[7 October 2013]
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.
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.
Jade is a figure in search of equilibrium – ideological, emotional, and physical balance – and throughout the course of the game she will attempt to attain peace, both in herself and her society, by unravelling the deception under which they all subsist. Thus, once the dust of this latest incursion has settled, and the alien invasion of the DomZ seemingly thwarted by the Alpha Section armed forces, Jade starts to question the veracity of the armada’s omnipresence, tasking herself with uncovering the truth of their motives beneath all the patriotic spin. She offers he services as a reporter, and soon enough is approached by a band of subversive radicals likewise intent on exposing the military’s elaborate deception.
Indeed, it’s in the means through which you the player actively pursue these unsavoury truths – the manner in which this work is so uniquely a game – that Beyond Good & Evil is most striking. Rather than passively watch this world and its narrative play out before you, as one would experience a film or fiction, this is an experience in which the act of play itself informs the very way through which this fiction conveys its meaning. This is an environment that necessarily must be moved through, lived in, reacted to – the act of interpretation bound inextricably to this cultivation of a bond with the environment you inhabit.
As Jade, you will sneak. You will explore. You will gather clues. You will learn this land’s secrets, befriend its inhabitants, uncover its seedy underbelly. You will meet hardworking entrepreneurs, pirate looters, soldiers, shell game sneaks, black market merchants, washed up alcoholics, street racers, slavers, subversive rebels trying to overthrow the government from beneath the city’s streets. You will intrude upon clandestine networks and peek behind the masks of the tyrants.
The game invites you to fall in love with this land of Hillys, not only through its visual and auditory splendour, but through action. The narrative compels you to explore its urban centres and delve into its uncharted caverns, to converse with each of its residents (many of whom Jade knows personally), to taste its produce (Starkos bars and K-Bups Berries), to photograph its fauna for the preservation of science and history, to uncover the deeper, unsettling truths that lie beneath the surface of its government and media.
Through exploring Hilly’s luscious landscapes, cataloguing its creatures, befriending its inhabitants, and learning of its myriad splendour – invited to literally preserve its wonder on film, through study, through social interaction – you invest in this world, belong to it. In doing so, you commit yourself to protecting it. You see the injustice visited upon the people of Hillys, you see the fear and suspicion of a populace forced to live under an endless totalitarian police state; you feel their loss as they watch their friends and family lost to this endless, Orwellian ‘conflict’. Indeed, it’s for this reason that despite the constant fear of death and loss – the most omnipresent dread depicted in the game is that of kidnapping – of a severing of the communal and familial bonds that are so necessary in the face of such chaos.
Beyond Good & Evil reveals itself to be a parable about responsibility. Personal responsibility, familial responsibility, social and environmental responsibility. In this sense the game is about makeshift families built from the wreckage of a society devastated by war. It’s about the commitments such families pledge to each other, the resolve and strength that they draw from this interdependence. Frequently (though not constantly), Jade therefore works alongside a companion in her journey through these landscapes – her adopted uncle Pey’j; a devoted soldier Double H – further heightening this sense of cooperation and reliance.
Quite literally, were it not for the support of your fellow NPC – in the encouragement and feedback they offer on the journey, and the physical boosts and battling that they offer to assist you – you would not be able to proceed. By travelling alongside them, trusting them for support, you feel even more acutely the sense of communal bond that infuses the game’s fictional world, stirring you to save this blighted land from its omnipresent dread.
It’s no accident, then, that the metaphorical space standing at the centre of this game – Jade’s home, where she, her Uncle, and their orphan charges gather in the shadow of looming corruption – is a lighthouse; a beacon of warning for the ship of state, the searching source of illumination amongst a treacherous, ignorant dark. There is a moment, early in the game, where the poignancy of this space is subtly, movingly acknowledged. As Jade, at the player’s behest, explores this space, watching the children around her mingle and move about, joking, conversing, playing with the lighthouse dog, trying to distract themselves from the daily bombing raids and sirens and whispers of kidnapped citizens stolen away in the night, a piece of music penetrates the quiet to colour the experience profoundly.
Jade – you – ascend the staircase and come upon the orphan children’s makeshift bedroom. Toy’s lay scattered about. A warm slant of sunlight cuts through the air. And on the walls, sketched in crayon, are clumsy drawings of the lighthouse itself, of JJade and her uncle Pey’j, and the word ‘HOME’ scribbled beside them.
