Notgames Fest keynote

This is the keynote presentation Cologe GameLab asked us the give at the finnisage of the Notgames Fest on 16 August 2011.

Almost 10 years ago, Auriea and I switched from the web to video-games as a medium for our artistic activities. We had already been playing some video-games and they had inspired our work here and there. But somehow it had never occurred to us that we could make them ourselves.

When you come to video-games late, like we did, when you missed Mario, skipped Zelda and can’t distinguish too well between childhood memories of Hide & Seek and Pac-Man, video-games seem like an exciting new medium for artistic creation! In video-games you can make living worlds to explore, you can breathe life into artificial characters, you can set up conditions for situations without knowing how they will play out, you can create a visceral form of visual poetry that makes the separation between the art and the spectator very small. How could our artists’ souls not be attracted to all this potential? Indeed, this medium seemed like a godsend to satisfy centuries of artistic desires. The desire of the artist to become one with the spectator, the desire of the spectator to step into the mysterious world imagined by the artist. It was pretty clear to us: the medium of video-games is the medium mankind had always been waiting for.

As newcomers to a field, we started to investigate our new surroundings. We visited conferences and fairs and played hundreds of video-games. From the most well-known to the plain obscure.
We ended up confused and disappointed. Yes, we did find the worlds and characters and situations and even the poetry that comes so natural to this medium. But we were surprised to find that most video-games were structured in a way that prevented us from engaging with this content. With almost no exceptions, each video-game put obstacles in our way that we needed to overcome. The connection between these obstacles and the fictional world they were placed in was mostly rather vague and often even absurd.

It seemed to us that the things we were interested in -the imaginary world and its fictional characters- only served as visual presentation of an underlying system. This would explain the shallow characters, the cliché story plots and even the bad walk cycles of the avatars that you are staring at for hours on end. Only then it dawned on us that video-games were essentially games! That’s why they were called video-games. All this amazing technology, the spectacular realtime rendering, the sophisticated artificial intelligence, the revolutionary non-linear story-telling and mind-boggling capacity for interaction were used only as a way to present dull sports-like games.

Playing these games was not about engaging with characters at all. It was about winning or losing. It wasn’t about exploration at all. It was about attaining goals. It wasn’t about having a good time. It was about getting rewards, getting results. We were dumb-founded. It was as if somebody took a big brush and scribbled a tic-tac-toe grid over Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. What a terrible waste of a perfectly fine medium!

Auriea & Michael keynoting@notgamesfest

What have people done to amuse themselves with computers since the CD-Rom era? Why hasn’t anyone made another Ceremony of Innocence since? What happened to the promise of exploration made by the first Tomb Raider? Why had people not realized that most of us were playing Myst for its world and its stories, and not the arcane puzzles? Why had developers continued to refine the simulation of fire arms rather than the immersion in virtual landscapes? And where does this damn loyalty to the 8-bit stone age come from?

I have no idea. Maybe it was easier to come up with rigid games than wrangle with wild fantasies. Maybe the technology was not accessible enough to artists. Maybe the industry was satisfied with its commercial results and reluctant to expand. Maybe the art world didn’t care enough.

I don’t know. But what I do know is that the desire is still there. We all know what we want from this medium, from the medium of video-games. We want it to deliver on the promise that art has been making for centuries. We want to visit other worlds, we want to walk in somebody else’s shoes, we want grasp a little bit of what it means to be in another situation. We want this medium to make our lives richer, our understanding of the world more intense, our connection to other people more profound. We want to live through adventures. We want to see the attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. We want to watch the C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.

That is what video-games promise us on the back of the box. That is what gamers talk about when they reminisce their hours of playing. That is what excites non-gamers when they hear about this medium. We all like playing games just fine. But this is about something else! Something more! Something much more profound. This is not a game.

I’m delighted to see that, despite the setbacks of the previous decade, the first glimmers of hope have started to appear on the horizon of the video-games medium. That is what is presented in this exhibition. Video-games created by passionate people intent on exploring the potential of this new medium. Unsurprisingly, most of these have been created by independent developers, individuals or small teams working on shoestring budgets. It’s hard work. And we’re going against the grain. But we all believe that this work needs to be done. We owe it to this medium. And we owe it to humanity. We will find a way.

NOTGAMES FEST EXPO

I would like to thank the Cologne GameLab for organizing this event and designing this truly wonderful exhibition. Maybe it will become historic. Maybe this will be the turning point. Maybe video-game developers and artists will respond to the wake up call. We have a wonderful new medium here, let’s make something with it!

The Unnamed Medium

The Unnamed Medium

Open your favorite music program right now, play some music, and turn on the visualizer.  Look at it for a minute or two.  Put it in the background while you read the rest of this essay.

