Archive for art

Beyond ‘Art’ and ‘Not-Art’: Art, Videogames, and Beyond Good and Evil

Posted in art, criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2017 by drayfish

In honour of the wondrous announcement of Beyond Good and Evil 2 at this years E3 Conference, I thought I should repost this article of mine, originally published on PopMatters; a celebration of what might very well be my favourite game of all time…

Beyond Good and Evil

Stuck in a box

I am standing in a black-market boutique talking to a walrus wearing a kimono.  Beside me, in a tank lit iridescent green, a koi fish turns in lazy circles, his whole world bound by panes of glass through which he can peer, but never escape.  A paper lantern hangs overhead; sandstone cobbles line the floor; my pockets are filled with pearls.  The air throbs with the hum of a didgeridoo; of castanets, and a flute, and a Chinese violin (an erhu) all swirling together in a sonorous harmony.  For those not familiar with the game, it probably sounds like I am having some kind of imagistic seizure, but I am actually revisiting Beyond Good and Evil, a work that I still find to be one of the most exquisitely beautiful and thematically resonant gaming experiences ever crafted.

Indeed, it is a game so elegant in narrative and design that it has always been my first thought whenever the tedious argument of whether videogames can be considered ‘Art’ gets rehashed anew.  Others, no doubt, will turn their minds to works like Journey, or Fez, or Heavy Rain, but for me, as soon as I hear someone start bleating on about all games being merely gratuitous violence generators, or time-wasting amusements devoid of substance, I am struck by the memory of Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil – of the game’s tenacious protagonist, her devoted quest for truth, and the world that she fought to save, not through violence and aggression, but through compassion and conviction and belief.  I think of this koi fish, suspended in a world of wild contrast and dissonance, measuring out the limits of its entrapment as it swims on; an indomitable force of nature despite, blind to the habitual programming that keeps it constrained.

Beyond Good and Evil 3

‘I Don’t Know Art, But I Know What’s Not Art…’

Even if only by virtue of the grand platform his global readership offered, the figure who has come to be perceived as the most vocal detractor of videogames was the film critic Roger Ebert.  Ebert was not a fan of videogames.  As he himself proudly declared, he had never actually played one, was entirely ignorant of their workings, and went on to arbitrarily reduce their myriad forms and styles to little more than animated board games or electronic skill testers, however, Ebert nonetheless took it upon himself to definitively declare them unworthy of the label ‘Art’, denying even the suggestion that they were capable of artistic expression.*

Although one might look at such wilfully uncontextualised commentary as misguided at best, or completely hypocritical at worst (after all, film too had once been written off as merely a trivial fad incapable of artistic expression), for a burgeoning medium still struggling for critical legitimacy, Ebert’s opinions have been subsequently afforded a mystifyingly disproportionate cultural cache.  Amongst innumerable examples, he is evoked in Noah Davis’ compelling summation of the medium’s evolution in ‘Are Video Games the Next Great Art Form?’ in Pacific Standard.  He was the subject of designer Brian Moriarty’s speech delivered to the 2011 GDC; Moriarty heartily endorsed Ebert’s position, seeking to draw a more articulate (but still rather narrow) delineation between ‘kitsch’, or commercial art, and legitimate Art, which apparently must be deigned so by critics such as Ebert.  Ebert is still frequently the first figure quoted in introspective articles such as Phil Hartup’s ‘Killing Time’ in New Statesman, in industry portraits like Laura Parker’s ‘A Journey To Make Videogames Into Art’ in The New Yorker, and by consequentially – much to my chagrin – the counterargument bogeyman of this very article.

I must admit, it is a ubiquity of reference that I find profoundly peculiar.  I can think of no other instance in which the opinion of someone who gladly admitted that they have no interest in, personal experience of, or research into a subject – who offers little more than a preconceived surety that it should be dismissed on principle – has ever been treated with such deference.  Add to this that Ebert was a critic for a completely different medium, who came to argue that videogames failed to meet the criteria he expected of film, his position appears to be about as noteworthy as a book reviewer declaring music ‘not a thing’, or an audience booing Hamlet for not being ‘painting’ enough.

However, while I do not want to turn this into yet another screed about how adamantly one can disagree with Ebert’s contradictory position on this issue (I have already done so elsewhere), nor do I have any desire to continue giving legitimacy to an argument that was, and remained, wilfully ignorant of the materials it sought to denigrate, I must concede that it is nonetheless worth exploring at greater length his reasoning for why – in his opinion – videogames fail to meet his standard of Art.  Firstly, because Ebert’s comments offer a succinct summary of the most common criticisms levelled at games by those who wish to malign them as unworthy of serious consideration (a synopsis that also exhibits the wilfully prejudicial contradictions in such a position), but secondly, because they provide a suitably dogmatic set of rules about how Art apparently ‘must’ function – a set of arbitrary, restrictive requirements that, from my perspective, a game like Beyond Good and Evil not only effortlessly meets, but transcends in an unparalleled communicative engagement unique to its medium.

Perhaps the most concise expression of Ebert’s position was offered in response to a fan of his reviews who had sought to ask why he so adamantly and unreservedly considered videogames inferior to film and literature.  Years later he would go on to offer a longer (and rather more aggressive) reply to the TED talk of Kellee Santiago, founder of thatgamecompany, who had argued for the validity of her medium and her own artistic pursuit, but his initial reply to this inquisitive reader summarises much of the material upon which he would later elaborate.  He said:

‘I [do] indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature.  There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

‘I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful.  But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.  To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.  That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept.  But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.’

Alongside his principle complaint that they do not function in the way that films or novels do (again: a specious argument at best, given that a song does not operate the way a painting does, nor a play like a book), in Ebert’s opinion videogames were a literal waste of time because they are designed not to communicate anything, but to instead gratify selfish indulgence.  ‘Play’, he argued, is in this way the natural enemy of discernment; rather than expanding ourselves through the self-evaluation offered by Art, videogames instead lead us toward a state of atrophy – civility, culture and empathy are ignored as the player seeks nothing but transitory pleasure.  Games can be pretty, he conceded, they could be diverting, but they lack the capacity to cultivate our sense of selflessness, or to invite us to engage more adroitly with the world around us.**

Similarly (and for Ebert, most damningly) player choice or input negates the authorial control deemed necessary for meaning to be conveyed.  Having spent his life beholden to the mechanics of cinema, in which viewing a film is a rigidly linear experience, its every beat governed by the omnipresent hand of an auteur, Ebert transposed this requirement onto an entirely different medium.  He therefore concluded that simply the requirements of being a ‘game’ – of sculpting an interactive experience that allows the player to be complicit in the unfolding of the narrative – necessarily wrests authorship away from the artist, and disperses it into the audience, muddying the creator’s intent irreparably, and thus weakening the text’s thematic statement.  Ebert offers no explanation at all for why this would be so, nor does he explain how exactly this must always be problematic, but we can speculate for him.***  One might ask how Bioshock Infinite can be an exploration of determinism if some players spend their time walking awkwardly into a wall, accidentally blowing themselves up, or falling off the edge of Columbia to their deaths?  How can Red Dead Redemption be a sweeping, tragic coda for the western genre if some players spend their time just hunting for wolf pelts and playing dice?  How can The Witcher 2 be the sombre tale of a stoic pariah in a nebulous moral vacuum when players – by the game’s own design – will see entirely different narratives play out dependent upon the plot decisions they themselves make?

Of course, these are all criticisms that fall apart the moment they are put to any legitimate scrutiny, measured against any nonpartisan definition of Art, or compared to similar outdated criticisms that have been applied to countless other media in the past.  I shall return momentarily to the accusations of self-indulgence and time-wasting in my discussion of Beyond Good and Evil, but one can probably already see the logical fallacy at the heart of accusing a text of ‘failing’ to communicate because it requires audience engagement.  After all, how can movies be said to be Art if some of their viewers don’t watch the whole thing, or talk over the dialogue?  Are musical, dramatic, and poetic improvisation not Art forms because they too require spectator interaction?  Are not plays, because they necessitate an engagement with their audience that defines the rhythm of their performance?  Can documentaries never be Art because they require the auteur to be beholden to reality, and the truths of their subject?  If a piece of installation Art is only displayed for a few weeks, is it not Art, and never was, once it has been removed from public exhibition?  Eventually such conjecture becomes one long aimless, nay-saying navel-gazing plod of hypotheticals.  One ends up sighing into the wind asking, ‘If an artwork exists in the forest, and no one sees it, does it have a meaning?’

