So, as I said in my introduction, the motivating incident that lead to the creation of this blog was an email exchange I had with FILM CRIT HULK regarding one of his old columns about the state of video games as capital-A Art.
Before I go on with this 5000 word response to HULK’s column, I should maybe say a few words about why readers who aren’t familiar with his work should go and devour his archives over at Badass and at his WordPress. HULK is in reality a successful screenwriter and story consultant (and probably other things) working in Hollywood at a high level. He’s alluded to working with Soderbergh. He takes on the voice of Marvel’s Incredible Hulk to distance his writing from himself while drawing the reader into a closer and more open-minded reading. Oh and this voice speaks in ALL-CAPS, get used to it, he does it for a reason and it works.
His writing, especially on film, is sublime and eye-opening. He’s got this broad minded and deeply analytical approach to criticism that is so refreshing. He writes with a seriousness and purpose that is pretty much absent from online publishing. He gives us essays that are the length of short books on topics like screenwriting, action scene composition, acting, and the merit of film school. And he does it all without cynicism or positioning himself as a judge of measurable worth. Anyone working in film or TV (or really any art) should go read his work. Anyone who wants to be a better critic or writer should go read his work. Anyone who wants to participate in the best comment section on the web should go read his work. He’s an inspiration and a truly generous writer.
And, he’s raising the bar on the internet as a medium for criticism, while simultaneously calling out Hollywood for straying from the basic principles of good storytelling. There are a lot of people out there who really need to hear what he has to say in order to stop making damaged and unambitious art. And I hope this essay can help to spread his influence and reach, even if it is critical of something he had to say.
In HULK’s old column on the evolution of the Modern Warfare series, he opens with a discussion about how video game criticism is the next big undiscovered country in the world of commentary, and how this demands the question “are games art?” And he basically says “Yes, in the abstract, of course they are, but as far as great art goes, they aren’t quite there yet.” I think it’s a common opinion, but it’s wrong.
I’ll take a few quotes from the opening of the article. There’s some context missing, so go read the original, it’s good, and it seems like it has a lot of insightful things to say about the particular games in question (which I haven’t played).
THIS ISN’T TO SAY A GOOD DEAL OF GAMES DO NOT HAVE ARTISTIC ELEMENTS. GAMES OFTEN HAVE SPECTACULAR APPROACHES TO ART DIRECTION, LIGHTING, COMPOSITION, AND TECHNICAL ACUMEN. WHICH, AGAIN, IS TRULY GREAT, BUT THOSE ELEMENTS ARE JUST A COMPONENT OF THE BIGGER PURPOSE… AND THE BIGGER PURPOSE IS WHAT ACTUALLY MATTERS.
HULK DEFINES ART AS SOMETHING WHERE THE THEMATIC MESSAGES (EVEN IF THOSE MESSAGES ARE AMBIVALENT) ARE THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THE PRODUCTS INCEPTION AND IDENTITY. THIS IS NOT TO SAY AN ARTISTIC FILM CAN’T HAVE AN EQUALLY COMPELLING PLOT, ACTION, MARKETABILITY, OR WHATEVER THE HECK. BUT THE GRAND POWER OF THEME REIGNS SUPREME.
(his emphasis, not mine) and most tellingly:
“AND THAT’S THE DAMN PROBLEM WITH VIDEO GAMES. THEY OFTEN HAVE TO BE GAMES. THEY HAVE TO DIRECTLY SERVE THE PLAYING EXPERIENCE AND YOU KNOW WHAT? MAYBE THEY SHOULD. MAYBE GAMES CAN NEVER BE TRUE ART, BECAUSE IN ORDER TO BECOME ART IT WOULD SEEMINGLY HAVE TO BECOME AN “UN-GAME.” AND DOES THAT RUIN THE POINT? MAYBE IT DOES.”
