Nebulous and Murky: The Definition of Art

When you ask Google to define art you get two definitions:

  1. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
  2. The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.

But what is the problem with these definitions?  At first glance they seem pretty obvious.  Art is anything that requires creativity.  But here’s the issue.  How do we determine whether something is creative or not?  How do we determine if something has raw, emotional power?  For some people, action movies could be seen as art because they might identify with and feel for the characters.  Yet, in general society, action movies are not considered artistic.  So where’s the true line here?  Where does something cross over into “being art”?

The simple answer is that no one really knows.

Everybody seems to have their own specific definition of what art is to them.  I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.  The same thing goes for art.  Someone might look at an old Picasso painting and deem it a work of high art, whereas someone else might look at it and see nothing more than a raving lunatic’s imagination.  It’s all subjective, changing from person to person.

There is no one concrete definition for art.  A lot of people out there talk about art like there is one, but there isn’t.  We all define art for ourselves based on the things that impact us the most.  We start running into problems when people try to use their personal definition of art as a general standard.

If you’ve read my blog enough, you know that I usually don’t care about the debate of what is art and what isn’t, especially in the video game world.  It’s a pointless and pretentious endeavor that does little more than muddy up the waters.  I mean I can understand why people care about the debate so much.  If people accept a general ruling that something is classified as art, then said thing is given a much bigger lease to do what it wants.  That’s why there’s a number of people out there debating whether or not video games can be art, because if video games are classified as art then games like Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t be such a large target for the anti-video game crowd.

But while I understand it, I don’t endorse it.  We shouldn’t be striving for one, universal definition of art.  Because what would that accomplish?  Imagine if we actually agreed upon a definition.  We agreed that art was “this” or “that”.  Then, imagine you went to an art show.  Wandering among the different shades of colors, the different styles and perspectives, you find yourself drawn to one specific painting.  The hues of color wash over you, shifting you into a magical state of being.  You feel uplifted, enlightened by this painting.  You absolutely adore it.  It’s beautiful, soulful, and downright pleasing to the eyes.  But then you find out that it’s not art, because it doesn’t meet the definition perfectly.  How would that make you feel?  How would you react to the news that something that spoke to you so clearly wasn’t able to be art because of one little flaw or one missed criteria?

Art is not mathematical (although math can be artistic in nature).  There is no one formula for deciding what is and isn’t art.  And you know what?  There shouldn’t be.  Art has changed so much over the course of human history that even if we wanted to, we most likely couldn’t find a concrete definition for it.  We can say that it’s anything that has emotional power, but that is still subjective in nature.

For a good example on the subjectivity of art, let’s take a look at an indie video game called Thirty Flights of Loving.  This is a game that a lot of people would consider artistic.  They would say that it provides a great meta-examination of video game storytelling because it tells a minimalist tale with the bare basics of a plot and characters.  They discuss it endlessly, finding hidden meanings in every scene.

But me?  I found it boring, pretentious, and over far too quickly.

I really wanted to like this game, but I couldn’t.  For starters, the game is only ten minutes long.  There wasn’t enough time for me to connect with anything in the game.  All I really got out of it is that your character was some kind of secret agent or something on a mission that goes wrong somehow.  There are flashbacks to some kind of romantic involvement with a girl that take place throughout, but the whole thing feels so disjointed and bland that I couldn’t get into it.  There was no real characters in the game (no real voices either, it’s that fake kind of talking like in The Sims), no real depth to the plot, and before I could even put anything together, the game just ends.  There isn’t even any real gameplay to be had.  You essentially just walk around and stuff happens (which is fine if it’s done right).  In the end, I found myself profoundly disappointed.

The entire point of the game I guess was to strip out all the fluff you normally see in a story.  And on that point they succeeded very well.  The problem is that the fluff is what keeps us interested.  The characters, the setting, the exposition……all of it is there to keep us grounded in the narrative.  If you strip that out, all you find yourself left with is a sequence of vague events with no real context.

At least, that’s how I felt about the game.  You might think differently, and that’s the beauty of art.

