Archive for April, 2010

The Void – “Unrequited Love”

“The Void” has us enthralled at first sight. An eerie melancholic soundscape fills the background, a strong feminine voice entangles itself in a haunting poem [adapted from our very own Luís Vaz de Camões, it seems], the screen swerves through the air, gently flying by a colorless cityscape, waltzing near an old withered tree, only to then plunge slowly into a pit of nothingness… death. It all starts with death. That is how you enter “The Void”, a purgatory realm of ether somewhere between life and true death. It’s not named void by accident, it’s an oppressively dark and empty space, a vast sea of absence and non-existence, punctuated with small shimmers of light… beacons of color. These islets of comatose life serve as surreal habitats for the strange denizens of this no-life: the sisters and the brothers. The former are romantic and charismatic interpretations of beauty and emotion incarnate, and the latter are grotesque, crude nightmares born out of melting flesh with mechanical weapons. All are portrayed with a pendant for aesthetic virtuosity that cannot be overstated, demanding immediate comparison with Tale of Tales’ own projects. Like the Belgian studio, Ice-pick lodge indulged in sipping inspiration from the fine arts, bringing centuries of haunting beauty into the barren 3D medium. That both their games’ landscapes can be read as breathtaking spatial paintings is telling of this aspiration to “art”.  But similarities between the two studios productions end thus, as in terms of formal structure, these could not be more disparate. Whilst Tale of Tales insists in valiantly swinging its art/not-game banner with both ingenuity and admirable perseverance, Ice-Pick lodge clearly upholds and cherishes the conflicting logic of games.

Which brings us to the strange nature of “The Void” as a video game, a sinuous hybrid: half strategic board game, half art-house horror adventure. You actually play “The Void” as an economic management game not unlike “Monopoly” – you plant color, wait for it to mature, collect it, and then employ it to defend your territory and repeat the cycle – , but you also spatially explore the void, delighting in its glorious vistas whilst occasionally confronting yourself with its menacing creatures. All these elements compete for your attention in equally strenuous ways. One must juggle the cognitive burden of pondering every move in the over-world board, managing color in the most efficient way, whilst keeping in mind the hectic, nerve-wracking combat and the heavy, obscure rules which the game forces upon players without explanation. All this, whilst still trying to derive pleasure from the symbolic journey through the void’s bizarre milieu, attempting to decode its metaphors and allegories, as well as its rules on a purely semantic level. It is by far the most puzzling of its eccentricities that it can be so cleanly split into these conflicting halves, as they are not only aesthetically incompatible – inviting antithetical subjective experiences – , as they appeal to different audiences.

Nikolay Dybowskiy’s blind, gluttonous virtuosity may be to blame. In attempting to complexify game design and imbue it with meaning – a western game design axiom, if we ever saw one – he must have lost track of what was most important: player’s relationship with the game. For this, “The Void” ends up being a good example of video-games not being art; there’s a lot of art in it, surely – in the ethereal soundtrack by Vasiliy Kashnikov or the moody 3D landscapes by Peter Potapov – but it plays just like a game, barring any possibility of pure aesthetic appreciation and that vital sense of transcendent beauty which defines art. There’s just no space for the experience to breathe, as you will find yourself frantically competing with the game. Which is not to say Ice Pick Lodge does not deserve praise; they do, by all means. They’ve created a singular video game with some of the best art and character design we’ve seen in the past years, and backed by a proper budget, which is no mean feat by itself. It’s just that we wanted to love “The Void”. Heartily, with passion and idolatry. In fact, we might have loved it at some point. At the very least, we love its potential to be something more than it is. But it just never loved us back. And quite frankly, we couldn’t guess who it loves… like its beautiful mistresses, “The Void” is a demanding diva that forces you to masochistically labor for its sympathy, only to keep you ever frustrated and desolate no matter how much sweat you sacrifice for it. It possesses the lyrical beauty of a mesmerizing poem, but beneath it lies the cold embrace of a punishing game, one so powerful that when you see through its gorgeous exterior, it will feel as barren and desolate as the void itself… because that’s how games feel.

