Notes on SURREALISTa: The Nostalgia of the Infinite

[This piece contains heavy spoilers!]

It would feel like a categorical mistake to focus on SURREALISTa as a “puzzle platformer.” Strictly speaking, it contains both the ludic devices of puzzle-solving and platforming, and so one inclined to focus on its value as a game may be tempted to lavish attention on these qualities. Butand I suspect this is also the case with Gigoia Studio’s other release, GOLDAKthe ludic context is really just a means to an end here. 

SURREALISTa is, really, an homage to Giorgio de Chirico, the arguable grandfather of surrealism. The currently-incomplete game follows from the school of Metaphysical Art which de Chirico founded in the early 20th century, and principally from many of de Chirico’s most notable works. Each level is connected via a series of wooden doors opened by walking over a black-and-white checkerboard which the player is tasked with finding by traversing the nooks and crannies of the space. Just about every level actually has a number of these boards, each one triggering a different sound effect when they’re walked over. Some produce a knocking-on-wood sound, and others that of a doorbell. The correct one, however, elicits the shrill creaking of a slow-turning hinge. I don’t even have to see the door open; I’ve heard it.

The puzzles are relatively straightforward. There is no real pretense of cerebral complexity à la Antichamber, no frustrated thrashing against the system, trying to brute-force a solution. Every so often, and as the levels themselves increase in size and scope, annoyance will rear its head in the form of falling off a platform, missing a jump or having to backtrack after going in the wrong direction. It’s inconvenient, but to a degree I’m mostly willing to accept. There’s little more I could ask of the game except not having the puzzles at all, but the more I ruminate on their inclusion, the more I appreciate what Gigoia Studios has actually done with them. These ludic devices of hopping between footings and solving simple puzzles are at once a sort of tongue-in-cheek “window dressing” for the game’s ulterior purpose, and also provide a very valuable connective tissue that accentuates, rather than diminishes, my appreciation of the virtual spaces as metaphysical ones.

It is the music—a confronting mix of atonal bells and piano, which blend perfectly with the percussive wood-knock sound effects—the lighting, the palette, and the architecture all working together that give SURREALISTa any substance. They don’t exactly serve a gameplay end so much as “gameplay” is a clever cover story to get you exploring these alien dioramas. Ostensibly, I’m looking for the right checkerboard to open the right door, but what happens in the moments between Point A and Point B is the true nexus of connection. I’m compelled toward visual benchmarks, moving painstakingly slowly across platform bridges, taking note of the sparkling blue sky, the swirling void beneath. I walk under simulated limestone arches tinted orange by simulated dusklight, flanked on both sides by proud, marble horse statues. Each level is a roofless room; a toy chest full of oversize Roman busts and Grecian vases; a sandbox of shadows draping along angular stone structures like dark velvet; sunlight glinting off ornately framed bucolic paintings and floating, limbless ivory torsos. I walk up a rail-less stairway to a wooden door, statue ruins dotting my ascent like the adornments of a cosmic palace, and in the distance the aquamarine sky twinkles, and two celestial orbs hang like mobiles in the distance.

The game feels kind of like a virtual tour of a de Chirico exhibit, using obvious ludic devices as a kind of gimmick to invite players into an experience they may otherwise think of as pretentious or stuffy. But what also needs to be acknowledged are some of the choices being made about what sorts of spaces to render, how to situate the player in them and guide them towards things to see. In each level we see a painting, or at least some kind of amalgam of motifs, colours and symbols, represented. I see hints of Love Song here and Piazza d’Italia there,  The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon’s symbolism and preoccupation with long, intersecting lines here, the contrasts of hot orange-yellow with deep, cold pools of green-blue there. But SURREALISTa goes beyond just simple imitation: these symbols, palettes and architectures are, quite literally, lifted off the ground. Where de Chirico imagined structures and objects with alien, quasi-cubist geometries but which were still fundamentally subject to gravity, Gigoia Studios launches such questions as gravity into the metaphysical realm. Those marble statues float weightlessly, eerily, calmlyas if made of mylar. These are more than just unlikely spaces, more than visual landscapes of the impossible or the uncanny. This is a whole world unto itself, virtual and navigable, and it is not Earth.

