Why Nietzsche would have been a gamer

Step into the chaos

Back when I was 19 and probably stupid, I wrote a run down on the Apollonian and Dionysian drives from an art historical perspective. My kindred spirit and one of my top five best grumpy Germans and fantasy dinner partners of all time, Nietzsche wrote about two approaches to art in his early work, The Birth of Tragedy. Putting it in terms of Greek deities – one the embodiment of order, the other of all that is messy in human nature – Nietzsche explains how two artistic drives express our emotions and particularly the way we deal with suffering. Which comes from fear. Which comes from hate.

I’m going to insult Nietzsche and oversimplify this. Think of the Apollonian as when we try to logic out our emotions and create order from something that is most definitely not orderly. The Dionysian is like if your human experience is a pit of mud and you jump into it and slosh around. Sculpture and architecture lie on the far end of the spectrum, with music being on the other. Watching footage of people at a concert probably explains the Dionysian  better than I ever could (or maybe even Nietzsche, that long winded bastard).

In Birth of Tragedy, the philosopher reaches the conclusion that Greek tragedy (title drop!) was the perfect marriage of both artistic drives. Tragic heroes like Oedipus often overly relied on the Apollonian, only to have their own attempts at bringing order rip them apart like Dionysus. The only art form that approached this marriage to Nietzsche was opera, specifically Wagner of course. Now if you think of both artistic drives as a spectrum, then every other medium falls somewhere between the two. I’m not saying certain works of art have not been successful combos of the two. Bernini could be a more Dionysian sculptor, but that’s another post for another day.

HOWEVER. In the very late 20th century and early 21st century, a medium has gained ground that is probably the most successful expression of the Apollonian and Dionysian since Greek tragedy. You know what it is. From the plots, even to the simplest silent protagonist’d action game to the longest JRPG, to the way we interact in the medium,  Games capture this phenomenon of art and human nature.

Let’s start with my favorite because it’s my blog. Final Fantasy VI is an easy jumping off point for understanding how games combine the Apollonian and Dionysian. Like pretty much every game, something is wrong and your characters and by extension you have to fix it. Even if the main players or plot is twisted and morally ambiguous, every game has a system in place of how you have to do things – you know, gameplay. You can’t beat a game – I don’t care if you’re just mashing buttons – without some degree of logic. In FFVI, you have to save the world. It has the largest cast of any Final Fantasy, and each character’s arc explores their own way of trying to make sense of that world. The villain is probably the most Nihilistic fucker around. I’m not even the first person to relate Kefka to Nietzsche’s philosophy . Halfway through the game, he sends the world into chaos for the sake of it, but is not another “evil just because” dude. As he famously puts it, “Life…Dreams…Hope…Where do they come from? And where do they go? None of that junk is enough to fulfill your hearts! Destruction…Destruction is what makes life worth living! Destroy! Destroy! Destroy! Let’s destroy everything!” The mythology of Dionysus himself is a beautiful illustration of Kefka’s question. The god is in many ways the god of orgiastic release, which is how we often deal with that stupid human condition thing, but he’s fated to be annually torn limb from limb. Like us and our party, he builds things that will inevitably be destroyed. Like games tend to do, it works out in the end (wonderfully imperfectly though), but there are still tragic elements throughout the whole thing.

BioShock is another excellent example. In an alternate universe, an underwater city was created to be a utopia for freedom and human expression. You come in after chaos has taken over, and the gameplay is a compelling mix of logic and throwing yourself into that chaos. The enemies you’re massacring aren’t just goons to hack through. They’re victims of their own ignorance and also arrogance. But the player must also be wary of making mistakes – balancing the frenzy of a FPS with puzzles, clever ways to solve problems, and knowing when to be stealthy. The design is also amazingly immersive and successful at imparting that anxiety (and gorgeous).


But the reason games are the perfect medium for this is that our roles and the catharsis of the audience, just like in Greek tragedy, are essential to the success of the Apollonian-Dionysian combo attack. A ton of games merge the artistic drives in and of themselves, but it’s the player who is at risk of becoming the tragic hero. If you’re a gamer, you’ve had your rage quit moments. There are simple mistakes, but then there are the times when we get overconfident in our ability to reason it all out. The moon destroys Termina, you get killed in Demon’s Souls for the eleventieth time, and you’re left to ponder and mentally flog yourself for your own mistakes. But we always come back. We rebuild what might be destroyed, death always close at hand. Kind of like real life.

