Becoming Art

Monet, Boulevard des Capucines (1873)

In response to the popularization of the daguerreotype in the mid 1800s, Paul Delaroche famously declared: “from today, painting is dead!”  For the past few centuries, paintings had been coming closer and closer to reality, and suddenly here was a new medium—photography—that seemed to render all of those efforts pointless.  Enter Manet and the impressionists, who stopped trying to precisely mimic reality and instead tried to capture the surreal quality of light and the emotion of a landscape.  Of course, painting was far from dead.  Painters just had to discover what set them apart from other art forms, and they had to capitalize on these differences.  The work of Manet, Monet, Van Gogh or Matisse could never have been made with a camera.

Similarly, when photography was invented it struggled to be perceived as art.  Pictorialists like Demachy and Davidson tried to mimic the efforts of the impressionists in their photographs.  They used techniques like gum bichromate to blur the details of a photo to make it look more like a painting.  The Pictorialists were trying to get photography recognized as an art form by showing how it could be like a medium that already attained artistic recognition.

Ansel Adams, Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite (1933)

Along came Ansel Adams and friends, who founded Group f/64.  In their manifesto, they stated that they were “striving to define photography as an art form…through purely photographic methods.”  They defined pure photography as “possessing no qualities…derivative of any other art form.”  Instead of trying to make paintings with their cameras they explored the unique capacity of photography to create sharp and accurate images.

Still with me?  Here’s the connection to games: Mass Effect 2 is Demachy and Demon’s Souls is Ansel Adams.  We all want games to be perceived as a medium capable of creating art, but we’ve been trying to get there in different ways.

Demon’s Souls approaches narrative in the exact opposite way that Bioware does.  In Mass Effect 2, the story is told through conversations and journal logs.  The voice acting is stellar.  The writing is great.  The camera sweeps in cinematic motion and all of the visuals are coated in film grain.  Mass Effect 2 tries to hoist itself onto the pedestal of another medium (and it isn’t alone).  It is certainly a great experience, and it’s tons of fun to play, but it doesn’t embrace its identity as a game in the way that Demon’s Souls does. Demon’s Souls demonstrates the unique storytelling capacity of games better than any other game I can think of.  It plays to the strengths of its medium; it isn’t trying to be a book and it isn’t trying to be a movie.

In Demon’s Souls you discover each place’s history without any help from a datalog.  There is a constant sense of mystery as you explore the rich corridors and caverns.  You are always pressing further into the fog, unsure of what one-hit-killer is waiting just beyond your range of vision.  Your clanking armor echoes on the cave walls and you are surrounded by groans and heavy breathing.  The space around you is crowded with shuffling life, but you still feel so lonely huddled in the womb-like dark.

Crowded with shuffling life

Demon’s Souls forces you to absorb its environment.  You trudge through the same spaces over and over again and become intimately familiar with each tunnel and vista.  The game doesn’t give you a map, but after playing it I could draw one.   In a game like Oblivion or Assassin’s Creed, space is repetitive and disposable.  In Demon’s Souls no space is wasted.  The world is big and it’s filled with variety.  You will visit every corner of it.

Everyone agrees: Demon’s Souls is difficult.  This is offset by the best melee combat mechanics that I’ve ever experienced.  The blocking and dodging are intuitive.  You can hear the thwack of flesh when you chop into an enemy with a sword.  The controls are so right that mastering them is a wonderful experience.  The precise manipulation of my digital body gives me a very physical sense of the game.  Each on-screen movement is a natural extension of my thought.

After I kill the first boss in the Boletarian Palace, I am once again in human-form, complete with shiny body and robust health bar.  I wander into the wind-whipped Shrine of Storms.  Imagine my chagrin when a dual-katana-wielding skeleton rolls over to me and dispatches me in a single hit.  “Damn you, rolling skeleton!” I shout at the screen.  I come back for more.  He kills me again.  And again.  I slowly learn the pattern of his attacks: roll, roll, slash, pause, roll, slash.  I hold my shield up to him in a challenge.  I sway and I dodge and then—BAM!—I get him from behind.  Several blows later he lies in a pile of bones at my feet.  But the next rolling skeleton has an archer friend who thwarts my masterful tactics by staggering me at just the wrong time, and I’m dead again.  Fast-forward to a few hours later when I’ve been killed a long ways into the level.  I dodge and hack my way through what used to be grueling battles with ease.  It isn’t because I have a bigger health bar or a more powerful sword.  The game has taught me how to fight, and that is why I love it.

Some rolling skeletons in the Shrine of Storms

In order to be widely recognized as a means for artistic expression, games need to explore the unique qualities of their gaminess, just like Manet did with paint and Adams did with a camera.

Demon’s Souls tells a story through the way that the player inhabits the gamespace.  The combat isn’t just a way of getting you to the next cutscene.  This is what ‘gamic’ means.  You don’t have to learn excruciatingly difficult fighting techniques in order to read a book or watch a movie.  I’m thirty hours in and Demon’s Souls has told me an amazing and visceral story in a way that a movie or book could not have done.  Surely this is art.

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This certainly won’t be the last thing I write about Demon’s Souls.  I haven’t even mentioned the unique multiplayer component of the game, and there are so many more stories to tell.  I’m also planning on putting my fancy HD PVR to use and recording some nice videos for you to watch!

