Summertime Madness 1

Summertime Madness Review

5.5
Surreal but disjointed

Summertime Madness fits into a series of first-person art puzzlers that have been released over the past half-decade or so. These games are inspired by a specific visual art aesthetic, with that translated art becoming a space that the player moves through. In order to buffer out the time that the player is moving through the space, puzzles entice the player to spend more time in the space running repeatedly through similar areas. It would fit snugly in-between Vladimir Kudelka’s Rememoried and Giant Sparrow’s The Unfinished Swan.

Summertime Madness fits snuggly alongside the two with an aim of creating a world based in the visuals of European surrealism. Following a Praguian painter in the midst of World War II, he is offered a deal to escape into his paintings only if he can return to the real world by midnight. Inside, buildings stretch into the sky to touch the moon, hallways stretch on infinitely, and statues stand in liquid voids of darkness.

What’s unique to the visual choices of the game is that a large part of the world is translated from surrealist art into 3D space. Entire rooms display their inspiration such as a section of endless stairways paralleling M.C. Escher’s Relativity. This art can also appear very literally as a virtual copy, for instance René Magritte’s sky-filled silhouette from Décalcomanie appearing on a wall. Yet, none of these inclusions are ever given any larger meaning outside of the fairly standard plot of the painter’s escape. Rather, in what Esther Rosenfield calls “a container for reference points” in writing about Ghosts of Tsushima. There is no aesthetic meaning to take away from the collection of surrealist images rendered by the game; instead, they are placed to create recognition and spectacle.

Rather than thinking of this as the game failing to translate this aesthetic however, it transforms from an atmospheric first-person experience to something more comparable to an art gallery. The player walks into a room, works through puzzles over an hour or so, and throughout the process sees various artworks.

Looking around the Gallery

As Zolani Stewart has written, games have historically and continued to fail presenting images for the comfort of prioritising environmental information. I’m considering this as an art gallery because I don’t want to discount the inherent value in walking around these environments. The game doesn’t “fail” to make me think because I have to process the game’s images in order to move through it. Despite the lack of cohesion between all of the pieces existing within the world space, they still make you feel something by just moving through them. The spiraling hallway of infinity makes me dizzy and question time, the spatialisation of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory catches my eye because it is out of place. Seeing something in a game does make me feel something because games are a haptic-visual form. However, there is a difference between art being placed in a space for aesthetic expression versus being spatialised for environmental spectacle.

In a similar fashion, perhaps we can imagine an art gallery in the flatiron district of New York City owned by an oil baron heiress. Art that was purchased by a series of millionaires line the walls with only a slight string of connections between each work. The space is designed to attract guests and possible donors whether it’s through a plain white box or an immersive series of rooms. The works will be seen by some who possibly have historical connections or interest in a piece, but many will come to just be in the space with a famous work or for the space itself without taking away much to remember at all.

Between the two, the major difference is the fact that one exists wholly in a virtual world and the other in real space. Both place art within an aestheticised space for the pleasure of their spectacle.

Image Prevention

Summertime Madness also struggles with its form as a surrealist art gallery within a video game because it still remains entrenched in conservative video game design. Art does not exist in the environment to just be viewed, but the ability to view must be rewarded for solving cryptic puzzles. However, these puzzles are either never connected to the surrounding artwork or being used to express a general concept without too much to look deeper into.

For example, a reoccurring moment that occurs throughout the game is a dark void where a statue represents an emotional aspect of the painter’s life. One of them, representing love, renders a statue of two figures holding each other and kissing. When the player moves closer, the statues disintegrate and reveal their hearts. The player must then balance two scales evenly with flowers for them to recover and reveal a stairwell to progress. This doesn’t reveal anything about the character, at most just making a statement about balance being the key to a healthy relationship–if at all.

When these puzzles aren’t as easy, gameplay consists of walking around areas repeatedly to turn on different combinations of switches across the map. During these moments, I found myself losing a lot of focus on the art in the world because I was so frustrated with the design of the puzzles. This would start from a place of accepting that the puzzles were a sort of vehicle for each expanse of art, then hoping I could just be given a solution and see the next piece.

During these times, I felt more like a program running through solutions, blindly rushing through the terrain in a haze. After a certain point of running around the same corner so many times it didn’t matter what the space looked like.

Selfie Artist

Moving through Summertime Madness, the art gallery comparison reminded me more and more of an art pop up in Manhattan called Color Factory. In Color Factory, guests move through spaces of bright, saturated, colorful designs of atmospheric spaces, playful ball pits and selfie-perfect sets with slogan-plastered objects ready for instagram. The more I walked through the colorful playspaces of Summertime Madness, the more fitting the connection seemed. Rather than thinking of some video games through a cinematic lens or painting frame, Summertime Madness is a reminder of real world spaces like Color Factory. While that isn’t too lofty an aspiration, maybe just walking through a world and feeling something is enough.