But Where is the Art?

[16 September 2008]

By Mike Schiller

There’s been a lot of discussion lately over whether video games are/can be art, a conversation most recently stoked by the intentionally provocative Invasion!, an installation put together by one Edric Stanley just after the attack on the World Trade Center towers in 2001.

In a nutshell, Invasion is a game of Space Invaders overlaying a primitive mockup of the tops of the towers, intercut with short video clips and pictures.  It is controlled by actual human movement, as running left and right behind an actual, physical barrier moves the avatar, and forward arm motion across the same barrier fires a shot.  Multiple humans can play at the same time, and holding off the “invaders” for a long amount of time is actually made much easier through a coordinated attack from a whole bunch of people.  It is unwinnable by design, and in the words of a press release approved by the artist (he makes sure to point out that the words aren’t his on his blog), “[creates] an articulated and critical commentary about the current war strategy.”

Whether that commentary is as “articulated”, or even as “critical”, as Stanley intended it is up for debate, and the merits of his installation have been so debated ever since widespread knowledge of the installation hit.  It’s been misunderstood in a number of different ways, and if you can get past the shock of it, it’s actually an interesting piece of work—20 or 30 years from now, we may even be able to have a large-scale discussion of it without some joker throwing “go back to France!” in the mix, or some similarly intelligent contribution.  Truly, this is a piece that is meant to make us uncomfortable, and in that it succeeds wildly.

Where I can’t help but be a bit critical is in the installation’s incorporation of a “high score” board.  Where everything else about the thing could make a coherent statement—the necessity of a cooperative attack could symbolize the folly of standing alone in foreign policy, while the unwinnable nature of the game symbolizes the fact that no matter how many bad guys we “shoot down”, there will always be more, to be terribly reductive—I can’t see any reason to track “high scores” other than as a way of making it more of what we think of as a “game”. 

While I can largely sympathize with the idea that Stanley was never trying to trivialize the attacks through his work, the inclusion of high scores does exactly that, by detaching the player from the message for the sake of a quantitative measure of satisfaction. On one hand, Stanley has succeeded in provoking a reaction, as all great art should; on the other, you can provoke a reaction simply by mentioning the twin towers.

As such, the question as to whether Stanley’s art will ultimately considered “great” by the common lexicon won’t be answered for a while.  This is one of the major difficulties that game journalists have had in trying to defend their medium of choice as legitimate art in the sense of broader media; we simply haven’t had the time to digest video games, especially in their current incarnation, that we have had to digest, say, movies, or books, or music.

Moving Pixels, in its time on PopMatters thus far, has highlighted a few games that may one day be recognized as “art”, if they aren’t already.  They might make you think, they might make you cringe, they might inspire revulsion or admiration.  We’ll start with a find from the intrepid L.B. Jeffries, which should fill your quota of “shock” for the month, if Invaders! hadn’t already…

C***, by L.B. Jeffries

I found this game thanks to Play This Thing, a superb website for all things indie.

Popping the psychological hood open on any artistic creation can garner a mixed reaction from people. Whereas some gain a deeper understanding of a work by seeing the sexual and mental impulses going on, others prefer it on a less complex level. This is particularly true in video games because the player input allows for the player to invest much more of themselves into the experience. Whereas anyone debating the phallic nature of light sabers is eventually going to have to shrug and roll their eyes, video games don’t quite allow for the same degree of neutrality. That’s because you, the player, are complicit in the action of the game. You are acting out the metaphor. When someone points out that using a gigantic sword to kill the Final Boss (with an equally large sword) has sexual overtones to it, they are implying that somehow something subconscious or sexual was going on in your mind at the time. That’s a distinct cross-over from the realm of “The artist is saying something sexual to me” and into the less secure world of “I just did something overtly sexual”. This does not, needless to say, necessarily go over well with some people.

This is what makes Florian Himsl’s and Edmund McMillen’s latest flash game, Cunt, something of a marvel. Playing out like a surreal satire of the shooter genre, the game puts the player in the role of a penis assaulting an anthropomorphic vagina.

Execution: An Experiment in Game Consequences, by L.B. Jeffries

As the commenters at Brathwaite’s blog note, part of what makes the player reaction so interesting is how much they dislike the decision forced on them. Either quit the game or shoot the victim. You know shooting is bad, the game clearly warns you that there will be consequences, and then it forces them by making the little man be dead even after you restart the game. Some players just re-installed the game and made the “correct” choice and others denounced the entire process. Despite the wisdom of ‘War Games’, most people aren’t really inclined to consider quitting the game a valid choice.

This isn’t the first time a game has attempted the “Quit or Do the Wrong Thing” game design. The brilliant Immortal Defense offers a similar dilemma towards the final levels and tends to produce the same mixed-results from the player. Would it be better if the game gave me two wrong choices? Would it be better if I made the wrong choice but later on I was able to redeem myself? Whatever the game design people come up with to create consequences and morality, the greater issue almost seems to be directed at the players themselves. If we are prepared to allow a game to teach us a moral, what kind of game designs are we going to have to accept that create the consequences needed for such a lesson?

Indie Spotlight: Debrysis, by Mike Schiller

It’s a mouse-‘n-cursor-keys experience, not unlike Geometry Wars or Everyday Shooter, that makes its presence matter via pure style.  There’s something appealing, in a utilitarian sort of way, about the rotating gear/buzzsaw-like pattern that surrounds the play area, the glowing light patterns that are the enemies, and the rhythmic sort of way that certain weapons take out those enemies.  The game flows with a sort of grace and ever-increasing intensity the likes of which I haven’t seen since Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and the muted color scheme is incredibly easy on the eyes.  There are local high score sheets and online leaderboards to facilitate competition, and it’s simply an incredibly addicting experience.

There’s actually only one blemish on the beauty of Debrysis, that being the avatar and the health bar of that avatar.  The player plays as this little, blocky moon car with a turret on top of it, which simply doesn’t fit in amongst the almost surreal beauty of its surroundings.  Not only that, but the little moon car’s health is represented by little blocks that hover around on top of the moon car, moving with the player as the destruction is happening all around.

The effect, then, is that of the destruction of the beautiful by the ugly, which could potentially be an interesting societal metaphor, though I’m not convinced that such a metaphor was the intent of the designers.

Perhaps you’re scratching your head over that last one—it’s certainly not art in the way of Invaders!, or Execution, or that other one up there that I’m loathe to even type the name of.  The art of Debrysis appears behind the surface, in its efficiency of design, in its unique presentation of play environment, in its choice of weapons with which to combat the incoming onslaught of faceless hostiles.  Perhaps it wasn’t even conceived as “art”, per se, but who says that art necessarily has to be intentionally thought of as such while it’s being created?

If it is art to you, then it is art.  This, at least, should be a given, right?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/but-where-is-the-art/