So, I’ve been listening to the Decemberists lately–and by lately I mean “replaying every album they have over and over again for the past four days” and I think it’s making me sick. I’ve stopped eating meat, I’m growing a big bush beard, and I found a scarf in my closet, along with all natural, 100% hemp clothing and…and even right now I feel…pretentious…and…and finicky and…AAARGGGH!
Hello, I’m the MidiMaestro, and I’ve now taken over this insipid video game blog to educate you plebeians about proper culture. None of these blips and bloops, these synthesized pseudo-sound effects to accompany your silly digital simulations–I’m here to talk about REAL culture, REAL music. None of this mind-numbing dreck that takes a sophisticated mind and reduces it to a liquified quivering mess.
Which brings us nicely to the Decemberists. The Decemberists, a Portland-based folk-rock band are, of course, a Bad Band. Now, you insipid sheep who think that Kanye West and My Chemical Romance are the epitome of culture and sophistication may be confused by what this means, because your infantile minds are incapable of grasping the graceful elegance of true culture, so I’ll explain. A Bad Band is a band that fails to do what it should do. The Decemberists are a bad band because they are a fusion of folk and rock who utilize rousing ballads about sailors and whales and an alarming amount of rape to express their sound. With their doughy faces and their big buttons and their heavy coats and their enormous hard-on for any word or phrase that is at least 80 years out of date, they smack of pretentiousness whilst remaining devoid of any real…real…AAARGH!
I can’t do this, I’m not snobbish enough. I love the Decemberists. I love every silly lyric and every rousing sea shanty ballad. I love their ersatz war songs, their twisted love songs, their heavy, intricate and obscure vocabulary. Sure, I can’t disagree with such scathing critiques as this Something Awful article, though I’d say it’s just a little unfair, but y’know what? They sound nice, and sometimes, very rarely, that can be enough for me.
Actually, let’s discuss appearances. It’s cripplingly difficult at times to try and justify the artistic merit of video games, mostly because not everyone can agree on what exactly qualifies a particular piece of work as “art”. Everyone’s favorite gaming critic, Yahtzee Croshaw (more famous for those ever-so-entertaining Zero Punctuation videos) remains one of the biggest defenders of gaming’s artistic credibility, assisted by his incredibly broad definition of just what art is. By Yahtzee’s definition, spelled out here, essentially defines Art as anything that inspires an emotional response (emotional attachment, he says). It’s a fair and fine definition, slightly less broad than TVTropes’ “everything ever written, filmed, drawn or shat upon is art and deserves its own page and twenty bazillion examples yes including gay fanfiction”.
The key to Yahtzee’s little article isn’t the definition of art he subscribes to, but rather his statement that art is “subjective” and nobody can agree on what that means. Personally, I think art is something that challenges you to think, that offers valid social critique and commentary, and/or touches you in some way, inspiring a powerful emotional response. See? Yahtzee’s definition is there and I just added to it. Problem is, games are such a new and unique medium, even twenty years later, that we still haven’t quite figured out what to do with them, and how to utilize them in an artful way.
Games are still rigidly trying to recreate movies, trying to make us cry using the same tricks of the trade that films do. This is, of course, changing–Modern Warfare has one of the most heart-wrenching finales I’ve ever seen in a game because it chooses to play out the final, tragic scene not in a non-interactive cutscene, but rather as part of the regular game experience. You get to lay there, paralyzed, able to look around but helpless to stop the horrible things happening around you, but in the end, you are still in control, and the final actions of the game are yours to deliver. To this day, I still hold that the climax of Modern Warfare is one of the finest in gaming, because it does what a game does, but still makes you feel.
But here’s the thing–it isn’t that hard to make a person cry. I mean, I could post a picture of a baby seal getting clubbed and 50% of you would burst into tears. Emotion is pliable, easily manipulated. If inspiring an emotional response is the prerequisite for something to be considered “art”, then I argue that true art has to step beyond that. It can’t simply be trying to make the audience feel–it has to be an expression of the artist’s feelings and, more importantly than that, it has to have a message. Maybe not a moral–but at the end of the experience, you should be able to look back and say “Ah, I see. My actions here have taught me X.”
I don’t see that as often as I think we should. It does exist, of course–games like Persona 4, Fallout 3, Phantom Brave (though you may kill yourself out sheer despair before learning this game’s lesson) have morals and messages built into their narratives, and the first two actually tie their message into the gameplay itself, but…well, I guess what I’m getting at is, where are the protest games? Where are the games that make a political statement, that demand revolution and change, that inspire controversy beyond just “oh it is corrupting the children”? Where’s the game where you play a closeted homosexual suffering prejudice and intolerance in a society that claims itself to be a bastion of acceptance and freedom? Where’s the game where you are a poor, uneducated Afghani boy who has to join a sadistic terrorist organization or watch your family die? Where’s the game where you play a corrupt politician who casually subverts the desires of his own constituents whilst crafting broader and better lies to keep them placated?
In 1979, Pink Floyd released the Wall and it blew everyone’s fucking mind. Subversive, intricate, full of social, emotional, and philosophical impact wrapped around trippy melodies and satire-ridden lyrics, the Wall remains in my mind–and the mind of many–as one of the best albums of all time, and certainly one of the best pieces of social commentary ever made. And don’t get me started on Bob Dylan–he managed an entire career of protest songs in just three years, and then found drugs and later Jesus. MY point is, where is video gaming’s “The Wall”? Where’s our Bob Dylan?
I’ve seen games that made me cry. I’ve seen games that made me feel. I don’t doubt games can pass as art, but can games inspire revolutions? Can games unify people, bring us out of our apathetic ignorance to raise our skinny arms to the sky and scream for the walls to come tumbling down? Why is it that gaming hasn’t tried to spark a revolution? Maybe it’s because we don’t have as big an indie gaming scene as we should. Maybe games are too expensive to make, and have too much corporate oversight. Maybe because there isn’t a game developer with the balls to actually make a game that isn’t “shoot bad guys til you when”. Maybe because gamers are too finicky to accept anything that challenges them. Maybe we’ve all grown stupid and complacent. Maybe we don’t believe in anything anymore.
I don’t have any answer for it. Twenty years old, gaming is still in its awkward adolescence. It hasn’t found a battle to fight yet, a flag to fly. Maybe it never will–maybe gaming is meant to remain a simple distraction, a means of escaping the doldrums of our lives. Maybe gaming shouldn’t try to tackle real world issues. I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you have any. But for me? I’d like to see it. I’d like to see games that try and confront issues that we refuse to talk about. I’d like a game to force me to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, just to show me what it’s like.
Is that too much to hope for? Well, I suppose I can just keep listening to the Decemberists. They’re playing a song about drowning children now. I don’t know what lesson it teaches, but it sure sounds nice.