Heavy Rain: Moving Forward, Looking Backward
(Read the introduction here)
Yes, it’s pretty standard thriller boilerplate, but that’s not what matters. Like Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, this is a work whose formal structure concretizes the irreversibility of time, the permanence of decision, the once-and-forever of action, or failure to act. Both function by upsetting the norms of the medium: Amis tells his tale from end to beginning, turning every effect into cause and vice-versa (so pimps “shower money on [their girls] and ask for nothing in return”); Heavy Rain does away with the do-over. There are no saves, no continues, no restarts. There are just a thousand minute actions—like in real life—which you may do carefully or carelessly, too quickly or too slowly, or just in time. And like real life, the cumulative outcome of each word, each gesture, each decision made or not made, is sometimes only clear much later, or never clear at all. Like Benjamin’s Angel of History, you have only hindsight, but must move relentlessly forward:
“A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”
Red Dead Redemption and the American Sublime
(Read the introduction here)
Art doesn’t spring full-fledged, as it were, from the head of Zeus. It is built out of the bricks of everything that precedes it: history, culture, and of course other artworks. And some of the most interesting moments in art history happen when different artistic traditions (and media) collide. Think about the ukiyoe and French Impressionist perspective; or African sculpture and the human form in Picasso; or Busby Berkeley, who took the stage musical and blew it into a hitherto-unimaginable spectacle by using cinematic techniques. Red Dead Redemption does the same thing: it takes a century of the film Western, plus a decade of the Grand Theft Auto “sandbox” games, smashes both into tiny pieces, and remixes the elements into something stunningly new. The promise of endless horizons—think early John Ford, or the even earlier sublime canvasses of the Hudson Valley School—is there in the open world, and the freedom to explore its beautiful desolate landscapes; the moral compromises of civilization—think late Ford, or McCabe and Mrs. Miller—are wed perfectly to Rockstar’s practiced cynicism and satire.
Bioshock: Aleatoric Storytelling
(Read the introduction here)
One of Ebert’s big gripes with games is that they lack the clear vision and rigid structure of other art forms. In other words, if there’s no single text (a painting, a movie) that exists independent of the player, how can it be the crystallized expression of an artist’s soul, which is to say, Art (in the Romantic sense)? Bioshock’s triumph is precisely that it demonstrates the huge range of aesthetic possibilities opened by the shift from viewer of art to player of art. Its environmental storytelling is superb: every detail—from the dialogue to the architecture, from the costumes to the audio diaries, from dynamic scenery to graffiti and discarded placards—contributes to the grand narrative of Rapture. Better still, because your decisions, your attention, your curiosity (or lack thereof) organize the way this information comes to you, the world feels like a living world. Rather than a story told by a teller, Bioshock’s story is told by you, through your actions. And it’s a juicy story—a bawdy, bloody burlesque of Objectivism gone awry, in an underwater Art Deco dystopia.
Art History, via Penny Arcade
By now everyone’s probably heard Roger Ebert’s claim that “video games can never be art.” (Later amended to: someday, maaaybe.) I happen to think he’s wrong, although it would be hard to respond directly to his argument; he falls back on the old “it’s a matter of taste” canard. And what can you say to that?
Instead, let me offer a selection of games that satisfy my definition of art: it is that which makes the familiar unfamiliar, which allows us to see (/hear /sense /experience /contemplate) ourselves and our worlds in a way that we’re normally just too busy, too distracted, or too focused to do. As Victor Shklovsky once said, art exists to “make the stone stony.” And video games have a lot of amazing materials and techniques at their disposal to do just that.
Arguments to follow.
What would you do for a trinket?
Would you die 84 times in a single room (like I did)? Would you respawn again and again in hopes of getting just a little closer to mastering the precise sequence of jumps and dashes to take you past the murderous swarms of 8-bit fish floating between you and your prize? And what if the margin of error for dozens of consecutive movements was razor-thin, and each and every one of those deaths came because your keystroke was just a split second too late or too long?
And let’s say that what you were trying and failing to get really was a “trinket”—one apt name among many in VVVVVV—whose gameplay value was nil. Just a little glowing orb, off to the side of the main path to progress. It does not give you extra rockets, health, armor; it will not let you jump higher, curl into a dexterous ball, or flash-freeze your enemies.
You will not be earning a trophy.
It really is just a trinket. It affords you a single uptick on your “Trinkets Found” stat. Otherwise it just sits there, and blinks, and dares you, dares you to try for it. Like Hitchcock’s McGuffin: a sign signifying nothing, except general and free-floating desire. You might try, and die. And maybe, finally, live.
Does this sound like fun?
Well it is fun, tremendously, but in these moments VVVVVV becomes something more. This is the sort of experience older gamers remember from their salad days: difficulty levels so unforgiving that your entire being contracts to a single, white-hot point of focus. Difficulty that pulverizes fun, eradicates it, but, when finally overcome, rewards you with a flood of narcotic satisfaction.
Not a bad experience to have. But one, I’m afraid, that proved woefully inadequate to my needs—only my first review, and already a failure.
I beat the game in 115 minutes.
VVVVVV: Falling Up
The concept is simple: play a game for 2 hours, review it.
Why? Because video game journalism, generally speaking, is terrible. Really terrible. And video games, and those of us who play them, deserve better.
Some of the problems are easy enough to surmount. If the writing is bad (it often is), find better writers. If the review industry kowtows to the game industry (it often does), look for independent, ethical voices outside the standard channels.
My inspiration for this site, however, is a less obvious, but no less severe shortcoming in professional game reviews. Basically, games are long. Really long. And professional reviewers have a professional obligation to play games to the very end. Now, clearly, there are good reasons to do so. Most games tell stories, for instance, and a story only experienced partway is a sad, dismembered thing. Would we trust a movie review if the reviewer walked out of halfway through the screening? Probably not: most of us still believe that narrative art, like all art, has to be experienced (and evaluated) as a whole, as a totality. Only from that vantage can we see how the parts cling together.
The problem—and it is a problem, with real consequences for all of us who love games and believe in games—is what arises when the reviewer prerogative (“do it all”) crashes into the game industry prerogative (“put in more”). Let’s call it the Final Fantasy XIII paradox.
FFXIII is a fiasco, a game with mind-boggling poor design decisions on almost every level. (Its graphics are lovely, of course, at least in a technical sense, but at this point that feels like praising a new car for coming with a CD player.) And as of this writing, it has an 83 score on Metacritic—not terribly high, as far as games go, but still respectable.
Typical is IGN, which came down on the higher end of the scale, giving it an 8.9 out of 10 (“Great”). The key statement in the review, to my mind, is this: “It’s important…that the game does open up quite a bit in Chapter 11 (out of 13),” in other words, after “25 to 30 hours” of gameplay.
In other words, play this game for literally more hours than there are in a single day, and you may finally find a game worth playing.
I, personally, have better things to do with my life.
Thus 2 Hours In. Play a game—new or old, big or small—for about as long as a longish movie, a shortish hike, or a decent nap. Record some thoughts.
It’s a fundamentally impressionistic endeavor, highlighting, rather than attempting to conceal, the subjective nature of gameplay. I won’t be handing out scores, stars, thumbs. I will not use the phrase “must own.”
What I will do is note whether, at the end of two hours, I want to keep playing.
What more could anyone ask?