At precisely that moment, looking in upon one safe-haven carved out of the detritus of a haunting, ceaseless war, you hear a lilting piano cue.It’s soft, slow, even mournful, but so delicate, and so precious, that it sears itself in the mind. A tune stripped utterly bare. Just solo finger stickling across ivory. A private melody, alone amongst the cacophony of harmony and discord swelling outside those walls. It’s a melody that recurs in various forms throughout the game – particularly in some tragic moments to come, when Jade will again feel profound personal loss – but it also resurges in some resounding moments of defiance and fight, a subconscious reminder of precisely what it is that you are fighting for.
By seeking out answers, Jade will eventually inspire her people to throw off their oppression, to react against the placation of their media, and to rise up to question the preconceptions into which they have blindly surrendered their faith. The game unpacks conventional wisdom and manipulative jingoism in a time of war, revealing an expansive web of collusion and misinformation, inspiring a oppressed peoples to reclaim a homeland stolen from them not by force, but through the pernicious application of lies.
For a game fundamentally concerned with the nature of societal indoctrination, one arguing that such willing apathy has to be examined and overthrown, the conceit of the final level is inspired. Having led her fellow citizens to revolt, Jade confronts the High Priest of the DomZ and is forced to fight for her life. During the conflict, however, the High Priest bombards Jade with a hypnotic pulse, pouring the sum total of the game’s thematic exploration of persuasion and ideological inculcation into one mesmerising blast.
Suddenly, after having faith in the mechanics with which the game has operated over the preceding hours, the game suddenly flips its control scheme entirely. Up is now down; left is now right; the character suddenly behaves wholly contrary to the system that the player has trained into their muscle memory.
This metaphor for the reversal of convention that has played into every facet of the narrative, and its exploration of social and political dissent, is heightened by this final subversion of the player. Just as Jade, who has had to undertake a journey into the heart of her homeland’s darkest recesses to cure herself of the systemic misinformation that has governed her life, so too must the player, in this concluding conflict, force themselves to unlearn what this game’s universe has gradually convinced them to invest in utterly.
In defeating this beast, symbolically tracing this skewed belief system back to its root and therapeutically dissolving the corruption that it has engendered, both Jade and the player, in a unity of purpose, excise the corrosive limitations that would choke this society, its freedom and its media, into atrophy.
Back in Ming-Tsu’s shop, however, that koi fish keeps turning circles.
Programmed in an infinite reactive loop, he is forever walled in, enslaved by that emerald glass. In that sense, he offers a fitting metaphor for the transformative nature of responsibility that this game explores. Ancel’s masterwork invites us to see the limitations – both welcomed and imposed – that govern every aspect of our lives. Those glass walls, in microcosm, become symbols of the conventional predispositions and rhetorical manipulations that can hold the uninquisitive in stasis.
In looking down at this poor, ensnared creature, Jade, and I playing her, are suddenly reminded that we are not that fish – not bound to some primitive reactive coding, swimming endlessly in place. No, in this game, in this sumptuous but suffering world, Jade and I can transcend the inculcation of intransigent beliefs. Instead, she and I can be reminded of the true intangible bonds and beliefs that define us, those that bind us in a happy enslavement to the things we hold most precious.
Through its narrative, its play, and the enchanting aesthetic of its environments and melodies, the game enables its players to invest in the world of Hillys, to feel a responsibility to its peoples and its future, and to redefine ourselves through the bond we feel to its familial, spatial and ideological constraints. Indeed, as you are literally a character inhabiting this land, tasked with its preservation, this evokes a sense of ownership and obligation elevated far beyond the detached regard stirred by films or fiction.
Beyond Good & Evil is a game about and fuelled by empathy, about cooperation and selflessness, about testing the veracity of presumed truths. Under the facade of its disarmingly innocuous beauty it is a game that compels its audience to question the media – even the media through which the artwork expresses itself. By brushing up against the barriers of this world myself, empowered through my own agency within the narrative to question these restrictions – to scrutinise them – I become attuned to this environment, become one with it. And in doing so, come to better know myself.
