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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