Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Judging Video Games as “Art” (2)

Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards is an exhaustive look at video games, the ambiguities of art, and how they come to rest on objective standards – though maybe not in the way you were thinking. This series intends to show video games are a unique medium that deserves a special criteria and methodological examination. This is part and parcel of my theology as well. I invite you to leave comments on any section below!

Just to note, obvious SPOILERS for decade-old games. Just throwing that out there.

I Need Scissors! 61!

Hideo Kojima, director of Metal Gear Solid, began development of the sequel nearly immediately after the first. The advertising campaign promised a similar adventure except with better graphics and improved mechanics. In fact, one advertisement even promised the return of bosses (special enemies who are more powerful than normal who serve as structural elements in the game, requiring special techniques to defeat) from the previous game.

As Jeremy Parish states,

Metal Gear Solid had been a glorious comic book of a video game, all hyperbolic exclamations and costumed super-villains with silly names, which meant it adhered to the comic book tradition of death – namely, that a character isn’t truly dead until you see them die.

However, what appears to be a traditional sequel was simply a ruse; instead, that image of that character was a silhouette on a wall, an action figure pretending to be a fearsome foe of the past. This particular situation embodies Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in a nutshell: it is exactly the opposite of what its audience wanted.

Unlike most games, MGS2 intentionally misleads and misinforms the player not only about the plot, but the true goals that the player is striving to complete. The Colonel leading your mission states, as your objective, exactly the same mission as in the first game, except in a different locale – but that is not the true mission. Instead of letting you play as Solid Snake (who dies within the first hour of the game, no less!), you play as Raiden, an angsty and insecure agent who had never been in the field, and his name is never mentioned in any of the press release information.

Instead of a wide open environment such as Alaska, the majority of the game takes place on an off-shore drilling platform called Big Shell, a restrictive environment with straight lines and hexagonal shapes. Even with these new environs, it could be assumed that the game simply explores a new environment, but the message here is more sinister, and nothing is as it seems. As Parish states,

…it’s a missive about the mutability of information in the digital age. When all forms of communication are digital, everything exists as data, and data can be altered. Text can be edited; video can be manipulated; audio can be masked and sampled. Digital information is unreliable, and as a video game MGS2 consists entirely of digital information.

Thus, the player eventually learns that the game he is playing, that he paid for, was merely a training exercise to see if human behavior could be controlled and guided without any conscious thought. Raiden is not a person, but a stand-in for the player’s interaction with the digital world. Thus, one finds that the player has been manipulated all along, both in plot and in real life!

One even learns that Solid Snake, who supposedly dies at the beginning of the game, reappears under a different name. Even the Colonel, who starts the mission in the first place, is nothing but an AI manipulating the player into certain actions. Raiden, the player, was trained into the perfect soldier by recreating the events of Shadow Moses by the Patriots, a mysterious group of persons who wish to control information to further human evolution.

By controlling Raiden, and subsequently the player, they have learned that humanity in general can be controlled by similar means – and the player was the vehicle for this experiment. In other words, by using the unique quality of interactivity, MGS2 blends the narrative and the rules of its own mechanics to bend and usurps the player’s perception of the traditional rules of video games; as Tim Rogers, one of the leaders of the new games journalism movement, has said, “Kojima has made the first postmodern videogame.” Of course, Tim Rogers trolled the Internet on that one, but there’s truth to the claim in Hideo Kojima’s thought processes, at the very least.

However, it certainly hasn’t been evaluated very well in retrospect because of these reasons. Video game “review” websites and magazines, as expected of organizations reviewing video games as products, gave MGS2 nearly perfect scores in their enthusiasm for its “value for money.” However, the general public was not pleased with the “first post-modern video game.” According to Parish, “The general response to MGS2 was overwhelmingly negative.Many fans felt cheated, and they weren’t shy about voicing their opinions; they had been led to expect an adventure starring the cool, confident Snake, not a sulky substitute.”

Thus, the game’s reputation has made it the least loved of all the Metal Gear Solid games (of which, at the moment, there are four in the main series, soon to be five). However, this game certainly buckled the conventional wisdom of what a game could be and ran right against the establishment of game mechanics and narrative. As such, it is a perfect example of Dewey’s problems with the institutionalization and historicism of art critique – in this case, within video games. There were not the proper tools to even evaluate this game except on a pure mechanical basis, let alone deconstructing the plot elements from a Western academic literary tradition.

But, one might ask, how does one evaluate such an idea if concrete rules cannot be established? Dewey gives guidelines to this effect. Judgment is not entirely arbitrary. Rather, good judgment requires a rich background, disciplined insight, and the capacity to discriminate and to unify within the context of that criticism.

For example, if I did not know the basic plot of MGS1, it would be difficult to criticize the game on a narrative or mechanical level. If I had no prior knowledge of video games, than my criticism only recognizes; it does not perceive how interactivity works within the game to create “an experience.” Judicial criticism, even in the game world, fails because it cannot handle new movements in this art form which, by their nature, express something new in human experience.

However, the opposite response does not solve problems either – the impressionist critic, who evaluates on the basis of total subjectivity, runs into a different problem. Just as the artist takes objective material from a common world and transforms it by imaginative vision, so too the critic must attend to objective features of the work he or she is studying.

Firstly, if personal impressions remain the only form of communication, how can anything human being evaluate anything? By the very act of clarifying an impression through language, one is defining that impression in order to communicate. Secondly, a mere response does not count for anything, nor does it explain anything about the work – making art into a “he said, she said” situation cannot become the proper role of criticism. For example, to say “I did not like MGS2” for no other reason than one’s initial impression paints a bleak picture for criticism, for no evaluation can be performed.

To solve this problem, Dewey states that it is not that there is an objective judgment criteria, but there is a judgment of criteria; the business of criticism is to deepen experience for others through re-educating and deepening perception.To understand a work, a critic and the player must both go through the process that the artist experienced in creating the work.

How did Hideo Kojima think in creating the work? According to Tim Rogers, who met and talked to Kojima,

His goal was, as he explained to me, `To make a videogame that told a story that could only be told in a videogame.’ His first and foremost goal, he claims, was to `Use the medium,’ which is, as he put it, `inherently postmodern’.

Most importantly, the critic must have

…an intense liking for certain subject matters,” for otherwise “…there is no chance of his penetrating the heart of a work of art.

Without making experience the model for criticism, taking either concrete rules or simple impressions as normative, critical evaluation will fail. Wide (multi-culturally) and specific (what are the best video games ever made and why?) knowledge on the subject, as well as vested and interested knowledge on the critic’s part, renders them with the tools for evaluation. Perhaps we can engender a first rule: to avoid quick judgments of anything. This is especially relevant in terms of Metal Gear Solid 2’s reputation, which hasn’t grown since its inception, for good or ill. As much as Romans 2 applies to people, it also applies to the arts:

Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. 2 And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. 3 But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?

We already fall under judgment because of the Law, a holy and righteous one; how much more do we not have the proper tools to judge? We can criticize, sure, but how do we do this effectively without removing the essential components of any work? How much sin is acceptable sin? We must be in the world while also recognizing its fallenness, and respond accordingly. Making feigned offense doesn’t help the situation. So let us critique criticism instead. This will make sense in the next part.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.