Friday, October 5, 2012

How Many Gamers Want To Play Art?

How many gamers want to play art?

That is a question that's been rattling around in my brain for a while now.  It was rekindled today by an article on IGN.

David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker, made a negative comment about the state of film, using The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises as examples, and predictably the IGN comments are filled to capacity with condemnations.  The guy not only treated those movies as bad, he also said the following:

"I’m not sure they’re creating an adult audience with Batman and 'The Avengers' parts seven, eight, nine and 10.  After five sequels, I’m not sure there will be any interest in seeing a man and woman talking at a table, which may be the most exciting kind of drama, but you have to cultivate a taste for that kind of complexity.”

So it's not just that The Avengers and TDKR are bad to this guy, it's also that they fail to cultivate taste on the part of the audience.  Implicitly, the audience that likes these movies is tasteless.

So you can imagine why people are offended.  I'm not surprised and I don't really blame them.  But what troubles me is the tack most of these comments are taking.  They call the critic pretentious and a narcissist, they insist that these movies are Great, they ridicule other forms of cinema ("This guy just needs to stick to his subtitled French films and leave the big-boy stuff to the people who enjoy it," says the very first comment, which has generated over 500 likes in 6 hours) - in short, they are offended at the idea that there could be anything more to film than super hero movies.  It's just sad, because it proves Denby right.

I liked The Avengers, and I loved The Dark Knight Rises, and while I'm not a huge fan of Inception (another movie Denby criticized), I certainly don't consider it a bad film.  These films are entertaining to watch, but if these three films were representative of the entirety of what film had to offer it would not be considered a vital art form.  That viewpoint arose because of the high quality of films that explored subtle human dramas.  Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Vertigo, The 400 Blows, Mean Streets, Annie Hall, Aguirre, Diary of a Country Priest, Ivan's Childhood - ever seen the silent film L'Atalante?  With such limited means, it manages to be quite deep.

But look at Inception, which lots of people were defending in the comments.  Prior to seeing Inception I was a huge fan of Nolan.  Memento and The Prestige were great.  I tracked down his first film, Following, and it was quite good.  Batman Begins was an interesting reboot and The Dark Knight was the best Batman movie imaginable.  So my expectations were high.

At first glance Inception is great.  It's basically a hybrid between two established genres - the heist film and "puzzle" movies.  The acting is superb, the writing and directing are good, the soundtrack does an admirable job - in short the craftsmanship is top notch.  The heist portion is thrilling and the core premise (planting ideas in dreams and all that) is very original.  It succeeds on every surface level and when I left the theater I felt like I'd seen a great movie.  Of course, my friends and I debated the ending all night.  This is one of the pleasures of a good puzzle movie - figuring it out.  The problem is our debates never got anywhere.  We went around and around in circles and for every point in one direction there was another point in the other direction.  I kept thinking about the movie for several more days and at some point I realized that Nolan had conned me.  This movie has no solution - Nolan deliberately gave the audience conflicting information and withheld other crucial information in order to prevent anyone from being able to actually figure it out.  Why?  Because the movie has no point.  It is all style, no substance.  It's flashy and cool and completely meaningless.  If it had had a point, Nolan would not have hidden it so deeply.  It's as though Nolan designed this complex puzzle and then realized that no answer could be as interesting as the question, so rather than disappoint everyone he just made everything contradictory.  Now people can debate it forever and ever.  What makes it especially disappointing is that the movie signaled meaning all over the place - in the trailers, and throughout the whole movie.  Nolan traded on his reputation from Memento - we were willing to believe that he was actually making a smart movie.  If it hadn't pretended to be more than what it was - a convoluted action flick - I wouldn't have felt so let down.

This is the difference between serious art (fine art, if you prefer, since "serious art" is apparently a controversial term) and everything else.  Inception is a good movie, made by a good film maker, but it is not good art because it simply isn't trying to be.  It has nothing important to say about anything at all; it is a purely formal exercise.

