Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Judging Video Games as “Art” (3)

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!

Dewey holds that judgment has two main functions: discrimination and uni cation. The first involves understanding of parts, and the second leads to understanding how they are related to each other and to the whole. The former equals analysis, or disclosure of part as parts of a whole, and the latter equal synthesis, the unifying insight of “an experience” based upon the critic’s prior realm of invested, passionate knowledge into the subject.

If, in any case, the critics arrive with a pre-figured and preformed methodology, he/she has stunted the work of criticism from the inception of the project; certainly, a critic and artist alike have their own predilections towards certain combinations of matter and form, but that does not make it “bad” or “good” necessarily.

mgs2-substance-1

MGS2 has been declared a failure by many, simply due to its complicated, obtuse plot and Raiden, who sometimes acts insufferably in what would seem like dangerous situations – still, the game itself has changed little in style from MGS. The ability to see the good and the bad alike remains a necessity for any proper criticisms of games. An artist must be free to detect the qualities of any art, as well as evaluate according to the whole history of that medium, a balancing act of the highest order.

So that sounds rather pretentious, I’m sure. But, as far as the narrative and mechanics function, Metal Gear Solid 2 does work. The plot hoodwinks you, certainly not just on the basis of its confusing presentation but the lack of awareness any gamer had as to the true nature of events. Furthermore, it’s not as if the Internet age came into full swing in 2001, so the concepts in play didn’t quite work as forcefully as Kojima probably imagine, but they’re much more relevant now. Just see how Raiden transform into a walking cyborg killing machine in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and you’ll see him giving the player what they want: a strong protagonist meant to fill in for the player.

Even so, the narrative doesn’t make up for all the strange deficiencies in this stealth-action game. The radar is a crutch for a strange overhead camera and a lack of easy visual cues for detection. This hasn’t been fixed since Metal Gear Solid, surely; it’s merely been transplanted to better visual representations. Cutscenes and talking run on far too long for fitting into a paradigm of “interactive entertainment”. Certainly, there’s better ways to tell the plot than making a player stand still while they listen to two talking heads. It’s a radio, I can hear you while I walk around! That’s not hard! Boss fights remain giant gimmicks with only one possible solution to the problem, rather than taking advantage of a diverse inventory system and hidden items all around.

That doesn’t make it less satisfying to sneak around and figure out the “real time puzzle” of enemy patrols and patterns. The generic office buildings work well for this, and give a consistent sense of space. Multiple floors sometimes crop up and make it more confusing to tell where enemies lay in wait, but generally the system works well. Bodies need to be dragged and move, and the AI works well within this environment and suitable for the game, if not aping realistic behavior. The circumstances and challenges (excepting boss fights) continue to escalate and diversity the challenges, from the common “lose all your equipment” trope to using a sword…for some reason. Anyway, it’s a satisfying experience, even if its flaws make it sometimes difficult to recommend. The story alone is worth it, if I didn’t already SPOIL it to high heaven.

I still like the game a lot, but the flaws are obvious and I applaud the ambition! That’s a proper piece of criticism right there. That’s how it should work. Yet it just doesn’t. Many reviewers seem too concerned with the aesthetic elements, or the music, or something else they find objectionable. Just take the recent case of Dragon’s Crown. Whatever you think of the game’s quality, I know more about its “objectification of women” then I do anything else other than VanillaWare’s involvement. Take Polygon’s review, for example:

Dragon’s Crown‘s serious liberties with female anatomy are distracting. Two player characters — the Amazon and the Sorceress — are explicitly sexualized, with breasts literally bigger than their heads with rear ends to match, and plenty of the screen real estate is dedicated to their respective jiggles and sashays. But at least these characters are powerful women, with agency and a penchant for destroying rooms full of bad guys.

The same can’t be said for the female NPCs that fill Dragon’s Crown‘s dungeons and other environments. Most of the women in the game are barely clothed, with heaving chests, backs twisted into suggestive positions, some with their legs spread almost as wide as the screen. They’re presented as helpless objects, usually in need of rescue. It’s obvious, one-sided and gross.

