Last week I determined that Guitar Hero 5, though an excellent game in its own right, does not qualify as a work of art. Nevertheless, the Guitar Hero franchis—and, of course, the Rock Band franchise—have gone on to great commercial success and appeal to a broad range of gamers and non-gamers alike. There is one game in the rhythm-action genre, however, that was largely overlooked following its release on the Playstation 2 and has since found enough of a niche following to warrant a PSP makeover not too long ago. The game to which I am referring is known as Gitaroo Man, and I believe it provides a perfect follow-up to the examination of Guitar Hero using the same criteria I have laid out previously.

Unlike Guitar Hero, Gitaroo Man is played using the Dual Shock controller, and the gameplay is indeed a literal battle. The characters in the game use their instruments and their music as weapons, and you control the action by tracing a line with the analog stick and pressing the attack button in time with the music/visuals when in Battle Mode and pressing the corresponding button in time with the music/visuals when in Guard Mode. (In case you’re wondering, Gitaroo Man predates Guitar Hero, but I don’t think the game would benefit from the gimmicky controller, anyway.) The gameplay is a bit more complicated than Guitar Hero, but it works and it’s fun and it’s rewarding to master. I’ve seen a few people who are able to pick up and play with some degree of alacrity, but just about everyone struggles at the start. The struggle brings all the more satisfaction once you manage to complete the first stage, though, and then more when you achieve that first A, and then even more when you complete that first stage in Master’s Mode after you thought you beat the game and couldn’t imagine it getting any harder. There are only ten stages in the game, and even less of a selection for the Vs. Mode, but it’s impossible not to want to play them over and over again in hopes of achieving that unthinkable S or playing those elusive alternate verses that appear randomly in the more advanced songs.

The songs themselves work perfectly both in terms of the gameplay and simply as songs. You can hear the attacks and the counterattacks in the way that each section responds to the last, and once you get to Master’s Mode and have to play every note that you hear, you really appreciate the layout of each piece and the way the song builds to your final reward of completing the number. The gameplay would be meaningless, however, if the songs weren’t good enough on their own for you to want to hear them and want to play them, which is why it is important that every stage is unique and provides a different style of music, with the only disappointment in the lineup being a regrettable reggae/hip-hop number midway through the game.

The visuals are 2-D and cartoony, but they provide the perfect complement to the musical experience. “Activity” is the first word that comes to mind when I think of each battle because there is so much going on in the background that it is impossible to soak all of it in while trying to focus on playing—it’s almost as if the visuals create an extra challenge of not getting distracted from the task at hand, except their purpose is by no means to distract, only to enhance. From the animation style to the character design, nothing else looks like Gitaroo Man, which is undoubtedly more important than having photo-realistic animation or high pixel counts and frame rates.

There is nothing complex about the game’s story, but there is no denying that the game is incredibly story-driven. It’s a story of personal growth and believing in oneself with the token boy-meets-girl subplot included, but the important part is that it all absolutely works. There are two moments in the game that almost inevitably move me to tears, and they are the respective climaxes of the love-story plot and the personal-growth plot that occur in the final two stages. The way every element comes together—graphics, music, and story—is nothing short of cathartic. The various modes of story-telling that are employed in the game are impressive as well: the cut-scenes, the still-frames with text, and even the in-game action all work together as a cohesive whole, making for a more complete experience than you would ever hope to find in most great video games, let alone a rhythmic-action title.

This should be obvious by now, but I believe that Gitaroo Man for the Playstation 2 is not only a one hundred percent work of art, but a genuine masterpiece. Everything from the opening theme right down to the final credits is finely crafted with superb attention to detail, and I have no hesitations in declaring this game an absolute transcendent work.

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It’s probably going to be a long time before video games gain the recognition they deserve as works of art, but I for one am a firm believer that they belong in the discussion. I can think of many games I’d consider to be works of art, but right now I’m more interested in examining a title about which I’m not so sure. I’m actually on a ten year lag when it comes to video games, and the only current titles I play extensively are all Guitar HeroGuitar Hero 5 for the Playstation 3, in particular. Before I delve into any specifics, however, I think it would be useful to establish some parameters for the evaluation of video games.

There are a few different elements of a video game that must come together for it to qualify as art. The visuals are the most obvious, and while I do not believe that good graphics can make a bad game good, I do believe that the graphics should not be so bad as to detract from the appeal of the game. In other words, good graphics alone won’t make a game a work of art, but bad graphics will disqualify it from being so. With the advent of HDTV, it’s easier than ever to place too much value in pretty visuals, and even though I list it first, this is the lowest priority in terms of critique.

