does art say things?
“You’ve done too much original research” was the reason he gave me for not giving me a perfect score. “You have a great paper here, really interesting conclusions, but even though you hit the number of sources I asked for, you should have cited more scholars. Where are you coming up with this stuff?”
I came up with it myself, I replied, explaining that my sources were me showing how I’d come up with the conclusions I was drawing. He furrowed his brow, kept reiterating that I needed to quote more scholars. That was when I decided I had no interest in pursuing a doctorate.
I’m good enough. I know I am — he and just about every other teacher on that side of the film school brought up the suggestion that I shoot for one at one point or another, and I’d helped dozens of doctoral students with their work over the years in all sorts of fields, not just the arts — and I’d always wanted to be one, just like my dad had been, but there I was, standing in the biology building for a film class, being told my work was stellar but I just needed to regurgitate more from other people.
This exchange helped me pin down what had been bothering me for quite a while. I’d seen it in different places — excessive deference to the same few essays, like “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (a landmark work in feminist film theory that also received criticism for being homophobic and required the author to write a follow-up essay and claim that visual pleasure was, itself, hyperbole — of course, everyone who cites it doesn’t cite it as hyperbole, only Mulvey did that), for instance.
Another quake to my certainty in the validity of the doctorate was a teacher on the theory side of things who gave off the sense that he fancied himself the leading authority on a certain director, because the good doctor happened to know a lot of trivia about the director’s life. I remember at one point, the teacher made some grandiose claim about the director’s reason for doing something, speaking with a practiced flourish that comes from long-held and often-rehearsed beliefs. I also remember how a fellow student reduced his grandiosity to silence by asking if the director’s reason for doing something might not just be a specific and obvious mundane thing instead?
Silence echoed in the hall.
“Huh,” he finally said. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
As an aside: this is like a 15,000 word essay, and I am distributing it freely. If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:
What I’m saying is this: there’s a real fuckin’ danger to crawling up your own ass, and I saw that a whole lot in university, but I’ve also seen it in… dun! dun! dun! games criticism. This specific form of ass-crawling starts by someone rejecting the idea that they might not know something, which leads them to the conclusion that they don’t really have to learn about something, which leads them to thinking they’re an expert. When you’re arrogant, you can’t learn, when you fail to learn, you don’t grow. Without growth, well, the seed never sprouts and becomes a mighty tree. A seed that claims to be a tree already and decides it doesn’t have to grow won’t do much more than annoy the saplings encircling it, each one ahead in their own growth. That ungrowing seed is a waste. You’ve got to grow.
A person who refuses to grow hears an idea from a limited pool of possible sources (if they grew, they’d have more sources — it’s one of the reasons why an all-white writer’s room won’t write a story nearly as good as a more diverse one; the more sources you have, the stronger your overall understanding is), and then the person who refuses to grow lets that idea calcify. It’s often a sound byte that seems compelling — like the number of spiders you swallow in your sleep — and then the ungrowing person goes around spouting the falsehood until the end of time. Some things might be as innocent as spider-swallowing’s fiction, but others might have actual, real world harm. So it’s important to know we don’t know things and be open to the possibility that what we do know is incorrect, so we can pursue the truth and, in so doing, mitigate our harm on the people and planet around us.
Once the idea has calcified, some people decide that rejecting the veracity of the idea means rejecting a host of other things they hold dear.
This essay is about the idea of “politics in games,” and it’s the sequel to this essay here. You should read that one first. The idea of “is your game political?” is one of these calcified ideas — if I say “that’s a bad question,” and you have been hearing from all your coworkers and peers in games criticism that “you’re either a good person or you’re a person who says ‘games aren’t always political’,” then you might decide right there that I’m not a good person.
We might share the same political views — voting identically on the ballot, going to the same marches, trying to win people over for the same goal — and we might treat people with the same ideals and morality, but if you’ve got that idea calcified in your brain, it might be hard for you to see the truth: what I’m actually trying to say because the calcified object has bruised the flesh around it and is making it painful to see the world any other way.
Please look at what I’m trying to say, okay? Because I’m not here to say “anything I don’t like in a game is political,” because that’s stupid. I also think it’s dumb to say “metal gear solid isn’t political” because it very clearly is, since it’s a series about the concepts of national identity and military force, and how the state functions through a military lens.
How about this? I think when you ask a game developer the question “is your game political,” you think you’re asking the game developer “does your game have a worldview?” Some of you are taking that further and going “does your game expressly argue for a specific worldview?”
Setting The Stage: Should Art Say Things?
After I wrote the above, I went to bed. I woke up to a bad-faith reading of my piece “Should art say things?” to find someone trying to argue that I was some kind of secret conservative. They came up, whole cloth, with the idea that I must’ve been arguing for horseshoe theory (I don’t believe in it; they had to pervert the elements of the essay that were about exploring how fundamentalism’s psychological methods of control function), because “horseshoe theory” is a very common dogwhistle for right-wing pundits. If it could successfully be argued that I believed in horseshoe theory, then it could be argued that my work is just like all the people who go “metal gear solid isn’t political.”
Like I said.
