Psychdelic Video Games – The Manifold Connections Between Video Games And All Things Psychedelic

28 Apr

For its 3rd birthday the DPV is featuring a series of psychedelic videos specials which will run between the 22 and the 28 of April 2013. Stay tuned for more of our psychedelic specials.

One could argue that video games were open to the strange influence of psychedelic culture from the very beginning. While the very first examples of worlds that video games sketched for you to stage your play might look a bit “sober” (i.e. an oscilloscope tennis court in “Tennis for Two” and the profound loneliness of a radar screen for “Spacewar!“)… it certainly did not take a long time or a lot of convincing for them to move on to flashy, colorful and impossible spaces full of crazy rules and even more crazy things to do. From the late 70’s and early 80’s on, video games started aiming for abstract colorful visualizations and “out there” experiences.

Plasma Pong: Curiouser and curiouser… one of the classics of video game history (Pong) fused visually and gameplay-wise with a lava lamp.

But psychedelic culture entered the realm of video games not only on the level visuals and spatial logics but also through the semantic layer.
Everybody remembers Pac-Man, right. The yellow disc dropping tons of pills in a paranoid race with some ghosts through an endless labyrinth of neon lit nights.
It might not be stretching things to far if we see a certain metaphor of intoxication in place, when Pac-Man needs bigger pills to overcome his fear of the ghosts.

Pac-Man: drug abuse, paranoia, hangover, fruit cocktails, pressure to perform at peak level all the time under the bleakest of circumstances, you name it… yep, sounds like the myth of the 80’s to me

But it was the italo-japanese plumber Mario who brought maybe the first, but certainly the most popular reference to a classic of psychedelic culture into the realm of video game culture: eat the mushroom and you will grow – this might change your attributes in a way that enables you to overcome the crazy problems you will face in this world. Ring a bell? This is one of the first rules Mario learns on his adventure through the strange mushroom kingdom.

Super Mario Galaxy 2: Since the very first Mario game it has always been a pleasure to check out the physics and just play around with them. But Galaxy and it’s successor took the exploration of physics and space to another level.

And this might be one of the deepest bonds between the two cultures: the adventure where nothing is certain, where you have to learn everything anew, from walking to the many ways space can be connected.

Octodad: It is all about experiencing everyday life anew…

But while there certainly is this deep inner connection between the cultures, there is also a certain contradiction between the two. It becomes visible as soon as you take a closer look at games that explicitly try to simulate the experience of a trip. Those games are often a pain to play, the controls are awkward, you don’t know what you are supposed to do next; and while all of this might be part of the design, it sometimes ends up being more of an experience of frustration than of experimentation and playful curiosity and freedom.

LSD Dream Emulator: exploration of the weird for the sake of the exploration of the weird.

So how do you simulate the freedom and experimental attitude together with the fluidity of experience that is so much fun in a good trip? On a good trip you never have to ask yourself what you got to do to keep it going…

I guess that some game designers must have asked themself this very question, because in some of the best examples of trippy video games they have found very interesting answers that actually work in favor of a fluid experience that keeps your curiosity going.
In REZ your freedom of movement seems to be rather limited. The game uses the framework of a rail shooter. You are floating down a tunnel in a predetermined way so you don’t have to ask yourself: where am I going next, what do I have to do to keep this trip going. The conventional setting of the rail shooter helps providing a fluent stream of experience and while it limits your freedom of movement it gives you the freedom to enjoy the ever-changing trippy sound and visuals.
But REZ got another card up its sleeve: while you are engaged with marking patterns of enemies, you discover that this interaction with the game’s world does have an unexpected effect on your experience: the music (and parts of the visuals) evolves around your decision-making. The whole game world throbs and pulses to the beat and you keep adding sounds to this sensual whole by marking and shooting enemies. So while the game seemed to limit you at first it ends up transcending the usual player vs. preset game world opposition.
The game’s aim to offer you an experience of synesthesia is clearly informed by motives that have been established by psychedelic culture over the years (the logic of the movement in the game – into the depth of the vanishing point that simultaneously is  the depth of “self” – bears more than a vague resemblance to the space gate scene in 2001 – A Space Odyssey… there is even a “space baby” to prove the point).

Space Giraffe: is a game designed to keep you in the “Zone” as much as possible.

Let’s talk about the “Zone” for a bit. The term is used for a state of experience in which you feel completely in sync with the thing you are doing, not held back by your expectations and views of yourself (“I can never do this, I will never make it!”).
You are in the “zone” just like you are in the “flow”. It is a state of awareness where impossible things seem effortless. Instead of worrying about that next obstacle in the game you watch yourself doing crazy stuff, perfectly “in tune” with the game. You’re no longer just reacting to the input of the game – it is no longer you against the machine – everything just seems to happen. The game is playing itself and your nerves and muscles are part of the circuit – while at the same time the game becomes something like a lucid dream. You seem to be controlling the flow of time itself. Yeah!

I guess everyone has experienced this several times in his lifetime. And once you have tasted this kind of experience, it becomes very desirable to repeat it. The interest in repeating it is reliable enough for game designers to make it a basic assumption of their design. There are video game subgenres like Bullet Hell that focus solely on providing occasions for you to experience the zone.

Imperishable Night: To the uninvolved bystander genres like Bullet Hell might look like a modern kind of self-flagellation. 

Lily Tomlin talks about her Pac-Man addiction… (feat. a certain Bill Murray)

Video games are still growing up and they are only at the beginning of discovering their powers. But one thing became a topic of importance in the last years: since the videogame industry bacame one of the biggest entertainment business’ the pressure for multi-million dollar games to be successful is rising. And with the rising pressure scientific studies emerge, that want to figure out what a game needs to do to connect to your pleasure center directly. So for the collective “worry ’bout the children” the conclusion is: Games make you addicted (wishful-businessman-“thinking”), they are the reason for you to have a poor social life, a pale complexion, they will take your money and leave you in the gutter. So let me ask you: Why did Charles Manson talk crazy shit and how did he get girls into killing people? Do I have to spell out the obvious: video games are (the new) lsd!

There are a lot more things one could and should talk about, when discussing the  manifold connections between psychedelic culture and video games. If you are interested, you can find more videos of psychedelic glitches, trippy Minecraft and lots of other aspects of the topic here on DPV.
In the end, let’s not forget: it is all about that big ol’ joy:

Space Channel 5

Bonus Tracks:

Seaman: for Dreamcast provides some of the best advise a talking fish simulator has ever given.

Arcade Attack – Silver Ball Heroes VS Video Invaders (1982): This is just the very trippy ending, but you can find the whole lovely short movie, too .

One Response to “Psychdelic Video Games – The Manifold Connections Between Video Games And All Things Psychedelic”

  1. Cyber Shaman July 14, 2015 at 11:11 pm #

    Reblogged this on An Account of my Forays into Game Development and commented:
    A very indepth article about the presence of psychedelia in games, and how video games themselves can be considered the new psychedelics. Fascinating!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: