Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Final Paper (so far)

        My primary concerns right now are how much summary information I should include to clarify most of my references, and whether or not my argument is too vague.  I'm trying to use an analysis of Mother 3 and how it uses its state of being a video game to allow the player to respond in a manner unique to video games and to allow the player to recognize its philosophy.  The two of these together present a case that video games can be art.

               Marcuse states in One-Dimensional Man that "[t]he aesthetic dimension still retains a freedom of expression which enables the writer and artist to call men and things by their name – to name the otherwise unnamable"(247).  All established artistic media all contain this quality.  Architecture, the novel, dance, music, sculpture, theater, and film have historically all been used to preach specific philosophical messages, whether political or abstract, and all have resulted in critically praised masterpieces.  The novel could not be artistic without such harrowing political works as Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, exposing the horrors of Soviet Russia under Stalin or without García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, an exploration of man’s relationship with technology.
                At the same time, all of the above media have produced works that are quite forgettable.  Consider the role of a Harlequin romance novel in the literary canon compared to War and Peace, or the artistry of a typical New York City skyscraper compared to the Sydney Opera House.  The notion that a medium is incapable of producing legitimate art because the overwhelming majority of it is trash simply does not hold, as it is clear that the overwhelming majority of every medium is trash.  Here is the proof.
                In 1942, the movies House of Errors, Jungle Siren, Sun over Clara, Gert and Daisy’s Weekend, The Big Shadow, and Raza were released by various Hollywood studios.  Note how none of these are still viewed en masse because none have maintained any historical impact.  However also in 1942, the legendary Casablanca was released, considered by many to be the one of the greatest movies ever made.  The medium of film is like dumpster diving: most of the time the diver will find only trash, but occasionally a diamond ring or a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills surfaces.
This phenomenon is so well-known, it has its own name.  Theodore Sturgeon in 1958 noted the following with regard to science fiction:
"The Revelation: Ninety percent of everything is crud.”
“Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.”
"Corollary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field."

The aforementioned statements, known as “Sturgeon’s Law”, hold when applied to film (as mentioned above), novels, and music, and have been a common complaint for years, even before Sturgeon formally stated his eponymous law.  Benjamin Disraeli noted in 1870 that "Books are fatal: they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense. The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing."  He too is somewhat correct, as the overwhelming majority of books printed throughout history have been forgotten because the classics manage to become lasting symbols of their respective eras.  Don Quixote, a satire of the medieval romances popular in the early 17th Century, has vastly outlasted everything it has satirized to the point where the satire has been virtually undetected by a modern audience.  Just as most of the films released in 1942 have been forgotten, so has most of the music written by Bach’s less-talented historical counterparts, along with the forgettable art of Michelangelo’s unknown contemporaries.

                Sturgeon’s Law is important to note because one of the most common criticisms of video games is that they are “killing simulators”, placing stereotypical players into the roles of gunmen who mindlessly shoot and murder virtual characters.  Players are assumed to be either misogynistic “neckbeards” who waste the majority of their days playing World of Warcraft or various shooting games, or as typical twelve-year-olds who curse out other players via live chat and whose minds are being desensitized to senseless violence.  Granted, I heavily disagree with the stereotyping of gamers as a whole, but even if this was somehow true, it is irrelevant towards the acceptance of video games as an art form because like every other medium, video games are not immune to oversaturation with trash.

                In 2006, such video games as Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, Heroes of Annihilated Empires, and Ninety-Nine Nights were released, all of which were utterly forgettable.  However in the same year, Nintendo released Mother 3, a sequel to the cult hit Earthbound released eleven years earlier that, if it had received more publicity outside of Japan could easily have been viewed as Nintendo’s CasablancaMother 3 is notable because it tells a story of the gradual corruption of a pure, utopian society into one increasingly reliant on technology and greed via exploiting reactions caused by players’ interactivity.

It takes advantage of this interactivity in the form of a video game, the only current medium entirely based on interactivity, which allows it to act as support towards the notion that video games can “name the otherwise unnamable”, and thus establish themselves as a legitimate form of art.  In his essay “Philosophical Game Design”, Lars Konzack states that “[video games’] ideas may be described as theories based on the underlying worldviews that shape the assumptions that the theories make.  In this way, the theories and philosophies are layered within the game.  More so, it would be difficult to aesthetically and interactively present such philosophies in any other kind of media and genre but strategic simulation computer games.”(35).  Although Mother 3 is not a simulation game, the statement still holds, especially when combined with Marcuse’s naming the otherwise unnamable through art.  Additionally, its interactivity allows for, as McDougall and O’Brien claim, “the avatar [as] the visual representation / embodiment of the player”(14) and that “…narrative is, if not replaced, then at least displaced, by navigation”(15).

                One of the most important scenes in the game is when Hinawa, the player’s mother, has her death revealed to Flint, the player’s father and main character of its first chapter.  It is considered by fans to be among the most depressing scenes in the game, eliciting strong emotional reactions due to the shock of the scene.  An idyllic village previously established as an uncorrupted natural utopia has experienced its first tragedy ­– that of the death of its matriarch at the hands of a chimeric dragon/machine hybrid.

