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Classical art: Art which is created for its own sake, for no one, for everyone, for the artist alone, or for God. Modern art: Art which is designed with an audience or demographic in mind, being tailored to enhance their experience. Postmodern art: Art which may target a specific audience or demographic, but which actively subverts, disrupts or rejects their preferences.

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The Refusing Chair

Game design is a crowded topic today, and one filled with in-depth commentary on how to make effective fiction. Sometimes these commentaries are filled with wit and nuanced observation, such as The Brainy Gamer, and sometimes it's just an opinionated hammer attack, such as Gamasutra's recent appraisal (spoilers) of StarCraft II's story structure. Many times it goes much more in depth than I have here. But the real concern of this essay is not just game design, but where Kojima and Metal Gear fit in.

Before we look at the games themselves, though, let's go back in time to an old Official Playstation Magazine interview, around the time that Roger Ebert's opinion that videogames couldn't be art was first gaining mass attention and burning up gamers around the world. The laws of journalism dictate that when a respected authority in one field attacks the credibility of a different field, it becomes necessary to find a respected authority in that field to give a rebuttal, and that's no doubt what OPM was planning when they picked the hottest designer in the videogame industry, Hideo Kojima, to reply. How unfortunate, then, when — shock of all shocks — Kojima added fuel to the fire by agreeing with Ebert! The interview is probably somewhat forgotten by now, since it failed to provide the counter-attack everyone was hoping for, and isn't easy to find a copy of, but it's definitely worth reading. Let me draw your attention to the most revealing answer of the interview:

OPM: Games like Shadow of the Colossus and Ico are the game most often referred to as art in videogame form, due to their distinct visual quality. Many people point to those games as art. Do you think there are exceptions, such as these games, where you could look at them and say, "OK, those are art"? Or do you think all games fall under a blanket assessment?

Hideo Kojima: I think they're good games, but I think they're just another game. In [Shadow of the Colossus], you ride a horse. It's a horse; it looks like a horse. But in art, I can paint this cup and call the painting Horse. That's art. The music and the graphics used in a game--they have artistic elements, I agree. But everything else is very intuitive. It's easy to play in the sense that the horse looks like a horse and you obviously know that you have to ride the horse, so what I think it does is provide a service.

Maybe let's say there's a game out there where there's a boss that you cannot defeat. It's made that way. Normallly, when you beat the boss in a game, there's a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, but if you can't beat the boss at all, if what you're left with is a sense of loss, then maybe that could be defined as art. You know Taro Okamoto—he's dead but a very famous Japanese artist. I don't know the official English translation of it, but one of his pieces is called The Refusing Chair. It's something that sort of looks like a chair, but it's got bumps on it, so you can't sit on it, but if you do, it's going to hurt your butt. With videogames you have to make sure you can sit on the chair. That's why you want to think about art and videogames. I think the lousiest videogames can be considered art. Because bad games with no fun aren't really games, by definition.
(emphasis mine)

Before you argue your own opinions on the matter, just follow the train of thought. The lesson to be learned from The Refusing Chair, according to Kojima, is that true art cannot be designed around usability or the audience's tastes. It can't be straightforward. This, to the point where the lousiest, most counter-intuitive games [for example?] are actually more qualified to be called art than Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. We can all agree this is crazy. And yet, if Kojima believes this, then isn't it fair to apply his own logic to that which he has done? He isn't making himself an exception. There are some major implications here.

Shadow of the Colossus

I've said before [here] that I believe that any videogames can be art so long as it was created with the intention of expressing the creator's ideas in a non-literal fashion, meaning that the game needs to be designed to communicate specific ideas through symbols, allegory, or themes, not formally explained as one would in a documentary or essay. And if this is the correct definition of art, then the Metal Gear series fits well, since Kojima clearly wants people to interpret his games to find deeper meaning. Yet somehow Kojima makes it clear that he doesn't agree, depriving himself of the artist label.

Kojima thinks that the audience's expectations needs to be disrupted in order for it to be art. However, this is only what postmodern art is about. Classical art is neutral to any particular audience's tastes, and thus cannot try to be disruptive, while modern art is designed to satisfy an audience's preferences and thus is free from active disruption as well. Postmodern art, such as The Refusing Chair, is disruptive. Postmodern art tries to prove that it could do what you want, but instead will do the opposite. It's the artists way of saying, "I know what you want, but I'm not going to give it to you." Betraying expectations and undermining the reader's confidence in the creator is at the heart of postmodernism, most of the time. This is also what Metal Gear Solid 2 was about. What does that tell you?

