Archive for art

Cutting Commentary in Velvet Buzzsaw

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by trivialpunk

I never said I was consistent. The horror aesthetic is in right now, and creeping doom is on every horizon, but that’s more the state of the gaming industry than its content. Perpetual experiences and micro-transactions don’t lend themselves well to producing horror games, even if they do inspire dread. So, it was either ride the Dark Souls wave or write about the only thing more horrifying than creeping existential horror: politics.

Not here, though. No, the personal is political, so I can excuse the evening off from charting our winding path into a coiling snare. There are so many things in this world that would bind us and use us that one can hardly keep track. Sorry, got kinky there for a second, but it speaks to the question that faces most artists in today’s market.

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There are many ways to read Velvet Buzzsaw, and I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding outside interpretations of the movie, except the initial review that led me to it. I wanted to remain surprised, because I was promised a character-focused horror movie with great cinematography and a twist. I got a lot more than that, though, and I want to give you the same opportunity I had to enjoy it. So, here’s your spoiler-warning. From here on out, I’m going to be spoiling major plot-points and the central gimmick of the twist, as well as dissecting what I see as the ethos of the film. There will be no coming back from these spoilers, soo…

SPOILER WARNING!!!!

That being said, let’s start with the exploiters of artists and the gate-keepers that enable the scarcity they profit off of. I mean, the cast. Morf Vandewalt is a renowned art critic that is insulated by pride, pretence and pomp. He acts as a gate-keeper of value in the artistic world that “assesses out of adoration,” but the film goes out of its way to demonstrate his profound naivety towards the powerful people and institutions that profit off his work. This is a great example of the lighting direction and framing coalescing with the narrative at the perfect moment for a story beat.

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Up until this moment, Morf has been framed as a suave, sophisticated socialite whose words can move mountains. But here, for one moment, his hair is under-lit to make it look like a bowlcut, as Morf is saying something that we know isn’t accurate with absolute confidence. He is, in truth, incredibly childish. You can see it in his demands and complaints. As a critic, Morf is being used to promote dangerous items for dishonest people, as well as destroying the careers and lives of countless artists to further his cachet. He excuses his actions by claiming that his opinions are honest, and they do seem very genuine, but he does tear down Ricky for Josephina. He knows it is wrong, though, and he even gets moments of moral indignation by refusing to sell out his personal beliefs. Morf is not morally corrupt, but he’s not overtly critical of the systems off of which he profits.

You know who is morally corrupt, though? Rhodora Haze, former punk artist turned wealthy socialite. As the owner of the Haze Gallery, she deals in modern art and Machiavellian politics. She’s manipulating Morf behind the scenes, holding contracts like switch-blades under the throats of other characters and stage managing the launch of the Vetril Dease Collection: a series of paintings that were discovered after the artist’s death. Since the artist is dead and the owner of the art is under her thumb, she is free to lie about the paintings at will. She squirrels half of them away to increase their scarcity value.

Rhodora’s mirror-mirror doppelganger is Gretchen. As a newly-minted art advisor/gate-keeper, she’s trying to survive in the same world of money and perception as Rhodora, but she’s nooot as good at it. In her stumbles, we see the ugly seams of their art scene come blatantly to the surface. She tries to bribe Morf to point her to “under-valued, pre-review art,” because she sees Rhodora profiting by buying pieces before Morf’s favourable reivews go live and increase their value. Of course, Rhodora isn’t bribing him; she’s spying on him. Despite Morf’s integrity, he exists in a system where his favourable reviews can be fore-casted by the people who profit off of them. An uncomfortable reflection of the game review space I left all those years ago? Maybe that’s why we’re here…

Let’s not get TOO meta, TOO fast. Where were we? Josephina is another inductee into the world of power and politics. As an employee of Rhodora, she stumbles across the paintings of Vetril Dease on the evening of his death. Recognising his brilliance and claiming them for herself, Josephina empties the man’s apartment of his life’s work. It’s clear that Rhodora took her under her wing as a employee, but is in the process of demoting her when she’s tipped off to the existence of the Dease collection. Josephina is strong-armed by Rhodora, under threat of contractual litigation, into handing over management rights for the Dease Collection in exchange for wealth and prestige. She agrees, because she has no choice.

Jon Dondon is a competing art dealer that learned well from Rhodora. He spends his days trying to poach artists from the Haze Gallery and sabotaging their stars. Jon Dondon puts considerable effort into undermining the reputation of the Dease Collection before meeting his bitter end. His body is discovered by Coco.

Coco is the mirror-mirror opposite of Josephina. She’s working an entry-level position at the Haze Gallery and learning how to navigate the choppy waters of a cut-throat industry. I have a fan-theory about her. I think she sabotaged Josephina in the opening act of the movie by calling her Right before work to tell her about her cheating ex. When Josephina was moved off the front line, Coco got her job. A job she immediately lost, because Rhodora uses and discards people at will, but it’s clear that she’s learned how to undermine people in order to advance her interests. Yet, the film doesn’t totally condemn her for her actions. Coco’s trying to survive in a harsh market, and it’s causing her to compromise her integrity. At the mid-point of the film, she reveals that she’s been spying on Rhodora, and the information she gleaned gets her a new job. So, she’s dishonest, buut…

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Which is really more of a condemnation of the system she wants to profit off of than her as a character. At least, in relation to the other characters in this little psychodrama. She keeps losing her job, because her employers keep dying for their sins, but she survives, even if her dream is broken.

