Today marks the start of a new edition of The Vintage Game Club. Last time it was the classic Grim Fandago that was played and this time one of my absolute favourites of all time; Deus Ex. I recommend you to start playing and jump on the VGC forum and post your thoughts and reflections. I hope the ride is gonna be as wild as last time I played it.
It was with great excitement I followed the dialogue between two of my favourite bloggers, Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer and Iroquois Pliskin of Versus CluClu Land, about the interesting gameplay and design of »Braid«. A game made out by some to almost revolutionize the way we think about and play videogames. I was therefore a bit surprised to find both Abbott and Pliskin so sceptical and to some degree disappointed with their experiences, and above all I was astound to find which aspects of the game they found to be problematic.
Pliskin finished off his side of the dialogue with a summed up conclusion of the gaming experience, he reflected upon the difficulty to execute and solve some of the game’s tasks as well as a general review of the game’s complex gameplay. In my opinion two completely worthy targets of critique. The problem with Pliskin’s reasoning here is therefore not what he regards the problems of »Braid« to be, but rather why he regards them as problems: “Braid just lacks any immediate sense of fun.” Michael Abbott then followed Pliskin’s conclusion on a similar note, discussing how the complexity of »Braid«’s gameplay really works against the possibility of quality games reaching a more widespread audience.
“It’s a shame to me that a game with Braid’s narrative, artistic, and aesthetic aspirations is inaccessible to so many people hungry for exactly those things. I have an agenda here, and I make no effort to conceal it. I want my friends – the painters, poets, musicians, and philosophers I work with every day – to experience for themselves what video games can do and say and mean. I believe they will meet us halfway if we offer them a reasonable hill to climb and a meaningful experience for their efforts. I wanted Braid to be that game, and I’m disappointed and a little sad that it wasn’t.”
The notion that a game’s level of difficulty stands in direct relation to the experience of the game is obvious. The inference that a game’s level of “fun” would stand in relation to the quality of the game, or that the exclusion of a non-initiated audience would oppose a spread of quality games, is however two ominous assessments. Let me try to elucidate why.
The process of gaming is primarily regarded as a leisure activity, an experience of interactive entertainment exercised for pure escapistic purposes. In this aspect the notion of “fun” or a high level of “entertainment” is vital for the experience; it is also this aspect that is predominantly invoked by many videogame companies. The industry often build on this concept, presenting games through a form of purpose based gameplay (a shooter to thrill you, a platform game to entertain you, a horror game to scare you etc.), and thereby promoting the idea that a game that doesn’t succeed a its purpose is in fact a bad game – ex. a horror game that doesn’t scare you is in some way not a horror game and therefore a failure. Though it is understandable why the industry does this it is not understandable why we let ourselves be limited by this while playing. The idea that for example »Braid« is less of an achievement because of its complexity and/or because it doesn’t entertain the player, or doesn’t induce the notion of “fun”, I believe is one of the reasons why videogames often follow an established – and let’s face it – monotonous formula. I myself have found many of my favorite games rather dull to get through and still I regard them as creations of brilliance and highly value the experience they provided even though it didn’t “entertain” me.
Okay, so let’s retrace one step, to the fact why the gaming industry would want to market games by promoting a purpose or maybe a function of a videogame. The whole idea of this is of course to make a game easier to sell by creating a categorized market. The reason why a categorized market benefits sales however is simply because it makes games a lot more accessible. Michael Abbott argues that games like »Braid« need to be more accessible to be able to attract a larger academic audience. It’s therefore obvious that »Braid« is a game that moves outside the established commercial norm of categorization. It’s a technical and visual achievement rather than a product adapted to be as accessible as possible. You might argue that »Braid’s« complex gameplay has little to do with its low level of profitability but the complexity of the game is exactly what makes it inaccessible. It demands previous knowledge of the structures of videogames as it sets out to develop those very structures.
One of the games most prominent values is that it tries to play with our understanding of how gameplay is generally constructed and thereby assume us to know what’s normally expected of the form. I therefore find it alarming to read Abbott stipulate how »Braid« due to its innovative construction would be perfect for the academic community but at the same time is too inaccessible because of the very same construction. I highly doubt that his friends in theatre, philosophy or art would criticize Bertolt Brecht, Ludwig Wittgenstein or Tristan Tzara (no comparison to »Braid« intended beyond the fact that they all developed the work of others to create new aspects in their respective field) to be too inaccessible. In fact I know they wouldn’t because the value in all those works lies within the very same aspect that makes them inaccessible in the first place.
