Archives for posts with tag: Art

Warning: Contains Spoilers

The marriage of gameplay and narrative marks the pinnacle of video game design. Interactivity is after all the defining feature of the genre. By creating a seamless union, a game truly merits the title “Art”. Hence, the brilliance of Shadow of the Colossus in which the player must tightly grip the controls while the character grasps for dear life. Bioshock also strives to transcend the genre, but in the end falls short of that promise, mired by uninspired repetitive gameplay.

Bioshock immerses the player via worldbuilding, the game’s selling point. After an absolutely sublime introduction involving a plane crash, your character, Jack, enters Rapture, an underwater society founded upon the principles of Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged”. The first glimpse of the art deco city doesn’t fail to astonish, but needless to say, it’s not exactly a utopia down there. Jack has stumbled upon a city divided by civil war and overrun by monsters. His only hope: the guidance of Atlas, the rebel leader…

Unfortunately, the early levels are nothing to write home about. They consist of fetch quests and battles against mutants and cyborgs while audio logs unveil the back story. There’s some element of moral choice regarding the little sisters, but the choice doesn’t really impact gameplay. Whether you save them or kill them, the result is the same. It also doesn’t help that a single weapon works for all enemies, removing all need for strategy. In the end, the routine gets tedious.

Even the worldbuilding loses its sheen. Take the vending machines. Am I supposed to believe that a dictator trying to throttle a rebellion would allow ammo to be sold on every street corner? Come on! Such things, though minor, ruin the illusion and force the player out of the immersion. For a game like Bioshock with dull and repetitive combat, this is fatal. Instead of exploring an underwater city, I was navigating labyrinthine video game levels.

At some point, I started wondering “Why?” Why the hell was the game forcing Jack (and myself) to photograph dead bodies for a psychopathic artist, for instance? Why was I still playing Bioshock when I longed for the open world quests of Fallout 3. Then, Andrew Ryan reveals Jack has not been acting on his free will at all. Lecturing him on his status as a slave, Ryan growls “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” All this time, I via the character, Jack, had been acting the part of a slave, mindlessly obeying every command the game supplied, fetching like a dog. Now, I thought, it’s time to choose.

Nope. The fetch quests resume, and the game concludes with a laughable boss battle and a ridiculous good and evil cinematic concerning the little sisters. Had Bioshock concluded with Ryan’s scene or introduced actual choice, it would have transcended its genre. It would have been the ultimate satire on video games and linearity. Alas, Bioshock misses its own point.

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Within a dismal, dreary forest, a large pond, one amongst many, blocks the path. My character cannot swim; he stands hesitantly at the water’s edge hoping to spot a way across. Bodies, children’s bodies, float in the water. It’s a grotesque scene, but my character is quite the utilitarian. The bodies would serve as excellent floatation devices. Just as the boy makes the leap, he witnesses another child staggering towards the pond. Right before his very eyes, the other child stumbles into the murky water and drowns. For no apparent reason.

Scenarios such as the one above define the game, LIMBO. Set in a cruel, cold world abounding with monsters and death traps, LIMBO is the stuff of nightmares. Most other games present death as an innocuous hiccup, “Oh, you’ve run out of energy. Here’s a cutscene of your character fainting.” This game is different. Get caught in a trap, and you’ll witness a most pleasant scene of your little character getting stabbed, beheaded, dismembered, minced, electrocuted, crushed, drowned… whatever you can imagine. You cannot escape. And then, there’s the spider…

People will frequently allude to LIMBO when the topic of ”Videogames as Art” emerges. Certainly, the aesthetic design with its black and white color palette, muted grays, and misty whites warrants such commendation. There’s an almost dreamy, otherworldly quality to the game. The soundtrack too with its subtle monotone and striking notes at just the right moments creates a most eerie atmosphere. Sound effects certainly contribute. You can hear the boy’s every step as he navigates first the forest and then an industrial world. His desperate pants seem to echo in your ears. But I believe the gameplay itself designates LIMBO as a work of art.

In one particular level, I got caught in a trap where the first pressure plate is a safe zone but the second activates a trap. Not much farther along, I encountered a trio of young boys with poison darts. They pursued me as I backtracked all the way to the aforementioned pressure plates. I watched, gleefully, as my pursuers were crushed in the trap that I had succumbed to only seconds before. It was a sort of vindictive delight.

Then, I paused. Why would I be feeling such things? This emotion wasn’t the catharsis of completing a puzzle. It was more a smug acknowledgement that, yes, I had fallen for that very trap, but now I could wield that knowledge against those who would seek to hurt me. I had wondered about the boys that I had encountered. Who were they? What were they doing here? Why were they attacking me? They made it personal. And so they had to die. Not many games can bring at emotions like these.

This interaction with other beings in the first half of the game leads me to deem it a masterpiece. Unfortunately the second half didn’t impress me. Sure, the puzzles involving spinning rooms and gravity buttons were rather interesting, but something was lacking. They were just complicated puzzles, nothing more. (Time-based to boot, which I hate. There is nothing more frustrating than having to repeat a level because you jumped a fraction of a second too late.) The enemies reside only in the beginning; the second half subjects the character to inorganic obstacles. Rather disappointing. In addition, some elements of the puzzles didn’t seem that well integrated. For instance, in an early level you must retrieve a bear trap placed on the limb of a tree.

