12 January 2011

Rant: Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

The quote that serves as the title for this tirade, for those who don't know (and if you don't, shame on you for being an uneducated fuck), was said by Sigmund Freud. Freud was referring to the fact that in dream analysis (and psychoanalysis in general), it's often the case that some people try to find symbolism and meaning in every little nuance and detail. Someone (a smart-ass student or colleague) brought up the subject in asking him about his cigar habit and what that meant about him; the quote was his reply.

What does it mean? Well, that's plainly obvious, but it bears saying regardless: sometimes something doesn't really have any deep-seated, hidden meaning or message. Sometimes things don't have hidden agendas or ulterior motives. Sometimes things are what they are, and you pretty much have to accept them at face value and not put much thought in it besides.

This is a lesson I really wish the gaming community at large would take to heart, particular those who continue to advocate this whole "games are art" agenda as though it will somehow legitimize the industry (as if a multi-billion dollar industry needed to legitimize itself).

I've stated my position on the topic before, but I'll repeat it here for the sake of consistency: games in general are not art. More specifically, SOME games are art, but to say a general statement that "games are art" implies that ALL games are art, and that's just outright false. Say all you want about the design philosophy and effort put into the development of any game, from the original Super Mario Bros. to shit like God of War; none of that puts the veracity of my statement into doubt. You can spend years working your ass off to pay a student loan, but all that effort doesn't make that into "art".

Games, as an interactive media, are entertainment. That is, they're simply meant to be fun and be enjoyed. Put another way, they are to be experienced for what they are: a cathartic release. The whole point of a "game" is to be generally pointless. You, the player, agree to a set a of arbitrary rules and conditions by which the game must be played, and then seek to meet the conditions for victory (or at the least, completion, depending on the nature of the game). There's nothing really to be gained from the experience other than the joy of the act of play.

And really, there's nothing wrong with that. Fun is pretty awesome, I think. I mean, it sure beats work, right?

That's what I don't get. There seems to be an ever-growing sect of people out there for whom the act of playing games is no longer enough. Suddenly games now have to explore deep issues, have stirring narratives and high-minded concepts. It's not enough to simply play them; you have to be able to defend them on an intellectual level against the common masses that aren't sophisticated enough to see how deep and meaning the game really is.

Suddenly, games have become serious business. At least to these folks, anyway.

The thing is for me, the moment you take out the fun to try and make a game "serious", you've lost the whole point of making a game in the first place. Fun isn't meant to be serious; that's why it's fun.

What does any of this have to do with Freud? It's that same issue of seeing things that aren't there.

Let's take an example: Super Mario Bros. It's a game where you play an Italian plumber in a fantastical magic kingdom full of walking mushrooms and giant turtles and flying squid, and you're trying to save a princess from a fire-breathing turtle sorcerer.

That's pretty much all that needs to be said, right?

"Yahtzee" Croshaw once made a joking analysis in one of his reviews that basically expounded the whole Mario formula as being an analogy for the decadent monarchy versus communism for the people, and while that whole bit was obviously a joke (if you haven't seen it you should), it's a perfect example of actual arguments made by the most vocal proponents of the "games are art" theory. The fact is, while you can certainly make such analyses if you really want to (and if they're as hilarious as that one, then by all means, please do!), the intent of the developers is pretty obvious. Never has Shigeru Miyamoto ever said that he intended Super Mario Bros. to be anything approaching "art", or to be an examination of anything other than "having fun". People can call it all they want, but if the creator of the series doesn't view it as such, who are we to say otherwise?

What, then, about games that the creators do espouse as art? What about Braid, or Heavy Rain, or many of the indie "arthouse" flash/XBL/PSN games that are a dime a dozen (more like $5 for 4 amirite?) these days?

To that, I reply: Ever been on DeviantArt?

If you haven't, suffice to say it's basically a place where any Joe/Jane Average can post anything they want on a personal blog or gallery and call it "art". And lemme tell you, 90% of the stuff up on that site is more criminal than art.

Now this is the point where most people will bring up the whole "subjective nature of art" argument that they always do, to which I say, "Bullshit". Yes, there is SOME extent of subjectivity in any art, but that's not what's in question here. Even the art community, as fickle, pretentious, and insipid as it is, has standards by which it judges what is and isn't art (and further breaks it down into what is and isn't GOOD art). You can make some horrible Photoshop editing to a x40 zoom picture of a rusty can lying on a sidewalk and call it "art", but that still doesn't mean you're going to have a display up in the Guggenheim anytime soon (nor should you, you horrible person).

It's the same for games. You can make some beautifully-drawn backgrounds and sprites, you can strip away nearly all interactivity to make what is essentially a movie that requires you to press X occasionally to proceed, or you can make a game where essentially all you do is move right and watch some half-attempted excuse of a "narrative" unfold, but none of these things make your game "art". I'm not going to go into great deal as to my issues with specific arthouse games (I tend to get sidetracked enough in my tirades as it is), but suffice to say that most of them are outright awful because they fail in being what they're supposed to be; not just "art", but "games".