Back yet?  Good.  Now, what you’ve been looking at is art.  I don’t mean to say that it’s Art with a capital “A”, or even that it’s any good–all I mean to say is that you’re looking at some form of creative expression, as distinct from the music you’re listening to as a film is from its soundtrack.  If we agree that fractal art is a legitimate form of creative expression, it’s hard to say your visualizer isn’t.  But…what kind of medium is it?

It’s a moving image, so it’s certainly not prose or a painting, and it doesn’t seem to be film, because you never see the same thing twice, and what you see is dependent on the music.  It’s tempting to call it a game, but I think this is a mistake.  It’s not like any game we’ve seen before: it has no objectives or goals, no notion of progress or completion, and very little interactivity.  In fact, the little we can do to interact with it–change the music–results in the least interesting behavior.  It looks much better if we just let the music play.  The program is interacting with the music, not a player–you don’t “play” this game at all, you only watch it!  It doesn’t even seem to have rules except in the most abstract sense of the word.  You could, I suppose, argue that it still counts as a game, that the music is the “player” and the lines of code that govern the program’s behavior are the “rules”.  But doesn’t that seem like cheating a little?  If the categorization were that simple, we would still be calling films “photoplays”.  Why don’t we?  Because calling them photoplays is a disservice to the unique strengths and weaknesses of the medium.  Can you imagine what film would be like if we still thought of them as “plays, only on a screen”?  The film industry would be a joke!  A film that was shot on location instead of on a set would be considered experimental, and a film where the camera moves from place to place instead of remaining static would be the height of avant-garde.  No one would have even thought to actually cut and edit the film! The same is happening now with video games: because we call them something they’re not, because we still think of them as “games, only on a computer”, we limit what they are capable of.

Look back at your visualizer.  What you’re looking at is not a game: it is something new entirely.  The fact is, games are not new.  Games have been around longer than movies, longer than books, longer than the written word.  Kittens play games; they are probably older than language itself.  Games are not new. Computers are.  Computers have given birth to a medium of expression so unique, so bizarre, so unanticipated, that we can only name it by comparison with what it is not.  This medium is not the medium of video games.  Those in the video game industry–even those on the very edge of the avant-garde–still hold to the assumption that games are made to be played.  But programs don’t have to be played.  They don’t have to be interacted with.  They don’t have to be “fun”.  Like the best true art, they can be beautiful for their own sake.

I don’t mean to say that we should stop making games.  Computers are a wonderful tool, and–as with dozens of other media including film, painting, photography, and music–they have allowed us to do things with games that weren’t possible before.  I don’t even mean to say that games can’t be art, in the highest sense of the word–Brenda Brathwaite’s Train, a game made without a single silicon chip or digital display, is as much a work of Art as any painting or song.  What I am saying is that by fixating on games, we are ignoring the potential of this new, unnamed medium.  What’s worse, by confusing this new medium with the medium of games, we’re putting severe limits on what we can do with it.  Film gave us a new kind of stage play, true–any play, after all, can be translated into a film.  So, too, can any game be translated into a video game.  But in both cases, the true potential of the medium lies in the things it can do differently than what came before.  Games can be wonderful–and like plays, they have strengths that their successor lacks–but these new programs, these notgames, have the potential to be so much more.

Dating in space

In Mass Effect 2, you play the commander of a space ship on a mission to destroy an alien threat. Along the way, you collect team members of various species and genders. The performance of these characters depends in part on their feelings for you as a person. And this is where the game got interesting for me.

Even if there is a minor strategic advantage to winning the loyalty of your colleagues, their personalities are so outspoken that it is virtually impossible not play this on a more personal level. There’s certain characters you like more than others. There’s several you can imagine your commander being romantically attracted to. And the game does offer opportunity to pursue this. My commander Sheppard had a wonderful intimate encounter with an alien scientist called Tali, whose body was so susceptible to infection that she had to wear a space suit at all times. It was terribly romantic.

masseffect2-tali

And it wasn’t just romance. There’s a lot of talking in Mass Effect. In a way, it feels like all of the interactions in the game are designed for the sake of narrative. That’s virtually unique in video games. The backstory to the game is rather dull and conventional, but it serves well as a backdrop for your relationships with the other characters, both on your ship and on alien planets. The entire game revolves around these relationships. Even the numerous shoot-outs don’t feel as much like game challenges (at least when played in easy mode) than they do like opportunities to bond with your team mates. For each mission, you chose two people to join you. With these two, you share the tediousness of the game, which adequately expresses the tediousness of the combat situation, tightening a bond between you, as a result of shared suffering.