That’s most of the main cast. There’s the blue-collar Bryson, who exists as a stereotype both so broadly drawn and utterly eclectic that I can only call him a douche-hipster. Piers is an established artist that is struggling to find creative truth in a system that values constant exploitable productivity. Damrish is an emerging artist from the streets that wants to find a place where his work can mean something, caught between financial success and cultural relevance.

The last two members of the important players are almost uncredited. They are the representatives of the Museum of Modern Art, and only one of them gets a name. It’s Jim, and his unnamed partner says one of the most important lines in the film to Gretchen: “…If you wanted to ram more of your collector’s hoard down our throat to increase their value, you should have done so before the Dease deal was locked…” You see, there’s only so much room in a gallery to show off cultural artefacts, so curators have to be careful with their space. As an artistic institution, the museum has a responsibility to the integrity of the art world, but the leverage provided to Gretchen by the inflated value of the Dease Collection gives her power over their investors. The wealthy gate-keepers of the art world have lent her the pictures and capital necessary to dictate what cultural artefacts will be displayed as valuable in the museum. She does to them what Rhodora did to her by packaging Dease with another artist named Minkins. In this scene, the film is saying that the power structures that profit off of exploiting artists do not elevate art based on its cultural value but on its ability to be exploited for profit. Therefore, the exemplars of this cultural space did not gain ascendancy through cultural relevance, but  through systems of power. Even if the art is only valuable for the moment:

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From EA to Disney, this is the relationship that most artists find themselves in today. The gate-keepers of artistic value are propped up by towers of money, and it seems like the only way forward is to sell-out for profit. As Gretchen says, “Look, I came to the museum, because I wanted to change the world through art. But, the wealthy vacuum up everything, except crumbs. The best work is only enjoyed by a tiny few. And they buy what they’re told. So why not join the party?” These are not evil people, but they’re still profiting off of a system that locks culture and the ascendancy of artistic vision behind pay-walls and monetary access. So, what should an artist do in this environment? What is the point of art if nobody sees it?

It turns out that the film has really optimistic answers to both those questions, but I want to address two very important aspects before we get to those answers. The first is that the paintings are haunted by the ghost of Vetril Dease, because he literally put his blood, sweat and tears into his work. His pain and madness are seared into his tormented works, and their raw manifestation is what ensorcells both critics and artists alike. This life of misery, “A howl for answers and a resolution that never comes,” is the fascination point off which the galleries will profit. They’re capitalising on the dead man’s pain.

The second aspect is the way in which Dease’s media is altered for consumption. Not a single stroke on his paintings is changed, but when they are removed from the context of his tiny, ramshackle house, they lose their connection to their meaning. Dease faced serious abuse, and his work was a means of processing that trauma. His howl for answers reveals the depth of that pain, but that depth is completely removed by transplanting it to a gallery space for safe consumption. In a gallery, people see the brilliance and clarity of the emotion, but they are insulated from its impact. Capitalism sanitizes media and removes it from the consequences of its context, a point which the film makes extremely explicit:

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Everyone thinks that Gretchen’s death is part of the exhibit, so they’re removed from the reality of the situation. The children in this scene think it’s fake blood; they assume that everything in the gallery is safe for consumption, so they are protected from its implications. The paintings and sculptures in this movie could stand in for any form of media. By removing media from its context and making it safe for capitalistic consumption, we are insulated from its true meaning, thereby allowing the framers of that information the power to control our perception of it. Which gets even more interesting when you consider that Damrish is a culturally-relevant Black artist being tugged away from his artist’s collective to pursue success in a mainstream gallery

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It should not be ignored that the history of African Americans in most artistic mediums includes a long history of exploitation. That the gate-keepers of power in this movie are primarily white, and that systemic socioeconomic differences are of key importance in relation to their access to power. No one in this movie is anything close to racist, but they are unquestioningly profiting off systems of exploitation built on inequality. You could not have an honest psychodrama about the flaws inherent in media exploitation without bringing up the rotten foundation on which it is built. This applies to all vulnerable populations across the media landscape, from Freddy Mercury to the Jackson 5. While naming those two makes it seem like these were relationships of mutual profit, we’d do well to remember the barriers they faced and the artists of all stripes and orientations who see nothing for their life-times of work. The more vulnerable you are, the easier you are to exploit, which is why some populations are targeted more explicitly than others.

Everyone in this movie is duplicitous to some degree. They’re all stage-managing personas and stabbing each other in the back behind warm smiles and “Kisses!” They are the perpetual manifestations of this psychodrama, profiting with cold brutality as they devour warm bodies with neat, sanitized pretence. It’s the same cheerful nihilism on display when the News feeds us justifications for murdering people and presents the deaths of thousands as an engaging tragedy. There is no human way to easily digest the deaths of that many people, but when it scrolls by on your news feed, it feels like one more point in a burning world. Something you can accept and “deal with.”

The personal is political, and the most important point of conflict in the daily lives of most people watching this movie will be fighting the apathy bred by comfort. The most important weapon against action is the idea that everything will be okay. By making things safe and digestible, we never feel the true weight of the tragedies happening around us. There is an art to insulating us into inaction, while at the same time justifying murder. It is the howling storm into which we all must scream.

That brings me back to the haunted paintings and my two final questions. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? I think the film answers that rather handily on multiple occasions. An artist’s primary concern should be the act of creation. “All art is dangerous,” which is to say that all art is powerful. Dease created otherworldly paintings as a byproduct of using art as a tool for exploring his trauma and grief. He survived a life of torment through art, even while definitely committing some murders along the way.

