The Drowned Man
Roger Ebert died unconvinced that a video game could ever attain the status of art. To give him his due, there is a little more nuance here: really, he died unable to come up with a definition of “art” that satisfactorily precluded video games. A couple of paragraphs in a blog post (http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/okay-kids-play-on-my-lawn) is the closest he comes:
I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.
Not a bad definition, I thought. But I was unable to say how music or abstract art could perform those functions, and yet they were Art. Even narrative art didn't qualify, because I hardly look at paintings for their messages.
The strange thing to me now is that earlier in the piece he quotes an argument he had with Clive Barker, which introduces a separate (and to my mind, much more robust) definition:
Barker: Let's invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art.
Ebert: If you can go through 'every emotional journey available,' doesn't that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.
It is Barker’s definition (or gesture towards one) that I find interesting, particularly because I have just finishedBioshock Infinite, a game whose embrace of the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics leaves questions of multiple emotional journeys teasingly and enticingly exposed. And it is Barker’s point – that the offering of those multiple journeys that can elevate an experience into art – that I want to explore in a little more detail.
Ebert’s view – that “Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, nota smorgasbord of choices” – reveals itself as quaintly nineteenth century in comparison to Barker’s (it may be accidental, but it is (accidentally) telling that he adopts the Romantic capital-A “Art” throughout his piece, where Barker says “art”). Singularity of meaning – an “inevitable conclusion” – became, by the 60s and 70s, about as outmoded a view of the aesthetic experience as Ebert’s other contention that art (sorry, Art) should educate and improve the lucky reader or consumer of that Art. Partly driven by changes in the wider world (including the splintering of traditional media, the challenge to hierarchies this represented and even – one might argue – developments in quantum physics) the mid-twentieth century saw a movement away from the singular and towards the plural. And with that came liberty, and a new sort of pleasure to be taken in your (plural) interaction(s) with art. The distinction Roland Barthes makes between the lisible and scriptible (in large handfuls, texts that represent a direct communication of some monolithic meaning from active Author to passive Reader, versus texts that truly exist only in the moment of their constitution in the reader’s intelligence) is the same distinction that he draws between the simple and traditional (and limited) pleasure of a narrative well told, and the experience of jouissance – the ecstatic, almost orgasmic pleasure of being creatively complicit in the genesis of art itself within the confines of the scriptible text. Many people have written more, and more eloquently on this subject, but I mention it here as an essential founding block: to be free to take each and every emotional journey available is – in my eyes and in the eyes of many writing before Ebert first passed judgment with wavering thumb – to be in the presence of art.
Just under a year ago, I went to see Sleep No More in New York City. A couple of months ago, I went to see The Drowned Man in an abandoned building just behind Paddington Station. It perhaps says something about how fundamentally 19th century the current vocabulary surrounding art is that I feel self-conscious and wankerly for saying “I went to experience” either of these productions by Punchdrunk, but truly that would be more appropriate. In both cases, the audience (another legacy of our pre-twentieth century views on how we consume art – a noun about people who sit in a dark room, derived from the Latin to hear) are left entirely free to wander around a formerly deserted building, that has now been filled with an array of props, scenes, sets and peripatetic dancer-actors who (by and large) perform either wordlessly or in scraps of speech that do not add up to a narrative any larger than the room in which you find them. Nominally, both pieces are based on well-known literary texts; I must admit familiarity with Macbethmade Sleep No More a little more comprehensible, if only in a “oh, that naked woman must be Lady Macbeth” way. But by and large, until the whole building is shepherded towards a climactic scene at the end, you were entirely free to do what you wanted, shielded by a mask that kept you and the rest of the audience anonymous (in some ways, it really was very Eyes Wide Shut). It was a play in the truest and most multifarious sense of the word: a giant sandbox (with real sand!) where you were not transfixed to a seat but released to explore an internally consistent, externally bounded world. Scraps of paper were littered around the hotel in New York: some were (to me) meaningless, some were detailed psychiatrist’s notes about various fictive patients, some were ripped-up pages from Shakespeare’s text. In London, a dressing room was filled with clothes that you could touch, put on, and navigate like the canopy of an exotic forest. There was no set itinerary, and with that and various other freedoms came a special kind of enjoyment, a childish delight in anarchy and boundlessness.
