Surrealism and Invisible Sun

Alexei Othenin-Girard
8 min readMay 18, 2018


Ok, so: Surrealism. What is it? Where does it come from? And how do I use it in my game?

First, a bit of real-world history. Surrealism (as a quick wiki jaunt will tell you,) is a movement in art and philosophy that grew out of the Dada art experiments that happened after WWI. Dada was an artistic movement that was responding directly to WWI. Many artists in the pre-war period had spent a lot of time focused on a search for “universal meaning.” In other words, their idea of “Art” was that it would mean the same thing to everyone. The horrors of WWI sort of shattered this idea for a lot of artists, because if humans were capable of the atrocities of war, went the reasoning, then nothing meant anything, and Dada aimed to prove it by breaking down the “usual” associations between art, subject, artist, and audience.

Surrealism grew out of the wreckage of the art world left in the wake of the Dada movement. Surrealism rejected both the “universal” ideas of art, and the nihilistic destruction of symbols of Dada. For Surrealists, it wasn’t important that art speak to everyone, art only had to speak to them. In other words, if Dada said that nothing meant anything, the Surrealists answered that everything means SOMETHING to someone. You can kind of see where the association of Surrealism and dream imagery comes in, as an example. Dreams are fantastical, incoherent, but can be deeply meaningful TO THE PERSON HAVING THEM. They are almost never meaningful to anyone else, as you may have noticed if you’ve ever tried telling anyone a dream that left you in tears, only to have them offer you a blank look in return. Surrealists found vocabularies of images that spoke to them, and didn’t care so much about how other people reacted to them. In contrast to, for example, the romantic tradition of the “memento mori” painting (which was basically a painting that everyone was supposed to look at and have the reaction “Oh this fruit looks delicious ONE DAY I WILL DIE, I MUST ATONE FOR MY SINS,”) the Surrealists trusted their audiences to derive their own meanings from the images that they presented. They put together images and concepts that were meaningful to them, and then expected that those would be meaningful for their audiences in different ways, and they were fine with that.

THIS WAS REVOLUTIONARY and it was a huge deal and the art world was never the same again, but honestly, that’s outside of our point. What’s important for us as players and GMs of Invisible Sun is how to bring those ideas into our game worlds. There’s a couple of ways we can do this, and I think both of them are useful so I’m going to talk about both: The first is the “Surrealist aesthetic,” and the second is the philosophy of Surrealism.

By “Surrealist aesthetic,” I mean the general sweep of visual and formal ideas that we see in the course of Surrealist work, which we can imagine combining with NPC or PC creation, or location development, to infuse a Surrealist bent to the places, people, and situations in game. The clever folks over at Monte Cook Games are excellent art historians and if you look at the game art for IS that has already been revealed, you’ll see how they’ve worked these concepts into the game, but I want to give folks some specific guidelines they can follow.

Surrealist aesthetic and “dream logic” have some specific elements that seem to recur across artists and art practices. One big one is “melding of forms,” by which I mean: objects that seem to occupy an intermediate space between two different registers of reality. A great example (reproduced here via WikiArt) is Dali’s painting “Persistence of Memory.”

Persistence of Memory, Dali, via WikiArt

The clocks in this painting are recognizably mechanical objects, but have taken on these very organic characteristics that make them feel impossible or unreal. They drape and melt like slabs of meat, lolling about indolently. There’s something a little horrible about them, about their refusal to shape up and act like proper clocks. Which is, of course, exactly what Dali is trying to say about memory: it is indolent, it refuses to work properly. This is the thing that gets talked about in the Incantations podcast: Dali uses a real world object, transforms it by giving it an impossible property, and then uses THAT to reflect a real world feeling or impression that he wants to give.

The other thing we can think about is the philosophy of Surrealism. Surrealism is, ultimately, a subversive and humanist philosophy. It says that people will find their own answers by following their own paths, not by having those answers given to them by an outside force. This can feel kind of abstract, but an example of this might be another image, this time from Renee Magritte.