Thankfully, there is an answer to such speculative vagaries; and wholly unsurprisingly it reveals itself the same way it does for any other analysis of Art (if one can be bothered to try).  Instead of redundantly attempting to argue what all videogames are not, using erroneous equivalencies to Backgammon and Monopoly and speculating on the mindset of an audience neither known nor understood, critics can try performing a close reading of these texts (even a cursory one), experiencing them firsthand to see how they seek to communicate their themes, and how successfully, or not, this meaning is made manifest in their structure and design.

Recently, examples such as The Last of Us, Journey, and Fez have floated into the wider debate as exemplars to ‘prove’ the unique expressive potential of videogames, but they are by no means the earliest texts to elevate the medium – indeed, games like Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros. were inarguably elegant marriages of mechanical and artistic expression.  And so it is with this act of criticism in good faith in mind that one can turn to Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil, a platforming, light-stealth adventure game from publisher Ubisoft, and the image of that lone fish circling in that tank…

Beyond-Good-Evil 2

The Hillys are alive

To begin with the somewhat superficial, it is doubtful even a cynic like Ebert could deny that Beyond is a delight to the senses.  Despite being released on the previous generation of consoles (I played mine on the PS2 the first time around, but it has since been released on PC, and the version I am replaying now, upgraded with a  HD polish, was released on Xbox Arcade), the game still remains one of the most enchantingly eclectic settings ever depicted.  Beyond offers a sumptuous, watercolour aesthetic, with charmingly exaggerated creature designs (Rastafarian rhinos! Kabuki cats! Shark people! Goat kids! Loveable uncle pigs!) and lush, coastal landscapes dappled with the dying embers of day as twilight intrudes.  From its verdant untrammelled fields to its factories and mines and urban sprawl, sun-bleached stone streets and meandering Venetian canals are peppered with flickering holograms and ramshackle spaceships.  Reggae music swaggers alongside magisterial symphonic swells; the techno frolics of an illegal raceway are punctuated by a stripped bare, mournful piano reprise.

But amidst this scatological beauty, the game tells a story of corruption and totalitarian oppression.  Behind the idyllic splendour of this seafront environment of Hillys, this planet is revealed to be under the shadow of a galactic police state.  A military complex has been granted unchecked power by the threat of perpetual war, and with the consent of a terrified populace, has steadily stripped away the freedoms of each world under its ‘protection’.

Just as the villainous corporation in the game uses obfuscation to further their malevolent goals, the game itself, under the innocuous guise of a colourful fairytale, reveals itself to be telling a tale of political misdirection and inculcating propaganda.  But rather than asking you to storm your way through such a scenario, gunning people down and blowing things up, the game tasks you with unravelling the reality from the lies.  To hide, to sneak, to explore and follow the evidence you yourself observe.  It is little wonder then that the protagonist of the tale, Jade, is a tenacious, burgeoning journalist, a young woman devoted to her homeland, protective of her peoples, and eager to uncover truth, wherever it may lead.

Jade, the player-character protagonist is a young woman tasked with the care of a group of orphans displaced by the ongoing war.  Herself an orphan, she has a playful, affectionate relationship with her Uncle Pey’j, who raised her in the absence of her own parents, and has developed both a healthy scepticism toward the governmental force that has occupied her homeland, and a burgeoning desire to uncover the truth.

The first image the game provides of Jade presents her sitting on the outcrop of a cliff face, meditating, looking over the ocean, soaking in the tranquillity of a glistening sunset, lost in a moment of serenity.  The calm is soon broken by the wail of an air raid siren and the cacophony of a bombing invasion – but the echoing affect of this prologue remains potent.  Jade is a figure in search of equilibrium – ideological, emotional, and physical balance – and throughout the course of the game she will attempt to attain peace, both in herself and her society, by unravelling the deception under which they all subsist.  Thus, once the dust of this latest incursion has settled, and the alien invasion of the DomZ seemingly thwarted by the Alpha Section armed forces, Jade starts to question the veracity of the armada’s omnipresence, tasking herself with uncovering the truth of their motives beneath all the patriotic spin.  She offers he services as a reporter, and soon enough is approached by a band of subversive radicals likewise intent on exposing the military’s elaborate deception.

And it is in the means through which you the player actively pursue these unsavoury truths – the manner in which this work is so uniquely a game – that Beyond Good and Evil is most striking.  Rather than passively watch this world and its narrative play out before you, as one would experience a film or fiction, this is an experience in which the act of play itself informs the very way through which this fiction conveys its meaning.  This is an environment that necessarily must be moved through, lived in, reacted to – the act of interpretation bound inextricably to this cultivation of a bond with the environment you inhabit.  As Jade, you will sneak.  You will explore.  You will gather clues.  You will learn this land’s secrets, befriend its inhabitants, uncover its seedy underbelly.  You will meet hardworking entrepreneurs, pirate looters, soldiers, shell game sneaks, black market merchants, washed up alcoholics, street racers, slavers, subversive rebels trying to overthrow the government from beneath the city’s streets.  You will intrude upon clandestine networks and peek behind the masks of the tyrants.

The game invites you to fall in love with this land of Hillys, not only through its visual and auditory splendour, but through action.  The narrative compels you to explore its urban centres and delve into its uncharted caverns, to converse with each of its residents (many of whom Jade knows personally), to taste its produce (Starkos bars and K-Bups Berries), to photograph its fauna for the preservation of science and history, to uncover the deeper, unsettling truths that lie beneath the surface of its government and media.

Through exploring Hilly’s luscious landscapes, cataloguing its creatures, befriending its inhabitants, and learning of its myriad splendour – invited to literally preserve its wonder on film, through study, through social interaction – you invest in this world, belong to it.  And in doing so, you commit yourself to protecting it.  You see the injustice visited upon the people of Hillys, you see the fear and suspicion of a populace forced to live under an endless totalitarian police state; you feel their loss as they watch their friends and family lost to this endless, Orwellian ‘conflict’.  Indeed, it is for this reason that despite the constant fear of death and loss – the most omnipresent dread depicted in the game is that of kidnapping – of a severing of the communal and familial bonds that are so necessary in the face of such chaos.

Beyond Good and Evil reveals itself to be a parable about responsibility.  Personal responsibility, familial responsibility, social and environmental responsibility.  In this sense the game is about makeshift families built from the wreckage of a society devastated by war.  It is about the commitments such families pledge to each other, the resolve and strength that they draw from this interdependence.  Frequently (though not constantly), Jade therefore works alongside a companion in her journey through these landscapes – her adopted uncle Pey’j; a devoted soldier Double H – further heightening this sense of cooperation and reliance.  Quite literally, were it not for the support of your fellow NPC – in the encouragement and feedback they offer on the journey, and the physical boosts and battling that they offer to assist you – you would not be able to proceed.  By travelling alongside them, trusting them for support, you feel even more acutely the sense of communal bond that infuses the game’s fictional world, stirring you to save this blighted land from its omnipresent dread.

It is no accident, then, that the metaphorical space standing at the centre of this game – Jade’s home, where she, her Uncle, and their orphan charges gather in the shadow of looming corruption – is a lighthouse; a beacon of warning for the ship of state, the searching source of illumination amongst a treacherous, ignorant dark.  And there is a moment, early in the game, where the poignancy of this space is subtly, movingly acknowledged.  As Jade, at the player’s behest, explores this space, watching the children around her mingle and move about, joking, conversing, playing with the lighthouse dog, trying to distract themselves from the daily bombing raids and sirens and whispers of kidnapped citizens stolen away in the night, a piece of music penetrates the quiet to colour the experience profoundly.

Jade – you – ascend the staircase and come upon the orphan children’s makeshift bedroom. Toy’s lay scattered about.  A warm slant of sunlight cuts through the air.  And on the walls, sketched in crayon, are clumsy drawings of the lighthouse itself, of JJade and her uncle Pey’j, and the word ‘HOME’ scribbled beside them.

And at precisely that moment, looking in upon one safe-haven carved out of the detritus of a haunting, ceaseless war, you hear a lilting piano cue.  It’s soft, slow, even mournful, but so delicate, and so precious, that it sears itself in the mind.  A tune stripped utterly bare.  Just solo finger stickling across ivory.  A private melody, alone amongst the cacophony of harmony and discord swelling outside those walls.

It is a melody that recurs in various forms throughout the game – particularly in some tragic moments to come, when Jade will again feel profound personal loss – but it also resurges in some resounding moments of defiance and fight, a subconscious reminder of precisely what it is that you are fighting for.