Art is subjective.  Art cannot be defined.  Art resists being defined.  Art speaks to people in unique ways, providing someone with their own personal experience.  No one’s experience will be identical to the other.  They may have similarities, but no one will have the exact same one.  Art gets us to discuss things, to tackle issues we might not otherwise consider.  Art brings things to the forefront that we might wish to ignore.  Art tells us things about ourselves as a species.  It shifts our perspectives, even if  just for a moment.  And art can change us in the long run, for better or for worse.

We make art, and art makes us.

 

Another week, another post.  Thank you all for taking the time to read my ramblings.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a great week everyone.

 

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Story Analysis: Among the Sleep

If you can remember from almost a year ago (this blog is almost a year old now, crazy how time flies isn’t it), a couple of my very first posts were story analysis pieces on a couple of my more favorite video game stories.  I only ever did these two because people didn’t seem to take to them very well, probably because they were far too long.  I also didn’t enjoy writing them as much as I thought I would, so I just abandoned the idea back then and never went back to it.  But I like analyzing stories so I decided to resurrect it, but in a new form.  Instead of treating the post like a walkthrough of the entire game, I decided to narrow it in on the major story bits.

So with that in mind, I present to you my analysis of Among the Sleep.

Warning: the following post contains spoilers for Among the Sleep, as in I spoil the entire game.  If you want to experience the story for yourself, play the game first before reading this.  Otherwise, you have been warned.

 

Among the Sleep (7)

 

Among the Sleep is an indie horror game created by Krillbite Studio, who I believe is a Norwegian game developer.  Among the Sleep is their second game (they made a small experimental game before called The Plan).  The central premise of the game is that you are a two-year old toddler who wakes up in the middle of the night to spooky stuff happening and you wander around in search of your mother, traversing a nightmarish landscape.

The game opens at the scene of your birthday.  You just turned two-years old.  You and your mother are in the kitchen, and she brings over a cake.  Sitting down, she feeds you some of it, playfully chattering with you.  Suddenly, there is a banging on the front door.  Your mother’s expression sharply changes to something resembling dread.  She tells you that she’ll be right back, and walks out of the room.  You hear her begin to yell at someone, but the details elude you because the screen warps and the audio becomes muddled and indistinct (this is the way the game reacts every time something startling, so I assume it represents fear on the toddler’s part).  But you can plainly hear two voices, your mom’s and an unknown male.  Your mom comes back with a new present.  “Look what I found,” she says.  After a moment, she picks you up and carries you upstairs, where she leaves you alone for a little bit in your playpen.

Happy time will quickly become scary time, don't you worry about that.

Happy time will quickly become scary time, don’t you worry about that.

After breaking out of the playpen (because you’re a resourceful little scamp), you discover that the new present is a teddy bear, who thanks to your two-year old imagination is alive and talkative.  He teaches you the basics of the game before you play hide and seek with one of your toys.  After all this, Teddy (he introduces himself as such) tells you that he has something to show you.  The two of you go into your little closet and close the doors, whereupon the closet seems to morph into an impossibly large nightmare closet.  After wandering through this place, you find yourself back at the doors, which your mother opens and playfully teases you about getting out of the playpen.  “You’ve got to stop hiding from mommy,” she says before putting you in your crib and singing you to sleep.

Teddy

Teddy

And then the nightmares begin.  Yay!  Because as we all know, spooky stuff only happens at night.

You wake up in the middle of the night to some strange noises.  You watch as Teddy gets picked up by an invisible force and dragged away out the door (Paranormal Activity style).  Your crib is then dragged along the ground and tips over, sending you tumbling out.  You wander out of your room, quickly finding Teddy stuck in the washing machine.  “Something is wrong,” he says, and advises you to find your mother.  You make it to your mother’s room on the ground floor, but no one is there.  As you work your way back, you get your first glimpse at the monster as you enter the living room.  It appears in front of you for a couple of seconds, causing a shrieking noise and making your screen warp like it did earlier in the game.  You find your way under the main stairs, and find a weird frozen bubble area that Teddy calls a memory.