                The death could not have been presented otherwise via other media because its lead-up relies on immersing the player in searching for her.  The player is sent by various characters to search frantically.  Finding a piece of her clothing on a tree is the first sign that something terrible has happened.  In a film or even a comic book, the cloth would be seen, but the narrative nature of video games allows it to be experienced.  You, the player experience a sense of dread because you find the cloth on a two-dimensional pixelated mountain in a world that has forced you to experience it.  And the eventual discovery of Hinawa’s death is only that much more impactful because Bronson tells you.  Not an actor or a character or in a novel or any other of a myriad of possible different disconnected entities.  You.  Narrative is replaced by navigation because it is you that frantically rush around looking for your wife in the form of an avatar, but simply inhabiting an avatar is enough to immerse you into the game and its philosophy.

                Mother series creator and designer Shigesato Itoi also notes an important other manner that the game influenced players’ reactions. “When I heard about the impressions people got from Hinawa's death, the ones that really stood out to me were from people who had named her after their own mothers.”, Itoi notes, which places you in an interesting role within the game’s narrative structure.  The simple act of including a naming screen, a feature unique to video games, allows you to make a seemingly-insignificant decision that will heavily influence how you experience the world of Mother 3, taking the game out of the realm of the virtual and into the realm of reality.  Your own personal life and experiences become a part of the game because you indirectly chose to do so.  Flint ceases to be “Flint”, the video game character and becomes you, Flint, the son or husband, leading to an immediate emotional reaction that makes it feel as if someone had just told you that your own wife or mother had died.  The navigation through the naming screen leads to the navigation through the wilderness searching for your wife, and eventually to the revelation that she was horrifically murdered protecting her two children.  In this way, Mother 3 allows the aesthetic to “name the otherwise unnamable” by placing the player in a situation that would be impossible to replicate in any other manner.

                The involvement of the player also allows for a much more direct realization of the game’s overall philosophical dealings with the increasing corruption of nature by man.  The idyllic, utopian paradise of Tazmily Village has been invaded by an army that tampers with nature, and in the process, has taken a peaceful creature and corrupted it into a sadistic killing machine that murders your wife.  This acts as a contrast to your initial navigation of Tazmily, leading to the realization that there is nothing “bad” that the villagers have ever experienced.  Sunlight and food are plentiful, animals and humans are friends, and no one has ever been imprisoned, as evidenced by a sign in front of the village’s only jail.

The arrival of the Pigmasks changes everything.  Their mechanical and genetical engineering is unambiguously responsible for the corruption of Tazmily, leading to Hinawa’s death and the creation of many of the enemies of the game, including the Flying Mice and Yammonsters fought in its very first fights, making it absolutely clear from the beginning that everything bad that you experience through navigating the avatar of Flint (and later Duster, Kumatora, Salsa, and Lucas) occurs because of mindless corruption of nature.  The fact that it expresses this philosophy through navigation and embodiment of a virtual avatar again, allows video games to “name the otherwise unnamable” and thus establish themselves as a legitimate art form.

As most people acknowledge, the novel has been a legitimate art form for centuries, so let us compare the way in which Mother 3 presents its arguments about the nature of technology to the way in which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of the most important novels of the early 19th Century delivers the same argument.  As a novel told in the first person, Frankenstein is predominantly told through the perspective of Victor Frankenstein, who presents his account and views of his experience to Robert Walton, who acts as a surrogate for the reader.  Frankenstein describes his “…anxiety that almost amounted to agony…” in the process of creating his monster and directly asks the reader “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?”(53).  Because of the medium in which she wrote, Shelley had to use dialogue as the predominant means of communication because by nature, novels are almost entirely an imageless medium.  This lack of images creates the requirement for large amounts of narrative and descriptive text, which in the case of Frankenstein, ”names the otherwise unnamable” by providing the reader with the view of technology as corruption of the natural world by textually stating so, both directly through character dialogue and indirectly through various incidents that occur in the novel.

However when compared to Mother 3, a video game, there is one dimension that a novel like Frankenstein could never include, which is a literal immersion of the reader into the story.  Mother 3 takes you, the player, the equivalent of the reader, and places you into its narrative world and allows you to explore it by walking around, talking to its denizens, and by actually being present during cutscenes, many of which provide their own vital narrative information.  Frankenstein does not allow the reader to embody Victor Frankenstein, or to walk around Geneva and discover Justine, or to be present at Elizabeth’s death after running around for an hour outside waiting in fear for a monster to come and kill him in the avatar of Frankenstein.  Because it is a video game, Mother 3 allows for all of this.  You experience its philosophy by navigating its world and not by having it described by an author.  You embody the character of Flint, frantically searching for your missing wife through navigation, and not through descriptive text.  If you as avatar and Victor Frankenstein as narrator are synonymous because both learn the dangers of technology, then you are Victor Frankenstein.  But at the same time, you cannot be Victor Frankenstein because he is not a man to be embodied:  He is a character in a novel; not a character in a video game.  Flint is a character in a video game, and thus you, through avatar, can experience naming the otherwise unnamable, rather than having your experiences dictated by external means like Shelley had to.

