All Bets Are Off: The Subversive Line-Blurring of Cuphead
By John S. Ehrett
Many contemporary video games tout the sophistication and realism of their graphics, but the bestselling title Cuphead—recently released on Nintendo Switch—takes precisely the opposite tack. The game’s power lies in nostalgia: combining hand-drawn characters and backgrounds with classic 2D platforming mechanics, Cuphead weaves together the distinctives of 1930s-era cartoons and 1980s-era arcade games into a novel fusion that has garnered critical and popular acclaim. And this creative synthesis of old and new is more than merely a superficial selling point.
To the casual player or observer, Cuphead may appear to rely heavily on elements of the older genres it stylistically emulates; beneath this surface-level resemblance, however, decidedly modern approaches to both game storytelling and player engagement are at work. Indeed, Cuphead breaks new ground in how it weaves together both the aesthetic and participatory dimensions of gaming.
In multiple diverse ways, Cuphead connects and synthesizes two very different forms of expressive media: the classic cartoon and the modern video game. This conceptual blending, for its part, manifests on two levels. First, within its own storytelling universe Cuphead reinterprets and recasts longstanding tropes present in both cartoon and arcade-game genres. Second, Cuphead invites the player to engage in line-blurring in a much broader, meta-level sense: the experience of playing the game is itself a journey across these art forms’ boundaries.
I. The Game
The general contours of Cuphead’s story are familiar. The game stars two anthropomorphic teacups, Cuphead and Mugman, whose affinity for gambling leads them horribly astray when a game of dice against the Devil results in the forfeiture of their lives. But, as one might guess, there’s a (risky) way out. If Cuphead and Mugman can collect the spirits of the Devil’s other debtors—a motley array of monstrous beings scattered across Inkwell Isle—the Devil will consider relinquishing his claim to Cuphead and Mugman’s souls.
At first glance, this might not appear particularly innovative: Cuphead’s narrative obviously draws heavily on age-old storytelling conventions (Christopher Marlowe and Johann Goethe would certainly be proud). Instead, Cuphead’s most obvious breakthrough is its lush art design, which invokes a distinctly specific historical moment. The screen frequently flickers and tears, as if the game is being projected from old reels of film, and the game’s pause menu displays a copyright date of “1930.” The game carries the periodically glimpsed subtitle “Don’t Deal with the Devil,” as if it’s but one installment of an ongoing episodic series. The overall effect is entirely unique, and distinctly evocative of the work once produced by Fleischer Studios and its competitors in the 1930s. (Fleischer, 2005).
Beyond these innovative visuals, perhaps Cuphead’s most striking feature is its extreme difficulty. With the exception of a few run-and-gun platforming segments, the game unfolds as an extended sequence of boss battles against increasingly powerful foes. Each boss will change its form and its attack pattern—sometimes multiple times—during these encounters. Such transformations often occur with little or no warning, resulting in frequent out-of-left-field deaths that both compel and frustrate players: the only way forward is to keep playing.
II. Narrative and Novelty
Cuphead’s first genre-blurring move is its inversion of familiar storytelling tropes. Traditional “evil creature” antagonists are nowhere in sight; instead, with few exceptions, the villains of Cuphead are hideously distorted caricatures of typically benign entities. The “Forest Follies” platforming sequence, for example, features malignant daisies, snarling acorns, bomb-tossing tulips, and fire-spewing leaves. Boss battles include confrontations with a psychic carrot, a mutating sunflower, a shapeshifting clown, and a candy-wielding fairy.
This narrative choice registers as distinctly contemporary on two levels. First, it allows Cuphead to sidestep the problematic racial and cultural stereotypes of many 1930s-era cartoons (Nel, 2017): here, there are no insidious political subtexts to be found. Second, casting otherwise “normal” beings as villainous reflects a contemporary narrative reticence to starkly differentiate “good” and “bad” characters. Indeed, there’s a sense in which protagonist Cuphead and Mugman themselves are antiheroes: to stave off the rightfully deserved consequences of their reckless actions, they must become bounty hunters for the Devil and harvest their enemies’ souls. Neither character questions the path on which they’ve set foot, which sets up a sharp contrast with recent titles like Undertale that subvert the traditional “kill everything in one’s path” gaming trope. As a result of this subtext, Cuphead is suffused with a sense of atmospheric unease: beneath all the bright visuals and upbeat jazz music, ever-present danger lurks. Even the most harmless-seeming characters may be monsters in disguise…or, perhaps, the real monster is actually the unassuming player.
Cuphead concludes with an uncompromising embrace of this duality. On the threshold of Hell itself, players are offered a choice between surrendering the soul contracts they’ve collected to the Devil (thus becoming his enforcers in perpetuity) or releasing their victims’ souls and battling the Devil for their freedom. In short, players are offered the option of “absolutizing” their destructive choice to enforce the Devil’s decrees—the very choice they’ve been making all throughout the game without fuully realizing it. It’s too simplistic to label this choice as merely an underdeveloped echo of the “branching paths” narrative mechanic employed by many contemporary titles. Rather, it’s a haunting integration of meta-storytelling—far subtler than any similar element in BioShock or Undertale—that reinforces the conceptual line-blurring that’s characterized the game all along.
