularly important since what differentiates an artwork from its competitors isn’t just its cast, setting and genre, but also the sort of atmosphere it delivers to convey its character and juxtapose its narrative features with one another.
Tone can also act as the state of mind the artist holds next to their worldview and toward humankind. It’s what suggests their character as both a creative talent and member of society. It’s what differentiates Apocalypse Now from Tropic Thunder and Nineteen Eighty-Four from Brazil (it’s worth noting that the latter examples in both comparisons are the ones embodying black humor, one of the most salient forms of juxtaposition).
Juxtaposition matters greatly to me, so much so that I penned articles solely dedicated to that concept such as my essay on Shogo: Mobile Armor Division, Monolith Productions’ anime first-person shooter (two diametrically and philosophically opposed genres that combine to craft a wholly unique experience). The reason is quite simple: it allows creators to get imaginative with their building blocks and mash them together to birth new emotions and feelings, or make existing ones fresh once more. It’s what advances their respective medium in terms of storytelling techniques and thematic possibilities. It’s what opens the door to new avenues and ventures for scenarios and characters.
Dark humor, for instance, brilliantly blends touchy themes (which have become more prominent in recent artworks) with a dash of lightheartedness that serves to reinforce the silliness humans embody whenever they do something harmful to their natural desire for long-term survival. It achieves this without being too oblivious/tone-deaf toward its subject matter or maudlin (when the artist plays their cards right, of course).
Dr. Strangelove, Fallout, The Lobster, The Thief of Always, Fight Club, Fargo (Minnesota nice and bloodshed? Crikey!), Aristophanes’s The Birds, Wasps and Lysistrata... They all took that devilish concept and ran with it fruitfully, creating an atmosphere that was simultaneously bleak and chucklesome. Most importantly, however, they refused to be weighed down by the taboo nature of their topics or adopt an overly humorless demeanor to castigate their worldly ill of choice. Instead they merrily poked fun at it, contrasting it with the characters’ behavior and setting to achieve a wicked experience that was still entertaining AND enlightening. They’re the artistic manifestations of the human coping mechanism that is humor in the face of adversity. “If you can’t do anything about it, laugh like hell,” David Cook once said.
Times, however, have changed. Or mayhap I have changed.
Tone Up, Not Down
As I mentioned before, the current decade has brought about a wave of works that aim to dismantle global injustices and (re)open the conversation on sensitive topics such as mental illness, LGBT rights and racial dynamics. This willingness to take on material initially deemed too risky by conventional wisdom is a huge win for creative progress and experimentation (and one I happily welcome), but it also brought about a double-edged sword. When you take on something ambitious or precarious, one’s natural instinct would be to find a way not to go too far due to their fear of the unknown. In the case of being a socially responsible artist, this can amount to treating the topic with as much respect as humanly possible. A principle of consideration that’s wise to embody, but one that can unfortunately beget the aforementioned aversion to tonal juxtaposition if one isn’t careful.
As a result, mediums that command high or even bloated budgets such as movies and games (literature can also be pricey in terms of marketing, but generally speaking, not nearly as much) can get stuck in a creative rut or fail to fully capitalize on the interesting topics they may have. While the independent gaming scene is more successful in producing atypical pieces, stylistic and thematic similarities in both the AAA and indie scene (especially the ones presented at the most recent Game Awards such as Far Cry: New Dawn and Rage 2, Journey to the Savage Planet and The Outer Worlds, and to a lesser extent, The Pathless and The Last Campfire) suggest that risk aversion still impacts the (tonal) leeway developers may have with their direction.
I’m well-aware of the fact that I’m sounding like a wet blanket and I want to make it clear that you are entitled to enjoying whichever game/film/book/song/show you fancy. I reckon what I’m saying is that art should take more risks with how it presents itself, and I’ve been somewhat let down by the creative industries’ recent offerings. That is why I mostly gravitate toward older works and got back into literature earlier this year: because the way they did things back then still stand the test of time and/or had more holes to fill with their innovations. Most importantly, however, they had fewer qualms about juxtaposing the cheery with the grim, which I think is the cleverest and most human way to approach our woes. In other words, I was losing faith in modern times.
