Quick Hits 2

Welcome to the second episode of Quick Hits, wherein I sling nonsense about a number of topics, with no real connective throughline. Bang! Starter pistol.

Fuck This Conversation

I'm just gonna say it: art. I didn't want to say it, I don't want to hear it ever again, but here we are.

Why don't I want to hear about it? I'm a veteran of that war. Anyone who went to art school is. We have PTSD from that endlessly repeated conversation. We have flashbacks, we get the shakes. The trigger: someone, anyone, asking, "what is art?"

It doesn't have to be up and stated outright. The trigger phrase is hidden within any number of statements. For instance, when a film critic with a Twitter account says that video games are not art, the natural followup becomes, "Well then... what is art?" And suddenly we're in some goddamn flourescent-lit student lounge, sitting on a nine-dollar couch across from a dude whose shirt is self-consciously spattered with daubs of encaustic, hip-to-hip with the girl who stamped each page of a copy of The Feminine Mystique with an ink print of her own labia, hearing the guy over our shoulder mention Duchamp for the sixth time this week, and it all just needs to stop right now.

I had a professor, Harrell Fletcher, who is better known as an artist than a teacher, and anyone who immerses themselves in both the art world and art education has certainly been through this conversation enough times to come out the other side. I appreciated his perspective, which was open and accepting while deftly dismissing the question entirely. I'm paraphrasing but, as I remember it: "Art is anything that someone claims to be art. It is then your job to determine for yourself whether you believe that thing is good or bad art."

This acknowledges a number of important aspects of the words in play here. For one, "art" has no concrete definition. Anything more specific than "something which someone has chosen to call art" can be challenged from any number of angles. Is art something that someone calling themselves an artist makes? No, because John Ford wouldn't call himself an artist or his films art, but Francois Truffaut would say they were. Is it something that someone creates to express feeling or emotion? No, let's look at Minimalism or Andy Warhol. So on and so forth. I can smell the nine-dollar burlap upholstery now.

But first and foremost, above all, the term "art" is not qualitative. There may be good art or bad art as the viewer determines it, but something being called simply "art" is not in and of itself either good or bad. It is at most a classification, like "food" or "animal," but it is a classification without any objective requirements, only subjective ones, which means the definition is specific to the individual. One is free to define what is or is not art for themselves if it helps them sleep at night, meaningless as it may be, but anyone who claims to be the arbiter of defining the term for others is absolutely bankrupt in their reasoning, much too enamored of their own opinion for it to be worth a damn, and should likely not be taken seriously in matters such as these.

The Mona Lisa is a painting. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie. Ico is a video game. And art is just a word.

My Favorite Albums of the 00's

1. The Glow Pt. 2 by The Microphones. Phil Elvrum passes through towns and countryside, under buzzing flourescents and the shadows of Mt. Eerie, and wonders to himself the big questions, about life, why we're here, what our role is, essentially, what it is to be alive. It all comes out as epic, strange and intimidating as it should: rattling acoustic guitars ask the questions, timid and indrawn; distortion and huge drums answer back big as the looming sky. Under it all, in the quiet places, the fog horns of a Pacific northwestern coastline echo, situating the album in the place that Elvrum lived it, grounding us in what was for me at the time I first listened, my new home-- a fresh, inviting place that was then still alien, and where I was asking myself a lot of the same big questions... just not as epically. Elvrum had that handled.

Companion piece: Advisory Committee by Mirah. The album was produced by Elvrum, but his signature is so strong on it that it's almost as much his as hers. Very different from The Microphones, but very much the same.

