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Art in the Digital Age: Surrealism Explored in Contemporary Video Games

Updated: Jul 8

Sofia Fall, ‘25

June 17th, 2024

My fascination with video games began at a young age, maybe nine or ten, when a classmate introduced me to an MMORPG. Fully engaged with this discovery, I found myself rapt over a computer with a hunched posture, engrossed in immersive play. Since that day, I often daydreamed about the bizarre worlds they allowed me to escape. Bizarre digital worlds where the rules of the physical world no longer apply allowed me to do anything I wanted whenever I pleased. This version of reality was a far cry from my daily routine, where most of my actions are time-boxed. Every day felt like a race against the clock; I'd like to play, but I have to finish my work before; I need to get things done; can I squeeze in some time for gaming?

In the midst of such hectic lifestyles, the rise of digital surrealism offers a fascinating escape. The amalgamation of "bizarre art" and digital realms that have been on the rise since the start of the digital age has created a realm of unorthodox games whose styles challenge conventional norms and invite players into visually striking, conceptually intriguing worlds. A twenty-five-year-old Salvador Dali, a luminary of the Surrealism movement, once remarked, “Surrealism is disruptive, yet it dismantles only what it perceives as constraints limiting our perspective.” This ethos of liberation from a traditional perception of what art should look like seamlessly, if not beautifully, transitions into the digital realm, where mixed-media visual components and modern gameplay have cultivated a flourishing Surreal subculture within the gaming industry. This exploration is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to surreal video games but rather a personal list of my favorite ones. Come along as we venture through the unconventional and countercultural gaming world, uncovering works that ignore traditional norms and challenge conventional artistic conventions within this ever-evolving movement.

Garage: Bad Dream Adventure

Gameplay from "Garage: Bad Dream Adventure." 2023, Nintendo Switch

The first oddity up for discussion is Garage: Bad Dream Adventure, a uniquely bizarre Japanese point-and-click adventure game developed by Kinotrope and published by Toshiba-EMI for Windows and Macintosh in 1999 ("Garage: Bad Dream Adventure," The recent 2021 mobile remake introduces revamped visuals, an official English translation, and fresh narrative elements that significantly alter the underlying message of the original tale. Immerse yourself in the dystopian world of Garage, where our protagonist, Yan, is tasked with traversing a convoluted and unsettling landscape populated by complex contraptions and idiosyncratic inhabitants. Along his journey, Yan grapples with his turbulent inner turmoil, manifesting as a violent alter ego, Shen, who is responsible for the chaotic environment within Garage. This micro-level examination will focus on dissecting individual character motivations and conflicts.

A word of caution: "Garage: Bad Dream Adventure" features disconcerting visuals and themes that may unsettle sensitive viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.

In the cyberpunk world of "Garage: Bad Dream Adventure,"  Yan embarks on a harrowing journey through a twisted and eerie landscape, encountering a plethora of peculiar contraptions and individuals. The game delves deep into existential themes, exploring the consequences of industrialization, the erosion of humanity, and Yan's internal struggle. In this alternate reality, machines labor tirelessly to acquire stamps, the currency used to obtain fuel.

The protagonist, Yan, is a complex character, divided into two distinct personas: a naive version of himself striving for redemption and the malevolent Shen, the architect of Garage's chaos. As Yan confronts his violent alter ego, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery and redemption, seeking to understand and reconcile with his troubled past. The 2021 remake introduces multiple endings illuminating Yan's backstory and interpersonal connections. Notably, Yan's childhood friend, Juice, is revealed to be a victim of his abuse, transformed into a grotesque machine tasked with fuel production. Through his interactions with Juice, Yan must confront his guilt and seek reconciliation, symbolizing his quest for inner peace.

The narrative of "Garage: Bad Dream Adventure" delves further into its thematic exploration of duality and violence with the introduction of Lou, a tormented intersex individual. Lou's struggles serve as a poignant commentary on the extreme gender inequality and dehumanization prevalent in the game's society, offering insights into Yan's complicity in perpetuating these injustices. Lou's story adds depth to the narrative, shedding light on the harsh realities of the game world and Yan's entanglement.

