Saturday, November 5, 2016

El Hijo could be the spaghetti-western of your dreams

By Gareth Damian Martin

A man in black, little more than an extension of the flat shadow of the umbrella he carries, rides across an open desert. On his saddle sits a naked boy—a wide brimmed hat his only protection against the burning sun. The pair stop at a post, a marker, and the man places the boy on the sand. “You are seven today. You are a man now,” he tells his son. “Bury your first toy and the portrait of your mother.”

This is how Alejandro’s Jodorowsky’s infamous surrealist western, El Topo (1970) begins. This moment of becoming prefaces a spiritual journey for both son and father, a journey into a unnerving and dreamlike world of violence and bizarre religious imagery. El Hijo, a newly announced game from German developer Honig Studios, takes this beginning as its impetus, but its journey is something entirely different.

Like the nameless boy of El Topo, the titular son of El Hijo is forced to bury his first toy in an unforgiving desert. Then, left by his outlaw father at a remote monastery, he is to be raised by a sect of ancient monks. But bored by this pious life, he sets out to escape and recover his lost toy, on a path that will lead him first to the desert, then to the town beyond, towards a confrontation with his father.

It’s a story that seems set to refocus the spiritual quest of El Topo on the innocent son, not the murderous father. In doing so, El Hijo appears to be a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that tracks a young character’s becoming. We might think of the spiritual journey of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922), or perhaps the escape from ritual to a wild landscape of creatures as depicted in Mervyn Peake’s Boy in Darkness (1956).

Taking the form of a stealth adventure, El Hijo will be split into three chapters, as the son escapes from the monastery, crosses the desert, and tracks his father to a dust-swept town. And unlike El Topo it will be entirely non-violent. Instead of takedowns and silent murder, this will be stealth marked with the naive and romantic mischief of childhood. Distraction, pranks, and trickery is what will allow the player to distract the monks, outlaws, and creatures of the desert.

In that sense El Hijo doesn’t just draw for the spiritual fantasies of Jodorowsky. Set in a mythical American West, it also looks to carry the romantic atmosphere of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-westerns. While those were violent films, they also showed a love of slapstick, grotesque characters, and a preoccupation with trickery, from juggling hats with bullets, to scenes entirely played out with pipes, cigarillos, and strange ways of lighting matches.

Yet, beyond this rich patchwork of influences, it’s the striking look of the game that has me the most excited about El Hijo. Though I’ve only seen early art, the play of light and shadow along with the screenprint texture and limited palettes suggests the influence of Saul Bass and his influential title sequences. When combined with statues and shadows that bring to mind The Good the Bad and the Ugly’s (1966) beautifully shot monastery, you have a game that looks more like a classic bit of cinematic poster design than a piece of interactive art.

It’s still early days for El Hijo, with a potential release in summer 2017, but Honig Studios’s awareness of the genre it’s stepping into and its visual sophistication suggests good things for a dreamlike spaghetti-western with a long journey ahead of it.

Find out more about El Hijo on its website

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