Hello friends and enemies. Some time in the past, film critic Roger Ebert stated that video games are not art – scratch that – can never be art, like film can be. As a film critic, there’s probably some built-in prejudice to his position. Additionally, it would appear that he has never played any video games at all, let alone some (or one) of the titles that are often cited as artistic – examples being Shadow of the Colossus, Psychonauts and Fallout.
Our immediate thought regarding the debate was, “why does it matter?” Why would Mr. Ebert be concerned with stating so emphatically that video games are not art, and can never be? Is it because, more and more often, video games are being compared to films and Mr. Ebert resents the comparison? Is it because art should be considered spiritual or meaningful or ‘deep’ but video games are for children and meant to be won and as competitions (like sports) they cannot, therefore, be artistic?
Defining what’s art and what isn’t is an impractical goal at best, and an impossible one at worst. Mr. Ebert cites Wikipedia’s definition as semi-definitive: Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, sculpture, and paintings.
Well, okay. That sounds good. Affecting the sense or emotions. Okay. Let’s run with that, then.
What we’d like to do, if you’ll allow, is to compare a few of the games we’ve made available for our employees in The Game Room with famous works of what is generally recognized to be “art,” just to see, you know, if they’re in the same ball park, so to speak.
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) vs. Reality Pump’s Two Worlds (2007)
What’s it about?
Two Worlds: The game takes place in a real-time three-dimensional fantasy landscape. As such it has drawn comparison with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Much like in Oblivion and Gothic 3, the gameplay is non-linear. The player is free to explore the game world, accepting side quests at will. There is however, a core quest, centering around rescuing the protagonist’s sister, who is being held for ransom by mysterious forces who are scheming to open the tomb of Aziraal, the god of war.1
Guernica: Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. This work has gained a monumental status, becoming a perpetual reminder of the tragedies of war, an anti-war symbol, and an embodiment of peace. On completion Guernica was displayed around the world in a brief tour, becoming famous and widely acclaimed. This tour helped bring the Spanish Civil War to the world’s attention.2
How does it make us feel?
Angry, annoyed, frustrated, anguished, regretful, then angry again.
And what about Guernica?
Man, that needs a pretty big wall!
Leonardo DaVinci’s La Gioconda (c1503-1506) vs. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Why is it important?
La Gioconda (AKA The Mona Lisa): The painting is a half-length portrait and depicts a woman whose facial expression is often described as enigmatic. The ambiguity of the sitter’s expression, the monumentality of the half-figure composition, and the subtle modeling of forms and atmospheric illusionism were novel qualities that have contributed to the painting’s continuing fascination.3
Grand Theft Auto IV: One of the most critically acclaimed video games of all time, receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from critics, with many giving the game a perfect score. Review aggregator GameRatio ranks Grand Theft Auto IV as the best scoring game ever reviewed. After the release of the first trailer for the game, New York City officials were appalled with the choice of their city as the inspiration for the setting of Grand Theft Auto IV, and said that a game like GTA does not represent the city’s crime levels accurately. A spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “The mayor does not support any video game where you earn points for injuring or killing police officers.”4
What senses or emotions does it affect?
It must be admitted that it causes one to fervently want to abduct hookers, drive them into alleyways, fuck them mercilessly before hitting them with baseball bats and abandoning them on the curb. Some have also wanted to drive recklessly while drunk, shoot cops, take drugs, sell illegal weapons from the trunk of a car and blow up docks with grenades and incendiary bombs.
And The Mona Lisa?
I was talking about The Mona Lisa. I hate that fucking overrated piece of shit.
Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) vs. Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain (2010)
Why is it important?
The Cremaster Cycle: Barney’s epic Cremaster cycle (1994–2002) is a project consisting of five feature-length films that explore processes of creation. His concentration in sculpture is accentuated by his use of video. Barney uses video to perfect his sculpture by evaluating positioning, lighting, size and shape, using video as a means to his end product of sculpture. The project is rife with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation. The cycle repeatedly returns to those moments during early sexual development in which the outcome of the process is still unknown. In Barney’s metaphoric universe, these moments represent a condition of pure potentiality.5
Heavy Rain: Heavy Rain’s story is a dramatic thriller modeled after film noir, centered around four protagonists involved with the mystery of the Origami Killer, a serial killer who uses extended periods of rainfall to drown his victims. The player interacts with the game by performing actions highlighted on screen related to motions on the controller, and in some cases, performing a series of quick time events during fast-paced action sequences. The player’s decisions and actions during the game will affect the narrative; the main characters can be killed, and certain actions may lead to different scenes and endings.6
How do they compare as art?