You want a formula to make an "art" game? Easy:

1) Take a basic game concept. Anything, really. Side-scroller, shooter, puzzle, you name it.
2) Remove everything that makes it even remotely fun. If possible, remove any and all goals from the game to make it completely pointless. Bonus points if there's no way to actually end the game, or alternatively, if there's no way to actually beat it.
    a) Collary: if your game can be beaten, make the ending as unsatisfying, depressing or as ambiguous as possible. Bonus points for all three at once.
        i) Addendum: if you make multiple endings, make the game obtuse and long, as to make multiple playthroughs as much of a chore as possible. This in turn will make the alternate endings even more of a disappointment.
3) Loop one of the following music choices in the background:
    a) Eerie atmospheric noise
    b) Sombre guitar melody
    c) Folk music (bonus points for something bizarre and foreign, or that at least has nonsensical lyrics)
    d) Generic electronica or chiptunes
    e) All of the above
4) Occasionally have meaningless dialogue appear that seems to convey weight and meaning even if there isn't any.
    a) Alternatively, have no dialogue or explanation for anything. Works especially well if you have a lot of cutscenes so no one can have any idea of what's going on.
5) If anyone questions your game's credibility, just say "they don't get it".
    a) Alternatively, just count on the Internet to protect you; there's always SOMEONE out there willing to defend crap, no matter how bad it is.


Nearly every arthouse game I've seen fits the criteria above, and most of them are outright awful. Some are decent, even bordering on really, really good, but those shining few tend to be games that succeed because they're actually good games and don't adhere to all these rules (Time Fcuk is one example that readily comes to mind; while it may be subject to items 3 and 4, it certainly ignores number 2).

Ironically, probably one of the worst offenders in this regard isn't even a video game; it's a board game called "Train". It apparently was designed by some woman named Brenda Brathwaite who's worked in the gaming industry for some time, though her credentials aren't exactly astounding (she went from working on the Wizardry series to working on Playboy: The Game), and apparently is trying to use games to convey serious lessons about the more horrible events of human history.

Spoiler alert: Train is a game about the Holocaust. I'm lovin' it already.

Anyone with a decent education could probably figure this out just from looking at it (the game pieces are little yellow figures and the object is to load them into trains and get them to their destinations), but the premise of the game necessitates that you are unaware of that fact. So you and the other players are supposed to start merrily loading your passengers into the car, trying to beat each other to get to the end of the line. When you do, you flip a card that reveals the destination, which--SURPRISE--turns out to be the name of a concentration camp. The designer's goal at this point is for the players to be horrified at what they've done and then suddenly either start using the rules to save people, quit the game outright, or alternatively shatter the game board (the game is played on a cracked glass "board"; a none-too-subtle reference to Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, an event I doubt many non-Jewish people and non-Holocaust/WWII students remember) in some sort of protest against the horribleness of it all. Or something.

Apparently to date, only one person has ever shattered the glass, which doesn't surprise me. I mean seriously, who the fuck wants broken glass everywhere? You know how dangerous that is? And that's not even counting what a bitch broken glass is to clean up. But I digress.

Brathwaite apparently takes her game very seriously. She hand-painted the 60 wooden figures representing Holocaust victims, uses a Nazi typewriter to hold the various index cards representing the concentration camps, and got really upset when one person played her game to win, even after the "big reveal".

Imagine that: playing a game to win. What a novel concept!

A lot of people have raved about how this game is brilliant in design, and is clearly art, and yadda yadda yadda. Me? I think it's a bait-and-switch, pure and simple. Brathwaite is an artist, sure--a con artist, to be precise.

So, assuming I don't see the obvious signs that this is a game about the Holocaust (the people getting on trains, the broken glass, the Nazi typewriter), I'm supposed to get in on this with the typical "Yippee, time for fun!" game mentality, play to win, suddenly get horrified at the nature of the game and then rebel against it. "Fun" doesn't really factor into it apparently. Instead, the experience is apparently supposed to mirror the historical experiences of actual Holocaust train conductors who didn't fully grasp the nature of their cargo or intended destinations at the time. Honestly? I don't buy it.

FIrst off, these aren't people. They're wooden pieces. There's no sentiment involved other than what I give them. When the game starts (again, assuming I go in blind to the game's true nature), all these tokens represent are points to victory: get the most and you win. You can tell me later that they're actually representing people, but all I'm going to say is, "So do I still win if I get the most?". Saying they represent people does not, in fact, make them people, and unless I decide to make up a story about how Ansel Goldman and his family are being carted off to Auchswitz and attach it to said figures, I'm still not going to feel anything for them.

The point of the game is a farce, plain and simple. It's purely dependent on the players having some flabbergasted reaction to the fact that they were (for a time) deriving pleasure from what amounts essentially to a trivialization of the Holocaust. Anyone with a shred of social mores would, naturally, refuse to play further rather than risk appear like some sort of anti-Semite, let alone a mass murder; indeed, that appears to have been the general reaction to the game.

