“And when we tell ourselves we have reached the paroxysm of horror, blood and flouted laws, of poetry which consecrates revolt, we are obliged to advance still further into an endless vertigo.” – The Theater and its Double (Antonin Artaud, 1958).
I wish to swiftly dispose of the formalities, preferably via the edge of the knife, if not the tip of the pen, and thus we begin.
Much has been said of video games and art, are they art, aren’t they art, how can one deny they are so, when do we get our Citizen Kane, when will the medium finally be reified through this endless endeavor to replicate the extrapolative force of The Good Piece of Art that we have decided is all that lends credence to a medium’s creative practices? But let us present an alternative, to eschew the respectability of The Good Piece of Art and instead pursue The Art That Which is Art, to hear the cries for the Citizen Kane and rebuff them with a cry for The Holy Mountain and the Pink Flamingos.
For games have been art, and art that is art is art that has always been art; without the trappings of respectability, of form, of capitulation to authority and a breaking of the back to supplicate oneself to the judgement of the establishment. And it is here that we must start, the divestment of the respectable for the transcendence of the spectacle.
There are twin Gods that must be slain by mortal hand, those of Art that is Good Art, and of the Art that is Enjoyable Art, for the former is the faux-art of establishment and respectability, the creation of Art that seeks to be not Art but the death of Art, and the latter the creation of Art that seeks to be consumed, the death of experience: a binary star system in eternal supernova, dragging all around it into its gravitational pull only to be subjected to holistic oblivion.
It is the concept of the Art that seeks to be consumed with which we will first dispatch. “Games are meant to be fun, and enjoyable, and an escape” is a phrase that one is guaranteed to have heard, but this is not the case. Games can be such a thing, but by no means is it the
raison d’être of the medium. There are countless games that are mechanically tight, with clean gameplay, and enjoyable elements that are vapid and empty in their consumption, that leave that indistinguishable succoring hole in the pit of one’s stomach, yearning for a meal with substance, the meat of the thing as opposed to the image of the thing, for an experience without weight is as pointless as a wait without experience.
Countless examples abound of this approach, one need look no further, in fact, than the outrage de jour that was Hatred. A transgressive affair centered around a killing spree committed by a man who dripped with over-wrought edginess as much as his hair dripped with visible grease. While mechanically competent and littered with action, the experience of the game itself was empty, hollow, a thing to be blown through and forgotten, leaving neither scar nor enjoyment, thought nor comment. Hollow enjoyability is, in itself, unenjoyable, for it seeks not to comment, or frame, or incline to thought or interaction, but simply to kill time as efficiently as Mr. N. Important kills faceless victims within the game itself. Enjoyment devoid of any deeper meaning is as forgettable and empty as the act of excretion, a fact to which anyone who has found themselves in the restroom with nothing to read but the back of a shampoo bottle can expertly attest.
Hatred, being so wrapped with its own transgression, was without point or substance, a picture of a massacre without comment or introspection, presented only to whip up the hounds of war upon which it found a cheap and efficient advertising campaign.
“See, transgression is wrong!” one may hear an odious voice from deep within cast itself upon their mind as a resounding fart might draw the attention of a polite soiree, a voice that must be answered yet more resoundingly with a thunderous NO! This is the flatulent voice of the establishment, the first of the twin gods of the death of Art, wetly slapping and sounding whenever that which is inconsistent with polite society dares to make its presence known, the same farting from the face of an ass perched atop an ivory tower looking down upon the masses and chortling at their reverie and their humanity.
And what is transgression if not humanity? Or at least that which humanity presupposes within itself, for as one consumes one surely shits, as one creates one surely destroys, the destruction as much evidence of the creation as the shit is evidence of the consumption.
“You speak in such vulgar terms! Are you not the editor, the responsible, that one with whom the rules sit and are built upon?” Yes, that is true, but vulgarity is humanity, and in that I refuse to strip the humanity by degrees from the self to show only the polished, the clean, the refined as much as I refuse to strip the transgressive elements of the human experience from the artistic experience for the comfort of an established set of forms, ideas, or practices. I soundly refuse to deny that I consume, digest, and shit as much as the next as I too refuse to deny that my creation is built upon consumption and digestion of previous forms.
Why then speak of shit? Because art is shit. It is messy, and filthy, and the higher elements are elevated and presented and the filth and refuse are discarded and bashfully hidden from view, but if art lies not within the final product but within its creation, is not this very shit laudable as art? Transgression is quintessentially this shit: the shit of the human experience, the grime, and the filth, and the reality, not that of acceptable forms but of realized realities and personal stories, and if I had one wish it would be to smear this very shit across the face of the establishment that balks at the mere acknowledgement of its existence. Games are owed their artistic movements, so-named for a reason.
Transgression is, in itself, difficult and dangerous to address, and yet it must be addressed. Just as excrement is full of bacteria, transgression is full of potentially noxious filth, a fact that must be addressed before one can present artistic transgression. For to present it, one must first ensure it is not actively harmful, that its presentation has purpose. This was the pitfall of Hatred, and many other games, that seek to transgress not for purpose, or reason, or intent, but simply to transgress, to shit for the sake of shitting and nothing else. To present artistic transgression one must interface with it, and consider it, and pick out that which will harm, and give it a purpose for being presented, one must, metaphorically, polish one’s turds.
Video games as an artform seek for establishment acknowledgement as a valid artform, and yet countless artistic movements throughout human history have not only been balked at by the establishment, but have been acknowledged while eschewing the very establishment forms at the time. From Ubu Roi, to the Theatre of the Absurd, to the Theatre of Cruelty, to post-modernism, art has never needed the acquiescence of the establishment, simply the creation of art for an artistic sake.
The Hero’s Journey is not a laudable goal to reach, nor a reference sheet for format, but a set of handcuffs we tighten around our wrists with every iteration. The Hero dies at 40, and I am glad he is dead, memento mori, for the heroics are not for me. They are for you, a salve to slap on the mind, to deaden the horror of life, to give meaning to a cycle of absurdity through projection, a cycle that one should frame so that it can be broken. To decompose, and recompose, or perhaps the inverse, to leave one’s shoes at the door, one’s skin on the coat-rack, and one’s organs in the pantry, then you will have made the Hero a body without organs.
And yet, until that day, we shall all remain here, waiting for Godot.
Mx. Medea is a writer, artist, and editor who spends most of their time drawing things with squares and buried under a small pile of endless paper copy. When not working they can be found playing everything from interesting indie fare to oldschool games. You can find them, their art, and their opinions @Mx_Medea on Twitter.