In the memory a bright white silhouette of your mother is holding a locket.  After collecting this locket you drop down some kind of giant pipe, ending up at a playhouse overlooking a dark abyss.  In the playhouse you find a door that will only open after you put the locket into a small boiler-looking thing.  This is where you get your main objective of the game.  You need to find four memories and get the objects contained within to fully unlock the door and get to your mother.  These four objects are a locket, a music box, a storybook, and a pink elephant.  If you pay attention, these four objects appear in the beginning of the game, driving home the idea that this is a child’s imagination at work.

The majority of the game takes place in this weird nightmare land, littered with children’s toys and emblems of your house.  The game does a very good job of selling the perspective.  Everything feels like it belongs in a child’s mind or a child’s nightmare.  A rickety bridge plays colored xylophone notes as you cross it.  You wander through a dark playground filled with the ghostly sound of playing children.  Your mother’s lullaby echoes through the dark world at times, getting louder the closer you get to a new memory.  It’s all very well presented, and I must give props to the developers on this.

However, this is called “story analysis” after all, so let’s jump into the next story bit.  This actually doesn’t occur until after you get the last memory, because most of the game is focused on atmosphere and puzzle solving.  But after you pick up the final puzzle piece you start making your way back to the playhouse when the monster suddenly grabs you, or more specifically, Teddy.  You try to hang on to him, but end up plummeting into the darkness, landing in a giant spot of light.  The torn off arm of Teddy falls down, softly landing in front of you.

This is where the game’s true meaning reveals itself.  It turns out your mother is a drunk.  Not only that, but an abusive one.

Among the Sleep (10)

 

Among the Sleep (11)

This is a great scene because it shows more than it tells.  It clearly demonstrates that the monster represents your mother (which if you get a good look at it earlier you might have guessed) and that she drinks due to stress.  It also highlights the fact that the mother and the father are probably in a custody battle at the time the game takes place.  Your mother’s speech becomes more and more deranged until she finally threatens that she’ll get angry if you don’t behave yourself.  After the scene concludes, you find yourself back at the playhouse.  You insert the final memory, and go through the door to find yourself back in the closet and back in the normal house.

Wandering through the house reveals something.  What you were wandering through wasn’t just a nightmare.  It was a toddler’s perspective on a parent’s drunken rampage.  Pieces of things you saw and interacted with in the nightmare world are present on the floor.  A key you needed to unlock a gate was really just a key for a child-proofing gate at the top of the stairs.  A bottle of alcohol lies on the floor in the upstairs hallway, and things are disheveled and in disarray.  A puzzle you completed to unlock more areas in the nightmare world sits on the floor under a table downstairs.

Among the Sleep (9)

 

Among the Sleep (15)

As you continue throughout the house, you suddenly hear a quiet bit of sobbing.  You follow it to find your mother on the floor in the kitchen, leaning against a cabinet with a bottle of booze in one hand and Teddy in the other.  You take Teddy back from her, but she screams and shoves you away in anger.  Realizing what she’s done, she cries softly.  “I never meant to.  It’s too much,” she says.

There is a loud banging on the front door.  You walk through it into a bright white light, and a calm male voice talks to you.  He notices the damage to your teddy bear and asks what happened.

“Don’t worry, we’ll fix him up,” he says.  Cue credits.

 

I really enjoyed this game.  It was quite short (I finished it in about two hours), but it was memorable.  It dealt with a subject and a perspective that very few games ever have, and in such a way that made sense.  A child would be unable to comprehend the complexity of what was going on around him.  The child in this game lets his imagination runs wild, dreaming up this nightmare to cover up the horrible truth.  He operates under this weird, child-like instinct, placing his trust fully in a teddy bear he imagines to be alive.