At the end of the film, we have an extremely human moment with Rhodora as she hands the keys of her beach house to Piers. Piers has been struggling with alcoholism and the media-driven idea that artists flourish by sacrificing their sanity to addiction and mental illness. Grappling with the raw honesty on display in Dease’s work, he wants to keep the “easy answer” at arm’s length, while he “tries to get back to creation.” The art world only values him as long as he’s creating work that they can sell, and it seems like the only answer to creating that work is sacrificing his mental well-being. Which is when the ghost of another dead artist steps in. Rhodora’s old girlfriend Poly -who was killed by a similar life- whispers a quote into the chill winds of history that saves Piers, “Dependency murders creativity. Creativity plays with the unknown, No strategies exist that can enclose the endless realm of the new. Only trust in yourself can carry you past your fears and the already known.”

Dependency on liquor and the financial approval of others is murdering Piers’ creativity, while the addiction slowly kills him. Rhodora tells him to take a break from the art scene, because she’s aware of its potential for toxicity. He needs to heal. She tells him to go somewhere and do something for nobody but himself. Because, at the end of the day, You always see your art. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? None, but the artist always sees their work. Art is a tool for expression and self-discovery. The finished product has inherent value to the artist and naturally reflects the time-period of its creation. At the beginning of the film, Rhodora posits that her art world has been thriving since a caveman charged a “bone to see the first cave painting,” tacitly suggesting that art and capitalism are inherently intertwined. Which perfectly reflects her world-view, but it has nothing to do with reality.

While it’s true that pretty shells and intricate carvings have always been traded as valuable, the drive to create is inherent to the human experience. Whether it’s ancient, crumbling paintings or lines in the sand swept away by the tide, the act of creation is inherently valuable. When we place importance on the exploitability of the finished product, rather than the act of creation, we murder creativity. So, what should an artist do in this environment?

Damrish’s story-line follows this logic to its fruition. The personal is political, so we should create for each other in an accessible space. Instead of allowing ourselves to be exploited for personal economic gain, we should look to the good we can do in our community as artists. If you have a voice, then we should use it with thoughtful purpose. At the same time, the collective in the film suggests that if this is the case, then the community needs to be there to support these artists. As someone who wrote free articles for years, I can tell you that you can’t dine on artistic integrity. We need to respect each other and our art, because our creations hold value. Both for ourselves and the future generations that will try to understand us through the exemplars of our culture.

Then, there is the other artist: Vetril Dease. The vengeful spirit left to toil in obscurity, exploited after death without the consent of his personal demons or consideration for the private pain it would unearth. His flesh was sold at auction with each painting, his literal body of work was violated for profit. Artists often sign away the right to control their work in exchange for the ability to create it, especially in the gaming space. Their legacy as creators is controlled as if they were a meaningless incident of its creation. The sole reason I’m writing this review, now, is that I kept asking myself one question: “What is the motivation of the paintings in this movie?” What injustice do the demons locked away behind Dease’s rage seek to correct? In looking for this answer, I came to my thesis for the film: “By making media fit for consumption by cultural institutions propped up by capitalist markets, we sanitize pain and profit off of death. Art that is both personal and culturally relevant/transgressive will/should undermine the power structures that enable the exploitation of art and humans, so that no more people must die in painful obscurity while the rich profit off their work.”

Each death in the movie reflects this motivation. Bryson was supposed to take the Dease paintings to be locked away in a warehouse, but he clearly died on a country road in the middle of stealing them. Rhodora kept Dease behind lock and key, both preserving the paintings he wanted destroyed and setting his work up to be exploited. Josephina stole his work and sold it, despite his wish that it be destroyed. John Dondon dug up Dease’s tragic past, but he was killed before he could use it to undermine the value of the work and profit off the destruction of his competitors through it. Gretchen was killed moments after threatening to use Dease’s work to destroy the hopes of emerging artists, keeping undiscovered artists like Dease in the dark forever to profit off the increased the value of Dease’s posthumous work. Morf kept emerging artists from the public’s eyes by judging their work to be valueless, profiting off their destruction to the point that one of his targets killed himself. Further, Morf stood to make millions from an exclusive Dease book-deal. Before dying, he publishes a tell-all article on Dease’s tragedies and the deaths connected to his work. It is telling that Morf was assumed to be corrupt by people like Gretchen, and that his credibility was only ever destroyed when he told them a bizarre, uncomfortable truth.

Damrish and Piers don’t die, because despite their exposure to the work, they never exploited it. Coco kept losing her job, so she never made a dime off it, either. She lost her dream but not her life. She’ll return home and find something new. And Dease’s art? It’s still out there, circulating out of stolen crates. Which makes me wonder… out of the context of these exploitative systems, will his art still be dangerous, Or was his art most impactful/destructive within this system, because it sought to tear down the power structures that exploited it? Am I reading too much into this? Possibly.

These paintings reflect a dark theme that stretches all the way back to “The King in Yellow.” A terrifying work that inspires heights of artistic excess or the lows of human suffering. Artists often see in works of this amorphous, eldritch nature a kind of creeping wonder. Am I divining something that exists or creating an idea from whole cloth? Kind of meta in a sense, because it comes back to why I’m here and often not here.

I created this blog to “forward the realm I analyze,” as Morf would say, but I found myself in the same position a lot of the time. Discussing gaming at this moment is putting support behind companies that are busily exploiting and destroying the works and artists that I admire. I couldn’t allow myself to be part of that anymore, even if the encroachment of larger investors opened the doors for greater profit. I have zero desire to be chewed up and spit out by an ungrateful industry, but I will always love gaming.

