In Some Games, It's the Pattern, Not the Plot, That Makes Them Beautiful

Tetris doesn't say a whole lot about anything, right?

I'm pretty sure that I am on record (in one of the early episodes of the Moving Pixels podcast) as having said something along the lines of the idea that I believe that any discussions of video games being art really emerged alongside the evolution of more sophisticated storytelling in games. In other words, no one was really talking about games being art as they were playing Combat on their Atari 2600 or as they were gobbling up ghosts in the arcade. However, once games like Portal and Bioshock arrived the discussion began in earnest.

That being said, I have heard an insistence from a number of video game critics that it is only games with narratives that can be discussed as being art or as being artful. After all, stories convey messages about the nature of the human condition or speak to relevant social issues and the like. Tetris doesn't say a whole lot about anything, right?

While I think that my own thesis may be correct -- that the recognition of games as art only became a serious topic alongside maturing narratives -- the idea that narrative is what elevates a game to the status of art nags at me.

While most media that we recognize as being potentially artistic, like painting, music, sculpture, film, poetry, and the novel, are very frequently narrative driven, much as games are, they are not always. In the case of a couple of these mediums, especially I think painting and to some lesser degree music (mostly of the instrumental sort as opposed to songs accompanied by vocals), narrative can be left entirely absent from such works and still be considered artistic and beautiful.

Painting seems especially useful to consider in this regard, as while many paintings do have narrative elements (a painting of the aftermath of the beheading of John the Baptist for instance or a painting that “retells” the story of Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci in a single moment) or even seem to tell a story, pure abstraction has largely been accepted by art critics as having aesthetic qualities despite not having “told a story.”

Jackson Pollock's paintings fail to tell a story, but they are admired, nevertheless, for some reason and that reason seems tied to the idea that organization and arrangement are something that we recognize as beautiful. This seems especially ironic given that Pollock's paintings were seemingly produced in a haphazard fashion, as he splashed paint on a canvas or dripped it on a canvas rather than using a more deliberate method like painting with brush strokes. Nevertheless, Pollock's paintings retain a kind of coherence and order, since as one examines them, one notes that he uses consistent splash patterns, organizes colors in identifiable ways, and whatnot. Actually what Pollock's paintings might speak to is the idea that there is often an underlying order to what seems random and chaotic when you strip things down to their most basic forms.

Marla Olmstead's Zane Dancing

Despite having been steeped in aesthetics through my training in literary study and theory, I have never really “gotten” abstract art, though, until I watched the 2007 documentary My Kid Could Paint That. The documentary follows around an abstract painting prodigy, a four year old named Marla Olmstead, who briefly became a bit of a sensation in the art world after her paintings were made public by her parents. Despite the fact that detractors of abstract art often make the claim that blobby messes of paint on a canvas selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars are nonsense, since “my kid could paint that,” Marla's work was admired because it didn't look like something that a kid could actually paint. While abstract, it appeared ordered and arranged in surprisingly sophisticated and surprisingly pleasing ways.

That the origins of Marla's paintings were ultimately called into question because they seemed too good for a kid to paint is the focal point of the documentary and the efforts (and especially the failures) to establish Marla as the artist clarified for me how significant beautiful arrangement and beautiful design really is to a successful abstract painting. Works produced by Marla when a camera was not on her include things like Zane Dancing, which contains not identical patterns in terms of form, but similar ones, and clear orderings of colors that a four year old doesn't seem likely capable of producing if just given some finger paints and told to “go at it.” By contrast, a painting produced when a camera “watched her process,” like Ocean looks like something that your four year old could paint. It is entirely chaotic in its use of color and brush strokes and splashes appear to lack any clear rhyme or reason for their being there. Ocean is simply a bit of a mess, which is why many critics now share the view that Marla did not paint the more complex pieces that her parents claimed that she had. Their order spoke to careful design and a clear sense of order.

Marla Olmstead's Ocean

This contrast led me to see more clearly what it is that the refined abstract painter is all about, creating shapes, forms, and colors and arranging them in ways that are pleasing because they speak to organization despite their seeming “meaninglessness.”

In this regard, abstracts exist in video games that don't seem to speak to anything in particular of a narrative sort. Again, Tetris doesn't “say anything,” but it does produce a rather satisfying, perhaps, pleasing experience for the player who attempts to organize shapes that have some similarity (for instance, each “piece” in a Tetris puzzle always contains four blocks, no matter what its shape or color is, and thus, its area mathematically is always identical to every other piece in the puzzle).

Additionally, there is something very satisfying about achieving such order, as doing so, “clears a line,” giving the sense that adding order to the world allows one to put aside such chaos. Leaving “blanks” in a line hurts the player as it allows chaos to exist uncontrolled on the board. It makes Tetris “ugly,”as it becomes aggravating as these blanks build up and the game grows faster. Finding a way to ameliorate the problems of gaps is relieving and leaves the player feeling accomplished, as designing and ordering is pleasing and as if you are complicit with the game in creating a more organized world that you are comfortable seeing dissolve.

There is no story here, but this is a game that speaks to ordering and when played well feels elegant and, perhaps, even beautiful.

Likewise, there are some games with stories that likewise may be beautiful to play (due to the elegance of solving them) in spite of their story, not as a result of it.

While Plants Vs. Zombies includes a storyline, I would by no means consider that story to be artful or elegant. It's funny and fun, but if Plants Vs. Zombies is art (which may or may not be the case), its aesthetics are more likely found in the gameplay itself, which provokes learning a kind of simple, repetitive pattern for placement of defenses.

Once you have practiced the pattern of placing a particular amount of sunflowers down on the grid that serves as a “board” for this game, and you begin generating plants that can attack in certain ways, it is very easy to see certain patterns of play emerge. When I play, I always create two back rows of sunflowers (sometimes in the last and second to last row, sometimes in the last and third to last row -- either way, a visual pattern always emerges) while creating similar defenses in the rows ahead (say, basic peashooters), followed by something “more expensive” but more practical (say, ice peashooters), while also arranging walls up front, again, quite naturally in clear symmetrical patterns. The patterns are pleasing to the eye, useful because I know that each row is balanced in power and defense as a result of them, and useful because I can easily find what I might need to replace in a line because of the organization that I have created, that I can see.

I don't know if my style of play in Plants Vs. Zombies is unique, but it clearly puts me in the position of thinking about and viewing the game world in purely abstract patterns, rather then gets me thinking of the “meaning” of plants serving as the primary defense against zombies. Again, the narrative represents a fun theme, but who cares in terms of “something that speaks to the human condition?” What pleases me is the patterns, not the plot.


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