My reasoning here may seem narrow-minded, or maybe even elitist, but I strongly feel we need to recognize the meaning of »Braid«. Not as visually pleasing platform adventure but rather as an attempt to explore the boundaries of a gameplay paradigm. We have to a allow for games to be complex, boring and inaccessible in order to move the expression of videogames forward, in order to fully explore the possibilities of the media. Otherwise we will end up desperately looking for our »Citizen Kane« and foolishly missing out on our »Meshes of the Afternoon« .
I am really fond of the aesthetics of »Ōkami«. I was therefore excited to read about the »Ōkami Art Book« over at The Brainy Gamer which seems to be an exhilarating collection of concept art from the game. I was equally excited to watch the gameplay walkthrough of the coming »Prince of Persia« game, posted on Kotaku and seen here above (sorry about the embarrassing cropping of the splash screen, WordPress is not my friend today).
My excitement lies not in the actual mechanics of the gameplay, even though these also look pretty interesting, but rather in how well gameplay mechanics and visual aesthetics seemed to balance each other. It was my experience playing »Ōkami« (though I haven’t played the latest Wii version) that the aesthetics from time to time almost worked against the gameplay rather than using the aesthetic limitations of the game to more thoroughly model the gameplay. »Prince of Persia« however, with it’s lovely rotoscope design, has a somewhat less ambitious aesthetics but in return seems to use it’s great visuals in favor of the gameplay (revealing places to grip, annunciating surroundings and foes etc.) and thereby creating a game that at least made my interest rocket from early nonchalance to high hopes of a new aesthetics in platforming.
(I first want to come out and explain that I am a big fan of the Metal Gear Solid series but regret to say that I have yet to play the latest instalment and consequently am unable to include reflections on it in this analysis.)
The Metal Gear Solid-franchise is one of the most prominent and successful game series ever created. Only last month figures showed the latest instalment of the series rocketing sales of Playstation 3 consoles and the game itself topping the charts. It’s therefore safe to assess that the main protagonist of the series, Solid Snake, is one of the most well known video game characters in the world.
Snake himself presents as a rather typical special ops agent; white, male, well built, intelligent, lone-wolf and weighed down by a passed filled with violence and dubious deeds. He is therefore, as it seems, the perfect protagonist for a storyline laden with global conflicts demanding swift solutions outside the diplomacy’s playing field or mainstream politics. The similarities between snake and the classic epic hero character are in other words striking.
It is therefore interesting to note what certain aspect of this otherwise archetypal protagonist has become the target for speculation, namely his sexuality, or rather his lack of the same. A blog called Binary Fractal recently published a text claiming that Snake suffers the lack of reproductive organs. Though through a highly speculative and “comically” undertoned analysis the text strikes on a somewhat relevant aspect of Snake as the heroic protagonist; his relationship with the female characters of the series.
In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” film and media professor Laura Mulvey discusses the use of the male gaze in narrative film, primarily taking aim towards Hollywood productions. Mulvey argues that narrative cinema to a wide extent provides visual pleasure through scopophilia deriving from patriarchal structures reflected in the established narrative of mainstream film. Through psychoanalysis she presents arguments showing how this voyeuristic process supports a subjective identification with the male main character.
Mulvey further argues that the displaying of the main female character functions on two narrative levels:
“As erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen. […] A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude.”
If we however apply this perspective to the Metal Gear Solid series, as I will show, some ambiguity will arise.
If we start of by focusing on the “first” Metal Gear Solid game and specifically on Solid Snake’s relation to the rookie sidekick Meryl: A relationship toned by strong emotions and mutual dependence from the start and seemingly an inevitable love-affair waiting to happen, Snake and Meryl start of unaware of each others involvement with the situation. Their first encounter weighed down by both confusion and misunderstanding, causes a prefatory rivalry between the two. Meryl disguised as genome soldier and unsure about the motives of our protagonist, suspiciously holds Snake at gun point, questioning him about the pretext of his presence. Though revealed through her voice to be a woman, Snake instead of occupying sovereignty mentally or physically by his supremacy as a male, chooses to attack Meryl’s apparent lack of experience in battle. Callously evaluating everything from the grip of her weapon to her deficient confidence and then verbally confronting her nervousness, he gains his dominance through his excellence as a soldier rather than the dominant gender. As Meryl leaves the scene the perspective changes to focus on her legs, only to approach her backside wiggling as she jogs away leaving Snake’s question, “Who are you?”, unanswered.
