This is an excerpt from ''HALO and the High Art of Games,', an essay published in BenBella Book's latest SmartPop anthology, ''The HALO Effect.'' The full essay, complete with an interview with John Romero, can be read at Vox Popoli.
In 1849, the great composer Richard Wagner described what he considered to be the ideal artwork of the future, a holistic unification of the high arts he christened Gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner proposed this artistic vision as a ''fire cure'' for mankind, which would accomplish its miraculous effect by altering human sensibilities in the future from understanding to feeling. Gesamtkunstwerk was to be created by merging the distinct arts of music, poetry and dance with architecture, sculpture and painting, resulting in a revolutionary new form that would provide the audience with a sublime, purely emotional experience.
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143 years later, Wagner's vision of Total Art saw what may have been its first partial realization by four young men working together in Texas. Inspired by a classic Apple II game about a prisoner attempting to escape from a Nazi prison, John Carmack, John Romero, Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack started id Software and produced Wolfenstein 3D, which was not intended as art but pure entertainment for adrenaline junkies. While it might be stretching metaphor too far to assert that Wolfenstein 3D incorporated poetry into the visceral violence it offered, the game definitely combined discernable elements of music, architecture, sculpture and painting in creating a sensual, emotional experience that was undeniably sublime.
And few who witnessed another individual attempting to escape from the dread Nazi stronghold's ten levels would attempt to argue that the art of dance was entirely absent. The non-stop, arrhythmic side-to-side motion of the player as he involuntarily mimicked the evasive motions of his on-screen avatar was a striking aspect of the game, one that bears testimony to the complete immersion of the player's consciousness in the virtual experience.
The power of that immersion is all the more impressive when one considers the crudity of the five Wagnerian elements involved in Wolfenstein 3D. While Bobby Prince's award-winning music was rivaled only by The Fat Man's within the game industry at the time, it consisted of nothing but 22 kilohertz synthesized electronics piped through an 8-bit Soundblaster. The architecture was a simplistic Bauhaus interpretation of a lab rat's maze, the sculpture was not only cartoonish but was not even truly three-dimensional and the painting was limited by the low-resolution VGA graphics and a palette of only 256 colors. Or 255, actually, since hot pink was reserved for transparency.
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Neither the storyline nor the characters were exactly what one would describe as complex. If BJ Blazkowicz's motivation in escaping from a Nazi prison was not hard to understand, those of his antagonists, Hans Grosse, the evil Dr. Schabbs and robo-Hitler, remain a mystery. And yet, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, for if the emotions inspired by the game were rather less lofty than those invoked by the Ring Cycle, they were arguably more powerful. While I have seen men and women cry at the opera, I have never heard more piercing screams than from an audience of one caught up in watching a session of Wolfenstein 3D.
But if Wolfenstein made id's two Johns, Romero and Carmack, successful, it was Doom that made them notorious and confirmed that the first-person shooter was a bona fide gaming genre in its own right. Whereas the incorporation of fear had been largely incidental to the design in Wolf, it was an overt and intentional element of Doom from its moment of conception. From its ominous strings to the elements of madness in the storyline, from the terrifying appearance of the oversized monsters to the ghastly chainsaw-and-bazooka butchery in which the player is forced to engage, Doom was an awesome and overwhelming experience that didn't so much leave an emotional impression on the player as an intense psychic beating.
Doom inspired a host of imitators based on similar 2.5D technology, collectively known as Doom-clones. Unfortunately, too many publishers and game designers failed to understand that what made Doom such a visceral and absorbing experience was the way in which it provoked an emotional reaction from the player. The abrupt shift from silence and darkness, interrupted only by eerie strings and guttural breathing, to the roar of a saw carving through hordes of shrieking, flame-throwing demons could leave a player fired up and unable to sleep for hours after turning off the computer. These lesser game makers failed to see the art, they saw only the blood.
And while games and their machinimatic offspring are still currently well below the radar of the arts community, it is worth noting that there is no other medium which is so well suited for the expression of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk. There is no shortage of music in the genre, HALO even won a ''best original soundtrack'' from Rolling Stone magazine and award-winning composers such as John Williams have been writing music for computer games for more than a decade now.
The world may pray it never sees abominations such as Quake: Swan Lake or Nutcracker 3D: Triumph of the Mouse King, but the fact remains that first-person shooters such as HALO prove that Wagner's vision of Total Art is technologically feasible at last. It is impossible to say who will be the first genius to identify himself as a Total Artist and create a holistic work worthy of being proclaimed a Gesamtkunstwerk, but his appearance is all but inevitable now that the technological groundwork has been completed. The palm leaves are strewn, the ass awaits, only the identity of this first New Wagnerian and the nature of his creation remains to be revealed to Mankind.