Friday, March 30, 2012

FEATURE - artistic merit.

There's a new art-house puzzle-platformer on the PS3 called Closure this week.  I don't think I'll be picking it up.

I've been thinking, lately, that art-house games - games like Braid and Limbo and Flower and Journey may not actually have as much artistic merit as, well, Batman: Arkham City or Odin Sphere or Mass Effect 3.  

Hear me out. 

for Braid and Journey

I hated Braid.  I appreciate that that's a somewhat blasphemous statement, among gamers.  Braid was universally celebrated as an emotionally shocking, brilliantly-constructed puzzle-platformer built around time-manipulation mechanics.

I felt Braid tripped over its ambitions of marrying emotional depth to gameplay, and provided one while sacrificing the other.  Part of the game - if you want to see the True Ending - is collecting stars throughout the levels.

I came to one star, and couldn't perceive of how one could obtain it - so I sought the collective wisdom of the internet, and found myself deeply disgusted.

Braid is the story of a fellow named Tim pursuing a princess, in the hopes of saving her from an evil knight. The ending reveals that the player-character is the monster the princess has been fleeing - shocker!  

Back to That One Star.  In order to obtain it, you have to enter the level, go to a certain point in it and wait for about... I don't even remember precisely how long, but after over a half-hour or so a cloud that moves so slowly as to be imperceptible will be in a position where you can jump up and on to it.

Once you're standing on the cloud, you have to then wait another hour or so for it to move to a point that allows you access to the star.

Oh hoh hoh.  How very deep.  The player, in completing this ridiculous, thankless, almost entirely purposeless task has revealed themselves to be just as obsessed and maniacal as Tim himself.  How droll.  How emotionally poignant.

How fucking stupid.

That's no longer a game.  That's not gameplay.  That's art-house designer Jonathan Blow whacking you in the face with the cock of his self-importance for ninety minutes while shouting "isn't this clever?  Isn't it?!"

Nope.  No it isn't.

Braid's sin of putting its high-concept ambitions ahead of everything else is merely the most egregious example.  ThatGameCompany - makers of Flow and most recently Journey, may have hit the sweet spot of artsy gaming with 2009's Flower.  "Tilt Controller to Soar. Press Any Button to Blow. Relax, Enjoy" is all the game says, and then sets you loose in its world.

With that succinct instruction, and no further explanation, any interpretation you may have of Flower's message is your own - assuming Flower actually has one.  It may not.  The point is that Johnny and Jill may look at the same game and walk away with two very different understandings of its purpose - that's art.

ThatGameCompany followed up Flower with this year's Journey - an equally gorgeous-looking, even more beautiful-sounding title that does not share the same austere strengths as the developer's last game.

Periodically throughout your titular journey with the title, you will come to shrines where your player-character will meditate, and have a vision of a figure clad in white which sings the songs of the world you're exploring.  It sings of the past and it sings of the future - and this is where Journey steps a bit over the line.

Instead of setting the player completely free to have their own interpretation of the world and its purpose, Journey uses wordless exposition - simple tableaux that speak of a long-dead industrialized society which destroys itself in an ancient war - to fill in gaps that the player would otherwise have been able to paint with imagination.

Journey, like Flower, is a singular and emotionally thrilling experience - but it oversteps itself slightly, and is less perfect for it.

Personified in 2010's Limbo, art-house games achieve the greatest heights of their ambition when they paint with broader, simpler strokes - and leave more to the player to suss out, instead of providing extraneous exposition.  Like Flower, Limbo and Journey are first and foremost capable, comfortable games which are then set against a gorgeous backdrop that evokes an emotional response.

These games, more often than not, succeed by doing less instead of more - and by ensuring the core experience, be that jumping or pushing blocks or soaring through the sky - are reason enough alone to play the game.

If that's true - if art games are more perfect art games when they do less instead of more - how could a bigger title like Mass Effect or Okami or Odin Sphere possibly be of greater artistic value, when they take such completely different tacks?

The answer, I feel, lies at the core of each experience.

There are, shall we say, classics.

There are stories we have been told, over and over, again and again, since the dawn of time - and these resonate to this day. Braid takes a classic - the imperiled princess - and turns it on its head.  Fair enough.

Flower and Journey tell much the same story - a pared-down, simplified version of the Road Trip tale we've been enjoying since Homer wrote The Odyssey - and likely long before.  Rayman: Origins is a streamlined version of the Christ/savior legend.

Archetypes are everywhere in gaming - from the mixed classics of JRPGs to the standards of action gaming.

Where art-house games (can) misstep is that they (can) allow these classical narratives - stories which are deeply understood, and resonate on a very fundamental level - to be all you can say about the game.

Games like Dead Space, Odin Sphere, Okami and Shadow of the Colossus overstep the simplified elegance of the smaller titles to deliver something which is - I feel - more meaningful, because instead of simply echoing such classics it paints the same story in sharper focus, and richer, sidetracking detail providing explorations of ancient themes instead of just the theme itself.

This again allows the player to draw their own conclusions about the fundamental purpose of the narrative, while still leveraging the impact of a classic, deeply-understood parable - and seriously, classics are everywhere.

Boy meets girl.

Fear the dark.

Might makes right.

Ragnarok / the endtimes / classic Norse mythology.

Fear of technology / the savior myth.  I mean c'mon - her name is Shepard.

Artistic merit is - not always, but regularly - bleeding from the high-profile triple-A games, at their core.

In this way, a smaller game exploring a similar theme is wise to say as little as possible - thus allowing the player to find the message on their own.  Likewise, the obscuring haze of high production values, plot, voice work and gameplay of a triple-A title glosses over the fundamental themes such titles explore - and demand the player experience them on a subconscious level, as opposed to the blunt-force symbolism of Journey or Braid.

At the same time, the obfuscation of additional themes - romances, friendships, sub-plots, enemies - adds a richness, complexity and depth that the smaller titles can't achieve.

Lately I can't shake the feeling that Mass Effect 3 is of greater artistic merit than Journey.  While Journey is merely a classic parable, Mass Effect 3 is that and much, much more - and unlike artsy titles that trip over themselves in the pursuit of their rather pure and unencumbered vision, Odin Sphere or Rayman Origins provide the same resonance and a huge, sprawling experience to discover.

Sometimes, more actually is more.


  1. and yet a multi million dollar behemoth like ME3 uses a minimalist piano piece for it's big finish.

    Even the big boys understand the power of less.

  2. Games like Quel Solaar(LOVE) come to mind, the game itself unfolds and you create the story