Technofile: It's Wagneractive!
Wagner's greatest epic reborn as Ring - the computer game? Well, at least the Lara Croft-style Rhinemaidens will make Tomb Raider fans feel at home in Valhalla
Sunday 10 January 1999
An adventure game based on Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs could only have come from France. (The only other contenders would be the Germans, but they are cautious about their Wagnerian heritage, for various reasons.) This is a grand project from the nation that turned comics into art, put a pyramid in the Louvre, and its books in a totally unfeasible giant library. It balks at covering the entire Ring Cycle, so there is no question of reaching a Twilight of the Gods level, but there are interactive Rhinemaidens and a magical motorbike for the dwarf Alberich. When Brunnhilde the Valkyrie rides, it's on a levitating surfboard.
We are, you will probably have realised, not in Bayreuth any more. The game begins on an asteroid, long after Earth has been destroyed. Erda the Earth-goddess survives, though, to serve as a guide for the protagonist, Ish. Charlotte Rampling, for it is she, sets Ish off on a quest to prepare for a staging of the Ring Cycle. Ish represents the player, who actually plays by controlling the actions of Alberich, Loge, Siegmund and Brunnhilde, in situations more or less closely related to the Ring stories. The soundtrack is the recording of Sir Georg Solti's Ring Cycle.
In some respects this is a more traditional treatment of the Ring than is often found in the theatre. Attempting to divert the disturbing undercurrents, directors play down or confound the symbolism. This production, designed by Philippe Druillet, does not have a problem with dragons or magic swords. Indeed, the English version (it also comes in both French and German) sails close to the wind by giving Alberich's brother Mime an accent with Whitechapel Jewish overtones. Whatever its claim to authenticity of Wagnerian spirit, this is not the image modern Wagnerians wish to project.
It also stands squarely within the graphic traditions of computer games. The Rhinemaidens are a long way upmarket of Lara Croft, but with what the programme notes call their "appealing undulations", they're built on much the same lines. At the same time, they are made to carry a moral burden quite unfamiliar in digital fantasies. The logical problems the maidens pose to Alberich are the stuff of games like Myst - exchanging medallions, using keys in the right order - but the sequence supports a heroic narrative about trust. That won't get it many percentage points in the PC gamers' ratings.
As a visual spectacle, it rivals the Myst sequel Riven. It prides itself in being non-linear, though, and the solutions to many of the problems are thoroughly obscure. This makes for an interrupted experience that is the antithesis of a Wagnerian total art work - especially when the Ride of the Valkyries kicks in every time Brunnhilde goes back through a door. It's neither fish nor fowl, and certainly not high art either. But Ring does have moments which hint that computer games could one day be true epics.
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