It's Springtime for the interactive arts. The mainstream media is warming up more and more to video games, often talking about them as if they've finally arrived, but their praises may be doing more harm than good. Sounds crazy, right?
You'd be surprised. Case in point: the quote that got me thinking about getting this one down, taken from an account of game designer Porpentine's trip to independent game convention Indiecade. Have a look:
The award ceremony was at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Outside, a giant sculpture of metal debris burgeons into the air. Behind it, fountains full of light.
The best way to describe the event is that the Mario theme was playing but it was classically orchestrated.
Cuz games are art duh.
The trappings of class used to legitimize.
Nothing weird going on here yet, right? There's nothing wrong with remixing a retro game tune over a blaring orchestra, and if that tune comes from a series as famous as Mario, and it's being done for fun, for the fans or anyone else that holds the bouncing plumber in high regard, there's nothing better.
But remember: the true significance of the Super Mario Bros. "Ground Theme" is what it managed to squeeze out of the unassuming technology it ran on. It was the first really complex chiptune song. It was the moment where game music stopped feeling constrained by the strange architecture of sound chips, and on top of that, it was the '80s. Synth was in, especially in Japan, and lots of people were experimenting with ways to push aural tech to its limits. Koji Kondo had been trying to make music using computers well before he joined the Nintendo team. And that same year, this lovely little piece of heaven was released by the immaculate Ryuichi Sakamoto.
So you'd think, anyone who wanted to appreciate the artistic and historical context of the song, to really appreciate it (and I assume their intentions when choosing this song were at least as highminded,) would benefit the most from hearing it as it was originally programmed, no?
Apparently, yes. No.
Now why on earth would that happen? Chances are, they heard the song, with its monophonic electronic bumpyness and thumpyness, and internet meme-level catchiness (I secretly think a video of the song would go viral if the game were released today,) and thought "This isn't classy enough. Let's add an orchestra. Those are classy! Then everyone will appreciate it for the art it is! I'm so smert." (sic)
And of course, any of the historical context I established earlier would be lost on them. But what really bothers me about this incident, one that most people wouldn't consider something to get all ruffled up over, is how they took a legitimately important landmark in electronic music and reduced it to a kitchsy travesty in the name of legitimacy. You can just feel the irony oozing from that statement. Isn't it bad enough that we are, yes(!), constantly trying to get attention by reinforcing the elitist ideals of those in the upper echelons of traditional structures of power? And they weren't even trying to be legitimate, as predictable as ever, only to look that way in hopes that people will buy it. And they won't.
And they aren't. We have an art exhibit at the Smithsonian! And a movie that is actually kind of okay! And...connections to serial killer Adam Lanza? This is not a naturally occurring juxaposition. Something is very wrong here.
But this is just one example of our attempts to get praise. And there have been many others like this. MoMA's video games as Applied Design, Video Games Live (which I actually really wanted to go when it came out,) Symphonic Shades, you name it. And when we get this recognition, it's a whole other story.
Granted, it isn't always a sad story. I have every ounce of respect for the daring and devoted journalists who direct our attention to the genuinely legitimate and mature, towards a truly different kind of video game. The public needs them. If they're going to make up their mind on the medium so soon, whatever they may think, let it at least be an informed decision. Better to let them know about the whole breadth of games out there right now.
Because if they don't you wind up with Wreck it Ralph.
Yeah, yeah, I know. That's not fair. Wreck-it Ralph is an amazing movie. I mean I haven't seen it, but everyone else seems to think so. I do know that Wreck-it-Ralph is supposed to a love letter to decades of video game history, and that the movie is taken by many as a sign that video games have finally gotten some respect. Yes, there's respect enough not to make a mockery of the entire medium...again...but....
But they seem to gloss smoothly over the decades of video game history following the turn of the millennium (Come on, there were some great video game characters made in the last 14 years! I see Sonic and Zangief, now where's my Master Chief or Nathan Drake?) and what we do have is a kart racer and a mashup of every sci-fi first-person shooter ever.
And yet the love letter persists.
