On Sublime Videogames: Games for All Ages

On the Sublime is a classic treatise, apparently wrongly attributed to Longinus, that has long been one of my favorite works of literary and rhetorical criticism. Essentially, what the author wants to do is figure out why some works of poetry, or prose, for that matter, are sublime. What exactly the author means by the term “sublime” is, of course, most interesting to academics and of little interest to anyone else. For our purposes, though, I will merely point out a few characteristics the author attributes to the term:

  1. “a certain loftiness and excellence of language.” Such a passage is not merely appreciated for its fine structure or creativity, but rather “takes [the reader] out of himself.” It moves us whether we agree with the passage or not. It affects us like “a lightning-flash,” removing us from our present time and preoccupations to some other transcendent realm.
  2. Such works are not the result of skill or training. Rather, they combine those with the creator’s “genius,” which artists must abandon themselves to, regardless of where it takes them. In other words, you must have a great soul, combined with great skill, to produce something sublime. In particular, you must not be led merely by concern for financial gain or immediate fame.
  3. The topic or subject of the passage must match the elevation of the language. Some topics are simply too petty, obtuse, obscene, or for other reasons not suited to a sublime discourse.
  4. The effect is not a one-time experience, but returns each time we read the passage. For instance, we all have certain novels we enjoy re-reading from time to time. Even though we’ll remember some parts, we’ll still enjoy it.
  5. In a Platonic sense, the work inspires us, uplifting our souls above the mundane and the banal concerns of everyday life, to ponder a greater cause or mode of existence. They appeal directly to our soul, rather than merely pleasing our senses or gratifying our bodies or appetites.

I would add to these a goal to produce something with little to no concern for what happens to be popular or fashionable at the moment. Indeed, a sublime passage from a thousand years ago will still strike us today. In the author’s words, “For when the same book always produces the same impression on all who read it, whatever be the difference in their pursuits, their manner of life, their aspirations, their ages, or their language, such a harmony of opposites gives irresistible authority to their favourable verdict.”

That’s a tall order. Can you think of any work of art that receives unanimous praise from everyone? I bet there are plenty of folks who hate the Mona Lisa, and I know from personal experience how many students hate Shakespeare. I’ve actually heard Christians say they don’t like reading the King James Version of the Bible, which is widely regarded as one of the finest works of the English language (in a purely objective, non-religious sense). Still, as I’d argue with those people, there’s a reason why certain works survive and continue to touch people of all walks of life, even when separated by centuries. Just because you don’t “get it” doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the work; maybe that person just needs to work on cultivating taste.

On the other hand, there are “Emperor’s Clothes” situations, where you claim to like something because other people you respect (or fear to earn their disapproval) like it. I imagine we all feel this way the first time we visit a modern art museum. None of us wants to be the “uncultured barbarian” who laughs at the seemingly random pattern of dots or splotches on a canvas. I’d still like to think, though, that given enough time (perhaps several generations!), eventually the true cream will rise to the top and whatever was simply fashionable at the moment will fade into obscurity.

Are there any games you can think of that seemingly anyone can enjoy, regardless of age, origin, gender, and so no? Of course. Most people trot out the easy examples of Tetris and Pac-Man. But are these really “sublime” games? Do they do anything other than merely distract or charm us? Has anyone ever walked away from a Pac-Man machine and felt his immortal soul had been touched by God?

In any case, there’s no wonder it’s so much easier to find examples of the sublime from antiquity than from modern times. The very fact that a text has been copied and passed down for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, is strong evidence of sublime content. Consider how quickly most books go out of print even a year after their initial publication. Any book that makes a second printing is considered a great success. Even with the internet and projects such as The Wayback Machine, it is likely that all but the most sublime of the texts being produced today will be read by our grandchildren, much less their grandchildren. Most anything that pleases us today will seem quite stale tomorrow.

