Art is often synonymous with creativity, and is seen as the emergence of something new out of nothing. The discourse that centres around inspiration explains it as though it were derived from some internal wellspring. Yet this is not entirely true, art is more often the consequence of drawing from and interpreting ones surroundings, uniqueness comes from the idiosyncratic viewpoint of the artist and the way they weave their observations and experiences into the pieces they create.
Art dallies with interpreting itself, from novels such as Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy to Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World however the abstract and deeply psychological process that is an artist’s inspiration and their concerns with their arts reception is incredibly hard to conceptualise in any concrete form. Where metaphors and symbolism can often work to convey deeper truths in a condensed form, there are times when the ideas being portrayed are too self-referential to hold any meaning. It’s at this point that any attempt to explore concepts like imagination tend to break down, unless they are in the hands of a skilled individual.
Mi’pu’mi have tackled precisely this issue in their debut game The Lion’s Song. At a surface level it’s a point n click adventure delivered in an episodic style that was popularised by Telltale Games. The first episode of “The Lion’s Song” is free on both Steam and itch.io and concerns itself with Wilma’s attempt to compose a new piece for an upcoming concert. Struggling with artists block, she retreats to the Alps to compose amidst the “Silence” of the mountains and allow the music within her mind to emerge once again, despite her personal troubles and tensions that distract her from her work. It’s at this point that The Lion’s Song takes the formulaic methods of a point n click game and transforms them. There’s nothing mechanically new that the game is doing, you search, hover and point with the mouse, interacting with the background to reveal new information. If anything The Lion’s Song is actually reductive in its mechanics. There’s no menu to combine items, you can’t pick things up and make them interact with others. Instead where The Lion’s Song manages its interactivity, is within the symbolic function of the things you interact with. Where most games focus purely on the physical aspects of their world, Lion Song’s focus on the metaphorical and psychological focus leads you to pursuing the issues of the mind.
The very first quest with Wilma Doerfl, is simply to block out annoyances, and pursue aspects of the environment that she can weave into her music. The Alpine setting lends itself to a consideration of Wilma’s music as essentially romantic, however as much as she can listen to the sounds of wind, rain and thunder, Wilma is not a romantic, despite the game hinting at her work being contemporaneous with luminaries of the movement such as Mahler. The romantic movement ended roughly at the start of the 20th century with a few composers drifting into the 20th (some notable Russians composed quite late) but Wilma represents the shift to modern music. Simply using the symbolism of nature to compose her music will not be enough. And this is where the games writing begins to emerge, creating its own harmonies between player, character, mechanics, imagery and symbolism. The skill the player is asked to engage with here is in fact empathy, understanding and listening. Not listening as an auditory skill, but listening to the imagery of the game, Wilma’s unfolding narrative, through her own reflections on her circumstances, the letters she uncovers and the dialogue she engages in. If you want to compose a song for the ages, you actually need to understand a poem:
“A portrait drawn in different style,
a push through sleep, just for a while,
the sound of rain does make you smile.
Behind those bars, trapped with a hiss,
a call, so strange, yet full of bliss,
you might regret a second miss.
My latest piece, in one fair letter,
while clouds rush on a change of weather,
transform its state and make it better.
Worth your while, if you don’t mind,
these tiny things, so hard to find?
Now back to play, please be so kind!”
The hints here in fact allude not only to what elements of nature Wilma draws expression from and so links her music back to the movement and expressive style of art she would have grown up with, but also how she is pushing the movement forward. Searching for new expressions and inspiration, that are drawn not only from her own emotions but also interactions with others and how this manages to clarify her own ideas. It’s during her discussions with a stranger and through her dreams that Wilma comes to terms with her unequal relationship with her mentor and is able to fully distill the elements of nature and her emotions to selectively include them in her work.