It is clear from the outset that the game is not what it seems.  And throughout the game, you get hints at the true nature of this world the child wanders around in.  Crude drawings depict a larger figure terrifying a smaller one, causing the smaller figure to hide inside a box (read: closet).  There are bottles of alcohol strewn about the landscape that clink empty if you move them.  The monster itself is just the deranged, warped form of an adult female.  It’s clear but subtle at the same time.  There’s no five-minute long exposition scene that force-feds you the information.  It lets it all slowly dawn on you before it throws open the curtain in the final reveal.

There is a balance between clarity and obtuseness that has to be struck when telling a story, and I think Among the Sleep straddles this line extremely well.  It doesn’t try to be too secretive with its foreshadowing, nor does it blatantly beat you over the head with it.  It succeeds because it makes use of the strengths of the video game medium, namely visual art and interactivity.  It grounds you in its perspective.  As a character, the toddler cannot stand up and run for very long before he trips and falls back to his crawling position, because walking is a relatively new thing for him.  The perspective makes the game hit home far more than it would if it had been an adult character dealing with repressed childhood memories.

I hold this game up with Gone Home in the sense that it is a game that shows that it can be just as thoughtful and touching as a good book or movie.  Every medium has its share of loud and brash characters and stories.  Video games are not unique in that regard.  But they are still a relatively young medium that has yet to find its stride in the world.  Games like Among the Sleep I think show that we are taking steps in the right direction.

In short, Among the Sleep is a very good game, and I would recommend it to fans of horror and just fans of good stories in general.

 

Among the Sleep (8)

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Let me know what you think of the new and improved story analysis.  It’s much shorter than my last ones by far (about a third of the size I want to say), but I still don’t know for sure if it’s something people would enjoy.  So yeah, leave a comment and tell me what you think, and if you would like to see more of these.

Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week everybody.

 

In the Realm of Possibility: Scientific Accuracy in Fiction

Every once in a while you’ll watch a movie and you’ll think to yourself “well that’s not really possible”.  It’s a common thought, because on some level we are aware that movies take place outside the realm of our world.  They may try to imitate our reality, but they will never be our reality.  It’s all a fake.

Scientific accuracy within these fictional worlds is oftentimes nebulous.  These places often take unrealistic or improbable routes for the sake of their stories.  As it so happens, people really enjoy catching onto these inaccuracies or improbabilities and pointing them out.  Usually, it doesn’t affect them too much.  It’s one of those little things that they’ll notice and just kind of chuckle at.  But then there are those other people, the ones that will hold every little inaccuracy against the movie.  They’re the type of people who will go online and write an entire forum, blog, or social media post about it.  This is the kind of thing I take issue with.

First off, how important is scientific accuracy really?  Well it depends.  Some movies/television shows/books will tout their scientific accuracy as one of the main selling points, which can end up being a double-edged sword.  It might draw people in, but it makes any inaccuracies that exist much more glaring and harder to forgive.  I would argue that most of the time, it isn’t nearly as important as some people seem to think it is.

I remember going to see the movie Gravity with a friend of mine when it first came out in theaters.  We both really enjoyed it.  It was epic and intense.  It had great effects.  It was beautifully shot.  We both left the theater incredibly satisfied with it, and talked a lot about it on the car ride back.  And then a few days later I was hearing that some people didn’t enjoy the movie because it wasn’t perfectly scientifically accurate.  Some were even complaining about (get this) how the paper Sandra Bullock’s character reads in the pod doesn’t behave the way it would in real space.

All I could think to myself was “really, THAT’S your problem with the movie?  Some pieces of paper?”

Now I won’t profess to be the most scientifically literate person on the planet, as I’m sure there are other scientific issues with the movie.  But I honestly don’t care.  So the paper didn’t behave the way it should have?  Who cares?  Does it really impact the movie that much?  No, no it doesn’t.

Besides, actually simulating that while an actor is holding the paper would be next to impossible unless they were actually in space, which wasn’t going to happen by a long shot.

I think the question we really have to be asking ourselves isn’t “is this movie scientifically accurate” but rather “would scientific inaccuracy detract from the movie in some way?”  And oftentimes, I don’t think the answer would be yes.

