Weekly Time-Waster: Greek Games

It's time to GET YOUR ORPHEUS ON!!!
It's time to GET YOUR ORPHEUS ON!!!

Greek mythology has been a seemingly bottomless well for artists of all mediums to draw inspiration, from painters and sculptors to film directors and novelists. Over the past decade or so, as video games have been slowly gaining ground as an art medium of their own (and not just time-wasters), you'd think this well would be gushing over in gaming -- especially when you're talking about myths full of epic battles and superhuman heroics. As Art Attack went about hunting down the best myth-inspired online games, we realized there's more to it than meets the eye -- and less out there than you would think.

Take, for example, Achilles. It's a pretty standard survival-game format that might keep you clicking buttons for a while. "Inspired," however, wouldn't really be the best way to describe it. Sure, you can slap some pixelated sandals and leather armor on a character and have him slaughter countless hordes of other leather-clad hombres, but it would be hard to claim any of it really has much to say about the mythical figure it's drawing from.

Most myths, after all, were developed for a reason, as a way to explain some specific part of the chaotic world around us, or to teach some basic moral lesson of how to get through life without screwing things up too bad. Boiling things down to a few of these kinds of simple rules is, on the other hand, what a lot of so-called "art games" have more recently been trying to do. One of the most common examples held up is Passage, which is a just-barely-interactive meditation on mortality. The art-minded consider it an elegant example of how simplicity of play can lead to complex and emotional reactions, while, conversely, others say it's the most transparent example of why "art games" are dull, pretentious, and boring. It has been the butt of countless jokes (you can play an online parody of it here).

Oddly enough, for every parody of Passage out there, there seem to be just as many tongue-and-cheek games based on the myth of Sisyphus (Sisyphus: The Game is our favorite example). Even if it's not meant to be the most fun kind of game, it does feel like it has taken the essential part of the myth and made it something interactive, something playable. As a translation, there's not really much to fault it for.

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The best (and arguably only) example out there right now of a myth-inspred game that gets it all right is Don't Look Back by Terry Cavanagh (who has been getting a lot of attention recently for his well-crafted platformer VVVVVV). Taking the story of Orpheus leading Eurydice out of Hades as its basic plot, the game combines traditional mechanics and obstacles--you pick up a pellet gun in the first few screens to help deal with the baddies--with a very subtle eye to the essence of the myth. Orpheus's inability to look back at Eurydice to make sure she is following has been transformed in the game to the character's inability to actually move backwards, creating a logistical challenge to match Orpheus's assumed emotional hardship. It's simple and it works as a game because it's embedded in the actual ability to interact with the world. The low-bit monochrome art and minimal color-palette add to the eeriness of it all.

Hopefully, we'll continue to see more inspiration brought into game mechanics, and this style of game design will develop into something beyond the "casual gaming" genre. Cavanagh himself has done a different style of game called Judith based not on a Greek myth but on the fairy-tale of Bluebeard's Castle, and most recently, the Spain-based team Tale of Tales has been on the awards-circuit for their game The Path, which is based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Let's just hope these light-bringers don't get their livers pecked out for eternity by sarcastic fans and aloof "video games can never be art" critics.


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