The Two Sides of Play

Posted: June 16, 2010 in Art, Games

I’m sure others have said it better and said it more often but it seems to me that there are fundamentally only two sides to something, the light side and the dark side.  Derived from the day and the night, the eternal cycle gives us one of the largest fundamental dichotomies of our existence.  While there are nuances, structures and sophisticated forms, the fundamental idea of light and dark permeate so much of our art, story telling and play.  While obvious and fundamental to us all, it has been a bit of a journey of mine to explore this idea over last few weeks.

It starts with Walt Disney.

Walt had an idea.  He wanted to make a theme park where families could go and feel good about life, where they could feel ‘reassured’.  He wanted to make every part of the experience to give them a feeling of being home, always knowing where they were, always feeling like there was something for them, that every thing was going to be ok.  This idea was so powerful that he used it to create billions of dollars from the products created from this emotional source.  The movies, the attractions, the experiences were all based on the idea of creating reassurance.  The impact this had on the animation industry was huge.  In order to be different, you had to find a niche that said a different message.  Competing with Disney on production values was suicide.

Warner Brothers tried something different.  Television was the primary medium and the blend of violence and consequence free action gave us what was likely the ‘edgy’ side of animation for the time.  As values changed, what was edgy became mainstream.

This took us to Robert Crumb, Ralph Bakshi and Fritz the Cat.

This was the alternative to Disney.  It was edgy, dark, dirty and raw.  It didn’t reassure you, it didn’t make you feel better but it did evoke something within you.  They were trying to push the medium.  Reassurance was so powerful that to define yourself strongly otherwise you needed to not reassure, you need to challenge.  Ralph Bakshi’s animation never made mainstream success but still found a large cult following.  Given the power of Disney’s message, to define yourself the polar opposite was to narrow your appeal to a very small group yet to define yourself by overlapping with Disney meant a watered down compromise.

Then along came video games.

Nintendo, with their good wholesome fun attitudes aligned quite closely with Disney’s core value of reassurance.  Their simple core messages of rescue the princess if you learn the simple patterns lets you know again that everything is going to be ok.  The bad guys will be punished, the hero will get the girl and everything will be rainbows and roses.  Now we have a problem.  To define yourself otherwise means you’re going to need to play the role of the darkness, the challenger.  You will need to counter the light created by reassurance, and you will need to embrace the darkness to succeed.

Marcus’ world is falling appart.  He starts in a prison cell, put there by his own command.  His friends are dying, his family is dead and the world is almost in ruin.  He can barely hang on to his life will cutting people in half with chainsaws.  There is no safety here, there is nothing to feel good about, this is darkness.

This is not to say that there are only two games.  There are many who play to the light or dark or those that try to find some grey.  The real art is in the nuance, but the power is in the archetypes.  While you may not choose to define yourself so clearly, which probably means you’ll make better art anyway, some of your peers will or will have done so.  It has already been done in games.  The lines have already been drawn.  Nintendo chose over twenty years ago.

Yet in all stories of the dark, there is the story of the light.  It is the contrasts and the temporary transgression of the archon who bring light to darkness or darkness to light.  It is in the telling that we gain the most enjoyment.  We do not like things to be the same, always.  With a name like Pheonix, Marcus in Gears of War is the ultimate example.  They grey is what we have to tell great stories and live great experiences, but ultimately we choose to return to the light or the dark to call home.

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