The lifespans of the Sega Saturn and its successor, the Dreamcast, were both great periods of experimentation in gaming, notably from the in house teams at the Japanese giant themselves, with developers looking not to the overwhelming burden of sales figures for inspiration, but instead following their collective muse, wherever it may take them. The results, thankfully, where overwhelmingly positive, and their impacts, substantial. My intention is to look back at some of the more forward thinking titles to emerge from Sega during these highly creative years, beginning with UGA’s incredible, Rez.
In terms of its story, fundamentally the least important aspect of the game, players are transported into a futuristic supercomputer network, known as the K-Project (not to be confused with the Soviet nuclear missile test program), where the human intelligence AI, Eden, has become self-aware, and in doubting its very existence, has shut down. The player assumes control of a hacker sent into cyberspace (as it is visualised by the system itself) to reawaken the AI and restore the network. In order to do this, players must remove both viruses (enemies) and firewalls (bosses) as they traverse the game’s five levels, culminating in a final meeting with Eden.
The K-Project is in actuality a reference to the Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky, who is credited with being a major influence on the project in the end credits, a less known influence upon it, however, is the Welsh electronic duo, Underworld, and their club classic, Rez. Between the two of them, they successfully create the gorgeous aesthetic that propels the game towards previously unknown territory, the realm of “synesthesia”. Kandinsky himself, arguably the world’s first abstract artist, had sought to express sound and emotion through his works, to him, he painted symphonies and the colours were his instruments. It is believed that Kandinsky experienced something known as synaesthesia, wherein a person is involuntarily subjected to multiple sensory experiences from a single stimulus. And therein lies the core foundation of Rez’s immaculate design.
The game is played out over five stunning levels, with the core visual themes assuming that of great, lost civilisations, including ancient Egypt and Persia, which develop as the levels progress. Similarly, the audio too advances in such a fashion, and as the player destroys enemies or collects items they create sounds that add to sumptuous musical backdrop provided by the likes of Adam Freeland, Ken Ishii and Sega’s own, Keiichi Sugiyama. However, unlike most games, the music here is not simply tucked away into the background, but is an integral part of the experience, comprising one third of the synaesthesia based design, along with touch and sight, to create a trance like state in the gamers lucky enough to grasp its styling as much as its mechanics. Simply put, Rez, at its heart, is a Panzer Dragoon style, on-rails shooter, though of course, to see it simply as such is to dismiss the artistic vision that elevates it into the highest pantheons of gaming lore.
There is a theme of evolution running through almost every aspect of the game, from the manner in which the sounds and visuals build up as the levels progress, to the player’s avatar as it develops from zero form, a simple sphere, to the avatar’s final and most advanced appearance, a human foetus. Conceivably its lead designer, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, envisioned mankind’s future, perhaps even its rebirth, in a globe spanning network, bringing humans from all walks of life together in a new world devoid of the characteristics that so often drive us apart. Of course, this was prior to the social networking boom that would come to dominate everyday life, Mizuguchi has spoken of the art of video game creation as one that reflects in it the needs and wants of the people, and one that evolves as technology does, so it could be fair to reflect back on the creation of Rez as a glimpse into the world that we now know today. And yet, despite being released almost thirteen years ago, Rez still feels frighteningly futuristic even now, it is bold, ambitious and utterly beautiful, and quite simply, there is simply nothing else quite like it.
Video games, like the medium of film, have become largely sterile, no longer looking to say anything or invoke an emotional reaction in the player, but of course very few ever have, Rez, however, is different. There is ambiguity to its meaning, it doesn’t seek to walk the player through its core principles by the hand, but rather it simply opens the door to another world, a world of sights and sounds that stir wonder in the human soul. Through Rez, the player becomes the conductor of an orchestra playing a marvellous symphony, and the painter sculpting images of immense beauty through bold colours and simple shapes; he becomes one with the game, resulting in a fundamentally moving and defining experience in his life.
Video games as art is a concept that is still fairly new to us, even so many years after Rez’s initial release, with artistic integrity invariably succumbing to the lambast of commercial ambition, leaving the industry plagued with annual updates to ongoing franchises and talented studios having to close their doors for the last time. Perhaps though in this creative rut, Rez only seems to garner even more power, more beauty, for at its heart “the artist is the hand that plays,” as Kandinsky once said, “touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul”. And it is perhaps this that best describes the foundations of Rez; it is a depiction of a future carved in the past, and it is one that we have yet to realise, though as we stretch vainly to hold it in our grasp, it eludes us, encouraging us to try again and yet again. For every wistful glance that it affords us into its heart alludes towards something better, something pure, and perhaps it is this that may just be its real power.
-James Paton @theblackpage81