Usually, when Japanese games are censored in the west or denied release at all, it’s a moot point for me because it wasn’t a game I wanted to play. When a risqué feature was removed from the English-language version of the mobile game How to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon: Memoria Freese, I thought that the game should not have been changed, but I wasn’t that invested in the subject. I am anti-censorship, but I understand that private companies aren’t obligated to localize features they think won’t do well in their market, etc. etc. etc. It didn’t seem like that big a deal overall.
Now the game Omega Labryinth Z has been cancelled outright, and this seems a lot more important to me, only because it sounds like something I want to play. Ever since trying Lightning Warrior Raidy almost (gasp) ten years ago, I’ve been kind of intrigued by the naughty-dungeon-crawler genre. I haven’t devoted the time to play any besides Raidy, but I’ve always wanted to go back and explore the subgenre. I’m not generally a fan of ero media– I’ve seen maybe two hentai anime in my entire life– but something about the combination of really ribald sexual humor and the grindy, meticulous gameplay of roguelike dungeon-crawlers appeals to me. It seems like a fun send-up of the type of masochism inherent to the genre. Plus, I don’t need much of an excuse to play a dungeon-crawler.
According to Eurogamer, the reason why the game was canned (by Sony itself, no less) is because of the youth of the characters: the girls are explicitly minors, making their sexualization unacceptable in Western markets. This is a problem that always leaves me scratching my head, because while I understand the reticence regarding sexualization and children in general terms, anime girl drawings are not minors.
Some anime depict children that look like children and adults that look like adults, but a lot of anime media portrays characters of an indeterminate age, and you need to know the background of the story to know what age anyone is supposed to be. Anime use similar designs for characters that are supposed to be 13, 23, even 33 or 43 at times. Just to pick a recent example, in Comic Girls, Kaos’ mother doesn’t look any older than the rest of the girls on the show; she’s just dressed in a more mature fashion. One of the things I commented on while watching Comic Girls was that Ruki is supposed to be 14 years old, but successfully pulls off an “older sister” act to an audience of 30-something women with only the aid of a little lipstick and eye shadow. Age is just weird in anime and it’s sister media.
I’m not saying “age is weird in anime” is a handwave that can be used to dismiss any criticisms or concerns about the sexualization of minors, but it does make me wonder. The developers could have choose to make everyone in the game exactly 19-years-and-four-months old, and then the sexualization would have been deemed acceptable, even if neither the artwork or writing had been changed in any way other than that.
I’m not getting super-upset here and calling for a boycott of Sony or anything; actually, considering my love of PSX-era games, boycotting Sony would hurt me a helluva lot more than it would ever hurt them. I just wonder what opponents of this sort of game being localized expect to happen. If this continues, when developers of erotic Japanese games want their product to have an opportunity to sell in the west, they’ll just change their premise from “everyone is always in high school!” to “everyone is always in college,” while leaving everything else exactly the same. Does that solve the underlying problem here, assuming there is one?
In any case, reading about this issue has given me an urge to play a hentai dungeon crawler again, and Lightning Warrior Raidy was never really my cup of tea; I may have to import Omega Labryinth Z. If I do, I’ll be sure to let you know how that goes, in exquisite (excruciating?) detail.
Here’s the official trailer if you want to get an idea what the game looks like; for more detail on the gameplay, look forward to my upcoming Let’s Play! HAHAHAHAHAHA…am I kidding? I’m not sure. I might not be kidding.
So my last Tomb Raider-related blog post was, uh *checks watch,* seven years ago. Look, you can see this as me being lazy and abandoning a project for too long, oryou can see it as me valiantly attempting to combat the view that popular entertainment is disposable by refusing to bow to the quiet tyranny of time; the choice is yours.
The Urban Problem
I have a lot of problems with Venice, in fact with this whole Venetian level set, and it makes me feel kind of bad. I know these levels are largely beloved by fans, and I wish I could feel the same. But from the first time I played this level, back in 1998, I found it tedious and frustrating, and I’ve never been able to shake that feeling. Even now, when I have the level mostly memorized and can zip through it pretty fast, I still find it frustrating.
