Stuck In a Box
I’m standing in a black-market boutique talking to a walrus wearing a kimono. Beside me, in a tank lit iridescent green, a koi fish turns in lazy circles, his whole world bound by panes of glass through which he can peer, but never escape. A paper lantern hangs overhead; sandstone cobbles line the floor; my pockets are filled with pearls. The air throbs with the hum of a didgeridoo; of castanets, and a flute, and a Chinese violin (an erhu) all swirling together in a sonorous harmony.
Beyond Good & Evil
For those not familiar with the game, it probably sounds like I’m having some kind of imagistic seizure, but I’m actually revisiting Beyond Good & Evil, a work that I still find to be one of the most exquisitely beautiful and thematically resonant gaming experiences ever crafted.
Indeed, it’s a game so elegant in narrative and design that it has always been my first thought whenever the tedious argument of whether videogames can be considered ‘Art’ gets rehashed anew. Others, no doubt, will turn their minds to works like Fez or Heavy Rain, but for me, as soon as I hear someone start bleating on about all games being merely gratuitous violence generators, or time-wasting amusements devoid of substance, I’m struck by the memory of Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good & Evil – of the game’s tenacious protagonist, her devoted quest for truth, and the world that she fought to save, not through violence and aggression, but through compassion and conviction and belief.
I also think of this koi fish, suspended in a world of wild contrast and dissonance, measuring out the limits of its entrapment as it swims on; an indomitable force of nature despite, blind to the habitual programming that keeps it constrained.
‘I Don’t Know Art, But I Know What’s Not Art…’
Even if only by virtue of the grand platform his global readership offered, the figure who has come to be perceived as the most vocal detractor of videogames was the film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert was not a fan of videogames. As he proudly declared, he had never actually played one, was entirely ignorant of their workings, and went on to arbitrarily reduce their myriad forms and styles to little more than animated board games or electronic skill testers. However, Ebert nonetheless took it upon himself to definitively declare them unworthy of the label ‘Art’, denying even the suggestion that they were capable of artistic expression.
Although one might look at such willfully uncontextualised commentary as misguided at best, or completely hypocritical at worst for a burgeoning medium still struggling for critical legitimacy (after all, film, too, had once been written off as merely a trivial fad incapable of artistic expression), Ebert’s opinions have been subsequently afforded a mystifyingly disproportionate cultural cache. Amongst innumerable examples, he is evoked in Noah Davis’ compelling summation of the medium’s evolution in ‘Are Video Games the Next Great Art Form?’ He was the subject of designer Brian Moriarty’s speech delivered to the 2011 GDC, wherein Moriarty heartily endorsed Ebert’s position, seeking to draw a more articulate (but still rather narrow) delineation between ‘kitsch’, or commercial art, and legitimate Art, which apparently must be deigned so by critics such as Ebert (See here on Gamesetwatch.com).
Ebert is still frequently the first figure quoted in introspective articles such as Phil Hartup’s ‘Killing Time’ in New Statesman, in industry portraits like Laura Parker’s ‘A Journey to Make Videogames Into Art’ in The New Yorker, and consequentially – much to my chagrin – the counterargument bogeyman of this very article.
I must admit, it’s a ubiquity of reference that I find profoundly peculiar. I can think of no other instance in which the opinion of someone who gladly admitted that they have no interest in, personal experience of, or research into a subject – who offers little more than a preconceived surety that it should be dismissed on principle – has ever been treated with such deference. Add to this that Ebert was a critic for a completely different medium, who came to argue that videogames failed to meet the criteria he expected of film. Indeed his position appears to be about as noteworthy as a book reviewer declaring music ‘not a thing’, or an audience booing Hamlet for not being ‘painting’ enough.
However, while I don’t want to turn this into yet another screed about how adamantly one can disagree with Ebert’s contradictory position on this issue (I have already done so on my Drayfish blog ), nor do I have any desire to continue giving legitimacy to an argument that was, and remained, willfully ignorant of the materials it sought to denigrate, I must concede that it’s nonetheless worth exploring at greater length his reasoning for why – in his opinion – videogames fail to meet his standard of Art.
