Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Game as Total Artwork

In 1949, Richard Wagner wrote an essay entitled The Art-Work of the Future which articulated his theory of modern art. At the heart of this vision is the idea that an authentically modern artwork should be a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total-art-work. The highest form of art, dramatic opera, is a synthesis of the various classical arts. Operatic performance brings the three performance arts (dance, music, and poetry) and the three plastic arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture) together into a unified work whose aesthetic power outstrips the isolated capacities of each individual artform.

On Wagner's conception, the union of the arts is a kind of civic republicanism. Each of the individual art forms attains its highest power by being incorporated into a common order, which subjects each of them to a higher principle and thus unifies them into a single aim. Dance, song and poetry only find their individual fulfillment when they are each bound into a single will: “It is in [the stage artist], the immediate executant, that the three sister-arts unite their forces in one collective operation, in which the highest faculty of each comes to its highest unfolding. By working in common, each one of them attains the power to be and do the very thing which, of her own and inmost essence, she longs to do and be.” Wagner's aesthetic rhetoric consciously evokes the political struggles that broke all across Europe the previous year, with the gesamtkunstwerk stepping onto the revolutionary stage as a model for political liberation: “This purpose of the Drama, is withal the only true artistic purpose that ever can be fully realised; whatsoever lies aloof from that, must necessarily lose itself in the sea of things indefinite, obscure, unfree. This purpose, however, the separate art-branch will never reach alone, but only all together; and therefore the most universal is at like time the only real, free, the only universally intelligible Art-work.”

Orchestral tonality plays a central role in this unification. Music's unparalleled capacity for emotional expressiveness enriches all the other performative elements, and makes it fit to serve as a lingua franca for the other arts: “the manifold developments of Tone, so peculiar to our instrumental music, unfold their utmost wealth within this Artwork; nay, Tone will incite the mimetic art of Dance to entirely new discoveries, and no less swell the breath of Poetry to unimagined fill... in the Orchestra, that pulsing body of many-coloured harmony, the personating individual Man is given, for his support, a stanchless elemental spring, at once artistic, natural, and human. The Orchestra is, so to speak, the loam of endless, universal Feeling.” In this sense, tonality is what unites the various arts because its emotional texture straddles the different senses. We say that different sounds are rough, cool, warm, elegiac, or foreboding, and when we talk this way we mean that these aural textures correspond to the feelings effected by other art forms like prose or painting. The effect verges on synaesthesia, in that the qualities of different senses bleed into each other. And so tonality provides the bridge between different visual and auditory media.

Naturally, Wagnerian opera is not the only art-form that can aim at the unification of the various plastic and performative arts. Music and graphics usually play an ornamental role in game design-- they're so many skins thrown over an indifferent frame of game-mechanics. And this is fine: not every game must to strive for concinnity, because the play's the thing. But I often think that the sought-after “art” in the is-games-art debate is the aesthetic unity we find in the total artwork.

The key point, it seems to me, is to recognize that gameplay has tonality. Just as music, a non-representational medium, can evoke certain moods and emotions, game mechanics can elicit emotional states.

One side of this tonality is tactile. We often say that controls feel crisp or mushy, and this is a way of describing the feel of the connection between your inputs and the ingame happenings. This is important too, but I mean to point to something more fundamental: the feeling of interacting with a world through a piece of molded plastic. Every game establishes a particular rhythm for what you're doing with your hands: mashing on buttons as fast as you can, steering your jumps with the sticks-- maybe waggling (if you're into that sort of thing).

Pixeljunk Eden doesn't require a flurry of buttonpresses to play well; the pace of your physical interaction with the game can be downright leisurely. The platforming in Prince of Persia has a unhurried but constant rhythm and flow. Controlling Mario in three-dimensional space is kinaesthetic perfection; the controls are perfectly pitched so as to communicate this distinctive feeling of lightness and momentum. In each of these games the gameplay exploits the kinetics of control and movement in order to impart a certain aesthetic feeling to the player.

The other side of this tonality is more psychological. The texture of your engagement with the game-world differs radically from one game to another. Different genres have different ratios of reflex action to problem solving to discovery to strategy. Most long-form action games modulate between periods of calm and periods of high tension, but other genres can be entirely tensionless. Some games require you to solve many small problems quickly (Tetris) and others one large problem slowly (Portal). The thoughtfulness, vigilance, or wonder that gameplay mechanics can inspire are key ingredients of gameplay tonality.

To my mind, games are at their best-- maybe, their most artful-- when they construct a synthesis of sound and vision around the texture created by the play. Of course, Mario provides a template for how this is done. Every part of a Super Mario Brothers title-- the gameplay, the music, the visual artistry-- conspires together and complements the others. And the net effect is that unmistakable sense of total fucking delightfulness.