And when one takes historical perspective into account, the novelty of Cuphead’s “evil option” storytelling arc is cast into even clearer relief. Many cartoons of the 1930s adopted a “reforming fantasy” narrative in which a protagonist must face the consequences of their irresponsible actions in order to become a better individual (Klein, 2005; Leskosky, 1989). Cuphead allows for such a reformation, but also allows the player to breach that genre norm and abandon any hope of redemption. In other words, Cuphead makes selling one’s soul actually a viable option—a choice few cartoons or games of yesteryear would’ve dared to countenance.
III. Narrative and Participation
Cuphead’s second major achievement is its pervasive blurring of the line between observation and participation. Put most simply, Cuphead is enjoyable and engaging to watch in a way that few other games are. Many titles claim to have “photorealistic graphics” but it’s abundantly obvious to even a casual observer that this milestone hasn’t yet been reached (the uncanny valley continues to haunt developers). Instead (perhaps ironically), it’s through scaling back any sense of “realism” that Cuphead meaningfully chips away at the wall separating traditional visual storytelling from digital gaming. An unenlightened viewer shown an online stream of someone playing Cuphead can’t readily determine whether they’re watching an old-school cartoon or a video game, because the art design process—hand-drawing of characters and subsequent arrangement into scenes—is precisely the same in both cases. Cuphead’s explosive popularity on streaming sites such as Twitch testifies to the profound appeal of the game’s artistic decisions. (It bears mention that this observer appeal extends beyond the simply visual: Cuphead features a well-crafted, wholly original big-band soundtrack. There’s some historical irony in the game’s incorporation of jazz music, given how the title evokes legitimate nostalgia by embracing a musical genre once accused of “aesthetic illegitimacy.” (Grant, 2008).)
This artistic choice also registers on a theoretical levelthe level of the theoretical. Some cinema scholars have previously critiqued the “deterministic” effect of the historical animation innovations evoked by Cuphead’s visual style. According to such critics, the development of systematized processes of animation production undermined experimental filmmaking techniques, constraining the development of animation to that which would flourish within societally accepted parameters (Telotte, 2010) and disincentivizing deviations from the norm. But Cuphead, by integrating a novel dimension of interactivity into the existing cartoon genre, transcends any such earlier limitations of the form: it straddles two media domains while drawing deeply upon the resources of both.
Indeed, no mere observation can fully replicate the experiential effect of personally playing the game. Cuphead’s lasting appeal (or perhaps its biggest barrier to entry) is found in its thematic appropriation of the slow-burning, quasi-existential frustration of yesteryear’s arcade games: it’s significantly more challenging than other titles in the same genre, for reasons that make perfect sense in context. Cuphead’s difficulty is a plainly intentional design choice that reinforces the narrative on display, since at the heart of Cuphead is a viscerally repetitive experience of progress, death, rebirth, and renewed progress. This is a game ostensibly about escaping the threat of hell, yet in order to succeed the player must fail over and over and over again. Indeed, death in Cuphead is not merely likely, but actually necessary in order to succeed. The game’s enemies have no health bars or other features that designate how far the player has progressed in a given battle; the player can only view how far they progressed through the fight after they’ve already failed. The player’s skills must develop through an unremitting process of trial and error. In short, the player necessarily engages the game by experiencing the very “suffering” the game’s protagonists are attempting to avoid. This interactive dimension lends a very dark undercurrent to an otherwise sunny, facile narrative: the player can taste, in a small way, what it might be like to experience eternal torment.
It’s not for nothing that Cuphead has been compared to the notoriously brutal Dark Souls; while their color palettes couldn’t be further apart, more subtle thematic and experiential parallels connect the two works. Like Dark Souls, Cuphead’s pervasive difficulty and aesthetic strangeness forces the player into encounters with what one scholar terms the “ludic sublime”: “the feeling that the game system contains many more entities, mechanics and moving parts than the player’s cosmic understanding of the game, at that point in her engagement with it, can account for.” (Vella, 2015). Mastering Cuphead is the thematic equivalent of Sisyphus mastering his endlessly recursive task—and such mastery must be pursued in an environment, like Sisyphus’s underworld, that is “capable of crossing . . . the boundaries of logical representation.” (Calman, 2003). In short, Cuphead’s distinctive imagery and painstaking play style operate together to advance the game’s sense of the surreal and transcend existing genre boundaries.
At bottom, Cuphead—situated as it is at the juncture of artistic visions past and present—compellingly extends the possibilities for how both players and observers shape, and are themselves shaped by, an unfolding interactive narrative. Further opportunities for such syntheses across other historical media intervals are virtually endless: one might imagine, for example, blending elements of early-1990s CGI animated storytelling with contemporary storytelling mechanics, or combining the characteristic motifs of premodern world cultures with modern gameplay approaches. How might a game draw on art forms like the tapestries of Dark Age Europe or the tepee paintings of the Lakota Sioux? What questions of appropriation and cultural integrity might be raised by such a synthesis? Such a conversation has only just begun.
Cuphead might be the first mainstream release to deploy this conceptual and artistic line-blurring with such finesse, but it almost certainly won’t be the last.
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