Firstly, because Ebert’s comments offer a succinct summary of the most common criticisms levelled at games by those who wish to malign them as unworthy of serious consideration (a synopsis that also exhibits the willfully prejudicial contradictions in such a position), but secondly, because they provide a suitably dogmatic set of rules about how Art apparently ‘must’ function – a set of arbitrary, restrictive requirements that, from my perspective, a game like Beyond Good & Evil not only effortlessly meets, but transcends in an unparalleled communicative engagement unique to its medium.
Perhaps the most concise expression of Ebert’s position was offered in response to a fan of his reviews who had sought to ask why he so adamantly and unreservedly considered videogames inferior to film and literature. Years later he would go on to offer a longer (and rather more aggressive) reply to the TED talk of Kellee Santiago, founder of thatgamecompany, who had argued for the validity of her medium and her own artistic pursuit, but his initial reply to this inquisitive reader summarises much of the material upon which he would later elaborate. He said:
‘I [do] indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.
‘I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.’ “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Genders?”, 27 November 2005.
Alongside his principle complaint that they do not function in the way that films or novels do (again: a specious argument at best, given that a song does not operate the way a painting does, nor a play like a book), in Ebert’s opinion videogames were a literal waste of time because they are designed not to communicate anything, but to instead gratify selfish indulgence. ‘Play’, he argued, is in this way the natural enemy of discernment; rather than expanding ourselves through the self-evaluation offered by Art, videogames instead lead us toward a state of atrophy – civility, culture and empathy are ignored as the player seeks nothing but transitory pleasure. Games can be pretty, he conceded, they could be diverting, but they lack the capacity to cultivate our sense of selflessness, or to invite us to engage more adroitly with the world around us.
Similarly (and for Ebert, most damningly) player choice or input negates the authorial control deemed necessary for meaning to be conveyed. Having spent his life beholden to the mechanics of cinema, in which viewing a film is a rigidly linear experience, its every beat governed by the omnipresent hand of an auteur, Ebert transposed this requirement onto an entirely different medium. He therefore concluded that simply the requirements of being a ‘game’ – of sculpting an interactive experience that allows the player to be complicit in the unfolding of the narrative – necessarily wrests authorship away from the artist, and disperses it into the audience, muddying the creator’s intent irreparably, and thus weakening the text’s thematic statement.
Ebert offers no explanation at all for why this would be so, nor does he explain how exactly this must always be problematic, but we can speculate for him. One might ask how Bioshock Infinite can be an exploration of determinism if some players spend their time walking awkwardly into a wall, accidentally blowing themselves up, or falling off the edge of Columbia to their deaths? How can Red Dead Redemption be a sweeping, tragic coda for the western genre if some players spend their time just hunting for wolf pelts and playing dice? How can The Witcher 2 be the sombre tale of a stoic pariah in a nebulous moral vacuum when players – by the game’s own design – will see entirely different narratives play out dependent upon the plot decisions they themselves make?
Of course, these are all criticisms that fall apart the moment they are put to any legitimate scrutiny, measured against any nonpartisan definition of Art, or compared to similar outdated criticisms that have been applied to countless other media in the past. I shall return momentarily to the accusations of self-indulgence and time-wasting in my discussion of Beyond Good & Evil, but one can probably already see the logical fallacy at the heart of accusing a text of ‘failing’ to communicate because it requires audience engagement. After all, how can movies be said to be Art if some of their viewers don’t watch the whole thing, or talk over the dialogue? Are musical, dramatic, and poetic improvisation not Art forms because they too require spectator interaction? Are not plays, because they necessitate an engagement with their audience that defines the rhythm of their performance? Can documentaries never be Art because they require the auteur to be beholden to reality, and the truths of their subject?
