Video Games as Art (Divus/Kyklos Update)

After watching a video about an often misunderstood and dejected game – Metroid II – I began questioning my decisions in making Divus. Also, I considered what makes something art. Here’s what I uncovered.

Before starting, Divus has gained a new name: Kyklos. Onto the important bits.

Recently, I watched a video by Mark Brown about Metroid II, or, more specifically, two of its remakes. The video explains the structure of the game and various aspects of it that are often seen as flaws which were likely included on purpose to contribute to the game’s atmosphere. That atmosphere contributes to its message, best summed up by the following, quoted within the aforementioned video:

Games about killing should probably make you uncomfortable.  They shouldn’t be carefully crafted to be pleasant.  Metroid II is openly about killing.  It makes me uncomfortable with wordless specificity.

This quote is by S. R. Holiwell, from her article, A Maze of Murderscapes: Metroid II.

After watching the video, I decided to read the article, which explored many of the same concepts as the video, but with a sole focus on the original game rather than the remakes, and with much greater detail. I highly recommend it. One of the points this drove home is that of the above. That the game is about killing, and that the game is uncomfortable. And that is a good thing.

This made me reevaluate one of the main messages of Kyklos, and the point I was trying to send home with the game: “There are those which must become monsters (or shed their humanity) such that others don’t have to.” I still hold to that message, but with this addendum: “To be that person is a burden.” This has raised some important questions about the game’s structure and core mechanics. Namely: how do we communicate that to the players?

I haven’t gone into too much detail about the game before, but the backstory for the game is this:

There is a being, known only as ‘The Demon Lord’ who oppresses the denizens of the land the game takes place in. This has happened for an inordinate amount of time and every character in the game has spent their entire lives suffering under this being. Everyone has given up hope.

As well, there are beings known as the Wraith: souls of the dead tormented by the hatred they held in their hearts, a hatred so powerful it pulled them into a realm of nothing but hate. This hate consumed them until they lost all sense of self, having no compulsion but to destroy the object of their hatred – and their hatred gives them power. As a result, they are each named for the thing they hate most. The Demon Lord found a way to access this realm and conscripted Wraith to use as his generals.

Finally, there is a sword of unknown origin, and unknown to any living being but found early in the game, known as the Sanguine Blade. The Sanguine Blade has the power to transmit the life force (alongside the soul) of those it strikes down into the wielder. This is the crux of the game’s story and one of its core mechanics – to become more powerful, and to survive, one must kill. It is in finding this blade that the main character develops newfound hope in defeating the Demon Lord.

The sword is used for two primary purposes: to gain the powers of the Wraith – thereby gaining access to new areas and new ways to fight – and to keep one from dying. There is also an important distinction between the sort of creatures you can kill in the game: natural and demonic. Natural creatures pose no threat to you. They are simply there and can seem like background props, but you can kill them to replenish your health nonetheless. Demonic creatures do pose a threat to you (and also replenish your health when killed).

Questioning Everything

Now, it should be noted that this mechanic was not added lightly. In fact, this mechanic was added to make another mechanic less punishing: you only ever have a max health of 2. As well, every creature in the game that will damage you always deals 1 damage (except the final boss, depending on the choices you make), thereby making it where getting hit even once means fighting for your life. Over time, your wounds heal, but killing things to absorb their life force is a much easier method of avoiding death.

In effect, this need to kill sends a particularly harrowing message: killing is necessary for survival. Which, in some cases, is true. Alternatively: trampling over those weaker than you is one way to get ahead. And that is something we want to avoid.

The obvious solution here is to throw out that mechanic entirely. Certainly a possibility, but that also removes the main narrative arcs vital to the game’s main message.

So, in one of our walks around a nearby lake, my wife and I discussed this prospect and how we can weave that idea – that becoming the monster to protect those around you is a burden – into both the narrative and/or the mechanics of the game. Of course, you could always make the argument that there is no necessity based on the fact that many people who aren’t speedrunners are generally unwilling to do things like kill innocents to get ahead – it is not those unwilling people that this message is for. This message is for the ruthless. That senseless violence and the put-down of others to get ahead is not without consequence.

We explored very briefly the idea of including mechanical detriments to killing natural things instead of demonic things, but ultimately backed off from that rather quickly. We instead chose to focus on the narrative. There is no mechanical detriment to wanton violence – save for the fact that killing too many natural creatures will eventually make you permanently lose the game and have to start your save file over – but there is a narrative one. More on that in another post (or just when the game releases).

