On Rayman Origins and Video Game Aesthetics

It had been years since I’d set foot in a gallery. Looking back now, perhaps the Louvre was a poor choice for my re-entry into the world of art. Twenty-four and just out of university, I walked around in awe. What I couldn’t quite wrap my naive mind around was the colour. It never occurred to me that it these three or four-hundred-year-old works could have ever been so vibrant and immediate, so provocatively beautiful. I had a lump in my throat the entire time.

For whatever reason, it was that experience that came to mind as I recently worked my way through Rayman Origins. In the most basic way, the 2012 game is a modern update to the genre made so popular by Super Mario Bros in which a small character runs from the left side of the screen to the right. It does a disservice to the game to describe in such glib, generic terms, though. Unlike the charming blockiness of early 1990s Mario, it is only now that technology has evolved to a point that, years after we first started using the phrase to talk about games, we can honestly say Rayman Origins does in fact “look like a painting.”

This is no exaggeration. Each of the game’s many worlds were painstakingly drawn by hand and then digitized. As a result, and despite the fact that the plot follows the usual tropes of a fantasy world in need of saving by the most absurd means possible, the visual impact of the game is as remarkable as it is unique. Like those Renaissance works that have come to define the Louvre, it is often the almost sublime vibrancy of each scene that leaves one gobsmacked.

More to the point, each of the absurdist worlds follows its own absurd logic: the “Desert of Dijeridoos” is replete with drums that send Rayman high into the air and platforms that sound out notes when stepped on; in “Gourmand Land” where our limbless hero jumps over streams of fire streaming from anthropomorphized hot peppers.

Unlike the gilded trim that surrounds paintings at the Louvre, however, the frame of the side-scroller is not a static spatial arrangement. It’s a box that keeps moving, and a box within which the relationship of the subject to art is tweaked a bit. You are, after all playing a game; it is your job to move Rayman safely through the world. In this Rayman Origins follows the usual tropes: jump over things, avoid enemies. The rules have no particular relationship to the world; they just are. This is the both game’s greatest success and its most glaring failing.

If it user input and control that is the core of gaming—the thing that separates games from films or the visual arts—the first few hours of Rayman Origins are a predominantly aesthetic experience. For anyone familiar enough with the genre to delve into things with no instruction, the initial sense of Rayman Origins is that it is a feast for the senses, but nothing more. This is not really meant as a criticism, in no small part because the visual is only one dimension of video game aesthetics. The game’s soundtrack from composer Christophe Héral perfectly straddles the line between childlike whimsy and to the catchy and funky.

Taken together, it is a relaxed, delightful experience that (if you squint a bit) recalls the Kantian notion of the beautiful: that at its best, and divorced from specific contexts, art excites and enlivens the imagination. But beyond the intellectual satisfaction of the audio-visual spectacle, joy often just creeps up on you. As you move Rayman through water to the ethereal soundtrack, or guide him through rain for what seems like no reason, the swell of happiness that builds is difficult to ignore. It’s the jazz-like reconfiguration of existing tropes of play that make these moments work, despite the fact that there is almost nothing in the way of actual challenge. Controller-in-hand, being forced to pay attention to the on-screen spectacle, it becomes clear: for games especially, there is nothing particularly wrong with pleasure for its own sake.

It’s also a feeling that fades abruptly and utterly once you make your way through the first two-thirds of the game. Quite suddenly, and without warning, the game becomes fiendishly, infuriatingly hard, wherein the timing of jumps and avoidance of enemies requires the kind of manual dexterity and mental responses we associate with teenage Call of Duty experts.

Taken at face value, the stark contrast in challenge is simply bad design. Nonetheless, it’s a bit fascinating to be presented with at least two of the three or four dominant paradigms about games placed almost back-to-back. Moving from, on the one hand, Kantian immersion in the aesthetic to, on the other hand, a difficult structure of interactive challenge and reward, lays bare the tension at the core of electronic entertainment: is this for fun? Or something altogether more ineffable, more deliberately ‘difficult?’

It’s a question that plagues art, but games in particualr as no-one is quite sure what they’re supposed to do—or if they’re ‘supposed’ to be anything at all. Why pick up a controller and force yourself to master a title? With Rayman Origins the painterly vistas are initially a clear reward. But the fierceness of the challenge in later levels leaves one feeling strangely stymied, as if two competing sensibilities—facility at old-school video games, and an appreciation for colour, shape and sound—are put into an unwelcome battle.

It’s a confusion that mars Rayman Origins, largely because it feels like its ambivalent approach sits not only in an uncomfortable generic mid-point between the two ideas of games, but also a historical one. The game’s mechanics, structure and challenge are all looks back to an earlier era in games. At the same time, it’s the very artistry that new, high-definition technology allows that collapses the historical distance and modern technology into a much more important, complex question. To wit, when you produce an aesthetic space within a frame, as video games do, what are you asking the player—or reader or viewer—to actually do, and why?

Nothing makes sense in Rayman Origins, but most especially the fact that the hero Rayman himself has no limbs. It’s a fitting little metaphor for not only this game, but video games in general: we have the parts that do the action, but are still a bit confused as to how or why any of them do, well, anything. What the title also makes clear, however, is that in the midst of the debate, we are fortunate enough to find some aching, lump-in-the-throat moments of beauty.