Saturday, March 29, 2008

Art In Games

About five minutes walk outside of Tokione - somewhat risky, but in my opinion worth it - there's an impressive art installation. A small room lifted about three stories up contains an enormous portrait-framed window. Looking out the portrait gives you a beautiful view of the forest, one that you probably ignored not 30 seconds ago while on the ground, even though it's more impressive from down there. It's a thought-provoking rebuttal to Edward Tufte's "depedestalization" - why shouldn't we use thousands of years of artistic experience to make beautiful things stand out, whether they be natural or artificial?

Of course, the other interesting thing about this piece is that it exists only on the fictional planet of Landroll, in the game Opoona.

Art is universal to human culture - not necessarily the same forms or themes, but the same drive to abstract, represent, and express creatively. But the worlds of video games are bereft of non-functional elements - like toilets, one rarely finds art in video games. Final Fantasy X has a country united in culture, by religion and by common enemy, and yet has no recognizable architectural, musical, or visual artistic movements. Mass Effect, another otherwise well-crafted world, expects us to believe that the only sculpture in the universe is one used to appease a wronged race after a war. How many games have entire palaces without any portraiture or sculpture? By contrast, the world-builders of Star Trek saw fit to create distinct styles of music, painting, literature, food, and even entertainment for each alien race, and writers like Mike Resnick or China Miéville flesh out their alien worlds with an abundance of equally alien art.

"Fictional art" is a great way to enhance a game world believably and creatively. Its forms can range from the above, to TV shows in No More Heroes and Harvest Moon, books (fiction and non-fiction) in Elder Scrolls games, and the theater in Final Fantasy IX. Wipeout features a huge number of fake corporate logotypes, and Contact even has fictional video games being sold in a fictional Akihabara! The converse is also true; missing or perverted art can add flavor to a dystopian culture. The state of Fort Frolic and Sander Cohen in Bioshock is particularly shocking because we know how art "normally" works, and how much it has been twisted in the game's world.

There's another side to this, and that's that video game worlds can provide a platform for art that might be otherwise inaccessible. Building an actual three-story-tall installation in a forest and keeping it up would probably cost more than Opoona did to make, be seen by fewer people (maybe not - the game barely sold 10,000 copies in Japan), and eventually come down. There's another installation in Innocent Life (probably not coincidentally also developed by ArtePiazza) which is a bunch of telephones installed in trees - where are you going to find an orchard to actually do that in?

There's a lot of unexplored possibilities. Where's the coffee houses filled with a new band every night (discs are definitely big enough now)? Or stand-up comedians? With the cliché cooking minigames, where are the great chefs in Breath of Fire? What music is playing on the Persona 3 protagonist's omnipresent headphones? Does Frank West look up to André Kertész? And when can Hyrule finally get some statues that weren't either built hundreds of years ago and/or turn into Armos?


Amelia said...

Other notable games worth mentioning:

Animal Crossing for the DS has the exact musical situation you described. Once weekly in the coffee shop there's a concert, where the music you hear can later be played on the sound systems in your house.

Also, A Tale in the Desert.

Joe said...

You're right, I totally forgot about my man K. K. Slider.

I thought about mentioning stuff like costume contests in City of Heroes, but in MMOs the line is blurry because even in hardcore grindy games players themselves can put on artistic shows. And I don't feel like any of them really present an artistic environment themselves, even if A Tale in the Desert is designed to foster one among its players.