Etymology tells us that the French verbs jouir (root of jouissance) and jouer (root of one of the few sentences you probably still remember from GCSE) have nothing in common. All I know is that I have been playing, and taking great pleasure in, video games for over twenty years. And that when I was walking through the corridors and running my fingers through the textiles at The Drowned Man, I couldn’t stop thinking about the only equivalent experience I’ve had in those twenty-odd years of gameplaying. The connection with drowning is serendipitous: the original Bioshock is set in Rapture, a city established thousands of metres under the sea in the 1940s by Andrew Ryan, a crazed objectivist of Randian bent. You arrive at the city in 1960, when pressures real and metaphorical are causing the city to buckle. The aesthetic is Art Deco meets steampunk: vinyl recordings of pre-war crooners vie on the soundtrack with the screams and rantings of the city’s increasingly unhinged inhabitants. You arrive in Rapture with precious little idea of why you’re there, or what’s expected of you; inevitably, given the appetites of the majority of gamers, there is also a lot of shooting. But the real pleasure in the game – for me at least – was that within the confines of the overarching objectives (“bring MacGuffin x to character y”; a proscriptive set of rails slyly called into question by the game's late reveal) you were entirely at liberty to pursue your own course. Enemies rarely respawned, so once you had cleared an area, you were free to explore it in miniscule detail. Early on, you find your first Audio Diary – the first tile in a mosaic that, once pieced together, reveals the full extent of the beautifully-rendered world you’re exploring, and the depth of the world-building that has gone into making it so eerily tangible. Some Audio Diaries fit very clearly into the overall end-of-an-empire narrative; others splinter off in strange and unexpectedly affecting ways. The one that stayed with me the longest was the one found by a small, abandoned girl’s body in an otherwise empty and inhospitable room. In just under 20 seconds, it explained how she had come to be there. I completely agree that not every game meets Ebert’s criterion about engaging empathy – but some do, and the thought that you might be one of only a handful of gamers to make a discovery like this (unlike in a film, which cannot help but present the same view to all who see it) imbues it with a pathos that approaches the lifelike. It sounds ridiculous, but for the next few minutes I couldn’t get the tableau out of my mind – and with it the material and sad implication that here I was, seeing it in a game, when the scene must have been repeated so many times in the real world around me.
Bioshock Infinite inverts the original, taking us from the bottom of the ocean to above the clouds. The year is 1912. Columbia, established by self-professed prophet Zachary Hale Comstock, is an even more idyllic utopia, all white clapperboard houses, rousing blue-sky vistas, and mellifluous candy-striped barbershop quartets. Yet all is not as it seems in this paradise – early in the game, you are presented with the opportunity to throw a projectile at a mixed-race couple; the oppression of black and Irish citizens is the cause of the rebellion that will culminate in the city’s destruction. And something else is afoot: at one point, you notice the barbershop quartet are singing ‘God Only Knows’, which will not hit stores for another 50 years. As you advance, you overhear similarly syrupy covers of ‘Tainted Love’, ‘Fortunate Son’, and ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. The girl you have been sent to Columbia to free, Elizabeth, is able to open ‘tears’ to other worlds: one of the earliest is onto Paris, where a cinema hoarding advertises The Return of the Jedi. Plainly, there is a mystery to solve here, too: where in Bioshock the question was “what happened here?”, fittingly, given Infinite’s preoccupation with quantum physics, the verb is unmoored. Is it what happened? What will happen? What will have happened? And where exactly is here, anyway?
As the viral YouTube videos of people relocating their jaws from the floor will attest, the answer, when you get to it, is a doozy. Elizabeth has been by your side for pretty much the whole game; I can’t remember forming a stronger bond with a non-playable character, and the effect this bond has when it comes to the final denouement is nothing short of gut-wrenching. And yet it’s not even that side of it that makes me feel quite so strongly about these two games (although if Ebert were alive to see it, I’m sure he’d renounce the argument that video games don’t do empathy, or instruction, or making life rewarding). The amazing thing about these games, both with extraordinarily sophisticated engines delivering many synonyms for the verb ‘kill’ (variously: shoot, burn, impale, electrocute, melee, push, charge, bludgeon, explode and harry with crows) is that I would gladly play through both again without firing a single shot. (Interestingly, this raises the question of whether the Bioshock games are particularly great as games to play – in a campaign that features a lot of killing, not-killing is a much more enjoyable pastime. The aiming feels imprecise; the weapon types are essentially variations on three or four basic models; the showstopping arena battles grate, rather than fill with awe. If I wanted to spend an hour shooting people in the head, I’d far sooner play Gears of War or the wildly enjoyable Bulletstorm). It is not simply the sophistication of the story-telling that was impressive: it was the part that you, as primary agent, played in constituting your own version of that narrative that was really extraordinary. You could probably rush through either in seven or eight hours; I’m pretty sure I spent double that on both of them. It was exactly the same pleasure as I found at The Drowned Man and Sleep No More: that of being able to explore a world that has been purpose-built for your exploration, and which reveals more of itself the further down the rabbit hole you go. It’s a contrast to the Grand Theft Auto games, which is a world without a story, and it’s an improvement (controversial opinion alert!) on the mighty Half Life games, which have a world, and a story, but do not continue to unspool themselves as texts the more you play on their thread: in them, if you explore, you find more stuff, but it's just stuff, like the Secrets in Doom and Quake: things to make the game easier, not more interesting. To me, the Bioshockgames are art, however you want to define it. More excitingly – if we adopt for one moment a laughably linear concept of the passage of time – they may also be the future.