Who knows VanillaWare’s intentions in making characters like that? Perhaps they wanted, for example, to echo obvious low and high fantasy tropes as a contribution to their game. Conan the Cimmerian/Barbarian remains a popular ideal for much low fantasy, so why not just copy the Amazon woman concept wholesale? To go a little further with this,   objectification is a different subject matter altogether, and it has more to do with how we want to perceive things than it does with sexuality in itself. A lot of political correctness regarding video games comes from this, let’s be honest, and your worldview will affect how you view games, whether or not violence and sexuality offend you onscreen, etc. But, and here is the kicker, why force your worldview onto people who may think differently of the art design?

That is where the problem emerges, especially when Western critics comment on Eastern art styles. Not only does it arise from a completely different culture, but it is a reinterpretation of tropes from Western culture! This borrowing happens all the time (see: the entire Japanese RPG market), but we interpret their intentions and how “awful”, grosss, or “objectified” by our own limited lens. Of course, modern Western culture thinks in terms of sexual desire because of Freud’s influence on psychology. Sexual desire became the idol and end act of everything. That’s a pre-suppositional framework, and when the two conflict there will be inevitable conflict.

Of course, Dewey and the other pragmatics noted this. They knew ideas in their philosophical vein would conflict; free will and determinism, for example, exist as the major ones, and they exist in constant battles throughout the whole of all philosophical investigation. To quote James:

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work. Being nothing essentially new, it harmonises with many ancient philosophic tendencies. It agrees with nominalism for instance, in always appealing to particulars; with utilitarianism in emphasising practical aspects; with positivism in its disdain for verbal solutions, useless questions and metaphysical abstractions.

All these, you see, are anti-intellectualist tendencies. Against rationalism as a pretension and a method pragmatism is fully armed and militant. But, at the outset, at least, it stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.

I would argue that a hard rationalist has a problem with the values and ideas of other cultures, with objectification and sexualization. These things exist in the eye of the beholder. They do not make it any greater or lesser “art”. Rather, they show that you have not opened your mind to the possibility of error, of fallibility, and of fallenness. As a Christian, I am more cognizant of this than ever. I realize that what comes out of various cultures, including my own, may directly conflict with my value system.

I just expect my media products from different cultures and non-Christians to display something objectionable that I disagree with. But that’s ok! They couldn’t know it was wrong, anyway. I accept them as they are, and not as I want them to be. That’s Christian enough, right? And criticizing it won’t do a lick of good in seeing its good qualities, rather than the bad! It’s as if there is nothing redeemable simply because part of the whole offends. To use the oft-implemented metaphor, we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is, then, that a watchful eye helps to discover my prejudices and that of others from the outset. Christian ethics are ecclesial, in the sense that they are for Christians and the Church. And really, to apply that standard to others is almost to judge them outright. That doesn’t mean we can’t point out that something that people do is, metaphysically speaking, incorrect. We just need to explain it in a Christian framework, or else it can’t possibly make sense to an unbelieving world.

Of course, we also find ourselves with the problem of other people’s perceptions. How can you accept this or that? How could you play Bayonetta, for example, and call yourself a Christian? I respond with Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:

23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor. 25 Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; 26 for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?

Although the concept appears ancient, eating meat sacrificed to idols meant celebrating pagan gods. Paul, here, is showing that the intention (as Jesus would say) matches, if not supersedes, the action.  If I am in a context where my Bayonetta love will offend people, then I will not bother to mention it. Makes sense, doesn’t it? It is, in the same way, why I can talk about racial issues with Justin Fox in a crass way while not fearing offense or political correctness – he has opened the dialogue up by refusing to play according to society’s prevailing paradigm of offense.

We remove the prevailing paradigm and theories, letting conversations and exploration take us where they will. Our Christian worldview affects us, but it shouldn’t prevent us from dialogue and conversation. Isn’t that how we converted people? That’s why I tend not to find offense in things where people were not trying to offend by intention. You can’t please everyone.

“An experience” comes in forms both amenable and disagreeable. That’s been true forever, and why should it change now? Why should the reign of subjectivity continue when it makes for such utterly boring criticism such as the above? I wager it is because we need something a little more tangible and less judgmental. Hopefully, the aformentioned methodology sheds a bit of light on the whole.

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.