Through its unsettling narrative, 'Garage: Nightmare Expedition' explores many dimensions of trauma, remorse, and the cost to pay for individual development. Despite addressing weighty themes, the interactive experience delivers a potent critique of societal apathy and serves as a call to confront and transcend personal pasts.

Flower, Sun, and Rain

Gameplay from "Flower, Sun, and Rain." 2014,  Nintendo DS

While I typically steer clear of adventure games, Flower, Sun, and Rain have had a special place in my heart for quite some time. Developed by Grasshopper Manufacture and published by Victor Interactive Software, this game, first released in Japan for PlayStation 2 in 2001 and later ported to the DS in 2008, features Sumio Mondo, a "searcher" on a mission to thwart a bomb threat looming over the Micronesian island of Lospass(Cubed3, "Interview | Suda51 Talks Flower, Sun and Rain (Nintendo DS)"). With its distinct visual aesthetic, intellectually stimulating puzzles, and captivating storyline, it's a title I highly recommend.

As players step into the shoes of Mondo, they traverse the environs of the eponymous "Flower, Sun, and Rain" hotel. Armed with a specialized computer dubbed "Catherine", cleverly concealed within a suitcase, Mondo tackles numerical enigmas while contending with constant disruptions from the island's denizens. Along the way, he encounters a myriad of characters, including the enigmatic assassin Sundance Shot.

Delving deeper into the plot would spoil the adventure, but rest assured, the game's artistry is exceptional. Its cel-shaded, low-polygon graphics, reminiscent of " Killer 7," lend it a distinctive allure, complemented by its eccentric cast of characters, though some visuals may lack clarity.

"Flower, Sun, and Rain" can be frustrating due to its complex puzzles and heavy exposition, its exploration elements and character interactions make it a fascinating experience. The game involves extensive dialogue and puzzle-solving, often necessitating math and deductive reasoning. It's a title that defies its mixed critical reception, promising a unique journey that fans of Suda51's oeuvre will undoubtedly relish.


Gameplay from " Hylics." 2020, Steam

Delving into the kaleidoscopic realm of Hylics, an observer is met with a delightful surprise—a landscape filled with pixel-perfect RPGs where Hylics stands as a daring outlier, prioritizing visual and sensory experiences over conventional narratives. Developed and published by Mason Lindroth in 2015, Hylics challenges conventional substance with surrealist art and unconventional gameplay. From its abstract narrative to its claymation aesthetics, the game is a testament to the power of art direction and creative vision in shaping a game’s identity. ("The material world of Mason Lindroth," Kill Screen) Lindroth's decision to utilize mixed media, particularly claymation, lends the game an aesthetic that’s as mesmerizing as unique. Every frame is infused with a hand-crafted quality that sets it apart from its contemporaries. The game's world is an ever-shifting tapestry of vibrant colors and abstract shapes, constantly keeping players on their toes.

Hylics beckons players to immerse themselves in its eccentricity, where every object, NPC, and piece of dialogue resembles a brushstroke on an abstract canvas. The game’s soundtrack, a mix of ambient sounds and unconventional melodies, further envelops players in its dreamlike ambiance. Building on the original's success, Hylics 2 was launched in 2020, presenting a more dynamic and visually captivating experience while preserving the charm of its predecessor.

Hylics challenges our fundamental expectations of video games, boldly proclaiming that style is substance—a guiding ethos for Lindroth's creation. From its abstract narrative to its claymation visuals, Hylics exemplifies how art direction and creative vision can shape a game's identity. The opening scene plunges players into a world that feels more like an interactive art exhibit than a traditional RPG. The protagonist, Wayne, navigates a surreal landscape with poetic NPCs and eclectic backdrops. The narrative, or lack thereof, adds to the game's charm, parodying old-school RPG tropes where the story is less about defeating a tyrannical god named Gibby and more about the surreal journey.