Each of the characters has a personal issue they need to resolve. You can decide to help them. And when you succeed, their friendship for you will increase. So success or failure of these missions feels much more important than in other games where failure often just means that you have to redo the mission until you get it right. Unlike in most video games, failure is a valid outcome of a mission in Mass Effect 2. And failure means that you have disappointed a friend. I guarantee that it hurts, when you’re really fond of someone and you fail to help them with a problem that was very important to them. I can never think of Samara without regret. When I see her meditating on the floor of her cabin, introverted, unwilling to talk to me. It hurts the way a virtual bullet never could.

masseffect2-samara

It’s a heart warming experience to converse with the crew of your ship. Even if, and especially because, these interactions have no effect on the game’s outcome. You simply engage in them for their own sake. Flirting for the fun of it, sharing jokes or just looking out at the stars together. Friendly warmth in the freezing vacuum of space.

The depth of these relationships, is felt when choosing team members for particularly dangerous missions. There is no way that you can select your virtual lover to go on a suicide mission, even if she’s the most suitable for the job. It’s a strange sensation to be so attached to a character that your performance as a gamer becomes irrelevant. The kind of sensation that is really unique to this medium and that should be explored further and by more developers.

Because there’s still a few areas where the experience could be improved if developers radically choose to make their work about people, and not about objects and systems. For instance, your relationship with other characters only really develops on the ship. If you’re on a planet or in combat, your team members seem to have forgotten how close you two are (or not). Combat is all business. That’s a pity. Also, having shared a dangerous situation only emotionally effects you, the player. It doesn’t seem to change the feelings of the people you shared it with. It’s as if they forget the hardship as soon as they return to the ship.

Another inaccuracy is the fatality of decisions made in the course of a relationship. The game does not allow you to apologize or to clear up a misunderstanding. Any attempt to be friendly with a person after a conflict is futile. They will remain stubborn and sulking for the remainder of the game. Relationships also don’t evolve on their own. They just sit and wait for you to do something. On the one hand this contributes to the gravity of your decisions. But on the other, the rigidity of such a structure makes one unpleasantly aware of the hard computer logic that runs underneath the experience. It spoils the mood.

masseffect2-jack

In the end, Mass Effect 2 is an exhilarating ride. Not because of its epic kitsch backstory, its combat with supernatural weapons or its Thunderbirds-are-go fetishism of futuristic machinery. But because it’s about people. And about relationships between people. Through the exploration of relationships with characters we are unlikely to encounter in real life, we can broaden our affective horizons. We are invited to deal with all sorts of exotic concerns, and learn about ourselves as we do. As such, Mass Effect 2 is an emotionally enriching experience, a shining example of the potential of video games as an expressive medium.

Charted

In my enthusiasm for the unique non-linear opportunities offered by videogame technology, and my desire to see this potential being explored, I sometimes forget how versatile this medium is. “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” demonstrates quite convincingly that the so-called non-linear medium can also effectively double as a vehicle for good old-fashioned story-telling.

A charming boys' adventure

It’s not difficult to imagine Uncharted 2 as a movie. Indeed, the story takes many of its elements directly from adventure films in the Indiana Jones style. But what’s more surprising is the game’s uncompromising linear structure. If videogames would be that abundantly creative universe that the potential of its technologies promises us, Uncharted 2 would be a revolution! The very idea that an interactive experience can be so linear is brilliant. It contradicts every instinct we have about the merits of the medium. And yet it works. Uncharted 2 is a very entertaining ride, with only a few bumps in the road that, while utterly destructive for the linear flow of the experience, we’ll choose to chalk up to lapses in concentration of the designer, carelessness of the quality assurance team, or simple habitual residue from videogame traditions.

But why does Uncharted 2′s linearity feel so fresh? After all, on the surface, its structure doesn’t seem to differ much from Donkey Kong or Mario. You control a character and move it towards a certain goal while overcoming obstacles set up by the designer.

One reason seems to be that the goal of the game is actually unknown to the player, crushing the assumption that linear games are always goal-oriented. In this way, Uncharted 2 is more similar to a suspenseful book than a game. In games your mission is to overcome challenges and achieve a certain goal. This is a perfectly linear construction as well. The difference is that the linearity is known, and is deeply felt as the top level of the structure that supports the experience.

On a train...

In Uncharted 2, you only really experience linearity at the micro-level. At each moment in the game, you know exactly what to do. Why you do these things is often unclear. You don’t need to know this as a player. As long as the hero you’re controlling knows. He knows where he’s going. You don’t need to. And the design of the game cleverly takes most of the guesswork out of the equation. It’s usually quite clear exactly what you need to do to fulfill your avatar’s -sometimes secret- wishes.

There’s not much skill required to get through the game. Nor much creativity either. This makes Uncharted 2 potentially very accessible to a wide audience. We can get the emotional effect of playing -triumph, progress, etc- without have to go through the difficult progress required by most other games.

