This came out…long. But I think it’s important to get this out there, because it touches on some of the chief fundamental points I need to make to the reader if this blog is going to really make an impact with anyone at all. Because this thing is so big, the chief points will be bolded, just like those reviews from Electronic Gaming Monthly. (Remember EGM?) But for now, it’s time to talk about art.
Let’s sidestep and talk about music for a second. Right now, you’ve got three chief formats for your audio art digestive pleasure: digital, which is the meat-and-potatoes download; compact discs, which do everything that digital does in addition to providing a physicality, a “thing-ness”, and lyrics, artwork, et cetera; then you have vinyl, an analogue format that’s seen a boom in popularity in recent years, despite certain technical limitations. But if CDs have a definite, concrete ‘thing-ness’ that digital downloads could never have a hope of replicating – that tingly feeling that the CD is a self-contained thing, with its own inherence rather than simply being files on a screen – then LPs double that, with their glossy, huge artwork. You’ll hear tales of vinyl collectors being able to spend hours just gazing at their LP art, getting immersed in the detail.
What I’m getting at is this: art matters, even if its purpose is to compliment other art – in the case of LPs and CDs, the physical art compliments the music, and in the case of games, the aesthetics compliment the interactivity by evoking certain reactions in the player. A classmate of mine (in the same class that begat this little project) put it excellently when he said that the aesthetics of a game maintain and manipulate the tether between the game and the gamer in order to aim for certain emotional reactions.
But that does make me wonder – on how many levels am I to view various games as “art”? For that matter, How am I to define “art” in this instance? (Don’t you just love those questions that only open doors to more questions?) If art is just the extension of an artist, then every facet of every game is the art of the one responsible – the graphic designer, the programmer, even the lack of glitches in an area would be attributable to the sweat and tears of the testers – of course, not to marginalize the efforts of the visual designers themselves. They enjoy a position that is automatically identified in our culture as “artist”, while character motion designers might have a tougher sell, for example.
So just to get myself some grounding in this web of theoretical possibilities, let’s run with the idea that “art”, in this case, is just what I mentioned above: the aesthetics that maintain and manipulate the emotional connection between the game and gamer. Fair enough? Fair enough.
This puts me in a strange position philosophically, though. Here I am, trying to defend video games as art in the ‘traditional’ sense, when in reality the fact should be self-evident. How am I to come at this? Have you ever tried explaining to a naysayer that the sky is, in fact, blue? Roger Ebert once infamously said that video games can never be art. He later recanted, so I can’t fairly get at him for it, but it speaks to a larger issue that some people will continually deny video games as a whole as “art” in the traditional sense, despite evidence pouring in right in front of their eyes. And I’m not blaming you, if you’re one of those people – the brain has a remarkabl(y frustrating) way of not letting us see the forest for the trees when it goes against our preconceptions. But hang on.
So if you’re on the fence about the idea that anything with a controller attached to it can be looked at on the same ideological plateau as the canvasses they hang up at the Louvre, just stick around. This article’s for you.
And what better way to go at it than with…case studies!
#1: Dante’s Inferno (Visceral Games, 2010, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3)
Just an interjection – this is just about the most justifiably M-rated game in existence to this point, and it won’t be the last one in this article, but I’ll make a conscious effort to keep the images relatively work-safe.
I’m going to try something here. Both Visceral Games’ design team and Gustave Dore made their own interpretations of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first installment in his Divine Comedy. (No surprise that the Inferno has been the most widely illustrated of the trio – people love the dark-and-intense as opposed to the light-and-fluffy, and Paradisio in particular is so thick with metaphysical allusion and contemplation that scholars today are still trying to unpack it, let alone visualize it.)
So because we’re looking at two different interpretations on a single source, what I’m going to do is post some images back-to-back, one from Dore and one from Visceral, corresponding to matching areas of the Inferno. (Click the images for a blast of hi-rez glory if it’s too small.)
And I couldn’t find a still image from this part of the game good enough to compare, but in its stead, enjoy this video: [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVNyRCPe1zg?feature=player_detailpage&w=640&h=360] For best effect, watch all the way through.
While Dore’s canvas is crafted with a more literal approach to the level of Heresy, with non-believers stuffed into flaming tombs, Visceral have used the extra dimensions of the current generation of video games to deliver a…visceral (sorry) blast to the senses that takes Dante’s original vision and outright expands on it. Those many square/rectangular shapes you see lining the walls in the video are flaming tombs, each with a screaming heretic inside.
The sheer scope and macabre scale of this part of the game, compared to the source material and Dore’s famous illustrations, simply would not have been possible without that interactivity, that drive to go from one point to the next rather than simply look at it from a fixed perspective, which the video game format provides. In terms of creating the truly foreboding atmosphere to live up to the source material, the monolithic, doom-drenched vibe crafted by these thousands of wall-to-wall tombs easily matches up to Dore’s morbid manipulation of light and shadow.