At first, then, SURREALISTa feels like a curated museum experience has been stuffed inside the very paintings being exhibited. I think of Quebecois artist Jean-Paul Riopelle’s L’hommage à Rosa Luxemburg (1992), a fresco made of 40 individual, integrated panels, now permanently installed at the Musée du Quebec in Quebec City. The piece, made primarily with spraypaint and stencils, was specifically made to reflect light from the inside walls of the museum, and when hung would provide an engulfing, glowing, panoramic effect. I think of this preoccupation in various modernist and post-modernist art movements which consciously make use of the spaces they’re meant to be exhibited in, inviting us into our own mechanisms for displaying art as part of a complete experience. I think of Claris Cyarron’s Arcade Review essay, Rothko and Videogames’ Abstract Architectures, in which she remarks on the colour-field painter,

“Rothko was deeply interested in architecture, specifically the conversation produced between the gallery space and his works. He was notorious for having extremely demanding expectations on the gallery space his work would be displayed in. Rothko famously backed out of the extremely lucrative 1958 Seagram’s Mural project over concerns with the architecture, and when he later gifted the murals to the Tate gallery, it was on condition that they construct a room to house them that would finally satisfy his specifications.

As a long time (and proud) New Yorker, it is likely that the city’s modernist grid and monolithic International-Style skyscrapers served as an inspiration for the rectangular nature of Rothko’s ‘multiforms.’ Many times throughout the final decade of his career he endeavoured to create spaces in the traditional sense of the word, working side-by-side with interior designers and architects, and sometimes doing the interior design work himself. Of course, he also created space in a less conventional way, from the moment he picked up his paintbrush.”

Whereas these installations make a conscious effort to engage with the spaces they occupy, videogames do this implicitly. They are, in a sense, a step forward for the purposes of metaphysical art. But that doesn’t mean this is something which developers must take for granted: it gives us so much room to maneuver! Almost no angle in SURREALISTa is left unobservable, and yet each level is this self-contained thing, hanging out in space, imposing limitations on the player about what they’re meant to appreciate: fall off the end of a platform on your way to the door, and find yourself respawned, seconds later, at the level checkpoint. The implication isn’t so much one of failure, but more of an exhortation to keep looking. We must try again; we must leave no stone unturned. Take in the space, look in every direction. Take your time, breathe in. Keep your senses open, listen and look and feel for where the spaces can take you. Stare at the sun, peek through the shadows, wade in the pool, and, when you’re ready, go through the door.

I admit that, at first, I was prepared to dismiss SURREALISTa as a kind of cheap appropriation of empty surrealist signifiers. Perhaps at best I could read it with some degree of irony, as an acerbic post-modern knock on the pretenses of the metaphysical in the first place, or as those things as watered down through decades of mainstreaming and derivation. The gaming scene gives us no shortage of bitter sarcasm and, on the other hand, surrealism fits hand-in-glove with gaming as a spectacle as do science fiction, horror and fantasy. It comes with its own tropes built in. I was, and I fear I still might be, prepared to accept this reading of the game, but there’s a small voice nagging at my cynicism whenever I begin to lean in that direction.

Most revealing of Gigoia Studios’ raw enthusiasm and passion for the subject of this homage is the game’s denouement. The final level of the game, as it is now, consists of a long and somewhat arduous climb up a broken-up staircase. I must time my jumps and fix my camera so as to not fall into the void, although I often do, and then I must begin again. I tremble with anticipation and frustration, sometimes stopping and looking down at the safe and familiar box I’ve left behind, watching as the stairs and the torsos and busts and horses file away to a pinpoint of perception beneath me. I look up to the vanishing point ahead of me, the painted and glimmering sky, and taking it all in I eventually make it to a tiled portico. I unlock the door, and awaiting something marvelous, I brace myself and pass through it.

I’ve made various comments on Twitter about how well this game lends itself to screenshots. It’s a beautifully rendered and designed game, doing its level best with Unity to justly represent its subject matter. But the final scene is not one of grandeur and sublimityinstead an honest, even self-deprecating submission awaits. Simply, an old photograph of de Chirico with some overlaid text fills the screen. A quiet thank you to the player, and an admission of profound love for de Chirico’s works stands nakedly. The shift from sophisticated 3D Unity geometries to a humble 2D photograph with superimposed text is jarring, to say the least, but it’s also disarming. Waiting behind the door is a different world, a different dimension: one of genuine and ardent love for the artist, for the art and for the history on which SURREALISTa is constructed. 

I say all this with some hesitation. SURREALISTa is currently in it’s Alpha 2.0 stage, and more development is sure to follow. I’m curious to see how this little game evolves, and if it retains its  dignified simplicity as it grows. There is something remarkably unpolished about that final cut to a photograph, but it plainly expresses something deep and real and grounded that the abstractions of metaphysical art gesture mystically around, seen as a door to nowhere, heard as the crash of piano keys. The suggestion of the fingertip of a disembodied marble hand, pointing fiercely to a vanishing point beyond the astral staircase.