Yet, in my absence, I’ve seen the work of people like Jim Sterling and others pushing back against the glorification of exploitative excess, and I see in that movement a future for gaming. We’ve been here before, so maybe it’s better to stand and fight. These exact same historical beats have been playing out over time, from 3-D to the syphilitic collapse of the AAA Industry from its moulding throne. As we know, from the ashes of failure rise the Embers of a new age, and I’ve been heartened by the growth of the indie scene on Steam. Its gluttonous collapse after Steam Greenlight seemed to me the absolute excesses of Dark Souls’ Humanity. Even I’m back here, writing about the revolutionary potential of an above-average horror movie churned out by a corporate mechanism designed to respond to Disney’s global I.P. Power Grab.

Still, we must shout into the howling gale. We must not place the value of creation on the exploitability of the finished product. In this life, we must live and create, finding joy and integrity where we can make it. I have no mouth and I MUST scream.

Also, I wanted the opportunity to clear up a misinterpretation of my earlier assertion that reaction-time was an important consideration in relation to tank-controls on early survival horror games. Yeah, the tension-and-release cycles are still effective, even when the controls are fluid, because they speed up the monsters, too. The point isn’t the movement of the characters on the screen. The point is the experience of the individual reacting to them. So, if both characters are slow, then tension rises as the character prepares to react, then executes and experiences the results of those actions. The timing of that cycle is the important thing, not the speed of the pixels on the screen. When you’re running away from Pyramid Head’s attack in Silent Hill 2, you have a fraction of a second to react, then pick a direction and run. The tension exists in the execution of the maneuver, even if success or failure are decided at the beginning of the reaction when the startle reflex kicks in. It doesn’t matter if you get hit; it matters that you panicked for a second while you tried to react. That’s part of the build-up of physical tension that accompanies the game’s psychological anxiety.

The Hunters in Resident Evil are the same way. They cross vast distances in one jump, but your reaction to them is hurriedly finding a horizontal axis to safely cross their straight leap. This allows you the time to turn around and launch grenades at them. The controls were slow, so the tension came from thinking quickly. Now, you can react more quickly, but the startle reaction is still there, so more of the mechanical tension has to come from the staging of the game-play sequence.

So, yeah, Velvet Buzzsaw is a psychological revenge-drama where art goes on a killing spree to avenge an exploited artist. Give it a look if you’re still interested. Even with everything spoiled, it’s worth watching. Hell, maybe I’ve been over-analyzing things this whole time, and you’ll find something different in viewing it. That’s the nice thing about art: we each get to decide its value to us. I’ll be back if I feel like I have something else worth saying. Until then, I’ll just be enjoying things for their own value, because…

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GTAV, Art and Dat GameSpot Review

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

I’ll post the review I wrote later. This needs to be discussed.

Yesterday, I pulled up a video game review on GameSpot and read some of the comments related to it, both on Twitter and on the site. Some people seem to be lining up on two fictitious, dichotomous sides on this one, and I think that’s terrible. I also think that’s pretty normal, honestly. However, I do believe that we need to develop a dialogue if we’re actually going to do some good here, so I’d like to invite you to read the article first. Don’t worry, it’s for GTAV, so it’s topical. You’re not really going to get what I’m talking about unless you do, so I’ll wait. Read some of the comments, too. Select “Top Comments” if you want to get some more perspectives on this. At time of writing, they haven’t descended into drivel. … Got it? Good.

I’ve never had an answer to a question concerning art or society that didn’t come with a caveat. Life is a complicated thing; you and I both know this. Society is infinitely more so. Keep that in mind and always dig. Always ask questions; never be satisfied with an answer if it seems too simple. That’s what I’m here to do today: ask questions and ruminate a little. I invite you to do the same. This is still through my eyes, though, so feel free to add your own perspective.

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If you read the article, then you’ll know by now that we’re talking about a review of GTAV by one of the ladies over at GameSpot. Apparently, she didn’t think it was perfect, so she gave it a 9/10.

That’s when everyone went crazy.

Of course, a gentleman over at the Escapist gave it a much, much lower score because the protagonists were depressing, and I have my own problems with the idea that we shouldn’t have evil protagonists, especially in a game where you pile up chopper kills like the vicious individual your character is, but that garnered a whole different type of hate.

The GameSpot review marked the game down for two points: 1. Being profoundly misogynistic. 2. Occasionally inconsistent character behaviour.

Now, if we’re talking about deeply flawed characters in a sub-culture that practically breathes coercion, I’m not sure you CAN have an inconsistent character. I have never met a consistent person in my life. Individuals piece together ideas of consistency and, in large part, we may appear consistent, but there will always be times in your life where you act outside of the norm for who you believe yourself to be. So, how can characters as fleshed out as they are in the game act inconsistently? I’m not sure, I haven’t played it through yet. Even so, it’s up to you to judge.

That’s only a side-note, though. We’re really here to talk about the idea that the game is misogynistic, how people reacted to the proposition and what kind of issues we’re really facing as an industry approaching an art-form.

Some people took this event as an opportunity to reconfirm their ideas about “femi-nazis.” Others took it as an opportunity to communicate the lack of attention women’s rights are getting because of how our society is organized. I don’t see a comprehensive answer in ignoring either of those perspectives. You see, when we approach society, we must always remember that it is a great, amorphous, fractured thing. As much as it’s unified, it’s also made up of billions of individual people that started their life, and therefore their development and experience within culture, when they were born. We’ve each got a limited perspective, and we’ve each had valid life experiences. Temporarily entertaining that notion is the price of entry into the next bit of this post, so I hope you’re on-board.

Is GTAV misogynistic? Does it hate women? That’s a complicated question. Do the characters in the game treat women well? When you see a woman, what is she doing? How are others treating her? How do you have the option to treat her? How are women, in general, portrayed? Why?