This exploration of people and their dimensions is a natural follow through in the second part that looks at a young artist Franz Markert. He is introduced at a high level of Viennese society despite not being particularly wealthy. Our first encounter and introduction to him, is as he is on his way to unveil his new art at a private gathering held by Gustav Klimt. And here the game introduces one new mechanic to differentiate the new episode. Franz is able to see people’s layers. These emerge from people as you approach them in the game world, and if you engage in tete-a-tete with them in private, the layers shift depending on what that person seeks to portray of themselves. It’s a visual representation of the concepts of id, ego and superego, that had been codified by Freud in his 1923 paper The Ego and the Id. Of course, the fantastical element here is that Franz is capable of seeing all these things, whereas the player is not. In terms of perception these are characteristics that they highly empathic and sensitive Markert would be able to sense. For the player, we are given visual clues as to what aspect of the character is being evoked, represented by the ghosts that are superimposed over the actual character. To elicit these ghosts during the portrait painting sequences… you ask questions.
Questions and dialogue are what expose our psyche to psychoanalysis. Something Franz actually undergoes underneath Freud himself. Markert’s neurosis, is what drives him there, and its from Freud that he engages in dialogue to begin his self-portrait. This is the central piece of Markert’s tale, the uncovering of his own layers of identity, by asking questions of himself and the player responding to the questions, in a form of self-dialogue. Markert’s revelation of his own identity is dependent on how much attention the player has actually paid to his identity, as revealed in his reactions and relationships to others. Here the role of the traditional psychoanalyst is transferred between player and Markert, with the player as analyst acting to supply the answers in a process known as countertransference, which attacks the patient’s pathological defenses in order for him to gain insight. If the player is giving the wrong information to Markert, he is unable to gain insight into himself.
There’s nothing new mechanically to this approach. Dialogues with varied options is a stable in multiple genres, what is new is the context of the dialogue. That it is framed and styled as a therapy session, and that the focus is not to garner information regarding a plot, or to force a romance subplot -in the horrendous nightmare of relationship manipulations that are Bioware games- but as a means to discover someone’s psychological state.
Yet how is the player to gain such insight? Here the normal exploration mechanics of the point n click genre come to the fore. Information can be gleaned from environments, and from dialogue. What is unique here is again, not how you gather said psychological insight but how the game presents it. All the characters in The Lion’s Song are interconnected, in that serendipitous way that only exists in stories. Exploration here is not simply moving through screens and clicking on everything insight, but moving through the various plots of the story itself.
Exploration in video games is one of the principal areas identified by Bartle in his 1996 essay, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs. Which although focused on a specific genre of game, swiftly became used in other genres as well. Exploration as he defined it was about exploring the topography of the game, which is the common factor that most games design for by creating expansive open worlds and sandboxes, but Bartle also identified that exploration consisted of exploring the physics of a world as well in order to fascinate and satisfy a sense of awe and wonder at the virtual world. The Lion’s Song plays upon this but of course its concern is not a physical dimension of its world, which is largely limited to a singular map of Vienna with limited locations, but rather the psychological depth of its characters. The game actively encourages you to explore their minds, and allows the player to replay each chapter by making them accessible. The connections between characters that give insight into individuals are even highlighted in a gallery that is extrinsic to the story, making players aware of who and what social connections they still need to uncover.
But this is not before the game attempts to explore one new dimension. Appropriately it does attempt to innovate in its third chapter on change, which features Emma Recniczek. A rather unconventional woman who attempts to pursue a career in mathematics only to be prevented by societal norms. Her tale is a common one, wherein she engages in crossdressing shenanigans in order to be accepted into an all-male mathematics club, and the difficulties this leads her into in maintaining her disguise. It’s the sort of humorous nonsense, to occur on Twelfth Nights and played for effect in the theatres of Elizabethan London, though here it is handled fairly seriously.