2. Knife Play by Xiu Xiu. Jamie Stewart is not a reserved guy, at least as evidenced by his music. With Knife Play, he wants to get personal right up front: a sticker on the cover before you even open the CD states: "When my mom died I listened to Henry Cowell, Joy Division, Detroit techno, the Smiths, Takemitsu, Sabbath, Gamelan, 'Black Angels' and Cecil Taylor." It's a strategy to scare off as many of the undevoted as possible, which continues in the music: the first 30 seconds or so of Knife Play is some of the most discordant, atonal sound you're likely to hear this week. And then Stewart starts in with his airy, otherworldly voice, his lyrics about suicide, hermaphrodites, and HIV, his gongs and bells and whispers and yelps... and it all starts leveling out into something incredibly listenable and intriguing, while remaining dark and personal. Some people find Knife Play to be terribly depressing, but I don't feel that; I love the songs, I love the sound, and while the words are tough, I don't feel like this is a downer of a record; Knife Play is the sound of someone getting through it.

Companion piece: Fag Patrol by Xiu Xiu. Acoustic versions of a number of the songs from Knife Play and its followup, A Promise. Hearing these songs in their more compositionally-pure state strips away the artifice and shows what strong songwriting underlies them.

3. The Sunset Tree by Mountain Goats. John Darnielle had performed as Mountain Goats for a number of years prior to the release of The Sunset Tree, but it was the death of his stepfather that allowed the album to appear-- Darnielle had been abused by the man throughout his childhood, and had to wait until that presence was out of this world to address his experience directly. What results is a document of a young man growing up with the torment of physical abuse, and his escape from it through love and music. The album begins with an attempted suicide and ends with a death that provides closure and reflection; in between are scenes of youthful abandon set against harrowing violence and contemplations on shame and mortality, all fusing together into an image of a young Darnielle coping with hardship in ways that would define his music, and the rest of his life. The tenderness with which the final track sets down the memory of his stepfather, steps back and lets go is a heartbreaking relief.


Video games are objects that people use.

Look at the history of the video game industry: the number of users has gone up and up, and what has driven this climbing userbase? One might credit graphical fidelity, innovative new gameplay modes, online connectivity, and so forth; I might credit, above all, improvements in usability.

The obvious stuff here is what we normally apply the concept of usability to: interface, primarily. And this is important, but only one element. In video games, gameplay is usability.

I guess we should define usability here. I'm going to go with "the degree to which the user intuitively understands the function of the object, and is able to achieve the desired effect without frustration or confusion." If I look at a toaster, I should be able to to intuit where the toast goes, how to set the darkness of the toast, how to initiate the toasting process, and be able to achieve the desired results consistently.

Perhaps in a video game my desire is to progress forward through a linear sequence of challenges. In the 80's, I might have died at the end of a level containing multiple challenges, requiring me to return to the beginning of the level and repeat all of the challenges up to the one on which I died. This is frustrating and monotonous. If I die enough times, I lose all my lives and must start the entire game over. This will drive away most users.

In the 90's, I might have died at the end of the level, returning me to a mid-level checkpoint, requiring me to retry only the last couple of challenges in the sequence. I can die as many times as I want and simply return to the checkpoint in time. However, if I have to repeat this enough times, I still get frustrated with having to redo challenges I've proven I can pass, and many users will still be driven away.

In the 00's, I might have died at the end of a level and been returned in space, not time, to a respawn point, allowing me to keep all of my progress and collected items and requiring me to retry only the challenge that killed me. Many fewer users will now be driven away. If the challenge itself is too difficult, users unable to surmount it will check out, but this is due to the difficulty of the challenge itself, not to the difficulty of retrying the challenge, as in prior revisions.

The intended use of the object in this case is to "progress forward through challenges." As game mechanics have improved usability, the audience has grown due to more people being able to use the object as they intend.

And so artfulness, graphical fidelity, innovation, connectivity, while all attractive, are secondary to usability improvements in interface ("I want to get online and play against my best friend,") input ("I want to be able to shoot that enemy using these controller thumbsticks,") and progression ("I want to always know where I should go next.") These elements are concrete-- sets of rules and conditions that can be tested against real users, scientifically, and adjusted to accommodate the most fluid user experience. Improved usability, then, is the conduit through which the creativity of your game flows. The more usable the object, the more people will be able to connect with the unique aesthetic experience you're trying to convey. Usability is the aspect of games which must advance first, to allow the rest of the medium to flourish.

This has been Quick Hits. Thanks for playing.