By seeking out answers, Jade will eventually inspire her people to throw off their oppression, to react against the placation of their media, and to rise up to question the preconceptions into which they have blindly surrendered their faith.  The game unpacks conventional wisdom and manipulative jingoism in a time of war, revealing an expansive web of collusion and misinformation, inspiring a oppressed peoples to reclaim a homeland stolen from them not by force, but through the pernicious application of lies.

And so, for a game fundamentally concerned with the nature of societal indoctrination, one arguing that such willing apathy has to be examined and overthrown, the conceit of the final level is inspired.  Having led her fellow citizens to revolt, Jade confronts the High Priest of the DomZ and is forced to fight for her life.  During the conflict, however, the High Priest bombards Jade with a hypnotic pulse, pouring the sum total of the game’s thematic exploration of persuasion and ideological inculcation into one mesmerising blast.  Suddenly, after having faith in the mechanics with which the game has operated over the preceding hours, the game suddenly flips its control scheme entirely.  Up is now down; left is now right; the character suddenly behaves wholly contrary to the system that the player has trained into their muscle memory.

This metaphor for the reversal of convention that has played into every facet of the narrative, and its exploration of social and political dissent, is heightened by this final subversion of the player.  Just as Jade, who has had to undertake a journey into the heart of her homeland’s darkest recesses to cure herself of the systemic misinformation that has governed her life, so too must the player, in this concluding conflict, force themselves to unlearn what this game’s universe has gradually convinced them to invest in utterly.

In defeating this beast, symbolically tracing this skewed belief system back to its root and therapeutically dissolving the corruption that it has engendered, both Jade and the player, in a unity of purpose, excise the corrosive limitations that would choke this society, its freedom and its media, into atrophy.

beyond-good-and-evil-2

Treading Water

Back in Ming-Tsu’s shop, however, that koi fish keeps turning circles.

Programmed in an infinite reactive loop, he is forever walled in, enslaved by that emerald glass.  And in that sense he offers a fitting metaphor for the transformative nature of responsibility that this game explores.  Ancel’s masterwork invites us to see the limitations – both welcomed and imposed – that govern every aspect of our lives.  Those glass walls, in microcosm, become symbols of the conventional predispositions and rhetorical manipulations that can hold the uninquisitive in stasis.

In looking down at this poor, ensnared creature, Jade, and I playing her, are suddenly reminded that we are not that fish – not bound to some primitive reactive coding, swimming endlessly in place.  No, in this game, in this sumptuous but suffering world, Jade and I can transcend the inculcation of intransigent beliefs.  Instead, she and I can be reminded of the true intangible bonds and beliefs that define us, those that bind us in a happy enslavement to the things we hold most precious.

Through its narrative, its play, and the enchanting aesthetic of its environments and melodies, the game enables its players to invest in the world of Hillys, to feel a responsibility to its peoples and its future, and to redefine ourselves through the bond we feel to its familial, spatial and ideological constraints.  Indeed, as you are literally a character inhabiting this land, tasked with its preservation, this evokes a sense of ownership and obligation elevated far beyond the detached regard stirred by films or fiction.

Beyond Good and Evil is a game about and fuelled by empathy, about cooperation and selflessness, about testing the veracity of presumed truths.  Under the facade of its disarmingly innocuous beauty it is a game that compels its audience to question the media – even the media through which the artwork expresses itself.  By brushing up against the barriers of this world myself, empowered through my own agency within the narrative to question these restrictions – to scrutinise them – I become attuned to this environment, become one with it.  And in doing so, come to better know myself.

Ebert, and those like him, who see video games as nothing more than gratuitous, indulgent death-simulators – petty playthings that rob humanity ‘of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic’ – will doubtless never change their minds about this medium.  Ironically, they remain obstinately walled behind their own prejudices, unable to look beyond their bias to see the greater, more diverse possibility they have arbitrarily denied.

In contrast, I watch that koi fish circle and am reminded of how effortlessly this game proves such dismissive ignorance a lie: of the way that it renders an organic, breathing culture, in order to watch it fray under the threat of war; how it speaks to the nature of civilisation and the duty of personal responsibility; of the manner in which it so elegantly evokes and celebrates empathy as our greatest treasure (in videogame-speak: the greatest ‘skill’ we human beings can seek to ‘upgrade’).

Culture, civility, and empathy – all while necessitating that the player be an integral part of progressing the narrative and allowing them to be complicit in the enunciation of this altruistic theme; videogames, when crafted with the elegance and care of a work such as Beyond Good and Evil, more than prove themselves to exceed every arbitrary ‘requirement’ for Art demanded of them by those prejudicially inclined to deny them worth.  Despite being dismissed off hand, there are many such examples that transcend these limitations in their moment of experience, becoming something profoundly, intimately expressive in the act of granting the player agency within their worlds.

Does that mean that all videogames are therefore worthy of being held aloft alongside the pantheon of great composers, playwrights, and poets?  No, of course not.  But that is and always was a disingenuous argument to begin with.  The world of cinema has produced Vertigo, but it also gave us Norbit.  Music granted us Brahms, but it also gave us Rebecca Black.  Arguing that every single text has to justify the value of its entire medium or else they are all suspect is a reductive act of sophistry that knowingly chases its own tail.  It debases the whole discussion of Art by making it some rote test dictated by elitist patriarchs whose prejudices are already irrevocably calcified.  But just as Shakespeare’s artistic expression is not demeaned by the shaky 4th grade Christmas pageant I once participated in as a child, the entire span of potentiality evident in the videogame form is not dismissible because one thinks Call of Duty 19 looks like indulgent gush.

If, in contrast, those who imprudently disparage videogames actually bothered to try them – to free themselves from the mire of lazy bias and prove themselves capable of re-examining the constraints of imagination that such works so frequently embrace, they might not only find something worthy of exploration, but could well find a whole new experiential medium through which to explore the endlessly shifting limits of human expression. Otherwise, they just continue to spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that games are indulgent toys gratifying insularity with nothing worthwhile to say.  And as Beyond Good and Evil articulates so adroitly, there’s nothing less beneficial to the progress of society, criticism and Art than simply regurgitating the same old tired party lines without ever exhibiting the capacity for self-reflection that they would demand of others.

They too reveal themselves to be like that fish – not urged to test their limitations, not inclined to seek for more; instead trapped in the same tired contrarian routine.  The circle their definition of Art in a infinite self-justifying stagnation, emboldened by their own limitation as they deny it the capacity to evolve.  As for me, I don’t presume to know definitively what Art is.  I’m too stunned by its diversity and magnitude to want to try.  And in here, in the living diorama Michel Ancel and his team have brought into being, I’ve got a head full of sweet melody, a pocket full of pearls, and a world to treasure.  I’ve been invited to help directly enact a message of audacity and hope, to fall in love with a land, and to believe that both it, one’s own curious, indomitable will are things that are precious, things worth preserving.

I know that might not be Roger Ebert’s definition of Art.  He would (and did) cry ‘selfishness’ and ‘time-wasting’ – declared them uncivilised, corrosive and childish.  But in truth that’s what all Art has always been.  Art itself is an act of play: the selfish imaginative pursuit of an artist, the indulgence of an enraptured audience; a sublime waste of time that consequentially reflects something resonant about the human condition, something enduring, back to us.  We are creatures that have stirred pigment into paint to decorate our caves; transformed religious festivals into the history of theatre; cultivated the carnival curiosity of moving pictures into the diversity of cinema; exploded the boundaries of Art to soup cans and signed urinals and sharks suspended in formaldehyde.  Why then must we be frightened off by our capacity to weave new environs to explore – new emotions, new engagements to inhabit – in pixels and electronic code?  It seems the height of complacent stagnation – a fish swimming up against the same glass walls, content to never extend beyond them, terrified to lose its way.

Beyond_Good_&_Evil_Ming-Tzu

*   *   *   *   *

* One can read Ebert’s dismissal of the medium, in response to game designer Kellee Santiago’s rousing TED, talk here.

** Something that the Big Momma trilogy and Transformers 2 can do, apparently.

*** Elsewhere, in his final, rather patronising opinion piece on this matter, titled ‘Okay, Kids, Play On My Lawn’, Ebert does use the example (repurposed from a debate with Clive Barker) of Romeo and Juliet.  In a game, he argues, the story would be rewritten so that the lovers might both live in the end, thereby destroying the whole tragic trajectory of the narrative.  But this too is a completely disingenuous argument.  Nowhere does the notion of videogame ‘interactivity’ dictate that all things must be possible at all times to everyone.  Multiple forking paths of narrative are a possibility of a certain form of videogame; not the requirement for every text.  Ebert’s position would be like arguing that because Pulp Fiction and Memento utilise non-linear storytelling, every other movie obviously must do the same – cinema is incapable of following a character’s life chronologically from birth to death.