I did enjoy some of the extra elements after completing the game. Hunting for the “Easter eggs,” in this case literal eggs, allowed me to explore this 2D world even deeper. I still have yet to find the last one, which only appears after completing the game with less than five deaths, but I’m getting there. After all, there’s no point in dying.

LIMBO by Playdead

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The Four Freedoms (1943) by Norman Rockwell

The Four Freedoms (1943) by Norman Rockwell

As you have probably gathered, I love to read and learn; which is why I adored my High School Library and the books it sheltered. Everyday after the final bell had rung I would leap up the stairway ascending two and three steps at a time, eager to dwell once again within the literary worlds. However, on one particular stairway landing I would always pause. Adorning the opposite wall, four posters never failed to steal a moment of my attention. Everyday I would acknowledge Norman Rockwell’s The Four Freedoms.

Having recently reread 1984, I am struck by a thought. In the book, Winston first encounters a poster of Big Brother on the wall opposite a stairway landing. I wonder whether the administrators of my High School were aware of the ironic placement of Rockwell’s works; surely my English teachers whose classrooms resided on that second floor must have been. After all, The Four Freedoms are a splendid example of American propaganda art.

The inspiration for these posters emerged from a speech. Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 6, 1941 addressed an apprehensive Congress on the necessity of war. In it he designated four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. These, FDR claimed, were the fundamental liberties of the United States that ought to be defended and, furthermore, applied throughout the world. Norman Rockwell dwelt long on Roosevelt’s words and endeavored to create art that would reflect these values. Believing the words “high-blown” Rockwell sought to “bring them down to Earth” eventually discovering their embodiment in the daily actions of America’s citizens.

Did Rockwell succeed? I don’t really know. Certainly the prints were extremely popular and displayed all throughout the nation. Still, I find them rather eerie. There’s an aura of idealism that envelops his images that just doesn’t ring true. I feel as if I have stumbled into the Uncanny Valley. I never get the sense of discord that I should when contemplating the freedoms. 

Take a look at “Freedom of Worship” All Christian, all white. Just as it should be in a simple, idealistic America. And my mind screams, FAKE, FAKE, FAKE. Would his posters have been so popular if Muslims had been depicted or considering the time period Jews? Freedom of Worship is controversial and there is nothing controversial about Christians praying in the U.S. The same holds true for the rest of the series. The posters construct an image of the U.S. that the majority would like to believe in but doesn’t really exist. Isn’t that the essence of propaganda?

That’s why I tend to agree with critics of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell is less of a fine artist and more of a populist. In my opinion, fine art opens the door to a new world, a world that might not be pleasant at all. It delights in conversation and controversy. Populist art on the other hand would prefer that door sealed shut, to paint over life and all its ugliness and reside in a room full of futile dreams. 

About Norman Rockwell

Born in 1894 in New York City, Norman Rockwell emerged on the art scene as a premier illustrator. His works often appeared on the covers of national magazines especially The Saturday Evening Post which published 321 of Rockwell’s paintings over his lifetime. He gained widespread recognition on the national stage with the publication of his Four Freedoms series. Rockwell became known for his depictions of small-town America and a purveyor of American idealism.

Resources

Norman Rockwell Museum – Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

National Archive – Four Freedoms

America in WWII – Norman Rockwell and the Four Freedoms

KellsFol034rChiRhoMonogramCrossing the treacherous sea one stumbles upon an inhospitable rocky island. At the ends of the Earth this lonely isle emerges from the deep. Like the famous ark of Noah this island sheltered a community of writers and artists from the ignorance and violence that engulfed the rest of the medieval world. This island is the mysterious Iona.

In the 6th century a luminary later known as St. Columba arrived on Iona with his followers. On the isle he established a monastery and its influence spread throughout Scotland and the isles. The name, Columba, meant “dove” evoking the white bird of hope that brought tidings of land and life to Noah. It is an auspicious title. For the Holy Spirit of Christianity is also represented as a dove heralding the conception of Christ. The bird of peace symbolized miracles.

The Book of Kells is that miracle. For the Christians of this time writing in and of itself was a miracle. They believed that each letter was a message from heaven and that with each stroke of the quill God was speaking to them. It is an ancient idea; the ancient Greeks would always invoke the Muses at the start of every tale.

Work on the manuscript likely began in the 8th century in that monastic community. Generations of the community’s greatest scribes and illuminators toiled through the years on this task. This collection of the four gospels was so finely written and illustrated that it was deemed the work of angels.