Ebert, and those like him, who see video games as nothing more than gratuitous, indulgent death-simulators – petty playthings that rob humanity ‘of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic’ – will doubtless never change their minds about this medium. Ironically, they remain obstinately walled behind their own prejudices, unable to look beyond their bias to see the greater, more diverse possibility they have arbitrarily denied.
In contrast, I watch that koi fish circle and am reminded of how effortlessly this game proves such dismissive ignorance a lie: of the way that it renders an organic, breathing culture, in order to watch it fray under the threat of war; how it speaks to the nature of civilisation and the duty of personal responsibility; of the manner in which it so elegantly evokes and celebrates empathy as our greatest treasure (in videogame-speak: the greatest ‘skill’ we human beings can seek to ‘upgrade’).
Culture, civility, and empathy – all while necessitating that the player be an integral part of progressing the narrative and allowing them to be complicit in the enunciation of this altruistic theme; videogames, when crafted with the elegance and care of a work such as Beyond Good & Evil, more than prove themselves to exceed every arbitrary ‘requirement’ for Art demanded of them by those prejudicially inclined to deny them worth. Despite being dismissed off hand, there are many such examples that transcend these limitations in their moment of experience, becoming something profoundly, intimately expressive in the act of granting the player agency within their worlds.
Does that mean that all videogames are therefore worthy of being held aloft alongside the pantheon of great composers, playwrights, and poets? No, of course not. But that is and always was a disingenuous argument to begin with. The world of cinema has produced Vertigo, but it also gave us Norbit. Music granted us Brahms, but it also gave us Rebecca Black.
Arguing that every single text has to justify the value of its entire medium or else they are all suspect is a reductive act of sophistry that knowingly chases its own tail. It debases the whole discussion of Art by making it some rote test dictated by elitist patriarchs whose prejudices are already irrevocably calcified. But just as Shakespeare’s artistic expression is not demeaned by the shaky 4th grade Christmas pageant I once participated in as a child, the entire span of potentiality evident in the videogame form is not dismissible because one thinks Call of Duty 19 looks like indulgent gush.
If, in contrast, those who imprudently disparage videogames actually bothered to try them – to free themselves from the mire of lazy bias and prove themselves capable of re-examining the constraints of imagination that such works so frequently embrace, they might not only find something worthy of exploration, but could well find a whole new experiential medium through which to explore the endlessly shifting limits of human expression. Otherwise, they just continue to spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that games are indulgent toys gratifying insularity with nothing worthwhile to say. As Beyond Good & Evil articulates so adroitly, there’s nothing less beneficial to the progress of society, criticism and Art than simply regurgitating the same old tired party lines without ever exhibiting the capacity for self-reflection that they would demand of others.
They, too, reveal themselves to be like that fish – not urged to test their limitations, not inclined to seek for more; instead trapped in the same tired, contrarian routine. They circle their definition of Art in an infinite self-justifying stagnation, emboldened by their own limitations as they deny it the capacity to evolve. As for me, I don’t presume to know definitively what Art is. I’m too stunned by its diversity and magnitude to want to try. And in here, in the living diorama Michel Ancel and his team have brought into being, I’ve got a head full of sweet melody, a pocket full of pearls, and a world to treasure. I’ve been invited to help directly enact a message of audacity and hope, to fall in love with a land, and to believe that both it and one’s own curious, indomitable will are things that are precious, things worth preserving.
I know that might not be Roger Ebert’s definition of Art. He would (and did) cry ‘selfishness’ and ‘time-wasting’ – declared them uncivilised, corrosive and childish. But in truth that’s what all Art has always been. Art itself is an act of play: the selfish imaginative pursuit of an artist, the indulgence of an enraptured audience; a sublime waste of time that consequentially reflects something resonant about the human condition, something enduring, back to us. We are creatures that have stirred pigment into paint to decorate our caves; transformed religious festivals into the history of theatre; cultivated the carnival curiosity of moving pictures into the diversity of cinema; exploded the boundaries of Art to soup cans and signed urinals and sharks suspended in formaldehyde.
Why then must we be frightened off by our capacity to weave new environs to explore – new emotions, new engagements to inhabit – in pixels and electronic code? It seems the height of complacent stagnation – a fish swimming up against the same glass walls, content to never extend beyond them, terrified to lose its way.