Do the scientific inaccuracies make Gravity any less thrilling, any less of a spectacle?  No.  Do the scientific inaccuracies detract from the actor’s performances?  No.  Do they somehow muddy up the themes that the movie engages with?  No.  It does none of those things.  The inaccuracies have no impact on the movie whatsoever.  The only reason they’re a big deal is because some people decided to make it a big deal.

I mean think about it.  If we demanded absolute perfect science every single time, so many great movies would never have been made.  The Star Wars franchise would never have existed period, along with Star Trek.

Time travel is supposed to be scientifically impossible, and yet we still have hundreds of stories dealing with traveling through time.  So why are pieces of freaking paper such a big deal?

I realize I’m probably simplifying the issue, but that’s honestly how I feel about it.  The way some people approach scientific accuracy is so limiting to writers.  Why should we want to write anything if we’re just going to be blasted for any little inaccuracy we might have, even if the rest of what we create is pure gold?  Why are people so intent on finding the tiny flaws, in highlighting them so that they appear worse than they actually are?  I hear people complain about scientific accuracy in superhero movies for crying out loud.

Hey man, if a guy just got powers from being bitten by a radioactive spider, I think scientific accuracy is out the window on this one.

If stories had to pass some scientific fact-checking test before they could be created, I think you’d find that a great deal of them would never come to be.  Writers sometimes need to stretch and bend the rules in order to make a story work.  I mean The Martian by Andy Weir is a great little book, and the scientific accuracy is a neat detail, but I would argue that it would have been just as possible to write the same kind of story without all that.  Like I said, it’s a good detail, but it doesn’t enhance the story as much as people like to think it does.  Honestly, I found myself slightly annoyed on a few occasions when the book took several pages to explain all the science behind it.  I mean I like the detail, but really, enough is enough.

It’s called science-fiction, not science-fact.  And there’s a reason for that.

 

That’s all I have for you this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and until then, have a great week.

Five Horror Cliches That Should Just Die

You know me, I love my horror.  Creepy hallways, spooky noises, all that good stuff.  But the horror genre has hit a snag as of late.  It’s true that every genre has its tropes, those little things that keep popping up from story to story.  But horror seems like it has become overrun with these tropes.  It is stuck in a rut that is very hard to get out of..  So with that in mind, I present to you my list of five horror clichés that I think the genre would be better off without for the time being.

 

1. Let’s Split Up!

I put this one first because it’s not especially prevalent in modern horror movies, but it’s still an incredibly dumb little trope.  You know the setup: spooky things start happening and the cast of characters needs to find a way out.  So they decide to split up, usually coming up with some silly excuse like “it’ll help us cover more ground”.  Come on man, everyone knows that’s just code for “it makes it easier to pick us off one by one”.

I don’t particularly hate this trope as much as I just find it funny.  It’s the common thing people poke fun at where horror movies are concerned.  An old episode of Malcolm in the Middle had that, where the three boys get stuck on a carnival ride.  When they get out, they find that the carnival is closed for the night and they’re trapped inside.  Malcolm looks at the screen and says to the audience “this is like the beginning of every horror movie I’ve ever seen”.  Reese then chimes in with “let’s split up”, and Malcolm stares at the screen with a terrified look on his face.

So overall, not the worst cliché, but still a nonsensical one that does little more than make the main characters seem incredibly inept.

 

2. Demons…SO MANY DEMONS…

If you’ve followed my blog for long enough, you probably know that I’m sick of demons in horror movies.  It seems like every major horror movie that comes out involves demons in some way or another.  Someone gets possessed, someone makes a deal with the devil, some old house has a curse on it, you know how it goes.  Even the movie about the catacombs in Paris seemed to hint at demons, at least in the trailers.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of demons.  They make for good spooky tales.  But there is a problem when it becomes overused.  There’s really only so many different kinds of tales you can tell with demons.  After a while, they all start to run together, and it gets really boring.  Demons this, demonic possession that, it’s all the same after a while.