The first problem is that urban environments present practical problems for Tomb Raider, as a franchise. If we’re supposed to be in a city, where are all the people? Well, there are lots of gun-toting Bartoli henchman, but where all the non-packing, non-insane people? Putting in neutral NPCs would probably create as many problems as it would solve, but it still feels weird to be running around a city where no one lives; it’s kind of antithetical to the whole concept of the series, really. The whole set up of Tomb Raider implies that you don’t run into any people, because they all died thousands of years ago; when you’re in a modern city, and there’s still no people, you’re reminded of the artificiality of the situation pretty bluntly.
Yes, in the back of your mind, even in the first game, you always know you’re playing a video game; it’s not like making TRII Venice look more populated would really change that. But I think it’s safe to say that Tomb Raider achieves a higher level of immersion when set in, err, tombs, versus modern environments. Interestingly I think they pulled this off better with the London levels in Tomb Raider III, since in that level set, it felt like it was about 4:30 A.M. there and Lara was exploring mostly abandoned buildings anyway, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first vehicle you can ride in all of Tomb Raider and I…don’t like it too much. Maybe this is just me, but I feel like I’m constantly getting on an off the damn thing when I don’t want to, and it happens a lot less with later vehicles.
The second major problem is I think the level’s primary puzzle is a bit too clever for its own good. Maybe I’m just mad that I blew up Lara about a zillion times on the mines trying to clear this level as a teen, but I still think the boat puzzle is too hard to figure out without the aid of a strategy guide. I mean, this is the first TR level in history where they even give you a vehicle, and you’re supposed to figure out a)that you can completely destroy it and b)you can jump out of it at the last second before an explosion? My memory is a little hazy, but I think at the time, I thought you were supposed to improve your speedboat piloting skills to the point where you could navigate between the mines; obviously, this didn’t work out so hot for me.
On one hand, I complain that this puzzle is too unintuitive. On the other, I know that if this game were made today, NPCs and in-game prompts would probably give you about 47 hints about what you were supposed to do, and there would be no satisfaction when you solved it. Maybe I’m just never happy?
Eventually I destroyed one boat pretty much by luck, and forgot the second one existed, so I completed the level the wussy-way; swimming through the gate and completely missing the harried boat ride through half the level. Imagine my surprise when I started the next level and Lara was in yet another speedboat.
Is it possible that very few players were stymied by this puzzle, and I was just being dense? I guess it’s possible. Besides, I have to admit, when you do know what you have to do and you succeed with the timed boat challenge– complete with taking your boat to places where boats are definitely not meant to go– it is pretty darn satisfying.
The Joy of Awning Hopping
It’s hard for me to see past the negatives with this level, mostly because of bad memories from 20 years ago messing with my perception. However, if I give Venice a fair shake, there are some really nice elements here. Jumping from awning to awning is much more fun than it should be; same with jumping up to the fancy glass windows, shooting them out and then running inside. Somewhere out there, there is custom level that’s all about jumping on awnings and shooting out fancy windows on raised overpasses, and I really need to be playing it right now.
I also like the secret placement; sure, burying two little dragons in the black depths of an underwater catacomb is a little harsh, but if you haven’t figured out by this point in the game that they’ve been handing you buckets of flares for a reason, that’s on you.
Once you get this mysterious door open, that’s when the fun starts. I can never get enough of scouring dark catacombs for shiny things, especially when there are lots and lots of shiny things.
Have I mentioned that love collecting flares in this game? I feel like they’re the closest thing to money in the game, so my hoarding instinct takes over; I’m pretty sure I’ve finished the game with 60+ flares in my inventory. It’s like a game-within-a-game to see how well I can get along with stumbling around in complete and total darkness without using the obvious tool. Hey, did you know that in a pinch, you can use your pistols instead? Lara’s pistols illuminate the area around her briefly, so if you fire them like they’re tiny little machine guns, you can almost see where you’re going for a little while there. Sadly, this does not work underwater, which is where you tend to need flares the most, but oh well.
