Friday, July 16, 2010

Blade of the Eagle, Eagle of my Heart: Part I

NOTE: This is a two-parter! While here I talk about video games, art, and Assassin's Creed, next I will be writing about Altaïr and Assassin's Creed as symbols of the Middle East.

00548234-photo-assassin-s-creed.jpg image by Jay-Pi1233

I adore video games. I would gladly counter Ebert's statement that they are not art to his face, if he would let me. But let's forget about Ebert for a moment.

Photography, film, animation, and other new media forms are easily accepted as art. So why not video games? Are they not capable of higher analytical thought? Don't they suck you into a new world? Don't they make you think? I will answer only with this: Video games are on par with other art forms in terms of their aesthetic and analytical function.

When I saw the TV trailer for Assassin's Creed on TV when it was first coming out, my breath was taken away. They used Massive Attack's Teardrop, which is a gorgeous song in and of itself, and it mesmerized me and took my breath away. Can you imagine what the game itself would do to me? Well, I never actually played the game. I sat and watched someone else play it. The whole way through. I do that a lot, but I am not going to go into that. I have played many other games, right through from beginning to end, secrets and all. I just did not happen to own the game itself. I did play little bits of it, however.

Let's think about Assassin's Creed today. I am not going to venture into the sequel because I have not yet played it, although I heard my friends gush about it for a long time. It is a game set in the medieval Middle East. It is made by a Canadian company, Ubisoft Montreal*. The main playable character is named Desmond Miles, a bartender who is kidnapped and forced to relive the memory of his ancestor: Altaïr Ibn La'Ahad.

Altaïr is, to me, one of the most interesting protagonists in a game that is impressive in its multicultural atmosphere. You are in the great ancient cities of Acre (Akka), Damascus, Jerusalem and they are all shown in medieval glory, with their beautiful architecture. The Islamic lands during those times were more beautiful to me than any of their counterparts. It is a world that is incredibly detailed and beautifully rendered for its time (and still now, in my opinion). You do not experience this world as a tourist on a walk, but as an assassin, an exciting profession with the benefits of free-running and deadly attacks that no one else can notice.

How else, in this world, could you begin to have this type of experience? It's not something you can try. It isn't even something you might really want to do. But here, in this game, you are allowed to explore a world that was created only for you to experience it, but in someone else's skin. That is what video games are about. When there are good storytelling and detailed settings, video games are definitely doing what movies are so good at doing - sucking you in and making you care about something you might not have thought about otherwise.

Some people play games only for the competition or gameplay. However, I play games (or watch games) for the enjoyment of feeling closer to my character and the others, as well as the events portrayed - similar to the way I look at film. I play so that I can pretend, even for a moment, that I am in that manufactured setting making decisions based on my own reflexes and logic. This is a kind of immersion that film, 2D forms (such as paintings, drawings, etc.), or sculpture cannot give to us. You see, we cannot walk into a painting. We can walk inside a video game, programming permitted.

Playing/watching Assassin's Creed allows you to be an assassin with a deep, dark story behind him. You are also playing as his descendant. You are interacting with Al Mualim, the man who gives you orders and whom you must challenge. You are becoming a part of the story, like so many other people out there who bought/borrowed/stole the game.

How is this not art? All art forms encourage discussion and reaction - and yes, sometimes even direct interaction requiring your movement (see: Richard Serra and his huge sculptures). When you read literature, are you not involved with the events? Don't you have opinions? Some writers, in their novels, write in such a way that makes you feel like you are conversing with whoever is writing. Douglas Adams is an example, in my opinion. That is definitely interaction. Writing can also evoke emotions from within us, making us feel sorry, angry, or happy for what has happened to the characters.

Can you really tell me that there are no video games that do the same? I have cried while playing games just as much as while watching movies. I know that I am NOT the only one.

Okay, let's take a more visual example of art. How about paintings? A famous portrait by Vermeer is called Girl with a Pearl Earring. Thank you Wikipedia for the picture:

File:Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) - The Girl With The Pearl Earring (1665).jpg

Look at her gaze. She is looking right at you, over her shoulder. What do those parted lips mean? Why is she looking at you? When Vermeer was painting, who was he painting it for? Is that who you are supposed to be; is she looking at her patron? What is that look in her eyes and what is she saying with it?

You decide the answers to these questions when you look at artwork in a museum. When you look at them in the context that they are supposed to be in, some of those questions are answered. If you actually knew the facts (like who the patron was and when it was painted) you can answer half of certain questions, but not everything. All art works have some sort of mystery behind them that allows you to become more involved with what is going on, if you allow yourself to think and ask the right questions. Because this young lady is looking at you, one thing is clear: the artist is allowing you to converse with her. She becomes real, if you decide to let her start that conversation.

In video games, we are not only given the aesthetically beautiful digital art, but we are also allowed to start our own conversations, literally. But what about these mysterious conversations, like with Vermeer's girl? Can they still happen? Of course they can.

If we look at Assassin's Creed again, think about this: it is up to you to finish every quest and make Altaïr more and more of a hero by saving people. Or, if you want, you can just let those side quests go. You are given free reign in how and whom to kill, as you are given the decision of which building you are going to climb up first and why. In some games, you are given even more free reign that develops your character in specific ways (think about the Fallout series, for example). Sure, you are given stricter guidelines in Assassin's Creed that other artforms may not give you, but the immersion is extensive and not available in any other art form.

The other example of an art form that allows you to literally take part in the action is acting/theatre, which is role playing. Again: there are usually parameters that make things challenging for everyone involved (e.g. a script, unless it is improvisational theatre). However, you are still thrown into an environment that you fully become a part of. When you are watching, it becomes a bit more like a movie. Sometimes, the audience does participate and usually you participate in this strange new world as yourself. Of course it is not exactly like a video game, but I think by now you might be understanding where I am going with this. It is that immersion that I keep talking about.

I love video games, and I will argue until the end of my life that they are definitely a means of expression that can be classified as art. Go ahead and shoot me, unbelievers. I'll be Altaïr while you make your arguments, and I will climb buildings and save people from hassling jerks on the old streets of Damascus. I will take my blade and slit the throats of evil Templar leaders while you tell me that DOOM is too ugly to be art. I'll take a tiny break between climbing buildings to tell you that I'm so involved in the game that I can't even hear you. And that, I believe, is what art should be doing - taking me far, far away.

But why would anyone, especially a Muslim girl staying in Saudi Arabia, wish to be a Templar-killing assassin? I'll tackle that one next time.

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