The emotions of playing are very compatible with the nature of the adventure narrative that underlies Uncharted 2. Indiana Jones is also about overcoming challenges, being triumphant, sometimes frustrated but not for long because our hero is very smart and resourceful. Like its cinematic inspiration, there’s no need for expression of any other emotions.

This is why it makes sense that the characters in the story express no other emotions than the emotions one might experience when playing a game. These relatively primitive emotions fit the charming boys’ adventure fantasy well. Despite the existence of a love triangle in the game, for instance, the characters never express any real love or affection or empathy, beyond some clumsy, youthful innuendo here and there. This ensures that the little boy in all of us is never confronted with complicated issues, and the adventure can simply continue.

Love triangle?

Thanks to its smart application of linearity, Uncharted 2 is one of the first videogames that almost feels ready for breaking through the niche barrier and draw in the mass audience. If the designers of Uncharted 3 can find the courage to remove the awkward shooting sequences, and perhaps allow their characters a slightly wider range of emotions to express, videogames will have become a worthy successor to mainstream cinema.

Against linearity

I’ve written an article that follows up on some of the ideas expressed in our 2006 Realtime Art Manifesto. It specifically questions why most videogames don’t seem to take advantage of the non-linear and real-time properties of computer technology; and attempts to define those properties in a more inspiring way than is generally done. Because I believe that embracing and exploring the real-time nature of our medium, by ridding ourselves from the shackles of both linear narrative and competitive play, is the key to its artistic maturity.

Enjoy the read!

The Future of Tourism.

Tourists in Venice, Francesca Catozzo

Tourists in Venice, Francesca Catozzo

Everybody hates tourists. Tourist guide books are filled with tips on how to avoid other tourists. And most residents consider tourists as external to real life in their habitat. We have spent a few days in Prague this Summer. As tourists. As some of the many many tourists who were there. It was an eye-opening experience.

Prague is a beautiful city. Almost too beautiful. There isn’t a single building in the inner city that doesn’t have at least one interesting architectural detail. It almost feels fake. So much beauty in one place. And then I’m not even talking about the really spectacular buildings like Saint Vitus cathedral, that seems to have a permanent long line of tourists -hoping to see the undoubtedly equally spectacular interior- attached to it.

Tourists were everywhere. You couldn’t turn your head without seeing a few. And, given the hot weather, they were invariably dressed in ways that could barely contrast more with the majesty of the surroundings. Prague very much felt like a theme park.

But I got over my initial disappointment, when I came to the conclusion that all of these thousands of people, however bad their dress sense may be, had one thing in common, one thing that drove them as far as tolerating each other’s unwanted presence: their love for art. I was surprised by that realisation. Usually I tend to consider the mundane or the popular to be at odds with any actual interest in art. But Prague proves the opposite.

The problem, however, with all these people being so interested in art is that they are ruining the experience for each other. There’s not a single tourist in Prague who doesn’t wish for the all the other tourists to disappear. We all want the same thing. We just don’t want it together.

This problem will not go away. It is in Prague’s best economic interest to keep the streams of tourists coming. The locals don’t seem to have a lot of affinity anyway with all those great buildings erected by people who occupied the city in the past. They seem to be perfectly content exploiting these alien artifacts.

None of this contributes to the desires of the tourists however. Tourists don’t go to Prague to visit the souvenir shops or wait in line for the cathedral. They want to experience a foreign place, filled with residents who go about their own business. They want to discover the cathedral on their own, find a great meal in a small family restaurant. If possible even make friends with the locals. But as tourism expands, the likelihood of such an experience ever happening shrinks. Is there even still a city on this planet that is both remarkable for its art and atmosphere, and free of tourism? I highly doubt it.

Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft Montreal

Assassin's Creed 2, Ubisoft Montreal

Enter the videogame. Assassin’s Creed 2 shows us a glimpse of what tourism may be like in the future. An authentic experience of an exotic culture, not only far away in space, but also in time. We can visit Florence and Venice without a single tourist in sight! With no lines in front of the museums. In fact, we get to purchase all those masterpieces ourselves and hang them in our uncle’s fortified villa in the countryside. We even make friends with Leonardo Da Vinci and Lorenzo Di Medici! If that doesn’t sound like the perfect vacation, what does?

Assassin’s Creed is a dream come true for the virtual tourist. The care that went into the creation of its cities and landscapes is astounding. Even if the environments are not exactly realistically laid out and even if certain architectural elements are repeated here and there, they somehow manage to feel more real than the real life theme parks filled with toursists that our actual cities have become. Do we even want to visit real Venice? Would we not rather visit the Venice that we always dreamed of, the Venice that romanciers talk about in books, that painters show on their canvases? The Venice that we desperately seek but find nowhere when pacing through the cobbled urban streets.

