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Symbolism has been used by artists of all mediums throughout the ages. It provides a visceral and inventive way of expressing deeper themes within one’s work. Video games, the newest artistic form, is no exception.
A fine example of masterfully crafted symbolism is the 2001 rail-shooter Rez, a game for the PlayStation 2, Dreamcast and Xbox 360. Tetsuya Mizuguchi, creator of the game, cites Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky as a key influence during Rez’s conception. This artist believed that sound and vibration were the highest forms of art, but called colour the “keyboard” of a spiritual piano, thus stressing its importance.
Mizuguchi coupled his love of Kandinsky’s visceral and powerful artwork with his interest in synaesthesia, the marriage of the base human senses. It is my belief that both the music and visuals were also key in exploring an unusual theme – the interactions and separations between humanity and machinery. Unfortunately, many dismiss Rez as nothing more than a fun trip, enjoyable but meaningless. It does not help that the game’s basic plot is related almost entirely through the paper manual. In this essay, I want to highlight the factors that have led me to believe that Rez has a deeper message about the future of humanity, and present my own theory on what the game is about.
In Rez, you take control of a hacker seeking to reach the artificial intelligence Eden, who oversees a futuristic vision of the internet. Eden, overloaded with information, has begun to question her existence, putting up firewalls and shutting herself down. It is important to bear in mind that Rez’s 2011 prequel Child of Eden reveals that the powerful A.I was born of a human girl’s consciousness.
The first connection to the theme comes through your avatar. As your health increases and decreases, it will take on different forms. Starting as a humble wireframe model, it becomes more and more human in appearance before transforming into the shape of a human child. While Eden questions the nature of her being, which is neither entirely human nor machine, your character actively melts between the two extremes. Note that you are at your most powerful when humanoid; perhaps the ideal being is the perfect balance between a man and a construct, much like the mighty Eden.
Another source of creative symbolism comes through each level’s design and concluding boss fight. Without words, we are shown the depth of knowledge contained within the super internet and how each area connects to a facet of humanity. Together, they provide a brief history of mankind’s greatest civilisations and the assets they portrayed in their time. The digital world is interwoven with these fragments of history.
Egypt and Earth
Fittingly, the first level of the game takes visual elements from ancient Egypt, including hieroglyphics. Egypt was one of the first great civilisations of Earth, known for grand architectural and artistic feats.
The boss, Earth, resembles a great sphere, which gradually morphs into a spinning, tendril-clad core. The initial stage, with its seamless, impenetrable-looking panels, reminds us of the sheer skill of human architects and builders. The second stage is more of visual treat, displaying a beautiful and artistic symmetry.
Arabia and Mars
The second level heavily features Arabic architecture, pointing us to our next ancient world. Arabia was a culturally diverse location due to the bustling trade industry at the time. While this means that the level could symbolise financial and numerical knowledge, it also points to something more human; socialisation and kinship.
Mars is a complex structure. Comprised of multiple rocket-filled arms stretched out like an immense star, it routinely swallows the avatar into its centre. Here, you must quickly break down either a series of thick walls or thin, projectile-sprouting reeds. Whether the Arabian level stands out more for its great merchants or the way it brought together people of different nationalities, there is no doubt that Mars well illustrates the complexity of both these elements.
Greece and Venus
Now we enter a version of ancient Greece, bubbling with the same neon-green-on-black colouration as an old computer. The Greek civilisation can represent a great deal of human progress, but two key elements that have not yet been covered; philosophy and war. It makes sense that as one gets closer to Eden, one would encounter philosophy, which seems to have become her primary focus. The background music, Creation the State of Art by Ken Ishii, reminds us of her struggle to understand just what kind of a creation she is.
Her internal war is then further highlighted by Venus, a colossal, fortress-like boss that sends out smaller creatures to attack you like a prince deploying his troops. Both the military might of Greece and Eden’s plight are emphasised.
Asia and Uranus
Our penultimate stage represents Eastern Asia, with ancient text and deity statues lining the level. Ancient Asia produced a dizzying number of revolutionary inventions, but the focus of the level design seems to centre around religion, which in itself can be connected to the human body through traditional medicine.
Uranus, one of the most memorable bosses in the game, takes the forms of a huge running man and a serpentine creature. We can link his forms to a god-like shape shifter, as well as the perfect depiction of a healthy body. But Uranus’ symbolism goes beyond just his level. Right before we confront Eden, the game reminds us of the ever-growing bond between humans and machinery, which Uranus epitomises.
The Birth of Consciousness
In the final level, we progress through a depiction of the beginning of life in terms of the theory of evolution. A monologue, perhaps from Eden herself, describes the process while the level around us grows from an empty void to a living forest.
Eden mulling over a human concept or theory about the birth of life could be her imperfect way of trying to grasp her own nature. At this point, she may even have started to realise that she is a completely new form of being, as wide-eyed and innocent as the young life depicted in the level. The key difference for Eden was the great strain put on her by the congested information highways she was built to manage.
Meanwhile, a remix of Adam Freeland’s song Fear is the Mind-Killer accompanies the stage. The song title itself is taken from a mantra found in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. In these seminal science-fiction books, the phrase acts as a safeguard against falling into wild panics and is often quoted during times of extreme peril, danger and uncertainty. It well highlights Eden’s self-doubt and fear, the stress of which is causing her to shut down.
Before we finally confront Eden, text appears on-screen. “Save me.” The time has come to bring an end to the A.I’s confusion. The boss fight itself is set a cold, mechanical environment devoid of any trace of humanity. In the centre of the arena lies shattered polygons, floating like suspended glass. The music is noticeably quieter here, with the sound of a female voice trying to break through.
As you progress, the broken remains gradually reform into the shape of a woman. Intermittently, the music becomes gentle and soothing as Eden examines her own body. Images of the natural world swell behind her as she becomes increasingly euphoric. It seems like she is growing aware of herself, her own existence and purpose.
When we finally defeat – or perhaps a better word would be ‘save’ – Eden, we are treated to a small cut-scene. It is the 100% completion ending that holds real importance. With a facial expression that speaks of true inner peace, she releases a pink butterfly from her hands into a swirling swarm of the insects flying above. As the credits roll, we see the creatures flittering close to the centre of the screen, where they are reflected below as wireframe models. There is a divide between the organic and the digital, but this gap does not cause distress or confusion anymore. Both sides swoop contentedly beside each other, peacefully flying towards the future. In a soft, assured voice, we hear Eden speak the words, “I am.”
Rez is a sadly overlooked game. In addition to its exciting rail shooter game play and dazzling graphics, it manages to communicate a great deal of complexity through its music and visual cues despite having such sparse dialogue. Numerous interpretations of its message exist, each one presenting new and unique ideas. One can have just as much fun analysing the enigmatic material as they can through simply playing the game. Unfortunately, many have never heard of this obscure gem.
Rez shows that games, like all other forms of art, can contain wonderfully crafted themes and symbolisms. One day, perhaps the medium of video games will be widely accepted and respected as a strong, mature and valid form of art.