Back when I was 19 and probably stupid, I wrote a run down on the Apollonian and Dionysian drives from an art historical perspective. My kindred spirit and one of my top five best grumpy Germans and fantasy dinner partners of all time, Nietzsche wrote about two approaches to art in his early work, The Birth of Tragedy. Putting it in terms of Greek deities – one the embodiment of order, the other of all that is messy in human nature – Nietzsche explains how two artistic drives express our emotions and particularly the way we deal with suffering. Which comes from fear. Which comes from hate.
I’m going to insult Nietzsche and oversimplify this. Think of the Apollonian as when we try to logic out our emotions and create order from something that is most definitely not orderly. The Dionysian is like if your human experience is a pit of mud and you jump into it and slosh around. Sculpture and architecture lie on the far end of the spectrum, with music being on the other. Watching footage of people at a concert probably explains the Dionysian better than I ever could (or maybe even Nietzsche, that long winded bastard).
In Birth of Tragedy, the philosopher reaches the conclusion that Greek tragedy (title drop!) was the perfect marriage of both artistic drives. Tragic heroes like Oedipus often overly relied on the Apollonian, only to have their own attempts at bringing order rip them apart like Dionysus. The only art form that approached this marriage to Nietzsche was opera, specifically Wagner of course. Now if you think of both artistic drives as a spectrum, then every other medium falls somewhere between the two. I’m not saying certain works of art have not been successful combos of the two. Bernini could be a more Dionysian sculptor, but that’s another post for another day.
HOWEVER. In the very late 20th century and early 21st century, a medium has gained ground that is probably the most successful expression of the Apollonian and Dionysian since Greek tragedy. You know what it is. From the plots, even to the simplest silent protagonist’d action game to the longest JRPG, to the way we interact in the medium, Games capture this phenomenon of art and human nature.
Let’s start with my favorite because it’s my blog. Final Fantasy VI is an easy jumping off point for understanding how games combine the Apollonian and Dionysian. Like pretty much every game, something is wrong and your characters and by extension you have to fix it. Even if the main players or plot is twisted and morally ambiguous, every game has a system in place of how you have to do things – you know, gameplay. You can’t beat a game – I don’t care if you’re just mashing buttons – without some degree of logic. In FFVI, you have to save the world. It has the largest cast of any Final Fantasy, and each character’s arc explores their own way of trying to make sense of that world. The villain is probably the most Nihilistic fucker around. I’m not even the first person to relate Kefka to Nietzsche’s philosophy . Halfway through the game, he sends the world into chaos for the sake of it, but is not another “evil just because” dude. As he famously puts it, “Life…Dreams…Hope…Where do they come from? And where do they go? None of that junk is enough to fulfill your hearts! Destruction…Destruction is what makes life worth living! Destroy! Destroy! Destroy! Let’s destroy everything!” The mythology of Dionysus himself is a beautiful illustration of Kefka’s question. The god is in many ways the god of orgiastic release, which is how we often deal with that stupid human condition thing, but he’s fated to be annually torn limb from limb. Like us and our party, he builds things that will inevitably be destroyed. Like games tend to do, it works out in the end (wonderfully imperfectly though), but there are still tragic elements throughout the whole thing.
BioShock is another excellent example. In an alternate universe, an underwater city was created to be a utopia for freedom and human expression. You come in after chaos has taken over, and the gameplay is a compelling mix of logic and throwing yourself into that chaos. The enemies you’re massacring aren’t just goons to hack through. They’re victims of their own ignorance and also arrogance. But the player must also be wary of making mistakes – balancing the frenzy of a FPS with puzzles, clever ways to solve problems, and knowing when to be stealthy. The design is also amazingly immersive and successful at imparting that anxiety (and gorgeous).
But the reason games are the perfect medium for this is that our roles and the catharsis of the audience, just like in Greek tragedy, are essential to the success of the Apollonian-Dionysian combo attack. A ton of games merge the artistic drives in and of themselves, but it’s the player who is at risk of becoming the tragic hero. If you’re a gamer, you’ve had your rage quit moments. There are simple mistakes, but then there are the times when we get overconfident in our ability to reason it all out. The moon destroys Termina, you get killed in Demon’s Souls for the eleventieth time, and you’re left to ponder and mentally flog yourself for your own mistakes. But we always come back. We rebuild what might be destroyed, death always close at hand. Kind of like real life.