Ubisoft Montreal is giving us a Venice that is better than the real thing: the Venice of our dreams.

The Molo -looking West, Canaletto (1730)

The Molo -looking West, Canaletto (1730)

With one or two frustrating exceptions, the unremarkable story and gameplay do not stand in the way of what truly makes Assassin’s Creed 2 a joy to experience. This is what the medium of videogames is made for: the exploration of carefully designed environments, the encounter with virtually living beings, the immersion in a fictional community, connecting to it, making new friends, amusing the locals, observing the passers-by, or running away from it all and finding refuge with the eagles on the tops of one of the many towers.

The joy of Assassin’s Creed 2 doesn’t come from its action-packed story arc or its ultra-linear rollercoaster game structure. It comes from the capacity of the carefully designed environments for stillness. In Assassin’s Creed, we can spend hours simply being. With no progress and no change other than the wind and the sun and the clouds. Such an oasis where time stands still, is a rare luxury. This sort of thing literally does not exist anymore, outside of videogames. A place where we can simply, innocently just be and enjoy how what we see and hear makes us feel.

The feeling of luxury is heightened even by the realisation that the production of such an intricate piece is not cheap. With a rumoured production budget of well over 20 million Dollars, Ubisoft puts a work of art in our hands that goes well beyond anything most of us could ever afford. For that amount of money, one could have purchased any one of these modern masterpieces (source):
Modern Masterpieces for about the budget of Assassin's Creed 2
This is the luxury of the digital: to experience works of art in ideal circumstances. Because they were made for us, to be played by us, holding that specific controller, running on that specific console, displayed on a normal television set. No reproduction. No facsimile. No reduced quality. The real thing, as it was intended by the artists.

This sort of title makes one dream of the potential of videogames as a medium. And I don’t use the word “medium” lightly. I mean it in the very same sense as it is used for books, cinema, literature and music. Games, like sports, are not media. They are pleasant activities, even potentially deeply meaningful to their players. But they are not media. Media are platforms that serve communication, media allow for producing and appreciating authored content. In Assassin’s Creed 2, we can get a glimpse of how radically different a medium videogames will become when they finally embrace their destiny. Videogames can depart from cinema in equal measure as cinema departed from painting. Perhaps even exponentially so. Such is the immensity of the step from one medium to the next. And with that explosion of possibilities, comes a widening of the mind’s eye of unseen proportions. We have literally no idea of how videogames may make us feel in the future, of what they will make us see and think.

With any luck, they will encourage the tourists to stay home, in front of their television sets, where they can have far superior experiences. Returning our cities to their inhabitants, and reconnecting our dreams to reality. Videogames as an expansian pack for the imagination.

Fallout 3. The apocalypse that never happened.

the_garden_of_earthly_delights_by_bosch-detail

Jean Baudrillard always insisted that the Apocalypse had already taken place. Even if we hadn’t noticed it and can’t quite pin-point when exactly. There was no nuclear disaster, no viral epidemic, not even a disintegration of nation states or a spectacular shift of power towards mega-corporations. Yet, Baudrillard maintained that we are clearly living in a post-apocalyptic world. Just not the one we expected.

Maybe this is why so many movies and videogames these days tell a tale of a dramatic end-of-the-world scenario. We have a nagging feeling of having missed something, a black spot in our collective memory where the Apocalypse should be. Our entertainers are trying to reconstruct our memories, our at least fill them up with a meaningful fantasy. Because there must be meaning! This post-modern post-apocalyptic black-hole that absorbs all meaning is too much for us to handle. It makes us almost wish for an all-out nuclear war.

fallout3-screen45b

That’s where Fallout 3 starts. The end of the world has happened. Everything is destroyed. The remaining humans are stubbornly trying to organize themselves, inspired by their recollections of capitalist society. This is an alternate reality. It would have to be. Because this is not what really happened. In Fallout 3, the world came to an end some time in the 1950s, or in a reality in which that era never stopped, judging by the style of the remainders of advertising and vehicles.

The sad sight of an obliterated landscape feels strangely comforting. It’s as if developer Bethesda is feverishly clinging to the illusion that we are not powerless. As with many war-inspired tales, it is easy to interpret Fallout 3 as a protest and a warning. It feels almost nostalgic at this point, that one could take a stand against war, against destruction. The 50s style language and music fit this nostalgia very well.

