[17 June 2009]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Last week, I began a blog post by quoting from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. I discussed a passage in which Stephen Daedalus argues with his friend Lynch about the appropriate and inappropriate apprehension of art. I largely focused on Daedalus’ discussion of what he calls, “pornographical or didactic” art, which he associates with art that produces “kinetic” (or moving) rather than static (or sublime) emotions. These former more viscreal emotional responses, he claims, are what are produced when the arts excite in their viewers the feelings of desire or loathing.
Since I largely focused on examining video game production of images and behaviors that produce desire in players (largely, I discussed the tendency to enjoy visual stimulation of an erotic or pleasing nature, like buxom bikini babes and piñatas in love), I thought that I would discuss the seemingly strange phenomena of evoking loathing in video game players through similar kinds of visual stimulation and how and why that might be a pleasing “kinetic” experience.
On the face of it, the notion of producing repellent or ugly images would seem to be a less than sound means of producing visual stimulation that might be appreciated and create pleasure in an audience. Nevertheless, Daedalus is not crazy when he recognizes that art of a pornographic nature (and I assume by his definition, he means art that arouses a kind of basic and visceral reaction in its audience) has very often been dependent not merely on erotic visuals or even those that are obviously pleasingly “cute.” Instead, it often celebrates the kind of imagery that produces definitely kinetic experiences, nausea, fear, and dread.
When Daedalus discusses such concepts he brings up what he deems appropriate forms of art that lean towards less than pleasing subject matter, the tragic modes of art and other forms of art that focus on observing suffering. Certainly, while a play like Hamlet, for instance, has pleasing moments and even funny moments, the arc of the story will end in suffering and, well, tragedy. Daedalus does not feel that tragedy in of itself is a bad subject matter per se—there may be to him (and Aristotle, on whom rests much of the basis of his thinking on the matter), a clearly cathartic and thus positive purpose in witnessing tragedy—however, witnessing the tragic and its myriad forms of suffering for their own sake may border on the “pornographic” in his estimation.
The loathsomeness of viewing suffering curiously does provoke a kind of appeal in many audiences. Think of the moment before the knife (or chainsaw) falls in a horror movie. The image is clearly a repellent one; the viewer reacts kinetically to it by raising his hands to cover his eyes. Yet, despite this physical manifestation of repulsion, you just can’t help peeking through your fingers to see the final blow, to witness the literal enactment of suffering. While repellent, their may be something magnetic about that which horrifies.
Generating repulsive climactic experiences for players of video games to not only observe but also to enact has a fairly long and storied history, much of which has generated a great deal of hue and cry from social and political activists about the brutal nature of video games. Despite such outcry, though, the Mortal Kombat series, for instance, seems a brand grounded on the display of gratuitously repellent imagery. While Street Fighter II and the fighting game genre generated a kind of renaissance in arcade gaming in 1991, it was its more infamous 1992 cousin that attracted additional fans to the genre. Mortal Kombat had similar qualities to the Street Fighter series, fast-paced, reflex-driven tactical hand-to-hand combat that could be shared with an opponent willing to pony up a quarter to challenge you, but unlike other attempts to cash in on the successfulness of Capcom’s game, Mortal Kombat offered a myriad variety of not just special moves to learn in combat but special moves called “fatalities” that enabled spectacular executions to complete the humiliation of a vanquished opponent. During this brief period in which players would gather around arcade machines and place quarters along the top edge of a console to mark their desire to challenge an opponent, players of Mortal Kombat prided themselves on their ability to not only win a Mortal Kombat match but to show off their combat prowess by vanquishing their foe with a finishing move. Since each of the seven original fighters had their own unique way of brutally killing their opponents, the game rewarded experimentation and replaying the game as each of the characters in order to witness these loathsome and yet strangely compelling sequences. Part of the appeal of the fatality was in seeing some new grotesque method of finishing off a downed opponent. Scorpion burning Johnny Cage to death was quite a sight but Sub-Zero tearing the head and spine from Sonia was even more astonishing to see and hard to look away from.
Much like the visual rewards of the more desirable images featured in games that, again, I discussed last week, loathsome imagery also seems to frequently be featured as a kind of visual reward to the competent or proficient player of a game. The reward in seeing the event is even often even more dynamically demonstrated through systems that measure violence in points.
While a game like Tony Hawk might reward a player for visually stunning combinations of tricks, piling up points for the player able to keep up a consistent stream of amazing tricks, the aesthetics of violence in more recent games are often measured in similar ways. Consider how Tony Hawk‘s trick-based point system is transformed to measure not the beauty of “athleticism” but the beauty of brutality in Devil May Cry. While Hawk‘s system rewards efficient and elegant visual spectacle, Devil May Cry celebrates the efficiency and elegance of execution. A player’s achievement is measured in excess violence.
Interestingly, this excess of violence is treated in an overtly pornographic fashion in the Devil May Cry series for as many spectacularly brutal images in a DMC game there are usually as many overtly sexual ones. In Devil May Cry 4, for instance, the sexual and the brutal find themselves wed at times. One particular example is found in a scene in which Dante finishes off a foe with a (literally) romantic flourish (he grips a rose in his teeth at the center of a giant heart) and brags about how well he “thrusts” and “penetrates” with his blade. Devil May Cry seems more than self aware about the similar visceral responses that it evokes through both desirable and loathsome imagery.
Such measures of violent achievement continue to be regarded as a central aesthetic in a host of games but probably most recently in a really obvious and self aware fashion in Mad World. Like Devil May Cry, MadWorld offers a cartoonish and half serious approach to the subject of violence. However, the sheer grotesqueness and loathsomeness of its imagery is even more overtly tied to rewarding excess. Since the premise of MadWorld is the notion that violence is being treated as a spectacle in a near future version of western civilization, the idea that the protagonist must perpetrate ever more hideous displays for the sake of a viewing audience at home makes the reward of gaining more points to advance the plot through more grisly ways of harming others into an aesthetic tied directly to the mechanics of gameplay itself. It also mirrors a sports culture tied to observing violence with color commentators that react to and gush over the level of violence that you, as the protagonist, are capable of enacting. Beating someone to death in MadWorld scores few points but impaling them with a street sign before beating them to death scores much more. Given that advancement is based on high scoring, more varied and grotesque kills are encouraged by the reward system of the game itself. Of course, given the stylish art and the contrast created by the three colors of the world (red for blood and black and white for everything else), it is clear what the player’s attention is intended to be focused on throughout, the spectacle of the most aesthetically pleasing bloodbath possible.
There seems to me to be a subtle difference between the types of images that video games create for the player to interact with be they motivated by desirability or loathsomeness. The tendency to make images that are desirable into something collectible (be it the swimsuit collections to dress the beauties of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball or the cards that represent the conquered beauties of The Witcher) whereas the loathsome images of violence tend to become a commodity that demonstrates the player’s talent for violence that can be transferred into measurable achievements like “points.” This difference might be reduced though to the tendency for visual stimulation to become a way of transforming bodies into commodities, though. Bodies become commodities to be collected in games that motivate the player through visual desirability while bodies become commodities to be harvested in games that motivate the player through the spectacle of loathsomeness.
Author’s Note: Those interested in these topics of visual stimulation as a reward or motivator in games may want to check out the links to reviews of the games cited in the above essay. Most of those reviews address these topics in greater detail as they relate to those particular games, including the ones about Dead or Alive, Viva Piñata, and Devil May Cry).