©David Seelow, PhD
If there is still a question about video games being considered a legitimate art form, I would simply direct such skeptics to play the beautiful 2D-platformer game Gris by Nomada Studios (2018), an indie studio based in Barcelona, Spain. The games artwork and animation are exceptional and rival that of such great animation studios as the Japanese. After playing Gris, I thought about how the game allows for revisiting the beginning of modernism and provides a perfect opportunity to explore the integration of the arts which was fundamental to the birth of modernism. This lesson or unit gives current students who might lack a background in the humanities an opportunity to explore how the various arts have been integrated while also giving students of the arts, who may not play many video games, a deeper appreciation of this new art form.
Integrating the Arts as the Modernist Moment
The symbolist movement offers the best introduction to modernism. In symbolism the major arts forms coalesce into a diverse but integrated movement that demarcates modernism against the dominate realism present in the mid-19th century Europe and America. One could start any number of places, but a novel approach would have students read the brief manifesto on symbolism by Jean Moréas (1886) originally published in the French paper Le Figaro (you might pause to ask are there any manifestos for video games, and briefly discuss the purpose and value of a manifesto). The manifesto on symbolism stresses the movement’s break with realism and representation. Art no longer needs to imitate or represent ‘reality’. Symbolism proceeds by indirection and suggestion. It is dreamlike, and symbolic, tapping into the artist’s subconscious and unconscious inner worlds.
Next, I would talk about the integration of the arts through French poet Stéphane Mallarme’s “ L’apres-Midi D’un Faune,” “Afternoon of a Faun” (1876).1 The faun’s world is beautifully symbolic; a lyric virtually uninterpretable in its enigmatic images, and complex syntax.
Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer.
Leur incarnat léger, qu’il voltige dans l’air
Assoupi de sommeils touffus.
Aimai-je un rêve ?
Mon doute, amas de nuit ancienne, s’achève
En maint rameau subtil, qui, demeuré les vrais
Bois mêmes, prouve, hélas ! que bien seul je m’offrais
Pour triomphe la faute idéale de roses.”
“These nymphs I would perpetuate.
Their light carnation, that it floats in the air
Heavy with tufted slumbers.
Was it a dream I loved?
My doubt, a heap of ancient night, is finishing
In many a subtle branch, which, left the true
Wood itself, proves, alas! that all alone I gave
Myself for triumph the ideal sin of roses.”
Translated by Roger Fry
The poem seeded a blossoming of artistic branches: classical music and ballet being the most extraordinary. I would discuss a small slice of the poem and talk about language as evocation and incantation, i.e. how words produce moods, atmosphere and mystery.
You can follow the poem by playing Claude Debussy’s composition Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) a threshold work in modern music. My emphasis would be on the way the composition, especially the flutes, produce a dream like feeling of otherworldliness and reverie.2 If there are music majors or student who play in a school musical group, they can be asked to talk more about the composition. Thirds, you can move to ballet- and talk about kinesthetic responses to art. The Afternoon of a Faun balletwas choreographed and starred in by Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes, and was first performed in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 29 May 1912. Talking about the ballet allows you to introduce students to the international dimension of great art, which captures the essence of modernism. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet de Russes was unmatched in the entire 20th century for its skill and originality. Although a short 12 minute ballet; nonetheless, the dancers perfectly embody Mallarme’s words in their elliptic beauty. Students most likely have neither much awareness of how the arts intersected to such a degree, nor how Russia impacted the west and vice versa, or, finally, how Paris served as the cosmopolitan center of international art. Like music, ballet and, ultimately, symbolist poetry defy translation into words or in Mallarme’s poetry into a representational language that can be readily interpreted. Finally, you can transition to fine art by showing Léon Bakst’s stage or set design for the ballet. This extraordinary work evoked Greek vase painting and brings the discussion right back to Gris whose world is full of classic statues and ruins.
By Лев Бакст – http://www.bibliotekar.ru/kBakst/3.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16294584
Gris moves across platforms amidst a landscape of statues like Bakst’s set design. The protagonist’s movement approaches ballet much more than traditional platform games. Gris is light- like a nymph from Mallarme’s poem, and she glides across the screen, her jumps are poetic, and she literally slides across ruins and temples using her dress almost like fairies’ wings. The reviewer Tom McShea (2018) nicely describes Gris’s balletic movement across platforms,” Strip away the resplendent visual design and enchanting score and Gris would still be enticing because of its sense of movement. The young woman moves with graceful purpose. She’s light on her feet but sure-headed, giving her a weightiness that makes it feel like you’re trying to break free of gravity but can never quite do so. There were sections when I would purposely repeat a series of jumps because it felt so good to skirt against the dreamy sky. New powers are unlocked as you get deeper into the adventure, and all of them add another layer of interactivity that not only expands your horizons but feels good to enact.”
Likewise, with Gris, music is integral to the gaming experience. Have students play some of the game without headphones and then have them or a few of them put on headphones and describe the difference between playing with as opposed to without headphones. The music, like Debussy’s composition, is entirely dreamlike and other worldly- as if Gris is woken from a dream, or perhaps, moves in a dream. The soundtrack is a product of Barcelona composer Berlinist, and the music is endlessly dreamy, perfectly congruent with the landscape’s watercolors and the protagonist’s movement. The music, the game mechanics and the art are all abstract and symbolic like the faun’s world in the above work.