One game went a little differently. Apparently in a recent game played, two players continued to play to win after the revelation, much to Brathwaite's shock and dismay. She attempted to intercede, reminding them that they could use the rules to try and save people at the cost of losing the game, but eventually one person (another woman) won, taking the whole experience in stride and even commenting about how Bergen-Belsen was "fun to say".

All I got to say to that: Unsuccessful troll got trolled.

This is the exact point I'm trying to make. You take a game on its terms, but in the end, the rules are completely arbitrary. The whole premise of "games as art" is dependent on a game being taken as it is presented for something more than its entertainment value. Look what happens, though, when someone chooses not to play along, and instead of looking at the deeper meaning, accepts everything as it is on the surface. The moment that player decided "well, I'm going to go ahead and win this anyway, whatever", the whole artistic premise of Train collapsed on itself and became "just" another game, albeit one with little yellow wooden pieces and trains.

I'd be very interested to see this same game passed onto some college campuses (instead of the museum where it's currently played), specifically some frat and sorority houses. I'm sure Brathwaite would be rather put out by how many people would be ready, willing, and indeed eager to play the game to win, irregardless of the "deeper meaning" behind it. Hell, I bet any decent frat could easily think of ways to amend the rules to add shots per person delivered at the end.

Again, you can claim something as "art" as much as you'd like, but that doesn't make it so.

Brathwaite, in her continuing quest to be a general killjoy, as also made (or is currently making) games to reflect other events, such as Cromwell's conquest of Ireland, the Trail of Tears, and so on. Naturally, none of these are intended to be commercialized (because even Brathwaite realizes that the average person doesn't want to play a game to be bummed), but instead will serve as "valuable" teaching tools that she hopes will be more effective than any history book or teaching aide or interactive instruction could be.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Me? I actually like books, so I'm more than happy to stick with those. Also, say what you will, but the interactive exhibits at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. are brilliant and chilling; I, for one, can certainly sympathize more with an elderly Jewish woman telling me about her experiences with Dr. Mengele than I can with a bunch of faceless yellow pieces of wood.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked again. Let's step away from the Holocaust and get back to the original topic: cigars.

Train (and by extension, other "artsy" games like it, digital or otherwise) is a case of someone shoving a cigar in your face and telling you it's a penis. You can either say, "No, it's a cigar," or just say, "Sure, okay, it's a penis," and then light it up anyway. The opposite end of the spectrum (games that have no artistic content and probably weren't even intended to in the first place--and if they were, it was done so poorly as to be offensive to art as a whole) has people being presented with a cigar and trying to find the penis within it, while the rest of us sensible people just shake our heads and go back to smoking.

(Man, I love that whole last paragraph. I just had to get that out there--it's just so fucking hilarious to read.)

Games are games. Isn't that enough? Do they really have to be more? Does it matter? How does it advance the medium to push them further as a "serious" art form?

Why can't a cigar just be a cigar?

A lot of this stems from this strange need of gamers to be accepted, which is something I'll never really understand, I suppose. The rationale is that, somehow, once games get "validated" as an art form, then by some weird correlation all gamers will be as well. I suppose that will make them "artists"? Or perhaps it's better to simply categorize them as purveyors of art. Maybe the goal is have video game art musuems and galleries? I don't know how that would work... TVs playing recorded game footage on loops? Or maybe it'd be more like a zoo, with transparent fiberglass cages containing gamers playing various games for people to watch? I guess that'd be kind of interesting, much in the same way sometime you find yourself watching that weird guy at work, just to marvel in the bizarre conundrum that is his meager existence.

Who's to say, really?

I'm all for exploring concepts. The "medium", such as it is, is stagnating due to its own success. Gaming, like television and movies before it, is a business, and a big one at that. The need for profit outweighs the need for innovation in the eyes of those guys in business suits that serve as our corporate overlords, and so I'm always glad for any breath of fresh air that reminds me that I don't have to settle for a repackaged Call of Duty/God of War/Rock Band sequel/knock-off.

Still, sometimes innovation can only carry you so far. Sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel; you just need to think of new things to do with it.

Not new things, but new ways.

Games don't need to be art. "We" as a whole, be it as gamers, as a society, or as human beings, don't really gain anything by it. There's nothing wrong with reading between the lines mind you, and it's true that the enjoyment of some games benefits greatly from such treatment (Killer7 being foremost in my mind in that regard), but when analyzing the artistic merit of a game becomes a necessity to the enjoyment of a game's experience, then you've strayed off the path. You shouldn't have some developer explaining to you why his game is brilliant on an intellectual level; you either get it or you don't, and either way the game should be able to stand on its own. Likewise, if the artistic relevance of a game isn't immediately apparent on its surface (such as in ICO), then you're probably looking too hard into it, and should just sit back and enjoy the experience for what it is.

If you can't, then maybe you should give up cigars.


  1. What's your definition of 'art'?

  2. Paintings and stuff?

    ...and if I could find a video link to that episode of The State, then that reference might be more hilarious.


  3. Oh yea? then how do you explain the most successful game publisher being named Electronic ARTS? Hmm?