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.


Unknown said...

I really like the notion of art being a definition divorced from quality. Have you ever seen the Crap Art movement? It's an attempt to get common folk to sit down and create exploratory art without worrying about how others perceive its quality. It also served as an inspiration for Glorious Trainwrecks, a game development community that makes games and prototypes in only two hours.

Also, The Mountain Goats are ace. Definitely catch them in concert if you haven't already. Darnielle puts on damn good live shows, especially considering how heartbreaking his repertoire often is.

Forrest said...

As another art school PTSD victim now working as a level designer, amen. Sometimes it seems to take 4 years and thousands of dollars to learn enough to know what you can't define. Ugh.

Also: I assume you've read The Design of Everyday Things? If not, it's a pretty great primer on the importance and methods of creating usable objects and interfaces.

John said...

Well, in truth, we could have a better understanding of "the player" before scientifically measuring any game's usability. Not to propose any halt in the conversation, but i feel as though there is a gap in our understanding of how the brain can learn, use knowledge, and in turn, teach, within this medium's restrains.

We've heard multiple times that complexity of interaction is the medium's greater barrier towards new fans. I worry that growing concern, and, in turn, a greater restrain in how we design these interactions without any firm base to stand on will do more harm than good.

On the whole art business, i sincerely think of it as a useless, far too over concerning question. The question itself is so frail, so easily wrongly worded, that it baffles me how it has got so many attention from people usually not involved in such matters, and usually shows us much more about the people involved in it rather than approximating us to any answer. If such is possible.

Steve gaynor said...

Sorry, by scientifically, I mean using the scientific method in our playtesting processes. Introducing players to the game, observing their reactions, and adjusting the setup accordingly. Not necessarily by monitoring their brainwaves or anything.

Fraser said...

Funnily enough I read this post right after I finished reading an article that argued why game mechanics should be less efficient and less productive. The two don't necessarily contradict each other, since you're talking about save points whereas the other article is about central play mechanics, but it's an interesting contrast.

Johnnemann said...

I have to disagree with you profoundly, Steve, about the Art discussion.

This conversation over the past few weeks has been really valuable for gamers and the games industry, because it's forced lots of people who *haven't* considered the question before to defend their beliefs and think about their medium in a way they haven't had to previously.

Throughout history, philosophers have talked about a number of questions that are never really answered, but the search for answers has led us to some interesting places for discussion and thought. Asking questions like that exposes our deepest beliefs, biases, cultural baggage, and possibly even universal human truths.

I guess my point is that anything that gets people to engage with hard questions and think about - well, anything, really, but their hobby/medium in particular, is a great thing. If Ebert is the Socrates of our time by asking us probing questions in the streets of the Internet, then more power to him. (That's giving him more credit than he deserves, of course).

I know that I had at least one really fascinating discussion (not counting this one ;-) with co-workers over the question of what is art. John Cage and Jackson Pollock came up and blew some people's minds (maybe).

Anyway, yeah. The unexamined medium is not worth making, or something. We still don't know what is art, your professor's opinion notwithstanding, and while it's unlikely we'll resolve that question, it's a conversation that potentially bears many fruits.

Unknown said...

When I was reading your favourite albums I almost leaped for joy. I am totally in love with xiu xiu! Knife Play is definitely an amazing record and I could not have been happier when I saw you felt the same way.

Steve gaynor said...

J-man: Attempting to define what's acknowledged to be undefinable is simply not attractive to me. Call me a pragmatist. I'd much rather look at the merits of the work itself and judge its value on those concrete terms than run in circles around a three-letter word which can, at best, be used as a tool to validate one's own opinion by denying unfavored works an arbitrary classification.

Broklynite said...

It is a tricky question, and I agree about the eye of the beholder. I'm a chemist and much of what I do is still considered something of an art. When I look at the elegant interplay of the forces I command, I see the dancing and the weaving of the molecules at play and I cannot help but think that what I am observing is a thing of beauty. When I see a man-made object of grand proportions, feats of engineering like the Hoover Dam or the Hadron Collider, it takes my breath away and I think that they are also art. People would argue this point with me, as is their right. I like your definition as it seems to be the best at encompassing many different points of view.

Harbour Master said...

Steve, I think you're right regarding usability of games. A point I've made recently is that indie 80s throwback VVVVVV is exactly the kind of game that couldn't have been made in the 80s because it is very knowing and canny about what a player will put up with.

Perhaps of note is that the original gaming revolution was in the arcade. These were games where death meant more cash flow. INSERT COIN. Is it any wonder that the original gaming generation were hardcore?

Devil's advocate moment. The rough, spiky edges of a game are sometimes what turns out to be the exciting new innovation, or simply the Totally Different Something that makes you want to love the game more than its brethren. There have been many flawed creations over the years which might never have been made had they been playtested to oblivion.

The original STALKER is loaded with bugs and problems yet I wouldn't be without that game for any money. No doubt it did receive go through play testing, but I can easily imagine a universe where playtesting would have stripped it of everything that made it unique. Safe and tame, not the violent, dangerous STALKER world that I came to fear.

DeeJay said...

Quick Hits seems like a misnomer :D

Let the artists discuss their art. I think an equally important question is why do we so desperately want games to be considered art? Does anyone really care about the distinction for more than the pseudo-intellectual implications?

I love choking guys in MGS3. I fucking love burning around in a stolen ambulance in GTAIV. Why would I care whether such absurdities consitute performance art?