These are important questions, because misogyny is never about saying you “just don’t like them women-folk very much.” At least, it isn’t usually. But, that definitely happens. Misogyny is about organizing events and representations of women such that they are treated and perceived in a negative way. Everyone knows that literally not treating women as citizens was a dick move and obviously misogynistic, but misogyny has less-obvious forms. Depictions of women in films as either bitchy man-haters or flimsy stock-characters is a form of it. It might not seem like much, but those depictions help inform your understanding of society, and it WILL feedback into how you understand the people around you, especially if you see more television than people. You’re not stupid, though. You question those things when you see them, but you’ve glossed over some of them. I’m pretty sure most people have; I know I have. No one I know is perfect, and that’s okay.

So, I ask again, how are you invited to understand the women in this world?

We’re not done here, though, this is a deep, deep rabbit hole I’m inviting you down. The Escapist review of the game marked it down because the main characters were –using his word here– evil. So, based on that, how are you invited to understand the world’s men? Consider it carefully. Finally, let’s combine the two: how are you asked to understand people and their interpersonal dynamics? What relationships exist in this world to act as representations of humanity?

Okay, that’s the surface layer. As people, we must realize that there are many, many different lives going on all around us. The world teems with secret sub-cultures and worlds beyond our experience. As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time delving as far into as many of them as I can, and I’ve only barely scratched the surface of my –local– culture. That being said, somewhere, there are people similar in personality to the individuals in the game. As a series, GTA has always invited us to step into their strange worlds. These are lifestyles most of us won’t brush up against, let alone experience. This comes down to my next point: a sandbox is not necessarily an RPG.

Yes, we’re role-playing, but we’re not really character building. The scripted events and available choices you have will always narrow down who your character is for you, whether you realize it or not. Is there an option in the game to sit the fuck down and go to night-school while you work early mornings as a garbage man? Can you progress the storyline that way? No, I didn’t think so. For all the talk of freedom, we’re still limited, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s how you tell a story. A story about everything is a bad, impossible story.

While we are quite free, we’re still living in someone else’s life, in a sub-culture whose exploitation of women for money is, traditionally, stereotypically, beyond despicably common. That’s who these people are; that’s the story we’re telling. Could the game tell its story and not involve heavy layers of misogyny? Not if we’re going to be true-to-life. Could you do a protagonist sex-swap and tell the same story in exactly the same way? Not in the circles you have to run in in the game. I’m not saying that all career criminals are women-hating gadabouts, I know a fair few progressive ones, but the culture that surrounds the main characters is steeped in feminine exploitation. You’d have to tell a hell of a different story of clawing your way to the top.

Exploitation is an inescapable part of the game’s story, but how does the game itself handle it? Again, I can’t answer that for you.

I’ve heard that the game’s extreme celebration of masculinity is supposed to be satirical, and that’s definitely one way to look at it, and I’ll leave that to your interpretation, too. You’ll have to remember when you play it that an important part of satire is commentary. What is it saying? Is it saying anything? Are we to understand that the massive explosions and impossibly over-the-top story-missions are a portion of the commentary? Juxtaposition is a powerful tool, after all.

Another point I’ve heard brought up is that it’s just a game. It made me cringe a bit, but lots of people see games that way, even some gamers. There are a fair few people who see it as an emerging art-form, and I’m one of them. Again, sorry, the price of entry here is entertaining that premise. If games are art, then they need to be able to explore tough topics. They need to be able to show us and comment on uncomfortable aspects of society. However, that doesn’t preclude them from criticism; it invites it, in fact.  This game is a cultural artifact that has been created to represent our society, all of it, not just the salient, criminal aspects. More importantly, it’s an interactive artifact that invites us to live a portion of our life through it. This makes how it does so that much more important.

Again, though, we understand that it’s a game. It is something we experience and, so, something we judge. By experiencing the game, we can be brought to question, or we can be taught a way to think. This isn’t going to affect everyone universally. We are going to have individual reactions to the game. One of the reasons it’s a Mature-rated game is that it requires a critical eye to fully appreciate. After all, it wasn’t until much later in life that I asked why all the White Mages in Final Fantasy were women. It could be a world thing or a monastic Order thing. That’s not the present issue. The issue is that I didn’t notice or question it at the time. This isn’t exclusively a youngin’ thing, either. Humans can’t think about everything that crosses their path. They just can’t. Like, literally.

However, the difference between this game and Final Fantasy is that GTAV has direct manifestations within society. I’m not saying you’ll definitely be affected by it, but you must consider the idea.

Again, I’m not telling you exactly what I think. I want to stir discussion, not dispense a fully-formed opinion. So, how does knowing it’s a game affect your experience of the events within it?

You might be asking yourself, why is this an issue now? GTA has been a long-running series, and it hasn’t deviated from itself much. It’s still a ton of fun; no one is disputing that, but we can’t pretend it hasn’t been questioned in the past. The difference is, I’m not saying it’s a murder simulator. BUT, I am saying that if games are to be taken more seriously, then they Are going to come under harsher critical scrutiny. That’s one of the reasons gender politics have been popping up more and more in relation to gaming. Portions of the gaming community have a long history of treating women, both on-screen and on-line, poorly. Getting better, but still pretty bad. I’ve heard people say that it’s not enough and complain when people bring up examples of our progress, BECAUSE it’s not enough. I’m going to blow your minds: I think they’re right. HOWEVER, I do think that we need to acknowledge our strides.

