Art Is Cooperative
To illustrate how the viewer always customizes the experience of art, let’s turn away from videogames for a moment and look to something that is clearly “Art with a capital A,” painting. There’s a Kandinsky painting called Inner Simmering that I have a special connection with. I don’t know what Kandinsky intended with the painting; if I ever read any sort of commentary on it, I’ve long since forgotten. However, for me the painting is about the turbulent feelings of going from childhood to adulthood.
When I was 11, my mother took me to the Guggenheim Museum to see a Kandinsky exhibit. I was tremendously excited to be going to a museum and not a “kids” museum; a serious art museum for sophisticated, cultured adults. Inner Simmering was the painting that stuck in my mind; I felt like I was “simmering,” boiling over with excitement at taking the train, then the bus, then going to the museum, then going to a trendy cafe for lunch, all being treated like an adult and seemingly being initiated into this beautiful adult world of symposiums and garden parties. But I was also still a child, and I was a little afraid, worried the wonderful day would somehow fall apart, and my mother would lose me somewhere. Maybe I’d get lost in the city and end up begging in Central Park, or run over by an angry cab driver; there were dangers everywhere. My stomach wouldn’t stop churning.
Even now, over 20 years later, I can’t look at an image of that painting without thinking of the “simmering” feeling I had that day, the day when I felt my childhood and my adulthood bumping into each other in the pit of my stomach. This feeling was probably not what Kandinsky intended, but I think most appreciators of art would agree that my personal interpretation is a valid one; that, without getting into a tiresome “Death of the Author” debate, it’s widely recognized that the viewer’s experience of every work of art is customized to their own experience; not by choice, but by necessity. I can never be in Vassily Kandinsky’s head, only my own.
Returning to games now, I have the same kind of customized experiences. Tomb Raider was about the fantasy of overcoming my own natural timidity and going out to explore the world, maybe not ancient tombs but, say, hiking on a local trail without fear. Parasite Eve was about a fantasy version of Manhattan, a Manhattan that, while being full of monsters, was mostly devoid of people, meaning I could explore at my own pace; something I’ve never felt able to do when I’ve actually been in real-life Manhattan (and to this day, I feel far more at home in PE’s horrifying version of Manhattan than I do in any of the actual locations featured in the game, despite having visited many of them several times.) Final Fantasy VII was about…Final Fantasy VII was about a lot of things, and I don’t want to go on for 30,000 words here, so I’ll leave it at that.
I’m pretty sure Vagrant Story was somehow about sex, but I’m still figuring that one out; yes, Ashley’s famous pants played a role there, but that was only part of it. .hack was about trying to figure out why imaginary items in imaginary worlds were so important to me, among other things, and I still haven’t cracked that one; I keep replaying the .hack quadrilogy once every couple of years, hoping to figure it out. In fact, I think one of the reasons why I’ve never been able to get into World of Warcraft is because I’m still waiting for the simulated MMO of .hack to reveal whether or not I should care about real MMOs or not.
I think everyone has these kinds of personal experiences of games; they may not all be as elemental as my association with Inner Simmering, or even Parasite Eve, but they’re still there. However, this is where we get into how videogames differ from other media; because while we all perceive a painting differently, we’re all still standing there in front of the canvas, or the browser; our “participation” as it were, is all in our heads. In videogames our different experiences are acted out, sometimes in relatively simple ways (ex. taking a different route in a platformer), and sometimes in more complex ones, like purposely playing the game “wrong” to create a different experience. In games, the cooperative nature of art– something that has always existed– can be taken to the next level.
My Affair With Yuna
Time for a confession: while I’ve never recorded myself doing Super Mario Speed runs or tried to beat Resident Evil in under 2 hours with only the knife, I am a challenge gamer at heart. In fact, I am the originator of the Final Fantasy X Yuna-Only No-Summoning Challenge.