The Cremaster Cycle involves blimps, satyrs, a chorus line, the Chrysler Building, Gary Gilmore, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, pierced scrotums, magicians, pigeons on ribbons and a hotel bar that may be played like bagpipes.
Heavy Rain demands that you control the protagonist to take a shower upstairs before he will go downstairs for breakfast, suggesting the futility of life and the lack of free will. At several points, you are required to twist the analog joystick in a specific manner to allow the protagonist to exit their automobile, displaying with vibrant clarity that we have no control of our own actions, and that even the smallest toil requires repeated attempts to achieve perfection.
Frankly, in the end, The Cremaster Cycle makes more sense when it turns out that there’s no way that the actual murderer in Heavy Rain could’ve committed the crime because he would need to be in two places at once in order to kill the typewriter repairman while simultaneously answering the phone in a different room. The only thing Matthew Barney asks us to accept is that one can have one’s impacted molars extracted through one’s butt hole.
John Cage’s 4′ 33″ (1952) vs. Atari’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
What’s Up With That?
Four minutes, thirty-three seconds or, as the composer himself referred to it, Four, thirty-three, is a three-movement composition composed in 1952 for any instrument (or combination of instruments). The score instructs the performer not to play the instrument during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements (the first being thirty seconds, the second being two minutes and twenty-three seconds, and the third being one minute and forty seconds). Although commonly perceived as “four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence”, this piece actually consists of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed.7
E.T. was almost single-handedly responsible for the fall of Atari in 1983, and the resulting crash of the entire console video game market. It is listed as the worst game of all time by PC World, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Michael Dolan, editor of FHM magazine, and the second worst movie game on the “Top Ten Worst Movie Games” by GameTrailers. It was also ranked #2 Worst on GameTrailers’ “Top Ten Best and Worst Games of All Time.” Gameplay consisted of collecting three pieces of an interplanetary telephone found scattered randomly throughout various pits (also referred to as wells). The player must then guide the character to a “call-ship” area, which allows him to call his home planet.8
Where’s the Emotion?
John Cage’s silent symphony is a measure of time where nothing appears to occur, leaving many members of the audience feeling cheated, confused, tricked and treated like imbeciles. The movie-based video game nightmare is a measure of time where nearly all the players wished that nothing was happening, leaving them all feeling cheated, confused, tricked and treated like imbeciles.
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp (1917) vs. Braid by Jonathan Blow (2009)
In 1917, Dadaist artist Duchamp brought a urinal to an art show put on by The Society of Independent Artists, submitting the work under an assumed name. The “readymade” art was unchanged except for an artist’s signature, R. Mutt, along with the year inscribed on the porcelain. Though the society had announced that all art would be accepted, the urinal was rejected and the original piece was lost. In the 1960s, Duchamp reproduced the work for several museums, and one reproduction sold for $1.7million in 1999.9
Blow has stated that he designed Braid as a personal critique of contemporary trends in game development. He funded the three-year project with his own money. The game’s story describes the protagonist Tim’s attempt to rescue a princess from a monster. Clues embedded in the plot have led to multiple metaphorical interpretations of the plot, such as a tale of a faltering relationship or the development of the atomic bomb. Throughout the game, the player may also manipulate time, such as by allowing actions to be “rewound”, even after death, or by creating a shadow doppleganger to repeat actions previously performed.10
What’s Your Point?
The Dadaists and the Fluxus school after them were determined to break down the rules of art and defy the critics, galleries and museums which were defining who was an artist and whether their creations could be called “art.” Duchamp’s Fountain was a defiant, angry jab even at those who proclaimed that they would accept any type of art from any artist, which in its way established his non-work as an important step in the development of modern art. Blow, likewise, is subverting the idea of what a video game is, and what it means to play one in a so-called “linear” fashion when that line can be redrawn again and again. By creating a video game that mocks its own conventions, he stripped away the expectations that players have when they enter a game and mocked the very rules of his own medium.
What Have We Learned?
Art is subjective, to say the least. To define what art is to one person is to deny what it is to someone else. To state definitively that something “can never be art” is a bit myopic and unnecessarily limits those boundaries.
This is Glassdog, where art is for art’s sake, and money is for God’s sake!
1. Wikipedia: Two Worlds
2. Wikipedia: Guernica (painting)
3. Wikipedia: Mona Lisa
4. Wikipedia: Grand Theft Auto IV
5. Wikipedia: The Cremaster Cycle
6. Wikipedia: Heavy Rain
7. Wikipedia: 4’33”
8. Wikipedia: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (video game)
9. Wikipedia: Fountain (Duchamp)
10. Wikipedia: Braid (video game)