Sunday, July 11, 2010

better think twice, your train of thought might be altered

Failbetter Games has finally weighed in on Roger Ebert's several, at this point, comments that video games cannot be art. And while the Failbetter entry makes its points, and beautifully (and, moreover, offers up delectable links to other bloggers who've tackled parts of this issue), something came up that hit me personally:

Let me summarise the argument a moment:
  • Ebert: Games aren't art because I don't really like them.
  • Gamers: Games are art because we really, really like them.
  • Gamers (supplementary argument 1): Also, games are art because, Flower Braid Passage Bioshock the Path.
I had to stop and think for a bit. Can BioShock be art? It's certainly one unique vision, distinct and different from similar games (being the FPS genre in general, not undersea psychotic-doctor alternate-history games in specific). It is solidly designed, and in fact, has a defined ethos of internal, applied design (and I believe that imagined places can have solid design aesthetics; many do, in fact, which end up as celebrated art). After all, where would we be when we see swirling shapes and the movement of celestial bodies, if we did not have Vincent Van Gogh? And in this sense, if art--extraordinarily generally defined--is that which inspires us, pulls creation out of our own souls in response, because simple words become meaningless as a response to it--then how about Silent Hill?

Whether Silent Hill games stand as good or bad games (and many of them were deeply, tragically flawed indeed), Silent Hill itself has become indivisible from Akira Yamaoka, the composer who has contributed full soundtracks, sound effects, or occasional songs and thematic passages to every Silent Hill game that's been put on the market to date. Say what you will about horror games--and even horror--in general: when it is well done, it can reach the level of art. And part of why it does that relies in large part on the music, the orchestral swells, the jittering glissandos when shadows fall, the demonic choirs, the bells slightly out of tune.

Games that tell a story may be key in this debate. While I adore the design sense behind Team Fortress 2, and while there's a wonderful set of videos dedicated to explaining certain characters (my favorites remain the Heavy and the Engineer), I'm not sure they're so much reflective of art as much as they are a reflection of pop culture--and while artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Jasper Johns reflect that pop art, when it's at home, can be considered art, pop culture should not necessarily be considered so.

Then there's The Path. "Which path will you take," the trailer for the game asks. "The path of needles...or the path of pins?"

And, of all of the games mentioned by adherents of story games, The Path comes closest to feeling like we as players are part of the experience, one with the totality of things. It's called a "slow game", because everything takes place in real time. You walk your chosen girl through a gradually darkening forest, looking for--or trying to avoid--her personal Wolf. It's very close kin to walking through an art installation, rather than playing a game. More than Flower (which is a fractally-generated meditation exercise, over a game), more than Passage (which feels like a retro throwback to what console games used to be, glossed by pattern and nostalgia), and definitely more than Braid (which is for the godmodder who adores art, not the art afficionados themselves), it is a game of dark purpose. There are horrifying scenes in The Path, yes; but it flows like an update of Hans Christian Anderson.

But this made me think, too: maybe we've been wrong, all this time, in our collective conclusions. Maybe we shouldn't be trying to define art, and how--or where--video games and art find cohesion.

Maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe we should be defining what makes a game.

Defining games, as a concept, is even simpler than defining art: because games involve rules (even if those rules change). Games involve strategy, thought and consideration; art, in the main, does not. To play a game, we want to understand the goals, the ways to play. To perceive a piece of art, be it a dance recital, a piano solo, a painting--is to experience, on occasion, images, ideas, and the artist's own emotion set behind the piece.

Games are played. Art simply is.

So let's go back to the The Path and reevaluate: what happens? We pick our girl. The game loads. And then...we walk.

Sometimes we run, sometimes we skip, sometimes we walk; it depends on the girl. But there are no rules, or rather, there is one rule, but even as it's stated, we know we are going to break that one rule; willfully, and with intent from the very beginning to do so: stay on the path.

However, that's honestly where any similarity to the familiar games stop--The Path is not chess; it's not even checkers. We nudge our chosen girl to--or away from--certain areas, but it's out of our control what happens once we reach those areas. Good or bad, we are with her as that particular fate unfolds--as fate will: we cannot stop it, once it starts; we cannot change it, once we're there.

It's not a game, in that sense, unless art itself is a game, unless life is a game. And perhaps they are, but in the grand scheme of things, influence that makes things happen is not a game; it can't be. There is no strategy in The Path, there are no rules--because remember, the one rule stated? We are told to break. There are no goals, even: if we "win", dodging clear of any girl's particular Wolf, then it's a far shorter game, and it ends by telling us we failed.

And if we "lose", by the rules of the game, we win, because the game tells us we have not failed--but our chosen girl is broken, damaged or dead.

So. Art is not always uplifting and joyous. Consider Guernica, or Cindy Sherman's latest run of dismembered doll photography. Or the fervidly organic, yet highly stylized shots of Daikichi Amano or Kaoru Izima. Or the most disturbing part of a Van Sowerwine art installation some years back--Play With Me. (I'm not kidding. That video is deeply unsettling on multiple levels, and I watch horror films almost daily. On occasion, I flash back on an image of something the little-girl doll does in her little box, and I just cringe. Dead serious on the 'disturbing', here, though all of his animation rates on the unnerving scale.)

All of these share traits: the capacity for shock preserved for all time; dark subject matter (unique to each artist); the dichotomy between the onlookers who can look, and the onlookers who shield their eyes. Some of it is horrifying. Some of it is disturbing. Most of them manage to still retain a sense of beauty, that indefinable something that draws the eye even as the figures and images depicted repel those same eyes.

The Path is much the same way. There have been endless debates over what, exactly, the game means--and isn't that something we usually engage in with artistic endeavors, not video games? Not to dismiss the medium as a whole, because there's some tremendously affecting work out there, from Myst to Perfect World to Lineage II; in fact, I'd toss in certain sims in Second Life, and the whole of Blue Mars, if we're just talking pretty landscapes as art.

But part of what makes The Path so powerful is what we bring to it: if we have been touched by darkness, darkness is what we see. If we haven't, then it's like any gallery experience with an artist we don't favor. "Eh," we think to ourselves, "it may be art, but I've seen better."

I think I'd argue that in this light, The Path is, very much so, art. Disturbing art, to be sure, and confrontative, taking our own subconscious feelings towards childhood, developing womanhood, and the danger of people unknown into full account, vividly realized and orchestrally scored.

And I'm thinking in that sense, Roger Ebert might well agree. If he sat down in front of The Path and played through it, even once, he might well conclude that it was an artistic work.

But by the same extension, I think he'd affirm that it is not a game. So the question now becomes not "Can games be art?", but "Can art be a game?"

And that, friends, is a very interesting question indeed.

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