Doesn't anyone notice that this wasn't supposed to be a film about retro video games, but a film about video games, period? And as far as the audience is concerned, it is. The thing is, movies and writing like that assume that this is the pinnacle of what we can accomplish, and that educated folk should just nod their heads and roll with it. That games can only be escapist fantasies, and that that's...okay? Kind of cool? Cue the reports citing what a long way video games have come...because they sell more or have bigger budgets or something like that, or because of our collective childhood nostalgia (It's okay if you're a kid!)
It's strange, it's just the tiniest bit patronizing, especially given the vastness of our lesser-known accomplishments. It's a collective "How cute!" It's like a pat on the head and a "There there. You tried your best, hooker-beater. Look everyone! Video games have a live orchestra performance at eight and really real face capturing tech. Ooh, look at all that tech! Awww, isn't that just the most adorable thing I ever did see? Everyone clap for video games Yes, I know they're a more potent toxin than the venomous barbs of the blue spotted frog, but go easy on them!"
"I mean, they're only games."
I hate that.
Yes, means that we are being graded on a sort of curve for it. Society begins to grudgingly respect its boorish new roommate, but it usually has little to do with the games themselves, which are so often so steeped in the obscure rituals of gamerdom that they'd ward off even those would might have tried them in another life.
Okay, maybe I was being a little bit too mean there. To them. It's not like it's their fault.
So, what will it look like when games have finally arrived? It'll look like all the people playing all the games. It won't be Super Mario Bros.: The Orchestra of CLASS. Video games will have arrived when we don't have to coat them in champagne and caviar to get people to like them. Besides, you know what they say about the pig in the bonnet...
Also, I mean all the games. All of them. And we will have all the games. What we lack are gateway drugs. Other mediums tend to have something for everyone, and our inability to provide for varying audiences is perhaps the most well-documented flaw in our system. When video games arrive it'll be...kind of like...watching Doctor Who.
I think this is a strange analogy. I shall elaborate. I don't remember how long ago I started watching the show, but I remember I didn't like it. So campy! It hasn't even the most remote sense of logic? Werewolves in the royal family? Am I being punked? And the graphics! You can totally tell they're not real. I DON'T get why everybody like this show so much, especially my little sister." Okay, maybe those weren't my exact thoughts, but...aww, what the heck. Yes they were.
But I kept walking in on my sister watching the show, and one day, something interesting happened. I found an episode that intrigued me. I'm racking my brain right now trying to remember which one it was. I know it was a pretty old David Tennant one, maybe the one with the clockwork folk. I think it was just Tennant's performance that did it for me. And it was a one-two punch; I'm a lurker on TVTropes, so seeing the '60s serial "The Mind Robber," Set in a world of fictional characters, storytelling tropes, and all-powerful writers, was a riveting experience. And from then it was on. But the point is, I wasn't sold until I found something in it that I could relate to. And after a while I was able to appreciate elements of the show that I couldn't before.
What we need is everyone to be able to find a game with a little bit of themselves in it, games that speak to them individually, or everyone at once. The rest should solve itself. But then, I think we've covered that too.
Video games. Tabloids. As if I could resist.
The Dawn of the Video Games will rise someday. But it hasn't risen yet. And we're getting this sort of mindset spreading around everywhere where it actually has, and people, however hypocritically, respect that. Wouldn't it be awful if the industry started buying into this? It would justify their refusal to put so much as an indiscernible modicum of creative thought into the tabloid-level garbage they shovel out every year. They'd think that everyone was going to love them anyway. They'd tell us to just be patient.
Patience is not a virtue here. Patience breeds complacency, and complacency breeds not getting stuff done. Let's tie patience to the side of a rocket ship and send it off to Mars.
Respect is something that must be earned. Did we earn this? Did we earn the coverage? The trendiness? The symphonies? The exhibits? What do you think? What do you think we did to prove to the world that we deserve this? What did we do to deserve a blockbuster movie from the studio, of all the studios in the world, from the studio that made Pinocchio for Pete's sake! I don't know, and I hope we don't lose any of our motivation because of this, because that's the part that worries me most of all. In fact, it goes right past worries me. It downright scares me.
Isn't it a little bit too early to celebrate?
You still here? Well alright. I have more writing on my Kinja and Tumblr (Which I'm trying to start up) and Wordpress (Which I'm trying to close down.) If you didn't like this article, I assure you that all of the writing in those places is better. If you did...well, I'd till say it's better. Have a look if you want!