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And Now For Something Else Completely Stupid…: Critics Corner #2

Posted in criticism, stupidity with tags , , , , , on May 30, 2016 by drayfish

kids uni pic 2

Things, by Sarah Jung (age 2)

Critic’s Corner with guest critic: Finnius McPhail

The lord said, “Let there be light!” and lo, there was light, and it was Sarah Jung’s unbridled masterpiece, Things, an uncompromising depiction of the frenetic symbiosis that exists between theoretical artistry and our most primal instinct of faith.  Drawing upon the intrepid stylisation of early French Impressionism, Jung has laid her canvas bare, heightening this exposure with an evocative cocktail of frenzied passion and unabashed flair, ensnaring the delirious expectation that lies between wonder and revelation.

Expressing a clarity of line and a disparate pulse of colour that neither flippantly succumbs to, nor expressly denies figurative structure, Jung’s composition remains almost detached; yet within this apparent discord arises an aroma of almost mathematic precision.  The desperation within each pen-stroke, the nagging rigidity of colour, and its all-encompassing beauty; there is fury, there is ardour, there are yearnings for the uppermost echelons of glory, and yet Jung never loses the impassioned humanity that has brought such gravity to her best works.

Jung has layered a comprehensive musing upon the ribald synergy of the natural order and the sobering equilibrium of the rational world.  From nothingness, she says, let there come frenzy, but from this visual cacophony let there develop an instinctive symmetry in all its burgeoning splendour.  This work walks the razor’s edge of emotive and artistic expression, and within its framework Sarah Jung (age 2) manages to pry open the belly of a mythic Orphean ecstasy; portraying, in an exhilarating testimony of faith, what centuries of theological tomes have but aspired to accomplish: the scintillating frission of spiritual joy.

Reviewed by Finnius McPhail, Fine Art Critic for ProtoRationale Journal

Vale DrawQuest: CTRL ALT DELETE

Posted in art, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by drayfish

Whats sizzling in the pan 1

IMAGE: ‘What’s Sizzling In The Pan?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Only late last year I was bleating on about how great DrawQuest was.

A free program designed to offer the canvas, tools, gallery, and daily inspirational prompts for aspiring artists and procrastinating doodlers to express their creativity in an encouraging environment, DrawQuest was like a sweet, supportive oasis.  It was a place where pop culture and classical art, established and original characters (and the occasional shamelessly redundant request for followers) mingled in blissful, free-associated abandon.

At any moment you could be scrolling through a five-year old’s adorably slanted drawing of a house with puffy smoke coming out the chimney, a near photo-realistic portrait of Beyonce, or a fresco of Princess Bubblegum dissecting SpongeBob SquarePants in a soundproof lab.*

So naturally enough, when I spoke of the program I compared it to the birth of all art and imaginative expression: humankind’s very first cave paintings and the revolutionary conceptual evolution that they continue, to this day, to represent.

Yeah.

‘Cause that’s not an overreach.

In any case, while I have to admit that it’s been a month or two since I’ve dropped in on DrawQuest, my fondness for the program has remained strong.  So I was greatly disheartened to hear earlier this month that DrawQuest had closed down.

As their announcement states, the program had been the target of a hacker, and while it was unclear whether any sensitive information had in fact been gathered, the owners and operators of the program decided in the wake of this breach to protect against further intrusion into their clients’ privacy by closing down the whole production.**

Aside from being a loss for those who used the platform to feed their creative spark, it’s also a sad reminder of just how transitory the world wide web can be as a means of archival preservation.  In my previous post, I spoke of the way in which the internet gave we desperate, expressive humans the opportunity to spread ourselves even further beyond the limitations of this our mortal, corporeal form.  No longer were we constrained by the need for physical space and temperamental mediums – suddenly we could reach into the nebulous, wild expanse of the digital eternal…

Except of course that now, with all of DrawQuest’s galleries and social functions shut down, we instead see hundreds of thousands of users discovering that material they had poured countless hours of love and effort into could be dissolved in an instant.

Bet those cave walls don’t seem to ‘antiquated’ now, huh?

…Wait, who am I mocking?  Me?

I’m confused.

Although to their great credit the creators and curators of DrawQuest have promised to try and restore those galleries somewhere, somewhen in future, the truth is that they appear to be a small handful of very kind, very underfunded volunteers, and a library of that magnitude will probably be cumbersome, and prohibitively expensive to wrangle.  Ideally, they will indeed find a way to return, but at present, all of that work – months of labour, passion, and effort; a testament to the enthusiastic community DrawQuest had fostered – is gone.

Thankfully, for those users (like myself) who were egomaniacal enough to link up their tumblr feeds and facebook histories and twitter twoots and flickr whatevers (why do none of these programs use capital letters, inquired the very old man typing this post?), their pictures live on, however ephemerally, in other internet galleries.  These echoes of what DrawQuest was remain, the artworks given life through its collaboration preserved – likewise, no doubt, all tremulously poised upon the precipice of another encroaching oblivion…

So to mourn the loss of a truly wonderful little community and its lovingly generous original mission statement to ‘foster a community of budding creators’, I offer some more of of my own stupid pictures.  As you scroll down this gallery, feel free to imagine me weeping, blurting the lyrics to ‘Memory’ in your ear…

Let the memory live again
Every street lamp seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
Soon it will be morning…

Wait. Those are the lyrics to that song?  Those are some of the stupidest lyrics I’ve ever heard.  Forget it.  Pretend I’m singing The Black Eyed Peas:

My hump my hump my hump my hump my hump, my hump my hump my hump my lovely lady lumps.

That makes about as much sense.

But all my stupidity aside, thank you for everything, DrawQuest.  You provided people a great deal of joy, and you will be missed.

 What are they learning today

IMAGE: ‘What Are They Learning Today?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Whats In The Wardrobe

IMAGE: ‘What’s In The Wardrobe?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Finish Building the Pyramid

IMAGE: ‘Finish Building The Pyramid’ by DrawQuest and Me

What's inside the shell

IMAGE: ‘What’s Inside The Shell?’ by DrawQuest and Me

put up a notice on the bulletin board

IMAGE: ‘Put Up A Notice On The Notice Board’ by DrawQuest and Me

* I never actually saw this one, but suddenly want to draw it immediately.  And yes, it is soundproof because of the screaming.

** In truth it appears to be the proverbial final straw for the company.  As the creator of DrawQuest, Chris Poole, recounts in a heartbreaking post from January of this year, the program was already running at a loss.

‘I Am Rubber And You Are Glue…’: Art, Criticism, and Poop

Posted in art, criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2013 by drayfish

Statler & Waldorf BalconyBox

IMAGE: Statler & Waldorf from The Muppet Show

Criticism is a funny thing.

Too frequently it is mistakenly viewed as a detached, objective, practice; a figure blessed with a breadth of knowledge and experience in the field brings his or her objective, reasoned perspective to bear upon the analysis of an artwork.  In truth, of course, criticism is anything but.  Yes, one may aspire to impartial, scholarly interpretation, but an artwork – any artwork – is designed to elicit a response, to stir its audience in unique, intimate ways.

Perhaps the most iconic image that now leaps to the mind whenever one speaks of criticism is the fictional character of Anton Ego, the restaurant reviewer in Ratatouille (I have even cited him previously in a rant about videogames and Art).  A quintessential cliché of the sneering malcontent critic, Ego* spends the film glowering and sweeping about like an insurmountable killjoy, seemingly drunk on the power he wields to act as the arbiter of literal good taste, able to make or break those who would venture to pour themselves into their Art.  As the film progresses, however, Ego’s self-importance is shaken, and he is compelled to reconsider the obligation he owes to those works, and artists, that he would presume to assess.

The speech that accompanies this realisation is marvellous – Ego laments that the act of criticism can oftentimes be less worthy than the garbage it would seek to deride (‘The average piece of junk is more meaningful that our criticism declaring it so’) and he celebrates the promise available to critics: to support and defend that which is original (‘But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new’) – but the part that I find most striking is how he comes to this moment of revelation.

Anton Ego revelation gif

IMAGE: Ratatouille (directed by Brad Bird)

Ego takes a bite of an extraordinary rat’s** culinary craft, and is transported back to his youth – to the comfort and warmth and love of his own childhood home.  A work of Art stirs him in a profoundly personal, individual manner – evoking a sensation that even if he could explain it, is so subjective that it could never be dissected and disseminated into scholarly prose.  And it is in the shock of this undiluted singularity of experience that he reconsiders the folly of his analytical arrogance.