It’s not the 1950’s any more. It’s certainly not the utopian future either, though. Either way, you can’t change the world, or people, overnight.

“Why do we have to bother with politics?” I’ve heard time and again, “It didn’t used to matter.” Well, actually, it did. Many of us just didn’t pay it much mind. We can’t really do that now. I mean, if you just want to play games, then more power to you, but the industry needs to pay attention. Art cannot divorce itself from politics. Of any kind. It’s the duty of art to comment, represent, pose questions and stir inquiry.

If nothing else, GTAV is doing that. But, what is it doing as a piece of art that represents society and allows you to explore it? In other words, what part of you is represented in GTAV? Take a minute.

Alright, let’s take a step back from that and return to the review. If you’ve been following along with my little questions, then you’ve got all these things bubbling away in your head. Bring up the part about how the game represents, and invites you to treat, the average woman within it. Now, how does experiencing that treatment make you feel? If you’re a guy, then how would that make you feel if they swapped all the sexes around? Really consider it.

Well, it didn’t make that GameSpot reviewer, Carolyn Petit, feel very good. Put yourself in her shoes. You’ve got a great game in front of you, but you can’t shake the feeling it gives you. What do you do?

It’s worth remembering that reviews are subjective things. You can’t actually do an objective review of the experience of a game. That –actually– doesn’t make sense. When I review a game (Yeah, it’s been a bit. Don’t worry, got some coming), I find it helps to start with how the experience left me feeling. I also record mid-game feels and pre-game expectations. Then, I dive into the mechanics of the game, what I know about the state/history of the industry and the story of the game itself. After that, I go through and try to piece together how that experience was achieved, where it fell short, where it excelled and why I felt the way I did.

Carolyn gave the game a 9/10, because she felt there was an issue with this incarnation of the series. I know we’re used to score-inflation, but 9/10 is amazing. I don’t think her integrity could have let her say it was perfect. I know if I had an issue I cared about, I wouldn’t say a game that I felt handled it poorly was perfect.

For example, one of my grandparents is from a group of people that experienced near-complete genocide. Do you think I could 100%-awesome a game that I felt treated it like it wasn’t a big deal, even if it was a tongue-in-cheek, satirical fantasy about something unrelated? No.

If the duty of a reviewer is to critique games. And being an art-form invites critique. And art cannot be divorced from politics. Then, Carolyn acted bravely and correctly. This is my conclusion. So, kudos from me to her, because she’s getting a lot of hate she doesn’t deserve. These may be the growing pains of a developing artistic medium, but that doesn’t lessen the force for those who experience it. Phil Fish would certainly agree.

Maybe she didn’t feel like anyone else would comment on the issue. Maybe she felt that she needed to stick by her guns. Maybe she felt like injecting the idea into the community. Maybe she believes we need to move forward in the same way I do. Whatever her reasons, integrity is what we want in a reviewer. Without integrity, we’re just for sale. The minute the content of our words is for sale, you can’t trust a damn thing we say.

You’ve been here for a while, so I’m going to wrap up with one last consideration. Should this game have been made to be accessible to everyone? Yes, art needs to be bold to make a point, but games are a special brand of art-form in that they’re also, directly, an industry. An industry in which GTA is a massive player. Rockstar Games KNEW that it was going to be released to, and played by, almost every gaming demographic. Did they have a responsibility to make it so that it could be comfortably played by everyone? Is being comfortable really what we want right now? To be complacent in an artistic medium can be dangerous.

Again, it’s more than an art-form; it’s also an industry. Making a separate campaign to appeal to another demographic would have been expensive. Would it be fair to ask them to spend even more money to realize another universe within the game? Should we question the artistic integrity of an industry that literally runs on money? Are we willing to judge it by its artistic merit and hold many interpretations in our mind? Because, like people, like society, the gaming industry isn’t universally consistent. It’s a fractured, amorphous thing.

We should expect that a piece of art as inflammatory as this will make some people uncomfortable. We should also listen to those people, because they may see something we don’t. After all, we can’t see everything at once. Maybe part of what we can take away from the reaction to this game is that we need to respect each other a bit more.

We can be a badass, cop-killing, helicopter-crashing, car-stealing mothafucka all we want in-game. It’s part of what the universe invites us to do. However, out here, respect means more than a double-tap. It means listening to and thinking about other people’s perspectives.

There’s no right answer here, no matter what anyone tells you. There are definitely better and worse answers, but we’re not here to judge. We’re here to inquire.

See you on the other side.

P.S. I invite you to openly critique my conclusions. Also, this week’s house-cleaning: The new story is up. Here’s another video. It’s part 2 of Psychonauts this time! Cheers!

Bastion – Unspoiled

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

This week, I sat down to play a game from my list of “Have to’s.” You know the ones, like Portal, Amnesia and SpecOps. The ones people won’t stop going on about. It’s rare that I’m disappointed by one of these games. In fact, with the exception of SpecOps, I’ve usually ended up playing them through in a sitting or two. I tried doing that with Skyrim and almost failed a class. I also ran dangerously low on snacks, but that’s another story altogether. My point is that this week, I span-up Bastion and gave it a go. And, in stark contrast to the way this usually goes, I finished the game in one sitting, then decided to play it half-way through again. Then, I slept and finished it for a second time. So, if anyone was wondering where I went for that couple of days. Yeah, that’s where. By the end of the second play-through, I had so many notes covering the four-page spread I keep by my computer that it looked like the scribbling of a mad man. In truth, that’s kind of what it was. I’d lost it, fallen absolutely in love with the game. At the end of the experience, though, I looked back and couldn’t figure out exactly why.

