Behind the Veil: Art Criticism

Behind the Veil: Art Criticism

At one place I used to work, I was in charge of writing a daily column about the goings-on "behind the veil" as it were, inside the company. It was to be part gossip column, part documentary, and, like so many things we produced at that place, it was way ahead of its time. It would have been called a blog, if there had been such a thing at the time. People loved it, and it was fun to write. If more than about a thousand or so people had heard of that company I think we would have gone places.

The only problem with that column was that after about ten or so weeks we started to run out of things to say. You can only do a virtual tour of the building so many times before the coffee machine jokes start to get old. In spite of how exciting some jobs may seem to the outside observer, really, a job is just a job, and once the "newness" fades away, the drudgery sets in, and nothing is less compelling than drudgery. A thousand coffee machine jokes can't spice up a description of the same people sitting at the same desks doing the same things day after day after day after day. Trust me. Even NASA astronauts have dull days in space, and what we were doing was not space travel.

So this Column went the way of so many "Daily Dish" columns which have followed since. After a few months, when even the stuff I was making up had gotten stale, we started writing about the only thing we had left: what we'd eaten for lunch.

This "Lounge" blog at The Escapist has always been a bit more refined. We will not, for example, start writing about what we've eaten for lunch, no matter how often you demand it, nor how desperate we get for content. In fact, we'll only very rarely talk about what goes on behind our Escapist-brand veil at all. Because really, it just isn't that exciting. We sit at computers and type. That's it. Even when we get "mad as hell and can't take it any more," we vent by sitting at computers and typing. Yes, we all have dream jobs, get paid with sacks of gold and drive Ferraris to work, but while here, we sit at computers and type. It's not even close to space travel on the adventure scale. Sure there are moments of heated anxiety, rambunctious steam-blowing and general tomfoolery, but honestly, we're editors. We edit. Case closed.

Case in point: Last week I was working with several of the authors for our upcoming "Blank Canvas" issue about videogame art. We were having very energetic conversations about what makes "art," whether videogames as a whole were "art" and what kind of "videogame art" moved our very souls. It was a fabulous debate/discussion, and through it I learned a great deal about my colleagues, myself and what it means to be human. This was all internal, of course. Externally? Sitting a computer, typing. You would have been bored out of your skull had you been here, and don't think for a second that I believe this second-hand retelling is any more interesting. I'm simply making a point.

The only truly compelling thing to come out of the conversation was that it led me to wonder about my own feelings on the subject. I'm currently interviewing an artist who's worked on some pretty cool games, and is working on a new one that's so cool he can't even talk about it. But we had a nice email conversation about what he believes is art, his background and how he approaches the art he makes for his games. I also spoke with a colleague about one of my favorite games (Psychonauts) and how the game's art style contributes to what we both believe is one of the more fascinating game experiences available today.

This led me to wonder about a couple of "arty" games about which I'd heard a great deal, but hadn't yet tried. The first is Okami, and aside from the fact that it's made its way to the top of my "must buy" list, I have nothing to report. I'll get around to this one in a week or so.

The second is Legend of Zelda: Windwaker. I've had Wind Waker on my shelf for about two years now - it was one of the first games I bought when I purchased a Gamecube for $50 at Costco - but I've never gotten around to playing it. Mainly because I got frustrated with Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past a while back and decided to re-evaluate my obsession with young boys in green tights (that could be misinterpreted).

So imagine my surprise when Wind Waker captivated me from the very first moment I turned it on this weekend. It will probably take me ages to get through it, but I'm having the time of my life, and now remember why the Zelda games have such a faithful following. They're crafted to be "experiences," and go beyond what we typically expect from games.

I just watched a video of a string quartet playing the Zelda theme and it reminded me of the chills that went up my spine upon hearing the Wind Waker arrangement of that same tune several years ago, before the game came out. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but Zelda has always been one of the rare games I can play over and over, and of which I'll never tire. When a new entry in the series captures that same magic, like Wind Waker has, it stirs something buried very deep inside me, and I feel a joy unlike any other. I dare say (at the risk of triteness overload) that it's almost like being in love.

Are videogames art? I think that's something you have to decide for yourself. I'm certainly no judge. My taste in art ranges from Toulouse Lautrec prints to old cigarette ads to Polaroid transfers of dead things arranged in "artful" ways - certainly a definition of "art" that's subject to some debate. But I agree with the definition of "art" as "something that creates an emotional response." According to that definition, I'd have to say that, yes, videogames are art. At least the best of them are, and that thought makes me very excited for the years ahead, when developers who haven't known a time without videogames begin applying techniques and technology that by that time will have become second nature to creating virtual representations of the thoughts inside their heads; like the best filmmakers do today. Scorcese, I'm looking at you.

Maybe that person is already here. Maybe it's Miyamoto. If so, then I suppose my question is, when people ask the question "Where's the Lester Bangs of videogames?" why aren't they spending more time talking about the actual games themselves? After all, to have a good art critic, you need good art. Or at least the ability to define it. Don't you?