MGS2 is often labelled "postmodern" by critics and fans alike. It's willingness to break the fourth wall and toy with the player sets it apart from the average game without a doubt. Is it possible that Kojima tried to make art with MGS2? Toying with the player went even further than the in-game experience, as you'll remember. Anyone who knows about the pre-release hype of MGS2 knows that Kojima promoted the game as if it was starring Solid Snake, only for us to find out that whiny femme-boy Raiden would steal the show. This radical scheme was a deliberate betrayal of expectations, not a mere accident.

Think that I'm exaggerating? Electronic Gaming Monthly conducted an interview with Kojima after the famous E3 trailer featuring Solid Snake, and this is what was said:

EGM: Are there any more hints or clues you can give our readers about any part of the story in MGS2?

Hideo Kojima: I created the E3 trailer to give everyone an opportunity to imagine what the final game will be like. All rumors could be correct. All rumors could be wrong. One thing is for sure: I think I'll be able to fool and betray all of you in a pleasant way. (source) (emphasis mine)

We were supposed to feel fooled and betrayed by Kojima. This should be obvious from playing the game and studying its constant themes of layered deception, but history has proven that most people never got the joke or appreciated his sly attempt at making (what matches his own definition of) art. Postmodernism has that effect. Also, did you notice Kojima give an example of "a boss that you cannot defeat"? That's embodied by Dead Cell member Fortune, who can be attacked but not defeated. I ask again: was MGS2 Kojima's attempt to make postmodern art? If so, then perhaps the universal backlash he received was enough to convince him that games could not be art after all, and hence his answer in the interview. MGS2 was his Refusing Chair, but it was the one who ended up refused.


Which question to ask

What I've said about the creative process being backwards is to get you thinking about the purpose behind things you normally wouldn't question; what I've said about Portal's self awareness and Kojima's postmodern art is to prepare you for the idea that a game could first create and then expose its own psychological subversion, in order to make a statement. What that statement is, we don't always know. But by looking at themes and hints, we can always guess.

It's good to think about the hidden themes behind a work of art, because art is designed to be interpreted — if you don't question it, you aren't really enjoying it.

Yet artists know how bizarre having their work interpreted by an outsider can be. They know how quickly an audience constructs their own explanations and theories for things when an explanation isn't provided. The artist may have left something unanswered because it was simply insignificant to him, but suddenly he witnesses fans guessing at "hints" and giving him more credit than is due. This is why creators will borrow ideas from the fans in order to confirm their theories, often giving them a wink with some hidden easter egg.

Other times, when a work of art is particularly dense, fans will completely miss very real hints and focus on irrelevant details instead. Many authors are happy to talk about themes and meanings because it helps promote their work and lets clueless members of the audience realize that there's more going on than a simple story. They want people to know which questions to ask.

For this reason, being able to create something without worrying about "making sense" is extremely liberating. Dreams, surreal subjective tales, and short stories are great outlets for simply expressing your imagination and communicating ideas in a purer form. It helps drive the audience's attention toward the themes and concepts of a story — the things that are important — instead of the "facts of the matter" which only distract from the message. No wonder that artsy projects tend to be blatant in their wackiness, making it impossible to figure out logically. It's just a slew of ideas and themes, raising questions.

Likewise, if a story seems like it's trying to make sense, suddenly we start asking tough questions about its coherence. What's amazing is how automatically an audience will follow the creator's lead, asking the questions they assume the creator wants them to. Because of this strange phenomenon, authors must be careful not to lead the audience into dead ends, or raise questions he isn't prepared to give an answer for. Managing the curiosity of the reader is probably the most important task of (modern) fiction. "Loose ends" that are completely besides the point to the author can easily become obsessed over by fans who demand closure. They feel entitled to know!

Most of the time this is seen as a golden opportunity to make sequels, constantly promising answers while leaving more loose ends dangling for next time. Just look at the LOST television series for the ultimate example of a hugely successful franchise built upon answering a single basic question; it's downright foolish to underestimate the curiosity of a fanbase, and dangerous to neglect it once it's been provoked.



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