The Magic Flute and Bringing High Art to Gaming

Lab Like has released a very ambitious mobile puzzle game based on Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, and it’s one of those games that make a player examine where gaming as art and gaming as a pastime intersect. On one hand, the game is good in ways games are rarely good, but in others, it’s bad in ways that games, especially games adapted from previous works, are often bad.

Video games based on pre-existing works go back to the mid-‘70s when Death Race sparked one of the first violence-in-video-games controversies and Sega released a version Moto-Cross starring the Fonz. In most cases they are cheap cash-ins on popular movies and television shows. Only PC gaming ever regularly adapted books – I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream comes to mind – though consoles have done it occasionally, as with Parasite Eve and that period in the ‘90s when major comic book events like Spider-Man’s Maximum Carnage and the Death of Superman were made into games. As far as I know, basing a video game on an opera, a play or a celebrated literary work remains almost unheard of.

Which is a real shame because as an interactive adaptation, The Magic Flute deserves top marks. The game owes its visual design specifically to a recent staging of the opera in Tokyo by Amon Miyamoto, of which the game is supposed to serve as a companion piece. Stages are largely industrial, which clashes in an interesting way with the appearance of giant serpents, magic lockets and witches.

More than that, the characters are presented as puppets, making them both actual playable characters and a presentation of those characters that you can watch. It’s a rarely attempted gaming feat that is supposed to blur the lines between watching the screen and controlling the screen, sort of a movie within a game within both within neither kind of thing. The only other game I’ve played that I think pulled it off was Puppeteer.

Artistically, The Magic Flute is phenomenal, but is it fun to play? That’s a harder question to answer.

It’s thematically similar to Monument Valley, though to be fair, every mobile adventure puzzler for the next several years is probably going to owe something to Monument Valley. The goal is to shift panels on the floor to move Tamino (and later him, Papageno and Pamina concurrently) so they can advance through the level. Sometimes this involves getting to items first or avoiding panels that crumble, but in general the basic premise is “go from here to there.”

In the beginning this is fairly simple stuff, but after the tenth stage, things start to go wrong in bad ways. The Magic Flute is its own worst enemy at times because it refuses to follow its own internal logic while playing. I’m not talking about refusing to follow real-world logic. It bothers me in an aesthetic sense that I can move a giant metal tank over a character’s head and it won’t crush it, but as a gamer I’ve long since grown numb to those leaps of logic as part of gaming.

It’s more that the game puts up completely arbitrary boundaries on movement. You start out being able to freely manipulate panels on the X/Y-axis as long as you avoid the panels that can’t be moved. This part is actually a lot of fun, but when the game begins to introduce manipulating the Z-axis into the mix, it’s insanely difficult largely because it becomes nonsensical from a play perspective. You essentially have to deal with three separate two-dimensional spaces that aren’t allowed to interact with each other. There’s no reason given within the game why a block against one wall can be moved up and down and side to side but not back to front; it just is.

The result is this very ham-handed approach to puzzle solving. It actually reminds me a lot of Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock, where bad guys were allowed to move in three dimensions while The Doctor and River Song were limited to two. Nothing is more frustrating than a puzzle that could be solved by walking around it and not being able to, especially when you get to watch enemies do exactly that. It’s forcing a solution that the designer wants you to find and ignoring that the reason games, even very linear games, work is they can seek multiple paths to a goal. The Magic Flute is the first game I’ve gotten irritated with to the point of rage-quitting in a long time. I actively grew to hate the tuba note that would play whenever you attempted a forbidden move and turned the sound down, and if you’re going to mute an opera video game, then what’s the point of it?

It’s a shame to me because I’m a big believer that games can be used to introduce us to things we might otherwise miss. I wrote lovingly about how playing Never Alone with my daughter sparked this fascination with the first peoples of Alaska and a reverential trip to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see real bolas and carvings just like Nuna uses in the game. If a game can do that for science, why couldn’t it do it with art? Imagine a game based on Wagner operas or an innovative puzzler similar to The Unfinished Swan but set in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. How about if Fullbright did for Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca what it did with Gone Home? Why on Earth should a version of Ready Player One hit the big screen before it hits Steam?

Remember the opera scene in Final Fantasy VI? You control Celes through this beautiful and moving performance as a woman forced to marry an invading prince and lamenting her lost love fighting in a faraway land. It’s simple and a little silly, but it’s also an iconic thing in gaming where everything just kind of stops so we can have this moment. I so wanted The Magic Flute to be an expansion of that moment, and in places it was. The narration is thrilling, the story moving and the music is of course timeless. That said, a game can’t be just pretty. It has to be rewarding to interact with. That’s what defines it as a medium, and interacting with The Magic Flute was often about as frustrating as watching The Magic Flute onstage without subtitles.

We’ve reached this weird place where people who know how to make good art and people who know how to make fun games are still fumbling toward each other, and throwing established works like operas with pre-conceived expectations into the mix makes it even more difficult. Nonetheless, The Magic Flute was definitely a step in the right direction for gaming as an artistic medium even if, to quote Cave Johnson, the hustle could use some work though. Now let’s solve this thing.

The Magic Flute is out now on iOS. 
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner