Modderator Jonathan Holmes commented on my previous blog post, "Games And Art: A Rare Conviergance" arguing that if I feel that there are so few artistic games, then I haven't been playing the right ones. This maybe true, but that was not my intent with my post. My definition of art is a bit more selective than most peoples. I feel that art is a statement by the artist. Guernica was a depiction of not only the Spanish Civil War, but of Pablo Piccasso's own anguish and rage over the senseless deaths of Spanish civilians during a wartime campaign. For the artist to put their feelings and opinions into their work, is a mark of art for me.
That is not to say that all games that are not art are not worth playing. I enjoy a good action packed shooter or RPG, but that doesn't make it art. Good graphics, game play, controls, voice acting, and art have little to do with art, in my opinion. Art is something deeper, something that transcends genres and mediums.
Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring" is not just about pagan rituals, it is also about society itself, even if Stravinsky never intended it that way. It's use of discordant notes and rapidly changing structure were so unique and groundbreaking, a riot erupted at it's premiere in 1913. The audience, expecting something akin to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, instead arrived to see this provocative ballet about human sacrifice with harsh un-harmonic tones. The audience first laughed, then began to shout so loud that the music could not be heard on stage. The audience was so out of control, around 40 people were arrested during the performance. To provoke an audience to riot, over a simple ballet by a relatively unknown composer, what could they have been thinking? They felt they were being personally insulted and attacked, some by the music, others by the audience members who did not agree with them. To inspire such strong feelings is one of my benchmarks for art.
[url]The Good The Bad And The Ugly[/url] is no mere spaghetti western. It deals with the complex issues of absolute morals, the mentality that everything falls into the categories of good and evil, and gray and blue. For those of you who have seen the movie, ask yourselves "Who is 'the good', who is 'the bad', and who is 'the ugly'?" of the three main characters: Clint Eastwood's character who is known only as "Blondie", Eli Wallach's character "Tuco", or Lee Van Cleef's "Angel Eyes". The answer (in my opinion) is nobody, everybody is "The Ugly".
"Blondie" seems to be the obvious hero on the surface. His sharp features, disdain for Tuco and Angel Eyes, his love of kittens, his mercy in general and for the dying Confederate solder. However, he is a killer and a criminal. His only form of income comes from "capturing" Tuco, turning him in to the authorities for the bounty, then cutting Tuco down from the gallows just as he is about to be executed. After an argument with Tuco, Blondie strands Tuco in the middle of the desert with no water, stating that "If you save your breath I feel a man like you can manage it."
Tuco is a complex character, he is obviously a criminal, as his list of crimes shows. However, you see some glimmers of humanity in him. When he robs the general store, he preys on the manager's meek personality, getting the man to give him a bottle of liquor, a gun, and bullets, which he then uses to hold the man at gunpoint. Just when you've resigned him to being evil, he gives the manager back his liquor, but then ruins the moment by making the man bite down on the Open/Closed" placard. He also has an eye opening moment as he reunites with his brother. When confronted with the news of his parent's deaths and his brother's disgust for him, he says "You think you're better than I am? Where we came from, if one did not want to die of poverty, one became a priest or a bandit! You chose your way, I chose mine. Mine was harder. You talk of our mother and father. You remember when you left to become a priest? I stayed behind! I must have been ten, twelve. I don't remember which, but I stayed. I tried, but it was no good. Now I am going to tell you something. You became a priest because you were... too much of a coward to do what I do!"
Angel Eyes is by far the hardest of the three to analyze. He just resonates pure evil, but he has perhaps the most concrete moral code in the entire film. He is a hired killer and takes his work seriously. When tracking down information on the whereabouts of a man named "Bill Carson" on the payroll of a man named "Baker", he interrogates a man who then pays him to kill Baker. Angel Eyes says "When I'm paid, I always see the job through." and proceeds to murder the man and his son. After returning to Baker with the information, Angel Eyes delivers the same ultimatum. " Oh I almost forgot. He payed me a thousand. I think his idea was that I kill you. *both laugh* But you know the pity is when I'm paid, I always follow my job through. You know that." Angel Eyes then murders Baker. This seems to be wanton murder at first glance, but you realize that it shows a code of honor. When he murders the man for Baker, he only kills the man when a gun is drawn on him and his son who is carrying a rifle. He doesn't do anything to the man's wife. Further into the film, it is revealed that Angel Eyes is a Sergeant in the Union Army (whether he is impersonating an officer or not is never revealed) and is under the command of a dying Colonel. When he is in uniform and around the Colonel, he never questions orders and acts as any officer would, even though it would be easy to murder the Colonel and claim that he had died of gangrene, which was slowly killing him anyways. However, when outside the Colonel's gaze, he tortures prisoners for fun. His life would be easier if he murdered the Colonel, but he has a code. A code that prevents him from killing people he is not being paid to kill or in self defense.
