Rembrandt in a blockbuster: how to break American dominance into play

This article contains spoilers for Horizon Forbidden West and Control.

Suddenly, the game heroine Aloy came face to face with a Vermeer. In the game Horizon forbidden west (2022), from the Amsterdam game studio Guerrilla, spent hours solving bow and arrow problems. But towards the end of the game, she suddenly wakes up in a dark basement full of Dutch art treasures and starts a conversation with Tilda van der Meer, a Dutch art collector with a deep love for the Dutch masters.

Not only Aloy, but gamers around the world were suddenly confronted with Dutch art history in March. Horizon forbidden west is a blockbuster game, a hugely expensive action game that is comparable in style and scope to a great Marvel movie. Made and built in Holland, yes, but the story, like many blockbusters, takes place in the United States, with American actors and an American science fiction story.

The Vermeer scene instantly made the game the most obvious expression of Dutch culture in a blockbuster game. American Ben McCaw, history director of Horizon forbidden west, must smile now. “The management of our studio, all Dutch, are so sober about that kind of thing. They said right away: we just want to make a good sci-fi action game, it doesn’t have to be about Dutch heritage.”

The international writing team behind the game, to which McCaw belongs, thought differently: “We thought it would be very interesting to do more with Dutch culture.” In conversation with the Rijksmuseum, the idea arose to make Tilda a Dutch art lover. The museum was happy to collaborate. After seeing the effect, the rest of the study was also gone. “It’s my favorite part of the game.”

The main character Aloy admires Dutch masters in Horizon forbidden west
Image Guerilla
The main character Aloy admires Dutch masters in Horizon forbidden west
Image Guerilla
The main character Aloy admires Dutch masters in Horizon Forbidden West
Image Guerilla

Cultural fingerprint

American culture is dominant in the gaming industry. Major game makers can be found all over the world, not just in the American and Japanese metropolises, where games originated in the 1960s and 1970s. But the studios often focus on an American audience, which means that many games still have a very ‘American’ feel. Is there room for a ‘cultural fingerprint’ in the blockbuster genre?

“Yes, you just have to know what you look like sometimes,” says Egyptian-Dutch game producer Rami Ismail. He has traveled the world for years to advise smaller game producers. “Games have their own language. The original expectations for the medium come from a melting pot of work from different countries, but the focus has long been in the US and Japan,” he says. “I do not think an American studio would make a heroine Aloy. She’s a doer. She is very compassionate, but she is not an easy person. She’s the hero, but she does not want that part at all. “That sobriety, Ismail believes, is entirely Dutch.

Who is the hero? That is the central question. Violent American shooters often portray American ideals. “You have to win, because then you will be bigger and stronger and a hero. The worst thing that can happen to an American war game hero is not to come home. ” In the Polish war game This my war (2014) the hero is just a survivor trying to keep friends and family alive in ruined houses. “And from Germany comes a game like Spec Ops: The Line (2012). The worst thing that can happen to the protagonist in it is that you keep playing. The more you play this crude war game, the more war crimes he commits, and the worse it all ends for everyone. ”

During his travels, Ismail sees that, thanks to past success, the studies increasingly dare to spread their own culture. “In Southeast Asia, for example, there is growing confidence in making games about their own culture,” he says. The first hit from Indonesian Toge Productions was about making coffee in Seattle. “But they put drinks from Indonesia in it.” He also likes that large studios dare to be more explicit. “Now even more games in non-US cities.”

The main character Aloy admires Dutch masters in Horizon Forbidden West
Image Guerilla
The main character Aloy admires Dutch masters in Horizon Forbidden West
Image Guerilla
The main character Aloy admires Dutch masters in Horizon forbidden west
Image Guerilla

Finnish tango at American gala

The shift was noticeable in 2019 at the Game Awards, an annual awards gala for the gaming industry held in the United States. Traditionally, the nominees for the biggest prize, Game of the Year, are announced through a medley of music from all the nominated games. Between the orchestral performances of music from two major Japanese plays, a man in a suit with flowing blond hair entered the stage. For half a minute he sang a Finnish tango song for the audience at the American Bombastic Gala.