*Pause for most people to go “the hell’s that?” while everyone who’s actually played FFX winces in terrible, sympathetic pain.*
For a while after FFX came out, people were making up all kinds of difficult challenges for the game, like the No Sphere Grid Challenge and the Tidus-Only Challenge. This sort of thing is pretty common among Final Fantasy fans in general, but it seemed like this trend was reaching its peak around the time X came out. While eventually every character had their own solo challenge, for years, Yuna was left out. Yuna was considered a bad character to try to solo with, because the whole premise of the game was that she was too weak to survive without protection. Yet, if you allowed her to summon her Aeons, then she became the most powerful character in the game*, completely destroying the “challenge” element of a solo run. The conventional wisdom was that a solo run that allowed summoning was too easy (and given the length of the summoning animations, too tedious anyway), while prohibiting summoning made it impossible.
Sometime in 2006, during a cold Albany winter (which was probably more relevant to all of this than you might think), I had a dangerous thought: What if a No-Summoning run with Yuna wasn’t impossible, only extremely difficult? I had to find out.
People on Gamefaqs were skeptical. How will you get past this boss, they asked, how will you survive this section where the enemies can kill poor little Yuna in one hit? And yet, I always found a way. I discovered that if you were willing to spend enough time leveling up Yuna by herself, you could pretty much brute-force your way through the entire game. Between farming for rare offensive weapon drops and power-leveling to get Yuna a support spell she wouldn’t normally learn until the end of the game, it all became possible. Check out this FAQ for more details; the user named Crystal Bangle is me.
What this meant, practically, was that I spent dozens of hours in front of the TV, staring at Yuna’s back. It was a time in my life when I needed a distraction, and did I ever find one. It was also a time when I felt very alone; I had moved to Albany after college with high hopes of building a new life for myself there, only for my few preexisting relationships to sour, while I was stuck in a dead-end job where I never met anyone. It felt appropriate to have Yuna’s companions run like cowards and leave her alone to face the monsters; it felt right for her to be all alone, hour after hour.
Even though I knew I was intentionally playing the game wrong, doing something players weren’t supposed to do, it still colored my perception of the game’s story. When the characters would talk about their duty as Guardians to protect Yuna, I found myself thinking. “What are you talking about? You guys haven’t done SHIT to protect Yuna, she’s all alone! Shut up Auron, even though you’re hot.”
What I essentially did was made another game within the larger game of FFX; a game where instead of being treated as a precious resource who was to be protected at all costs, Yuna was cast aside and had to fend for herself. While I’ve played through the storyline of FFX normally a few times, I can’t think of the game now without thinking of this “alternate” game, where all of Yuna’s companions abandoned her every single battle; hundreds, probably thousands of times over the course of the game.
To this day, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I proved that a challenge that people assumed impossible was not, and that’s kind of cool. On the other hand, I projected my problems onto this game, and spent dozens of hours staring at Yuna’s back when I could have been doing something to actively fix my problems. Maybe in a way I was addressing my problems, and I needed to do something like the Yuna No-Summoning Challenge to process what was even happening to me, but that’s an area of inquiry that goes beyond the scope of this discussion.
My torrid affair with Yuna was the only time I did a “challenge” with very specific parameters, but I’ve still spent plenty of time making games-within-games, albeit in a less anal manner. I’ve played the quest mode in Ehrgeiz as a religious zealot, using the game’s obtuse (and usually ignored) religion system to power up my weapons and steamroll through the game. I’ve played Vagrant Story while only using certain weapons, or certain spells. I’ve played Parasite Eve with a kind of God Eater Aya, using odd exploits in the game to power up the character far beyond what’s necessary to complete it. I’ve played X-Men Legends in an effort to experience the kinds of team-ups I wanted to see happen in the comics, but never did.**
Even when I’m playing the game the “normal” way, I still have certain quirks that usually customize my playthrough to a certain extent. Since I like exploring mechanics and hate replaying boss fights, I’m usually stupidly overleveled in any game with a leveling system. I also hoard items like a Doomsday prepper, regardless of whether or not I actually need them. I enjoy picking my favorite characters and giving them “Most Favorite Character” status: giving them all the best weapons and armor and stat boosts, while their teammates lag behind. This is especially satisfying to do when my MFC is technically one of the weaker ones, and I make her into an insane powerhouse for no earthly reason.
