It’s high time we start treating video games as art. Definitionally, art is a nebulous concept. What is or isn’t art is in the eye of the beholder. To some, sports are art and to others video games are sports. To some cooking is art and to others renowned works of art are piles of shit.
Video games draw inspiration from the world around and can very much be seen in the designers’ works. Case in point, The Legend of Zelda was drawn from Miyamoto’s days as a youth as he explored the countryside of Sonobe, Japan. The inspiration of the artists that we care so much about in film and visual arts is ever-present in video games.
Fast forward one day to when I was at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and I was transported instantly to a level in Super Mario Sunshine.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is described as a modern natural wonder of the world. Wonderful karst formations jut out of the water in every direction, as if a dragon moving through the water. This is where the Vietnamese name comes from, meaning descending dragon.
(Side note: there seems to be a linguistic continuum, from the northern dialects of Mandarin to the southern dialect/language that is Cantonese all the way to Vietnamese. When I hear a word in Cantonese, 99.9% of the time, I have no idea what I means. However, if you give me the meaning and the Mandarin cognate, then the parallels are obvious.
Nihao in Mandarin becomes neiho in Cantonese. 413 in Mandarin is si-yi-san and in Cantonese is say-yat-sam. To some degree, the same can be applied from Canto to Vietnamese. This is noted anecdotally, though my Cantonese speaking friends. Springfield, Mass where I’m from is home to many Vietnamese and this is true there, and it was true in Vietnam with my southern Hunan-born friend, for whom Canto is a mother language.
In any case, Ha Long comes from the Chinese xialong, where xia is literally “down” and long is literally “dragon.” It’s cool that even a foreigner’s grasp on Mandarin can reveal these commonalities across tongues nonnative.
Ha Long Bay is one of those places that only pictures can do justice. They just never do when the lens is in my control. Many apologies.
Comparing Video Games in the Real World
Ha Long Bay is a striking place. Some people set their sights on a place for the first time and need jaw surgery.
While I think it’s wonderfully picturesque, it’s not quite the prettiest place on earth. That award goes to Daocheng Yading in China. I digress, as nonetheless Ha Long Bay is gorgeous. Plant covered rock spires thrusted through the air make navigation slightly tricky for the uninitiated. Eroded tunnels through the bottoms of the rock towers allow kayakers to weave their way through.
Ostensibly, this is what instantly reminded me of Noki Bay from a video game made in 2002, and somewhat set back in my long term memory bank. The setting makes you wonder if it’s what the level design team had in mind.
Further, in Super Mario Sunshine, a superhero doppelganger, conspicuously identical to the titular character in all but color, starts littering Delfino Island and our galaxy-hopping plumber is blamed and tasked with clean up. Thus, Noki Bay is covered in murky fluids, and Mario must clean up the mess.
Unfortunately, this is also what is noticeable about Ha Long Bay: the trash. Perhaps a subliminal message by Ninty, but Noki Bay is dirty, and we must help keep our earth/Delfino Island clean.
While cruising along, wind whipping in your hair, setting sun glistening off the waters, you can’t help but notice quantities of oil surfacing in the surf and plastic bags floating away with the four winds. Its’s an unfortunate reality of tourism these days.
Squid Fishing in Ha Long Bay
One of the coolest parts of this special place is squid fishing at night. Squids are naturally nocturnal creatures and are attracted to bright lights at night. Humans are naturally carnivorous beings and are attracted to weird shit from the ocean.
So after dusk on a cruise ship with nothing to do except throw back some Hanoi Beer and chat the evening away, you will eventually just throw a line into the water. It’s a pretty simple process that requires tons of luck apparently.
There’s a special lure that either illuminates or reflects light and you simply cast that out. Squids are attracted to this as you lightly move the line back in forth in the water until something bites, or in our case for an hour of watching squid dart past and not even nibble.
After fortunate fishermen fling a cephalopod on board, you can beat the thing with a racket and then cook it fresh. Yum!
Fortunately there is no assassination attempts in Super Mario Sunshine, probably cause Miyamoto is a pansy and always caters to the non-murderous, kiddy crowd.
The native species of Noki Bay is the eponymous Nokis, and while not as squid-like another Nintendo franchise, they resemble to the critters at least to me. They’re adorable at any rate.
Hang Sung Cave
One of the features of the level in Noki Bay is nooks and crannies and caves up to the top. The karst formations lend themselves to steep peaks and eroded areas.
Ha Long Bay itself houses a wonderous cave called Hang Sung Sot, home to phallic rock formations and ceiling indentations due to Viet Cong soldiers going hog wild with weaponry. It’s wondrously lit up with various neon colors, mimicking the bright, bold pallet Nintendo has always used in its IPs.
In Noki Bay, you have to explore a few caves on the way to nabbing eight red coins. I’m not too sure there’s real world parallels, but supposedly a young French girl discovered Hang Sung Sot while exploring fearlessly. I’m sure her crawling into the cave wasn’t in pursuit of crimson currency, but it’s a tourism cash cow these days regardless.
Video game worlds draw inspiration from the real world, as does all art. Sometimes it’s obvious and intentional, like in all the Grand Theft Auto games. Sometimes, in games with a less naturalist approach, the level design is brought to life by a real life locations. Designers take a cerebral approach to this, and appreciation of this fact will push the industry.
On a different note, whether the Nintendo development team used Ha Long Bay as source material for Noki Bay, I cannot say. However, it’s a cool thought experiment to see how our beloved scenes in video games resemble the locales around us. If one applies this approach to other media (film, visual arts, music, etc.), then it can be applied to the art direction in video games, as well.
Let me know what you think in the comments below! Am I crazy or is there a resemblance between Ha Long Bay and Noki Bay?
Like what you’re reading on Vietnam? Check out some other related articles in: The Vietnam Chronicles!