Wednesday, September 27, 2006

LLHOQ-bert

So I've been hearing about this thing they've got now called Games As Art. Folk will tell you, see, that videogames is[1] the ascendant art form of the Twenty-First Century. They'll point, well, invariably they'll point to Rez and Ico and they'll go, look see, isn't it so amazing that we can do things that make a point in videogames? Haven't we come a long way from our origins which of course we respect and revere and isn't it a fascinating debate for THE THOUSANDTH FUCKING TIME as to whether Spacewar indeed predated in the truest sense of the word Pong? Nolan Bushnell got a telephone call to say how can you empty the bucket with all the coins in it, but he couldn't take it because he was in Russia negotiating the purchase of Tetris from the Mob who wanted to bury him in a hole in the desert next to the thousands of cartridges of ET The Extra Fucking Terrestrial that they couldn't sell, isn't this a rich and vibrant art form with a colourful and interesting history?

I don't trust this. Yes, of course videogames are an art. What's so amazing about that? As a wise man once told me, call something art, it's art; that's not to say it's good art[2]. And, well, exactly.

Is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City art? Of fucking course it is; to deny that would be as stupid as denying that Miami Vice was some of the most influential art of the 1980s. Is the civilization series art? You buffoon: the civilization series is trenchant commentary if ever there was trenchant commentary of our time about societies and their machines, and it's also a masterful piece of design that speaks without having to rely on narrative. So yes, the civilization series is art.

Crude Buster: underrated art[3]. Super Mario 64: overrated art. Terranigma: where most games get a storyline and immediately just become really badly made films, Terranigma crafts interactive narrative to give players one of the most moving Messianic storylines in any recent media. You best believe it's art. And, just so's we're not being picky here, the ludologically-better-than-you-remember and narratologically-nowhere-near-as-good Final Fantasy series are also art.

But the point here is not to be handing out lofty distinctions willy-nilly: the point is to be asserting that - look, I'm repeating myself here - all videogames are art; so what? "Being Art" isn't a value-judgment, any more than "being machinery" is.

But this is where people get hung up. People think that if they want to be taken seriously as artists and consumers of art (as opposed to stinky little punks who hang out in EB grooving to the collected greatest hits of the Crystal Method while they wait for 50 cent: Bulletproof), they have to champion Art In Games.

And so we get stuck with self-indulgent silliness that, more often than not, is such a Design Document or a Philosophy In Ludology that, goddammit, there's just no game there. If you want your game to be art, your game does not have to look like an art game. This is like buying into the idea that, if you make a movie with Jason Schwartzman in it and Frou Frou on the soundtrack, that your film will be an Indie film.

Which, GODFUCKINGDAMMIT. I was walking to work, idly thinking about something that had been niggling in my mind, and then I got home and some fucker had said exactly what I dreaded someone saying. (Go for the teeth-grating wrongness, stay for the how-to for the Best Art Game You'll Ever Play, leave before he starts Waxing).

"We need a new word for videogames", says Stuart, of World Of fame. How catastrophically wrong you are, my clever Poolean chum! A new word is exactly what this young, brash, intensely irritating and arrogant and obnoxious and occasionally transcendently brilliant art form does not need!

[5] How long were people digging on comic books before some fuckwad decided we should start calling them Graphic Novels? Just the sound of it makes the skin crawl, does it not? "Oh, it's a novel, and it's graphic, how utterly peau-meau!" HOW STUPID. Thanks to whatever shit-eating world-hater invented the Graphic Novel, you have a subcategory of underground mole-people whose entire existence is based on assigning arbitrary designations to works which will forever, in the minds of a certain class of people, link them with either Artistic Merit or Pulp Trashiness. My local liberry shelves Grant Morrison's Christ-and-postmodernism epic Animal Man next to the Buffy comics, whereas worthy tomes like Grant Morrison's Christ-and-postmodernism epic, The Invisibles, get the hallowed "graphic novel" status; THEY'RE ALL FUNNYBOOKS, PEOPLE. Know what's a good graphic novel? The Cold Six Thousand. Dude, a fella gets his head caved in with a golf club, that shit's graphic as all hell.