Speaking of the swimming element, it’s cool to be swimming along, pull up on a dock, shoot some henchmen, jump back in the water and get on with your day. In practice I always get Lara shot about twice as often as she needs to and end up getting frustrated, but that doesn’t change the fact that the idea of it is cool.
Is there some kind of theme park attraction where you’re in an entirely floating city, and you can climb up on the dock to buy ice cream or something, but then jump back in the water to swim to the next attraction? Because that sounds like it would be insanely fun. I may have to stop playing Tomb Raider for a bit and petition all my local waterparks to implement this feature.
Best: Hands down, the best part of the level SHOULD be doing the timed boat race, which is really innovative and feels exhilarating when you pull it off, but as you now know, I have a love-hate relationship with that puzzle. So instead, I’m going to say that the best part is the whole sewer-like area you enter after getting the first speedboat; you may burn through flares like mad, but it’s a blast finding all of the hidden items and secrets. Those uzi clips nearly buried in the sand in a dark corner underwater…*chef’s kiss*
Worst: The excessive number of enemies in the first area, especially the one that pops up after you pull the switch in the boathouse. We’re just getting used to fighting human enemies in TR2, and you throw like five of these bozos at us? Plus mean dogs? No thank you.
Rating: Two Uzi Clips Out of Five
This is my honest opinion; please don’t hurt me.
Coming Next: Bartoli’s Hideout, where I’m going to try to put aside all my issues with Venice as a whole and just play the damned level.
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.
This is an interesting topic that I feel doesn’t really get its due. People argue about it a lot, but what they mostly seem to argue about are issues regarding accountability and pretentiousness, and not the very nature of art and whether or not that can change. I want to attempt to get to the heart of the matter, with the caveat that any question about art can go off in a lot of different directions, some of which may not seem relevant.
I should probably start out by saying that I’m conflicted on the existence of a division between art and “entertainment.” Some people answer this question, not just about games but with any medium, with the statement that something can be art, but it isn’t necessarily art just by virtue of belonging to a particular medium. For example, Schindler’s List is an example of the art of cinema; the latest Michael Bay explosion-fest is not. This is a useful way of framing things, because it allows for a pretty broad view of what art is without seemingly cheapening the very idea of art by including any piece of nonsense that just happens to be recorded on paper or film. The reason why I can’t quite buy this is because sometimes, works of supposedly derivative, cheap entertainment have more meaning to me (and are therefore more artfully done, in my view), then so-called artistic productions, meaning I would be a hypocrite to say I really believed in the art/entertainment distinction. I kind of wish I could, because it has a lot of advantages, but that’s just not how I see it.
Okay, disclaimers out of the way, is a video game art or not? Well, you’ve got a bunch of concept artists creating visuals for the game, sometimes making beautiful watercolor paintings of the characters and settings, which is unquestionably art. You’ve got musicians writing scores for the game, which is unquestionably art. You’ve got writers writing scripts for the games’ story, which is a little harder to justify as art (since a lot of people have a low opinion of games writers, and not for nothing), but nevertheless, fiction writing in general is art. That doesn’t seem to be in dispute.
So in order for a game not to be art, you would need for all of these different artistic elements to be combined, at which point they somehow magically cancel each other out and the finished product is not art. Despite the watercolor paintings, despite the musical scores, despite the character writing, despite the cinematography, they are not art. Art +Art +Art +Art= NOT ART.