I rarely see games that can connect me with their creator, shine a light into their own little world and tell me about them. Rarely does a game inspire such powerful emotion or reflect a change in the norms of society. When a game makes you question your own definitions of life and society, it is a rare thing. I held up Grim Fandango as a pinnacle of storytelling in my previous post, but that doesn't mean that it is the definition of art, nor are my examples here. Art is subjective and there is no right or wrong answer. Decide for yourself if your favorite game is art, but more importantly, find out why it is art to you.
I've always been a fan of adventure games. Even with the mindbogglingly less than intuitive puzzles, the long dialogue trees, the horrible voice acting, the less than stunning graphics, and their David Hasslehoff-esque popularity in Germany, adventure games have always been my shining example of what games should be. The reason I place adventure games on this high pedestal is for one reason: story. Story is the sole focus of an adventure game, whether it is to make you chuckle as you see Guybrush shove a porcelain vase into his pants in Monkey Island, or to discover the secret history of the Knights Templar and stop an occult ritual in Broken Sword, the bottom line of an adventure game is to tell a well constructed story that engages you.
Roger Ebert has gone on record as stating that vdeo games can never be art in his post aptly titled "Video games can never be art". I tend to agree with him in some respects, as I believe that most games are not art. Just as Gigli was a calculated cash grab, most games are predominantly motivated by a need to sell as many copies as possible. Once in a while, a movie comes along like The Godfather, a deep look into the rise and fall of both an empire and a man, a game with a compelling story and great execution comes along and imprints itself in the minds of those lucky enough to see it. The game I am speaking of is Grim Fandango.
Grim Fandango is the story of Manuel Calavera, who is the personification of death itself, and your brand new travel agent.
I am not the first person to declare Grim Fandango an artistic masterpiece, as it has been showered with praise since it's creation, and even becoming a permanent installation in the Musem of Modern Art. However, by almost all the benchmarks, Grim Fandango is a horrible game. The controls are horrible, requiring you to use the arrow keys to move and a plethora of hot keys for inventory management, most of which do similar actions. It is riddled with game play problems and bugs, even after being patched, including ultra sensitive movement, door and elevator problems, It sold poorly, selling 95,000 copies in from 1998 to 2003 in North America and somewhere between 100,000 to 500,000 worldwide.
Even with such horrible defects, it is beautiful. The characters are stylized after Mexican Día de los Muertoscalaca figures in a world modeled after the Aztec afterlife filled with Art Deco buildings with a noir story of corruption, redemption, and betrayal in a story spanning four years.
The story reeks of Dashell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. The story of life after death, life after life after death, and why a scythe is better than a pocket knife. It reeks of style, substance, and charm. Even now, fifteen years after its release, Grim Fandango still has an active fanbase. ResidualVM, a splitoff from the ScummVM community, the virtualization software that allows you to run an unbelievable number of old games on modern hardware.
ResidualVM recently released version 0.1.0 after over nine years in development and they have managed to make the game more playable than ever before, even removing bugs and glitches that were never patched. Even more ambitious are the Improving Grim Project™ and Grim Fandango Deluxe, both projects by ResidualVM forum members to increase the playability and the graphics of the game.
The fact that this game is still well liked after so long, much less has people spendng years to improve it, speaks volumes about its effect on people. That impact is enough for me to justify that Grim Fandango qualifies as art.
NOTE: A bittersweet irony emerged to me as I was researching (okay, I was searching Rotten Tomatoes for movies that Roger Ebert had given 4 stars to horrible movies) and I came across this little factoid. Roger Ebert gave Tron, a movie about a video game, 4 stars but would most likely dismiss Grim Fandango, a game that is heavily inspired by some of his favorite movies.