The score of a game is another key element to consider. Music by itself can create mood and convey emotion, and can amplify any experience when coupled well with the visuals. It’s almost a shame that digitized music is no longer the norm, but now video games have no excuse not to employ a proper musical score given the capabilities of the systems and the resources available to the developers.

The narrative is another element in this equation, but it does not apply to every game. An argument can be made for sports titles as art, but they obviously do not have any narrative elements worth mentioning. The same goes for racing games and fighting games—and maybe even musical simulations like the one in question here. Nowadays it’s hard to find any game that does not include RPG elements, but it’s even harder to find one in which the story isn’t an afterthought. Narrative doesn’t just mean plot, either; it entails how the story is conveyed, whether that be visually, via text boxes, etc.

Gameplay is the one unique element that you can’t get from other media. How the gamer interacts with the in-game environment is crucial to the experience, and if an engine is broken then the game cannot be considered. I prefer simplicity over super-complex controls, but if a game with a high learning curve is worth the effort, then it makes the product all the more impressive. Pick-up-and-play is a plus, but there has to be enough there to keep you wanting to progress, both in the game and as a player.

In terms of Guitar Hero 5, the narrative element is immediately out. Yes, the game has a story mode, but it’s really nothing more than a sequence of songs. The graphics are decent, though mostly superfluous because you usually can’t enjoy them while playing; this is one of the few games out there that has background visuals instead of background music (not that other games don’t have background visuals, but that’s pretty much all you get here). It is especially cool when the animation syncs up with the music, though, which shows a nice attention to detail and good commitment by the developers to create custom animation solely for particular moments in a few songs. Gameplay works surprisingly well, too. There’s a fairly high learning curve if you want to play on the highest difficulty, but it’s rewarding and it’s enough to make you feel like you could actually be playing the song (in the in-game world, of course—not in real life).

Ironically enough, the soundtrack actually works against the game in terms of its artfulness. Sure, many of the songs in the playlist are art in their own rights, but the game cannot simply piggyback off their status. Having songs in the game that can be said to be art does not make the game art. They don’t exactly contribute to the game because they are the game, except being able to play Guitar Hero does not make you an artist (unless there is an art to playing video games, which there very well may be, but that discussion will have to wait).

I can’t really say that GH5 is useful—sure, it provides you with something to do at parties, and, yes, it can teach you some basic rhythms, but it obviously can’t teach you to be a musician—but I can’t say that it is art, either. Nor can I say that the game is beautiful, which is of course the primary condition as far as Aestheticism goes. Guitar Hero is perhaps too much of a novelty, too arcadey, too gimmicky, but it does what it attempts to do: give an otherwise unmusical gamer a taste of what it’s like to make sweet music. The game at least doesn’t try to be art, which is far better than having pretensions and not succeeding.

My first post was a bit of a general statement on my purpose here (or lack thereof), so this time I will attempt to provide some pointlessness in action. My first object of unscientific observation is a film I saw in theater about a month or so ago—Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. Having no copy of the film before me, my recollections may be vague and spotty, and there may be some spoilers in the coming analysis, but I certainly recall coming away from the film with a sense of gratification achieved only upon the consumption of something completely superfluous.

As I mentioned before, the question on just about everyone’s mind after watching a film or reading a book or what have you is “Okay, well, what did that mean?” We’re so ingrained with this search for meaning that we often judge things based on what we think they mean, and when we don’t know what something means…well, then we just dismiss it, don’t we? (Sorry, I didn’t mean to get all collective there and lump everyone together into the ubiquitous general “audience”—I’ll try not to do that).

The meaning of The Men Who Stare at Goats is not readily apparent—at least, not to me, anyway. Maybe there are some brighter folks out there who can find a message regarding the state of the U.S. military in the film, or war in general, or the relationship between the counterculture and the dominant culture, or the dangers/pleasures (if there’s a difference between dangers and pleasures) of LSD and other recreational drugs. I, however, can claim no such brightness, unless I’m sat down with a copy of the film and pressured to find some relevance between the film and the above topics. That wouldn’t necessarily be the film talking, though—that would be me being a mouthpiece for an outside issue. I believe that this is a film that is best enjoyed as a story, and sometimes (I think this may be Stephen King I hear somewhere in the background, but don’t ask me in what or when) a story is just a story.

