Sympathy For The Devil

Sympathy For The Devil
Playing with Monsters

Bryan Lufkin | 21 Sep 2010 11:51
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Whether it was in ancient Greek buildings, Beijing's Forbidden City, Japanese temples or Italian piazzas, humans have shown an ownership over mythical beasts by incorporating them into different forms of visual art. Cerberus and Sequoia-sized warrior-gods in royal palaces could certainly suggest a head of state's political strength, or hint at wealth in a rich citizen's lavishly decorated, high-culture home. Something like a painting contains or "traps" the creature, and displaying the artwork can certainly reflect the influence, status or taste of the owner or artist. It's like keeping a canary in a cage, only the cage is a piece of art, and the canary, a Cyclops.

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Videogames combine these feelings of intrigue and prestige, as well as a desire to manipulate and control, with interactivity. The idea of hunting or training seemingly incorrigible goliaths, for example, is explored in such games as this year's Monster Hunter Tri. While the presentation is a lot more cutesy, it's also a theme in Pokémon, which has become the second best-selling game franchise of all time. The God of War series, which features many mythological gods, is similar to Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles, whose salons are named after Roman gods or goddesses. Both, in their own ways, honor the pantheon and its power. And Bishamonten, the Buddhist deity I mentioned earlier? He's a playable character in Capcom's fighter Darkstalkers, as well as a boss in the RPG Shin Megami Tensei. Whether you're training, defeating or even inhabiting these titans, you're displaying a level of dominance over them, and it's why they're so often used in videogames. It's an interaction that the rulers of yesteryear, who may have displayed statues of lions or dragons in their courtyards, might find very appealing if they were around today.

Professor Reilly says that, generally speaking, many games can stand up to the more traditional forms of art that depict these figures, at least in terms of artistic and historical accuracy.

"I've been amazed at how realistic the visuals are," she says. "I've also had students tell me about spotting actual monuments from my classes, which have been incorporated in historically-based games, such as cathedrals that are in the course of being destroyed during a simulated invasion, or altarpieces that appear in some hiding place in a crumbling city. In other words, the designers of these games strike me as quite artistically literate."

But Reilly also offers a caveat. While gamers may share our ancestors' desire to admire or control legendary creatures, a sense of appreciation can be missing. The gamer might not have the same knowledge of the creatures as the artists in the past did, and might overlook certain nuances as a result.

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