It wasn’t exactly ground-breaking. I’ve played games with better combat. Better graphics. More nuanced stories. I was flummoxed. So, I loaded it up again. I realized, while playing through for the third time, that I’d simply been suffering from a broken heart. I couldn’t see the positives of it, because this game isn’t something you can just pick apart and expect to hold up. Every element of it has been polished and placed with care. Like a well-made BLT, it was the combination that elevated it. In combining so well, it had created an atmosphere that drew me into its world. Once it was over, though, that world ceased to be. Then, like a rejected cultist, I was forced to sit outside and think about what I’d done. What I’d done was spent 16 hours playing a 7 hour game (give or take, depending on whether or not you do replay + and finish all the challenges). I’d lost myself in the world, but I couldn’t get that part of me back. So, all I wanted to do was criticize it.

So, that’s where we’re at now. Part of me is forever lost in Bastion. However, maybe with enough analysis and a couple snippets from its truly excellent soundtrack, I’ll be able to get through this without crying. More than the once I already did. If I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to take a page out of Bastion’s manual and rebuild myself from the shards of the game I get by killing… windbags… Does that mean I have to commit to brevity? No, that’s never going to work. Oh well, roll the dice. I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to go over everything I wanted to without ruining your experience of the game. So, I split the post in two. This one will focus on its art design and some of the game-play mechanics that interact with it. Next post, I’ll talk about its story-line, narration (<3) and the mechanics that interact with that. Then, I’m going to load up a good old-fashioned horror game and cleanse this warm-fuzzy feeling from my cartilage.

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Let’s get a little background first. Bastion is an isometric hack-and-slasher with customizable difficulty from Supergiant Games (Published by Warner Bros.) that emphasizes rebuilding your shattered world from the remains of your once-great civilization using a powerful Deus Ex Machina. As you wander through the levels, the world forms underneath your feet. However, it’s only reformations of structures and places that once were, so there are edges to it that you can fall off of. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “An isometric game about platforms that float in space that you can fall off of? That sounds like a nightmare!” And yeah, it really could have been. Knowing your precise positioning in a game like this is crucial. They didn’t have much margin for error. One tiny step in the wrong direction could have made this game an absolute pain to play, but Supergiant pulled it off without a hitch. It’s quite an accomplishment! So, let’s talk about how they did it.

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Open up the picture in a new tab. It becomes quite large, so you’ll be able to see exactly what I’m talking about. Supergiant had a couple big challenges with this game right off the designing board:

1. Creating a fleshed-out, atmospheric world with limited levels on platforms that were easy to navigate, even as they were forming up underneath you.

2. Making the characters fit into the world, while still allowing them to be easily discernible for the more hectic portions of combat.

We’re going to use that one picture as our primary example for now. Like much of the game, it features a central platform connected to others by bridges and smaller sections that appear under your feet. It’s pretty easy to tell where the edges of the larger platforms are in this one, but I want you to appreciate with me for a moment how fantastic the art in this picture is. How incredibly detailed it is without being cluttered. For the most part, it’s those details and differences that let you know where the edges are. Between railings and embossments, it makes sense from a design stand-point. That’s how you would make a bridge. That understanding helps us to define those boundaries. It’s also intuitively ergonomic. The center of each area is where most human interaction would take place, so things like barrels and benches line the outside. That all being said, it also happens to be perfect for combat.

To get from place to place, the bridge platforms form up in front of you in relation to your walking and rolling speed, so you’re never stepping out into thin air. It’s designed well enough that you soon get a feel for where you can and should not step. If you’re right at the edge and one isn’t popping up, then I’m sorry to say that nothing’s going to be breaking your fall, except perhaps the ground. I’m not even kidding, when you fall off the side, you get blasted up by a wave of tamed wind that thumps you right back on the platform again. Face-first. The wind-taming narrative mechanic is actually brilliant here, because it gives the game an excuse for getting you right back up on the platform and provides you with a primary mode of travel between levels. That way, they can stay disjointed but accessible. The timing of each fall is short enough that it doesn’t become frustrating, but it stills punishes you by taking away some of your life and breaks your combat flow a bit. It’s a lovely balance. They also give you quite a bit of leeway when it comes to being “on” a platform. You’re basically wearing snow-shoes.

For those of you that pay attention as psychotically as I do, you’ll probably have noticed that the picture features four different art styles crammed into one. Well, I say crammed… but that’s because it sounds better than masterful combined. I feel like I’ve worshipped enough for one day. The background is a beautifully detailed, high-definition watercolour. The platforms look a little more computer-rendered, but bathe in the same static art-style as the background, relying on shading detail and simple animations to bring them to life. The Kid, and the other characters you interact with, are a little more dynamic again, constantly moving to help them pop out of the background. At the very foreground of the screen is a screen-saver like effect. In this particular picture, you’ll notice leaves on the screen. They and other objects, like feathers, drift straight down to give you a thematic sense of the level. It’s kind of like how liquor commercials always feature really attractive people. They have nothing to do with the actual product, but it’s an encouraging association.

These different art designs are wrapped together by their placement. More detailed movement takes place closer to you, adding another layer to the fore-shortening perspective tricks that make up isometric geometry. They all also share a common pallet. The platforms are slightly different designs based around the same theme with colour-schemes that alter only enough to let you know they’re different platforms. Nothing bleeds into the next thing, but they’re also quite unified. Talking about pallet actually brings us neatly into character design. For this we’re going to focus on The Kid, as opposed to the stock-samurai, the tooth-paste creatures or the old guy, so let’s get a look at him…

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There he is! Sombre little guy. Now, let’s toss in one more landscape shot just for good measure.