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Critical Path – check it out now

If you love video games or are one of those weirdos not sold on their legitimacy as an art form, the Critical Path Project is something to see.

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In Defense of Violence

After the terrible murders of the Aurora shooting on July 20th, it was inevitable that the familiar issue of the effects of violent media were brought up. You all know the question. Do violent movies, TV shows, and games desensitize us and make us (the collective us) more violent?

Tokyo Gore Police: not an accurate portrayal of reality

In my humble opinion: no. Also: I don’t think it works that way. To disregard violence in artistic media is to shut out a vital facet of human nature and history. One of my “impressive” answers to people who’ve asked what the importance of art history is goes something like “art history is a lens through which we see the history of the human condition.” Our experiences, fears, dreams, and compulsions are bound to leak out into art – to different degrees of reality. So violence on screen, in games, in paintings, etc. does something for us and reflects real life as much as any other genre.

When the violent media issue comes up, a lot of patronizing criticisms of “the glorification of violence” and gore for its own sake are thrown around. But I’m sure almost any fan of horror or violence doesn’t think actual mass murder is awesome. Enjoying a gory movie says nothing about a person’s character. I’m not a psychologist, but the hyperbolic nature of most films, shows, and games grants us catharsis on some level. Maybe we’re finding an outlet to explore the difficult parts of life? No one (that I know of) is calling Saturn Devouring His Children “tasteless,” yet contemporary violent media gets a bad rap.

Trigger Warning! JK.

I know first-hand how satisfying the click click splat routine of Diablo III can be, or the experience of a heart pounding boss fight. I’m not, however, going to take up arms and imitate that. Some, if not most, of my favorite movies are intensely violent. In the realm of fiction, I’ll take all the blood spray and severed limbs I can get. The more tasteless the better. Some super gory movies explore complex themes beautifully. Park Chan Wook movies come to mind. But they’re too often brushed off on account of “excessive” violence. When we deal with any grey or difficult area of human nature, the output in art tends to be over the top. With some more research, I could probably argue that super violent media is an effective way to control real life violent urges we may struggle with.

Life is a messy thing. I could ramble forever about how good vs. evil, peace vs. violence is never cut and dry. Violence is just another example of “art imitates life.” When unfortunate incidents of real mass violence occur, it’s not because of art. All sorts of people enjoy horror/action movies, TV shows, artwork, and video games, so let’s stop writing it all off as unnecessary or sick.

(p.s. here’s a book for those of you who think the world is getting more violent)

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This is the Best Thing You’re Going to See Today

Jed Henry’s take on Mario Kart

Illustrator Jed Henry is my new hero. He’s doing a series of traditional Japanese woodcuts featuring classic game characters. Check out his site for Donkey Kong, Street Fighter, Metroid, and more!

And if he launches a Kickstarter campaign for posters and merchandise, for god’s sake donate.

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Be Your Own Hero (of Time)

Ok, I guess it’s still pretty big.

I was going to start the great video games and art blogging experience of 2012 with Final Fantasy VII – an obvious choice. However, my old Nintendo 64 came back into my possession and I immediately started replaying Ocarina of Time. This game defined a large chunk of my childhood. Damn, everything seems so much smaller now. Back then I thought Hyrule Field was the biggest place ever.

All of the games in the Zelda series provide an interesting perspective on the player’s involvement. Link is the seminal silent protagonist. Other characters spend the game talking at him, questioning him, and responding to him. You can pick simple options to  some questions, but he doesn’t have actual dialogue. Once the series went 3D, we follow Link’s back, our eyes looking the same way he is.

The idea, of course, is that we are all Link. The long silences should be filled with our own thoughts, even if half the time mine are, “yeah, go on?” Besides the classic traits of a hero, Link doesn’t have a defined personality. But I bet you rarely think of him that way. While we may not think of ourselves as Link, there’s a fair amount of projection in every game.

