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But Is It Art?
by Doctor Rotwang
Lemme tell you somethin'. I hated "Boogie Nights".
Yeah, you know, that movie about porn movies. Marky Mark - I mean, Mark Wahlberg's in it, and Burt Reynolds, and that weird-lookin' alien chick - big eyes, you know? Uh...Graham! Heather Graham. I didn't wanna see the damned thing, man, I wanted to see "Starship Troopers" again that night. But my girlfriend and our friend Nicole wanted to see it, so...I bent.
Oh. You probably think this has nothing to do with gaming. Hold on, though, 'cause it will. You bet. Just follow me....
So I'm sitting here, watching the movie, with every intention of giving it a fair shake. It was getting good reviews, and all, right? So why not give it a whirl? But here's the problem, and I SWEAR I'm getting to the gaming angle in just a bit. Problem was, see, the director would set up his shot, right? He'd start rolling. You're watching...nothing. Kinda boring. Nothing, nothing....aha! Something related to the plot would pop up, happen, and then -- I was watching nothing again. For a long, long time.
I was watching a big nothing about which I honestly didn't give a $%*@.
[Aside - to Steve, the Editor - Steve, can I say "$%*@" on your 'zine? I mean, you're not gonna censor me and turn my dollar-percent-asterisk-at-symbol to, like, a silly word to replace it, are you? Hope not.]
[Doc, just get to the fucking point already. Ed]
So. Watching "Boogie Nights". Nothing happening. Bored. Didn't care.
My mind starts thinking, 'this is chewing up my time'. Then, I thought, 'this cost a lot of money'. Then, I had the idea -- the BIG idea, mind you, the one that turns this seemingly gameless rant into a real actual gaming article:
'I CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS'.
Well, first, I thought, 'I can do better than this as a filmmaker'. Honestly, because I'm always lookin' out for my craft, see? I saw "Star Wars" when I was two years old, and that was....twenty-three years ago. From that day on, I dedicated myself to being the best filmmaker, ever, or at least a really good one. Now, if only I could get off my lazy arse and MAKE a film....anyway, I knew right away, watching "Boogie Nights" that I could make a better film than the one I was, umn, suffering.
But then it occurred to me, in a very roundabout way (which is par for the course in the PGA of my mind), that if I could streamline a story on the SCREEN, then, in like manner, I could streamline it AT THE GAMING TABLE.
Taaa-daaaah! He got there! Clearing the chasm by a mere, treacherous inch, Rotwang Knievel has bridged the gap between role-playing games and bitter reminesence about lousy 'art' films!
Yet we're not done jumping. Oh, no! hang on to your...uh...sit down, 'cause....uh....okay, I'm gonna make a weird connection here once again. Again, follow me on this one.
Gaming, you see, is not in itself an art form, but can be APPROACHED as such - and resultingly, turned INTO art. Which is to say, if you were to take, say, the storytelling techniques such as those which would sharpen and define the narrative of "Boogie Nights" (such as it was), and applied them to gaming, you could approach art at the table, with all your goofy dice in tow.
Whoa! There he goes again!
Philosophers, artists, poets, clerics, madmen and their brothers-in-law have, since the beginning of time, asked this question: "What is art, anyway? I mean, is some Greenwich Village yahoo spreading feces on a coffee pot 'art'?" (Well, there was no coffee pot around at the beginning of time, nor a Greenwich Village. Dung, however, there was lots of, and surely someone flung it somewhere and tried to find proto-Freudian symbolism in it. I just know it.) Well, here to answer the question, "What is Art?", I present my friend -- Webster!
"Ma'am and George said not to talk to strangers."
Wh-- huh? Emmanuel Lewis, TV''s "Webster"?! What are YOU doing here?
"Like I have another gig. Duh."
Well, let's clarify. I meant MERRIAM Webster, as in the dictionary guy, who sez:
"ART -- 1. Skill acquired by experience or study 2. a branch of learning, esp. one of the humanities 3. an occupation requiring knowledge or skill 4. the use of skill and imagination in the production of things of beauty; also, works so produced"
There we go. That's better.
