Chaos and order are two essential components in every game and any developer who leans toward one more than the other is risking his game becoming very monotonous and boring.
In this video, we explore how the ideas of Nietzsche on Chaos and order can make the path clearer for developers to strike the right balance between the two sides in video games.
Nietzsche explained the concept in his first book, the birth of tragedy, which consists of twenty-five chapters; the first six are basic introductory content. The heart of the book starts in chapter seven and runs to chapter fifteen.
Nietzsche uses the Greek gods Dionysus and Apollo as metaphors of chaos and order.
Apollo, is defined by his reliance on reason, control, order, and sober thought.
On the other hand, the god Dionysus is associated with drunkenness, emotion, and chaos.
By using these two gods he explains two very fundamental principles.
First is the Apollonian principle that is clearly expressed through visual arts like painting, sculpture and architecture, which, Nietzsche states, are representations of the world, fantastical in nature but calm in their form. At the same time, they allow us to escape from the cruelty of the world we live in, like an enjoyable dream.
On the other hand, the Dionysian principle is closer to the cruel reality of nature and is expressed through non-visual arts like ecstatic dance, music, and theatrical plays.
The opposing characteristics in these two Gods can be found everywhere in our human world. These two states are also psychological forces, which are alternatively dominating the individual’s mind, as well as culture, art, and the artist.
Nietzsche states that the human mind is sometimes Apollonian and sometimes Dionysian and that culture is the product of both forces.
Nietzsche criticised his time for being too Apollonian, all aspects of art were avoiding Dionysian elements thinking that it would degrade the art.
He saw the classical Greek Drama works as the model to follow where both the Apollo and Dionysus elements merge together in a balance that makes the work transcend the pessimism and nihilism of a meaningless world.
Nietzsche concludes that it may be possible to retain the balance of Dionysian and Apollonian in modern art by following the example of Richard Wagner’s Operas.
If we look at most of the stories, books, and ideas that have fascinated humanity throughout the centuries, to a certain degree they have this duality in them.
Christianity insists on giving Jesus a human side beside his divine one. Salome’s fascinating beauty is also combined with her dark motives. Liberté, égalité, fraternité are the bright Apollonian side of the French revolution that were followed by 40,000 Dionysian executions on the guillotine.
Denying these two sides in us is denying our humanity. As Nietzsche said both states are fighting inside each person’s head. Even in politics, when a party rules for a long time, people tend to vote for the opposing party in the next election.
Societies and individuals don’t like to stay in one rigid form for a long time.
Look at any midterm election in the US. The party in power tends to lose some seats regardless of their performance.
It’s a feature of our humanity. In many fields of life we try to keep a balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian components.
Games are no different and it saddens me when many developers don’t get that balance right in their games. Some games are more Apollonian and some are very Dionysian. Very few strike the right balance between the two. And I insist that there isn’t one single excellent game that doesn’t have a good balance between the two.
There are three areas in games where developers can apply that balance. Gameplay, Story and game environments.
Gameplay should have a regular switch between calm, slow Apollonian moments and chaotic, turbulent Dionysian ones.
Resident Evil 3 on PlayStation 1 played on that balance through the character of the nemesis.
It would leave you for an hour or two calm, exploring the story and the events that happened to Raccoon city and then suddenly throw the Dionysian element of the nemesis in to drive the whole game into chaos for a couple of minutes and it kept on switching between the two states throughout the game.
The Witcher 3 is another great example, the player would keep on switching between Apollonian and Dionysian missions throughout the game. A quest like “family matters” in which Geralt is asked by Baron Phillip Strenger to help him find his missing wife (Anna) and daughter (Tamara) is calm, filled with investigations and questioning tasks. Then the game would throw Dionysian missions at the player like “the ladies of the wood”. Even within that mission the developers brilliantly put the player through calm moments when they talk to the orphans and investigate their claims and chaotic moments like facing the terrifying ladies themselves.
Another example but one that didn’t get the balance right in gameplay, is Resident Evil 7. it starts very well balanced between order and chaos, Arriving at an abandoned house, everything looks calm, then you end up fighting your supposedly dead wife and things get relatively calm after that. The switch between the two states worked well until the middle of the game where that balance started to tip to the Dionysian side, suddenly the developers decided to challenge the player with more and more monsters to fight without getting any break, and the player keeps on expecting to switch back to the Apollonian side at any moment but the struggle keeps on going.