The way games utilize perspective is not unlike painting. Video games by definition must have a degree of involvement, but the levels to which we are immersed in the events and characters is a wide spectrum. Similarly artists can manipulate the viewer into different “roles” in the artwork itself. I suppose I should zoom out on both paintings and games to start.

Pieter Brueghel, Children’s Games

A Kotaku article from a few weeks ago rather beautifully explains how Diablo III and many other third person games seem very distant to the player. We aren’t immersed in the action, but overseeing it. Jenn Frank writes:

From a top-down, isometric vantage, every sprite’s location is readily apparent. The sprite itself is yet another walking, hopping landmark. Meanwhile, every command of the cursor is the equivalent of stage direction. This perspective suggests a space/time objectivity that is almost Godlike. It’s a geographic omniscience.

In our far away position as puppet master, we aren’t putting ourselves into our avatars, projecting our hopes and dreams (where do they come from? where do they go?) onto tiny wizards and monks. To me, these games are like Brueghel paintings such as Children’s Games above, or Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government (many examples from the Northen Renaissance, Medieval, and International Gothic eras apply here). We look into the painting from a place of omniscience. We’re interested in what’s going on in these paintings, but it’s hard to imagine ourselves on street level with those little guys. Though not quite godlike (the artists), we’re on par with the artist looking down at a finished creation.

Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergeres

Somewhere in between us as god and us as Link are games like my other favorite series. You know which one by now. The player is extremely invested in the characters, but unlike Link, they already come with fully realized motivations and personalities. The empathy isn’t forced. We have to actively relate to the characters. For this reason of course many RPGs have characters that can be completely polarizing. Take a look at the Manet painting. We aren’t in the place of the central figure, but we’re certainly focused on her. We can try to relate to her thoughts and feelings without seeing from the exact same perspective.

Caravaggio, the Conversion on the Way to Damascus

The position games like Ocarina of Time put us in are like the Caravaggio right there. The habit of putting the viewer in the same place as the main figure really took off in the Baroque Era. To combat the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church and Christian art started relying more heavily on creating a strong emotional response in viewers as opposed to more detached devotional images from the Renaissance and earlier.  Beyond the Manet, in which we sympathize with the central figure, here we’re down and dirty with the figure of Paul and seeing the world from his point of view. These games likewise put us through the same trials and tribulations as our character. Link and I are stuck under the same horse.

A cool study in my theory is Chrono Trigger. Like Link, Chrono is a silent protagonist. Other characters prompt and respond to non existent dialogue. But the game is in the style of a Final Fantasy in that we have a wide view and are dealing with a party of autonomous thinkers. It is much more difficult to “be” Chrono without that shared perspective.

Maybe I’m stretching too far to bring the two things I love together, but think about it. Video games are just another, more modern art form. Why wouldn’t the artists use the same techniques?

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My Hatred is Too Low (to get mad about stilettos)

I’ve lost a good chunk of the last week and a half to Diablo III. It’s my first action RPG, though it’s more action than RPG. While my Final Fantasy binge therapy of fall 2011 was a distraction and this weird way to release every conceivable emotion, desperately clicking on mobs of demons until their heads go rolling is a different sort of therapeutic. When I have to take a break or get tired of getting killed too much in hell level, though, I can intellectualize the game like I do with everything else!

Diablo III is one of the most hyped releases of the year, and a good part of the fan teasing involved promotional artwork, FMVs, and character trailers. Choosing a character class is one of life’s great dilemmas. We get the Barbarian, the Monk, the Witch Doctor, the Demon Hunter, and the Wizard. Though all classes have male and female versions, the developers at Blizzard advertised a default character and story for each. The Demon Hunter and the Wizard are the ladies in this motley crew.

Look at this fucking hipster.

Ah, female character design in games. It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned that issue and it probably won’t be the last. I’ll start with the aesthetics since it’s easier to talk about. When you start a new game, you’re stuck in rudimentary gear until you can get you some loot. The Mary Sue pointed out in an article before release that the starting armor for the female Wiz and Demon Hunter is way more revealing than their male counterparts. The male Demon Hunter just looks like a pretty hipster.

