Games as Art: Looking Back at MGS 2

Metal Gear Solid 2Metal Gear Solid 2 is a game that gets quite a bit of flack from some of the gaming community. The MGS fan kingdom seems to be split down two camps of people that have opposing feelings for the sequel to the hit PS1 game. Personally, I fall into the group of people that generally dislikes MGS2. I remember being so excited for its release, especially after playing the demo that came packaged with Zone of the Enders. I loved the first game’s comic book Die Hard feel, but the sequel just got much too campy, and Raiden was nowhere near as good of a hero as the beloved Solid Snake, in my opinion.

Some years ago, the Delta Head Translation Group published a formal analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2, which is one of the most fascinating pieces of writing I’ve ever read on a video game. It breaks down some of the meta-narrative of MGS2, and what the game might have actually been designed for: to leave the player feeling frustrated. Agree with it or not, it actually gives a really enlightening look at the game, and might even give you pause about your assumptions.

I was reminded of this article because I got into a discussion with JJ about Roger Ebert recently backtracking on his “games can never be art” infamy; he now says that some day they might be. JJ and I got on a tangent about it being hard for something to be fun, artistic, emotional and medium-transcending all at once. I was arguing that fun might not necessarily be a requirement for video games to be art- after all, is watching Schlinder’s List “fun”? In the MGS2 article, the author argues that perhaps the game was designed to make you feel the way it did, and not designed with a fun-factor in mind. If this is truly the case, then perhaps MGS2, as flawed as it is, might be a video game that approaches that territory, where games are turned on their head and go beyond the medium? Portal is probably one of the best examples of a game that deconstructs gaming yet manages to be entertaining and well made.

Anyway, all that mumbo-jumbo aside, you should definitely check out the article, it’s long, but worth the thoughts it gives on what games are supposed to make you feel. And while you’re at it, feel free to weight in on the “games as art” discussion.

Source- Delta Head Translation Group and Roger Ebert

Written by

I write about samurai girls and space marines. Writer for Smooth Few Films. Rooster Teeth Freelancer. Author of Red vs. Blue, The Ultimate Fan Guide, out NOW!

12 thoughts on “Games as Art: Looking Back at MGS 2”