That doesn't sound like gaming, does it? I mean, sure, you GAIN experience from, say, whacking orcs, and you use your imagination to envision the orcish entrails spraying about like so much goulish Silly String. But clue in on that last bit: "...the production of things of beauty; also, works so produced"...
Phobe Cates' parents: artists.
"Get back to the point, dude."
Uh...thanks, Emmanuel. So if art equals things of beauty, how do you turn a gaming session into a thing of beauty, and, therefore, a work of art?
Let's jump around again. What three recognized, accredited arts does gaming bear most resemblance to, and why? Well, duh! Literature, cinema and theatre.
Yes, I'll explain. See, if we look at these three arts, we'll see how they -and their techniques- can be used to enhance Your Gaming Experience.
Gaming, like lit, flicks, and...uh...plays (sorry, tried to rhyme there), is based around a narrative structure. You tell a story, even if it's just "Three fighters, a fire-mage, a thief and a walking suit of Mega-Damage Glitterboy armor went to The Forgotten Synnibar of Greyhawks and killed stuff, even stuff that didn't move. After killing the stuff, they took ITS stuff." Still a story. Even if you strip away all the other trappings of an RPG session or campaign -characterization inclusive-, you're left with narrative. Just like literature, cinema and theatre: all driven by a story.
There's more. Don't forget characterization! After all, when we say, "I'm rolling up a character for 'Groupies & Synthesizers,' Palladium's mid-80's game of crime-fighting New Wave musicians", we're talking about an identifiable, dramatic entity which can be identified by the audience and populates the story in which it belongs, even if its sole job in the story to whack ass hither and yon. (In the case of a "G&S" character, however, it also has a really bitchin' waterfall hairdo.) And it just so happens that the character you roll up or otherwise create is going to be a PROTAGONIST in the story, yes yes? Hmmmmn? See, guys, you hang with me long enough, sense starts bein' made.
And I'm not the only crazy one. No! Steve was thinking this too, and his diseased mind spawned an article of its own on just this topic. So it's a theme issue! Click on the link to read his approach. But read mine, first! There's a quote from "Neuromancer" coming up! Woohoo!
[You know what? This is outta nowhere, but I really enjoy watching "The Powerpuff Girls". I digress.]
So we're telling a story about characters when we play RPGs - tales about questing knights, vampires (for some sick reason - I sure as hell don't, unless they're villains), starship captains and so on. Literature, theatre and cinema do these things too, and each relies upon differing forms of expression with which to do so:
Literature employs the power of the written word, colourful and evocative descriptions, metaphors, and general wordsmithing to convey an idea, image, or even an emotion or an experience with which to move the reader. From "Neuromancer", by William Gibson: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Now, does that set up the gritty cyberpunk thing, or what?
Theatre makes use of dialogue and characterization above all -- the characters hold our interest, and demand to be portrayed to their fullest, while their dialogue not only propels the plot but also adds to the mood, theme and setting of the piece (compare "Macbeth" to Woody Allen's "Don't Drink The Water", which was my Senior Play in high school. Boy, we were great, the whole cast was....hey, look, I'm off-topic again! Whoops).
Cinema builds upon the notions of characterization and dialogue, and adds its power of visual suggestion. Not just through special effects, mind you, but evenwith the careful application of color and light, shadow and motion, form and pacing. Think everything in "Dark City" was dark and grimy just so the director (Alex Proyas; give him a hand) could justify the title? Noooooooo. What about that clutch scene on Cloud City in "The Empire Strikes Back" (you KNOW the one. "I love you!" "I know.")? Han and Leia are shot in a close-up and being tugged away from each other by Stormtroopers, for a reason - the shot tries to keep them together, the motion does not. You WANT to see them together, but something you can't see (or control) is taking them away. It's a visual technique that brings urgency and despair to the movie (hey wow, I actually learnt something at film school!). For that matter, why was Solo encased in carbonite and spirited off by Boba Fett at TWILIGHT? Ever think of that? Ooooooh.
So let's say that these art forms of which we've just spoken have, at their cores, these elements: charcter, dialogue, narrative, conflict, expressed through wordsmithing/imagery/visualization, etc. Can we then say that gaming itself shares these art forms' "prime requisites"? (Clever gaming reference, huh? Send US$10.00 to the Dr. Rotwang Institute for Game Lingo in Mainstream Use and Fleecing You of Money, PO Box 11811, Metropolis.)
