Black & White.



Perhaps I’m too “Wow-happy”, but Wow.

I’ve done a lot of recent postulation (for some reason) about art, and the concept of art. By some definitions, all creative expression is art. This would mean that any song by any artist is art. Okay, so this is generally bunk – few people would label “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child art by mistake, but the same could not necessarily be said for “Stan” by Eminem. To some, movies like The Ends of the Day (or any other period piece starring Anthony Hopkins) are art, whereas others get the same impressions from the original Star Wars series or even Robocop. Art museums have always had the standard fare – a painting by this guy, a sculpture by that guy. Recently art museums around the country have started to run exhibits which have come under fire for less than ideal (read: old, traditional and boring) art exhibits. On a recent trip to Dallas, I went with my wife and in-laws to see the Dallas Museum of Art where one of the exhibits on its way was on dinner plates over the years. The Museum of Modern Art Houston recently was host to a traveling exhibit showing the art of Star Wars. The neigh sayers say that this isn’t art, but rather that it’s a general dumbing down of expectations for the masses. I disagree – while The Phantom Menace is questionable, without a doubt the original Star Wars trilogy has a majestic look and feel to the spacecraft and the design aesthetics of the items in it. You don’t get the impression that these are people off of the street in the 1970’s, this is a whole different universe. As for the dinner plates, I think it’s an interesting concept – to see what people chose to stick under their food for the last several thousand years. If you don’t think there’s something to how your plates look, you’re obviously an unmarried man.

The simple fact is that any form of entertainment grows and evolves over the years, and eventually is taken seriously – the form itself hasn’t truly “arrived” until it evolves to the point wherein it can be considered a work of art. The Printed Book has attained this – in fact has done so for some time. War and Peace (which makes a great gag to have on the back of your toilet, BTW) is art, as is Gone with the Wind (a more contemporary example). Stephen King is arguable, as is anyone who’s ever written Science Fiction (Douglas Adams). The Motion Picture has achieved artform status – nearly half of Speilberg’s repertoire (Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun) falls into this category, as does films by Scorcese and Disney (early Disney). Music has achieved this – the formats change and vary enough to not categorize it in a package. Beethoven has his symphonies, and Lennon has his Sgt. Pepper’s (and no, I still don’t like the Beatles). Television is inching its way to art, but for every episode of The West Wing that nears perfection, there are far too many That’s My Bushes out there.

Which leaves the Video Game. Some say the video game will never achieve status as a form of high art so long as it has the name “game” in its title, which of course gives rise to the terms like “Interactive Entertainment”. There’s not even a unanimous decision on how it will be referred to (“Videogame”? “Video Game”? “video game”?, etc.), though a change of nomenclature hasn’t hurt other forms of entertainment (“picture show” to “talkie” to “movie” to “motion picture”). The main factor, of course is time – each form of entertainment which has achieved artform status has done so with the course of time. This explains why forms like Books and Music are so established, and why Television (with its scant 60 years) is less so. In 2002 we will have the 30th anniversary of Pong, for all intents and purposes the first commercially successful Video Game, which gave birth to the industry. However, being borne of the digital revolution and therefore subject to Moore’s Law (processors/power double every 18 months, thereby growing exponentially) the Video Game is much further along three decades in than other forms of entertainment.

All forms of art go through persecution, and Video Games are no exception. We’re probably in the thick of it right now – I would say that since Columbine is two years old now that we’re on the down slopes of it, but all it takes is another psychotic white teenager with a personal death wish, a small arsenal of dubious origin, and a desire for posthumous fame to make us climb up an even higher hill. But in reality, no art form is ever truly beyond persecution. Michaelangelo’s David is sill taboo for the yougins, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is still a tricky spot for high schools due to its usage of a certain colorful word (and the fact that it’s the choice reading material for your better assassins), and Hitman: Code 47 is just plain asking for it. Persecution is fine – you have just as much right to want me not to do something as I have to do it, within reason (so long as no one else gets hurt), but the fear comes with the authority figures. As soon as congress wants to pass laws related to the movie industry, the ratings system came into place – this is so effective the popular misconception is that it carries the force of law. As soon as music comes into question, the “parental advisory” sticker comes into view, and Video Games have the ESRB – which is now being treated like movie ratings at places like Wal-Mart and K-Mart which, to me, is a good thing.

But alas, would you believe I have been working on this exact post for a month now? Yes, the original date is June 26. Pretty sad. On the one hand, I wanted to hurry up and post something concerning Black & White, and on the other hand I wanted to get some stuff off my chest concerning art. In the last month, however, B&W fell victim to another kind of persecution – criticism over its content and the path by which it took. By content, what I mean to say is that there are a number of people who are turned off by the concept – that it’s not the traditional kind of “God” game, or that they’re used to more violent affairs. I came by my copy because a cousin-in-law didn’t like the game. That’s fine, some people won’t like it – that’s to be expected. However, one of the sad facts concerning B&W is that it needed bug fixes out of the box. This was addressed in a couple of patches – first a “beta” patch, then an official one. This would not have been so bad, were it not for the fact that Lionhead, the game studio, promised the date of the patch multiple times and was unable to deliver. In addition, they have a number of features being added to the game, but the timetable of some of them relied on the patch getting released – as the patch was delayed, so were the updates.

This kind of persecution – relentless criticism for imperfection – is almost completely unique to the PC gaming venue. The possibility of modifying the original code to fix bugs through a patch has become a double edged sword. The patch, in many people’s opinion, has become a crutch – the game can ship on time and sell many copies, then the developer can release the patch and effectively buy more time. Consequently you have the id Software’s of the world whose insistence that a game will be released “when it’s done” becomes more a matter of “just before Christmas” while “when it’s patched” becomes just after the new year. By this same logic, however, Half-Life, which keeps coming out with new patches and gameplay features, hasn’t been completed in the last three years. The simple fact is that being a PC gamer is all about patience – suffer through product delays and the need to patch your existing software and you will be treated to gaming experiences impossible elsewhere. If you want to constantly tinker with your automobile, buy a hot rod and shut up about having to fix or changing it. If you want to get from point A to point B with as little BS as possible, buy a standard car. I think you see where I’m going.

The final point of all of this drivel is that after all the hype and hysteria and after all the persecution and “ironing out”, the Video Game – whatever they call it by then – will eventually achieve the status of a legitimate art form. Much in the same way that many people looked at the better works of Palblo Picasso or listened to Exile on Main Street and asked, “what the hell is this crap?”, this is the self same reaction that Black & White received from a large number of people. Tastes are one thing – if it’s not your thing then it’s not your thing – but I can’t help but wonder how many people merely turned off to it because it was too different. The game System Shock was largely ignored when it was released due to its proximity and being the opposite of the game Doom, the aforementioned Exile had the misfortune of following Sticky Fingers, and I can’t help but wonder how many people were disillusioned when Unbreakable turned out to be nothing like The Sixth Sense. However, Lionhead lucked out in that a number of people have purchased Black & White (though since most places have a Draconian policy concerning taking back software, this may not mean anything – witness the million people who purchased E.T. for the Atari 2600), and there is enough enthusiasm on the developer’s end to not only come out with the obligatory sequels and add-on packs, but to spin off a Black & White Studios from Lionhead, so the future looks bright for our odd little game.

And that’s a good thing because; love it or hate it, Black & White, and the games like it, are the best hope we have to help progress the Video Game to a legitimate art form.

On the topic of more frequent updates, I am considering upgrading this site to Blogger.