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.

I write to you now, as I seem to remember doing long ago, from inside the air-conditioned, strip-lit cocoon of an art gallery. What a breath of joy to even write such a sentence! The mind is borne away on a tide of memory: of bright days waning, glimpsed from the windows of the Frick, of gusty February gloom brightened by the glow of the Gagosian at Grosvenor Hill. True, I am not free to stoop and sniff the pigment, as is my wont, due to the mask that veils my face; and I am but one of a mere three permitted people, rather than the usual gaggle of tourists and rubbernecking amateurs. (Indeed, I would rather the mask in those situations, when the air conditioning strains under the weight of all that wafting body odour.) However, my trip today, to the Gazelli Art House, is one undertaken like a biblical pilgrimage, in search of water in a desert, manna from heaven, or some other such thirst-slaking, relief-granting cliché.

Back at the flat, feeling emboldened and renewed—energised, as I did after the divorce—I glance at this month’s crop of video game box art. Regular readers will be all too aware of the cosmic alignment of art with mood: of the universe’s—not to mention this venerable website’s—practice of sending me box arts as a method of testing me, of deflating my moods, kicking me while I am up, prodding me into life while I am down. This month’s selection is something of a mixed bag. I can spot sparks of inspiration amidst the dull heaps. Let’s dive in!

Ghost of Tsushima

One feels, gazing at “Ghost of Tsushima,” the compulsion to smirk. On the one hand, you can spot the hat-tipping attempt at reverence—the blowy field of pale flowers, in which this black-armoured brooder stands tall and troubled, recalls (consciously, you feel) the windy whiteness of Hokusai’s “Ejiri in Suruga Province” (ca. 1830–32). But you sense, as well, the pseudo-serious hand of the Video Game Publisher, pushing its glum agenda from trailers and trickling down to the box art. We’ve seen this half-turned scowler a million times before! He reminds me of the security guards at the Wallace collection—plastered with a patience-stripped glare for anything that deviates from the handed-down norm. (Those thugs are in for a real pavement-mounted satirical street-exhibition reckoning, once the lockdown is truly lifted.)

This fellow—holding up a menacing half-mask, in a pastiche not only of Hamlet, brandishing the skull of poor Yorick and pondering death, but of our present pandemic moment—has the distinct flavour of committee to him. Consider “Ejiri in Suruga Province”: the small, powerless figures in the foreground are blown to and fro by forces beyond their understanding (much like anyone who has ever attempted to call the Islington Council offices, to query the recent failed attempts at rubbish collection, and been met by the platoon of robot bureaucrats on the other end—not only the literal robots of the automated telephone service but also those, when you finally do get through, that are supposed to be composed of flesh and blood), and we see Mount Fuji standing on the horizon, looming over these small lives like a judge (one just about to dole out fly-tipping fines, despite their having no other option after the failed collections). What is there in “Ghost of Tsushima” to give us pause for thought, to prod us from our indifference?

Destroy All Humans!

It isn’t often that a piece of box art puts me in mind not of art but of the strange arcana that sometimes swirls in its wake. This piece, “Destroy All Humans!” (as a general rule, always treat those that use exclamation points with suspicion and skepticism; they either seek to stoke their own stagnant enthusiasm, as though prodding themselves awake, or else they seek to coax it out of you), invokes no embers of inspiration, no jolts of historical reference, and no real artistic zest. Instead it seems to satirise those tinfoil-hatted fools that scrutinise old paintings for signs of extra-terrestrial interference in ancient earthly doings. I am thinking of “The Baptism of Christ” (1710), by Aert De Gelder, and the saucer-shaped presence hovering in the sky, casting its beams on John the Baptist and Jesus. And of “The Annunciation with Saint Emidius” (1486), by Carlo Crivelli, in which a similar shaft of light shines down on the Virgin Mary.

What the artist behind “Destroy All Humans!” is up to, it seems to me, is laughing at these philistines: putting a snarling little grey man front and centre, rather than having him lurk eerily at the edges, as if to say, “Yes, you morons, aliens are coming, but, even if you spotted it long before everyone else, you’re still going to end up as either a charred skeleton or a useless cow, plucked from the Earth and probed.” The work amuses me, but there is something dispiriting about it. A dose of dark, bitter humour is all well and good, but, when a piece of box art is used purely as a means of poking fun, an opportunity is missed. The cruellest irony here is that there aren’t any details interesting enough to scrutinise, for clues or for anything else. It’s a work that seems mocked up, in every sense of the word, with a simple mission: Destroy All Interest!

Paper Mario: The Origami King

Similar scenes of abduction in “Paper Mario: The Origami King.” True to its title, this work seems to have been fashioned with a frenzied passion for origami. Quite what the menacing purple presence at the top right is up to is anyone’s guess, but, if there is alien life out there in the cosmos, then it’s entirely likely to signal its malign intent via the medium of video game box art—in particular, through box art with all the boring qualities of paper (dry, flat, and flimsy) and none of its uses (communication) or risks (cutting below the skin). I would never advocate burning works of art, but I would happily scrunch this one up and throw it into the waste paper basket, like so many overdue bills, council correspondence, and fly-tipping fine notices.

Carry on the conversation on the VideoGamer forums!