Does this make sense to anyone? Because I’ve never seen the logic of it myself. I guess people use the entertainment/art workaround to say that in the case of games, Art +Art +Art= Entertainment, but as stated above I’m not comfortable with that distinction. So, just based on very simple logic, it seems clear that games are art. However, that covers the act of making the game: the game was made by different kinds of artists, who expressed their feelings within the game to some extent. Fair enough, not too controversial. However, is there art to playing the game? Are you experiencing art when you level up in an RPG, or are you just like a digital hamster on a wheel, finding a pleasant (if somewhat numbing) way to pass the time? This is where things start to get interesting for me.
The Art of Item Farming
I picked an image from Atelier Rorona as the header for this post for several reasons. One, I think it’s a good game and I had a lot of fun playing it, and two, I think it provides a good illustration of the problem we have if we just glibly say “Games are art, dammit,” and leave it at that.
The Atelier games have pretty, detailed character images, soothing music that makes you long to explore the world, and well-realized characters that all have their own struggles and quirks. The quality of the art that goes into it– drawing, scoring, writing– is always solid, if not exceptional. It seems like a no-brainer that Atelier contains lots of art, and therefore is art, but what are you actually doing when you play the game? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re hoarding tons of imaginary items, in the hopes of making better imaginary items, in hopes of accessing the area where you can get the very BEST imaginary items, at which point you will no longer need any of them, because you already beat the main game 50 hours ago.
Is that really the food-for-the-soul that art is supposed to be? Is waiting for a rare drop– a kind of playing chicken with a soulless random number generator that seems to be unique to video games– really an enriching experience, something that makes you question your perspective, your entire reality? Does it make you feel and think the way art is supposed to?
Well, from experience I can tell you that hunting rare drops does make you wonder “Why am I fighting this monster for the 500th time to get the rare wand it’s probably never going to drop? What am I doing with my life? WHAT IS MY LIFE EVEN????” so, err, I guess if you want to be strict about it, even the most banal parts of video games are thought-provoking; it’s just that the one thought they usually provoke is that you were stupid to get so obsessed with the damned game in the first place. But, beyond provoking that particular line of internal questioning, does often tedious gameplay qualify as art?
I’m still working this out. To return to Atelier, the game has definitely made me feel things; I am slightly in love with Sterk, Rorona’s gruff but caring protector. I felt pride when I got good scores on my alchemy tests, an almost parental sort of pride that I was turning Rorona into a skilled alchemist. I’ve related to some of the characters stories, which made me experience certain emotions, albeit not super-strong emotions; Atelier isn’t a dramatic type of game, but you don’t have to break down in tears for something to have touched you emotionally, right? So, I feel safe calling at least part of the experience art.
However, the time I spend hoarding items, grinding, and experimenting with the crafting system– sometimes spending hours to accomplish something of no more significance than adding a few points to the stats of one imaginary sword– is that art? If it’s not, does that mean that the experience of Atelier Rorona is only intermittently art? So I’m consuming art during the story sequences, or when a particularly nice track of music plays, but not during the bulk of the experience, which is the play itself?
The idea of intermittent art probably sounds weird, but I think it’s one possible way of viewing the experience of video games. The alternate way is to include the entire thing as art– even those hours of seemingly pointless item farming. This may seem like a stretch, but bear with me here: after all, what disqualifies this experience from being art, exactly? It’s tedious, but as tedious as making it all the way through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? Doubtful. Don’t get me wrong, Proust’s saga is a work of genius and all, but anyone who’s read it and claims never to have been even a little bit bored or annoyed is a liar, full stop. The operas that make up Wagner’s famed Ring Cycle take about 17 hours altogether; riveting for some true opera fans, but stultifying for others. And in the visual arts, well…just imagine looking at a whole exhibit full of Jackson Pollocks. The first one is kind of cool, but by piece number 5, you’re left with nothing left to keep you occupied than try to spot the cigarette butts still sticking out of the paint.
So clearly tedium isn’t a disqualification, in and of itself. However, with Proust and Wagner and Jackson Pollock, at least they created things that meant something, right? Sure they could be tedious to consume at times, but in the service of a noble goal. On the other hand, plugging away at video games is completely and utterly pointless, and therefore, not art, right?
