Oh boy do i have feelings about this… Buckle up for a ramble pals, sorry in advance.
I’m always upset about the way all popular media criticism clived from “politics do not exist” to “everything is a singular political entity which can be distilled into a single message, with a correct take that thou must adopt on it”-- i can’t explain comprehensively how that happened but i think it’s pretty clear that modern social media, attention economy and consumption/engagement dynamics explain a lot of the shift, and even with the best intentions it’s really hard to not fall into that kind of facile criticism practice because the platforms we use and the vocabulary we developed both point to something like this. I have a bunch of points to make in reflection to that so i’ll try to keep each sort of compartimentalized in its own paragraph, hah
I read this from TheCatamites about difficulty in games, it’s a very good read with lots of points adjacent to this discussion but there’s a footnote that stuck with me in particular, on the incentive to intellectualize our gaming experiences, in particular to legitimize playing on easy mode OR legitimize sinking hour after hour on a difficult game, trying to find a moral hook that justifies what was mostly an indulgence either way:
Just imagine it - instead of endless essays on “how completing, not completing, not playing VIDEOGAME made me a better person, worse person, more divorced person delete as appropriate” we would instead get endless essays on “how playing VIDEOGAME left me more or less the same person, I suppose, I don’t really remember. But I did like the beach level”.
Like-- yeah!! Sometimes you just play a videogame because it feels good like flopping your pillow over to the fresh side feels good or having a piss after a long work meeting feels good, lol. It doesn’t have to be Noble or Life-Changing. And making games that “only” evoke these kinds of emotions is fine, actually.
I think a lot of us right now feel a sense of political urgency because we’re in a time of global crisis, but it’s not quite started hitting yet (at least not for privileged fucks from the global north, which i assume is most of this forum’s members–it certainly is me). So we want to do something, anything, but what we know how to do is make pixels move on a computer screen, and the crisis isn’t There enough that we give that up for the sake of something that actually helps like all becoming surgeon-therapist-builder-engineers or whatever. (segue: this is also because we currently live in an individualistic society, so we struggle to formulate a solidary collective uprising, which wouldn’t necessitate this kind of personal ground-zero moment).
Probably a lot of this feeling comes from the intersection of the capitalist & neoliberal propaganda that your job, your passion, your pleasure and your expertise should all overlap in one perfect singular Activity that you dedicate yourself to entirely - it’s hard to feel like we can both meaningfully engage ourselves with politics and make our nonpolitical art, so we try to merge both. Turns out it doesn’t work out for most people and we all feel hollow as hell now!! woops.
Gonna introduce this one with a quote too, from a Felix Colgrave tweet:
The idea that art is for making “statements” seems unnatural to me. I find art much better at addressing unresolved thoughts than resolved ones- things you could rant about for hours without saying anything conclusive. If you have something concise to say, words are great at that
This is definitely also how i feel about the art i make. I’ve never made art with the motivation of delivering a message, and i don’t see why i’d do that when i can just say the thing i want to say. I’m making art because i feel compelled to create Things which i don’t even really understand myself, i just know there is a resonance between the medium i’m using and an aesthetic instinct i’m feeding it. This is not to say that art is formless apolitical chaos, but to expect it to deliver a neatly packaged Progressive Message is kinda nonsense imo. It’s not how art works at all!
To an extent i feel like contemporary conceptual art and the established process surrounding it–the expectation of an artist’s statement that explains the piece, and often supersedes the actual emotional resonance of the piece as a result and dominates its discussion–is trivializing and commodifies art into packaged statements, and this is increasingly the critical framework we apply to culture at large as well. It also usually leads to shite art.
Making art in my opinion is a way to explore subject matters that escape language–either because the vocabulary for it doesn’t exist, or because the subject doesn’t resonate with rational readings provided by language like it could resonate with emotional and sensory readings, or any reason. Often i find that if i try to explain my games, or any kind of art i make, with words; i lose a lot of what makes it compelling to begin with. It often trivializes the point dramatically or outright misses it. If i take Orchids to Dusk as an example: it’s a game where you don’t have a lot of oxygen, so you die pretty fast… but if you don’t rush and panic, and instead calmly enjoy these last few minutes, you can get the cool death. Doesn’t that sound trite as all fuck?? But people still cry after playing the game, so i guess it’s not as trite as it sounds!! And that is the power of aesthetics, i guess.