And then one day, I’ve caught wind of Atomic Heart, and by Golly did it make an impression on me.
A Challenger Appears
The contrast between the audio and visuals. The immaculately timed montage of psychedelic happenings. The gradual rise in surrealism as the video scrubber nears the right end of the playback line. In less than two minutes, Atomic Heart made its statement incredibly clear with regards to its presentation and Cold War backdrop: anything goes.
A forthcoming first-person adventure romp made by Mundfish, Atomic Heart heavily alludes to the likes of BioShock, Fallout and Singularity with its alternate history timeline pertaining to communism, post-WWII imagery (albeit in a retro-futuristic fashion) and cast of unnerving but vivid automatons. While sundry productions within and beyond interactive entertainment have dabbled in this sort of madcap narrative in the past, Atomic Heart’s conspicuous emphasis on its chipper eeriness that contrasts with its historical context is precisely what many thematically and/or emotionally charged works have been lacking these past few years in the age of neo-nationalism and progressivism: a darkly humorous and unrelenting comportment that calls back to one’s inner child instead of pure jadedness.
I don’t think I need to be especially detailed with this, but suffice it to say that literal/figurative childhood and colorful imagery/tone go hand-in-hand. Pablo Picasso was onto something when he proclaimed that every child is an artist with the only problem being how to remain an artist once one grows up. So what happens when the creative talent of adult age is tasked with producing something that aims to deconstruct the cruel state of society while still applying a coat of whimsy befitting of an ankle-biter? If one plays their cards right and leverages both their life experience and beliefs, they’ll most likely whip up an oeuvre that pulls no punches with its imagery and critique of humankind. While it remains to be seen how Atomic Heart will handle the latter, the pre-release footage and screenshots already give it a noteworthy mention in the former department which happens to be tonal juxtaposition, the immersion factor’s PB & J.
Despite being only one part of the equation, Atomic Heart’s juxtapositional style already achieves the necessary in an age defined by a tug of war between rising tribalism and humanistic enlightenment. Rather than getting dragged down into an atmosphere of po-facedness and/or conspicuous solemnness that risks hampering the overall feeling of escapism, Atomic Heart is more willing to take a contentious aspect of human history/nature and convey it via an artistically exuberant filter, much like what Monty Python accomplished via its television and movie offerings.
Truth be told, there’s a valid reason thematic solemnness overpowers tonal juxtaposition in more recent artworks. As a counter-measure toward unremitting exposure to damning news that could numb people to antagonistic actions, artists see it fit to adopt a more compassionate tone in their creations as seen in Celeste and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. For their purposes, having gleefully wicked undertones may risk spoiling the message and making people not take the commentary seriously, and one may state that it’s necessary to be humane and bereft of the pessimism espoused by more reactionary personalities if art is to teach humankind valuable lessons.
As well-meaning as that rule of thumb may be, that can set a troubling precedent for subsequent productions that may hamper the inner “innocent child and ghoulish adult” potential embodied by creative talents. What I’m insinuating is that sincerity and wickedness can co-exist. Artists may have a responsibility of sorts to address the woes of the world, but they also a duty to engage audiences in unexpected and positive ways. Given that whimsy and humor can be the medicine of the soul (especially when it’s been exposed to excess bombast from the news), it makes more sense for one to channel these elements while still being able to address certain sociocultural and historical topics.
With its Soviet-era setting and inclusion of robotic personalities that were initially designed to help people before going up the spout, Atomic Heart may appear like the Eastern equivalent of a certain post-apocalyptic RPG series (which has no shortage of pro-democracy and anti-communism rhetoric straight out of the Cold War), but the addition of surreal imagery, idiosyncratic bots akin to those seen in Nier: Automata, and a sharp contrast between nature and technology that seems like something ripped out of the original Thief trilogy likely suggests additional themes that further accentuate the symbolism and haphazard madness witnessed in the pre-release media. When I talked earlier about the importance of subtly slipping in whatever commentary or heady ideas the artist may have in their mind, this is more or less what I meant. Despite the environment’s engulfment of the protagonist, it’ll be up to the player to scrutinize the meaning behind their environs.
