Opinion – When art is empty

So pretty! So meaningless.

More than a few times, I’ve complained about the vacuous nature of a number of very pretty games. Whereas AAA titles tend to eschew artistic merit in favor of big explosions, story, and everything else they can throw tons of staff at, indie titles are uniquely afflicted by both embracing art and failing at it. A number of indie titles clearly have strong visual direction, but they often fail to provide much meaning behind it. The end result is an empty box wrapped in very pretty paper.

The poster child for this kind of problem is Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery. To spend 10 minutes in the lovingly crafted world is to fall in love with the evocative visual aesthetic that turns pixel art into something more real than the product of the finest graphics engine. The wind rustles through the digital trees and the light spills across lush forests creating a feeling of a living world. The music too is a massive achievement. Composer Jim Guthrie matches the tone of the graphics perfectly. The combined efforts of both the sound and visual design result in an unsettling, yet serene world that I loved to explore. At least, until Superbrothers opened its mouth. Then we are introduced to characters all named “fella” (dogfella, logfella) with dialogue that seems afraid to embrace any semblance of seriousness. Dialogue consists of corny jokes and detached phrases that distanced me from a world I wanted to embrace. The artistic merits of the non-written components withered every time they had to interact with the words. It’s a shame to see such beauty undermined by a lack of commitment to meaning.

There are plenty of games that follow this pattern. Off the top of my head, I can think of Limbo, Anodyne, Antichamber, and Transistor. All sport some level of visual or aural creativity and are undermined by a deficiency of intellectual heft to back them up. This degrades the overall experience in a couple of ways. The first is, as mentioned above, the aspects of a game that show well are undermined by a story or meaning that can’t hold its weight. The contrast between a beautifully realized world and a pointless narrative only seem to highlight how terrible the latter is. Instead of hiding the games weaker elements, the differences expose the flaws and make the player wonder what went wrong. The second is the destruction of motivation. The story often drives a player forward. If it’s a poorly conceived mess, then it’s hard for a player to remain engaged. The player shouldn’t go hours without any development in plot line or thought.   It’s hard to remain motivated without some sense of progress.

Games that do embrace meaning often build their design around the meaning they are trying to create. Gone Home could never have succeeded as a FPS or RPG. It needed a game space that played up its feelings of intrusion and voyeurism in a way that few game styles allowed it to. The same can be said of Dys4ria or Papers, Please. By starting with the meaning and branching out, these games are better able to design an experience that showcases the underlying thoughts behind the games. Meaning isn’t an afterthought that feels shoehorned in. By contrast, the Bioshock series has the opposite feeling. The run-and-gun gameplay feels jarring when compared to the living breathing societies that the game is supposed to reflect. The necessary game compromises, such as magic powers and instant health packs, jive poorly with the nature of the societies as they are presented. The game still draws value from its intellectual underpinnings, but eating garbage from a trashcan to cure bullet wounds still breaks immersion.

The solution to this problem is simple: know what you want to say, before you start saying it. Craft characters, dialogue, and meaning well before inventing the gameplay mechanics that should support that effort. Don’t leave your game with an empty ending because you didn’t bother to figure out where it was all going. I know I’d appreciate it.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Opinion – When art is empty

  1. Bioshock is definitely one of the worst offenders, mainly because the gameplay betrays the entire premise of the game. You can’t introduce ‘mindless obedience’ as a conflict, and at the same time have gameplay based upon linear fetch quests.

    I have to disagree with you on Limbo though. There’s not a narrative per se, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t intellectual heft. Because Limbo renders videogame death in such an extreme manner, it forces the player to examine his or her response to it. The gameplay highlights a person’s tendency towards utilitarianism, brutality, and callousness when playing videogames.

    A death scene that at initially inspires shock and revulsion becomes routine. Via puzzles, the game forces the player to acknowledge, at least subconsciously, that their character is no upright protagonist. He is every bit as ruthless and cruel as the enemies he encounters. Stuck on a puzzle? Why, go ahead and rip the spider’s leg off and use the body to bridge the gap.

    No need for any backstory. Does the motive of your videogame enemies even matter? Who cares if they’re trying to wipe out humanity or fighting on behalf of an evil dictator? They tried to kill you, therefore you can kill them. Limbo distills videogame morality to its very essence while other games hem and haw around the issue.

    The aesthetic design of Limbo only reinforces such an interpretation. You gradually leave the organic forest world behind for the industrial factory. With every step the game world becomes more mechanical just as you become more callous.

    • I certainly see your point about Limbo, but can we say that is the argument they were trying to make? I could take the same pieces ( the dark atmosphere, brutality, and complex character morality) and turn Limbo into a story about depression or social isolation. I’m not saying that one can’t derive meaning from the game, but rather that it is us, the players, the must inject meaning into it. Limbo isn’t saying anything, but instead providing us with pieces to interpret how we wish. What I’d like to see is not just games with the visual impact that Limbo most certainly has, but also the message to go along with it. Don’t just show a bunch of brutal deaths as fodder; tell the player what you want them to take away from it.

      • Ah, but I argue that the game does aim to create a specific emotion in the player and succeeds at doing so. I cannot inject whatever meaning I want into Limbo (at least not without alarming people.) Decisions by the designers have limited the number of appropriate responses to a few of their choice.

        There are plenty of games like Dead Island and Fallout 3 that feature graphic, brutal deaths, but when I bash in a zombie’s skull and blow its brains across the room, I’m allowed to derive excitement from the act. Limbo though turns that excitement into a disturbance. Gameplay transforms into an unsettling albeit cathartic and beautiful experience. The goal of the game is to highlight this dissonance. The details, the “why” and the “how”, remain intentionally ambiguous but can be reasonably deduced from other artistic decisions.

        Truthfully, I believe that you are conflating narrative with meaning. Art can have deep meaning without narrative. You wouldn’t need to know the story of David and Goliath to know that Michelangelo’s David is a magnificent work of art. Music has no narrative at all. It’s true that Limbo conveys meaning through aesthetics instead of a “story” or narrative. Both are valid approaches, but you cannot use the standards of one to judge the other.

        You seem to prefer narrative. Fair enough. I’d also like to see more sophisticated narratives in videogames. Just be careful of calling something like Limbo “empty” when it is extremely complex and meaningful by another standard.

  2. The game certainly does aim to create a specific emotion, but I don’t see hard evidence to say it does much beyond that. I could create a video of me kicking puppies, but the fact that I have inspired rage, sorrow, or, in our most special viewers, child like glee, does not mean I have created meaning. On some level, Limbo as a giant sign that says “BE SAD”. It’s a powerful and stirring sign, but it doesn’t use its toolbox emotional manipulation for a greater purpose. It doesn’t seek to drive the reader to a conclusion, narratively or otherwise. Case and point, your interesting interpretation sits besides the idea that Limbo is the reflection of depression or the story of an autistic child and all are equally valid given the materials provided. I’ve read a number of interpretations and they rarely agree and seemed largely boxed into gloom and doom. If Limbo was trying to make a point, much of its audience didn’t get it.

    Also, I’m not gonna lie, when I got stuck on a puzzle, I forgot the beauty and tragedy of death and hurled the crappy jumper into death holes for my own amusement.

    I do agree that narrative is not the only source of meaning, but let’s not forget that emotion is only part of meaning too. Music and art (of the visual kind) often rely on context to impart their meaning. Noting that a picture is tragic or uplifting is not enough. You need the story behind it to truly understand what the artist was saying.

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