(again though, these are quotes out of context, read the article, I don’t want to be unfair to HULK, he’s saying more than just this)
Ugh… HULK, I love you, you’re the smartest online writer writing about popular culture today, but you’re just so misguided here. Look at the artistic elements in games he cites to praise: art direction, lighting, composition. These are cinematic elements. He discounts the “playing experience” as something outside of the art of the game. Something that gets in the way of the art. And this is completely, 100% wrong. It’s like saying the music in an opera or musical is diminishing the art because it gets in the way of the storytelling.
And when HULK says that the single most important criterion of great art is the expression of thematic content, I really think that’s narrow-mindedness talking. It’s really kind of an anti-modernist bias against non-representation. And I know thematics and representation aren’t really the same thing, but you can definitely express a greater range of thematic content when you represent life and tell a story about it in a recognizable way. And while an artist can put a great deal of thought into the thematics of her abstract work, the audience usually won’t get it without having it explained on a little white card. If thematic conveyance is the single most important aspect of all art, then representation is pretty much always going to make for more successful art. Now there are plenty of people who think this. ”We know what art is, it’s paintings of horses” said Jack Donnaghy on 30 Rock. It’s a common and perfectly valid sentiment, but not one that a great critical mind like HULK’s should be holding. It’s also one that a legion of 20th and 21st century artists would dearly contest.
What I really think HULK is doing is saying that the greatest art is art that reaches for the same brass ring that he reaches for in his own art (screenwriting and criticism). I think this is natural. HULK is a real artist, a professional writer working in Hollywood, and I’m given to understand he’s had a significant degree of success at it. Any artist, especially a busy working artist, is going to respond most strongly to art that can inform the way he or she engages in his or her own art, art that can teach them something useful.
I can see where as a writer, HULK just isn’t getting very much out of the writing in video games, because even the very best video game writing and storytelling is shit compared to average movies and novels. And for HULK, art that doesn’t bring much inspiration to his own work (storytelling and literate commentary), and art that doesn’t set up the kind of critical conversations he likes to engage in have less value. Again this is a fine and practical opinion to hold, we can’t be truly neutral when evaluating things, and we’re all going to more greatly value art that gives us what we’re looking for. However, HULK has set a higher bar for himself than this, and when he is making claims of preconditions for artistic achievement — and thus a schema for evaluating the “greatness” of art — he should be more broad minded.
Now, his criticism is, in fact, pretty apt for the range of games he’s criticizing. His kind of games, big games that tell big cinematic stories, aren’t there yet. But there are other kinds of games. And games-qua-games are an art, not just a vehicle for conveying artistic content that exists within the game. Games that have artistic goals other than or beyond presenting thematic content via narrative are reaching artistic heights that absolutely qualify them as great art.
But HULK is actually doing more than just setting some criteria and saying games aren’t measuring up. He’s saying that for any art to really be art it has to begin and end with its thematic messages. I’ll give some examples of truly great art that I think fall outside of HULK’s criteria.
Yves Klein’s monochrome paintings.
The Chrysler Building.
Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
Here’s the Wikipedia blurb on probably his most famous monochrome show:
“The next exhibition, ‘Proposte Monochrome, Epoca Blu’ (Proposition Monochrome; Blue Epoch) at the Gallery Apollinaire, Milan, (January 1957), featured 11 identical blue canvases, using ultramarine pigment suspended in a synthetic resin ‘Rhodopas,’ described by Klein as “The Medium.” Discovered with the help of Edouard Adam, a Parisian paint dealer, the optical effect retained the brilliance of the pigment which, when suspended in linseed oil, tended to become dull. Klein later deposited a Soleau envelope for this recipe to maintain the “authenticity of the pure idea.”This colour, reminiscent of the lapis lazuli used to paint the Madonna’s robes in medieval paintings, was to become famous as International Klein Blue (IKB). The paintings were attached to poles placed 20 cm away from the walls to increase their spatial ambiguities.”
(boy does electronic reproduction fail at conveying this piece, but you get the idea)
I’m sure there was an artist’s statement, some little cards on the walls, and articles by sympathetic critics all of which claimed these paintings were about something beyond direct aesthetic presentation. And maybe there is something else, but I think that’s beside the real and motivating point of work like this.