Perhaps I may be overthinking it since Atomic Heart is still a long way off from hitting store shelves (beta isn’t even due till Q4 2019) and the story itself is still more or less a mystery. But with mentions of side tales such as one involving the reunion of two loving employees in Facility 3826 (the game’s setting) and the fact that Mundfish created the title’s fantasy out of classic works of Russian literature that melded with the USSR’s idealism the developers witnessed in their childhood, it’s safe to assume that dark humor and wickedness may have a hand in repackaging the touchy topic of Cold War woes into a metaphorical and psychedelic assault on the senses. While taking on such a subject in a fashion more akin to the works from the current age of global strife would have gotten the message across clearly, it’d likely come at the cost of the imaginative scenarios the audiovisual team may have come up with. After all, if one applies a vivid style and tone to their work that complements the narrative, the symbolism can become more subtle and the effect (i.e. poking fun at human failure on top of critiquing it) more potent.
As a result of its willingness to pull no punches with regards to its presentation of Cold War shenanigans, Atomic Heart became more than just my most anticipated title of 2019 and beyond. It also has the capacity to become a muse for many an artist.
To be fair, gaming has seen its share of quirky titles with an idiosyncratic sense of style and risibility. Portal, We Happy Few, Armed and Dangerous, TimeSplitters, Sir You Are Being Hunted, Oddworld, Blood, and American McGee’s Alice have left their respective impact on the industry with their brand of humor and/or wickedness. Most of them, however, hail from the seventh and earlier computer generations, and while I’m not suggesting at all that serious themes and surreal tones are mutually exclusive, I’d be remiss not to mention this somewhat downward trend. This is precisely why Atomic Heart, with its retro-futuristic countenance and juxtaposition of classical tunes and wicked appeal that hearken back to older works, stands out from its contemporaries.
I’ll admit that there’s a strong reason my attachment to Mundfish’s concoction is particularly sturdy. Firstly, I’ve been brought up as an individualistic lad in a collectivistic environment, and this contrast between my personal philosophy and the one espoused by my peers defined much of my worldview and attitude toward life. As a result of my innate desire to stand out from the others, I got into works that strayed away from the sociocultural norm (e.g. 1920s-60s oldies instead of contemporary pop songs, American philosophy in lieu of the European kind dished out in school, classic and/or underrated films over modern blockbusters) and begot my love of juxtaposition out of the blues. Black comedy? Anime first-person shooters? Such amalgamations take two opposite elements (a metaphor for the schism that stood between me and my peers) and combine them to produce something out of the ordinary. Mundfish clearly understands that.
When I came up with the idea of penning this post, I knew the risks I was going to take: talking about a title that has yet to see the light of day, let alone comparing it to released artworks and singing its praises already, seems foolhardy and as someone who never covered an upcoming game in my catalog of articles, this editorial comes across as unorthodox. But as I transition from a pure focus on gaming to dipping my toes in others art forms, I feel like I needed to address the trend I’ve been seeing lately.
I don’t expect Atomic Heart to be perfect or “the Citizen Kane of games”, no matter how glowing or cold its final critical reception may be once it’s unleashed onto the masses. In fact, I’ll have to steel myself for some potential ridicule should the released product end up being something other than what was advertised. But judging from the trailers and images published thus far, it’s fair to say that Mundfish has absolutely nailed the juxtapositional sense of style and surrealism that’s been mostly lacking in artworks, let alone those belonging to the realm of gaming.
I’m very happy that artists are becoming more daring and open with their choice of themes and topics for their works. Now it’s time to follow Atomic Heart’s example and revel in the childlike, wicked character every creative talent embodies to ensure that no emotional binary is formed between brash pessimism and the cloying optimism. Humans are complex creatures and this should be reflected in what they make and, most importantly, how they present it. Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.
Besides, as Robert Bloch of Psycho fame once stated:
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