But to me, the best contemporary example of this striving after holistic unity is Jonathan Mak's Everyday Shooter. It's not just that the music and graphics are brilliant, judged on their own terms. It's that these elements harmonize so perfectly with the gameplay. The levels of Everyday Shooter are structured such that the player's actions harmonize with the music and visuals. Each “track” presents a different set of enemy behaviors and a different chaining system, and these changes work in concert with the other elements to establish a distinct tone for every level. Some levels are frenzied and some are relatively serene; some require a lot of planning and others only demand quick reflexes. But in each case the art follows the mood established by the gameplay, and this is what makes it such an expressive and wonderful game.

The artistic program first glimpsed in games like Tetsuya Miziguchi's REZ is still young. But games like the recent PSN release Flower show the expressive possibilities that skilled designers can create through the aestheticization of gameplay. By uniting visual and musical art under the banner of gameplay, games can end their protracted tutelage to cinema and stand on their own. This is a worthy task for the art form of the future.


Ben Abraham said...

I think it's interesting that you mention Wagner's idea of a unified work, even in Opera there's a bit of an unbalance towards music, and singing, etc. I mean, how often does anyone sit through his Ring cycle just for the painted backdrops?

Great idea though, I like how you treat the gameplay as an aesthetic. There hasn't been much done in that area as far as I'm aware.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@ben: Yeah, I kind of wanted to gesture towards the idea that in a game there would be an imblance towards gameplay.

One of the points about the Wager bits-- aside from it offering an opportunity to throw in some long stretches of unedited eighteenth-century prose-- was to leverage this idea of tonality and apply it to game mechanics.

We talk about unifying gameplay and narrative quite a bit, but we don't think about how it would be possible to unify gameplay with the other aesthetic elements that go into a game. I see a lot of potential there.

Anonymous said...

"In 1949, Richard Wagner articulated his theory of modern art in an essay entitled The Art-Work of the Future" as an explanation of the holistic proof-of-concept he spent a century creating, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

As to the point of the article, I think you're dead on. A tangent I'd like to see explored further is why the games that show this unifying effect to its fullest are twitch games to some extent (even those as relaxing as fl0w and fl0wer still require the player to react in real time to external stimuli). Is this a necessary component of the unified gaming experience? Must games lull or overwhelm the rational mind to some extent in order for players to experience the game's tone? Is that just the easiest way, one which will be complemented by others as game developers becomes better at manipulating the experiences of the player?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Iroquois.

This is one of the reasons that I think Left 4 Dead is such an accomplishment. When you listen to the commentary you realize how much of the visual presentation was crafted with an appreciation of how it would effect the play. From the avatar model's silhouettes to the way they used light to lead players in the right direction.

The level of sophistication is such that you have no idea they're doing it in the first place, which I think is the kind of 'synthesis' that Wagner was talking about.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@the fool: ha! it bears pointing out that Wagner's early quasi-socialist republicanism quickly goes the way to totalitarianism by way of volk-worship.

Also: damn, that's a really good question. It's hard for me to imagine a game achieving a rhythm or texture in the gameplay without imposing some kind of realtime reactions on the player. (you lose the kinaesthetics, which is an important element I think. I think is why the games I associate with this approach are "music" games like REZ) But this doesn't mean that the action has to overwhelm the player; the pace of the reactions can be very slack and still have the desired effect.

@charles: it goes almost without saying that the folks at Valve are great at using the audio and visual design to communicate important gameplay concepts. This is certainly artful but I almost think of that design sensiblity as a kind of craft rather than art. Maybe this is a false dichotomy.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, let me articulate that a little better.

What I mean is that the way Valve uses things like silhouettes and lighting is such that if you change them it would affect the way the game is played. This makes elements of the visual design more than just ornaments.

Thinking about this again though, I suppose this isn't really analogous to Wagner's idea of the 'Total Artwork'.

Haha, never mind!

Anonymous said...

Damn. I've had a gesamtkunstwerk/bit generations piece in my drafts folder for three months now. What you have here is way better. You snooze, you lose!

Nels Anderson said...

Seriously, I don't know how you can write three posts like this is less than a week. I could not pass on expressing my amazement, so consider it expressed.

I don't have much to add beyond games as Gesamtkunstwerk is an interesting idea, although I hope the opera analogy doesn't catch on (mainly because I just don't like opera).

Anonymous said...

"In 1949, Richard Wagner articulated his theory of modern art in an essay entitled The Art-Work of the Future."


Iroquois Pliskin said...

@thesimplicity: Man, you still have to write that article. Bit Generations is supposed to be pretty rad from what I hear. It needs to be theorized.

Anonymous said...

Here's something that has been bugging me recently:

The concept of beauty and the sublime, pretty much what Kant spelled out, is about the experience of the object or the form. So, to put it into the terms of this discussion, Wagner wanted to create something that would totally overwhelm the audience, they would sense the sublime because they could not comprehend everything possible in his total art work and, as such, touch something of the infinite.

Fair enough.

But games work differently. Operas are about sitting there and having them wash over you. Games have a bit of this. But games start with the idea of the player--the interactor--from which whatever aesthetic pleasure or beauty must come.

In other words, games are Wagner + interaction. Or, as I read in a paper long ago, Disneyland is Wager + interaction.