But Bethesda goes one step further. As critical as many war stories pretend to be, almost all of them end up celebrating the core of that which they are supposedly protesting against. Many post-apocalyptic tales feature lone heroes, all macho’s, all driven to destroy their enemies/defend their families/uphold morality/etc. This model would be very convenient as the backdrop for a game, a game that a player needs to win. In Fallout 3, however, there are no heroes.

fallout3-screen11b

Bethesda completely wipes away the idea that, somehow, a grave disaster would bring out nobility in humans, that there is always hope for humanity, that, essentially, we are all decent beings. That the freedom that follows the fall of the governmental and military order would turn our lives into a great adventure. In a sense, the world that Fallout 3 depicts, is one of the strongest arguments against large-scale war. Because this world is not only devastated, but also devoid of human sympathy, of kindness or tenderness. And, perhaps even worse, it is a large empty world with nothing whatsoever to do!

Fallout’s ravaged landscapes are gray and barren. There’s destruction everywhere. Corpses here and there, that you scavenge to the skin. Bombed-out houses where you steal tin plates and cups from abandoned provisionally set tables. Most of the food you find is radiated. You have to eat it to stay alive, but it kills you slowly. Sure, there’s mutated monsters that you can shoot at. But they all seem so sad. So alone. The only cheerful figures you meet are old style robots, crackling and buzzing, on the verge of breaking down. The few humans dotted across the ruins will attack you without warning. You’re all alone in the world and when you meet someone, they want to kill you. So you become like them. Even the ones that don’t immediately see you as a target, never allow you to join them. You’re too weak, too poor. You don’t have any skills they can use. Or proper equipment. If you’re lucky, you can be their slave.

fallout3-screen41b

So the reason you don’t want a nuclear war, according to Bethesda, is that a post-apocalyptic world is unbelievably dull and tedious. No heroes, no adventures, no joyful encounters with other survivors. Sounds a bit like our current post-apocalyptic reality. Except that at least now our cities are not in ruins. Our technology is merrily purring along. The people on the internet are friendly. And when they’re not, they’re funny. Our leaders are protecting us and making sure we stay warm and well-fed. They are fighting evil in our name and carefully balancing the existence of the planet so we can drive our cars and import our gadgets. And since the apocalypse is behind us, we can sleep soundly knowing that this will never end!

Bayonetta and the Vatican

Christianity has two faces. At least the Christianity that I am most familiar with, living in Belgium: Roman Catholicism. On the one hand, Christianity is a moving story about a mother who gave birth to a son only to see him sacrifice himself for the sake of strangers whom he called brothers and sisters. A shattering lesson of human generosity, modesty and love. An example to live by. The other side of Christianity is the Roman Catholic Church. A powerful institution that has been the single most defining aspect of European history and culture in the last 2000 years. For a very long time, the support of the Church was required for political decision making, scientific exploration and even the every day life of common people. Lack of this support often lead to devastation. But the Church has also been a major contributor to the blossoming of Western culture. Many artistic masterpieces were commissioned by the Church. Without the Church there would be no Michelangelo, no Bernini, no Bach.

At first, I was having serious problems with the disrespectful use of Christian iconography in Bayonetta. If the designers had decided to use Jewish or Muslim iconography in the same way, the game would have caused a massive political row. I’m not religious. But I do acknowledge the importance of Christianity for our Western civilization and I find many texts in the Christian Bible to be very beautiful and moving. So I was upset about the Japanese assault on this important aspect of my culture, demonstrated in a videogame.

Until I realized that for all the references the game makes to Catholic iconography and vocabulary, there was no narrative that was even remotely connected to the Christian mythos. The backstory of Bayonetta is about two “European clans” (good and evil) who used to live in equilibrium and not anymore. Your basic bog-standard lazy game writing. The “evil” clan is represented by “witches”, while the “good” clan is represented by “angels”. Mildly interesting, perhaps, because witches, historically, were simply human and angels are supernatural. And the conflict of these human women was with the human leaders of the Catholic Church, not directly with the divine (many would argue that the Inquisition was a human mistake that God would not approve of). Traditionally, there is no way that human women could win any battle against angels. But the designers of Bayonetta decided to “upgrade” the witches so that could face up to the divine directly. Historically (or even artistically), this makes no sense whatsover. So I first thought that this post would have to be about this impressive lack of meaning.

But then the representation of the “good” guys (who are the enemies of your avatar in the game) caught my eye. These are all fantastical monsters of ever increasing size designed as 3D collages of elements from catholic ornaments. Each of these creatures is worthy of much more thorough inspection than the fast-paced interaction in the game allows for. I was relieved to find that none of these designs refers to any real Christian stories that I care about. They could have worked in the martyrdom of Christ, the betrayal of Judas, the washing of feet, the breaking of bread, the crucifixion, the annunciation, etc. But instead the designers focused entirely on Inquisition lore (torture devices, ironically used by the witch against her opponents) and Vatican splendor. They basically create a pompous spectacle dripping with gold and marble. Not unlike the enormous St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (Rome).

