Friday, February 10, 2012

Kellee Santiago, dreadful Avatar of VGA

I do have a sense of humour. I swear. Trouble is, I'm not sure it's twisted enough to fathom the magnitude of ludicrousness we've been exposed to.

It's a bit my fault. I took another look at the whole "games ain't art" affair, and noticed that our dear Kellee Santiago played some prime role in it. As far as I cared about what I initially considered a non-event, I hadn't noticed that Ebert had done more than replying to a few comments amongst the thousand that got posted in response so his bold statement.

Perhaps it's just me, but there's something that I don't get. There's a broad range of more knowledgeable and experienced professionals on the topic of video games than Mrs. Santiago. Yet, for some reason, she retained Roger Ebert's attention. Perhaps because she approached him with a degree of assumed authority on the topic, as some sort of ambassador for the whole industry.

For the sake of being honest and complete, I did go through the video which supposedly got the upper hand on Ebert's initial bold claim. In a way, the dogma she shines into our optical sensors is nothing more than a mere continuation of what I highlighted some months ago, in thatgamecompany sucks at making games.
Let's not kid ourselves here. It's possible, initially, that Ebert didn't give a damn about Santiago, but since he may have been told to watch this video wherein this unknown chick started talking about his so erroneous initial reaction, he may have realized that in order to avoid looking passé and still be considered relevant by the young artsy plebe, he had to indulge Santiago's appetite for attention, even if at the price of conceding on a variety of points. Not wanting to be ostracized, he may have weighed the pros and cons and considered there was something to gain by abdicating a tad, even if it meant pushing forth someone he didn't know and probably didn't care about anyway, but may have thought to be seen as someone of importance in the video game industry. A disastrous assumption, for sure, if it were true.

The irony would be that next to Sony's money, Ebert's own move did propel Santiago to such heights of influence and importance.

The thing is, until recently, after having widely avoided the whole Roger Ebert shitstorm, I never noticed him almost entirely recanting from his former outburst against gaming in his article of July 1st, 2010, notably as a reaction to a video by K. Santiago (TEDxUSC - Kellee Santiago - 3/23/09).
I learned of that video and this sort of exchange thanks to an article she wrote after Ebert's own first reaction to her video, which he posted on the 16th of April 2010 (that was Ebert's second post in his trilogy if I recall correctly, the first article being his most famous statement against games being art).
Sorry, what?

If you're lost, don't bother. Just focus on the video, because this is another amazing thing, really. Another ballad in the sanitarium park, trying to keep pace with Santiago's incoherent and aimless wandering.
If you don't believe me, just get that video playing. Notice how she points out that immensely popular games such as North American football, chess, baseball and majong are appreciated, but are not art; a conclusion perhaps solely based on the *cough* analysis *cough* of their rules, or the observation of the mesmerized and cheerful crowds enjoying those games:

Truly baffling.
This is where we confirm that what she thinks defines art in a video game essentially has very little to do with the game part. She says that such games have elegant and rich mechanics and they surprise us (without complexity, the outcome is easily guessed and there's no gratifying pleasure).
Note that this is precisely why these games are still played and considered good. It is an odd thing that she doesn't realize that the games she helped create have very little of those pleasant and complex mechanics. As I said back in September, their games are poor.

Let's also consider that with the definition she picked from Wikipedia (sigh), she'd have no reason to keep aforementioned sports games out of the art category. Here is the definition as it appeared on Wikipedia's old page, from the 15th of March, 2009:

Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.

So now you see that with that kind of definition, sports have no reason to be refused the status of art.
More dramatically, we can ask ourselves how the hell can anyone take her seriously after that?

What is going on right now is probably of a gravity not properly understood by the whole industry.
Time's ticking! In the United States, beacon of the somewhat crippled occidental world (for which Capcom recently reshaped its own spirit to better suit the "needs" of playdom as it is understood on the other side of the ocean), and with the support of Sony's money and prestige, you are possibly contemplating the birth of a new odd creature:

The Avatar of Video Game Artsism (VGA).