What we see here can effectively be understood as a breach with the two levelled narrative function of the female character that Laura Mulvey describes. Snake though his knowledge about the gender of his rival shows little tendencies of playing the role as the intimidating superior, he instead fully takes on the part as a result of his most prominent qualities that of the calculating cold blooded soldier. (He even fortifies this position later as he reveals how he noticed Meryl’s lack of experience: “It’s your eyes, they’re not soldier’s eyes.”) Instead of commenting, or even reflecting, on the fact that the person holding him at gun point is a woman he attacks her inept handling of the weapon, thereby placing Meryl on an equal level rather than enforcing distance through his patriarchal advantage. The player however is still prompted to obtain a role of the spectator, upholding the male gaze as Meryl runs away, wiggling her behind and the perspective persistently zooming it in. It is thereby obvious that the breach extends from the two levelled narrative function of the female character to creating a space between the player and the protagonist. This could seem somewhat contra productive as it might remove the player from its character, in the aspect of empathy and comprehension of character development. I would however argue that it instead creates an immerse depth of the character, enforcing the complexity of Solid Snake both as a soldier and a human being. It promotes the notion of a character shaped by his past and further more encourages the player to understand the character as a living, evolving part of the narrative – even though the player itself seems somewhat left out of this process.
The ever on going question about video games role as art is a discussion of both importance and redundancy (important because it furthers the understanding of video games out of an array of aspects). Redundant because it imposes the notion that video games would somehow benefit, or have higher value, if they were to be regarded as art. The question if video games are in fact art is by itself, at least in my opinion, essentially pointless since it will always run down to how to define art rather than how to define video games. What in recent time has become interesting though is how video games more and more seem to aspire to the role of a “classic” art form. Or rather how creation and delineation of video games seem to resemble that of other art forms.
For long the definition of art was closely connected to the work by the human hand, the creator. Weather it came to sculpting, painting or writing they all shared the mark of the creator, the creators hand, and thereby also bare the mark of the creators own specific style. Today this perspective on art is almost completely abandoned (I say almost because of some conservative views on art that still remain), mostly thanks to technical landmarks such as the printing press, the camera, x-ray, film etc. These landmarks, though in many ways removing the creator or artist from the actual process of creating and thereby, it would seem, diminishing the value of the creator, actually fortified and reinforced the role of the artist in the long run. A new paradigm emerged where the identity of the artist became as important as the work – in many ways culminating with Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades which fortified the role of the artist as a sovereign creator and his products as just mere products. Parallel with this new view on art came the idea of the artist as a creative genius, a constructed identity reflecting the eccentricity of the artist’s work in the personality of the same. The artist became the bohemian, a prodigy creature with the need to create, an outsider viewing society in a way the non-artist is incapable of. Art historian Linda Nochlin discusses this phenomenon in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”:
“…We find the myth of the Great Artist–subject of a hundred monographs, unique, godlike–bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence, rather like the golden nugget in Mrs. Grass’s chicken soup, called Genius or Talent, which, like murder, must always out, no matter how unlikely or unpromising the circumstances.”