Have some more.
Visceral’s depiction of Greed shows a remarkable amount of audacity on their part, because it dares to imply that the previous depiction of Greed from the source material (That of hoarders and wasters eternally pushing rocks against one another) was both visually and creatively inefficient, so they went a completely different way. And the remarkable thing is that they may have been right – somewhere beyond the veil, Mr. Alighieri just might be thinking, “Mine goodness, why didst I not think of such?”
In the video game adaptation, instead of pushing rocks (Undoubtedly inspired by the Hellenic myth of the soul condemned to push a rock up a hill in Hades for eternity), the greedy are bathed in molten gold. A bit on-the-nose, but brilliant from an aesthetic perspective in that it coats the Greed region in a brilliant golden hue that perfectly suits the theme of this part of Hell: compare this to Dore’s work with gloomy shadows which, while effective, tend to lose their luster after applying them unilaterally throughout the Inferno, if I can dare to “go there”.
And that dude in the picture? That’s a “hoarder-waster” enemy. A hoarder and waster, mashed into a twisted Siamese twin and forced to be together for eternity with the kind of person they hate the most. Dante, with his use of the Contrapasso (A punishment that fits the crime), would have been proud, I think. If nothing else, it shows that Visceral was not only thinking in terms of what would make a cool game environment, but of what would both do justice to and expand on the source material aesthetically without losing the intricacies of its theme and spirit.
Just one more comparison, but I highly recommend you to check out the rest of this game’s aesthetics on your own time if you’re interested. If ever there was a game that desperately warranted an art-book, it’s this.
Gluttony: a rainy, sickening wasteland where sinners writhe in the disgusting slough. Both Dore and Visceral have taken a more-or-less faithful approach to adapting that much, although I think it’s fair to say that Visceral took their approach much farther than Dore did: while the nasty rain is still there, they’ve made it so that the entire portion of Hell looks like the interior of some giant monster’s stomach, which much like the Greed example up there, shows a level of thematic-aesthetic fusion that not even Dore dared to do with his classic imagery.
My goal with that was to prove beyond doubt that video games in general can, in fact, be looked at on the same artistic ‘scope’ as the art of the Renaissance. I don’t mean to lecture, but thanks to the two interpretations being based on a single source, we’re offered the opportunity to view these two artistic works on equal ground and make our judgment call free of preconception. As pretentious as some might see the concept at first glance, actually putting it in action is a self-proving point.
That’s just one interpretation of a classic, and it leads me to my next point (and one that I’ve already more-or-less touched on), that video game interpretations of classics and classical themes can be just as “valid”, artistically, as more ‘traditional’ modes of aestheticism. Which brings me to…
#2: God Of War series (Santa Monica Studios, 2005-present day, various Sony platforms)
It’s no coincidence that I seem to be gravitating towards extremely violent games in this article. Soon I’m going to roll out an entry that speaks specifically to the development of “the violent” in video games (And you can bet your bottom bit that Kratos there is going to be one of our panelists in that article), but for now, let’s discuss the God Of War series’ take on Hellenic beliefs.
But first, we should get a feel for the aesthetic direction of the game. That’s important, right? If we’re still rolling with that definition of the elements of art as being something that creates and maintains the emotional connection between the viewer and the medium, I think it’s pretty darned significant. So let’s sit back and just take a peek.
Well…for a game whose primary colour seems to be a deep, gushing red, I have to say, this stuff could be hung up in a frame. It almost feels like they’re trying to impress upon us a certain level of visceral juxtaposition, given the veritable bloodbath that takes place in these gorgeous locales. As far as engaging the senses goes, then even just as static images (as paintings are), I think these stills do a very fine job. I’ve spent far more time than I’d prefer to admit in polite company poring over the God Of War 3 art book. If you want a better view of this artwork, I’d recommend throwing your credit card at that particular book ASAP.
And just like with Dante’s Inferno, this is no less a valid interpretation of the source material than the other takes on Greek myth, be it Disney’s colourful sprites or a thousand-and-one children’s books meant to educate today’s youth on yesteryear’s religions. Maybe even moreso.
Make no mistake, the original Greek myths (As opposed to the fairly white-washed Harryhausen interpretations) that the God Of War series draws from, were pretty dark on their own terms; we’re far beyond the Disneyfied interpretation of Zeus being a happy-go-lucky, benevolent leader. Remember the tale of Prometheus, who was condemned to have a bird pick out his organs forever because he gave fire to mankind? That was Zeus. In the actual tale. Seem a little harsh, maybe a bit ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’, to you? Our worldview is informed by centuries of impression from a society that’s more-or-less Christianized (No matter what religion you are, there’s no doubt that Christianity has shaped an unignorable part of the Western world), so the whole idea of genuinely worshipping a deity that’s actually quite vindictive and cruel as opposed to, well, “Christ-like”, is not one that we’re personally familiar with. But in Greek times, well, that was how it went, far as any of us are able to tell. Fact is, God Of War in its vindictiveness and brutality might be the most faithful interpretation of the actual myths that we’ve seen thus far in the modern age.
