The Dreamcast, Console of the Avant-Garde by Nick Montfort and Mia Consalvo
In this article Monfort and Consalvo discuss how the Dreamcast inadvertently lead to more innovations in advant-garde games. They look at five games in their analysis: Jet Set Radio(also known as Jet Grind Radio in the international release); Space Chanel 5; Seaman; SGGG and Rez.
They begin the article by giving us a basic definition of advant-garde, in which they reference the writings of filmmaker Dick Higgins where he not only describes the term as an expansion of possibilities for creators but also as something that is more flexible than fixed–he considered the term more a direction or style than anything else.
With that defined Monfort and Consalvo go on to analyze what factors played a role with the direction. It turns out that there were multiple factors that came into play with this. One of those factors was because of the increasing level of competition, particularly from Sony and the powerhouse that would be the Playstation 2. As a result, they chose to focus more on multiple innovations, partularly online gaming:
While the company couldn’t beat the Playstation
2 in raw processing power, and was aware of this, they felt that online connectivity and the
creation of SegaNet would be their unique selling point.
And from Nintendo, where Sega deeply wanted to recreate the victory they had over them a decade prior.
Another factor mentioned was debt. Sega was in massive debt over what they considered to be commercial failure of the Saturn, which actually did okay even though not as successful as its predecessor, and desperately wanted to turn over a new leaf:
However, Sega’s successes diminished with its subsequent release of the Saturn, which was more
expensive than other consoles in its generation and was not extensively supported by the
company. Many gamers felt that Sega then tried to dump the Saturn with the early announcement
of the Dreamcast, and wondered if the same thing might happen again.
Essentially the desperation to succeed lead to Sega being more willing to innovate the Dreamcast in such away to make it commercially viable. There were a few important innovations the Dreamcast made the biggest innovation was to make the Dreamcast have more online capabilities. This is nothing to us now, in fact its such a integral aspect of gaming now to the point to where everything has some form of online capability, whether we like it or not. But in 1999 this was an insane undertaking as the Internet was young and mostly uncharted territory:
While earlier game consoles had been strongly focused on game-playing, the Dreamcast was definitely intended to do more. With its modem
and web browser, it was positioned as a networked device, which would allow for online gameplay as well as general Internet connectivity. The Dreamcast was well ahead of Microsoft and its Xbox Live service, which didn’t appear until three years later in late 2002 …
Because of that attempting such innovations came its own set of complications particularly a lack of experience with online gaming.
The limitations of both the Dreamcast and the developers expanded possiblities of what they can do by limiting them. It made them think outside the box with how they programmed and designed games. As a result the Dreamcast became the perfect platform to experiment with what can be considered a game.
Thus Montfort and Consalvo chose aformentioned five games not only because they were considered advant-garde for their time but were also on many players top ten lists. That relationship leads to players to try to make sense of these games with mainstream conventions(well mainstream for 1999).
To save time I won’t individually get into the individual games but instead what each game had in common in terms of what made them avant-garde. A common theme with each game is that they had distinctive art styles and game designs that either captivaed players or put them off. Jet Set Radio is one of the best examples captivating players with its use of bright colors, and cell-shading blurring bringing up the discussion of how games can become art:
Other reviewers made reference to painting and innovative fine
art. For example, one thought that early screen shots “looked more like a hand-drawn painting
than a 3D videogame. After studying them for some time they still didn’t look like anything I’ve
The best example of these same designs putting off players is Rez. Montfort and Consalvo note that it felt that some felt that the game’s MO was to be political, even when that was far from the creator’s intention:
One disapproving reviewer, Showtime1080, did
see Rez as having a political valence because of its style, speculating that perhaps “the arty,
colorful backgrounds were made with the intention to appeal to left-wingers.” If the realism and firearms of the Call of Duty series and Big Buck Hunter are right-wing, perhaps the alternative
that Rez offers is indeed somehow leftist.
The second thing that these games have in common is that they pushed the envelope of what makes a game. These games a great examples of this. Jet Set Radio did this with blurring of real life and fiction with its use of graffiti and urban culture:
Rez did so with it’s abstract character design, Space Channel 5 did it with it’s space inspired character design and SGGG did so with its metafiction and commentary on subversive commentary on how videogames are made and viewed by its publishers.
However I believe that Seaman is the best example of this because the whole idea behind it being what most considered …an experience. It’s end goal is to subvert what we know about pet simulator games by presenting such an ugly creature to take care of.
Montfort and Convalso also go into some attacks against the idea of the Dreamcast being the catylist for more advant-garde games such as it not fully fitting with Diana Crane’s idea of what it means for something to be avant-garde:
- It redefines artistic conventions
- It uses new tools and techniques
- It redefines the nature of the object(including what is considered art)
- It incorporates social or political content
- It redefines popular culture
- It adopts a critical view of the institutions it comes from
- It redefines the social context behind the art
- It redefines the organization and distribution of the art
- It redefines the nature of taking an artistic role
As the two mentioned, while the games don’t hit all of these points they definitely hit some of them. Jet Set Radio uses new tools and techniques with its use of cell shading and incorporated social content with its approach towards urban culture. SGGG adopts a critical view of institution by questioning how games are made. Seaman redefined the nature of what makes a pet simulator game. All of these games redefined popular culture by becoming phemonenons despite not adhering to popular conventions.
They end this article by summarize the legacy of the Dreamcast and I feel this best encapsulates why the Dreamcast being a catalyst for avant-garde game matters:
With the concomitant rise of indie game development more
generally, even the Dreamcast itself remains as a potential weapon in the avant-garde’s arsenal. Its well-remembered crop of innovative games also shows the lasting value of developers who take risks and work independently.
I feel that this was dense but interesting read. There was definitely a lot to unpack and I don’t feel I did the article justice with my summary. For me, while I was aware of the quirkiness of most the games they analyized(even though I never heard of SGGG) and it gave me another lens to look at these games from. It also put into perspective where the indie game launched off from and emphasizes the importance of breaking the mold in terms of how we create and play games.
Montfort, Nick, and Mia Consalvo. “The Dreamcast, Console of the Avant-Garde.” Loading…, vol. 6, no. 9, Jan. 2012, http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/view/104.