And for all of that, Inception is still way better than average.  Most movies don't have even the slightest pretense of artistic quality.  Isn't it sad that the movies that are the most popular are not even trying to be art, while the movies that are trying to be art are not only not very popular but are actually dismissed by many people as boring and pretentious?

So this is how that gets back to games.

People within the gaming community are very obsessed with the idea that games are art.  This is actually two questions to me - Can games be art (or is there something about art that makes that impossible)? and Are games art already?  To the first question the answer seems to be definitely.  I once wasn't sure, but now I am.  Sooner or later games will be seen as art by the cultural majority.  To the second question my answer is maybe a few titles but mostly no.  However many people feel differently.  But now here's the catch - those other people and I aren't talking about the same thing.

At some point I want to write a post about what sort of qualities an artistic game will emphasize (sneak peek: it's not a complex story!).  But this is not that post.  What this post is about is my sense that many gamers do not want games to tackle the serious themes that they will have to tackle if they want to be art.  They like cool weapons and vehicles and monsters - they like pretending to kill things without thinking too much about it.  Many people, paradoxically, like for games to tell stories but apparently don't like to have stories told to them, judging by how loudly they bitch when ever something isn't exactly to their liking.  Unfortunately this all starts to get wrapped up in the rather pointless debate about what art is - I want to avoid that, so let it suffice to say that many gamers don't exactly come across to me as museum goers, or frequenters of art house cinema.  Not only that, they ridicule those things.  But they still want society to respect them because they think Gears of War is "art".

There's this thing where, one movie is art, therefore all movies are art, because movies = art, right?  I don't believe it works that way, except in the most loose sense of the word "art".  If by "art" all people mean is the craft of doing something (as in the terms "martial arts" or "culinary arts" or expressions like "the art of motorcycle maintenance") then sure, all movies are "art" and all games too.  But obviously that's not what people mean - they  mean Art, as in Fine Art, as in culturally important artifacts that belong in museums, that should be preserved and studied and so on.  This is simply not something that all movies have - its not something that all books have, or all music or all images and it's not something that all games will have either.  And at this point almost no games have it, in my opinion.

I mean, let's face it, Gears of War makes Inception look like Hamlet.

I'm going to wrap this up because I've already gone on too long and this post is in danger of going completely off the rails.  Better to put it out of its misery now and post a follow up article if necessary.  In conclusion - there is a movie called My Dinner with Andre in which two guys have dinner.  It is widely regarded as a masterpiece.  If somebody made a game experience out of that, how many people would think it was better than the latest military-space-blood-death-shooter-thingy?  How many gamers really want to play art?


  1. This is J-Rath here...the guy who had the top rated comment in the IGN post you were talking about.

    Because of this blog, I completely respect your opinion now. See, you and I go to the movies for different reasons. To me, you seem to judge movies very technically, which I would imagine this causes Nolan's films to not be the best. I myself go for the overall experience. Did it move me? Did I enjoy it? Would I watch it again? These are all questions that I ask myself afterwards and for all of Nolans films the answers (at least for me personally) are a resounding yes.

    As far as the videogames as art debate? I think all videogames are art. The amount of creativity and pure artwork that goes into almost each and every single game is astounding. Taking a step back, I personally think that the gaming entertainment industry is BY FAR the most innovative currently and the imagination that most games have is art in and of itself in my opinion.

    Regardless, I loved the post and enjoyed your argument. I would love to follow you but I cant seem to find the follow button. Help?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm glad you pointed out that there's no Follow button - I'm something of a novice at this new fangled "blogging" thing, and I didn't realize I had to add one manually. :) So that is done.

      Otherwise, I do agree with you. Games are super fascinating - they're this strange melting pot of art, music, story telling and, something relatively new for art, interactivity. Add in the possibility for user generated content to mingle seamlessly with authorial content and you've got something that art has basically never seen before. Video games are intrinsically post modern and interdisciplinary. I think one thing you and I can definitely agree on is that it will be very interesting to see where games go over the next few years.