But perhaps the last one could use some explaining. To that end, I submit this thesis: the dynamics of art history can teach us a great deal about video games. An example? Legacy of Kain: Defiance.
The Legacy of Kain series tells the tale of titular Kain, vampire extraordinaire of the fantasy realm Nosgoth. Over the course of the series, Kain ascends in power, first embodying the prophesied role of the Scion of Balance by harmonizing the world’s magical forces, then shirking that same role by opting for dictatorial rulership over world-saving self-sacrifice. Like Julius Caesar, Kain’s rule is ended by a traitorous lieutenant, the vengeful Raziel. This rise and fall occurs over many games, some in which the player plays as Kain, some in which the players plays as Raziel.
Defiance, the series’ last game to date, tells both protagonists’ stories as Raziel nears completion of his vowed mission – to kill Kain. Rather than detail the plot’s every convolution, I will summarize by saying that each undead anti-hero chases the other through time travel, attempting to exploit history’s turning points and establish an unassailable advantage. While one could fairly cringe at the mention of time travel, fearing that the subtext will become muddled and untraceable by paradoxes, here, the series’ writer (one Amy Hennig) uses temporal distortion to great effect. Raziel, in particular, seeks to find Kain’s weaknesses by studying prophetic murals in temples across time periods. The murals tell of a coming clash between two powerful warriors, and it seems if Raziel can decipher the iconography, he can make his actions align with whichever warrior the prophecy promises victory.
So, this is straightforward representation of art history, right? Murals, religion, decaying artifacts – all things that are common to both art history and narrative video games. At this point I can just tell you, “Read the Book of Revelations and Gilgamesh and look at Minoan murals and Byzantine icons and THEN tell me what you think of Zelda!” but Defiance offers us an additional twist. All ye who enter here, BEWARE THE SPOILERS!!!
In Nosgoth, the Elder God runs the show from behind the scenes. Imagine Cthulhu, but with a following reminiscent of the Catholic Church. After Kain first executes Raziel, it is the Elder God who resurrects the vampiric captain, allowing him to initiate his quest of vengeance. While at first, Raziel assumes this was done because any sensible deity would abhor the cruel and violent rule of Kain, in Defiance, he learns that the Elder God disapproves of Kain’s impiety towards him and so will bring about an Armageddon in order to install more easily controlled kings. Raziel comes to the realization that Kain’s dictatorship of a few centuries pales before the millennia-spanning oppression enacted by his many-tentacled patron. His ignorance transcended, Raziel joins Kain in seeking to destroy the Elder God.
In case you didn’t catch it, this is a game about a character who, at first, relies on a visual history to understand his world, then realizes the hypocrisy underlying said history. He discovers the significance of art’s authorship and context, leaving behind the naive notion of autonomous actors in an arbitrary world. The game concerns not merely a scavenger hunt for archaeologically themed macguffins, but rather a quest to understand the relationship between art and history the completion of which will empower the protagonist to challenge socially reinforced authority. Pity the poor fool who writes off this inventively textured indictment of religious dogma as a goofy vampire action game.
I apologize if the above included inaccuracies that bother fans or dense exposition that confuses those unfamiliar with the text. Need help untangling this mess? Go south [to the comments], young man.