Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pleasure (Pleasure)

Sigh. I am probably not cut out for this kind of piece. I'm more of the analytical type.

We partisans of the games-is-art cause talk a big game. We're all for this idea that games ought to embrace some long-term goals in the realm of narrative artistry. Above all we demand maturity, by which we mean: something that is true to reality as it's experienced by adults. In fact I was praising Far Cry 2 for these very qualities in my last post; the attentive reader might notice that I might have cast some mild aspersions on pleasure for getting in the way of mature narrative.

Aaaaand then last night I decided to throw Devil May Cry 4 into my Xbox. Honestly, the whole enterprise mocks the search for le mot juste:

I should try anyways, since words are my business: The Devil May Cry series is a character-action demonicidal opera. You pilot a white-haired wiseass in an implausible red trenchcoat from one implausible scenario to the next, and kill a heap of demons. For some reason, your sword revs like a motorcycle. I have principles and all, but I'm not made of stone, people.

Devil May Cry, as a series, wields a simple and nonsensical palette: Motorcycles. Demon popes. Rocket Launchers. Boobs. It acts as if it doesn't owe you an explanation why these things belong together. There's such a gleeful devotion to artificiality and exaggeration that it ultimately comes off as charming naivete. It knows that the demon-slaying is the main attraction, and so it feels free to cram every cutscene full of absurd demon-centric melodrama. There isn't an authentic human emotion to be found in the series. Everything is subordinated to style. (This is where a comparison to opera might work. Even great operas are often crammed with of stock characters, exaggerated melodrama and convoluted plotting; and all that is immaterial, because the libretto is in service of the music.) The Devil May Cry series, like all great trash, has the courage of its convictions. It commits to its frivolousness with admirable devotion.

Were I a helpless genius, I'm sure I could transform this experience into some brilliant “Notes on Camp”-like cultural analysis. That woman could spin gold out of straw.

But here's the lesson I take. It's like hip-hop: regardless of how great your MC is, no matter how mesmerizing his wordplay and no matter how slick his storytelling, it doesn't matter if the track doesn't move you. A ridiculous beat will redeem a hapless vocal, but the opposite isn't true. (Exhibit A: Gang Starr. Exhibit B: Canibus) Same goes for games. Doing pleasurable things with your hands comes first.

That might serve as the credo of what N'Gai Croal called the “shake-your-ass” school of game criticism, in his discussion of God of War 2 with Stephen Totilo. : “[GOW2] is unquestionably a game that will make you shake your ass. And that's my point of departure when assessing the quality of my gameplay experiences.” Alas, this is the case.

Addendum: I realized, having written this post, that over the course of this blog I'm just going to end up comparing games to every musical genre in existence. (In my defense, it was N'Gai Croal wot started it) When I compare Killzone 2 to bluegrass you have my permission to drag me behind the shed and put me down.


Julian said...

Fuck that. When you start comparing Killzone 2 to bluegrass is when I pour every waking moment into ensuring you win some sort of award. At that point you will have passed from the realm of mortal bloggers and into some sort of surrealist god's demented pantheon, equally feared and revered.

Charles said...

Maybe you're just a formalist at heart, Pliskin.

Kylie Prymus said...

If you extend the analogy a bit you can allow for the possibility of moving (mature) artistry that lacks the pleasurable tactile/ludic experience that you say is so crucial.

Look at this way. In hip hop there seems to be an inverse relationship between booty-shakeability and maturity of message. Start with, say, Soulja Boi who can get the club moving like nobody's business, but you'd be hard pressed to find a real message there. In the middle you'd have an act like Blackalicious with a good message and, while certainly something you can bob your head to, doesn't exactly make dancehall ready tracks. On the opposite end you can place Saul Williams - phenomenal message and meaning, but mostly spoken-word-like. Lyrical and poetic, but not exactly the sort of thing that causes uncontrollable foot tapping.

There's no reason why the danceability and message aspects *have* to be inversely related of course, but that's another subject entirely. The point is that there is interest in music that has a message w/out a great beat and there's probably interested in games w/ a message w/out great gameplay. Not mainstream interest, but interest.

Of course once we find a way to do both we'll really have it made. But even hip-hop hasn't done that on a large scale yet, so we may be a bit behind. Couldn't speak to bluegrass though...

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@charles: I think you got me pegged, man.

@kylie: yeah, I get what you're saying here. I didn't mean to propose the inverse relation between ass-shakingness and narrative heft, by any means. I do think however that the medium is in dire trouble without fun. And I'm prepared to say that there is more than one variety of ass-shakingness out there. Personally I really like solving puzzles and the like. But what I do want to say is that if a game is really fun it doesn't really need to have a genius or even coherent narrative in order to be great. That said I have to say there's a part of me that just loves how over-the-top and absurd the DMC games are. They know this shit is wildly inane and they don't shy away from it.

Sami said...

"Above all we demand maturity, by which we mean: something that is true to reality as it's experienced by adults."

Sounds much more like Wii Sports than the gunplay fantasy Far Cry 2.

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