Except…what is the point of a narrative where a man recounts his boring childhood in ridiculous detail and never amounts to much of anything? What’s the point of slapping some paint on canvas and putting it on the wall? I’m tempted to say “What’s the point of a Wagner opera?” only I’m afraid music fanatics would hunt me down and shoot me*, so let’s just say that everything that Wagner created is an end in and of itself.
Seriously though, of what practical use is a lot of art? In the pre-photography age, portrait painting at least qualified as a form of documentation, but that hasn’t been necessary for a long time. The only use for a lot of art, maybe most art, is “I enjoy it,” or “It makes me feel something,” and so on. Those are justifications that can apply to video games too. What’s the difference?
This is where I fully expect to lose people. “Okay, so maybe most art has little practical use, but still, there’s a huge difference between looking at a Rembrandt and grinding for a rare item in Final Fantasy! What the hell are you even saying?”
I admit, I’m not entirely sure yet. But it seems like the tedium of most gameplay is rejected as art not because it’s practically useless (which most art is anyway), but because supposedly it doesn’t make you feel and grow and change. If you spend an hour looking at a great painting versus an hour playing a game, in the first instance you have presumably thought various deep thoughts and in some sense, enriched yourself; in the second instance, you have only passed time with an activity.
Is that really true though? Are we all effectively brain-dead when we play games, and when we stop playing, it’s as though we’ve awakened from sleep? I don’t think so. I know I’ve had thoughts and feelings while doing tedious tasks in games; sometimes, I think it’s because of the tedium that I have deeper thoughts– the front of my mind is occupied with game mechanics, while I’m contemplating something a lot more important in the background.
To bring it all together, if the defining difference between art and not-art is that art enriches as well as occupies you, who decides what counts as enrichment? And if you honestly feel more from playing a certain game than you do from looking at a certain painting– even if the gameplay is derivative and repetitive– is that a flaw in you? Or a flaw in our conception of how art is supposed to work?
Nostalgia for Terrible Controls
Another problem with trying to excise the gameplay from the definition of art, while allowing other elements to remain art, is that gameplay can enhance other artistic elements. For example, the early Resident Evil games were notorious for their sluggish “tank” controls; it was hard to get your character to go anywhere fast, which was a problem when surrounded by ravenous zombies. Some consider the controls to be a shortcoming of what was otherwise a good horror series, but personally, I think they were an integral part of the experience.
Traditionally, zombies are slow enemies. The pitiable regular enemies in RE moved at a snail’s pace; if your character was nimble, how would they even catch you, let alone hurt you? The controls, along with the claustrophobic way the environments were designed, were what allowed the game to feature challenge. More importantly, the controls intensified the feeling of helplessness and despair that the game was trying to evoke. Have you ever had a dream where something terrifying was after you, but your legs felt like lead and you couldn’t move? That’s what the RE controls were like. This is a case where mechanics interfaced and contributed to narrative intent. If the mechanics are playing a role in the narrative, aren’t they part of the entire emotional package, otherwise known as art?
Things have changed in regard to game controls. In the ’90s, while people certainly complained about controls, there seemed to be a certain allowance for games having idiosyncratic control schemes that took a while to master. Currently, if a game’s controls aren’t immediately intuitive to the majority of players, that seems to be considered a flaw. So if anything, it seems like controls being reflective of narrative is something that’s becoming LESS important over time, but nevertheless, it’s still a phenomenon worth considering.
Also, don’t get me wrong: a lot of people hated the RE controls with good reason. Making the controls sluggish as a way to control the game experience was not necessarily the best way to create a certain mood; nevertheless, it worked, at least for some players. Another seminal game where the controls were integral to the experience was Tomb Raider; how did we know that Lara was cold, aloof, stand-offish? For one thing, because no matter how you fiddled with the controls, you could never get her to turn around and look at you.**
So if we want to separate game mechanics from the more obviously art-qualifying parts of video games, like story and visual design and music, we would have to discount the way that the controls and general gameplay can interact with those artistic elements. Which they do, always and constantly, in every single game.
