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Artistic Expression in Gaming

I have previously discussed my appreciation for unconventional and non-linear forms of storytelling, as well as a love for forms of entertainment that embrace its inner beauty and create something incredibly profound. I welcome this type of narrative structure in all mediums of entertainment, video games included. Since video games have such an endless amount of possibilities and no real restriction to realism, developers have infinite space to implement their own artistic expression and try to convey something to the player through subtleties for other visual cues. With games like Papers, Please and Bioshock Infinite I think the right amount of artistic uniqueness was injected into the final products to create something ingenious, yet not pretentious. Some developers, perhaps, take their creative infinity a bit too far and create something that is so abstract it not only ceases to be an interactive experience for the player, it ceases to be entertainment at all. Today I will examine a few examples of these games that try a little too hard to be intelligent, as well as a few better examples to set the standard of what I expect from an artful video game. With No Man's Sky coming out in less than two months, I figured there wouldn't be a better time to deconstruct this concept.

Since I apparently take a stab at L.A. Noire any time I possibly can, I am going to talk about its failures first. L.A. Noire is a visually stunning experience, with life-like character models that accurately portray emotions, as well as arresting visuals and lighting. However, L.A. Noire doesn't really know what to do with all of this visual panache, so instead, it does absolutely nothing with it. The game appears to think it can get away with its jarring lack of substance with all of its aesthetic beauty, and for a good portion of the experience, it actually succeeds. The thin story and atrocious voice acting, however, does take a lot away from any sort of artistic expression the visuals could have injected into the story. There are lots of visual cues that the story is heavily dependent on, yes, but a story shouldn't depend on its visuals; the visuals should depend on the story. While that sounds like an incredibly pretentious sentence (and perhaps it is), let me explain just what I mean. A story shouldn't be constructed around its visuals. Visuals are certainly a vital part of the whole experience, but they shouldn't be taking the priority by any means. Visual verve should simply be an arresting addition to an already compelling story, and the impact of said story should not be contingent on how the game looks. If a game advertises its aesthetic to a gratuitous degree, or the game is entirely visually-oriented, then there is definitely a lot of substance missing from the writing and the developers are probably trying to distract the player from that with flashy visuals. L.A. Noire is a pretty guilty of this, and while there was certainly a lot of creative integrity mixed into the visuals, the story is absolutely bereft of any sort of ambition or emotional punch, and it leaves the player with the feeling that any sort of artistic expression the visuals carried is immediately rendered null and void.

To be fair to L.A. Noire, at least it made an attempt at having a story. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, on the other hand, doesn't even bother to make this effort. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is the video game equivalent of an irritating student art film that means absolutely nothing, but is absolutely so sure that it is full of profundity that it sticks out in its insignificance. There is no real story to this game; everybody is gone, and it's just you. The game, on a strictly visual level, is remarkable. This game is a feast to the eyes on the highest level. The developers are definitely aware of this, however, and the conceit gets tired very fast because of how heavy-handed the art direction becomes. This really is a shame, because the game has nothing else going for it. It's an empty experience that thinks it's trying to say something profound about life, and it's the worst type of pretension that exists in art. It's trying to be art for the sake of being art and having that status, and that mindset couldn't be more wrong. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is definitely reminiscent of Andy Warhol's Sleep, which is, quite actually, five and a half hours of someone sleeping. It means nothing, but it's trying to act as if it means everything. It's trying to be philosophical and meaningful through an intentionally contradictory nihilist mindset; "Hey, we'll say that although life is visually beautiful, it is actually an incredibly empty experience." The visuals are supposed to tell the story, but there is no story to tell at all. It's trying too hard to produce subtleties and all the game ends up doing is devolving into such a subtle state that it manages to say absolutely nothing at all, and not even give the player an entertaining experience. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is the result of several ambitious minds that have already decided that their artistic vision is genius, when in reality, there is no creative drive present at all. Only a shallow desire to be profound and unique.