But I think the popularity of the bold, brutal God Of War series in the modern day reflects more on society at large than with Santa Monica Studios in particular. I think that when it comes to extrapolating the myths and beliefs of other cultures, we have a tendency to impress certain values of our own culture onto it. I stray away from outright saying ethnocentricism, because that’s defined as judging other cultures by the standards of one’s own. This is a subtler kind of centricism, I think, in that it thinks it’s paying respect to these original cultures and myths, while at the same time subverting the very indigenous values that inspired the original works.
Fact is, God Of War may seem over-the-top and shocking by our Western standards (A downright sociopathic hero, who in God Of War 3 shifts right into Villain Protagonist territory? Completely passive attitude towards nudity?), but by the standards of Greek myth, it’s Tuesday. By acting as though the following centuries of shifting moral standards hadn’t happened – because in the God Of War universe, they haven’t, for those of you keeping score at home – SM Studios are actually doing a better service to the culture and myths than those critics who might say that God Of War merely uses the Greek setting as an excuse for transgressive violence and nudity (and in essence missing the whole point above).
But it’s impossible to mention God Of War without touching on the violence. Without mincing words, Kratos is an asshole. To put it academically, Kratos straight-up kills all the things. If you look at him cockeyed, chances are he’s going to murder you in some gruesome way before the series ends, and any serious veteran of the series knows I am not exaggerating in the slightest. I’ll break even with you here: this will only be a short, partial analysis of the violence in God Of War, because I want to save the meat and potatoes for that promised article all about video game violence. But here we go:
To what extent could this “Hulk Smash” approach to these myths, this “hyper-violent” direction, in itself be considered an artistic approach? God Of War 3 contains a scene in which Kratos punches a man so many times that by the end of it, the screen is literally nothing but blood. As gamers, we might be thinking, “Yes, I beat it!” or possibly, “I’m having far too much fun constantly mashing this button and watching his fist do that”, but as good little narrative theorists, we might be thinking about how taking a given aesthetic to its logical extreme is, in itself, an aesthetic.
And why not? If we’re still clinging to that definition of an emotional connection between the player and the game, then God Of War’s brutality certainly keeps many a player hooked. Perhaps every over-the-top gory act convinces the player of Kratos’s inner darkness in a way that a more conservative level of gore would not, or perhaps the visceral madness helps to drive home the grandiose nature of the narrative: epic and over-arching conflicts equals excessive gore?
Just one more game and we’ll wrap this monster up.
#3: Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007-2012)
I was on the fence about what number three should be. I wanted Shadow Of The Colossus, but that’s easy pickings; even some people who deny video games as a viable art form will often concede, “Well, Shadow Of The Colossus…” and a part of me would love to talk about Donkey Kong Country 2, but nobody wants to see me ranting for three pages about how awesome the whole “reptilian ghost pirates” thing is and forget to say anything meaningful. But then, that is sort of meaningful, isn’t it? It speaks to that game’s visual nature, again a key element in sustaining the emotional connection and fusing the medium with the message.
And maybe I will get to that game some day, but for now, let’s tackle something that I’m actually playing through right at this point in time: Mass Effect.
We’ll skip the bit about the visual art this time, because frankly, you get the point by now: these are gorgeous games. Instead, let’s focus on the narrative itself.
So that newcomers to the series have some grounding in what I’m talking about, Mass Effect takes place in a far-future galaxy that’s been commercially interconnected, with the human race making its way in a bigger picture. There is a central council around which political decisions are made, and there is an ancient threat that rises to consume the known galaxy.
It sounds like a disjointed description, I know. But it highlights what I think are the three things any sci-fi narrative needs to have in order to be considered a relevant piece:
1: Some manner of sociopolitical structure in the created universe.
2: Some manner of history within the created universe.
3: Either a reflection of humanity’s place in the cosmos at large, past or present, or at least a metaphor for such (In the event of a series that has no humans whatsoever, IE Star Fox).
The same can be said of fantasy, but let’s keep this tight and focus on one genre at a time. All that is really just a fancy way of asking yourself, “Is this universe fleshed-out enough to stand on its own?”
Really, guys, it doesn’t take a whole lot to be able to say yes. The Star Wars movies pass this test, and A New Hope, the film that basically changed the face of blockbuster cinema eternally, has a history that wouldn’t go beyond ‘simplistic and trope-tastic’ until later on, and doesn’t ever overtly speculate about humanity’s place. I mean, I’m not asking for a character to look up at the stars and contemplate their species’ ultimate fate as shooting stars pass their eyes or something – all I really mean at the end of the day is that the story says something that somebody can find meaningful.