“It was a wonderful and surreal experience for us,” emails Sinikka Annala, author of the Finnish game studio Remedy. “Our own melancholy form of tango is the landscape of the Finnish soul.”

This music suited well to the character Ahti, a whimsical Finnish cleaning assistant who plays an important role in Remedy’s play. Control (2019). The game takes place in a very American setting: a secretive office within the walls of a huge office building in New York. But the enigmatic Ahti, who speaks in broken translations of Finnish proverbs, is a first sign that this is not an American thriller – Control is packed with a uniquely Finnish sharp absurdity, a “Nordic strangeness”, as Annala calls it.

But how and how much? This was discussed internally. “I think every non-American creator should choose whether to use references and conventions from American media or go back to their own culture with a new project. At the same time, I want to tell stories that are universal.”

Marcin Blancha, head of the history team at the major Polish game producer CD Projekt Red, agrees. He made The Witcher a worldwide phenomenon by ‘old’ing the original Polish fantasy book series – years later a popular Netflix series followed. “While The Witcher carries a strong Slavic sentiment and folklore, the stories are about universal sentiments and problems,” he writes. “And the characters are archetypes that people in the West also know well.”

American history conventions are a “shared language,” according to Annala. “You can then explore the familiar theme from your own perspective. We want to continue to raise questions and turn American traditions into something that either amuses or disturbs you. “The Finnish look turns a standard thriller story into a humiliating, oppressive game.

At the start of the game, her heroine Jesse acquires a futuristic gun that gives her power over a secretive government organization. It was such a clear summary of America’s tendency to think of weapons as power that it could only have come from an outsider, it says on the net. And game producer Rami Ismail saw something else: “It ends in a stalemate.” A history-loving player might draw comparisons with the Winter War of 1939, in which the Finns kept the Soviets at bay for 108 days. The Soviet soldiers traveled, but not without a piece of territory.

The main character Aloy admires Dutch masters in Horizon forbidden west
Image Guerilla
The main character Aloy admires Dutch masters in Horizon forbidden west
Image Guerilla
The main character Aloy admires Dutch masters in Horizon forbidden west
Image Guerilla

Go to the square!

In Finland, games are like Control and receive the Finnish Ahti with “a typical Finnish sense of surprised enthusiasm and very cautious, modest pride,” Annala concludes. “We have a saying for when we suddenly stand out internationally – Torilla tavataan (hop, to the square [om feest te vieren]†

Blancha from CD Projekt is not so modest: “I feel like a fan of a football team that I followed when it played on the sports field in the village, but which is now in the Champions League final,” he says of the Netflix series. “The author Andrzej Sapkowski is particularly popular in Poland. When we got the contract for the Witcher games 20 years ago, everyone in the studio knew what it meant: amazing characters, an interesting world, but also an Eastern European feel that is unique to the fantasy genre. “

The sense of history behind The Witcher is very Polish, he says: “We Poles love to tell about the worst moments of our past.” In books, games, and series, rulers try to tame the people by force. The people do not trust those in power, friendship gets more done than the state. “The connection between history and the present is quickly established.”

However, his latest project is not from Poland, but from the United States. Cyberpunk 2077 is a sci-fi board game turned into an action game. A genre that, Blancha immediately admits, is grafted onto American society. It was born of writers who gloomily philosophized about a bleak capitalist future under Conservative President Ronald Reagan. Still, Cyberpunk 2077 looks like The Witcher, he says. “The game is about violent rulers and special individuals who do not trust the system and go to war together, preferring anarchy to discipline …”

He jokes: “One person’s dystopian vision of the future is another’s hidden treasure.”

Also read: Dutch game developer Guerrilla: ‘Games at this level are very difficult to develop, but it is also very cool’

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