Flower, a 2009 game, is an acutely more irritating example of the concept I discussed above. In Flower, you play as a gust of wind that blows through flowers. There is no story here, nothing to say about any games, humanity, or anything; it means nothing at all. It is a game that wants to be artsy and different, and I suppose it successfully achieves the latter, but not in the way the developers wanted it to, I'm sure. Don't get me wrong, I am a large supporter of minimalist art finding its way into modern media, but there needs to be a reason for it to be minimalist. If it's just minimalism for the sake of being artistic, then what really is the point? It just ends up coming off as boasting that someone came up with a good idea and a bunch of creators got together and decided to make a game out of it, for some reason. Minimalism doesn't even really have a place in gaming; yes, game developers should have a wider scope while developing, and ambition is certainly a plus, but minimalism is a very tricky concept to pull off in a video game. Artistic games are very different from artistic films; artistic films cannot be interactive. It is this simple difference that splits these two concepts a world apart. A game is obligated to give the player some sort of interaction, and when the world and story is minimal, what kind of interaction does this leave with the player? The player is basically reduced to only moving and looking around, and this reduces artistic games to walking simulators. Perhaps the creators only had the best intentions and actually tried to say something with this game without being pretentious, and only failed because the minimalist fashion of storytelling is not suitable for video games. Video games can be artistic, but not in the same way that Locke is artistic.

On the other side of the artistic spectrum comes artful failures like the Postal games. While they may not seem like art, they are definitely trying to be. These games shoot to be satirical art, lampooning facets of modern culture and exaggerating their faults to the most obvious extent, so that the concept is accessible to everyone. The Grand Theft Auto games do this as well, but in a much more arrogant and significantly more mean-spirited fashion. These games aim high and try to say something about modern culture by satirizing it and making fun of it; unfortunately, they both fall gravely short. These games pick on the obvious parts of modern culture and only dig to the surface level. Facets of life that most people acknowledge are silly (reality TV, transparent advertising, shallow tendencies) are lampooned, while deeper issues are put on the back burner because they don't appeal to a wider audience. The writing just amounts to a bunch of satirical gags that never really pay off because of how obvious they are. These games aren't trying to be stupid, they're trying to say something by acting stupid, and they really just say that modern culture goofs sometimes. There are no thought-provoking revelations about humanity here, and one could easily argue that these games are just "silly" and aren't attempting to have such lofty inspirations. The genre of satire, however, has become so oversaturated that almost all of the obvious ground has been well-trod and is not new. Neither of these games pull out anything new, and their artistic satire falls bewilderingly flat because of this.

Now, while these games have obvious artistic failures that fail to reflect the talent of the developers and writers that created the project, at least none of them stroked their own ego and basically told the player outright that it was supposed to be art. Well, The Beginner's Guide, Davey Wreden's follow-up to his widely acclaimed The Stanley Parable, is about the most despicable type of artistic direction any developer could decide to wander. The game consists of a player wandering around a desolate landscape that consists of various video games a fictional designer has created, while there is narration that actually describes what you see and tells you exactly how to interpret what you see. Nothing is more insulting to an audience than presenting them with something ambiguous and then promptly telling them exactly how to feel about it. The beauty of an ambiguous work is that the creator doesn't necessarily have any answers for the audience, and that everything is left up to interpretation. The Beginner's Guide, however, subverts that in the worst way possible and is essentially one long tutorial level that is brought down to the most mundane level. There is no creativity left here, no art here, no appreciation for the medium present at all. Wreden himself tells the player exactly what to do, how to feel, and how to think about everything presented to them, and this is exactly the wrong way to produce art. Ambiguity is a bit of a tightrope, go too far in one direction and you've become Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, which tries to have so much subtlety that it essentially turns into nothing at all, but go too far in another direction and you've become The Beginner's Guide, which is bereft of any nuance. The game is also supposed to be some sort of meta-commentary on the disconnect between gamers and the developers, but there aren't any revelations made or any real thoughts of substance offered here. While Wreden's opinion on the matter is painfully obvious and explained very clearly, he doesn't really have anything profound to say. All he does is provide heavy-handed opinions and try to spin it off as "art," which he fails to do on a spectacular level.


So, all of this talk about nuance, obviousness, minimalism, and so many other words that I've probably repeated a few too many times throughout this article. What should it all cohere into to make a fulfilling, thought-provoking experience for a gamer? Where exactly is the middle ground between pretension and wanton stupidity, where a sublime median rests dormant? What is a profound, artistic video game? Perhaps it is a game that conveys a message in a unique way, where the message is not blatantly placed nor is it obvious to the gamer. It makes the player question their motives, their reasons for gaming, or maybe even their own existence. A truly profound experience will resonate with the player and leave a long-lasting impact that will shape their standard for gaming as a whole, and perhaps even introduce them to new ideologies and philosophies. A profound gaming experience successfully deconstructs the concept of gaming in its entirety, but not in the pretentious, obvious way that The Beginner's Guide attempts to do this. Maybe it's a commentary about society in the present, in the past, or even in the future, in a way that startles the player and gives them a plausible skeleton of ideas that are sure to stick with them. That is a lot of heavy material I just presented, but there are games that have successfully done this; not only that, they soared miles into this blissful median and provided experiences that can never be repeated.