To return to my earlier point, I think having these kinds of customized gaming experiences are very much like my special meeting-of-the-minds with Kandinsky. I know I’m looking at the game in perhaps a different way than was strictly intended, yet looking at it in more than one way makes my personal connection that much more powerful. However, in traditional art, the personal experience is expressed as a kind of declaration: “To me, this painting is about ____”. In video games, it’s more of a dialogue with the game’s creators. Why did you make this character do this, when she could have done that? Why are you trying to encourage me to fight this boss now, when I still have imaginary crops to grow? Why are you trying to sell me on the power of friendship, when I feel more alone than I’ve ever been?
Let’s Play (Another Version of) This: Gaming As Performance Art
I didn’t record my YONS challenge; it was still hard to record gameplay at that time, and to be fair, it wouldn’t have made for very interesting viewing anyway. But the growing popularity of Let’s Plays adds several more dimensions to this idea that we create customized narratives and experiences within games. With an LP you can:
A) broadcast your customized narrative, so other people get the benefit of seeing the game through your eyes
B)Turn your gaming experience into a kind of performance art, using custom images, songs, and even roleplaying to add an element of improv theater to your gaming.
C)Turn your gaming experience into a communal experience of performance art, with viewers sharing their own custom art, songs and roleplaying.
Obviously I find the artistic possibilities of Let’s Plays and other performative gaming events to be fascinating, but let’s not ignore the obvious; a lot of LPs, perhaps most, are not worth watching. Most are riddled with lines like “I thought there was a health potion over here in this corner, oh wait it’s a green herb,” stuff about the logistics of playing that doesn’t add much to the experience. In a lot of cases the only reason to watch an LP is either because you’re such a huge fan of the game that you’ll watch any content related to it, or you’re stuck somewhere in your own first playthrough and are trying to figure out where you need to go next.
Sometimes though…sometimes people hit it out of the park. Take this Animal Crossing Screenshot LP, where someone turned a seemingly innocuous children’s game into a harrowing tale of psychological horror. Some LP’s can become hilarious screwball comedies, others can introduce a level of poignancy that wasn’t in the original game, particularly when the player shares a personal story that resonates with the games themes. I don’t know if I would consider Let’s Playing an art form– it’s more a weird, bastard child of several art forms, including theater and graphic novels– but to deny that there’s at least an element of art to a good LP seems quite ignorant to me.
Not only that, but the community that can build around an LP– suggesting strategies, coming up with character names, drawing LP-specific fanart, or just making funny quips at the right time– is also a creative entity. It’s art spiraling out and creating more and more art, as art in general tends to do, but this time, maybe even more so.
LPing may not be the most fascinating thing in the world, but let me put it this way; if there aren’t at least 20 Master’s Theses being written about LPing in Media Studies departments all over the world, right this second, then I no longer have any hope for academia. Because you can scoff if you want, but this is the future of art; not all art, certainly, and not all the time, but some art. Maybe even Art with a Capital A.
In the third and final article of this series, we’ll look at some of the arguments against games being art and
why they’re all shallow and dumb break them down a little bit.
*I’m a big FFX fan so OF COURSE I know that the most powerful character in the game is actually Wakka once you get Attack Reels, don’t send me hatemail. Or, do send me hatemail, that sounds interesting, just not about Wakka.
**Just FYI, Jean Grey is stupidly overpowered in the original X-Men Legends. I mean, canonically, she should be, but what’s kind of funny is I think it might have been accidental.