In video games the identity of the creator has for long been marginalized in terms of the creator’s recognized influence over the visual and gameplay style of a game. Video games are in general ensemble pieces and have thereby been regarded as works by studios or different offices within studios rather than a product of one creative vision by one director, designer or producer. However, this representation of video games has in recent time seen a dramatic change. While many games still gets marketed as products of prominent teams (a fine example of this is the games by Rockstar), we have seen an increase in games where a director/producer/designer is presented as a sort of grand mastermind behind the creative process, story development as well as visual and gameplay style. What’s even more interesting to note is how well the commercially constructed identity of these creators seem to correspond with the tone of the game in question. We’ve seen a variety of personas talking about “their” games and at the same time represent both gameplay and visual content purely through the representation of their identities. We have the joy and happiness of Shigeru Miyamoto perfectly reflecting the notion of social fun and entertainment of an array of Nintendo Wii games. There’s the energetic, jock and kick-ass-ness of Cliff Bleszinski (alias Dude Huge) in complete harmony with the hardcore image of Gears of War and of course the ever sunglass wearing Tomonobu Itagaki, embodying the harshness of as well Ninja Gaiden as Dead or Alive via his low key but fierce appearance (we could go on with Will Wright, Hideo Kojima, Denis Dyack etc.). All of these signify the essence of their respective game and denote visuals and gameplay through their own personal creative vision manifested through both their appearance as well as their represented personality. It’s a constructed identity highly resembling that of the “Auteur” in film, a creative mastermind using a media to express his creativity and personality in the form of art.
It’s of course of further interest to note that the majority of these video game creators are all white or asian males and all more or less considered geniuses in their field. Thereby we also see a identity corresponding with the artist genius described by Linda Nochlin, a eccentric male, looked upon as a prodigy genius and in constant pursuit of their own aesthetic vision. This new notion of video games therefore reinforces the myth of the genius artist presenting it’s own version who in no doubt will bring us many interesting and inspiring video games but still follow and uphold a paradigm of art and the artist. Let us therefore contemplate this development and ask ourselves if this is the direction we want video games to move? If we want to extent the search of the »Citizen Kane« of video games to also enclose the search of the Van Gogh of video games? And do we really want video games to move forward in a paradigm that might promote creative conformity due to the constructed identity of a sovereign auteur?
Video games are in many ways an art form who has the opportunity to bury the idea of the artist as a genius, not only because they are simply put together by an ensemble of people but more so because they are creatively conceived by the very same ensemble. An excellent example, I would argue, is »Assassins Creed«. »Assassins Creed« was in many ways marketed as the love child of producer Jade Raymond, I have however failed to find any form of clear correlation between her persona as a producer and the game itself. The reason lies within a very simple fact revealed in one of the game’s introducing disclaimers itself:
“This work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.”
Now I, just as others, found the gameplay of »Assassins Creed« to be a bit repetitive but I still feel that it delivered one of the best developed and profound narratives seen in years. It introduced a continuing dialogue connecting the player to the main protagonist and eventually his victims through out the game and still managed to supply an in-depth intrigue well worthy of the appraisal it got. The success was, in my belief, to a wide extent thanks to the multiple points of views contributed by the team rather than the distinguished producer. It is a product reflecting the views of many rather than the sovereign “genius” of one. It is, in my opinion, the future of video game development as it moves the art forward to a collective creative process (furthermore relating with the wider collective creative process of user generated materials) rather than continuing in the tracks of the old paradigm of the male genius.
Video games are mainly a male domain. Both the production and consumer/player side of gaming are highly male dominated (even though this might, and in my hope, be changing) and therefore also largely influenced by a patriarchal order. If you look at video game characters you directly see a clear majority of male, and to some degree the white male, protagonists, corresponding with modern day films to classic literature this narrative form is deeply established as the norm of story telling. But does it have to be this way? In literature, theater, film and art there is a well recognized feminist perspective from which interesting and relevant critique as well as general analysis has sprung. This perspective, however, seems some what marginalized in the gaming community. The aim of this blog is therefore to approach the video game industry and their work from a feminist, and from time to time a post-colonial, perspective. The work will be based upon the following principles:
- Engen Gaming’s primary focus will be to try and understand video games and their makers through analysis and reflections primarily based on feminist and/or post-colonial perspectives.
- The work will mainly be concentrated towards the narratives of video games and the identity of their characters, rather than gameplay. The work will, however, also entail more general reflections on the industry and its actions, while this isn’t Engen Gaming’s main focus it will be a way to express opinions and give reflections on news, gameplay and gaming in general.
- Engen Gaming’s primary focus will not be to promote a paradigm change in video game aesthetics, nor the physical appearance and attributes of video game characters – although the latter will act as ground for critique and reflection to a certain extent.
- The work will, to as large degree as possible, be based and related to a theoretical groundwork. This primarily applies to analysis and critique and secondarily to reflections and “general” articles.
- The author Engen Gaming does not have English as a native language and the texts literate level and use of proper discursive language will vary thereafter.