Two other examples of how Gris interests with other arts the game’s use of color and the use of machines- the windmills, and ruins, as abstract painting. Level One, with the bleak desert landscape and brutal windstorms can be navigated successfully whereby Gris collects stars and these in turn provide bridges across platforms. Windmills also turn their rotating arms into a bridge across a gulley. These images as you see below remind me very much of the painter Francis Picabia and how he used modern machines as abstraction in his symbolic paintings.3
Finally, Barcelona artist Conrad Roset uses watercolor and india ink with such beauty and skill. His art provides an opportunity to talk about Gris’s aesthetic and about the importance of color to the entire game, but also the modernist enterprise. Symbolists practice artistic synesthesia which condensed different sense into a single experience. For example, Arthur Rimbaud assigned colors to vowels in his sonnet “Voyelles/Vowels” (1871),” A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles”,/ “Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O vowels…”.
In Gris, colors correspond to levels and the change in color brings a change in the protagonist’s abilities and mood as well as the landscape where she floats about. The red of the bleak opening gives way to the green of the forest and then flows into the blue world of Level 3 where Gris swims both with and against the current with the elegant tenacity of a salmon. When she reaches the final level, her entire world reawakens, and she regains her voice lost at the game’s start and sings. Her songs like those of nature’s birds signaling joy has returned to her world.
In relationship to color, I would make some time to talk about the early symbolist work of American poet Wallace Stevens. Stevens first volume of poetry Harmonium (1923), as the name suggest, stresses the harmony of nature and the melding of the senses. His use of color imagery entwined around music, nature, emotions, all wrapped around the Biblical scene of Susanna and the Elders, as in the below quote from “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” is extraordinary.
“Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna:
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.”
This brings me to a concluding point. Playing Gris, you are moving the buoyant avatar through fragmented statues. You collect fragments of light, as I indicated above, but the light also illuminates dark recesses, and reveals hidden beauties. Much like Stevens’ “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” each moment reflects a different perspective, a fuller sense of nature’s transcendent splendor.
In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And a pale silver patterned on the deck
And made one think of porcelain chocolate
And pied umbrellas. An uncertain green,
Piano-polished, held the tranced machine
Of ocean, as a prelude holds and holds,
Who, seeing silver petals of white blooms
Unfolding in the water, feeling sure
Of the milk within the saltiest spurge, heard, then,
The sea unfolding in the sunken clouds?
Oh! C’etait mon extase et mon amour.
So deeply sunken were they that the shrouds,
The shrouding shadows, made the petals black
Until the rolling heaven made them blue,
A blue beyond the rainy hyacinth,
And smiting the crevasses of the leaves
Deluged the ocean with a sapphire blue.”
Such is Gris, a beautiful bas-relief of a ballet painted in watercolor, come to life, as a wakened dream, for the player to experience as art and game. In every sense Gris is a work of art, and a work that brings back memories of the symphonic explosion that modernism during a time of less exalted work. Gris is art; art with the mechanics of the classic Japanese platformer- or art you can play.
1. I work with the bilingual edition of the poems in print collections, but they can all be found online in multiple places such as Poem Hunter, http://www.poemhunter.com
2. Music is not my strength, but there are often music majors in the class or students with a keen interest in music and they can assist the class in exploring Debussy’s extraordinary work. The following two sources will help instructors like me gain a deeper appreciation of this musical piece.
Laurence D. Berman, “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun and Jeux: Debussy’s Summer Rites,” 19th Century Music, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1980, pp. 225-238, DOI. 10.2307/746487, www.jstor.org/stable/746487, University of California Press.
“A guide to Debussy’s Prélude á l’après-midi d’ un faune,” BBC Music Magazine, retrieved from classical-music.com, http://www.classical-music.com/article/guide-debussys-pr-lude-l-apr-s-midi-d-un-faune-1894. Web.
3. Picabia’s work intersects Dadaism, symbolism, abstraction, and even surrealism. Machines are not statues, but the use of space and geometric shapes in his art strikes me as like the art of Gris. Also, Picabia uses color to evoke bodies and bodily zones. The larger point is the breaking of representation or mimesis and how that evokes a new world of both beauty and menace.
Bakst, Leó. “Stage Design for Vaslav Nijinski’s L’après-midi d’ un faune,” 1912.
Berlinist. Gris, Original Soundtrack. Self-released. Digital Album, http://berlinistband.bandcomp.com
Debussy, Claude. “Prélude á l’après-midi d’ un faune,” musical composition,1894, originally performed 22 December 1894 in Paris conducted by Gustave Doret.
Gris. Nomanda Studio/Devolver Digital. Óscar Crego and Daniel Cuadrado González designers, Conrad Roset artist, 2018. Video Game.
Mallarmé, Stéphane. Collected Poems, A Bilingual Edition. Translated by Henry Weinfield. University of California Press, 2011. Print.
McShea, Tom. “Gris Review-Seeing in Color,” 13 December 2018, retrieved from https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/gris-review-seeing-in-color/1900-6417057/. Web.
Morèas, Jean. “The Manifesto of Symbolism,” Translated by A.S. Kline ©2019, Poetry in Translation, original publication, Le Figaro, 18 September, 1886, retrieved from https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/French/MoreasManifesto.php. Web.
Nijinsky, Vaslev. Choreographer. “L’après-midi d’ un faune,” ballet, originally performed 29 May 1912 at Théatre du Chatelet, Paris, France.
Picabia, Francis. “Machine tournez vite”/”Machine Turn Quickly,” 1917, brush ink with watercolor, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Rimbaud, Arthur. Complete Works, Selected Letters, A Bilingual Edition. Translated by Seth Whidden, University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems, Corrected Edition. Vintage, 2015. Harmonium was originally published in 1923 by Knopf. A Dover Thrift edition of this book is available.