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There is a lot of talk around the "Are videogames art?" question. I think the answer is, just like in any other media, that some of them are. Not all movies are art, not all paintings are art, neither are all books. While I quite agree with the definition that art creates emotional response, I would expand that art is also able to communicate visions, ideas of its author. The problem is that very few games have a real author - an equivalent of writer, director or painter - and it shows. Doom was a great gaming experience, I still can remember many romps through its levels, but I wouldn't call it an art. Perhaps a great achievement of inspired programmers and level designers, a quality product that fulfills the promises of its producer, but not art. Most of the games are in this category. I like Splinter Cell, acknowledge its production values and enjoy it a lot, but from the art viewpoint it is still just a glorified Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book for pre-teen boys. Or, if you want, a generic Michael Bay film with sub-par casting. Enjoyable, but forgettable and easily substituted with similar product (or a new game in the same franchise).

On the other hand, the mentioned Psychonauts are what I would call an art. Everything in that game - the artwork, level design, script, voice-overs - was directed towards the goal of communicating a vision of its creator. I think there are still only a handful of games that fit into the same category as Psychonauts, the last such experience for me was Shadow of the Collossus. And I am definitely waiting for Okami to show up here on European shores.

I'm interested to see what you think of Wind Waker once you get the boat. There's something about the vastness of the ocean (and how tiny the islands themselves are) that I find inescapably lonely. I think it echoes the same loneliness that the environments in Shadow of the Colossus evoke. Although it may be a stretch to call the entire game a work of art, I did think that aspect of the game was done extremely well.

You already know my feelings on art and Psychonauts, but I will say this: I think art is more than just something that creates an emotional response. That's not giving the idea of art enough credit. For example: I've been known to cry at the finale to American Idol, but even though the show evokes an emotional response from me, I'm certainly not going to argue that it's art. :) I think that art's more than just an emotional response - it's more like an emotional resonance, something that hits you deep down inside as 'true' or 'real'. Of course, as you pointed out, we all have our own definitions of art; I'm just putting forth mine.

Yes, the sailing is nice, which is a pleasant surprise. Many of the reviews I'd read suggested that the mechanic was flawed in some way. My guess is those reviewers just don't like boats. I love them, and being in them. The island setting of Wind Waker has really resonated with me.

Some day, when I begin to tire of the thrilling life of a jet-setting game journalist, I'm going to make good on my promise from long ago to buy a houseboat.

The other lovely thing about Wind Waker, aside from the feeling of being on the open water and the evocative art style, is the effort they put into making the game feel seamless. I'm through the second "dungeon" now, and both times I entered one I hadn't really realized I'd done so until the subtitle came up on the screen. I think they really captured the feeling of exploration with this one.

Frankly, I don't buy the postmodern notion that "Everything is art, man," because that leads to the dire state of the public arts today, where bolting a urinal to a wall is a wonderful statement, rather than what it should properly be called, which is, "building a bathroom."

As to the "are games art?" question, most aren't, some might be, but the problem lies in accessibility. The problem with games-as-art is that it is very, very difficult to play a game that's 10 years old, generally speaking. I have games in my apartment that are less than five years old that cannot be played due to hardware/software/gremlin changes. Would we even know about the Mona Lisa, much less call it great art, if we didn't know it existed because the "painting format" went obselete two hundred years ago? Can we really consider a game great art when it only exists in the minds of those who played it twenty years ago before the world moved on? I think great art has a timeless quality to it that electronic entertainment doesn't have yet. Can you call something art (in the "great art" sense) if it doesn't exist anymore? I guess on a theoretical level you could, but on the practical level, probably not.

I think that's where we see console games transcending, Shannon. I could still, theoretically, play every console game ever made if I had both console and game.

I don't think the electronic nature of the medium limits it from being art, then again, I've worked with multi-media performance artists who created one-time, discordant displays of light, sound and theatre that could not be reproduced with any amount of technology or will and I'd sure as hell call some of those performances "art." Most of them, in fact.

I don't think that "everything" is art, but I'm not nearly as conservative with my definition as you seem to be. And personally, I think that's fantastic. Art should be debated about and questioned. Is art defined by the artist or the observer? I'd say "both."

Sure, I don't have a problem with people having seperate definitions. It's a very Zen kinda debate. If art falls in the forest and nobody hears it, is it still art?

Only if it makes the sound of one art clapping.

I'm feeling Zen today. Blame Miyamoto.

The art debate... again.

Games are experiences, they are "just" that. Games aren't always there for fun, they aren't always there to give a story. They aren't always entertaining, they aren't always boring. Games are things their creaters made for the consumer to experience. Games are nothing more or less then that.

Are experiences art? I'm not going to answer that.

Art is like time. Both are concepts, "infinitely resistent to definition." In essence "art" is an empirical generalization. We each create a group of things we consider art and that becomes our description, not definition, of art. Thus, it is an amorphous concept that is dynamically defined by the individual. It is impossible to define art, because we cannot stipulate the necessary and sufficient conditions (i.e. definition) of what makes a thing art. We simply have to accept that fact, because all of us will never agree on what those necesary and sufficient conditions are. A more eloquent and less pedantic way to put it is simply, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

As for time...the best "definition" I have ever heard is that time exists so that, "everything doesn't happen at once." However, again, that is more of a description than a definition.

 

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