What is true for books is even more true for games. Imagine how few games published even a few years ago are still played today. How many games on the shelf or on STEAM right now will be played by anyone fifty years from now? Heck, will they even be able to play them, given the seemingly endless changes in hardware and standards?

If even one of those thousands of games is sublime, people will play it tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade, and long after anyone reading this is dust. When the varnish of novelty wears off, only then can we behold a masterpiece.

There are few indeed who are fortunate enough to be both blessed with a great artistic genius and in possession of the technical skills necessary to create something sublime. However, I am hopeful for the future, merely because the price of admission has fallen so dramatically in recent years. Imagine the technical advantages enjoyed by a modern game designer–simple yet powerful game creation tools, easy online distribution, vibrant support communities…Sadly, the only real barriers today are the lack of time, dedication, and personal freedom necessary to see a great project through to the end. Fatally, there is a lack of courage: the courage to be great. No great deed has ever earned a paycheck, and none but those anonymous are worthy of their fame.

Yet I imagine there are those out there right now, absolutely tormented by some vision of the game they could make, that they should make, but simply can’t. And why not? Well, what would they say? What would they think? This thing I’m making is nothing like the other games I’ve played! I’ll be laughed at! Sneered at! I’m not some great artist or intellect. Who am to imagine myself capable of it? I don’t have a degree; I wasn’t born in the right country…Ah, the reasons against such a move must be as numerous as they are fictitious.

Such feelings must surely have preceded all works of the sublime, and, just as forcefully, all that are rightfully forgotten. How many of our greatest artists have begun their journey by casting off the yoke, abandoning the trail, and plunging off into the darkness? Many were never seen again.

Alas, there is no vision. Merely contentment to be like everyone else, to churn out the same sort of “product,” to measure one’s success by money or the easy esteem of the easily impressed. Make games for the rabble, and you make rubbish.

One thought on “On Sublime Videogames: Games for All Ages

  1. Fox

    I can think of several games that I would define as sublime. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Final Fantasy VI are two of the very first that leap to mind.

    But, personally, I find fault with your definition. I don’t think the idea is that sublime work is something that “everyone enjoys.” Rather, I would define it as art that anyone can enjoy. That is to say, the art itself holds some inherent potential to transcend generational and cultural differences and impart meaning to us at the -human- level.

    I do, however, agree that these works do (almost) need to be “timeless” in order to transcend their “moments.” That’s not to say it’s impossible for a work anchored to a specific moment to achieve a degree of timelessness–I’ve just never seen it happen. IE, something like “Macbeth” is timeless, and it has endured exceptionally well for centuries–whereas something like the Canterbury tales, which is so heavily grounded in the era of its own authorship, has lost almost ALL semblance of relevance.


    And now, as I think on it further, I worry my own biases are coming more and more into play. Specifically, I think that–perhaps–a “game” itself cannot, ever achieve that timeless status by virtue of its mechanics. Games like Pacman and Mario (and I just realized “Pacman” is the same word as “Pikmin” with the A’s and I’s swapped) are noteworthy and historically relevant, but lack that difficult-to-defined transcendental quality. What matters, I think, is narrative. And I fully admit that this may be the result of my biases–narrative is kind of my thing. Gaming has the potential to be the most powerful narrative medium in human history, and when a well-crafted narrative is incorporated into a well-realized game, with all the elements of the media working in concert with one another (the music, the animation, the effects, the systemizations and mechanics of play, etc., etc.) they can produce something truly sublime that transcends the boundaries of its local time and culture in a very powerful way.

    But, ultimately, the timelessness of a given game is something that only time can tell us–and gaming media is far too new a thing to tell us much. Just look at what film was like at a comparable stage in its life–and what a small, incredibly tiny fraction of those films actually survive to today. In 70 years or so, then we’ll have an idea of what the timeless classics of the medium is–and odds are, there’ll be the only games that survive.

    (Though, granted, a lack of b/c and poorly handled digital distribution could ruin everything)


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