Someone naive of the dialogue surrounding the pieces, who walked into that show not knowing what they were in for, would very much get the full experience, without absorbing any textual or thematic messages at all, you don’t have to “read” a piece like this to get it. And people’s perception that their has to be an underlying message or hidden theme is why a lot of people mistakenly feel they don’t “get” art like this, which is a real shame.
It’s not really about anything other than painting and color, or perhaps it could be said that whatever other themes the artist had in mind don’t really impact the effect of the art, and a viewer not privy to the artist’s other ideas can fully appreciate all the aspects of the piece that make it successful, even great, art. The only external things it can really be said to be commenting on are other paintings and an aesthetic tradition. It creates a wholly new aesthetic experience, invites the viewer to think about painting and aesthetic concepts in a way that must have been exhilaratingly new in 1957. It creates a space, a white (I’m assuming) room dominated by 11 giant brilliant blue canvases that are almost suspended in midair. None of these aspects of its artistic success have anything to do with the conveyance of themes in the way HULK means.
This is great art in every way. As great as any movie or novel. This is a transformative piece of work that advances the state of its medium and creates something wholly new that had not been experienced before. It’s great art, and it stuck with people, “a blue canvas” is still a lot of people’s shorthand for minimalist art.
Oh, and speaking of shorthand for artistic movements, maybe I should let this slide, since HULK wasn’t really focusing on gallery art in his piece, and I think if it had really been his intent to talk about how contemporary visual art features into his scheme and evaluation, he’d have made a different choice, but he mentions one piece of contemporary art when talking about mediums other than film and games and it is…
… ugh… Piss Christ… You know, Andres Seranno’s crucifix in the pee that got the National Endowment for the Arts in trouble back in the 90s. I’m sorry, but this is the piece to cite when you want to discount contemporary art as one big childish put-on and paint the whole art world as insincere and even malicious. Its very existence has probably kept many people out of galleries ever since. Never mind that it actually has a lot of aesthetic merit. Go look it up. It’s a photograph, not a sculpture, and the color is amazing. If you didn’t know where the red and yellow was coming from, you could mistake it for something beautiful and devotional. Which isn’t to say I love it. The concept and title are childishly confrontational and court controversy for controversy’s sake (though in that sense, it’s hard to say it wasn’t successful in its aims). It conveys themes, but the thematic conveyance might be the worst part of the piece. But when you use Piss Christ as your go-to example of high-brow contemporary art, you are revealing a very dismissive attitude. It would be like a liberal using Falling Down to represent all of 90s cinema.
But back to the point, I don’t think you can really say that the conveyance of thematic messages is the most important point of a big canvas painted solid brilliant blue. You can evaluate the work without thinking about thematics for even a second. If conveying theme has to be the point, it’s a failed piece of art, because it certainly doesn’t convey much in the way of a thematic message to me. It’s an object, not a text, and if you try to “read” it, you’re going to miss the real reason it was created.
(And no, post-modernists, everything is not a text, you only say that because text is what you best understand and what your vocabulary can best discuss.)
The Chrysler Building
The Chrysler building is beautiful and revolutionary. It’s so striking to be walking around New York City, to turn a corner and then look down a long straight avenue and it towering in the distance, the whole structure basically a beautiful Deco tapering spire. In polls it consistently turns up as New Yorkers’ favorite building.