Son of Man, Renee Magritte

This painting is basically a giant “F* YOU” to the history of art, because it looks like it should be a portrait but then puts a big apple over the face of the subject. This is Magritte’s way of saying “Don’t look at me for answers. I’m not going to show you what you want to see. I’m not going to hand you things on a silver platter. Make your own meaning.” (There’s a whole other commentary about industrialization and depersonalization, but…) What’s important is that Magritte is subverting our expectations. He’s created this realistic scene and then introduced this impossible object (a floating apple that comes from nowhere) just to frustrate what we thought this painting was going to do.

In a roundabout way, Magritte has freed us of our own expectations of what a painting should do. If this painting was supposed to make me look at this guy, now I can’t, so what ELSE can I do with it? Suddenly, I’m on my own, free to make up my own rules. This is the best, most beautiful part of the Surrealist philosophy: it takes away the old power of rules about what things are supposed to be, and gives that power to the audience. It is what YOU feel it to be.

I want to talk about two specific aspects of how you might work Surrealism into your Invisible Sun game: NPC/environment creation, and plot development. When you are building your NPCs, remember that everyone has access to 1) at least a little magic, and 2) cheap, total-body-re-configuring magic which basically offers a kick in the teeth to physics. So when you’re creating your NPCs, their forms should be reflections, either of who they are, or of what they want. More than that, you should make sure that, like the Surrealists, your NPCs also occupy that space between being solidly animal, vegetable, or mineral. People in Invisible Sun look how they feel like they should, which means that their forms are either pragmatic (representing a kind of melding of them with their environment) or emotional (embodying some element of their personalities or essences.)

An example of the first type of character might be Kamaji from Spirited Away. His physical form sits halfway between human and spider, but his arms exist as a way to connect him with his environment: he needs them to do his job in his little boiler room.

Kamaji, Spirited Away

An example of the second type might be the smokestack person who keeps showing up in the IS art (but who I can’t find a picture of right now,) whose physical body is a literal factory. My guess is that this person is an industrialist of some kind, manifested literally.

Remember, Invisible Sun is a place where the impossible is commonplace, but your job as a GM is to make sure that the impossible is never boring. Your palette is huge: color, form, emotion, senses, scale. People and places in Invisible Sun should cut across all of these. Don’t ever hesitate to make things that are impossible or unreasonable in the “real” world. People who are machines, people who are colors, people who look the same no matter what vantage point they’re seen from, people whose voices are roses, go crazy. Don’t ever hesitate to make things that are impossible or unreasonable in the “real” world. Straddling the line between characters and plot, it’s important to remember that the connection between Surrealism and Invisible Sun is more than just an aesthetic. Satyrine is in a post-war period too, and the people probably have some of the same concerns about what it means to live in that (rapidly industrializing?) city in the wake of such a great and terrible event.

In terms of how Surrealism can inform plot development, I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that Invisible Sun already gives you tools to make meaning for your players: More than almost any other game, IS needs to keep its players at the center of the story. As a GM, you have to trust your players to make meaning in your setting. Validate the connections they make, put their interests front and center. Watching A Woman With Hollow Eyes, I was struck by how good @DarcyLRoss is at this. She picks up on the connections her players make and then remakes the world around them. The whole plot of the game kicks off because of an offhanded comment that James D’Amato (@OneShotRPG) makes about his lease. When that lease comes up again, suddenly it’s front-and-center, a crucial part of the plot that has huge ramifications.

If you’re stuck, I encourage everyone to go back and dive deep into the body of work of the Surrealist masters. Dali and Magritte we’ve talked about, but there are so many others: Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, a huge list of people to look at. Surrealists worked in theater (Artaud,) in film (Dali again, but also Bunuel (though he was a bit later,)) in all kinds of sculptural forms. The Situationists, who came after the Surrealists, carried on some of their work, and that is also absolutely worth delving into as well.

There’s a huge body of work out there to draw inspiration from, all you have to do is seek it out.