I’m thinking primarily of the ending of the film in my overall evaluation of it. The fates of Lyn Cassidy and Bill Django (played by George Clooney and Jeff Bridges, respectively) are left ambiguous; Larry Hooper, the film’s “villain” played by Kevin Spacey, suffers a black eye but is not ultimately brought to any sort of definitive justice; and Bob Wilton, the film’s storyteller played by Ewan McGregor, gets the story for which he was looking and apparently even more than that. Really, that’s probably what the film was about if it was about anything: Wilton’s story. The psychic spies (or Jedi Knights, as they are so often called) are a nice gimmick, but nowhere in the film is the audience provided with concrete evidence of anyone having any real psychic abilities…until the very end. The film almost goes out of its way to convince you that there are no real Jedi warriors in this particular world, but then, at the last second, it turns that assessment on its head, and makes you wonder whether this is the only real Jedi, or if they were all Jedi, or if Jedi are only existent in galaxies far far away, galaxies to which everyone is privy except for Bob Wilton, the fact of which is never allowed to escape you during the film (oh, the irony).

Really, the ending doesn’t provide much closure to the film. It’s the kind of ending that makes one say “What, that’s it? Why didn’t they explain what really happened and tell me what I’m supposed to think?” Negative capability is what that’s called, and I personally like it when things go unexplained, because usually the explanations suck. Since we’ve already mentioned Jedi, we may as well stick with the topic and bring in everyone’s favorite little midichlorians, a perfect example of something awesome (The Force) getting murdered through over-explanation (“No, Ani, it has nothing to do with ancient mystical powers, it’s actually more akin to a really high sperm count”). Anyway, when films choose not to explain, they flirt with the possibility of accusations of pointlessness, and the films that don’t shy away from a little flirting and even go so far as to show some leg are often the best ones in my book.

In the end, the film tells a good story without beating you over the head with any preachy moralizing or heavy-handed messages. It makes you laugh, and it makes you think. Is it beautiful? Yeah, I’d say it is. Is it a great movie? Probably not, but it’s solid all around. So, then, is it art? I daresay yes. This is a film that doesn’t try to be anything other than a film, and it succeeds at doing just that.

For Art’s Sake

January 4, 2010

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as

long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for

making a useless thing is that one admires it in-

tensely.

All art is quite useless.

The above passage is the end of the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The preface itself is a sort of manifesto on art, regarding both its creation and its interpretation. Wilde was a firm believer in the notion of art for art’s sake and is generally placed at the forefront of the Aesthetic Movement, and I believe the preface to Dorian Gray serves as the best indicator of what that movement was all about. There is an elitist tone to his ideas, and one may even claim that what I call a manifesto others may call an indignant defense of his controversial book, but I don’t think any of that detracts from the work itself or the ideas it espouses.

Of course, it makes sense that I wouldn’t. Anyone who is a proponent of Wildean thought would naturally focus on the work as a self-contained entity and ignore the outside influences such as the historical context and the author’s personal life and attitudes. I do not mean to say there is no value in such criticism—one would be ignorant to discount all other methods of interpretation in stubborn support of one’s own preferred method. For one reason or another, though, I feel that the ideas of the Aesthetic Movement have been largely forgotten or disregarded by critics and consumers (not that there’s any way to separate those two groups), and while I do not intend on subscribing to those ideas as if I were a living relic from the end of the nineteenth century, I do find that my own method of interpretation derives most heavily from the Wildean school.

To bill myself as an art critic, however, would be somewhat misleading. There are many different ways one can define art, and there are many different media in which art can be produced. There is also no definite delineation between art and life; indeed there are many aspects of one’s life that can be considered art. Maybe I do maintain a rather broad definition of art, but that is only because I do not want to eliminate the possibility of something being art before it is given its due attention. Also, I’m a fan of liminality—I like to explore the spaces between life and art and try to determine where a particular work or event might fall, or if it is somehow capable of existing somewhere in between.

My main area of interest, however, is pointlessness. My mission is not to convince the world that useless art is useful because it’s useless—that’s the sort of notion that goes without saying for me. I think it’s pretty easy for anyone to revel in something pointless simply because he enjoys it, but I’m not really out to justify guilty pleasures, either. I like the thought that all art is useless or pointless, but that does not mean that all pointless things are art. This is what I plan on exploring: what is it that makes something pointless a work of art? Does a work’s pointlessness somehow make it more artistic? What about works that people consider to be not so pointless—are they still art? I’m certainly not above challenging my own beliefs, either: I’m willing to explore the dangers of art for art’s sake, of seemingly harmless works with insidious undertones and harmful messages. This is exactly the kind of morality that Wilde was seeking to eliminate from art, but there’s no denying that the debate surrounding art and morality still rages today.

Employing a broad definition of art also allows me to maintain a wide field of study in my examination of pointlessness. I’m open to pretty much any form of media—literature, film, paintings, theatre, music, video games, web videos, etc.—and even aspects of life outside of media (life being a form of art and all). I’m also new to this whole realm of blogging, so, who knows? Maybe even other blogs will find their way into my study of pointlessness…

And in case anyone is wondering how pointless it is to have a blog about pointlessness…well, that’s the point, now isn’t it?