As Ego realises, critics, in order to be able to speak with any context about the success or otherwise of this artistry, must be willing to open themselves up in this conversational exchange between work and receiver; not to be blinded by subjectivity at the expense of all else (the most unhelpful ‘critic’ is the one who shouts, ‘Well I like it, so everyone else can just shut up!’), but rather to be mindful of their own preferences and persuasions, to know when they have projected themselves and their own prejudices upon a text, and whether this has unjustly impacted their judgement.

With this in mind, this past month I have waded back into the thoroughly fished out waters of the ‘Are videogames Art?’ debate (dear gods, how can there even still be considered a ‘debate’?) to take issue with Roger Ebert’s criticisms of videogames.  Ebert famously considered videogames as a medium too ‘immature’ and ‘indulgent’ to constitute a form of Art.  In his view, the act of surrendering authorial control to the player meant that the text itself became incapable of conveying meaning, and as a ‘game’, it lacked the ability to evoke empathy or self-reflection in its players.

What Ebert, an otherwise admirable advocate for the celebration and assessment of Art, failed to observe was that his own prejudices – about what constitutes ‘Art’; about what even constitutes a ‘game’ – had blinded him to a wealth of expressive potential.  He was applying the expectations of a movie reviewer onto a completely different medium, obstinately refusing to actually explore these texts on their own terms, and had therefore irreparably muddied his own argument.***

In response, I decided to use Ebert’s own criteria to perform the analysis of a videogame that he, curiously, had not bothered to undertake.  I chose Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil because (and here my own prejudices emerge) I just think its exquisite.  The result of my analysis can be read over on my latest PopMatters column, but I don’t think it will come as any surprise that I end up arguing that Beyond is every bit as good as any film (indeed probably more-so) at evoking civility, self-awareness and empathy.

…Also, you may be surprised to learn that I still think Beyond Good and Evil is great.

Spoiler alert.

But that’s all boring.  Me yammering on (yet again) about a number of misguided comments a film reviewer made years ago; applauding a game that is now a decade old; hashing out an argument that for anyone not harbouring some lingering loathing for the videogame medium really is as dead as can be?  Urgh.

Instead, I want to talk about what is by far the best piece of criticism I have read of late.  It is an article titled ‘Australian Art and the Search for Faecal Purity’, written by an Australian artist named Duncan Staples and published on his website (Duncan Staples Art).

Before doing so, however, just so that my own critical bias is laid bare, I should mention that I know Staples personally – indeed, it is his portrait of me, ‘Writer at the Bar’, that I proudly sport as my avatar.  But don’t think that just because he is a friend of mine I am predisposed to agree with everything he says****; and you can check out his Art for yourself to see that when I refer to it as some of the most lively, urgent, and expressive work I have seen, I am being completely sincere.

I mean, just check this one out:

Duncan Staples In Preparation

IMAGE: In Preparation by Duncan Staples

In his article, Staples responds to the recent outrage that emerged in the wake of critic Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the Australia exhibition at the London Royal Academy.  Having perused the exhibition – purported to be one of the most sizable and comprehensive overviews of the history of Australian Art – Januszczak had made a series of rather disparaging and farcically hyperbolic remarks about its quality, including gems like ‘tourist tat’, ‘poverty porn’, and culminating in the rather hysterical ‘cascade of diarrhoea.’  Overall, he considered the wealth of Australia’s artistic output (or at the very least this curated snapshot of it) ‘lightweight, provincial and dull.’

Staples, himself a member of this country’s Art history, has every reason to take umbrage at Januszczak’s petty dismissal of Australia’s ‘provincial’ tastes; but instead of getting indignant – as it appears much of Australia’s Art scene and news media have done – Staples instead chose to explore the ignorance Januszczak exhibited in his dismissal of two prominent painters, Fred Williams and John Olsen, who had their work likened to ‘cowpats’ and a ‘diarrhoea’ respectively.  He takes the descriptions at face value, actually putting more thought and perspective into these snide insults than Januszczak clearly did, and by doing so, reveals the accidental truth behind them – commending Olsen’s untrammelled Romantic spirit, and admiring William’s meticulous eye for capturing the reality of his landscape.

Staples performs an act of critical alchemy, elegantly redirecting the superficial insults of a reviewer who had allowed his ignorance and disdain of the subject matter to cloud his perspective.  Marrying the profound and the profane, the professorial and the puerile, the perceptive with the poop, it’s an article that is funny, insightful, and that elevates the discourse …all while still making several wonderfully indulgent references to faeces.

It is a pity that critics like Januszczak and Ebert do not more frequently take after an artist like Staples, who not only proves himself to be knowledgeable and attentive, but is alert to his own place in this dialogue between artwork and viewer.  It is a lesson that they would have done well to heed.  Because ultimately, even if they do not like the Art they are viewing, even if it offends their senses: they are the ones standing in it.

The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

IMAGE: The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

* Ah, what a marvellous name for a critic!

** Ah, what a marvellous name for an artist!

*** One can even see this mistake – to a far more asinine extreme – being played out in the increasingly patronising tirades of a figure like J.Shea at the Exploring Believability blog (someone with whom I have taken issue previously).  No longer merely denying videogames the possibility of being considered an Art form based upon his own arbitrary (and honestly rather sad) definition of what ‘Art’ is, Shea now appears to be fixated on some weird crusade to openly insult anyone who would dare approach them as anything more than violence generators for training psychotics.

**** We have had some quite heated debates in the past about issues of great importance.  …Turning the world back around the other way at the end of Richard Donner’s Superman cannot reverse time, Staples!  I DON’T CARE IF IT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!

‘No More Vegetables Until You Eat Your Dessert’: Why Art is Fun, People!

Posted in art, criticism, literature, movies, music, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2013 by drayfish

bioshock screen grab

IMAGE: Bioshock (Irrational Games)

A few weeks ago I was checking in on one of my favourite interwebby gatherings (here) to recharge myself with the spirited and welcoming discussion of the fine folks who call it home.  Them’s good people.

In the midst of one of many conversations about the expressive potential of the videogame medium, one of the contributors referenced a blog, in which the writer, known as J. Shea, dismissed the validity of videogames as art.  Now, of course, there is nothing new there – indeed, at this point that is a tediously familiar drum for naysayers to beat – but I do feel rather compelled to speak to the second half of Shea’s argument, in which, in his misguided attempt to rescue the term from the debasement of videogames, he offers one of the most depressing, and misjudged attempts to define Art that I have ever seen (‘Stories in Games: A Survey of Quality’, from Exploring Believability).

And so – and I mean this sincerely – if you don’t feel like subjecting yourself to the angry spittle of a very grumpy, very rambling man, shouting as if there were kids on his lawn, I encourage you to skip the post I am about to inflict upon you and continue on with your life.  I should also point out that while I am directing this response at Shea’s blog, it is not he himself that I am trying to attack (indeed, I have no idea who he is) – it is instead the mindset that he is espousing – an opinion of Art that I have heard elsewhere before, one that arrogantly disparages the capacity for certain mediums to even be considered Art, and posits that ‘worthy’ texts cannot, by necessity, be pleasurable…

You see, an hour before I was introduced to Shea’s blog post, I had been reading Jane Austen’s Emma and feeling happy.

I’m not teaching a class on it.  I’m not writing an article (well, I’m now about to use it as a petty cudgel, but you get my point…)  I was just enjoying the book.  Indeed, if I were to draw up a Venn diagram of that experience, it would be a perfect circle: Pleasure and artistic appreciation perfectly overlapping each other into an uninterrupted pie.

But then I read Shea’s piece – a piece that reasons (with some extremely narrow examples and some tiresomely reductive presumptions) that all videogames serve one specific purpose; and that logically this purpose does not fit into some his definition of what ‘Art’ is.

You know, true ‘Art’.  …Whatever that is supposed to mean.

It was at that point that I got sad.

I was discouraged firstly because (as all too frequently happens in commentaries like these) the parameters of what constitutes a ‘videogame’ had been so narrowed as to be utterly meaningless except in the unhelpfully specific battleground of this writer’s own head.  Here, the span of the ‘videogame’ medium – everything from handheld games diddled about with on a mobile phone while waiting for the bus, to worldwide multiplayer behemoths that give rise to competitive sports, to immersive narrative epics that allow players to invest in and influence fictions across several years, to innovative downloadable games designed to engage their player in as-yet unexplored experiential dialogues between audience and text – had been arbitrarily reduced to Spec Ops: The Line, the first Bioshock, and Final Fantasy 8.

