Eddo Stern's Vietnam Romance highlights the struggles between war and peace, history and nostalgia, entertainment and reality. In a world that is shaped by both modern and historical wars and their outcomes, Eddo stern calls out the romanticization of war and it's glorified pastime.
"Vietnam Romance recreates and interrogates the fictionalized history of the Vietnam War and its culturally commodified remains through a mash-up of cultural artifacts drawn primarily from Hollywood film culture as well as war literature, comic books, popular music, collectable war memorabilia, and adventure tourist packages." - Stern, Eddo eddostern.com (2015).
The gameplay itself is a series of nine vignettes that moves across a diorama style environment in a traditional side scrolling format. The characters featured in the game; a Vietnam War veteran, a German doctor, a CEO of a memorabilia trading company, and a young Vietnamese American computer war-gamer - are the highest-bidding winners of a contest that flies them to Vietnam for a privately chartered tour mysteriously titled Vietnam Romance. Throughout the game the characters fly planes, drive cars, hunt deer, and so on... Basically all of the things that one would fantasize about when taking a glamorous private tour of Vietnam. Each of these characters were chosen to represent a facet of the Vietnam war's effect on popular culture. The CEO represents the insensitivity surrounding war memorabilia and its collective attributes. The veteran is cast to remind us of the common harsh inability to escape a war that has long been over. The Dr. is chosen to represent a war that left many wounds unhealed; and the war gamer is their to show how gamification of war has numbed us all to the realities and terror that are glorified in digital formats.
"Early in the game, “If you hated the War but liked the Movies, you’ll love this Game!” scrolls across the screen. This seems like a glib joke, but it is key to making sense of the game. Vietnam Romance is a playable meditation on American cinema’s romanticization of the Vietnam War." - Sharp, John Rendering Meaning: On the Intersections of Visual Style, Interactivity and Gameplay February, 2016.
There is a staggering number of books and movies that have featured the Vietnam war since its happening. Whether their goal was to romanticize the subject matter or not is irrelevant. The number of fictionalized materials featuring the subject of war is so great that people become numb to the realities of what war really is. This begs the question of why we keep telling the same stories. Why should we constantly glorify war and its history when the harsh realities of war are very much the opposite of what has been told? Eddo Stern doesn't just want us to change the way we think about war, but more importantly he wants us to reevaluate why we think about war in this way.
Vietnam Romance is a tour of nostalgia for romantics and Deathmatch veterans pitting tourists vs. adventurers, history vs. its fantasies, and games vs. cinema. - Stern, Eddo eddostern.com (2015).
Film critic Ed Halter, described a film version of the project as exploring,
“a peculiarly American memory-trip, one in which the legacy of a gruesome war has become indistinguishable from pleasurable, if mythic-tragic, entertainments.” - Halter, Ed eddostern.com (2015).
The visual aesthetics of Stern's game are stunning. Most war games are presented in the form of first person shooters or in a traditional three-dimensional style. However, Stern uses hand-painted watercolors as the background for the game and then runs the paintings through a program that allows for animation and manipulation of the images. The result is a beautifully interactive environment that creates a special type of distance between the viewer and the subject matter.
"The most striking thing about Vietnam Romance is its visual style, and how it is creates the play space. The graphics are all hand-created watercolors mapped onto extruded shapes. This creates a sense of depth with the overall effect of watercolors affixed to black foam core arranged on flat planes receding into the middle distance. The clearly hand-made style created from saturated colors create a striking play experience that feels less like a videogame than a playable diorama." - Sharp, John Rendering Meaning: On the Intersections of Visual Style, Interactivity and Gameplay February, 2016.
Video games have long surpassed movies in terms of popularity, and like Hollywood movies, the content featured in video games is usually shallow or contrived. Video games are mainly marketed for the masses and promoted as a form of escapism, and Eddo Stern avidly supports the art form of video games and their purpose, but he takes his work a step further by forcing the participant to question what should be fictionalized and romanticized for entertainment purposes. Take a game of Call of Duty for example, the games addictive attributes have turned killing into a sport. Who can get the highest points and the coolest weapons? It's hard to argue that these types of games aren't fun to play, but that is the point. Should the terms fun and war even be in the same sentence?
Another form of 'game art' that came to mind while reviewing Eddo Stern's work was Sunset by Tale of Tales. Instead of War being the main subject matter, it is merely the backdrop for the game. The main character Angela is a trapped in the capitol of San Bavon which has become the setting of a civil warzone.
"Sunset is a wonderfully atmospheric slow burner and a valuable addition to a medium where the predominant approach to conflict is to just give you a big old gun and invite you to get stuck in." – Warr, Philippa Rock Paper Shotgun May, 2015.
Instead the typical trope of war gameplay which is usually fighting, Angela is forced to make ends meet by playing housekeeper for a wealthy bachelor while the war plays out in the background. The game calls out the obsession with war and the cliches that come with its fictionalization. The game also proudly displays the same type of romanticization that Vietnam Romance highlights.
Another comparison to Eddo Stern's work is the game Long March: Restart by Feng Mengbo. The game was featured in the MOMA on a giant 80x20 foot screen.
"The “Long March” in Mengbo’s title refers to the massive military retreat of The Chinese Communist Party’s Red Army, under the command of Mao Zedong and others, that began in 1934; pursued by the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Red Army traveled over 8,000 miles in 370 days, covering some of the worst terrain in China." - Sandfort, Katelyn New Acquisition: Feng Mengbo's Long March: Restart Feb, 2010.
The game features the same side scrolling format of Vietnam Romance, only instead of a modern style backdrop Long March: Restart plays with a more nostalgic game environment similar to games featured in the late 80's and early 90's. Feng Mengbo calls out the oppression of Japanese imperialism during the war and the significance of the Long March of the Red Army. Breaking away from typical war game tropes Mengbo decided that Instead of portraying the subject matter in a violent way, he would supply the main character in the game with Coca Cola cans as weapons in place of grenades.
"The character in Mengbo’s work is a small Red Army soldier sweeping his way across China, wiping out ghosts, demons, and deities, much in the vein of Mario wiping out Koopa Troopas on his way to rescue Princess Toadstool." - Sandfort, Katelyn New Acquisition: Feng Mengbo's Long March: Restart Feb, 2010.
Mengbo also highlights the ridiculous clichés that are all too common with war game antagonists and replaces them with fictional monsters and cyborgs borrowed from 80's video games. Like Eddo Stern, Mengbo uses fictionalization to prove that a war game can be much more than mindless killing of your opponent.
Eddo Stern's Vietnam Romance was/will be featured in the following exhibits:
–Dundee Contemporary Arts (Dundee, Scotland) , July 2016
–Cirrus Gallery (LA), Feb 2016
-UCLA Game Art Festival/The Hammer Museum (LA), Nov 2015
-Northern Spark Festival (MN), July 2015
–Postmasters Gallery (NYC) June 2015
-Babycastles (NYC) June 2015
-Angeles Gate (LA), April, 2015
-Indiecade East/Museum of the Moving Image – (NYC), April, 2015
–Amaze Festival (Berlin, Germany), April 2015
-Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto, Canada) March, 2015
–Beall Center (Irvine, CA) Jan 2015
-Beit Ha’ir Museum (Tel Aviv, Israel), May 2014