While Hinawa’s death is one of the most important moments in Mother 3, an equally important one is the entirety Chapter 3, in which you navigate the entire chapter in the avatar of Salsa, a monkey who experiences constant abuse at the hands of his master, Fassad.  The relationship would be quite typical or black-and-white in any other media, with Salsa clearly being a victim and Fassad clearly being a captor, but its depiction in the form of a video game allows their relationship to become significantly more complex.

When Salsa is first introduced, he is a weak, powerless victim of a man who keeps him solely as a tool.  When you embody him, he, and thus you have no initial fighting abilities and the lowest statistics in the game, beginning at Level 1 and being forced to fight very strong enemies.  But because Fassad, your physically abusive master is present as a temporary party member, you are able to survive because his attacks are significantly more powerful, able to defeat many enemies in a single blow and saving you from harm.  This contradiction places you in the center of two points of view of the abuse you experience.  Even though Fassad shocks you with an electric collar and verbally berates you for no reason, he is absolutely necessary for your survival, no matter how much you train and level up at the initial parts of your journey.




The Video Game Theory Reader 2
Studying Videogames


Adam said...

Your introduction is clever and fun. Is it focused enough? I'm not entirely convinced (generalization is dangerous, even when you generalize very nimbly, as you do here), but I enjoy it, and that's a good start. I think you belabor things a little - maybe the analogy of film is better for you than fiction, for instance - and to me, at least, Sturgeon's law is an overly easy reference point (from my point of view, it is commonly used to justify the squalor in which so much American SF and fantasy revels - Stanislaw Lem's essay "Philip K. Dick - a Visionary among the Charlatans" - for a more acidic take on US speculative fiction). Still, it doesn't serve your purposes badly

I wonder if you do enough with the reference point of Don Quixote. The point that it has vastly outlived everything which it satirizes is one that could be used to identify and think about the truly relevant video game art which, presumably, you think is out there - especially since I know that you think that Mother 3 engages with and critiques, rather than blindly following, the conventions of its genre (the Quixote does much the same, of course). In other words, arguing that we have a kind of Don Quixote (maybe a minor one, but that doesn't mean the metaphor can't hold) of RPGs on our hand could be a much more focused beginning of your argument.

Re: the killing simulations. One of my favorite RPGs, Wizardry 8, tracks each character's body count through the game - it is, of course, well over a thousand by the time you finish. Just saying...

You claim that Mother 3 is Nintendo's Casablanca. I don't think that's a very interesting claim unless you have something to say about Casablanca - the Quixote (or some work of art *you* value and can be articulate about) might be more worthwhile here.

I'm not 100% clear on what you're doing with Konzach - this calls out to be clearly related to your (also vague) main argument, or to be cut.

Re: your initial questions. You need at least a couple paragraphs summarizing Mother 3's trajectory. I'd suggest a brief reminder of how the "standard" rpg works, then to step through ways in which Mother 3 both sticks to that and deviates, although simply summarizing the main plot (with some reference to gaming elements) could work as well.

The paragraph beginning "The death" really gets to your argument. As such, it's too short and underdeveloped; you need to articulate the uniqueness of the experience of Mother 3 in more detail, and to explain what it accomplishes through its interactivity.

You put a lot of weight on the naming screen. I'm not saying that's wrong, but if you really think that it's so important, I bet you could do more with it in some ways. What does it *mean* for us to be placed into this particular world gone mad? Is it (to use the language of this class - you don't need to, it's just an example) an example of negative thinking, forcing us to regard our relationship to our own world more authentically?

To put it another way: who are the Pigmasks? Are they us?

I'm not sure what you're doing with Fassad, exactly, but it's interesting. I feel like your'e conflating abuse with parenting or mentorship (which, of course, is how many people actually experience abuse, and can love their abusers even while hating them)...

Adam said...

Now, some overall thoughts.

You have convinced me that there is something worth talking about here. You have a fine but wordy and roundabout discussion of video games in relationship with other genres; you have a little bit of unclear theory about video games; you have a discussion of some of the peculiar characteristics of Mother 3, with the claim that through interacitivity they enable us to have an experience (of a destroyed earth and of an abused self) more authentically than we'd otherwise be able to have it.

My initial suggestion is to trim down radically at the start. It's fine material, but it meanders, and most of it isn't very relevant to what you're actually doing. Just having the notion that mother 3 is a kind of Casablance or Quixote is fine.

Your claim that mother 3 does things that can't be done in other genres is perfectly clear; your demonstration of that claim is incomplete (it rests too heavily on the whole naming thing, and lacks an orienting summary at the beginning).

What I want most of all here is a clear argument which lays out both what the philosophical/aesthetic work of Mother 3 is, and how it can't be done in other genres. You seem to keep getting close, and yet you never quite do it.

Brandon said...

I put up a new, fully-updated rough draft of the completed paper. Now that I realize I really didn't make use of Konzack, is it okay if I use Itoi's words as a second source? I use them to analyze important aspects of the game and why they are unique?