In fact, I dare say that Mass Effect fills out a universe in its first game equivalent to the scope and size that it took Star Wars two trilogies to hammer out. I’m not trying to batter down George Lucas; the internet’s already beaten that horse into dust. What I am saying is that the Mass Effect universe, a world created entirely within a video game (And because I haven’t read the graphic novels, I’m not even including them here), has proven itself to be just as narratively strong as worlds from film and (my limited experience of sci-fi-) literature.
It’s fitting that I’m talking about sci-fi, because it and fantasy narratives were (and, let’s be honest, still are in some instances) marginalized as “genre pieces”. To me, that’s always been an insulting term. Not on the surface, but it carries a backhanded meaning. You’ll never see The English Patient referred to as a “genre piece”. No, it’s just a “piece”. To be called a “genre piece” implies that a writer is working within the constraints of a particular genre, yes. But then why is it never applied to drama or contemporary action, for example? I can only conclude that it’s used as a backhanded means to stratify genres seen as on the “periphery” of what is “acceptable” art or narrative.
I’m not going to get into a rant about how Asimov and Clarke would be spinning like industrial turbines in the ground fast and hard enough to power enough turbines to fix the freaking energy crisis at that notion.
I’ll just say that sci-fi and fantasy narratives have gone through a similar thing as video games: they’ve been forcibly de-centered and plunked down at the periphery of what is considered acceptable mainstream narrative, cosigned to the likes of ‘geek culture’. Fortunately, like I said in the very first entry on this blog, geek is the new black. The sci-fi of today is slick, sleek and streamlined: just compare Joss Whedon’s Firefly with Forbidden Planet from 1956.
And before anyone says that games are still constrained within the framework of “run, shoot grunt, run, shoot grunt that looks pretty darned similar to that other grunt you just ganked”, keep this in mind – it’s like that with media that is considered artistically-viable by the mainstream as well. Remind you of anything?
And yeah, some people do consider Star Wars to be ‘fluff’. But not even they can deny the fact that this series took popular culture and made a Death Star-sized dent in it. If that’s not worth sociological study, then pardon my French, but what the blue hell is?
And if Star Wars can be looked at in such a way, then certainly, so do Mass Effect and its ilk.
But I’m getting so off-base that this is becoming an article-within-an-article. (The dream is real…) What I’m getting at is this: Mass Effect fits perfectly in with the new generation of science fiction, without sacrificing anything due to its medium.
After all, is that not the perfect litmus test of video games as a narrative art form? If we can cast aside preconceptions of medium and societal expectation and look at these narratives on level ground, being able to stand up to literature, paintings and film on their own merits, then is it not a point that proves itself?
Now, I don’t want to jump the gun and blurt out some grand statement rooted more deeply in my own bias as a bred-and-born gamer than in the evidence I’ve just put forth, but it seems that with the interactivity of video games and with the graphical developments of later generations, developers demand it of themselves to put forth that extra ‘push’ to make these worlds stand up as artistic triumphs the whole way through. The player has to be able to move all through these worlds; there’s incentive for game artists to turn their canvas into a fully-functional world as opposed to a still life. There’s power in creation, and a whole new kind of power in three-dimensional creation.
So this is, in essence, what this whole beast of an article is circling around, so let’s just swoop in and say it:
There is absolutely nothing, at this point in time, that intrinsically prevents video games from reaching the same ideological, thematic or artistic plateaus as film, visual art, literature or music.
Oh, there are plenty of other examples: playing the aforementioned Shadow Of The Colossus is like moving through a landscape gallery (with bosses). Mastering Street Fighter is (At least, according to our friends at Versus Books who wrote the Street Fighter Alpha 2 guide) as complex and mentally demanding as learning a real martial art (I can’t actually back this up, because frankly, I suck at Street Fighter), thanks to the myriad of complexities and intricacies involved.
So the idea that video games must be more Parker Brothers than Picasso really doesn’t stand up to even this cursory level of scrutiny. I think if there’s one thing to take away from this article, let it be this: to accept video games as art should not be some exceptional thing, but should come naturally. In fact, just as there are things that music can do that a painting cannot, and vice-versa, there are ways in which games take advantage of their form in artistic ways that the other forms do not.
In fact, let’s make this the revised and over-detailed mission statement for this whole blog (which is why I was determined to get this piece done before slapping on anything else): we have to treat games on the same level as any other narrative or artistic form, free of bias or preconception. At the end of the day, that’s all I’m trying to say with this one.
Ah, why not. You made it this far, so here’s an image of Samus Aran fighting Master Chief.