But it isn’t a sculpture. It isn’t just an aesthetic object. A sculptor might find it to be a limited work because its aesthetic decisions have to cater to the necessities of being an office building. But that’s the point, and that in fact is a fundamental component of the building’s art, not a detracting factor. It’s a space to be interacted with, experienced, and even lived in. You don’t just look at it, you occupy it. If you work there, the shape of the building shapes your life. Imagine walking through this lobby every day, how that would make you feel about your position in the world. You could be a janitor there and feel like you were contributing to something important:
But if great art has to make some sort of thematic statement, what is the Chrysler building saying? I mean, I’m sure you could assign this as a prompt in a critical course about architecture. If you asked the question in the 30s, I imagine the answers would have been about the narrative of commerce and progress. But that essay would probably focus way too much on the murals just because thats the easiest small part to wrestle thematic content out of. If you asked the question today, you’d probably get answers about gender, it is very feminine for a big phallic skyscraper after all. But whether or not the architects and designers had a thematic intent, it’s a very minor part of the success of the work. I mean, imagine if a contemporary architect was gifted with a time machine and got to go back and discuss the building with the architects back in 1930. There would be hours and hours of things to talk about, but if thematics got brought up at all, it would be a short part of the conversation. There’s far more important, fundamental, issues in the artistry of architecture than literary themes.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
We all know what it’s about, right? It’s “Fate knocking at the door.” That’s the theme. But what else? The door knock lasts about 10 seconds and the piece takes a half hour to play. What’s all the rest of it about?
Nothing, it’s about music. And music is nothing but an aesthetic experience wrapped up in the progression of time. Think about it, if you pause a movie or TV show or game, you have a still image. A painting or sculpture is a permanent. Pause while reading and unfocus your eyes, and theres a page of text. Freeze a play and there are mannequins on the stage. But stop music and there is nothing, only silence. Music simply cannot exist outside of the flow of time. It’s unlike any other aesthetic form in that way. And it’s untranslatable. Novelize the 5th symphony, turn it into a TV show, I dare you. Music, especially music without lyrics that isn’t a part of something like a stage production or a film, cannot be anything but music and is almost never about anything but music. It may have a lot to say about music, but its not going to convey much in the way of the kind of themes that are better stated in a literal narrative.
And about it being about “Fate knocking at the door:” Think about how much more could be said about that idea in another medium. Ask Shakespeare to write about fate knocking at the door, he’d throw more narrative, thematics, nuance, and emotional complexity at at the subject than you could handle. What’s Beethoven really saying about fate? That it’s loud? That it’s sudden? That it demands attention? These aren’t really complicated or even very insightful ideas. But that doesn’t diminish the work in the slightest, it doesn’t automatically put Beethoven on a lower level than Shakespeare. The tiny bits of theme there are exist to grab the listener’s attention and make them pay attention to the real meaning and purpose of the work, which is an untranslatable aesthetic idea playing out in time. The theme services the whole of the work, but that doesn’t mean it is the basis on which the worth of the piece is to be evaluated. Again, the parts of the work that make it great art exist outside of any text.
OK, ok, ok, a pretentious abstract painting, an old skyscraper, a famous piece of music, what does this have to do with video games as art?
They’re all great pieces of art that are in mediums that are just simply inferior to literature and film in terms of delivering coherent thematic messages. Even when these themes are there in the work, they can be inaccessible to even an astute audience member, unless she reads a history of the work or of the artist (look up Barthes for discussion about this (not that I actually am on board with the idea that “the author is dead” is the best way to read)). Shakespeare doesn’t have this problem, his themes are all right there in the text, and we don’t really have to have access to anything other than his texts to figure them out.
But this does NOT make these pieces, in any defensible absolute term, inferior to works of literature or film. Nor does it mean that painting, architecture, and symphonic composition are inferior to or less successful than writing and directing. And I don’t think HULK would ever really say this, but he’s in effect making that claim.
And I think many of the best and most successful games, the great art, actually have more in common with abstract paintings, architecture, and wordless music than they do with novels or films.
Look at the games HULK talks about in his column, Shadow of the Colossus, Bioshock, Modern Warfare, these are big budget AAA titles with photorealistic graphics. They incorporate the language of cinema to tell their stories and motivate their action. They have protagonists that would be recognizable types in a popular film. These are the kinds of games you can talk about with the language and expertise of a film critic. But they’re certainly not the only, or necessarily best, games. And this is far from the only way in which a game can be art.
