Games Are Not Art

An examination of the link between Video Games and Art

Month: March, 2015

“Hatred, Milton, and the Problem of Pleasure” at Kill Screen

Here’s a link to a piece I wrote on Hatred and the perennial problem of morality and pleasure over at Kill Screen.

Jane Austen and Saints Row IV

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen has some difficulty being taken seriously. Mark Twain, one of her most vociferous and entertaining critics, can be cited as exemplary in this regard: of a library that lacks a copy of Pride and Prejudice, he writes, “that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.” In the same vein: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Though, as this essay argues, Twain’s view of Austen might be more complicated than first amused glance might indicate, he at least superficially hits a note that many find themselves in agreement with: her books are awful.

At first glance, we might take Saints Row IV to possess a similar view, where the inclusion of a dignified literary idol merely serves as a bathetic frame for a hyperbolic, joyously violent video game. Yet Austen’s presence in the game is supremely appropriate. Though Pride and Prejudice is hardly a nineteenth-century analogue for Saints Row IV, the two work in a parallel sequence, adopting similar methods to lampoon the conventions of their respective times.

Austen is more familiar to a modern audience through the tedious, romanticized vision given to us by movies, miniseries, and a fandom that too often treats the lifestyle of Georgian England as a luxurious one to be vicariously devoured. We have published fanfiction that takes a stab at telling what happens to Elizabeth and Darcy after Austen has finished with them. We even have exaggerated parodies of her stories and style, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In short, we have such a distorted view of Austen’s most famous work that an accurate accounting of the book is difficult.

And yet Austen herself is a very different character from what we might suppose. The respectable maiden aunt that her nephew’s biography paints her as had written, as her first stab at fiction, what the British Library demurely calls “exuberantly expressionistic tales of sexual misdemeanour, of female drunkenness and violence.” There are duels and cruelties. One girl flees England, becoming a member of a harem and “the favourite Sultana of the great Mogul.” Another mugs a pastry chef. And so on. This is not to compare these antic towards those in the Saints Row series (the mind appals at wondering what the Georgian equivalent of a drive-by shooting from a gimp-drawn carriage could possibly be), but rather to note a mirrored arc: Saints Row began as a conventional work derivative of Grand Theft Auto, but has become fantastically outré; Jane Austen began her career with fantastically risqué (for the time) works, and then became more superficially conventional.

It’s hardly insightful to note how Saints Row IV is a magnificent parody of the conventions of contemporary video games. The game mocks the gameplay of both the Metal Gear Solid series and thirty-two-bit, side scroller beat-‘em-up games, revealing the absurdity behind the former’s stealth mechanics and the threadbare justifications for the violence of the latter. Similarly, the game’s seduction mechanic (whereby you can sleep with everyone regardless of the gender of either partner) mocks, in particular, the romance mechanic in the Mass Effect Series, and, more broadly, the emotional artifice surrounding the more involved romances in other games (there is a hilarious gulf between the romantic intimacy attempted by, say, Dragon Age and the combination of “Hey Kinsey, wanna fuck?” and her pugilistic consent). But much of this humour relies on a sense of naked sincerity, as these jokes are the conventions we take for granted in their most transparent form: by reducing the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid to a series of absurd actions, or the drawn out romances of other games to a simple question, the player is left with the bare bones, the essential qualities of these features; the stealth mechanics are silly gameplay restrictions while the romance is merely simulated sex. The sole redeeming feature of both examples is that they are nevertheless fun.

Ultimately, much of the humour in Saints Row IV lies in its recognition and deft parody of entertainment as a core value in video games. Character development is pursued by way of the parody of other games – such as Johnny Gat’s side-scroller beat-‘em-up – while plot development is left to a series of mini-games that imitate the gameplay of, for example, racing games. The original simulation that initially traps the protagonist is a straight-laced representation of 1950’s nostalgia, complete with small-town bliss and petty domesticity – until this is deemed boring and entertaining violence is introduced to shake things up. Nothing happens unless guns, explosions, and superpowers – all conventional tropes of mainstream video games – play their crucial, violent, and entertaining part. Saints Row IV delights in this portrayal, even while recognizing that it is merely a conceit. In essence, the game presents a simultaneously minimalist yet varied gaming experience and says, “this is the core of conventional gaming; this is all you need to have fun.”

There is a parallel between this modern, outrageous sincerity and that of Austen: both are remarkably straightforward in the way they use the conventions of their respective contexts. For example, Austen seems to have a monomaniacal focus on numbers in her novels: how much is an eligible bachelor’s yearly income? How much is a certain bachelorette’s dowry? What is the size of his estate? But this is a critique masquerading as a concern. These numbers tend to trump all other matters for her many of her characters – in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet notes the fortune Mr. Bingley possesses (four or five thousand pounds a year) before even mentioning his name as though the former is his most important attribute. In a similar vein, material values are at the heart of romantic concerns: Elizabeth’s attraction to Darcy stems partly from her admiration of his estate, Pemberley: “She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

One last example. The opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice (the same chapter that Zinyak reads aloud on the classical music radio station) is concerned with lampooning the conventions of Georgian marriage by presenting the real reason for the institution: money. The first sentence of Pride is universally familiar; the first two sentences, however, complete the joke:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

The feelings or inclinations of some eligible bachelor are irrelevant to his neighbours, as marriage is only secondarily concerned with sentiment; it is the fact of ensnarement that matters. Indeed, Mrs. Bennet shows herself perfectly willing to put her daughter in harm’s way for the sake of a possible marital entanglement, as when she sends her daughter, Jane, to the estate of this eligible bachelor in the hope that it will rain on the journey there, causing Jane to catch a chill and spend a few days in the care of this bachelor’s family, exploiting his sympathy, and so on. This is more than an endearing seduction: it is an expression of the calculated need to marry; the naked economics of the Bennets’ situation demand marriage, for the Bennet’s have five daughters who must be paired off before their father dies and the estate passes on to a distant cousin.

To return to the comparison, both Austen’s novel and Saints Row IV are concerned with parodying their own subject matter by way of a pared-down exposure. Saints Row IV demonstrates the facile components in video games by emphasizing their pandering, entertaining essence; Austen pares down the refinement of her own era to show how financial motivation is behind the ostensibly noble institution of marriage. Even the inclusion of Pride and Prejudice in Saints Row is a jab at the idea of video games as art via a parody of citation and its ability to add heft to a game’s thematic statement. Where, for example, Remember Me tries to guide its players towards an understanding of the point of each chapter by adding epigraphs at their beginning, Saints Row IV mocks the very idea by invoking a refined, decorous voice and tying it to the game’s cheeky psychopathy.

Yet – in an excellent example of having ones cake and eating it too – at the same time as the game mocks the idea of aesthetic ambition it also succeeds in incorporating perhaps the most appropriate literary voice this side of Chaucer or Ariosto. Both Pride and Prejudice and Saints Row IV mock conventions by emphasizing the mercenary heart – economic security and entertainment, respectively – of their subject matters. This is not to argue that they are essentially similar, but neither is it to reduce the terms of my thesis to “humor does similar things throughout the different humorous works.” Rather, there is an appropriate pairing between the works which, intentional or not, serves to sharpen the parodic point of the game.