Somehow, all videogame narrative was thereby summarily reduced to nothing more than the pursuit of, and justification for, ‘cool stuff’.  All game narratives are slaves to their designs, Shea argues, and those designs are dictated by trying to load the experience with fun: explosive action, hilarious things to try, transitory playful indulgence…  Cool stuff.*  I mean, I’m sure I need not even bother to make this analogy, but that would be like reducing all poetry that has ever been written down to ‘the pursuit of rhyme’.  It’s a single element, of some verse.

…No, that’s fine.  Be sure to explode a single element out to make sweeping generalisations of the whole form.  That’ll be helpful.

But again, what I find most sad here is not that once more someone is ignorantly demanding that an argument still needs to be made for videogames to sit at the grown-ups table of Artistic potential**, it is that now it seems Art itself needs to be defended as being fun.  Because this piece not only unfairly maligns videogames as being unable to express anything of worth, it also reveals a wholly depressing (and frankly rather juvenile) misconception about what Art itself actually is.

Fundamentally, the blog posits that something fun, something designed to elicit pleasure in its audience, cannot therefore be Art.  Art, it argues, should instead be solely concerned with offering dry philosophical treatises, and compelling its audience to muse upon the deeper, important issues of life.  The example offered by the post is that Art must speak of human ‘isolation’ – a peculiarly specific, and tediously limiting dictate that is never helpfully elaborated upon.

But this notion, delivered in such an earnest, simplistic manner, is so patently ridiculous, and so at odds with the entire history of artistic creation and consumption, that I scarcely know where to begin.  (Literally, I’ve re-written the next paragraph several times now because I am dumbstruck by the absurdity of this concept…)

So if there is anyone out there who needs to be disabused of this notion, please take my word for it: Art is not some sombre, distanced, privileged means of expression intended to tower over its audience, dictating to them from afar what emotions and truths are appropriate to be explored, what experiences are worthy of exploration, nor that those experiences, by necessity, are not allowed to be fun.

At no point did Huxley, when he sat down to write Brave New World, say to himself, ‘Now, how do I make this book as tedious and unenjoyable as possible so that when students are forced to read it, they will know that it is “Art”, and not anything that they should bother to enjoy?‘  And (as my recent experience of reading Emma reminds me) when people gathered to read Jane Austen as a family by the fireside in years past, nobody was cursing their luck, lamenting, ‘Awww… damnit.  Now we have to learn something…’

Art talks with its audience.  It doesn’t condescend to them.  It’s not meant to frighten people away or stare down its nose.  It’s meant to invite its audience  in.  To start a conversation.  And that dialogue begins, frequently, in pleasure.  After all, you cannot delight, bewilder, or excite someone by making them feel unworthy of the attention (unless of course you are trying to make them feel small and unworthy – but not everyone is Ayn Rand).

What this blogger’s argument is essentially positing is that there is an absolute and necessary distinction between Art and fun.  In the Venn diagram of Pleasure and Worthy Artistic Expression, the two circles cannot overlap, because under such a severe definition indulgence becomes the kryptonite of insight.  By this logic, my reading of Emma is really only about me nodding along knowledgably as a young woman comes to know the truth of herself and her misapprehensions about life and love.  I’m certainly couldn’t be enjoying  it.  And Austen must have only written it to act as a turgidly instructive morality tale – definitely not to entertain.  Right?

So how, then, does Camus’ The Stranger – one of the funniest books I’ve ever read – not diminish itself because it injects a detached humour into an examination of human existentialism?  Because that’s fun, isn’t it?  How can there be fun in such a bleak, important narrative?  Surely Camus cannot have wanted to amuse his audience?  That really would be absurd…

What about Annie Hall?  A phenomenal piece of filmic Art – smart, snappy, with a statement to make about human experience and the metatextual potential of film  …Oh yeah, and it’s a comedy that is enjoyable as hell.  Does that not qualify?  Or Fight Club?  Whether you like the message or not, it is a text that speaks to human alienation and the loss of self in a progressively mass-marketed world – but again, it is one spectacularly fun film to watch…

annie hall screen

IMAGE: Annie Hall (United Artists)

Even in the examples that he chooses to (I think rather naively) offer, his argument doesn’t hold up.  His predictable mention of Hamlet?  …Yeah, because Shakespeare never wrote comedies, nor was acutely attuned to the commercial appeal of his work…  Please.  He was the most successful producer of his age.  He knowingly tailored every one of his plays to the dictates of his audience and their pleasure.  After all, there’s a reason that the stage is littered with corpses when Hamlet finally shuffles off his mortally coiled up bits: his audience loved it.  They – and we – loved them some gore, and watching the grand procrastinator go out in a blaze of furious, anarchic double-crosses and slaughter was an almighty ironic thrill.  One of the greatest disservices to Shakespeare’s legacy is this ignorant misconception that he was some cloistered poet genius, hermetically sealed away from his audience.  In complete contrast, the man was a masterful reader of his viewers – one who knew how to sculpt work that dually appealed to fans of ‘high’ and ‘low’ Art (whatever those distinctions might mean on any given day), creating something transcendent in the merger.

Similarly, Joyce’s Ulysses might appear (to those who haven’t read it) to be rather daunting – filled with austere allusions and literary reverence – but in actuality it’s hilarious, and (although I’m sure many won’t believe me) actually a great deal of fun.  Joyce peppered the work with a great deal of comedy and smut and farce.  Well before Leopold Bloom wigs out in a brothel, even before his masturbatory jaunt on a beach (set to the percussion of fireworks), he decides to use the bathroom.  After breakfast he retires to his outhouse, where he sits to evacuate himself (in fairly graphic description), and while doing so reads a published piece of fiction.  He finishes the work, considers whether he might one day write one himself, and then tears out a page of it to wipe himself clean.  Art, even for Joyce, was not some remote, esteemed relic; frequently it is made to serve humanity’s most base and immediate needs – just as it does for Bloom.

And that, frankly, is what every artist worth a damn is trying to do: Art has always been inextricably bound to entertainment; artists have always tried to delight as well as communicate deeper truths.  This didactic, professorial notion of artistic statements that Shea (and those who would subscribe to such a premise) is proffering does not actually exist beyond clichés of beret wearing, red wine sniftering, art house cafes fantasised to have existed in the beat generation.

People might yawn now at the stiff pageantry of an ancient fresco, but those sanguine images were profoundly moving to their original, intended audience – not because they made ‘declarations about what life is’, but because they communicated the unutterable sublime.  Should Monet be struck from the record as a failed artist because his imagery failed to speak to human isolation, as this article describes?  He crafted scenes of luminescent elegance and a hyper-real surfeit of colour within which viewers could lose themselves, utterly enchanted – but he never did say anything ‘valuable’ about social interaction, so I guess he sucks too.  Staring into one of Goya’s darker frames can be like making a smoothie out of Saw 1 through 4 and chugging it down for the brain freeze – because it too was designed to affect its audience with a fearful, unnerving thrill.

In fact, the attitude of this blogger exhibits everything that is wrong with the pretentiousness that sours people from engaging with literature and fine Art.  Art is not – and should never be – a chore.  Putting gaming and appreciating Art on two sides of a spectrum that cannot touch, driving a wedge to separate them in the Venn diagram of expression, is dishearteningly ignorant.  Just because something is joyful does not mean it cannot be achieving an artistic end; just as solely because something is delicious doesn’t mean it can’t be healthy.

Such smug divisiveness has no place in legitimate artistic discussion.  Picasso can legitimately be appreciated for using bold, striking colours; Mendelssohn can just be enjoyed as beautiful melodies; Beckett can just be some hilariously weird stuff on a stage.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Art as entertainment, and nothing wrong with seeing in the realms of entertainment the potential for great Art.***

If this blogger’s argument were simply that games don’t operate like novels, then fine.  No argument here.  In fact: well done on pointing out a basic compositional reality.  I would like to add to the redundant observation pile that it is likewise difficult to paint a sonata, or to rhyme a photograph…  But this commentator said ‘Art’ – and that is simply too wide and magisterial and necessarily inclusive a terminology that it makes such disparaging and choking restrictions hysterically inadequate.****

So the problem is not that games don’t qualify as Art.  Ultimately the issue is precisely what this writer says in his opening paragraphs (without comprehending the irony in his statement): people bring their own definitions of Art with them.  And sometimes (as this blogger does) those people unjustly and naively attempt to dictate to everyone else what those narrow parameters should be.

