Essay Week 2010 runs from Sunday, July 25th to Saturday, July 31st. Every year I take a week and write about some topics of interest to me that run slightly more serious than the usual fare on the blog. That’s not to say that games and anime won’t enter into it, but the predominant theme is that this week skews a bit more literary than epistolary. After a bit of a hard-edged start, we move to a more fluid topic.
A few years back, Mike Doughty, lead singer for Soul Coughing, released a cover of Kenny Rogers’ iconic song “The Gambler”. The cover transposes the song to a more alt-rock style, leaning more heavily on the drums than the original (which was dominated by acoustic guitar), and it drops half of one of the narrative verses in favor of starting with the legendary and infinitely-memorable chorus. In many respects the cover is good, but it loses something in the retelling, particularly without the missing section.
“The Gambler”, at its core, is a fairly standard country-western song. Country as a rule tends to be more narrative than other genres (excepting perhaps blues or certain types of folk), and as a result each song is more akin to a short story than a piece of music. In the original version, “The Gambler” tells the tale of an aging card sharp passing along his last words of wisdom to the singer as he quietly dies. If one pays very close attention to the song, and considers the story that the song presents with due thought, it becomes a strong and very emotional piece.
Despite the missing verse, Mike Doughty’s version still conveys the emotions that Kenny Rogers’ does. Both versions act as testaments to the strength of the singer and the story, as I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who, once told of the deep element of the song, still thinks of it as the frivolous little ditty it once was seen as.
Although it is most often seen with music, it is a phenomenon by no means limited to that medium. Last year, after the unprecedented success of James Cameron’s Avatar, the news services (for what it’s worth) were flooded with reports of people coming away from the film feeling depressed and despondent. Not due to the film’s mood, but rather due to the fact that the film had ended– that they would see no more of Pandora than what had already been committed to digital celluloid. Perhaps it is excessively cynical of me to dismiss that sentiment with the single word “sequel”, but on some level, I can certainly relate to the concept of completion depression.
Each year I undertake a personal project to see how many video games I can complete in those twelve months. I had to put it off in 2009 due to the various calamities, but in 2010 I’m aiming for 50 completions. As you might have noticed I’m not even to fifteen. This is partly due to a lack of free time, but more due to the fact that, after completing a major game, I lose ambition for a while. I can’t explain why, as it’s sometimes due to a story affecting me, or sometimes it’s just the sheer amount of time needed to get to the next clear in some cases. I think, though, I have the hardest time “moving on” from a game whose story or circumstances affect me greatly.
Earlier this year I played through Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. In that game, one of the early stages places the player in the role of a deposed head of state in a Middle Eastern nation that is undergoing a violent revolution. The president has no weapons, no abilities, and no freedom bar being able to move his head to observe his surroundings as he is driven through the city he once ruled. While the stage serves as little more than the opening credits, it also sets up the story for the rest of the game, and ends in a courtyard. In this courtyard, the player watches, still through the president’s eyes, as he is tied to a post in the center of the courtyard, ranted at in subtitled Arabic for a few moments, and then summarily shot in the head. The screen goes black, usually immediately after the player is screaming for the execution to stop. The character, however, says nothing.
I’d said in the Save and Quit article for the game that Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 are not at all subtle in their plying of the players’ and critics’ emotions. The games are aiming to be their mediums’ equivalents of Apocalypse Now, of Full Metal Jacket, of Black Hawk Down and Generation Kill. These games are strong and powerful anti-war messages, just as their predecessor films are, and if they are heavy-handed in inducing the desired emotions, it is irrelevant compared to the fact that they do.
A writer on the (in)famous TV Tropes Wiki wrote, “Art isn’t about making you feel good. It’s about making you feel.” I find it a most fascinating sentiment, simply because the end result is something that was brought about quite implicitly. Our civilization, and our culture– human culture, all of it without even the slightest exception– is built upon our ability to imbue our creations with emotion, and to extract emotion from works of man.
In his story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, Philip K. Dick wrote about a machine which could be set to induce an emotion in its user. The users “dialed” codes, which presumably directly stimulated the response centers of the user’s brains, thus triggering the emotion. The machines were so precise as to be self-justifying: one of the explicitly mentioned potential uses is dialing to induce a “desire to dial”. The machine was presented in a slightly negative light, as it was symbolic of humanity’s inability to be emotionally affected by anything but their own chemistry. I certainly understand where Mr. Dick was concerned, but I submit that not only was he wrong, he was comically and ridiculously wrong.
Humanity will always have the ability to be moved by their experiences. It could be the view from a mountaintop; the feeling of victory in a game; the poignancy of an actor’s performance; the poetry of a mathematical equation; the dry prose of a news report… literally, and without hyperbole, anything. As long as humanity exists, humans will create works of art, and will experience those works to discover the emotion recorded within. No machine is necessary. Machines in fact are incapable of recording this or inducing it. In the end it is the human touch, the hands crafting the work, which guide the observer, and grant the emotion that the observer receives. And the wonderful thing is, that emotion is always different.
Not everyone shared my opinion about the effectiveness of Modern Warfare’s anti-war message. In fact many people completely glossed over it, instead choosing to simply bask in the carnage of the deathwatch multiplayer. That’s okay. Others still were even more deeply affected, having lost friends or family in military action overseas. Just last week I saw a billboard commemorating a soldier who had died in 2007; his birthday was only three weeks prior to mine. If we had lived in close proximity we would have gone to school together. Someone from that kind of a background would have been terrified, or inconsolable, during the nuclear explosion portion of the game. Even as detached as I was from that kind of tragedy, I had to stop playing for a little while.
The point is, many of the people claiming that certain things are or are not “art” are forgetting the root of that word. “Artifice”. We tend to use “Artificial” as a pejorative word, but at its core it means “made, manufactured, created by people”. It is easy to forget that, sometimes. But when anything provokes an emotion in you– and anything can– just try to think of the emotion needed to create it. Think about the connection between you and the creator of that work.