So, yeah…being able to make a clean separation between game mechanics and other game content would give us a clear line of demarcation. Unfortunately, in order to divide games into parts that are art versus not-art, you would have to ignore how all the different parts of games play off and resonate with each other, and who wants to do that? No one who cares about video games, that’s for sure.
So far, we’ve looked at the creation of games and the consumption of them as two different elements; in the next part, we’ll go into how a big part of art is creating your own experience of it, and how that applies to video games.
*I’ve read that Wagner always ranks really high whenever anyone does a ‘Best Composers of All Time’ list, and music lovers seem to be quite enamored with him. Saying that Wagner’s work is “pointless” may be grounds for war among chamber orchestra members, and I never pick fights with people holding brass instruments.
**This is an oversimplification: You could see Lara’s face in the early Tomb Raiders, but usually, only if you backed her into a wall…which, err, is not as bad as it sounds. Still, most of the time you only saw Lara’s back.
Confession Time: This installment is late because I changed gears. Originally, I wanted to do an overview of the current academic research regarding gender in video games, but it didn’t work out. Many of the papers are stuck behind academic paywalls I don’t have access to (which I should have surmised, but was in denial about), and the few papers openly available on the internet…are kind of awful? I can’t say so with authority, since I’m not any kind of an expert on social science research, but it seems like there are gaping flaws in the methodology of these studies that even a newbie can see: suspiciously small sample sizes, strongly opinionated language in the abstract that makes it seem like the conclusions were chosen before the study was even started, etc.
That said, there could be great research about gender as portrayed in video games out there, somewhere; I’m just not currently in a position to find it. However, for someone currently involved in academic research who has access to all these scholarly databases, I think this presents an intriguing area for study; look at all the papers on this topic, and see which ones pass muster as proper research, and which are fluff designed to bolster specific preconceived ideas. Once again, I can only speculate, but I would bet money that a lot of these studies will turn out to be light and inconsequential as a feather.*
So instead of delving into academic research, which I’m clearly ill-equipped to do, I’m going to try something else: talk about how we can analyze video games as though we were doing it from scratch. Before any serious data collection about gender representation can be done, I think there are some very basic questions that need to be addressed, yet are rarely mentioned.
Last week, I read Laura Hudson’s The Videogame that Finally Made Me Feel Like a Human Being. Though no doubt a honest and heartfelt piece, I find I have difficulty relating to where Hudson is coming from when she talks of a world of gaming that is overwhelmingly hostile to women, because that just hasn’t been my experience. Considering how common these articles about how unpleasant it is to be a woman in gaming are lately, I thought maybe it was time for me to share an alternate perspective.
Before I begin: nothing I say here is meant to refute the fact that sexism exists and causes problems. It is an account of how I came to be a female who plays games– and a fairly sensitive and analytical one at that– who doesn’t feel like the entire medium is dehumanizing.
In Day Four of Parasite Eve, Aya races to St. Francis Hospital to get to the sperm bank before Eve does. I have decided that, at least for the purposes of today, I am actually twelve years old and the whole concept of a sperm bank is hysterical. I’m going to try to mention it as much as humanly possible.
I’m taking a break from the annotated PE playthrough to focus on one of my favorite aspects of the game: the music.
I want to confess up front that despite being a fan of music, I actually know very little about it, so any comments here on instruments/composition/etc. will be necessarily vague. All I can really talk about is how I feel about the music, not it’s innate properties. Disclaimers section over. Continue reading Parasite Eve: Special Soundtrack Edition→
I’ve always been a fan of the “Your home base is now infested with monsters” event. Familiar territory becomes exciting again, and as an added bonus, for once you know where the hell you’re going. When they say “Ben is upstairs”, you already know where the upstairs staircase is! Sweet.