Thoughts on The Great Gatsby for NES - Packaging as Art and the Expextations of Gaming

on Saturday, July 28, 2012

  • Charlie Hoey, Pete Smith, Dylan Valentine, Michael DiMotta
  • Platformer
  • Release: 2011
  • Platforms: PC, Mac

Sometimes, it's difficult to know where the packaging ends and the art begins. Are the original frames of paintings intrinsic to their presentation, or are they merely containers? Are the liner notes part of the music? Is the packaging part of the game? The Great Gatsby for NES demands that we answer these questions if we are to discover its worth. 

In 2011, the game's website popped up and went viral on the internet. The main page on the website contains a flash applet. After apparently loading an "NES ROM," a simple, 8-bit-style platformer with the title "The Great Gatsby" appears. The packaging (i.e., the website) adds more details, though: it provides elaborate "scans" of the "original" NES manual and packaging. A photo of an NES cartridge also appears, and the website states that it is a prototype game found at a garage sale. Of course, all of this is a fiction; the game is an original creation written in Flash (and even open-sourced).

Evidently waiters walk on the windows at Gatsby's house?
The game itself is simple. It is a pixel-perfect representation of mediocre, early platformers. We have a setting and list of characters derived from the namesake novel, but none of the plot or development. Our protagonist, Nick Carraway, throws his hat at flappers and drunks while bounding from platform to platform with the precision of the best platformers of the 8-bit era. The setting of the novel is captured perfectly, with a moody-blue color palette and a gorgeous, melancholy score. But the game as a whole lacks motivation or purpose, as Eric Lockaby noted. Indeed, one of the first characters that we encounter in the game is Owl Eyes, who, as in the book, marvels that Gatsby's books are real. They are not empty of their pages or content, as we might expect from the superficial nature of his parties and home. This, perhaps, is the key to understanding the game.

The game and its website, it seems, are expressing that empty feeling that occurs between expectation and delivery. Everyone that played games during the 8- and 16-bit eras knew it. The packaging for expensive games showed gorgeous, exciting illustrations while promising complex game mechanics driven by narrative purpose. Gaming had such potential! More often than not, however, the games were primitive and purposeless. The games were a novel and fun use of technology, sure, but ultimately most were empty of procedural purpose that could give them meaning and deliver on our expectations. Here, the player is asked to recall those feelings by viewing the artificial packaging materials and playing the game that does not live up to them. The use of The Great Gatsby to recreate this feeling is a brilliant choice. The novel itself deals, among other things, with how society's perceptions and superficialities shape our lives. It uses memorable symbols that are often simple objects (e.g., possibly empty books, a billboard ad) intrinsically devoid of meaning but that are imbued with purpose by the characters and the narrative. How appropriate, then, that this game about missed expectations is full of these symbols but never uses them with purpose.

Such an evocation of the disappointment with gaming in a particular era immediately suggests comparison to modern gaming. The game may be asking us to remember that recognition of untapped potential and wonder if we still experience it today. Could we adapt a classic novel today, and have the gameplay give it purpose? Has (or will) gaming had (or have) its The Great Gatsby or Citizen Kane? In an era where game advertising budgets number in the millions of dollars, we must wonder if the pre-rendered trailers we see on TV are the modern equivalent of those exciting pictures on the covers of NES boxes. In The Great Gatsby for NES, we don't really know Nick Carraway's ultimate goal, and we don't seem to know our goals with interactive media, either. The fact that a simple platformer and its website can evoke these feelings and questions make it a quite interesting work of interactive media, and a game well worth playing.


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