This blogger not only sets up a reductive, unjust and impossible standard that he arbitrarily declares videogames to have failed, he further goes on to reduce the whole definition of ‘Art’ to such narrow subjective terms, wholly defined by his own ignorance (perhaps it would be kinder to say naiveté), that the entire discussion dissolves into irrelevance.  One ends up arguing with his personal limitations rather than the issue at hand.  One may as well be playing ‘What am I thinking?’

And if he cannot be bothered to even entertain the idea that his understanding of either topic might need expanding, or that his proudly arbitrary dismissal is a dead end rather than the invitation to debate he mistakenly believes it to be, it seems an exercise in futility trying to disabuse him of the several misapprehensions he has embraced.

Personally, I think it’s sad if this writer cannot see the pleasures in Art, or if he views only frippery and indulgence in games, but both are his right.  I would hope that one day he could outgrow such antiquated notions – both in his approach to videogames (which are, frankly, a rather easy target when their history is still so brief, and continues to test the potentialities within the limitations of their form), but even more so in his approach to the possibilities of Art.

Ultimately, however, videogames are far wider and filled with more potential than he seems to be aware; and moreover, Art is not the comically rigid canon of austere anachronism that he has dreamed up.

So considering that he seems to be unable to show any comprehension (let alone definition) of either ‘videogames’ nor ‘Art’, I would think it wise for him to not get so presumptuous in dismissing the possibilities of either.  Indeed, the very fact that he even equated ‘Art’ with ‘Narrative’ in so simplistic a one-to one-ratio in the first place is probably indication enough that his argument at present, has little to add to this debate.  In that Venn diagram his comments don’t even cut a sliver out of the sprawling, multifaceted, incomprehensibly vast pie that is Art…

[EDIT: To his credit, J.Shea responded to this post, and our discussion continues in the comments section below…]

File:Claude Monet - Springtime - Walters 3711.jpg

IMAGE: Springtime by Claude Monet (1872)

* One might well direct his attention to the purposefully dour and laborious game Cart Life to cure him of that misconception.

** Note I said ‘potential’, not unalienable right.

*** Although the music of Bruce Springsteen will in any context, at any time, be considered Art.

**** Indeed, if one wanted to be intentionally petty to this blogger (and perhaps I do), one might even categorise some of the examples he provides of his favourite videogame catch-phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ (so hip and surprising and revolutionary), with ‘dramatic irony’ in fiction (one of the oldest and most familiar forms of narrative self-reference in human history).

Advertainmentorial: Blurring the ‘Journalism’ in Games Journalism (a rant)

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , on February 8, 2013 by drayfish

Image

IMAGE: Advertisement for Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

The unprecedented fan backlash that emerged following the release of Mass Effect 3 early last year had a number of unforeseen consequences in the world of videogame journalism.  Most immediately it revealed a stark and needlessly hostile division between the gaming press and a subsection of their readership; but it further exposed some rather complicated interrelations between those critics and the publishers they are tasked with reviewing.

In the wake of the negative fan response to Mass Effect 3, many in the press condemned those unhappy with the ending presented by Bioware as ‘entitled whiners’, describing them as indulged consumers who, in their opinion, threatened to irreparably damage the legitimacy of videogames as an artistic medium.  In the opinion rant offered by Colin Moriarty (Playstation editor for IGN), his ferocious, infantile attack even refused any fan even the basic right to express their dissatisfaction once their purchase had been made.  You either admit you liked it (as he did), or shut the hell up.

Frequently, these arguments boiled down to a variation of one rhetorical plea: how can games be considered Art if the audience dares to question the absolutism of its creator’s vision?  It is a premise that embraced a reductive, narrow illogic that fundamentally misunderstood the whole history of art; but more than that, it revealed a self-righteous indignation at the heart of the gaming press itself.

After all, it was they in the press themselves who had spent years hyperbolically parroting the promises of Bioware’s publicity machine, ensuring player’s that, yes indeed, their choices would matter, that they would help shape the ending that they chose.  Indeed, in an extraordinary amount of cases, it was they themselves that had repeated these very sentiments in their reviews of the game (your choices matter; you define your ending; you decide your fate), and yet they immediately sought to discredit the fans who wanted to question those statements after making their purchase and finding it a distinctly different experience from the one promised.

But as many in the games media shook their collective heads in disappointment, lamenting that their audience was failing to live up to their expectations, the heightened scrutiny that this controversy stirred soon revealed some rather glaring omissions and conflicts of interest – few of which had been previously disclosed – all of which left the moral high ground from which they clucked their tongues a little unstable beneath their feet.

After all, Jessica Chobot, one of the principle representatives of gaming site IGN (one of Bioware’s most vocal supporters throughout), actually appeared as a character in Mass Effect 3, muddying the journalistic distance one might hope for in a publication’s criticism or review.  Indeed, it was a decision that made the ferocious screed Moriarty spewed at disgruntled fans appear a little personal.  (At the very least it threw a glaring suspicion over his ugly, and weirdly wounded vitriol.)

Similarly, the majority of reviewers of Mass Effect 3 were sent copies that could not import decisions from previous save games (here) meaning that they had no way of speaking to what is arguably the central conceit of the game experience (a fact many did not disclose in their copy), with consequentially few (if any) speaking of the face import issues that spoiled the experience for a great number of players.

And amongst innumerable other such examples, the publication Game Informer was happy to publish pre-release quotes such as Case Hudson’s promises of no ‘A, B, or C ending’ in expansive, gushing advertorial articles (here), while going on to not only fail to question the hypocrisies in such promises in their 10/10 review, but actively dismiss fans who questioned such contradiction after the fact.*

Sadly, however, incidents such as these have proved to be merely the tip of the iceberg in an industry that appears to lack the necessary objectivity that a word like ‘journalism’ necessitates.  As even a cursory exploration of the medium’s press reveals, in just the past several months a startling amount of evidence has surfaced that suggests that the relationship between publisher and reviewer has become, at times, uncomfortably cosy, with the average reader left unable to disentangle what is unsolicited analysis, and what is coerced, encouraged, or influenced by the very publishers who are supposedly being critiqued.**

* Jeff Gerstmann gave a negative review to Kane & Lynch and was summarily fired by Gamespot who caved to Sony’s threats to pull their advertising and exclusives.  The reasoning offered for his termination was that he ‘couldn’t be trusted’ to be an Editorial Director (here).

* At the most recent GMAs, gaming journalists were offered the chance to win a Playstation 3 console if they Tweeted advertising for the upcoming Tomb Raider game.  When a Eurogamer’s Robert Florence questioned whether or not such a practice was above board considering that they were meant to be the critics, not the cheerleaders of these products, he was fired (here).

* Publishers routinely send swag to reviewers as ‘gifts’ to accompany the review copies of their games – things like pens, clothing, crazy expensive chess sets (here), and offer expenses-paid ‘preview’ excursions to hotels and events.

* Activision blackballed Gameplanet, refusing them interviews with the makers of their games, because they wrote (extraordinarily briefly) about one such junket in which Activision invited a bunch of gaming journalists to an exclusive all-expenses paid hotel event, questioning the legitimacy of such an advertising technique (here).

* Sony felt comfortable threatening Kotaku with blackballing when they tried to report on an upcoming Sony service, even emailing them some borderline extortion menace that included the lines:

‘I am very disappointed that after trying to work with you as closely as possible and provide you and your team with access and information, you chose to report on this rumor…. I can’t defend outlets that can’t work cooperatively with us. / So, it is for this reason, that we will be canceling all further interviews for Kotaku staff at GDC and will be dis-inviting you to our media event next Tuesday. Until we can find a way to work better together, information provided to your site will only be that found in the public forum.’ (here)

* Electronic Arts seemingly sought to manipulate reviews of Battlefield 3 in Norway by withholding review copies to reviewers that gave bad reviews to previous installments, and forcing reviewers to fill out questionnaires about what they might score it (here).

So to summarise: confirmed cases of obscuration, extortion, enticement, coercion, all in a systemised ongoing blur between advertising and criticism…

Many in the games industry claim that such actions are uncharacteristic and minor aberrations in an otherwise ethically sound field.  They would argue that it is unjust to look upon such incidents as anything more than the misbehaviour of a misguided few who stepped way over the line and were swiftly corrected; but to me, dismissing them as isolated events completely at odds with the standard practice of this field is highly disingenuous.  Rather, these events are evidence of an ongoing systemic pattern of behaviour that has shown no signs of cessation or legitimate regulation.

