De Chirico and Submachine – the object of mystery


Text by — Federico Scarfo’

Translation by — Julia Perry and Federica Vecchio

You know how in a dream your brain has the power to mix pieces of places, houses, streets, statues, visited in the past and create a new and unique image as well as the ability to evoke familiar sentiments which for some reason, you have never actually experienced before? This is a major theme that unites two incredibly different things: the metaphysical painting of DeChirico and, in my opinion, an unfortunate series of “aim and click” flash games. I define it unfortunate because, being more than sure that an introduction to the Greek artist is not needed at all, the same cannot be said for Submachine: belonging to the unlucky class of flash games, that is to say games which you can play for free on the original site and which usually last for a limited period of time, the series has not gained the popularity I think it so long deserves. Although Submachine has never been an “innovator” of these games, initiated by legendary games like “The Secret of Monkey Island” and “Clock Tower”, I think it is more than suitable for flash games, especially because it has a minimalistic yet very interesting story, inspired by the Matrix, that incentivizes the player to pay great attention to the few clues given. The plot is trivial, the main character is trapped in the submachine, a specific machine that replicates an infinite number of closed environments, among which it is possible to travel through portals. Nevertheless, the most relevant points of strength of the game are its setting, graphics and sound effects: elements that are, as we say, abstract. In fact they are deeply linked to De Chirico’s thematic guidelines, those that were selected for the art show “De Chirico and the mysterious object”. The show, held at Villa Reale, that is the principal reason behind this article. As the title itself suggests, referring mostly to the paintings where the mysterious object is represented, the art exposure concentrates almost entirely on De Chirico’s relationship with objects, inanimate figures, opposed to living beings.

As I have already stated, the first point of similarity is the looming scenario on its single components, generating an oppressive, scary and dreamlike environment. In the painting “Mercurio’s meditation”, the feeling of claustrophobia is alimented by the prospective and narrow space, at the end of which lies a classic bust, the closest thing to a person that ever appears both in the metaphysic way of painting as well as in certain sections of Submachine. Similarly, painting by De Chirico set in an outdoor environment are just as disturbing, as they form a dreamlike composition whose limits are incumbent upon the flat sky and largely geometric shadows and solid walls.

Submachine is set in a series of places, mainly closed, artificial and mostly ruined. For example, in the same episode, taking advantage of the portals in the game play, the character visits a ship, a canteen, a ruined coffin, the ruins of a temple, and various other places, in which it is easy to see Skutnik’s peculiar style. Each of these locations is abandoned, ruined, no longer functioning, and the themes of deterioration and dissipation melt with the feeling of claustrophobia, of falling out of place, of being undesired guests.

The second common feature derives from a second sense, that of loneliness. In most metaphysical painting, and in each section of Submachine, no human presence can be found. In Submachine, however, even recent traces can be found, which is surprising given the decrepitude of its surrounding environments. Most of the story is told through notes left behind by people less fortunate either long dead or who were forced to flee. The only human contact of the series takes place via computer and not coincidentally, happens to be one-sided since our hero does not have a keyboard to use. Isolation is the greatest power of Submachine, the “enemy” machine, due to its immensity and ability to forever grow and expand, pulverizing humans and objects in its way. The feeling of loneliness in De Chirico, however, come from a surreal feeling of familiarity. De Chirico represented environments as seen from a train window, wanting to reproduce the feeling you get when passing a nearby city and feeling a bigger sense of homeliness than its people. This maps an intimate representation of a place in each of us. The feeling of familiarity that Submachine’s location communicates is instead one linked to despair of the hunted, the ones who lost in the woods, recognize the real horror of aimlessly traveling in circles.

Lastly, the last common feature is the prominent role given to the objects. Like in “silent lives” or in the series of the “mysterious object” by De Chirico, in which objects are placed on a stage and in spite of the human figures portrayed faceless in the background., Submachine makes the objects the fundamental element. In fact, what else makes us realize how importance objects are if not a game in which taking advantage of the environment at its fullest? Everything that is useful exists in Submachine, an object, a note or a pattern, there are virtually no secondary characters, and if there are, they remain invisible throughout the entire series and bring interaction only through notes. In contrast, the statues, representations of steam-punk style potted machines are ubiquitous, mimicking what you would expect, the “real” world beyond the Submachine (although throughout history, the “true” world is not an external reality to Submachine). For their use and even for a sense of “company” that can be drawn from it – after all, they’re the only allies of a player playing against fate – objects are humanized in Submachine and from this it is humanization that becomes a sort of invincible enemy of the Submachine itself, that is far from being a simple virtual help, it becomes an opponent capable of smarts and immense resources, that reigns over an infinite space in which the relationship between object and humans is broken, and the only audible sound is one of squeaking machinery, moving, non-human symphonies that accompany the metaphysical framework that is the game.