What makes games unique? Why do we play games? Other art shows or tells, but a video game is kind of spinning its wheels whenever it shows or tells. A game is being a game when it creates an activity. And oftentimes for that activity to be as engaging as possible, the game has to stop “saying” anything at all. A gamemaker who keeps distracting from the interactivity to show and tell, even if he’s showing or telling deeply resonant thematic ideas, may very well be sacrificing the true art of games for misplaced goals that are just more suited for other media. Furthermore the kinds of analysis one engages in to criticize narrative media like film and fiction are inadequate to understanding the artistic achievements of games, in fact they can miss the point entirely.
Engaging an activity is the fundamental reason we play games, and is the very soul of their art. Many games don’t tell any story at all. Some games eschew graphics almost entirely. But every single game creates an activity. Games allow me to participate in activities that are utterly unlike anything I could do in real life. There’s no analogue for Tetris in some other medium, without the art of games, that is an activity that could never be engaged in. Playing Tetris is like experiencing a gallery room full of abstract paintings, it’s like being in a modern architect’s building, it’s an artistically crafted experience that isn’t necessarily saying anything. But it is artifice with an aesthetic presentation that creates a meaningful and unique response in its audience. I don’t see how an open minded and self-critical person could claim that that it isn’t art.
And beyond creating an activity, a game can create a space to inhabit. Just like an architect’s building. Minecraft is a wonderful place to be, like the lobby of the Chrysler building. Tremendous care has gone into the aesthetic of that space, the colors, the presentation of time, the design of the characters and enemies, but even greater care — the true art in making this kind of game — has gone into integrating the space-as-a-canvas with an engrossing set of activities. There’s simply no analogue for this in the narrative arts, but that absolutely does not mean that these are merits that sit apart from what we should consider as the artistic achievement of the game.
HULK is pondering how games fit in within the community of narrative arts, how they stack up compared to their elders. And I would argue that they sort of don’t.
Consider this: The Great Gatsby has been adapted into a movie. It could easily be a TV show. It could be a radio play. It could be a series of comic books. It could be a stage musical. It could be a series of representational paintings or murals. You’d have to change a lot for each of these adaptations, but you could more or less still clearly convey the same themes, plot events, and character personalities and motivations, and keep the story in the original genre of an interpersonal tragedy without sacrificing the particular charms of the adopting medium, and in doing so you would capture the novel’s themes. But, to my mind, in order to make it into a game (at least a game that is any fun), you’d have to really sacrifice things, and invent a whole lot of new material that would conflict with the themes and genre of the original story. I just don’t see it working without it becoming a story about bootlegging and gunning down mobsters. At best the text of the book would provide a setting, but the thematic resonance would be lost. (*)
On the flip side, remember when they turned Super Mario Brothers into a movie? It wasn’t good. But it COULDN’T be good, because as wildly successful as Mario is as a game, its narrative is totally subservient to its gameplay. Its simplicity and triteness — rescue the princess from the dragon — works in a way that a more nuanced and thematically rich story wouldn’t. Much like how Gatsby the game would require the invention of all sorts of new situations and dangers to be interesting, Mario the movie or book requires whole-cloth invention of thematic and narrative detail that are nowhere in the original game series even after over a dozen releases over 30 years. The movie has to be a failure because Mario is about things that a movie could never ever hope to convey.
Over the centuries, we have used all sorts of mediums to tell stories, and video games are really unlike any of them. And if we choose to judge video games based on the merits of novels, or epic poetry, or stage drama, or cinema, they of course don’t measure up. But what you’re doing then is evaluating an entire mode of creative expression based on what it is not doing, and then saying the unique and special things it is doing — the real goals of the medium — are ancillary to “true art.” This is quite frankly close-minded B.S. It’s the exact same logic that has kept comic books in an undeserved ghetto for decades.
Because the truth is, games have been hitting artistic home runs ever since the early 80s. How can anyone argue that? Look at the impact they’ve had on audiences and culture-at-large. If a work of art creates something fundamentally new, inspires other artists to create, alters the very lives of the audience to the point where legions define their very generational experience and identity through that art, creates an aesthetic whose influence spreads far into other media, and then is picked up in the greater culture and is referenced again and again for decades after the work was released, how on Earth can you not call it great art? I mean, geek parents are passing the experience of playing the NES down from generation to generation at this point. Video games aren’t just an exciting thing that’s happening right now, they’ve already become our heritage. They’re art, and they have made great achievements, and so they are great art. It’s that simple.