Gameplay should keep on switching between tense and calm moments to keep the player’s brains satisfied.
Even a peaceful and calm game like Flower which is dominantly Apollonian has its Dionysian moments full of dark and doubt.
Mad Max Fury Road is a very good blueprint to follow in balancing Apollo and Dionysos in a story. Those who watched the movie think of it as an action-packed film but actually, it keeps on switching between the two states very quickly, which makes the impact of the action scenes more memorable. The film starts with Max being followed by the War Boys, the army of the tyrannical Immortal Joe- Dionysus-. We are then moved into the Citadel and see life in it – Apollo – Furiosa decides to smuggle Joe’s five wives – a transition to Dionysus – we then witness the first chase after Furiosa – Dionysus – the characters stop for a moment to get to know each other – Apollo- I’ll stop for now, I think you get the point without me spoiling the whole film.
now compare this story structure with a structure like that of a recent movie I watched called Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac, a good movie in general with some flaws. I kept on feeling that something was missing throughout the film and then it struck me that it’s the balance between Apollo and Dionysus that is absent in the film. The film takes a very Apollonian approach to tell a Dionysian story trying to stay calm and restrained even in chaotic scenes, shying away from embracing the Dionysian nature of the scenes that require it.
Something similar is also visible in The Last Guardian. Most people will praise its beautiful ending and the very well written conclusion but sadly, from a story structure point of view, the game didn’t offer a lot throughout the course of the game. Only those who were patient enough to get to the end liked the story.
It lacked the switching between Apollo and Dionysus in its structure. Give the players something to be excited about in the story then provide time to rest and take a breath to think about what happened but never hesitate to inject the next dose of Dionysus when the scene requires it.
Sadly that was totally absent from The Last Guardian, the story was a long Apollonian experience with a big Dionysian ending. I wanted to see a repetitive mixture of both states throughout the game.
A total contrast is Last of Us which starts with a strong and important Dionysian section of the story and then calms down into showing you the world people live in in modern times then switches back to Dionysus when you discover Ellie’s secret then calms down when Joel meets Bill, an old friend and so on. the story keeps on moving up and down between Apollo and Dionysus throughout the game and I’m not talking about gameplay here but purely about the story.
Imagine if a game like Call of Duty World War 2 offered something similar. A fight mission that puts the player in the middle of the Normandy invasion followed by a short calm mission where you simply walk in a French village and listen to an old woman telling you what happened; about children hiding behind walls afraid of the soldier’s appearance or a woman crying over her dead son.
If you think the action nature of the game wouldn’t allow such a thing then making the calm moments very short and spread out could still enrich the whole experience without changing the action nature of the game. It’s like adding a small amount of Apollonian salt to the main Dionysian dish.
Third: Game Environments
The latest instalment in the Prey series started with a very clean, calm Apollonian environment that soothed the players for 20 minutes followed by chaotic events that turned everything upside down. This switch between two opposites worked brilliantly in the first act of the game, the tragedy is that it ceased to happen again for the rest of the game leaving players in the same environment for the rest of the campaign.
This is a problem the second Dead Space brilliantly avoided. Unlike the first installment in the series which kept the player in the same claustrophobic Gothic like ship, Dead Space 2 continued to shift between a wide variety of areas such as the clean Apollonian Church and the Dionysian ship of Ishimura. This healthy mixture of chaotic and neat environments makes the player anticipate the next place.
A video game by Nietzsche would definitely strike a balance between Apollo and Dionysus in its Story, Gameplay, and environments.
And Apollo and Dionysus don’t have to be two completely separate elements either, both could be implemented at the same time like what happened in the side mission “Conning Tower” in Dead Space 3. Isaac is stuck in a room where the entrances are controlled by a maniac who sends waves of monsters and plays cheerful music at the same time. The mixture of fighting, killing and being stressed combined with cheerful music is magical, like a Smiths song where they use very cheerful and playful melodies to sing about a girlfriend in a coma.
I think Nietzsche would like the song “Girlfriend in a coma”. Apollonian melodies mixed with Dionysian lyrics.
Girlfriend in a coma, I know
I know, it’s serious
My, my, my, my, my, my baby, goodbye
There were times when I could
Have strangled her
But you know, I would hate
Anything to happen to her