“The dream of future you see dissolves
And with time so does the apprehension
The world under sun is no exception
And all you see around you evolves

New traits in things familiar can be sensed
But futile is hope without fruition
The grief you knew begets no vision
The happiness you felt becomes regret

Winter fades and takes it cold and storm
Spring revives the world with loving and warmth
But still the law: all things decay and age.

Vanity itself won’t dry your tears
And so you fear as your time draws near
The word will turn but never change.”

State of the Art – “Teenage Wannabe”

 

A while back, I had an argument with a video game scholar who had a background in the study of cinema. He advocated that if film achieved its pinnacle with “Citizen Kane” 40 years down the mediums’ lifetime, then by juxtaposition, it would mean that by now, the video game medium’s language would be completely firmed. Then he went on to call “Ocarina of Time” the “Citizen Kane” of video games. Punch-lines aside, his argument wasn’t that illogical – if cinema allegedly grew up so fast, why shouldn’t video games? There are many flaws in this reasoning, most of which you can probably spot in a mile – video games are not film and they originated in a different social, cultural and economical environment. However, his argument, like that of others who stand by similar principals, was not naive. He seemed to be using it as a rationalization for the fact that he could not justify the immature content present in contemporary video games. By stating that video games had to be mature by now, he could find comfort in his mind while stating that “Half Life 2” had to be video game’s “1984”, that “Grand Theft Auto” had to be video game’s “The Godfather” and so forth. Video games have to be mature. Comparisons aside, are video games a mature art form? Should we even expect them to be by now?

Film can represent practically all objects without a need to craft them in a specific medium. You can shoot an entire film with a few actors, real-life locations and objects, and knowledge of cinematography. The processes of lighting a scene, choosing the proper POV, the right lens aperture, editing footage, etc, were speedily improved so that 40 years down the line you had what this particular scholar called “the pinnacle of film”. And in terms of cinematography he was probably right. But cinema may also involve sets and props and virtual characters – art design, costume design, make up, sound mixing and editing and special effects are also part of the cinematic language and have not evolved at such a brisk pace. CGI for instance, practically started a new cinematic language that has little in common with the film concept associated with an object such as “Kane” (some may even call it a new art form within film itself). More so, art forms are the product of human creativity and therefore reflect human’s cultural, ideologic and social evolution. Can we really say when an art form has matured?

Cinema may not have been in its “pinnacle of maturity” in the 1950’s, but it is true you could already feel that its basic narrative pillars were sound. But it did manage to keep evolving, continuing to grow as both medium and language. A distant parallel exists for other art forms. For example, by the nineteenth century, paintings were at their representational apex; painters could already represent with surprising detail practically every object, character or scene, and yet painting continued to change – impressionism, expressionism, cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, etc, etc, etc, etc. Who’s to tell, when painting had ‘matured’? It’ll take many, many, many decades for video games to even achieve the meccha of photorealistic representational power. Crude polygons and animation techniques can get you this far, but are still miles away from tricking our senses into believing that those are real characters and locations. Even after that representational peak is achieved we can only dream what will lie ahead. Not to mention what new means for interaction with video games might exist in the future – VR controllers, Natal-like direct input, “Matrix” plugs? Will these not dramatically change and deepen the semiotics of video games?

What I am sure of, is that the content in video games, not its form, is usually infantile and not at all directed at an adult and critical audience. Debate all we want about technique, this is a fact hard not to acknowledge. It’s fine to try and elevate the medium to “a mature art form”, but where is the basis to support such an argument? Video games are commercially oriented, products in a vast mass market which is geared towards an audience that isn’t interested in games as a cultural vehicle or a means of human expression: we are happy with our little “Facebook-apps” and “Wii-Gimmicks” and “FPS’s”. So there’s no point in telling ourselves that if cinema had Welles, then by necessity we should have one too. Because nobody seems to know who he might be, and that assures me that video games, at the very least, are still not understood, criticized and studied as a mature art form. So whether or not they are ‘art’, nobody could care less. Ergo, they aren’t art.

P.S. If anybody knows the scholar who I address in the text, please don’t view this as an attack on his opinions or any form of insult. I only mean to diggress on a particular reasoning which I feel many people defend.