Similarly, soons as someone started using the term "film" as a synonym for "better than movies", that's when The Dominant Art Form Of The Twentieth Century started to show chinks in its armour[6]. Honestly, can you think of anything more vomitously pretentious than trying to pretend like this was a distinction worth making? (Of course, as mentioned above, nowadays we're far too smart for that, and we do all our arbitrary-value-judging on whether a film is an Indie Pic - right on! - or a Studio Film - damn the man!)

The "art comic" has its hallmarks that frighten people off, straight into the waiting arms of genuine, artistic-merit-for-Africa works that don't parade their own Worthiness about the place. The "indie flick" is fast showing its own self-restrictive styleset and becoming the postmillennial butt of all the jokes that, throughout the Nineties, we used to make about the "art film". And just so, the "art videogame" is becoming a genre no less restrictive than the first-person shooter or the invisible-man rape simulator.

Why, for instance, do self-styled "game artists" so often see their expression lying in videogaming's inherent ability to comment on evolution? Yes, certainly: Super Mario Brothers included an element of growth and evolving as a character, and it's oh, oh so very clever of you to pick up on that, Rez; but you know what? Having a player who changes forms as the game progresses isn't really saying anything about evolution, other than, yes, it is a thing which is in both the world and in videogames. (It's not as if Rez, for all its new-age mumbo-jumbo about evolving and migrating and so forth, actually offers the player any sort of interesting potential for mutation or selection or any of the principles which make evolution so interesting or contentious: the little meditating-disco-ball-man takes more hits than the crude slices-of-paper-man, but apart from that they're basically the same thing, and one is an inevitable progression from the other).

To put it another way, "art videogames" about evolution don't really take the level of discourse any further than, here's a thing that happens lots in videogames as a structural necessity, let's think about that, shall we. And this is basically like if all guitar rock was lyrically confined to the notion that guitar solos and key-changes are a metaphor for the joys of human growth. (Which would make Kiss' God Gave Rock 'n' Roll To You the apotheosis of the genre. Which, actually... naaah).

To conclude, then: videogames. Always art. Only sometimes good. Categorising terms which apply an arbitrary value-judgment: not, it would appear, among My Favourite Things.


NOTES

[1] You've got to watch how you use that term, I guess. I just without thinking typed it in mocking irreverence, but thinking about it, it smacks of the loathsome practice of well-read and fascinating individuals such as Mr. Scott McCloud and Mr. Art Spiegelman to refer to their art as "comics" or even "comix", as in, "comics is an art form that can do such and such". Which is just crying out to be Appropriated and Appreciated and Thrown Off A Bridge In The Dead Of Night.
[2] I can't claim to have made this up, but I've used it so often I think we can agree it's mine now. I actually have much the same attitude toward science. This disturbs my scientist friends no end.
[3] I tried to think of the least obvious contender for the term "art", and this immediately sprung to mind: ridiculous, overblown, ludicrous, ugly and mutated by its own surfeit of testosterone, it's as much a work of value-judgment-defined "art" as is Rambo: First Blood Part II. However, having said that, both Rambo and Crude Buster boast a deceptive level of craftsmanship, so maybe they're not the best contenders after all. Hell, just pretend I said State Of Emergency[4], okay?
[4] State Of Emergency is actually far from the worst game I have ever played. The worst game I have ever played is SNK/Saurus' Irritating Maze, whose title earns itself a distinction by, in a medium rife with hyperbole, understating its case approximately a googlefold. And also being inaccurate: Irritating Maze's playing fields are really more pathways.
[5] This paragraph will serve a point, and said Point will tie into my larger Point, but you may well've heard it all before, and if that's the case, resume reading right after I (re)use the joke about misuse of the word "graphic".
[6] This was because the first "movie" described by critics as a "film" was Genghis Khan. Y'see, cause chinks, and armour, and... yeah, you'd probably better stop here.