The firing of Robert Florence happened only months ago – and that decision has not been reversed.  Sony’s and Activision’s bully tactics appear to be ongoing – or at least have adapted over time.  Game publishers continue to send swag to reviewers along with copies of their game; still preview their games in exclusive expenses-paid junkets; and utilise their marketing divisions to determine which outlet will be provided what level of access and which exclusives.

While I agree that people need to exercise reason and personal assessment in their purchasing, to pretend that the division between PR and critique in this industry has not been inextricably blurred, to dismiss the reality that there are few (if any) places to seek out analysis that has not been clouded by the uncomfortably close relationship of publishers and reviewers, is wilfully naive.

While it is not (and is never) as simple an arrangement as ‘I will give you this ludicrous, expensive chess set and you will give me a great score for my game…’ it is instead a system of comingled marketing and analysis has become so engrained – indeed, so expected – that the discerning consumer looking on is now incapable of reasonably drawing a line between what is unsolicited, honest review, and what has been swayed by an undisclosed familiarity with the publisher.

There are innumerable means of influence and persuasion – and yes, they are a part of every business that employs advertising to survive – but when it is common industry practice to ply games journalists with merchandise to invite them to linger longer upon, or think better of a game***, and then those very same people are later tasked with the analysis of that finished product, a line has been crossed that I believe must be considered with reservation.  (And again: the recent game-journalists-tweeting-publicity-to-win-a- PS3 scenario is a worrying product of a system that currently appears to be functioning without strict regulation.)

Indeed, the fact that the ‘reviewers’ of games are thought of as potential advertising opportunities in such a manner – potential billboards that can be won over and utilised to spread product awareness – is precisely the issue that makes trusting any opinion offered by these figures suspect.  Roger Ebert may get free tickets to the films he reviews, but he is not pictured wearing a Spiderman 6: Rise of the Arbitrary Sequel hoodie at the time; he won’t be denied access to interviews with directors and programmers if he slags off a movie (because publicity is not part of his purview); and the advertising that keeps his job afloat comes from a more diverse field of companies than merely the makers of those film themselves.

When I disagree with Roger Ebert – and I frequently do (the man loved Speed 2) – I do so because it is his personal perspective that I conflict with, not the entire perpetuation of the publicity/critique system that he works within.  At present those divisions have not yet been established firmly enough in this medium – and until they are, until such gratis gifts and payed, wooing previews are the exception rather than the rule, such scepticism will, by necessity, always persist.

So no, this is not a field swimming in fraud and dishonesty, but it is hardly a paragon of incorruptible principle, either – and when onlookers of the whole Mass Effect saga see two facts: ’75 perfect scores’, alongside a player Metacritic score of 1.5, I think a little more scepticism on both sides is healthy.

* And Game Informer (a publication owned by GameStop) announced that Mass Effect 3 was their Game of the Year for 2012 on the very same page that they advertised the release date and details of the ‘New Wii-U edition!’

** And an article like this one by Erik Kain at Forbes is an extraordinary (and rather disheartening) place to start (http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/10/26/all-the-pretty-doritos-how-video-game-journalism-went-off-the-rails/)

*** Ninja Stan, a moderator on the Bioware forum who has previously worked for Bioware (and with whom I had the original discussion that evolved into this rant), confirmed that Bioware, like innumerable other publishers, has routinely employed techniques such as supplying free beer to games journalists at events like PAX in order to entice them to linger longer at their booths and think more favourably of their games.

Jump, Jump, Left, Right, Express-Fundamental-Truths-Of-Human-Experience, Down, Up

Posted in art, criticism, literature, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Red Cow & First Chinese Horse (N. Aujoulat, 2003)

Although videogames have been around for some time now (long enough in a rapidly expanding, adaptive culture to have mutated beyond anything that people could conceive in the days of Pong and Frogger – indeed long enough that museum retrospectives like the Game Masters exhibition recently held at the ACMI in Melbourne, Australia are starting to emerge)* – timeline-wise, we in the gaming sphere are still in what, comparatively, was the black-and-white days of film. Games are still just taking their first thrilling steps into exploring the boundaries of their communicative potential, testing how far they can push in any one direction and still be considered a game:

‘Hey, that looks like one enormous, tedious cut-scene.’

‘Nope, it’s Heavy Rain.’

‘Hey, that looks like a gigantic fully-realised Lego play box alive with limitless potentialities.’

‘Nah. Minecraft.’

‘Hey, that makes my heart sing. I feel that I am being bathed in the raw unfiltered majesty of creative potential. I weep uncontrollably, but my soul is emblazoned with newfound life, ascending to a state of purity beyond space and time. ‘

‘Yes. It’s Petz Pony Beauty Pageant for the DS.’

‘…Hold me.’

Sure, at the moment (and perhaps for some time onward) games are still hampered by processing limitations that can stifle creative decisions in a manner not quite as evident in film; but just as in the early days of cinema (look at Metropolis, or The Maltese Falcon, or Charlie Chaplin’s work), in these burgeoning years of this new medium we are seeing some exceptional examples of creators working within the limitations of their technological canvas to communicate extraordinary works of Art.

I think in many ways there is value in thinking of the current state of gaming as analogous to the paintings in the Lascaux Caves in France.

If you’ve not seen them before, they are considered to be the earliest surviving recorded images made by human beings. They are tucked away in caves so dark that they required their artists to bring firelight with them in order to even see what they were painting – and they still remain utterly, stunningly splendid.

Sure, in theory, before you look upon them, it’s easy to dismiss these Palaeolithic images as mere scrawl on a wall, but if you actually let one of those visuals wash over you, the effect is truly sublime. You realise that on every possible level, these paintings are aesthetically and communicatively exquisite. You look at the coiled calligraphy of those horses hooves, their rotund proud haunches, that soft delicacy of their manes peppering the length of their neck. There is a solemn gracefulness to the bulls; while the unflinching menace of their horns, like unsheathed sabres, remain ominously erect. The trammel of thunderous footfalls seems to resound from out of a stampede.

In every image the grace, the artistry, the respect for subject matter with which these images were brought into being, swells them over with meaning. Indeed, it’s why Picasso drew from these very cave paintings, inspired by them to try and fuse primitive expression with modern technique in paintings like Guernica (1937), and his many (perhaps rather too many) images of bulls. …Really, what was it about him and the bulls?

I would – without the slightest hesitation – call these images on the walls of the Lascaux caves ‘Art’. Indeed, in many ways they are the purest Art ever conceived. They are a vision of the world produced and communicated by an artist who understood his/her subject matter, and who was able to deftly render an experience to the viewer (whoever that might eventually turn out to be) – fashioning it in the most compelling manner he/she could with the tools he/she was able to utilise.

Some (no doubt videogame nay-sayers like Roger Ebert), might revolt at me likening the burgeoning brushstrokes of humankind’s attempts to render life with the advent of the double-jump, but really, I see striking similarities. Human beings express themselves in any number of adaptive ways, and just because videogames may at first appear superficially crude (particularly in these early years when we see developers taking their first experimental steps, stretching the limits of what this medium can convey) this does not discount them from consideration. I have laughed and wept at a videogame (in a totally manly way); I have felt pride and achievement at a videogame (look it was a very emotional game); I have been swayed by the elegance of a game’s mechanics (hey, you would have cried too if you’d played that game); and lost myself in its alluring design (and I had something in my eye… okay, I don’t need to be judged by you right now).

Videogames may struggle with depicting sex-scenes that aren’t laughable, realistic eye movements, or the incalculabilities of character interaction, but when they are at their best they capture pure human expression, inviting their audience to invest wholly in an experience. And that is the very foundation of all that is Art.

And I firmly believe that video games are capable of communicating such human experiences in ways that no other medium can. Indeed, with videogames, like no other Art form, we actually get to exist within the text, to react to it, to engage with it. It invites us to participate in the way in which the text itself makes its meaning; we can help charge it with purpose if we decide to buy into what it is attempting to express.

Often videogames therefore attempt to convey triumph or success: they show characters overcoming obstacles; they invite us to use lateral thinking to expand our comprehension; to fight tenaciously; to become lost in a vast, dangerous worlds of creeping horrors; or to dress like a plumber in a racoon suit and save a princess from a mutant dinosaur who heavilly invested in castle real estate. …Yeah. Okay, some are more abstract. Like Dada.

But in every case, if the game has performed its intended purpose, it has transported us into an experience. Although the definition of what can be Art is sometimes dauntingly vast, it is almost always communicating a human truth, in many cases, one that could not be said in any other way; and games most certainly do what no other medium can with such visceral immediacy.

Whether something is good or bad Art, however, is an entirely different question…

* http://www.acmi.net.au/game-masters.aspx

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