St. Peter's Basilica

Saint Peter’s is huge. It is shaped like a traditional basilica but it is probably four times the usual size. If it wasn’t so impressive, it would be ridiculous. In some churches, one can feel the presence of God. Whether this is an actual supernatural event, or simply the effect of design and circumstances on our nervous system is irrelevant to my point. One feels solemn and calm in such places and the feeling inspires kindness, quiet and an elevated mood, if not spiritual ecstasy. In other churches, however, there is no God. They are just buildings. Their golden ornaments look fake, the people inside don’t seem devout, the air smells stale. There’s many such churches in Rome. Probably because of tourism. They are sad places you don’t want to stay in. Except for Saint Peter’s Basilica!

Sure, there is no God in Saint Peter’s Basilica. There’s not one ounce of spirituality in the entire humongous construction. But this doesn’t turn the building into a sad and empty place. Because, instead of God, Saint Peter’s offers spectacle. Spectacle in unseen proportions. It’s dazzling to imagine how a building like this must have impressed its contemporaries who had no television, no rock concerts in football stadiums, no nuclear explosions. And even today, after landing on the moon, building sky scrapers and wiping out two entire cities with a single bomb each (*), Saint Peter’s does not fail to impress. The Basilica is a celebration of human will power, if not a celebration of the human body itself and all its senses. It’s almost as if the building is saying “We don’t need God, we are human!” I wonder if Nietzsche ever visited.

The enemy creatures in Bayonetta seem to pay homage to the embrace of the glory of humanity as demonstrated St. Peter’s Basilica and the worldly spectacle that offended the protestants so much. Being raised in a Catholic country, I don’t have an issue with religious spectacle. For me personally, it often doesn’t have much to do with spirituality at all. But, as my experience of Saint Peter’s shows, that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy it on another level. Bayonetta is all about spectacle. And its enemy design doesn’t really refer to religion as such. It refers only to (pseudo-)religious spectacle of which all spiritual significance has been stripped. The angelic creatures of Bayonetta are not ethereal beings made of light and fire. They are complicated amalgamations of marble, gold and velvet, as if chunks of Saint Peter’s Basilica had suddenly come to life. It’s amusing to think of the Church-as-building doing the job of the Church-as-institution (during the Inquisition when witches were prosecuted). Amusing, ridiculous, impressive. But not blasphemous. Or even disrespectful.

Fortitudo
Saint Peter's Basilica
Harmony

Lustitia
Saint Peter's Basilica
Temperantia

I admit that I have a certain irrational nostalgia for the “good old days” of papal commissions of art works. I find some of the work created to celebrate the glory of the Roman Catholic Church to be magnificent. And if Western artists can’t be bothered to continue the tradition, maybe Japanese videogame developers will.


(*) As in many Japanese pop culture artifacts, the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are indirectly referred to in Bayonetta, most specifically in the term “megaton” which is used for measuring the impact of torture in the game. Incidentally, the order of magnitude of the power of the witch versus her angelic enemies is measured in hundreds of megatons while the blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “only” 13 and 21 kilotons strong, respectively.

BioSchmuck

In BioShock 2, you play a character named Delta, who has apparently resurrected after having been dead for 10 years. When you wake up, you find yourself in a heavy sort of diving suit. And you don’t know anything. Though your suit seems to. It almost feels like the suit makes you move, rather than you wearing it. It kills, almost accidentally. It is very strong. And very rough. And rather dumb.

BioShock 2 by 2K Marin

Numerous voices in your head. They tell you what to do. “You”? Me? They tell this “Delta” character, whose empty shell you seem to be inhabiting. This brute. He’s not alone. There’s others like him in this underwater nightmare. They are equally clumsy as you. Melancholy shuffling along as the vaguely robotic protector of some ghostly child. He could be you. He is you. Sometimes the voices in your head make you kill him. You don’t want to. But you do anyway. It is your instinct.

The game tells the player what to do. The leading characters in the story tell the Delta character what to do. The diving suit you wear, tells you what to do. Never before has a game’s narrative expressed so adequately the feeling of being trapped and forced to do things beyond your will. You’re stuck in a city under the ocean. You’re only vaguely conscious. You’re being manipulated from all sides to aid in a conflict that you know nothing about, that you cannot choose any sides in for lack of information, lack of memory, lack of raw brain power.

You get visions of somebody who calls you her father. I don’t remember her. What happened when I was dead? Am I really alive? She seems nice, though. Helping me. Helping me kill…

I’m a dumb brute force. A kind of human mammoth, used and abused by whomever comes along to trample whichever of their enemies. I tread on their heads. I don’t feel. Their blood splashes onto the glass in my helmet as I ram my massive drill into their scrawny bodies. I don’t seem to be able to stop my suit from doing this. And they know it. The fear in their voices as I approach. I know how they feel. I have shivered at the sound of the stomping tread of my brothers. Their wretched metallic howls in the dripping night. Such intense despair, so deep under the ocean. Where nobody hears.

