Why do we see art and commerce as mutually exclusive?
Art and commerce. Critics and savvy audiences see the two concepts as diametrically opposed warriors constantly fighting each other. They stand on opposite sides of the same field, contrary in philosophy and practice. We see art and commerce as mutually exclusive.
But that’s simply not the case, even if it does sometimes seem like the big sellers are soulless, artless husks and the personal, intelligent works get unnoticed by the masses. We’ve seen games with big ambition and big ideas crack the top of the sales charts. We’ve seen games with genuine authorial vision outsell the generic drudge studios cram out like a factory. Sometimes, an audience will crave something bold and daring. It’s why the indie scene has exploded, it’s why 1970s Hollywood was a minefield of incendiary masterpieces. And it’s why some publishers will give carte blanche to creators to go hogwild. Got to give the people what they want. And sometimes, a group of intensely creative and ambitious men and women get a lot of money and channel their ambition and creativity into a distinctive, thoughtful game that doesn’t deserve to be referred to as a “product,” like it’s a DVD player, or something.
What makes a populist game artistic? The same question can be asked in reverse; what makes an “art game” popular? For the purposes of this article, we’ll just use the term “art game” as a broad term encompassing a thematically-complex work that normally wouldn’t have much traction outside the hardcore circles of gaming academics if not for certain mechanics. Even though that term also indicates a narrow definition of what “art” is in the interactive form, but it’s easy shorthand that allows concise wording. If this seems limiting to you, congratulations, you’ve stumbled upon one of the most tired but nagging arguments in art academia.
Let’s start with BioShock Infinite. I could start with the original, but volumes (even more than Infinite) have already been written about it’s worth as a mainstream art game, so let’s go with the more recent, and much more maligned, successor. What’s here for it to be a popular art game? What satiates both the compulsive need to feel empowered and to be in control (the mainstream demand) and the desire to be questioned and challenged intellectually (the academic demand)?
Well, that kind of takes care of “why was it popular?” When you advertise a game where the player zooms around on electric rails why blasting American racists in the face, you can bank on some folks thinking that sounds like fun. More than that, it’s empowering. Infinite deftly makes the player feel empowered as Booker Dewitt.
Until the game strips you of that power and makes it clear that you’re just another fish in a big sea. And all the other fish hate you, especially the fish you thought was your best friend.
So, Infinite does challenge the player. When the game reveals its place in the franchise, unveils its thematic endgame, and how unheroic its main character actually is, it deflates your entire sense of power.
This is one aspect that makes an “art game” popular. By luring in players with a promise of power, developers can subvert expectations and reverse the entire course of a player’s experience. Not necessarily for the negative, either. This is a tricky thing to pull off, and it frequently pisses off audiences, as Film Crit Hulk points out. We generally don’t like “tonal shifts” or having our expectations subverted, and BioShock Infinite managed to subvert everybody’s expectations. What initially seemed like a treatise on race and privilege in early 1900s America in marketing materials became a science-fiction swashbuckler about more nebulous things like choice, consequences, and bad parenting.
It subverted the academics’ expectations.
Besides subversion, disregard for expectations, and thematic texture, what else does a game, or movie, or book, or play, or any other creative endeavor really need to feel like more than a product? Consider some games like Wolfenstein (2009) and Modern Warfare 3; what they really lack is vision; an authorial stamp.
In cinema, auteur theory is the academic theory that a single mind is behind a great film. You’ve probably heard this term before, especially since it’s getting brought up more and more in gaming circles. Do games have or need an “auteur” to be considered art? Can they have one?
I absolutely think so, even within a similar context as cinema. In a collaborative medium like gaming, you can look at some games as works by multiple auteurs or even auteur-studios. Games like just about everything by Rockstar.
Their work certainly divides people and there are legitimate grievances to level against Rockstar’s games for lack of inclusion or simplification of complex issues, but at their best, they’re empowering genre pieces with righteously angry social and political criticism.. Red Dead Redemption took aim at the United States government and painted it as a force for corruption, while giving the player the kind of action that the “mainstream” (a term that I acknowledge is changing a lot) demands. Its criticism is harsh and pointed, delivered with a winking eye and furious gut punch.
And then, you remember, they subvert the player’s power.
What allows a game to be both artistic and commercial, in a successful and genuine way, is the game’s ability to both submit and challenge the players’ notions about the game. It’s like the game earns the players’ trust so that it can take them in scary new directions. Of course some players won’t like that, but a game that can pull it off will stick in the popular consciousness for a long time coming.