Honestly, I'd rather not be bothered by such petty matters, but it would be a considerable mistake for us not to focus our attention on such affairs with the highest seriousness possible, as there is nothing petty here, much to my own distress. On the contrary!
What still keeps me from really doubling efforts to challenge this rising doctrine with the full might of someone truly concerned about the safety of the industry to which he belongs, is that nagging question about if she's really understanding that what she and her pals are doing is wrong, and if she has really thought about it to begin with!
But, well, does it really matter if she didn't? What's done is done, and this theoretical stance seems assured to blossom. Until we do something about it, or until it collapses onto itself.
Can one adopt a different approach to a problem solely on the premise that one individual, who is progressively taking part in the shaping of a next generation of video games, is a fully conscious person or just another reckless artsy hipster?

I think Santiago is of the second breed. See how Jenova Chen almost has taken a back seat. His biggest problems probably being that he's Asian and not so fluent when it comes to speaking in front of the cameras.
But let's not digress too much on him. After all, he's not going to have much of the impact I foresee Santiago having on the industry. Eventually, Chen is going to remember what made him love video games when he was a kid. Plus he's not looking as concerned about feeding his ego as much as Santiago is. Especially since she's been given (probably unwittingly in some respects) the required attention-ramp-boost.

Now let's get back to that video, shall we?

Don't lose time with that Waco Resurrection "game". It's obviously a bad one. You can skip that part.
Fast forward to the moment when she speaks about Braid, a much hyped game on the indie scene. Why?
Honestly, the mechanics are rather limited. The time reversal function feels gimmicky after a while and does a so-so job at masking the rest of the game's lack of substance, which aside from poor platforming design, seems hellbent on spoon feeding you with shit and moral nonsense like some drunk monk shouting from the top of some mighty horses.
Who really cares about the "message"?

So we move on. Then there's some self pimping. Flower is a boring game, thank you. By Santiago's own admission, it wasn't even conceived as a game, and its useless interactivity wasn't even part of the concept's core.

But really, the worst is to come.
At 9 minutes 4 seconds, precisely.

The lady doesn't realize that the evolution of video gaming akin to what cinema has experienced has already happened. In her world, the games before the Braids and Flows were primitive, necessary steps towards greater video games. With barely veiled derision, an entire golden era of talent and genuine creativity is nonchalantly dumped into a mass grave, as a collection of derelict material comparable to the clumsy and early reels from the documentarian era of a medium in its infancy, an age of rushed works and cuts: something you only look at with a kind eye while demonstrating as much respect as humanly possible towards embarrassingly raw pieces belonging to protohistory.
Transcription, verbatim:

[...] As the medium of film and its audiences grew, audiences' expectations also grew and shifted as well. And then more films beca... err... were made that then filled in the... the emotional spectrum of the medium. And when it comes to games, our emotions don't change. The same kind of games we played when we were children just don't work for us anymore and now we have a generation of gamers who're grown ups themselves... and starting to wonder if there's something more to games. Could our games be more serious? Could they reach higher levels of joy, to ecstasy? Could they reach deeper levels of sadness, to catharsis? And we're seeing now these games as exploration into other parts of the emotional spectrum, and then these games are being rewarded by audiences in high sales figures and critical acclaim.

And then she goes on talking about how the medium of interactivity can be very powerful. Isn't it just lovely, coming from someone who precisely worked on projects where art, as vague as it was, took complete precedence over interactivity? And not just interactivity in the general sense, but a specific one, which allows people to respond to rules of games?

Now, remember the bit about how sports games, even those clearly less intense on the muscular side of things like chess and majong; they are not art. That one was quite funny because she didn't really explain why, nor what she understood as art. Right, she did, with a laughable Wikipedia quotation.

Can you see why I just can't stand what she believes in? It's not the person who rebuts me, but what's in her head, and the fact that she rose to such a position of importance despite deeply nonsensical opinions about the industry she works in.
The TED's motto seems to be "let's hand a mike to people who rarely get that chance, so they may express their opinions on varied topics and eventually reach more people than they naturally would if left alone."
Sure. Now think of all the missed opportunities... of never having to hear her asinine and pompous claims.

I'm not too concerned about the concept of art. Defining it might be as hard as defining matter. What I won't tolerate is any piece of silliness used to support either side.
It's just too sick to consider that chess may become art if only someone were to disrupt the power and efficiency of the game's mechanics by adding a whole range of animated colours and decorative sets all around the board, starting with some touchscreen for one, with every move followed by a melody, modified by the way each player would lift, transport and deposit the next pawn, tracked by some motion sensor.
Can you imagine? Can you?