And that being said, Orchids is still a game that is very easy to spin into a Politically Apt Statement if you know what to write about it. But i think the phenomenon is widespread, and often games have a depth that can’t be summarized in a convenient PR blurb. I also think about how some people recently talked about how hard it is to talk about games that do not rely on a singular pillar but are just… good in a wide variety of ways, making it difficult to explain really what they are about and why they’re good.
In the end i think that this assumption that culture makes statements is kind of reversed–often culture is reflective way more than it is declarative. By that i mean both that culture reflects the society it is made in, through the material means that allowed it to be created and the mindsets that the creators adopt; and also that what the spectator brings to the experience becomes part of that reflection and hence each person’s experience of a cultural artifact will be different.
Culture is a multifaceted prism that you can shine your uhh personal-experience-light-beam through to make it split and splatter into a thousand different colours and i don’t know where i’m going with this metaphor but the point is, there is no Statement, there is only bouncing reflections and resonances. As an artist, i feel like it’d be presumptuous to pretend like i know exactly what my art will say and how it’ll resonate. I have vague ideas and i try to make things that don’t suck, but fundamentally i make my art because i’m vain and i want to bring this into the world like i’m screaming I FEEL THIS. DO YOU FEEL IT TOO, WHEN YOU LOOK AT IT? and i don’t think that’s a political statement.
Media criticism that doesn’t have space for nuance and mushy, not-explicitly-political-but-still-resonating discussions is honestly dangerous and predatory as hell. Most contemporary media criticism is like this imo, because of the economic incentives behind it–the goal isn’t to deepen our understanding of the culture we bask in, it’s to elevate oneself with the end purpose of solidifying a platform via social capital in the pursuit of financial stability in competition with other critics. The effect of social media virality and the attention economy is that dropping a powerful and that’s the tea at the end of a firey take is usually more rewarding, in very material ways, than bringing a nuanced discussion to the table.
This i think entertains the dynamic where we not only want every game to be more political, but also fish for more political-ness in games in a way that feels like tunnel vision.
Also, while i agree with the statement that “everything is political”, i don’t think it’s a healthy lens through which to look at cultural media, especially if the media is trying to tackle complex issues. There are times where the difference between a complex issue treated respectfully and problematic indulgence is clear cut, but oftentimes it really isn’t, not to mention that media actually doesn’t fall neatly into such a binary system.
The most extreme results of this come up with the more taboo kinds of media, porn and sex in particular. There’s a bunch of relevant threads and articles on the subject which i think are good, though i don’t remember all details of them and they might not be Completely Politically Bulletproof (though precisely we need to be able to have non-bulletproof discussions for these things!!). There’s this one on Problematic Kinks and pornographic content, this one on portrayal of sexual violence in GoT (or any kind of story invested in medieval social dynamics)–and of course the current controversy on that cyberpunk game and the transxploitation ingame adverts. This isn’t of course to say that there aren’t very good counter-arguments to be made about any of these (there certainly are), but the fact is that the critical language and framework that pop criticism uses doesn’t afford for the necessary nuance of these kinds of subjects.
There’s also a tangential point here about the imperial anglocentric dimension of this criticism, and the way it inherently privileges those who can work out a presentation of their work that makes it look good. A lot of online criticism is tied to the use of specific terms that you’ll be berated for not keeping up with, and we’ve seen the kind of xenophobic sentiment it leads to when people from other places (in games this is especially visible with estern european/russian games, or chinese ones) try to explain their intent.
This doesn’t respond directly to the question of whether making games that don’t make explicit political statements is Fine, Actually; but i think it’s a question that relates to it insofar that the dominating framework for understanding politics in cultural media seems like an unhelpful trainwreck of shit to me. lol.
I don’t have a clean conclusion to this but to go back to the question of mundane games and art: i think down the road we’re also flesh machines with needs that aren’t always super interesting or morally important, but it’s still fine to make things that fill those needs, whether that’s a 2D platformer with a cute gimmick or unchallenging instrumental music or pottery that looks nice or whatever. Social media and neoliberalism are fucking us up with this giant incentive to become 100% engaged, uncancellable politics terminators day and night but in the end we’re still just lumps of cells that breathe and poop and like to feel nice, and it’s cool if we go back to embrace being just that from time to time.