Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Video Games as Art

As I said earlier, I'm breaking my "weekends only" rule to talk about aesthetics for a little bit. I don't talk about aesthetics a whole lot, mainly because it's almost entirely subjective, and I've been told I have a rather Vitruvian sense of beauty. Probably a relic of my Objectivist days. Anyway.

Roger Ebert says, and I'm quoting here, "I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art." Horse-shit, says I. To his credit, Ebert goes on to say, "Perhaps it is foolish of me to say 'never,' because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form." Still horse-shit, says I. Ebert's entire argument seems to consist of two scoops of snobbery, a dash of bluster, and his statement, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets." Apparently, poetry is doubly artistic to Ebert. Also, by this line of reasoning, cooking can never be an art form because I have never eaten a steak that tastes as good as watching The Shawshank Redemption*.

PZ got in on the action, too, and pretty much everyone seemed to jump down his throat for agreeing with Ebert; I said what I wanted to say over there, so I'm going to say something different here. I could trot out my nihilistic "art is just a word and words are made up" routine, tearing down the enterprise of art so that any action could fit in - it would work, too, because art is a word and words are made up, and whatever you can do with a book/movie/canvas/rock can also be done with ones and zeroes on microchips. Not joking. But instead, I'd rather make a positive case for the game Braid, because everything in that game is done artfully, i.e. fuckin' full of art.

Below is the trailer for Braid, a nifty little number which I like to call "Mario with time powers." That's what it is. Ebert says of the game, "You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game." Way to completely miss the point:
"Taking back your moves" is the point in Braid; one of the first bits of text you encounter says,
Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster. This happened because Tim made a mistake.

Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt.

He knows she tried to be forgiving, but who can just shrug away a guilty lie, a stab in the back? Such a mistake will change a relationship irreversibly, even if we have learned from the mistake and would never repeat it. The princess's eyes grew narrower. She became more distant.

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we've learned from a mistake and became better for it, shouldn't we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

What if our world worked differently? Suppose we could tell her: "I didn't mean what I just said," and she would say: "It's okay, I understand," and she would not turn away, and life would really proceed as though we had never said that thing? We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience.

Tim and the Princess lounge in the castle garden, laughing together, giving names to the colorful birds. Their mistakes are hidden from each other, tucked away between the folds of time, safe.
In fact, all the game mechanics are similarly justified. The game does quite a bit of mucking about with the flow of time (Cracked parodied it with Time Travel Understander): the "time shadow" is about being able to pursue multiple courses of action at once in pursuit of a goal; the ring, which slows time as you near it, represents the burden of commitment; and so on and so forth. One may, of course, play the game only for the puzzles; one may also watch movies only for the action sequences. What is artful about Braid is that it incorporates its mechanics into the story, and at the end, turns the tables on the player:
After getting used to manipulating the flow of time, the player learns that Tim "lives backwards" from other people, kind of like Merlin. The end of the story shows the full meaning of this, when the player rewinds the entire level and sees that the princess has not been helping Tim, but running desperately to escape him. It's about the tremendous difference perspective can make, about communication breakdown, about the pain of regret and being unable to "fix it all." It's also, in a rather literal sense, about a bomb.

What I think is artful about this is that these ideas are encoded as metaphors into the game mechanics. The player's ability to solve the puzzles is taken for granted, the point is what the mechanics mean as a part of Tim's life. This is the art of Braid as a game: it is not an imitation of real life, but a way to experience someone else's life. It is a distillation of experience (Tim's) in which we may find parallels to our own lives, and this enables us to identify with the protagonist. Mashing buttons to get a man on the screen to move from A to B is how this idea is conveyed, but that is no more to the point than it is to say that ink stains on a bunch of paper stitched together are what make up every single book - in philosophical circles, this is known as the fallacy of composition (more specifically, the fallacy of mediocrity).

With that established, the rest is a piece of cake: the visuals are simple and elegant, the backgrounds are like watercolor in motion; the music is lovely, and becomes increasingly haunting throughout the game; and the story, while by no means completely original, is a good blend of homage to the hero's journey and literary puzzle (by which I mean you're not spoon-fed the answers, you need to piece it together yourself - making it far superior to most of the literature available today, to my mind). It's artful. It's artistic. It's art.

Ebert doesn't like it, and that's fine. He can stick to his pictures on a screen with accompanying soundtrack. Not every art form needs to be moving to every critic. But I think it's rather telling that Ebert closes his missive with a snipe at Kellee Santiago's acknowledgment that art requires patronage. I can think of no more powerful metaphor to illustrate the concept of an established snob trying to keep out the whippersnappers trying to break into his establishment.

* - I had several candidates for this statement, and I'd like to share them with you, The Reader, now:
  • Architecture will never be art because no building has moved me like a symphony.
  • Sculpture will never be art because no statue can capture the fluid grace of dance.
  • Photography can never be art because it cannot express the unlimited imagination like painting can.
  • Humor can never be art because it doesn't have the enduring resonance of tragedy.
I could go on comparing apples and lawn mowers all night, or at least find some humorous way to meaninglessly compare knitting and carpentry, but I'm sure you get the point.


Zach L said...

most game developers do have patronage -- their producers. And for indie game developers, there are investors.

Is an investor not a patron? What's the difference? It seems like a pretty silly argument to say "if people aren't willing to give you money to work on it, it's not art" when the Video Game Industry (TM) makes more money nowadays than the film industry.

D said...

I, umm, agree with you entirely? I was just trying to say that it's rather silly to point and laugh at the business side of an art form.