A perfect example of this idea is Papers, Please, a unique indie game centered around an immigration worker that simply handles the paperwork that decides whether an individual can enter a fictional country. There are so many layers to this game that I am not even sure which one to begin with, so I will begin with how dynamic of an experience it is. There are several contingencies that change within the game, such as hostile relations between countries and terrorist attacks that affect the types of documentation used and therefore present more challenges to the player handling these documents. The player has to face several moral different moral dilemmas while processing these documents, such as separating married couples, allowing terrorists into the country, detaining and arresting innocent people, and making enough money to feed their own family. The game has so many different paths, storylines and characters that it's one of the most realistic gaming experiences one could have, and it all takes place from a desk job. The game really makes the player question their moral ethics, as the things they do from their desk job affects several people daily and they don't even see the outcome. It is a true testament to the easily achieved obedience of mankind, where a position of authority demands a lower tier position to do something, and it will most likely be done. Papers, Please examines several different parts of the human psyche and deconstructs obedience, morality, and issues of immigration, and it does so in such an elegant and flawless manner that it's so difficult to ignore the beauty in this game's aesthetic simplicity.

A game that is so eloquent in its message and so lovely in its beauty is Mother 3, by far the best GBA game I have ever played. The story has a depth not reached by many other games, as it brings into question several themes of loyalty, brotherhood, the mutability of morals, and the importance of friendship and love. The game is vaguely disturbing in its most layered moments, as even the enemies begin to understand the gravity of their situations and can't help but weep at what they have become. There is such a moral grayness to this game that present sympathy for both the good and the bad, and any game that can question morality is a game that has succeeded in its desire to be profound. Morals are the skeleton upon which all humanity is based, and deconstructing that concept and turning it inside out for a player is definitely something they are not prepared for, but need to grasp on some level. Mother 3 is able to present this to the player in a subtle fashion that doesn't beat them over the head with its themes, and it really makes the player come to question what exactly their life has been based on. Mother 3 is an acutely distressing experience that nevertheless flourishes because of that exact reason. Much like the best forms of art, they are not easy to experience, but once it is all finished, that experience will not be one that is ever forgotten and that will bloom in the mind of the consumer for the rest of their life.

Speaking of morals, no game relies on this theme more than Spec Ops: The Line. This game is an absolute masterpiece, and it couldn't be more relevant or timely. Spec Ops: The Line turns the FPS genre on its head completely, bringing into question the intentions and moral ambiguity of the idea of mowing down countless baddies from the first-person perspective. Initial guidelines are set up, and the ethics of these guidelines are brought into heavy question by the middle of the story, before the writers decide to darkly twist the plot into something acutely menacing and harrowing. In an age where First-Person Shooters are all the rage, slowing down and questioning the motives of some of the people you play as is an absolute genius concept, and Spec Ops: The Line magnificently weaves its way through these tough ideas, crafting a story that perfectly portrays the idea of fleeting sanity. The game, after a while, even begins to directly blame the player for their actions, whatever they may be, right or wrong. As the mental ability of the player's character begins to deteriorate, the game around him also begins to deteriorate. It's a genius idea that is brought to fruition in the most impeccable manner, and it never gives in to easy pretension and giving the player some sort of lesson. The game scolds the player, and then simply remains disappointed in them. It leaves the player with a strange desire to go shower, and that's exactly what the developers are trying to accomplish.

Where, then, do these examples of good and bad art leave us? Does artistic expression really hold much of a place in video games? Sure, there are a lot of ways to go wrong when a team of developers is given an infinite environment to work with and no real artistic direction, but despite all of the faults of pretentious and artless video games, there is still something tangible there. A creative vision, an ambition, something to hold onto, that gives them some sort of substance, whether it is intended or not. Artistic vision is something to be cherished, no matter how misguided it may be. For every few badly crafted artistic games, there is an absolute masterpiece that makes that intermission completely worthwhile. Crafting a masterful story with accompanying profound substance and meaning is incredibly difficult to do, and there are definitely going to be some missteps that people take on the road to materializing this magnum opus, and whether or not we're given some exercise in surface-level realizations or a masterfully directed piece regarding the human condition, it's incredibly difficult to say that artistic expression has no place in video gaming. There's always a spectacle to behold, and whether or not that sight has any profundity to it, there's still no denying that its creative efforts are worth something palpable.
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