  1. After reading both of Ebert’s posts, I just get the feeling that he’s far too arrogant and biased to be taken seriously. I just have this wariness when dealing with people who value their own opinion too much, which is why I watch Zero Punctuation purely for laughs because I know Yahtzee will only find the worst in a game, and when he does find something he likes, it’s a twist. With Ebert, the problem is that I’m expected to appreciate his opinion, when clearly he values the undoubtabe “classics” of art and literature. Not once does he explains why this art and literature is better than video games, he simply says these video games are mindless and have no profound meaning. Granted, Flower was a pretty pretentious game any way you slice it – watch some Miyazaki and you’ll get the exact same message, only way better – but I still fail to see why Ebert is so intent on hating video games. He assumes that every old woman clinging to the good old days just “knows” – as he puts it – that video games, simply because they’re for entertainment, can never be art, or just won’t be any time soon. Ebert also just gives up when trying to understand the definition of art, which is simply pathetic. He claims you just have to “know” when something is art or not, but then says that art is about tastes and being subjective. If that’s true, SHUT UP. Your opinion is worthless. You don’t understand video games – not because of your age, but simply because you don’t WANT to play them – and thus you have no concrete reasons to base your opinion on. Art is not about “I hate that picture because I just do,” it’s about “I don’t like that picture because it doesn’t develop the message clearly enough.” You simply hiding behind opinions having no worth, while at the same time throwing your biases around because video games are something you don’t understand and thus you believe them to be shallow.
    The problem is that Ebert can’t look past things that have been established as “art”, and when he sees something that could be art, he disregards the potential and only looks for things that already are classified as art. It’s like he thinks, “This video game is nothing like this painting which is considered art (even though I don’t really know why), therefore the video game is not art, and video games will never be art because they will never be the same as paintings.” That mind-set is simply stubborn and naive. To find art in a video game, you must understand that video games present themselves as art in a different way.
    First, let’s look at an established work of art. The Sistine Chapel, for instance, is beautiful, certainly, but its meaning and existence are fairly straightforward, with their message being something that you can understand by looking at the picture, while the art of the painting goes beyond the colors. Stay with me. The famous part where God is reaching to Adam is a representation of God bringing Adam to life, and even if you don’t know about the story behind God and Adam, it still looks like a father reaching over to support his son. Alright, now that is a profound meaning, and it is art because it exists; someone painted this and the idea of God and man’s connection is plain to see. The fact that people can see the brushstrokes and go beyond to understand the deeper meaning means that the Sistine Chapel painting ITSELF represents the profound meaning of ‘understanding the connection between a father and a son’. It’s not about the pretty colors anymore, it’s the fact that this painting and its meaning affect the audience.
    Now, let’s take Shadow of the Colossus. Again, the “image”, in this case the entire game as opposed to a screenshot, is of a young man who brings a girl – who represents innocence and life even when she’s dead, no matter if she’s the man’s wife or mother or sister or just friend – and asks a god – who is a terrifyingly powerful force that is not just one entity but describes itself as multiple, thus showing how much more vast this entity is compared to the one man – to bring the girl back to life. The god tells the man to destroy the 16 colossi, and the man does so. As the man fights, his body deteriorates and he becomes visually more evil-looking and more sickly, and he is destroying the life of 16 other beings for one girl, as well as breaking the seals for this god that, while it seems to be the benevolent healer at first, eventually starts to seem not such a good thing because it manifests itself in a large shadow form and is hunted by some sort of warriors and medicine man. At the end of it all, the young man is swallowed by the god and used as a vessel for the god to manifest itself, representing in a moment how the man has been manipulated throughout the entire story and, while he accomplished his mission of resurrecting the girl, he had to sacrifice every part of himself and the lives of 16 other creatures to do so. That is a very powerful and moving story in terms of emotions as well as tragedy, but also exists as a testament of whether or not the ends justify the means. And beyond just the story of SotC, having to climb the colossi and stab them to death shows that this man is willing overcome great challenges and seemingly impossible odds to accomplish his goal, even when he has to defile sacred beings and thrust the sword deep into this creatures’ skulls. At this point, the gameplay is also a factor of the art. At first glance, the gameplay seems to be just a fun and exciting challenge (just as a painting might seem to be just a collection of nice colors and shapes), but with more contemplation, the true meaning of the gameplay is revealed, and the audience can clearly understand – having overcome the ordeal personally – that this man is ready and willing and capable of defeating these terrifying creatures for the sake of someone he loves.
    You see, art is not meant to be complex or purposely designed to be some sort of confusing mystery. Something becomes art by telling a story and existing and letting the audience understand its meaning. The audience’s understanding of the meaning thus makes the art itself represent more profound ideas and beliefs, rather than emotions or plots. Pictures or other media that focus on just evoking emotions are shallow, while art that comes to represent – not an experience, but… – a journey, an examination, a pondering of an asset of human nature (in SotC’s case, sacrifice), is what is considered profound ART. And for art to be truly great, the meaning has to be something that any human could fully understand and appreciate no matter where or when they live. While possibly more complex things like a story’s plot or a symphony’s musical themes might require some explaining as far as the “image” goes, once the plot or themes or picture is understood, the art withstands as being universal and eternal.
    So after coming up with my own definition of art (and clearing things up for myself, lol), I believe that Ebert is too arrogant to give video games a chance, and he’s admittedly too lazy to spend the time to look at the picture – the game – and look beyond the buttons and see the interaction and story and objective & challenge (which in SotC’s case is defeating the colossi) as being part of a bigger message of the game & the game’s story and art, thus making the game become art via the audience’s participation. The game starts out as entertainment or a story that the player interacts with, and the events of the game are the brushstrokes of the picture, and all of this comes together to becomes the art of the game.

    As for the article, tl;dnr. (lol) No seriously, the article is really cool so far but I have yet to finish the whole thing. It makes some very good points and I’m excited to finish it…tomorrow.

