Each Month, we invite élite art critic Braithwaite Merriweather to appraise the box art of the latest game releases. In between his time spent wandering the corridors of culture, Merriweather writes on a freelance basis for various publications, including Snitters and Nuneaton à la Carte. If you are unaware of his prowess, rest assured; he’s on a crusade to educate the unwashed. Put simply, he’s a man that needs no introduction.
Assassins, signatures, and sons: all have the power to ruin lives. (I have steered clear of my ex-wife’s attempts to trap me in a child-rearing vortex. I make it a point never to give out my signature. And the only assassination I’ve ever been involved in is my review of the Richard Avedon symposium at the Gagosian, and the less said about that the better.) Yet all three – in the forms of The Son of Man, The Blank Signature, and The Menaced Assassin – form the finer points of Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s career; and all three have come back to haunt, enlighten, thrill, arouse, and caress the senses in the box art for Crackdown 3, Anthem, and Jump Force.
Don’t be deceived by the top layer of humdrum that’s smeared over Crackdown 3 like lard. Yes, it’s another fellow with his back to us; yes, another sweeping cityscape; and yes, he is encrusted with equal measures of muscle and munitions. But pay attention to what you can’t see. This fellow’s improbably chiselled buttocks and the back of his closely cropped head both hint at something withheld. But what?
‘We always want to see what is hidden by what we see,’ said Magritte, talking about his The Son of Man. (It’s a feeling I know all too well, having attempted to claim, under the Freedom of Information Act, the financials of my ex-wife’s partner’s company, with its irritating logo.) But what is there hiding behind the sparkling veneer of Crackdown 3? Where Magritte dangled an apple in front of his subject’s face, here the subject is hidden behind the game’s title – there’s a shade of corporate satire, of individuals obscured by brands, and of the yearning to be free.
The box art for Anthem contains a similar yearning to break free, like a relationship in which one, far smarter and more talented member, is constrained by the other, less charismatic, small-minded party. It’s a writhing struggle expressed in the form of a graphical glitch. First we see – again – something that we might feel the urge to bat away, like so many council tax bailiff notices: the mech-suited marine, eyes aglow and jetpacks firing. Similar figures have adorned a hundred boxes, but there is, in Anthem, something more.
The clashing of images suggests, as it does in Magritte’s The Blank Signature, the glitches in the code of our experience. If Magritte dissects the visible world, then Anthem demonstrates the gluttony with which we consume digital ones – the blurring together of vistas, like an evening of consuming canapes at a Chelsea photography gallery, until salmon becomes caviar becomes cream cheese becomes charcuterie, and all mingle with champagne on the palette in a senseless orgy of South London bourgeoise hedonism.
I’ve never been more thankful to have been in bed. When I first saw the box art to Jump Force, I was assaulted by visions of the past and began to feel faint. Each of the three figures bristle with malevolent intent – lining up knuckles and loosening shoulders in the anticipation of violence. It isn’t dissimilar to the admissions board at the Royal College of Art. The middle figure even wears a straw hat, as did one of the members of the board – a laughable affectation in homage of Van Gogh’s aptly named Self-Portrait with Straw Hat.
Then, after I had gathered my senses, came the third visitation from Magritte. The Menaced Assassin, with its three central figures primed to do harm, is being bravely channeled to evoke equal parts excitement and unease. Magritte had his subjects set in opposition – one with a club, another with a net at the ready, both waiting to ambush the third. With Jump Force, it appears that the viewer is the one to be ambushed (the one sat opposite the admissions board’s review panel, as it were). In place of the corpse in Magritte’s work – the blood-smeared woman – there is the ruins of Earth, whose blood we’re all responsible for spilling. Poignant.