If a piece of installation Art is only displayed for a few weeks, is it not Art, and never was, once it has been removed from public exhibition? Eventually, such conjecture becomes one long aimless, nay-saying navel-gazing plod of hypotheticals. One ends up sighing into the wind asking, ‘If an artwork exists in the forest, and no one sees it, does it have a meaning?’
Thankfully, there is an answer to such nay-saying vagaries; and wholly unsurprisingly, it reveals itself the same way it does for any other analysis of Art (if one can be bothered to try). Instead of redundantly attempting to argue what all videogames are not, using erroneous equivalencies to Backgammon and Monopoly and speculating on the mindset of an audience neither known nor understood, critics can try performing a close reading of these texts (even a cursory one), experiencing them firsthand to see how they seek to communicate their themes, and how successfully, or not, this meaning is made manifest in their structure and design.
Recently, examples such as The Last of Us and Journey have floated into the wider debate as exemplars to ‘prove’ the unique expressive potential of videogames, but they are by no means the earliest texts to elevate the medium – indeed, games like Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros. were inarguably elegant marriages of mechanical and artistic expression. And so it is with this act of criticism in good faith in mind that one can turn to Ancel’s Beyond Good & Evil, a platforming, light-stealth adventure game from publisher Ubisoft, and the image of that lone fish circling in that tank…
The Hillys are Alive
To begin with the somewhat superficial, it’s doubtful even a cynic like Ebert could deny that Beyond Good & Evil is a delight to the senses. Despite being released on the previous generation of consoles (I played mine on the PS2 the first time around, but it has since been released on PC, and the version I am replaying now, upgraded with a HD polish, was released on Xbox Arcade), the game still remains one of the most enchantingly eclectic settings ever depicted. Beyond Good & Evil offers a sumptuous, watercolour aesthetic, with charmingly exaggerated creature designs (Rastafarian rhinos! Kabuki cats! Shark people! Goat kids! Loveable uncle pigs!) and lush, coastal landscapes dappled with the dying embers of day as twilight intrudes. From its verdant untrammelled fields to its factories and mines and urban sprawl, sun-bleached stone streets and meandering Venetian canals are peppered with flickering holograms and ramshackle spaceships. Reggae music swaggers alongside magisterial symphonic swells; the techno frolics of an illegal raceway are punctuated by a stripped bare, mournful piano reprise.
But amidst this scatological beauty, the game tells a story of corruption and totalitarian oppression. Behind the idyllic splendour of this seafront environment of Hillys, this planet is revealed to be under the shadow of a galactic police state. A military complex has been granted unchecked power by the threat of perpetual war, and with the consent of a terrified populace, has steadily stripped away the freedoms of each world under its ‘protection’.
Just as the villainous corporation in the game uses obfuscation to further their malevolent goals, the game itself, under the innocuous guise of a colourful fairytale, reveals itself to be telling a tale of political misdirection and inculcating propaganda. But rather than asking you to storm your way through such a scenario, gunning people down and blowing things up, the game tasks you with unravelling the reality from the lies. To hide, to sneak, to explore and follow the evidence you yourself observe. It’s little wonder, then, that the protagonist of the tale, Jade, is a tenacious, burgeoning journalist, a young woman devoted to her homeland, protective of her peoples, and eager to uncover truth, wherever it may lead.
Jade, the player-character protagonist is a young woman tasked with the care of a group of orphans displaced by the ongoing war. Herself an orphan, she has a playful, affectionate relationship with her Uncle Pey’j, who raised her in the absence of her own parents, and has developed both a healthy scepticism toward the governmental force that has occupied her homeland, and a burgeoning desire to uncover the truth.
The first image the game provides of Jade presents her sitting on the outcrop of a cliff face, meditating, looking over the ocean, soaking in the tranquillity of a glistening sunset, lost in a moment of serenity. The calm is soon broken by the wail of an air raid siren and the cacophony of a bombing invasion – but the echoing affect of this prologue remains potent.