By Nick Vafiadis
In the era of the hipster, when nostalgia abounds possibly to a fault, Cuphead is a videogame that does nostalgia right. This indie venture is part of a recent wave of hyper-difficult games like Darksouls, Bloodborne, and Getting Over It that offer a rewarding, albeit challenging alternative to easier blockbuster titles. But what sets Cuphead apart, even in this burgeoning genre, is its retro hand-drawn style that players cannot stay mad at, even after hundreds of deaths.
A look into the games origins reveals what a labor of love it was, and how it tapped into a very strong underlying desire in its audience for the warmth of an honest human touch without being tempered by any cold irony. Brothers Jared and Chad Muldenhauer fought an upstream battle to realize their vision of a platformer set in a world of classic 30’s cartoons. The previously blue collar brothers, with no professional experience in game design or art, hired a team of animators to hand draw every single frame of every animation in the game, a painstaking process that even modern cartoonists have done away with. They also saw to it that every background and still in the game was hand painted in delicate watercolor, and that every piece of music was recorded originally by a studio rag-time band. The result is a game that offers art and playability of the game.
It’s a time traveling experience that draws you in with an undeniably playful charm. You’re almost forced to love it, by virtue of seeing how much it was loved in its creation process. Those familiar with classic cartoons like Steamboat Willy, Popeye, and Betty Boop will feel like they’re actually a character inhabiting one of those old-time, sugary worlds playing this game, as opposed to playing a game that simply has the veneer of the classic, or simply nods here and there to its source material. In other words, the authentic love saturating this game down to the last grainy cigarette marked frame will win you over and never feel clever or ironic.
Cuphead’s breakout success shows us that audiences are smart enough to know the difference between creators sentimentalizing the past and creators who reinvent it. While playing the game myself, I began to think about the difference between it and another hugely popular game that draws on pop culture — Grand Theft Auto. It would be redundant to make a finger wagging pious comment on that game’s explicit content. That’s not what I’m interested in, and while I don’t think it should be played by anyone under 18 for sure, I happen to think Grand Theft Auto is an excellent game. The difference between it and Cuphead that interests me is really more of a difference in attitude regarding the past and our culture.
There will always be a valid place in culture for satire, which Grand Theft Auto attempts to do and does quiet well. The problem is that the game, like so many other shows/games/movies inundating our culture, offers up all this well-written snarky self awareness without leaving a positive answer or really any one at all. Not that irony is bad. In fact, irony was used as an alternative to some of the overly dogmatic sweeping ideas of modernism, but if irony replaces those ideas and doesn’t offer something else then it’s really just another type of dogma. Author David Foster Wallace pointed to the problems of irony when he said, “The schticks of postmodernism — cynicism, irony, irreverence, are now part of whatever it is that’s innervating the culture itself.” I think he was right. Even if you watch people going by on the street these days, you can see that even fashion is referential and ironic, seemingly without reason. Marvel, one of the most successful movie franchises of our time, churns out new throwback movies every month that no longer take their own stories seriously, using its main characters like the Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, as comic relief. Hopefully audiences are begging to realize that many of these dominant franchises are running out of things to say. What we need from our art is answers, hope, and constructive criticism.
Obviously Cuphead was not intended to be a sweeping examination of culture, but it matters because it humbly takes itself seriously, and reminds its audience that there is something simple and sweet inside them too. There’s a new void growing in consumers that wants to be filled with something meaningful, however big or small that meaning is, rather than something that just sounds smart. Perhaps in the not too distant future, there will be a movement in art that reflects our truer, more sincere nature as humans. Wallace summed up this idea when he said, “Since to be really human…is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” What he’s saying here is not cynical; he’s pointing out the simple fact that as humans we don’t have all the answers though we’re all motivated to strive for them. In the end, we’re all unified by a kind of hopeless idealism, as even thinkers like Freud, Niestzhe, Hegel, and Marx thought of the world as something worth improving with their ideas. Maybe this means that in art, just like in anything else, honesty and truth will always be the most important pieces.