I have been one of them. I have been there. At the bottom of the sea. A coffin could not be tighter. Am I really alive? Or is the suit just moving around carrying my corpse along?

BioShock 2 presents one of the most convincing narrative contexts for a First Person Shooter game. You’re not a hero. You’re not smart. You’re not cunning. And most of all, you have no say in the matter. What you want is irrelevant. You do as you’re told. Not out of a sense of duty. Not out of some aspiration to honor, or a challenge of courage. No. Out of raw animal instinct. With ease. With brute force. You’re even too dumb too be invincible. And when you die, you die like a beaten lice-ridden dog who just happened to be scrounging for food in the wrong places.

It’s a strange experience. To not be the puppet master or even the person immersed in the story. Instead you are immersed inside of a narrative vessel. It has a home in the fiction, not you. This vessel is appropriately rendered as diving equipment: you see the world through a window of a device that you have no real control over, like some kind of morbid tourist on a sightseeing trip. But it makes sense. Because of the character of your avatar, the Big Daddy: a sad lump of superhuman strength with the brain of a shrimp. The hands-holding interface of the game supports this feeling of helplessness. Even the few almost mockingly simplistic choices to either save or destroy an opponent are made with a kind of sullen desperation. It doesn’t matter to you whether they live or die. You’re tired. Tired from dragging these tons of metal around. Tired of being manipulated like the dumb schmuck you are.

Big Daddy doll

In many other FPS games, the sensation of being told what to do and having no real choice, makes me feel rebellious as a player and makes me hate the abuse by the game’s designer. But in BioShock2, it was a moving experience. Delta is not smart enough to be rebellious. And he’s so big. He kills humans like we would ants. He can’t help it. And that helplessness gives this powerful dullard a saddening air of endearing vulnerability.
Perhaps reminding us of our own clumsiness sometimes, of how each of us sometimes just does things because of who and what we are, disregarding what we might want or feel or think. Helpless captives of a body we did not choose to inhabit, and dealing with its imperfections on a daily basis.

Tender Rain

The things that were most interesting to me in Quantic Dream‘s Heavy Rain were the quiet moments of tender interaction. They were not interesting to me because of the story. Or because of the character I was playing, or the character my avatar was interacting with. These moments were simply moments that I recognized from life.
Heavy Rain: kissing
It felt wonderful to be able to care for a baby and rock it gently. Or to say goodnight to my avatar’s son by kissing him on the forehead. One of the strongest emotional moments for me was the simple gesture of middle aged private detective Scott Shelby, in the pouring rain, putting his coat on the shoulders of Lauren Winter, a prostitute whose son was murdered and who was helping with the investigation. And then of course there was the tender kissing and caressing of Madison Paige and Ethan Mars in a moment when both felt weak and exhausted and sad. A moment of fragile trust when everything around them seemed to have stopped making sense.

The interaction in these scenes was minimal. But it was enough to make me feel involved as a player (not only a viewer!). What was happening in the scene was something that I wanted to happen, it was my decision. I responded to the situation and I decided to act. And the feeling of being involved in this simulation was immensely powerful.

There’s something about representation that fascinates humans. Not just pictures in general. But depictions. Depictions of things we recognize. At various points in history, authorities or rebels have warned against our fascination with images, often worried that we might mistake the representation for the real thing. But I don’t believe this is ever the case. We enjoy the simulation partially because we know it is not real. That does make the representation more fascinating than reality, in some way. But we never mistake one for the other.
Heavy Rain: rocking
So far, representation has been limited to visual and auditory stimulation. And artists have achieved impressive results in sculpture, painting, photography and film, to a great extent thanks to our willingness to have our emotions manipulated. But only now, through the combination offered by contemporary videogames technology, of believable representation with interaction, has it become possible to represent our actions. It’s an honor to be a witness to such an important moment in art history.

We don’t actually hold a baby when playing Heavy Rain (much like we don’t actually see a naked woman when looking at the Venus of Milo), but we go through all the mental steps it takes to do so. We will never mistake playing the game for actually changing diapers or feeding an infant. On the contrary, by being a representation, the game becomes grander, becomes symbolic, connects us with other members of our species. Like admiring a painting of the Madonna may instill a feeling of connection with all mothers in the universe.

The representation does not replace reality. It is a celebration of reality! And being able to perform these gentle interactions in Heavy Rain, is a celebration of the tenderness in humans, of how we all share this capacity to love and to care and to silently hold each other, without words, without reasons.