  2. Anything creative is art. It just depends on what art appeals to you.

    Is there an artistic way to build a game vs. a non-artistic way? Sure, you might argue games that fill a mold (anything less than a B rating) aren’t “art” because they’re doing something that’s already been done.
    But games like Braid, Machinarium and The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom are probably easier to label “artistic” because of their obviously unique art directions.

    Regardless, they all started with concept ART, went through some sort of rebuilding, redrawing, recreating and re-imagining, which in my mind shows the medium as having great potential to be “art”, even if not every single game is art; much like painting, film, music and whatever else you yourself like to call art.

    Maybe your 5 year old glues some macaroni together. Is that not art on some level? Depends who you ask, but I wouldn’t ask Ebert.

  3. Also, Ebert says that chess and other games are ‘obviously not art’ (I paraphrased). Um, no. Chess is, first of all, a fairly simple but very strategic game that makes it so a player’s strategy is in and of itself the art. But aside from that, chess is an artful story; it’s a critique of war. Chess is essentially a general-simulator, with the soldiers being expendable pieces. You don’t cry over losing a pawn. Chess is a game, but also has a meaningful message as you delve deeper, and that’s the point – there’s always some amount of valuable art in anything creative, it’s just a matter of spending the time to analyze the meaning, something that Ebert just doesn’t feel like doing.

    And a funny connection: Ebert said that Braid’s time control was basically just taking back a mistake, and he said that, in Chess, Braid’s mechanic is essentially just taking back a move. Well that fits into Chess’s message too. A chess player taking back a move is just a general playing with his toy soldiers, taking back a mistake, even though in real war that’s impossible.

    So uh, tl;dnr version: Ebert is a lazy dumbass who doesn’t understand what art is and isn’t willing to play video games to spend the time understanding the “image” of the video game, thus he can’t figure out the message, thus he can’t get any artistic value because he doesn’t want to.
    Ebert is not too old or specially opinionated – HE’S A HYPOCRITICAL, SELF-RIGHTEOUS, ARROGANT, STUBBORN MORON.

  4. @Cossack : Nothing about “chess” is artistic. Unless we turn it into a video game, give each piece a personality, and have amazing visualizations each time the player moves a piece. Then we have art, plain and simple.

    The game itself might not have changed, but the representation has. Much like painting a door, over and over. It’s still the same door… but why do you have to paint it so many times? Sometimes, you just get stuck on that door…. you know?

    1. Well, while everyone is free to share their opinions here, I’d like to say that it was both big (and intelligent) of Ebert to retract his statements about art. Not many people would do such a thing, and in so public and gracious a manner as he did.

  5. @ Julez: So just because Chess doesn’t have a backstory or pretty visuals it’s not art? I get your point, but you’re looking at art…too naively.

    @ Eddy: Yeah, okay, Ebert does have some professionalism, but he also doesn’t have professionalism. If you’re not willing to play a video game and spend time pondering the art of the video game, that’s the exact same thing as refusing to look at a painting or not reading a book. The fact that he doesn’t want to deal with video games totally destroys any arguments he has. He’s looking at the fucking cover.

  6. I think one problem is that the things in a video game: music, visuals, writing, etc…are art, but when you put them together and make them an interactive experience…is that art? It’s such a tough question, but I don’t care. I love games and I don’t need to see them as art to enjoy them.

  7. Anthony I agree that games don’t NEED to be art to be enjoyed. I do however support the belief that they CAN be art.
    Anyway, that analysis of MGS2 was fascinating and one of the best articles I’ve ever read (it was just so intriguing!).
    I never hated Raiden as a character, I just never liked him as much as Snake. I got why he was complaining a lot (he can’t decide to be Snake or himself and is conflicted: emulate his hero or face up to the fact that he had a horrifying past which taught him most of what he knew, yet be true to himself).

  8. @ Skuba and Anthony: Yeah, that’s really the point of this. If anything, the fact that there’s a whole subculture of video games pretty much proves that it’s artistic. There’s a difference between a guy who plays a lot of Pacman and a guy who really appreciates the story, feel, interaction, and overall atmosphere of Shadow of the Colossus or any game. Most gamers who aren’t the moron type are the latter.

Comments are closed.