Of course I am not in raptures over my thigh high stilettos and leather underwear. Unless you’re going to a goth club – party on you crazy Demon Hunter. It’s kind of annoying, but Diablo III is far, far tamer in the costuming department than many games. My girl found some real pants almost immediately, anyway. She kept her heels. I just pretend they’re actually stiletto knives. For the Mary Sue’s full review, commenters were more upset this time about sexualized female characters. There is some all capsing about HIGH HEELS, but I found myself unable to muster more than a shrug and an eye roll. Poor Demon Hunter is always the example in arguments from all angles (The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Starving Art Historian. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental).

By dying on the hill of character design, I think some responses ignored character development. Diablo III is not the paragon of story telling and thrilling dialogue by any means (it is probably closer to a steven seagal film), but I do appreciate the effort  to create a persona for each character class. This is where it warms my cold heart just a bit that some default characters are female. I don’t know too much about the Wizard other than she’s kind of a maverick and seems more irreverent than  other classes. (aside: a friend of mine is playing the wizard and both of our characters were nicely armor’d even at middling levels)

This is the character trailer for my girl. Yes it is schlocky! Push that aside because it’s depressingly rare that badass mofo fighters like the Demon Hunter are written female. And besides I enjoy melodramatically yelling that my enemies are about to drown in their own blood. Her in game mythology is that she survived a demon attack and got trained in the secret spot of the secret society of Demon Hunters until she was ready to go get bloody vengeance. She’s pretty bitchy and misanthropic for most of the game, snaps at people, and runs around generally not giving a fuck. Then she pummels demons with a rocket launcher. Finally a character I can relate to!

So many reactions refer to the female designs as being overly sexualized, and that definitely happens (a lot. a lot). I’m not sure my Demon Hunter is an example of that. Being sexy or sensual does not automatically mean a character is only an object. Sure, I don’t think a take no prisoners loner would choose stiletto boots. That’s small potatoes to me. Conventionally attractive femme fatales, hulk smashing warriors, and depressed hermit waifs all have the potential to be well rounded characters. Ultimately the substance of a character  can outweigh a few questionable aesthetic choices.

Character design and sexism is an issue. Duh. But as a girl who likes games and considers herself a feminist, I just think it’s nice that I’m playing a character who I think is cool. If that’s not enough, you can always pretend  the minions of hell are the patriarchy your sexy stiletto’d self is treating them to the rocket launcher of justice.

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I’m an Art Historian, Not Some Opera Floozy!


School’s out for summer! This means I can try to hold down a job(s?) while getting into my bad habit of being a creature of the night. This blog has been decaying and festering like a (really, fill in whatever you want) for FOUR DAMN MONTHS because I was alternately busy being happy, panicked about school, or a depressed hermit. But if I can blog from a hospital bed (you think I’m kidding), I can blog as a depressed hermit. But this depressed hermit plays a lot of video games to take her mind off a things.

If I ran the zoo that is this world, I would be the foremost and best video game art historian ever. I would write the defining survey of the history of art in the medium. I would shower the unwashed masses who still don’t think it’s a legitimate art form. Those weirdos! Even the anti violence crew. Fine art is never violent.

Do you think people during the Northern Renaissance were desensitized to violence?

I decided to try and see if I can dream the impossible dream. For the college senior thesis, it’d be fun to do something with vidja games and art. As practice, I’d like to pick a few games that epitomize artistic innovation and blog as I go.

So far my short list is Secret of ManaOcarina of Time (I REALLY want a re play), In the Shadow of the Colossus, a survey of artistic progress in the Final Fantasy series, same deal for the Diablo series, and the most cliche choice ever, Final Fantasy VII. It was never my favorite entry, but taking an art historical approach might give me a new perspective. I just hope there are not many art history bloggers writing about it at the moment.

There’ll still be breaks for the usual straight up art history business. If anyone still reads this blog (hi, parents), you’re more than welcome to suggest games you think are capital I Important. You are also more than welcome to create a fund to get me a better computer for gaming, a 3DS, and a PS3. I would like a purple DS if that’s possible. If not, just slap the Zelda cover on it.

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