Combat in Hylics eschews the complexity typical of RPGs. It is straightforward, almost to a fault, but the presentation elevates each encounter. Battles are a spectacle of digital claymation, with attacks and spells rendered in a retro and refreshingly original style. The game’s inventory and equipment systems are filled with items that defy logical categorization, enhancing the experience.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Hylics is its approach to death and rebirth. When Wayne dies, his body dissolves into clay, transporting him to the afterlife—a zone offering respite and power-up opportunities. This cycle reduces the frustration of failure and reinforces the themes of transformation and renewal.

Hylics 2 continues Wayne's story and his quirky group of allies, this time confronting a resurrected Gibby. The visual style, a mix of CGI, rotoscoping, and claymation, is more refined yet retains the quirkiness of its predecessor. Though still rooted in RPG mechanics, the gameplay feels more polished and challenging, urging players to engage deeply with its combat systems and exploration.

World of Horrors

Gameplay from"World of Horror." 2023, PlayStation 4

For fans of horror, few names carry as much weight and influence as Junji Ito and H.P. Lovecraft. These two titans of terror have left an indelible mark on the genre, shaping the nightmares of countless readers and artists alike. Their works have inspired various media, from literature to film to video games. One such game that pays homage to their legacy is "World of Horror," a chilling and eerie indie game developed by Pawel Kozminski and fully released in October of 2023 ​​("World Of Horror spreads Junji Ito-inspired spookings in October," Rock Paper Shotgun). Set in a small coastal town in Japan, "World of Horror" thrusts players into a narrative where the resurgence of the Old Gods plunges the community into chaos and madness. As sanity slips away and grotesque entities emerge, players must confront an impending apocalypse.

It’s impossible to discuss “World of Horror” without first exploring the interconnectedness of Junji Ito's and H.P. Lovecraft's themes, motifs, and stylistic elements and how they manifest in the haunting world of the game. Junji Ito, acclaimed for his mastery of horror manga, initially captured the attention of online aficionados who shared his most chilling panels as internet memes(VIZ Media, "A Talk with Junji Ito"). Over the years, he has garnered considerable acclaim. Notably, his work "Uzumaki" showcases his artistic brilliance and reverberates with the macabre essence of H.P. Lovecraft's tales.

Lovecraft's influence in Japan predates his recognition in the Western world by several decades, with his narratives being translated and serialized in Japanese publications as early as the late 1940s, where translations of H.P. Lovecraft's seminal works first permeated the Japanese literary landscape through publications like Hakaba, also known as Graveyard Magazine ("The Long Tentacle of H.P. Lovecraft in Manga"). Translated by Nishio Tadashi, these early renditions captivated readers and laid the groundwork for a burgeoning fascination with “Lovecraftian” horror. This early exposure laid the groundwork for Lovecraft's enduring impact on Japanese media, where his popularity was further propelled by the release of the tabletop role-playing game 'Call of Cthulhu' in the 1980s (Kitkowski, "D&D VS Japan's Top TRPG"). Today, Lovecraft's writings are revered as seminal works of cosmic horror, profoundly shaping the landscape of genre fiction in the 20th century.

The fusion of Lovecraft and Ito's creative visions culminates in the haunting realm of "World of Horror." This game pays tribute to the legacies of both maestros, seamlessly blending Lovecraft's cosmic dread with Ito's grotesque visual style. Embracing a lo-fi, 1-bit pixel art aesthetic, "World of Horror" deliberately diverges from contemporary RPG designs, opting for a cluttered interface to intensify the game's chaotic and suffocating atmosphere.

Video games, much like other art forms, can act as a medium for creativity and advancement. The aforementioned games are no different in impressing that aspect of their audience. By successfully merging technology with unconventional storytelling, developers and artists can explore new frontiers, offering players fresh experiences that were previously unimaginable.

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