Still Life raises many of the questions facing the video game industry about the relationship between art and violence. Its answers are interestingly ambiguous but perhaps more intriguingly it allows players to immerse themselves in an experience of some of its answers, rather than didactically approaching answers as those throughout the media so often do.
The immersion offered by the game will be familiar to older gamers, and PC gamers who played the LucasArts stable of classics like The Dig, Full Throttle, and Maniac Mansion will find the slow moving—and, in some very appropriate sense “still”—gameplay very welcoming if not a bit dated.
Nevertheless, the adventure does seem an extremely apt form for a game that spends its time trying to answer questions about the sublime and the beautiful and the thin line that exists between the beautiful and the kinetic, dynamic force of violence that gaming is usually about.
To give the discussion some context, though, you need to understand some of the basics of the plot. The game takes place in both a contemporary Chicago and a 1920s version of Prague and play switches between FBI agent Victoria McPherson and her grandfather Gus as Victoria reads his memoirs. Both McPhersons are on the trail of a serial killer whose victims become the subjects of his occasionally grisly, but more often sublime artwork (all the art is designed by the rather talented Daniel Perron). In fact, the artwork based on the 1920s murders often does not clearly represent a murder scene, instead, the killer tends to transform these macabre scenes into visions of rather delicate and fragile looking women (akin in some ways to the style of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings, with subjects like Hamlet‘s Ophelia, often contradictorily merged the lifeless body of the subject with an idyllic, still backdrop). The game’s title serves as a pun to describe both the nature of painting and murder—stilling life.
While human subjects are traditionally not the subjects of a still life painting for obvious reasons, as the Pre-Raphaelites showed, they certainly could be if life had been stilled. Curiously, too, the notion of the stilled life is in many ways one of the most traditional ways of defining art. Indeed, classically, Aristotle argued that the purpose of the aesthetic mode or art itself was to evoke not emotional movement (which would come to a surprise to most English speaking art aficionados who so often speak of how a painting or novel or film “moved” them) but, instead an emotional stasis where emotion could be regarded and understood objectively, sublimely. Much of early 20th century aesthetic theory posits similar notions. Both T.S. Eliot and James Joyce at various times advocated the notion of art’s function to provide a static, objective state in which the viewer could experience from a distance the events of a dramatic narrative, not complicit in the action, but outside of it, considering it and finally understanding it.
In Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the novel’s protagonist, Stephen Dedalus claims that the kinetic emotions produced by art, in particular pity and revulsion, indicate either the failure of the artist or the failure of the viewer to properly apprehend a piece of art. Both pity and revulsion are normally the responses produced by a serial killer and for that matter probably the emotions most often reported by angry parents and zealotous congressman when they discuss “art” like Grand Theft Auto. In many ways, perhaps, Dedalus’ observations provide a strong argument against video games as art on the whole, given that they are anything but static. Instead, they are based on frenetic, kinetic activity and motion and seemingly lack any kind of real objectivity on the part of their viewers as they are always involved physically and (as many thrown controllers and kicked televisions will testify to) emotionally in the action.
We are never witness to the actions of a drama in a video game. As players, we are always complicit in the action.
Yet, again, this issue may again reveal the appropriateness of Still Life‘s approach to its subject matter and the genre through which the narrative is poured. The adventure, while certainly not a static form of gameplay is, nevertheless, a notably less dynamic form of video gaming. That much of the “action” in the plot becomes passive viewing for the gamer in the form of CGIs of gun fights that Victoria is involved in excludes us from many of the more revolting scenes of kinetic violence in the game. We experience instead the analysis of the investigation and the plot itself through its scripted and linear sequences, allowing a more reflective and objective understanding of what could be tremendously horrifying subject matter for both a game (or within and without the game) and for art itself—savage murders.
In some way, then, the developers of Still Life have a great deal in common with the ivory masked ripper that is the game’s villain. Taking grotesque and murderous scenes and transforming them into sublime imagery for the contemplation of their audience. As noted earlier, the answers to the questions about the relationship between art and violence are not easily answered here. The designers are complicit with their own creation as they mimic his tendency to wish to bring us horrifying visual information while passing it off as necessary to understanding violence, but this provocative presentation is thoughtful and daring.
To say I enjoyed Still Life would be both an understatement and at the same time a bit of a guilty admission. But, in a nutshell, it is a very good game wrapped in both horrifying and thought provoking material. I would not recommend this game to everyone. It is certainly is not for children or those that do not wish to see scenes of vicious and grotesque cruelty—be they kinetically portrayed in gruesome fans of blood or statically expressed as stilled, mutilated bodies. Nor would I recommend an adventure in general to anyone who does not like the genre. As good as the game is, if you do not have the patience for a game that is slow and steady in its plotting and requires some patience and difficulty in some very well designed puzzles (all of which, barring one extremely logic defying lock picking exercise, I found to be extremely challenging and rewarding to solve), the game will probably not be an experience that you will enjoy. However, if you can stomach the surface gratuitous violence of the plot and enjoy analyzing a situation rather than testing your twitch reflexes, Still Life offers an experience both still and sublime.