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Notice again the criss-crossed boards and crumbling walls that define the edges. Now, take a look at The Kid. He’s got white hair (yes, they address it), darker skin, a red scarf, dark-brown boots, grey-green armor and a dark shirt. Now, look at the environment. Each and every colour on The Kid is echoed in the environment. There are hints of white everywhere and accents of red all over. The boards are similar to his skin and the lanterns reflect his armor. Without being too obvious about it, they’ve made us intuitively aware that he’s a part of this world; he belongs there. Look at his trade-mark weapon: The Cael Hammer. The handle is his hair, the head is his skin, the end of the handle is his armor and it’s even accented with a red slash. It’s basically him, but like… a hammer.

Of course, all this palette resonance might have made him difficult to see and, in an isometric game, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where your character is facing at a given moment. For hack-and-slashers, these things can be devastating, especially for the block-shield-counters. That’s why The Kid has an asymmetrical design. You’ll notice that his shoulder plates and glove stand out, so you can easily tell which direction you’re facing in terms of left or right. For forward and back, there’s a big, bloody hammer to assist you. However, there’s more to it than that. Look at the details and you’ll notice that every point on his body is accented by a bit of white/grey: hair, wrist-wrap, boots and shoulder. In combination with the dynamic quality of his idle and run animations, you’ve got the perfect recipe for a pseudo-point-light-walker. Our brain is very good at reading patterned and biological motion in these cases, and Bastion takes full advantage of that to let us see where we are in relation to the things we’re bashing over the head. Or cutting open. Or shooting. I’m not going to judge you for your combat preferences. When you run, you also leave tiny dust clouds behind you to let you know what direction you’ve come from. This, alongside a static-dynamic camera, is a big help in creating a realistic sense of motion.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got to say for the art direction in relation to game-play. The rest of it is basically going to be you applying what I’ve hinted at here to understand how the game’s art makes its mechanics more tenable and its world richer. Creating depth and atmosphere can be difficult, but if you unify everything, from the palette to the design, then you’ll have an easier time of it. Every part of a game is going to influence every other part when it’s experienced by the player, so its important to keep unity in mind during development. That’s why everything in Halo is so bloomy-shiny. That and, you know, the engine. Geeze, will you look at the time? We’ve still got plenty of space. Let’s talk combat.

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You didn’t think I was going to talk about a hack-and-slasher without at least mentioning the combat, did you? The things I’ve mentioned about the environment are inversely applicable to the enemy models. They share almost none of the same palette as The Kid, so you don’t really confuse the two. They’re mostly blue-green. However, their palette, again, reflects the environment, while small accents of brown reflect The Kid. They also move in very different ways. The ninjas dash. The gasfellas float. The scumbags… skid. So, you’ll never really lose yourself in the fray, no matter how cluster-fucky it gets. Biological motion. Yee-haw.

All of the weapons experiment with difference aspects of the combat engine. Some of them do great amounts of damage at large distances very slowly. Some quickly do a lot of damage at close range. It’s the standard play with the variables of range, speed, damage, influence on enemy placement, armor-penetration and personal manoeuvrability gambit. It’s pretty effective, too, because the levels you find each weapon on are designed to showcase their usefulness. Of course, you can switch back before too long if you don’t like the style. Each item also comes with its own training ground that you can use to improve your skill with the specific features of a given weapon. Do well enough and you’ll unlock items or special moves. Oh yeah! Each weapon also comes with its own special move that you can equip one at a time and use. They draw from a small pool of uses, but you can increase that pool by equipping Spirits. You know, like liquor but magically formulated to improve your dexterity, in stark contrast to the way spirits usually affect you. Different liquors have different passive buffs and you can equip up to ten at a time, one for each level you gain. Weapons can also be upgraded to improve and compensate for their various variable features to further fit your own personal combat style. So, combat-style is quite customizable. Each level of weapon upgrade makes you choose between one buff or another. So, you can make a really middle-of-the-road weapon or pimp yourself out for doing one thing really well. You can always change your mind for no cost at any forge, though, so you’re free to experiment.

You must be thinking that, between levels, spirits, weapon upgrades and a full range of customizable combat-styles, your enemies aren’t going to be able to stand much of a chance. You’d be mostly right. The base-line enemies are still challenging, though. They’re not going to give you a run for your money, but you’re not going to be so bored that you fall asleep mid-session. HOWEVER, you can upgrade their combat abilities, as well, by evoking the power of the Gods. One of the later buildings you unlock allows you to evoke the various idols of the Pantheon of the Gods of the old world. Each idol you evoke gives you a small money and exp bonus, but also provides your enemies with increased capabilities. You start out with only one, but you can unlock more through play or buy them at the store. It’s a sort of free-market Godconomy, if you will. So, if you’re ever feeling cocky, then take on fast, damage-resistant, randomly reflective, self-healing, occasionally invincible, heavy-hitting, enemies that injure you when you collide, don’t drop health tonics, damage you when they die and slow you with each hit. You might not be stopped in your tracks, but you’ll definitely be frustrated. Then, try the final, unlockable, Game-plus gauntlet with all those on. I assure you, it’s a challenge.

So, that’s Bastion. There’s lots more to talk about, but I think you should experience it for yourself. Next post, I’ll be talking about how its mechanics and narrative coalesce to create an immersive, or at least interactive, experience. It’s going to be a raging spoil-a-thon, though, so read at your own risk. I urge you to play the game first. It’s cheap and well worth your time. I promise you. Also, use an X-box controller. It’s just better. Take care and I’ll see you on the other side!