Here's what's bugging me about this. If you follow this line of beauty on the left, play on the right, then you are well down the road to suggesting a new aesthetic, one of active experience and not simply beauty in and of itself.

When you think about games in Wagnerian terms, I wonder if you do damage to the thing you want to understand better--the feeling of playing.

I guess what all this boils down to is a gap in game studies around aesthetics. The old models can't quite figure out what to do with a real total art work!

-- David

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@david: this is a good point.

I think what you're getting at here is that most forms of classical aesthetics imply that the listener is, in some sense, passive with regard to the artwork. They let the sublime wash over them. And this is a problem for games, because in games you're active towards the artwork and contribute to its unfolding.

I think there are some models of classical aesthetics-- even Kant-- that might help in understanding the active side of aesthetic experience we find in games.

Aside from the more viceral and kintetic elements of art or gameplay there are also this way that your mind is continually using its imagination and understanding to capture the formal qualities of the artwork. Running ahead to anticipate elements, casting back to key in on important details. In a game you're absorbing rules, enemy behaviors, and the like; in a novel or musical piece maybe you're apprehending the relationship between the themes or the deeper structure of the work.

In either case Kant would say that apprehending the formal qualities of a artwork requires the active side of the intellect, and sometimes he speaks of the free play of the imagination to describe this element. This understanding of artistic experience might get us a little further than Wagner's appeal to titantic feeling.

On the other hand, I think you could push radically on the interactive element of gaming and say that a game isn't an artwork at all. You might say, with some justification, that gaming is more like dancing or acting than listening to an opera.

Anonymous said...

I can see a couple of ways out of this aesthetic dilemma, I'm just not sure they are satisfactory.

The first, is, as you suggest, to assume some sort of implied participation in the apprehension of all art. Operas don't actually wash over me--I actively listen to them.

But this seems to diminish the importance of the actual interaction in games. I mean, there is something different in listing to Born to Run and playing Gran Turismo.

Second, you suggest that maybe games are not art. OK, but this seems to ignore the fact that playing games certainly feels like an aesthetic experience. And it also suggests that we have a solid agreement on art and beauty, which I think this conversation belies.

Third, following the whole new media art tradition, we can see games as a form of digital art emphasizing the break down of the subject object and viewer object dichotomies. The game event, the act of playing, in this view, is really the art. But, of course, this just loops back around to the initial problem of whether traditional aesthetics can really comprehend games (or, in this case, new media art).

Maybe it comes down to this: Dance is art, dancing is a performance of art. Following that, looking at games as art fails the test. Looking at playing of games as art work.

And maybe that's where you were going with the original post!

-- David

Anonymous said...

But of course we are all of us suffering under the ongoing regime of the gesamkunstwerk, it is the domianant contemporary aesthetic ideology of videogaming! What else defines mainstream triple-A gaming than a top-heavy, overblown pageant of brilliant sets, flamboyant costumery, pompous melodramatic narrative, and virtuosic, over-the-top performance, all combined to overwhelm us, immerse us, and bludgeon us into an adoring stupor.

What games like Everyday Shooter and Portal offer is a counterpoint to this bombastic tsunami. To me the games that feel most artistically promising are those that understand the power of the light touch.

Like Nietzsche, we must struggle against the Wagnerian, not because it is simply bad or evil, but precisely because it is that which most defines our time. Total Theater is the element that makes Gears of War different from Baseball and Chess, World of Warcraft different from Golf, Bridge, or, indeed, Starcraft. All of these games have tonality of gameplay, what makes a gesamkunstwerk is an overbearing *totality* of senusal effects.

As game designers and critics we must not allow ourselves to drown in the seductions of total theater if we are interested in what comes next. And we most certainly should be. Self-overcoming is our job.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@david: Thanks for the follow-up it's unusually well thought-out.

I think you're right that option #1 undersells the interactive element of the medium. What appeals to me though is this idea that aesthetic appreciation appeals on understanding the deeper grammar that informs the surface effects; because gameplay intrinsically involves the grasp of rules (the rules of the game-world) I think there's some useful take-away here.

I don't see why option #2 requires any agreement about art and beauty, although I probably invited this by suggesting games aren't "art." What I should say is that games are an aesthetic experience but that unlike other forms of aesthetic experience (looking at a painting or watching a film) it's inherently participatory. what I like about the dancing/acting metaphor is that it captures both the active element and also the responsiveness to a deliberately structured work (the song or script)

I'm not fond of route #3 though I can see why it appeals to people. I'm temperamentally old-school, which is not a good reason to dislike this route. As to the basic question of whether or not to jettison classical aesthetics entirely I think the best guideline is just to do the work and see whether the principles and ideas illuminate the new media at hand. This is generally what I try to do here.

Anyways, I don't know if that's all clear but thanks for commenting.

@frank: man, this is one great comment.

I think I said before that what I take from Wagner isn't the fascistic titanism but the commitment to the integration of the various aesthetic elements into a cohesive whole. And as I said I think this is best conceived as a kind of aestheticisation of gameplay the likes of which you see in everyday shooter.

Also, "self-overcoming is our job" is great

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