This third episode does mark a number of changes. Firstly, the previous chapters had focused on a more historical approach which complemented the stylised pixel graphics and choice of a heavily muted colour palette. The previous chapters also focused quite exclusively on the internal state of the characters rather than external states or society, when other people were concerned, the focus was on their direct relationship to the other characters. Emma (or Emil’s chapter) focus on more modern concerns of progressivism. The game, in a rather clever pun attempts to declare Emma non-binary, and there’s a very subtle homosexual relationship alluded to. Emma’s nonbinary status as a result of her crossdressing seems to simply be there to score points, rather than as a truly considered inclusion of her character. Emma is by no means non-binary, nor did such a concept exist for people to identify with, the closest would be the hermaphrodite, but the game steers away from any allusions to Tiresias. Emma is only crossdressing as a means to an end rather than as an expression of identity. This pragmatic context has very little to do with the modern concern with gender expression which is not pragmatic at all. However, the homosexual incidence is handled far better. Though it is discreet, which is largely appropriate for the time since it was considered illegal, the signs are there for an attentive player to note one characters blossoming attraction and eventual dismay when his love is thwarted. The game handles this all sensitively that actually makes it far more sympathetic, than if it had been trumpeted. There’s more akin to the portrayal of gay characters in an Iris Murdoch novel, than in modern inclusive writing.
The shift to a larger social concern is also accompanied by an attempt to innovate with mechanics. In Emily’s story, her mathematical revelations can be realised visually, just as Franz’s ghosts were marked in the second chapter. For Emily her work on change is represented visually to the player as graphs that can be interacted with. By selecting the appropriate point on the graph or selecting a range on the axes, the game allows you to interact with Emily’s ideas. Her ruminations indicate you were to point and then it’s a short and easy puzzle to figure it out. However unlike the other characters Emily does not allow you to make a mistake with her ideas. Where you could create a poor or great composition for Wilma, or allow Franz to identify or not, with Emily there is no room for failure. Whatever the outcome of your interactions the correct maths is forced onto the player. This leaves little room for conflict in Emily’s tale except for the social conflict she finds herself in.
For her story then it is not so much about her ideas as it is about how they are received socially. With Emily you need to convince a review board that her mathematical proof is sufficient. The pay off is that this is done before a university class in perhaps the largest scene of the game. This scene plays out in a similar fashion to a Phoenix Wright court case. Objections may not be shouted dramatically, but the game utilises the same array of postures for its principal actors, the susurrus of a captivated audience and the player to interact with dialogue back and forth in an attempt to prove your proof! Though the scene is cathartic if you do manage to triumph, compared to the stillness and introspectiveness of previous aspects of the game, it stands out as breaking the overall tone. For many though the emotional impact of the scene may override the more contemplative aspects, yet like the fourth chapter it marks a substantial point that shows the games direction has indeed changed, just as history was about to change.
The fourth chapter solidifies the game further. Not only is it the primary chapter that acts to link all the preceding three, it serves as a point to anchor the game in its broader socio-political context. but at the expense of losing focus on a central character. The third chapter had hinted at events in Serbia, and Bosnia and the effect that this was having upon some of the Austrian citizens. In addition, Emily’s disguise is as a German, due to the extremely close cultural ties between the Austrian and German nations. Yet it is only in this the final chapter that the realities of the onset of World War I become apparent. Whilst they hurtle towards a battlefield the four characters talk briefly about events (events that the previous three characters featured in) and it settles into an exploration of a brief cultural high note that was lost with the onset of war.
It’s a somewhat sobering ending to a game that if played well truly celebrates the pinnacle of human creativity and endeavours, but it is not a disheartening one. The game actively encourages you to replay the segments to improve and acquire beneficial endings for all the characters. The insights you gain in the final chapter into each person are critical to understanding them, and definitely encourages a replay to further explore the characters minds. In this the game is slightly weak as it certainly favours players who do like to explore, but then the point n click genre doesn’t tend to lend itself well to replays anyway, so if anything, The Lion’s Song offers more than the average game in the genre.
Despite note being unique on a mechanical front, The Lion’s Song’s true brilliance resides in how it present familiar mechanics within new contexts, and how that shift manages to fundamentally shift the way a player engages with the game. Whilst it doesn’t offer Dostoyevskian insight, it certainly presents new ways with how to represent characters minds and internal states, and how this leads to their creativity and imagination. It marks a shift in games towards stories that can effectively utilise symbolism and metaphor mechanically in order to convey more information to the player. In this its achievements are similar to Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice, and it is well worth a play through, particularly since the first episode is free.