“HULK DEFINES ART AS SOMETHING WHERE THE THEMATIC MESSAGES (EVEN IF THOSE MESSAGES ARE AMBIVALENT) ARE THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THE PRODUCTS INCEPTION AND IDENTITY.”
That’s just too narrow of a definition of art to really be functional on a big scale. Thematic messages might be the most important part of an artistically constructed narrative, after all, telling a story without trying to say anything is aiming pretty low. But if you try to hold onto that criteria and apply it everywhere, you’re going to discount a whole lot of great artistic accomplishments as not being art. Either that or you’ll have to tie yourself in knots to find thematic messages when they aren’t present or are of minor importance to the work, and you’ll miss whats actually going on while you try to read the art like a book. You have to engage art on its own terms to understand and appreciate it.
And this is really disappointing coming from HULK, because HULK is the one who told us to “Never Hate a Movie”. HULK is a genre omnivore who avoids ranking films by some category of measurable worth. He’s the very opposite of Rotten Tomatoes. So if two films can be completely different, can be aiming for completely different things, and can succeed in totally different and incompatible terms, then can’t something in a fundamentally different medium, which is engaged with and experienced in an entirely different way, succeed in ways that are even more alien, that have nothing to do with the conditions of success in the other medium?
I mean, I get it. A whole lot of games have stories and cinematic presentation, and thus far they have been shitty or at least very limited versions of movies. Half of this is because the best writers aren’t writing for video games yet, but that will change. But its also because a whole lot of stories, even exciting action-packed stories, just don’t translate into workable gameplay. And if you’re sacrificing gameplay for a story or thematic message, you’re doing it wrong, like an architect that builds a beautiful skyscraper that totally fails as a workable space for people to do business and move about. (The student center at my first college was sort of like that.)
Plus the kind of characters that make for good stories, conflicted complicated well-defined characters with strong motivations, don’t make for the best video game protagonists. In games that allow for complicated interaction with an open, explorable world, the designer can’t really define the protagonist’s personality because it’s going to be defined by the player’s choices.
Think about Skyrim or Fallout, they leave the protagonist’s moral development entirely up to the player and let the world respond to that, but you can’t really plan a very meaningful story about an undefined character. So telling a story with a whole lot of specific authorial intent (which is what you need to convey themes) is almost impossible without the game being basically a series of alternating action sequences and cutscenes.
But despite the limitations of the medium as a story-telling platform, someday someone will succeed, because video games and the people who make them are amazing. Someday someone is going to find the right combination of a very specific story, presentation, and model of immersion that will raise the bar on narrative gaming high enough for HULK. Someday, and probably someday soon, HULK is going to get his game. And that will be a great game, a great work of art.
But just because that particular great game hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean there haven’t been great, artistic games coming out for decades and reshaping our culture in the process.
The bigger point I’m trying to make is that there can be no universal successful definition for what art is. And I don’t mean this in the reductive post-modernist sense of the separation of the sign and the signified and the inherent failure of language, though that is going on too. There are just too many cultures, too many tastes, too many artists with completely different goals and methods, too many different mediums that work on entirely divergent principles. There is no single set of expected goals or motivations, no matter how generally stated, that can be applied as a normative criteria for what successful art is. It is impossible to say where art begins and everyday expression and craft end. Anything can be art (and this statement is like the end of Ratatouille — I definitely do not mean that it follows that everything is art) and there is no single path or philosophy that will raise a creator’s craft to art.
When HULK said to never hate a movie, I think part of that is to acknowledge that even the worst movie that is the farthest from our own tastes is still on a very real level a work of art. Similarly, because game design is a true art, every video game is a work of art. Once you stop asking every game whether or not it is even art at all, and stop trying to shoehorn games into critical frameworks that are more useful for evaluating other media, you start seeing just how great games are, and just how tremendous their artistic achievements have been.
(*) Check this out