- Hey Frank, you know what? I'm done with that game. I've grown tired of chess. Been there done that. It's boring these days. Boring and too crude, if I may say.
- But I thought you loved chess.
- I do. Well, kinda. I should say I did. But I also grew up. We need to set this game above this stagnating cesspool of primitiveness we've been used to for far too long.
- I'm not sure I'm following you...
- It's very simple. We're adults, we've played this game for ages, but as humans, we need to diversify our experiences, explore wider ranges of emotions. Right now, this game is not artistic.
- I beg to differ. I think your silver and ivory model is a rather fine piece of...
- You didn't listen to me. This is not art. You're focusing on some irrelevant makeup. This game has to evolve. It's unbelievable it hasn't yet! It's an absolute shame. We can't take it for what it is anymore.
- Why?
- Because it's not serious and deep enough, and we're better than that! As adults, we cannot accept to play the limited version we have before our eyes.
- Huh. Assuming that you do know what you're talking about, just how do you plan making that happen?
- Think! It's simple! See, for example... pick that queen of yours. Now, instead of merely changing its position from this square to... that one over there... why not take this opportunity to enhance this displacement and move the piece around by making graceful loops in the air? These artistic and deeply meaningful moves could symbolize the eternal cycle of death and reincarnation, as posited in Buddhism.
- Oh I see. That is definitely more artistic than I thought.
- It is, isn't it?
- I'm starting to get your point.
- Thank you.
- However there's a caveat. A typical game would stretch in length because of this added density of... err... beauty, sense and depth. I know chess isn't the fastest game in the world, but do we need to make it even slower?
- I understand your concerns. It's absolutely clear that if we want to cross a boundary, we do have to be bold. We may have to tweak rules, otherwise we'd have little chance of getting the attention of real art connoisseurs. Besides, we're trying to make this game less boring, not more soporific.
- I think I see where you're going. So you believe we should simplify the rules?
- Yes. In fact, we may have to rethink the board itself! Too many squares and too many pieces means too many permutations. We're talking about relaxing, enjoying the moment, after all. From that perspective, thinking hard isn't good. It's a form of effort, which is another term for soft torture, really. Quite the antithesis of what we seek to achieve there.
- That makes sense. May I suggest something? While we're at it, shouldn't we remove that timer?
- Oh yes, absolutely! We don't need tension.
- Tension would certainly ruin the experience.
- Indeed, it would.
- And... do you have a name in mind yet?
- No. But I know that we need something that sounds inviting, smooth and smart.
- Ah. Let's try... Flying Pieces!
- Mmm... no, too obvious. Besides it sounds like this is about throwing stuff across the room. But I like the idea of flying the pieces above the black and white board in some stylized fashion, like if the pieces were extensions of our souls carried over those dichromatic fields, as part of an uttermost transcendental experience. Let me think... Magpawns!
- Mag-what? You're sure of that one?
- Absolutely! It's a conflation of magpies, for the colours and the flying, and pawns, for the game.
- Of course! That's wonderful! You're quite the bright man when it comes to playful things!

Superb dystopia, don't you think?
The worst part of it is that I can't even guarantee that we will always be spared that kind of stupidity.
In essence, this is exactly what Kellee Santiago is aiming at, and I can only hope that her opinions will never prove influential.

Anyway, I think she really can praise Ebert's name every goddamn day with abandon, now that she has gotten more attention than she deserves.
I wouldn't be surprised of hearing about how she printed and pinned Ebert's article to her bedroom's wall. One of the most prized trophies of all times, for those who have a misplaced hard-on for blathering about games being art.
After all, as she put it with all the necessary emphasis (not mine, word):

April 16, 2010 unexpectedly became a new watermark in my career as a game maker – Roger Ebert wrote an article about me.


She, who can't even explain why Flower is a game, pretends being qualified for lecturing Ebert on why games are art.
One word: pathetic.

Perhaps Ebert failed at describing art, but Santiago certainly failed at describing games. So let's call it a tie.

Oh, I almost forgot: Santiago. Just shut up, will ya?