Saturday, March 21, 2009

Video Games and Myth: Don't Look Back

Stripping video games to their bare essentials, programmer Terry Cavanagh presents Don't Look Back - a pixelated platformer reminiscent of old school Atari (and other similar platforming systems). In his recently released project, Cavanagh uses flash animation - a reasonably affordable alternative for independent artists to animate, voice, and distribute their work directly to the consumer on the internet. Flash has been the up-and-coming animation form for game programers and visual artists alike for years, used in everything from talk show intros to "office time-wasters" to Adult Swim cartoons like Metalocalypse. Using this contemporary medium, Cavanagh dives into "the Classics" by retelling the Greek tale of Orpheus in his return to "classic" gaming. (For those interested, the game is free and can be played without download here)

Don't Look Back begins as seen above, with a man standing in the rain at the grave of (what can be assumed is) a recently lost lover. Of course, our protagonist has no choice, but to turn right and travel into the bowels of the Underworld in an attempt to bring her back. By doing so, our nameless hero must run, jump, and shoot through a barrage of 8-bit monsters, vanishing bridges, and other hazards to achieve his goal. Already, the player can see some obvious parallels with the famed Greek myth. 

In the tale, Orpheus was a musician who was happily married to the beautiful Eurydice until, one fateful day, she was bitten by a poisonous snake and she died. Distraught and torn, Orpheus began to play and sing a grouping of the most beautiful, yet sad songs ever heard. So mournful were they that the immortal nymphs and gods all wept without reservation. On their recommendation, they bid Orpheus to the Underworld in hopes that Hades and Persephone would be so moved by his music as to take pity on Orpheus and return his love to him - neither of which had anyone ever succeeded. On his arrival, Orpheus played and sang for Hades and Persephone his sad songs and, in their tears, they allowed Orpheus an exception with a condition: that on his walk out and up from the Underworld he must always face forward and have faith that Eurydice is right behind him until they both return to the world of the living. Orpheus ascends without turning around, but as soon as he exits he turns only to see Eurydice vanish from him forever, as he had not afforded her the time (and faith) to step into the living world herself. Careful analysis of Cavanagh's gaming platform reveals some striking parallels (with artistic liberties).

Although the hero from Don't Look Back is not a musician, it is notable that once he begins his decent that the music begins to play. The midi classical string-orchestra presents a melancholic tone accentuated by a color scheme of mellow, dark browns. By doing so, the game is able to evoke an impressive emotional response despite its simplistic design. Here, Cavanagh proves he has an eye for detail, even including the occasional Greek pillar in the background as a "salute" to his source material. The hero continues to descend through the Underworld, able to leap down cliffs with ease (the rules in the Underworld are a little different), battling it out with the various inhabitants, until he reaches a cliff where his love rests as a spirit, floating above the abyss - waiting. He turns around and she begins to follow him out, facing new obstacles as they climb their way up. Keeping with the myth the player must not turn around, else his love will vanish and he will have to start the screen over as if he had just died. Eventually, the hero makes his way outside, into the rain, and back into the living world. In surreal fashion, the hero returns to the grave, lover in toe, only to see himself standing over the tombstone again, alone, as the vestiges of the self and the lover that have just returned vanish forever. The player is left to wonder whether the hero ever left at all, whether he is caught in an eternal loop, or whether the person he sees when he returns is really someone else. In so doing, we are left to wonder which facets of the phrase "don't look back" apply, as there seem to be several. It is rare when something so simplistic retains such poignancy.

Orpheus was the classic tale about the relationship between loss and faith. Of grief and closure. These themes become more and more relatable as people mature and grow older and have the life experiences that encompass them. Whether they have died or not, most of us will lose someone who we would do anything to have back, but understand we cannot. Cavanagh uses his art form to explore these themes through classic myth and does it successfully by using the bare essentials of classic gaming.


Damo said...

Bravo, sir! I really appreciate the depth of your analysis. Now I shall spend most of my (work) day playing this 8-bit classics lesson.

Scotty said...

Cerberus took it like a bitch.

The rope challenges were also especially difficult, without turning back to face Eurydice.

Just like real life.

Ozkirbas said...

Yeah, it's interesting that you have to face Cerberus right after you cross (what I think) is the River Styx. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly the jumping-thingies are.

Brittany said...

are jumping-thingies a common occurrence in Greek mythos?

Ozkirbas said...

Only in Disney movies