In the meantime, why not check out my two favorite articles on Demon’s Souls, by Michael Abbott on GameSetWatch and Tom Bissell on Crispy Gamer.

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CAGE MATCH: PART TWO: Indigo Retrospective*

I haven’t played Heavy Rain, as I don’t own a PS3, but I have played the hell out of Indigo Prophecy, David Cage’s prior attempt at the interactive-story genre. When I picked it up, I’d just returned from an exhausting term abroad, and I wanted to sit back and enjoy a reactive game, something without statistics or strategy—basically, anything that wasn’t Dragon Age. So: Indigo Prophecy. I finished it in under two days. Then, like Jane Goodall emerging from the sweaty depths of the forest, I reemerged into society, slightly the worse for wear. Like Jane Goodall, I’d made important discoveries about the animal kingdom. Namely, I had discovered that David Cage is an absurd beast with a humorlessly bad taste in pulp fiction.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Indigo Prophecy. I thought it was an absolute riot. But the story was awful, and the controls were absurd, and I never knew exactly what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing, which was also pretty unpleasant. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoy bad community theater: it was comfortable, not too taxing, and charming in an embarassing kind of way. Whenever I see bad community theater, I want to leap up onstage and protect all those terrible little actors from the criticism of the outside world, and I felt the same way about Prophecy. I didn’t want to compliment David Cage myself, but I wanted him to receive comments, abstractly, from somewhere: I wanted him to feel good about himself, even though he’d made a pretty questionable game.

What makes it so terrible? The controls are, in fact, awful. The disconnect between what you are doing with your hands (infamously, of course, playing Simon Says) and what your characters are doing on the screen is occasionally so unreasonable that it bears no excuse. So much has been written about this. I find it unnecessary to add anything.

According to Me, reader of this many books, the plot is also horrifically bad. I can’t justify turning this into an outright spoilerfest, but those who haven’t played it should know that they may understand only around 60% of the plot. It is a mélange of unrelated science fiction and horror tropes, cobbled together in the least convincing way. The final hour of the game consists of a showdown between, basically, two opposing tropes: teams of secret soldiers who represent different science fiction clichés actually fight and kill each other with guns. I found this hilariously symbolic. Furthermore, that final hour develops jarringly: a very filmic ‘cliffhanger’ signals a kind of act-switch, and most of the player choice that took place in the beginning is rendered meaningless afterwards. The tropes move in and take over, the illusion of agency dissolves, and the player is left wondering how the hell the plot got where it seems to have arrived. Game suffers to story here in a big way, yeah, but story suffers too, in that it’s a bad story.

But: independence? Uniqueness? Yes. The game has it.

I played Prophecy off a 10-day Dragon Age high, and I was sick of the kind of choice-making that characterizes DA. The choices in Bioware games are simply too present. Will making this decision cut me off from awesome content? Will I lose a chance at a cool party member? There’s so much content and so much choice in these games that the player can actually reign with a crazy tyranny over the plot, doing whatever he or she pleases to see whatever content he or she wants. Mass Effect, with its stupid achievements for playing through with different party members, actually encourages this kind of illusion-breaking manipulation. Now, I know that you don’t have to play a Bioware game this way, but the temptation for me is overwhelming. I want my party members. I want my absurd dialog options. If they’re there, I’m going to game the system until I get them.

Prophecy eschews this kind of analytical, manipulative play. Stuff happens, fast. You don’t have time to think about it. In order to enjoy this game, you have to give in to the writers and just let their silly story play itself out.  And when you do that, it’s fun! Nonsense occurs, and you react! You punch those fucking buttons! Snap at your boss? Yes, please! Today we’re angry! Comfort your brother? Totally. No time to think. No matter what you impulsively choose to say, characterization stays pretty solid throughout, and even when the player makes discordant decisions—decisions along the lines of the much-maligned Heavy Rain sex scene—those crazy lines are delivered with conviction by the darling cardboard cast. It’s diverting, in the Jane Austen sense of the word. It doesn’t need to be anything more. It’s the weirdest thing ever, and it’s got a confidence and a ballsy drive to be unique that more than makes up for the fact that its foundational element—its story—is a load of steaming bullcrap.

I hope Cage wasn’t too set on changing lives when he made Prophecy. It doesn’t. I think people are nervous about Heavy Rain because Cage wants it to change your life, to change the way you perceive games in general. And it seems to be actually working as a challenge to the industry, a cannon-shot over the bows, so to speak. Prophecy was more like a challenge fired out of a potato-gun. But if Heavy Rain were about nonsense science fiction instead of serial child-killers, if its emotional plot was mostly-shallow twenty-something romance instead of nervous broken-dad misery, people wouldn’t feel so challenged. David Cage figured out that battling giant green Aztec beetles was less than emotionally-compelling, so he refocused: when he says that he’s working along the same tradition as the rest of his previous work, he’s wrong. There’s something pathetic and nonthreatening about Prophecy, but Heavy Rain’s been doing a whole lot of threatening. I’m pretty sure Cage figured out that the best way to hit people emotionally was to drop the canned sci-fi chatter and go for situations that were (marginally) more-relatable.

*AW YEAH. I just typed that.