Holiwell mentions in her article that the metroids Samus spends the game committing genocide upon are undeserving of the fate that awaits them. They are not malicious creatures, as they feed only to survive. They are not space-faring, and even on their home planet there is still life as they have the tendency, as most non-human creatures do, to live in a sort of equilibrium with their natural environment – they do not destroy it. The only reason Samus is hunting them, the only reason she is wiping them out, is because the Space Pirates are exploiting them.

This made me question the narrative I had structured, wherein the main character of Kyklos is attempting to take down the Demon Lord. The Demon Lord is deserving of the violence he suffers. Should there not be someone undeserving in a game driving home that being a protector is a burden? Then I realized I had already supplied such an element.

Tying back to the aforementioned main character arc, there is the subject of killing the Wraith. The Wraith are beings that, almost certainly, do not deserve their fate. This becomes more apparent as you slowly recover the memories that they lost. They are beings, once confined to a world where they wasted away into nothing, which are being exploited for evil means. I had, unintentionally, already supplied an analogue for the metroids.

The main character, in their mission to kill the Demon Lord, puts these Wraith out of their misery, but at the cost of destroying their souls – or, rather absorbing them. The Wraith, in one final stroke, lose the last remaining part of their identity as they join the collective soul of the main character. With that, the character loses their sense of self in a rather literal take on Nietzsche’s famous statement, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”

The sequel to Kyklos (which, if I have anything to say about it, will be made, on account of it was the original idea that later resulted in the decision to make Kyklos as a sort of practice project), will explore this idea further. But I digress.

In effect, the character has two chances to murder innocents to further their own goals to strike down evil; one of these chances is optional, while the other is not. And, as previously stated, this necessity is used to drive the main message of the game: the burden of becoming a monster.

Video Games as Art

This, along with several other choices in the design of the game – many of which I don’t want to mention as they come into effect towards the end- orchestrates into a game that is intended to be difficult, intended to be somewhat uncomfortable to play. Which brings me to my final point that I once again borrow from Holiwell. That games don’t need to comfortable, and, in fact, often shouldn’t be.

Making a game that is uncomfortable to play is something oft avoided as many games work to fulfill a power fantasy, where the main character, by the end of the game, is a world-saving badass. Games like this are so often about killing without question and without consequence. Most games that feature killing as a primary mechanic frame it in such a way that you kill, not because you have to, but because you can. You kill because it’s fun, you kill because it gains you more power, and there is no weight to it because you are only killing faceless and nameless beings with no history before they come on screen and no legacy after they die. The exception comes in the form of the main story, wherein the main character kills some ultimate evil that is, objectively, irredeemable, and the death of which is unquestionably beneficial to the world at large.

What I have attempted to do, and hopefully succeeded at, in my overall design of Kyklos, is to make a game where senseless killing is purely that: senseless. You gain no experience, no money, no power, from killing the innocent natural creatures of the world, nor do you gain anything from killing the faceless grunts of the Demon Lord’s army. The only things that you do kill for the sake of personal gain are the Wraith (and some other things, but that’s not important right now), each of which comes with a backstory that slowly unfolds throughout the course of the game. Each and every one of the beings that you wipe from existence for your own gain carries a weight to it. And even killing things for the sake of your own survival carries a weight to it, as mentioned previously.

I believe that this weight – this conscious decision to make games uncomfortable for the sake of sending a message – is something necessary to elevate games from their place of mindless time-wasters for people going nowhere in their life to the art form they have the potential to be. Of course, this paradigm shift is not solely on the shoulders of game developers, but also on their audience and the general public.

We often accept books as an art form, but we do not automatically accept movies and TV shows in the same way. It is perhaps important to note that readers are much more receptive to uncomfortable words on the page than viewers are to uncomfortable scenes in visual media. The case that most prominently comes to my mind to demonstrate this fact is that of The Natural. The ending of the book is completely different from that of the movie, as the former ends on an uncomfortable and hopeless low note, while the latter ends with a comfortably gratifying high note.

For this reason, I believe it is the discomfort that a medium arouses – the push for the consumer to question their own perception – which makes a thing art.

If what you just read happened to pique your interest, subscribe to my blog, either through WordPress or by way of using the email entry field on the right. Also, hop on over to our Facebook page and give us a like, leave us a comment, or share with your friends. The more feedback I receive, the better my content will be. Thanks for reading, and Happy Making!

Author: E. M. Xavier Burgess

A world-builder at heart, Xavier writes books and makes video games as an extension of the worlds he creates. He also enjoys to share his insights into life and the universe, as well as the nature of others. The primary world he has been working on for the past 10 years is that of The Void Jumper's Continuum, an alternate reality of sorts. He is married to Olivia (featured in his profile picture) as of August 2020 and has a cat named Biscuit (named such because he's kneady).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s