KellsFol292rIncipJohnIronically for a Christian Bible much of the iconography is actually derived from Pagan culture. The combination of Christian ideas and Celtic symbolism is startling. For instance, the snake boss motif abounds throughout the Book of Kells. This leads to the question: Why, in a book glorifying Christ, is the traditional symbol of the Devil so prevalent? The answer lies with the Celtic culture. To them, snakes were not emissaries of deception and evil but rather transmitters of wisdom. In shedding their skins, they signified rebirth and resurrection. The monks of the Iona abbey latched onto the idea of snakes as symbols of resurrection and connected it to the story of Jesus Christ. The Book of Kells illustrates quite literally the adaptation of Celtic art and culture into the Christian tradition.

Another relic of Celtic art is the presence of so many circles, curves, and knots. Every millimeter of space is threaded with these delicate loops. Some of the designs may have been inspired by metalwork as can be seen in the Ardagh Chalice. It is likely that both illustrators and metalworkers utilized similar tools and techniques. This style of art, a fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon motifs, is known as Insular Art which reached its peak in the 7th and 8th centuries.

The Celtic cross is a premier example of this phenomenon. The traditional cross of the Celtics is that of an equidistant cross set amid a circle. The Christians lengthened the cross to resemble their own but retained the circle. In fact some of the earliest stone monuments of this style are situated in Iona and also at the Abbey of Kells where the book would later find its home.

KellsFol032vChristEnthronedThe Book of Kells aside from offering us a glimpse of the fusion of Celtic and Christian traditions also offers a peek into the lives and personalities of those who labored on it. Three to four scribes composed the words. Some were very conservative and solemn, while others wrote with flair and brightly colored inks. The artists and illuminators also provided their own perspective. One, known as the Goldsmith, composed the elaborate folio page. His work is characterized by remarkable detail and coded language and symbolism. Another decided on a more metaphorical approach, depicting the church as the literal body of Christ with the apostles acting as the foundation. Humorous images of animals and humans litter the pages, telling us that the lives of the monks despite their solemn and sparse way of life actually contained an unexpected amount of love and fun.

Unfortunately this way of life came to an end in the 9th century with the advent of Viking attacks. For that reason the Book of Kells was never completed. In 1006 the book was stolen but thankfully recovered with only its elaborate cover missing. Magnificent as that cover must have been, the heart and soul of the creators is found in the actual pages and so has awed and inspired humanity even to today.

Further Information

Trinity College – The Book of Kells

Insular Art

The Book of Kells: Work of Angels?

The Secret of Kells

A Room with a View (1908)

–       Written by E.M. Forster 

Love is divine. If there is one message E.M. Forster tries to communicate in this charming romance, it is this: don’t be afraid of passion and love. For passion is not an obstacle on the path to heaven, but rather the key to following this path. For, in the end, it is love that brings us closer to heaven and God.   

Our heroine is the young, inexperienced Lucy Honeychurch who is in the midst of an Italian vacation. Lucy with her overbearing chaperone, Charlotte, has just arrived at the Pension Bertolini only to find that their rooms only have a view of the inner courtyard rather than a view of the city that they had specified. Just as disappointment and resignation set in, a kindly though socially awkward man, Mr. Emerson, and his son, George, offer up their own rooms and thus create a ruckus. So, the stage is set for Lucy and George, but social mores hold them back.

How appropriate that their romance takes place in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance! A place where the mortal and immortal seem to touch; for Florence while honoring divinity also exalts humanity at the same time. We realize during the course of the story that despite the forces that try to distinguish these two concepts, they are inseparably bound; that earthly beauty and love are heavenly and divine.   

 This is what art tries to convey to us, and E.M. Forster is a master. His writing is evocative, resonant, and beautifully constructed.

“For one ravishing moment Italy appeared. She stood in the Square of the Annunziata and saw in the living terra-cotta those divine babies whom no cheap reproduction can ever stale. There they stood, with their shining limbs bursting from the garments of charity, and their strong white arms extended against circlets of heaven.”

Even if one has never seen Florence, the impression Forster creates is palpable. The emotion spills out of every word, and you cannot help but be drawn into this sweet, funny, tragic world he is showing us, and every interaction between Lucy and George grips at your heart as you pray for a resolution to their “muddle” 

To the reader, the connection between the two is immediately clear, but Lucy hampered by prudency and propriety doesn’t acknowledge or even realize this connection. She, being so sheltered and controlled, doesn’t even understand herself. Indeed, by denying her attraction to George she deceives not only her family and friends but also herself. Mr. Emerson seeing her conundrum, offers this advice to her, “Let yourself go.” Through him, the reader understands that the key to happiness for both his son and Lucy are for each to understand the other. We recognize that the rational and irrational are sometimes one and the same; that following one’s heart may be the wisest course to take.

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A Room with a View (1985)

–       Directed by James Ivory

–       Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Daniel Day-Lewis

The film version is a masterpiece as well. The romance, humor, and philosophy of the book translate beautifully. I read the book first and then watched the film. However, those who watch A Room with a View without reading the story first will find themselves just as enthralled and enchanted. Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands perfectly embody the characters, Lucy and George. As for Dame Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott, these two legendary thespians steal the show lending humor and sensitivity to their characters, Charlotte Bartlett and Mr. Emerson.  

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