Sure we can!
"Gaming itself shares th-"
It was rhetorical and implicit, Emmanuel.
"Yeah, sure. I still get paid for this, right?"
So here's what I'm saying, and it all comes down from Heather Graham looking like a Martian: gaming is just a hobby. But, like any other hobby, it can be extended from diversion into a craft, being the application of rote techniques in search of excellence and perfection in a task - it's sort of hands-on, then, getting into it and fixng it, gluing things together and so on. And from there, past the hard work and procedure, gaming can be elevated to art. Because it incorporates the same devices that lit, plays and film utilize to move the audience, gaming, too, can indeed be used as a vehicle for THE CREATION OF A THING OF BEAUTY.
"BUT HOW?!" I hear you scream at me with naked purple frenzy.
If you read careful, you'll see that I just TOLD you.
It's all in craft, folks. You HAVE the tools. Use them! All it takes is some creativity and some effort. A game of Monty Haul Asswhack is easy, not to mention fun; but what if you used, say, some of those literary, cinematic or theatric tools to enhance the experience and, yes, Mr./Mrs./Ms. Gamemaster, to
MOVE YOUR AUDIENCE?
Take that fantasy campaign. Yeah, that one. Here, now grab an NPC that's in the wings. The greedy baron, yeah. Excellent. We know that he's greedy, imposes huge taxes, etc. Let's flesh him out: maybe...maybe he represents the fiery end of an old order in your campaign world, right? He's bright, flashy, and the story calls for his greed to defeat him, at which point the campaign kingdom will change immensely, after a period of down-time. Aha! Give him...give him autumn colors. Yes! His banner is reds, oranges, blacks. Fire colors, too, by the way....you can describe his heralds (or him) riding across the hills, banners flapping like fire over the hillside, burning. What happens in autumn? Trees change color, leaves finally fall away, and the world turns cold and grey. Working from this seasonal template, where else can you take him? And who's gonna represent Spring? Hey, whaddayaknow - we gots metaphors!
Now, how do you pace it? "Boogie Nights" had little (dull) nuggets of story encased in long (dull) stretches of pointless narrative. Is that the way your story feels? Or is it more streamlined, quicker, sleeker, faster? Think about the differences between going into lots of little detail about this and that sword weight, or shopping for equipment, or whatever, as opposed to trimming the fat and going to the lean of the action - not just combat action, but PLOT action, and even if it's just dialogue or flavor text, you can get it in there, hit the spot, make the point, and keep going? Or you can slow things down and drag out the suspense....
It's just like in "Boogie Nights", where unimportant, dull stuff occurred for no reason other than to bug you. If you take that screenplay and cut out the fat, you get a leaner, faster narrative, with more room for action (and not only of the bing-bang-boom-bleed kind). Or the example I gave about Boba Fett - using colour (nicely provided by the weather) to set a mood. Interior designers do this, filmmakers do it, painters, architects....it works for gamers too. I swear. Which is freakier: a green zombie stumbling towards you, or a puffy, reddish-blue one with streaks of unhealthy black?
Listen, this is just an example. But you see what I'm saying? It's art, man! It can be a thing of beauty. Who's gonna see it? You, your players, maybe some groupies. But it's like a good book that stays with you. You can turn a game into something memorable, something truly beautiful. This is big, folks - it's fun, too. You wouldn't believe how long a good game can stay with you - no, no, I KNOW you can. I can tell you, however, that, using these ideas and involving your own, you can crank that dungeon-crawl into the freakiest, most involving, most evocative thing with the word "THAC0" in it. There are more ways in which to do it than I have column space.
"Maybe you should do another coulmn on that."
Yeah, maybe I should, Emmanuel. Hey, let's go over to Punky Brewster's house and play Synnibar!
"Whatever. If it'll shut you up..."
Dr Rotwang is wanted by state police for repeatedly jumping up and down outside the Cates' residence waving a fork. He should be considered armed and gangrenous.
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