I like horror because of its potential to tell stories about the flaws of humanity, about the sides of ourselves that we don’t like to acknowledge exist.  The capacity for human evil is an interesting subject, because despite the fact that I prefer to see the good side of humanity, there is no denying that darker side of ourselves, that side that promotes murder, chaos, and all manner of unspeakable acts.  Supernatural stuff is fun and all, but having a good human aspect to it is what gives those stories their power.

 

3. Obvious jumpscares

Extremely long hallways…windows peering into incredibly dark rooms…a sudden cut in the music…these things all say one thing: a jumpscare is coming.  It’s so obviously telegraphed that you do one of two things: you either tense up because you hate loud noises, or you roll your eyes and groan.  But in neither scenario are you particularly scared.  And aren’t horror movies supposed to be scary?

Let’s take a look at a scene in Paranormal Activity 2.  In this scene, a woman walks into the kitchen and sits down at the table to read a newspaper or a magazine.  She sits there for about twenty seconds with nothing happening, and right as you wonder what the point is, all the kitchen drawers and cabinets come flying open with a bang.  It’s an incredibly jarring event, made more so by the fact that the scene takes place in broad daylight, whereas most of the spooky stuff tends to happen at night.  It’s effective because it breaks the convention, and it gets us when we’re least expecting it.

That is when jumpscares work best.  They are not effective just by being loud.  They are effective by being unexpected.

 

4. Musical Stings

These tend to go hand in hand with jumpscares.  But unlike jumpscares, I find musical stings to be plain annoying and never useful.

I remember playing Slender, the video game where you have to find eight pages in a dark forest while a creepy white figure in a black suit chased you around.  He has now face, and he’s known as the Slenderman.  In the game, every time you spotted him a loud musical note (like someone banging on a piano) would sound in your ears.  Instead of being scary, I found it to be really annoying.  It might make me jump, but that’s not because it’s scary.  It’s because it’s loud, and I really don’t like loud noises.

Loud noises in horror are a great way to startle someone, but when you rely on it as your main method of scaring people, it becomes downright aggravating.  It’s like someone walking behind you with a huge drum and smacking it every so often.  It might make you jump, but would it scare you?  Not really.  More than likely you’d find yourself pissed off.  You’d turn around and punch that little drummer jerk right in his smug face.

At least, that’s how I’d imagine it would happen.  Because it would be cool.

 

5. One-Dimensional Characters

There are two basic ways to drive a story forward: through characters or through events.  But, it becomes hard to do either when your characters are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes from a bygone era.

This is how I feel about such character types as the “dude bro” alpha male, the popular cheerleader who wants to have sex with everyone, the nerdy kid, and the virgin.  They become defined not by their personality, but by this weird archetype, this sort of blueprint handed down from pop culture.  And so many horror movies and games still rely on these types of things.  Have you ever watched a movie and predicted how the story was going to go for a particular character?  Usually that happens because those character types tend to have the same few story arcs that show up over and over again.

The cheerleader and the alpha male are the ones who tend to die first in typical horror movies.  And the virgin is always the last to survive.  It’s boring, it’s been done so many times before, and it’s devoid of any substance.  Stuff like that is one of the primary reasons I feel that the horror genre has gone downhill.  It’s too predictable now.  It’s like “ooh a spooky abandoned house!  I bet it’s not haunted at all!”  It becomes like a bad joke, something you tell people to elicit a groan rather than a laugh.

For horror to feel new again, characters have to be more than just stereotypes.  They have to feel alive.  They have to feel real.  They have to be believable people, someone you could see yourself meeting in real life.  The alpha male character doesn’t really exist in real life.  There are people with that type of personality, but that’s not all they are.  There are many different aspects to a person, and while it is admittedly difficult to create a layered character, especially for a two-hour movie, that doesn’t mean storytellers shouldn’t try.

Good characters drive a story forward, and keep the audience interested in their plight.

 

A lot of this will probably overlap with my “5 things I would Change About Modern Horror” post I did a while back, but I feel like it needs to be said again and again.  Change is necessary for a form of expression to survive.  Stubbornly adhering to the ways of the past will not pave the way forward, but weigh you down instead.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a great week everyone.