So the point of the last essay was this: an awful lot of people want art to be didactic, because they want art to intentionally convey specific messages that can be reduced to a thesis statement. This is a popular idea among writing gurus — I believe it was McKee who said that every story needs to be reduceable to a single sentence containing a thesis statement. It’s worth noting that McKee has never written anything of note; he is not a great artist. He is a person who markets his work to executives to help them write better notes on how to make your screenplays more formulaic. He’s a big part of the reason movies are as bland as they are these days.
Art’s function is something I laid out in the piece citing artists from around the globe — Le Guin, Tarkovsky, Zulawski, Lynch — it’s not to be didactic. A sermon is a sermon, art is more than that. Last night, as I was reading Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife, I came across a delightful little phrase that set this whole thing off: “art is the mediation between the conscious and the subconscious mind.” I still like Tarkovsky’s more religious bent — that art is to harrow a man’s soul, rendering him capable of turning to good, preparing him for death — but it all means the same thing: we make art to deal with shit.
When I conceived and wrote Adios, I did so because I was writing about grieving. I wanted you to experience the emotionality of that, sure, but I was also expressing what I was going through and what I was feeling through, though I set it over a more lurid concept. I am not sermonizing at you — and this is a common thread I find in artists — however, as I mentioned above, time and time again, I see scholars and critics on the hunt for the sermon, because, like a conspiracy theorist, they like to feel good knowing they’ve discovered the hidden meaning, that they are the augur.
So in the last essay, I argue that art and didactism/sermonizing are separate things, but that a lot of people are drawn to finding the secret even when there is none. We make so many of the things we do to help our audience deal with feelings. You can’t really grapple with that on a conscious level. When you begin to impart ideas, you’ve lost your audience’s attention and care unless you are preaching to the choir.
If you’re a fundamentalist, right-wing Christian, I’d like to try to make this point compelling to you now, if I could: if you want to convince someone to come to Christ, what you need to tap into is the person’s sense that something is missing from their life (and, per your worldview, they are missing Christ). If you present a movie where the person has a problem in real life (their sports team isn’t doing so great) and then their pastor says “accept jesus into your heart,” the person does this, and suddenly they win the sports game… well, I’d have to ask, does that actually happen?
Coming at it from your perspective, let’s go with the understanding that prayer works.
How many times have you known someone to simply accept Jesus into their heart and suddenly their life is fixed, and everything is good and fine? In my experience… not much. If it worked that way, everyone would do it, because, hey, results. But it doesn’t. You don’t just accept Jesus into your heart and magically your life becomes good (and if you think this, you’re probably not a good Christian, since there’s a whole lot of stories in the Bible about how choosing to follow Christ means that one will suffer; if you lie to people and suggest that becoming Christian is easy mode, you missed the point).
But, time and time again, Christian movies attempt to be these didactic problem plays (that’s the term Mamet used, “problem play,”), where salvation and answers are just a prayer away. The only people who go see those movies, the only people who talk about how good those movies are, are… well… the choir. The people who have already accepted Jesus into their heart, the people who were already born into being Christian.
They’re ineffective as actual tools for conversion though, because reducing the complexities of life into a single action that just doesn’t do in real life what it allegedly does in the sermon… convinces skeptical people that you’re wrong. Because it isn’t true.
I actually received a religious tract the other night, and, as an essayist who specializes in persuasive essays, I took an interest in reading it. It… wasn’t really anything? Like, it does not tell you why you should listen, it doesn’t deal with a subject anyone’s really been talking about (that I’m aware of). It’s just… sort of listing a bunch of bible verses related to the subject. There’s no causal linkage, not nearly enough “if this, then we can understand…”. It builds no case, makes no point. It just kinda says “you should do this, here’s a lot of bible verses.” The question “why is it necessary?” is explored purely within a biblical framework, making no attempt to connect it to our lives on this planet and how it’s relevant to us, the audience.
You’re preaching to the converted. If you want to convert people, you need to preach to the unconverted, which means showing them why they should care.
That’s the problem with propaganda in a nutshell — it’s like how Putin’s army convinced itself that Ukranians wanted reunification as much as they did, so they marched into Ukraine thinking Ukranians would welcome them with open arms. As you know, that didn’t happen. The Russians were so high on their own supply that they made a massive, calculated error — their actions convinced Ukranians that Russians were not their friends and did not have their best interests at heart. To be welcomed with open arms required the Russians to actually be liked by the Ukranians, and that means the Russians needed to convince the Ukranians that they were likable and worth joining.
“Why should I care?” is the core problem in everything from sales to war. Apathy is your biggest enemy, whether you’re telling a story or trying to convert someone or trying to invade their country. You’ve got to be convincing.
And the thing is… problem plays… they aren’t really convincing, because they’re not emotional.
Humans are emotional creatures, yes, even the ones who say they aren’t emotional. When you’re studying for a test, it can be difficult to remember all the data and numbers and facts. It can be even more difficult for a class you don’t care about. But I bet that when you hear the song that reminds you of the relationship you had with your ex, you feel a certain kinda way, don’t you?
Memories are formed in an emotional context — I remember, vividly, a car crash I was in. I do not remember my average day around that time in as much detail. I can visualize a random moment when I stopped at a vending machine at work, but I do not have as vivid a memory of photocopying specific papers for my boss at the time as the car crash that happened shortly after. I remember the way the guy totaled four cars before getting to mine. I remember how drunk he was. I remember how nervous I was that he would get violent (he was angry because “this street used to go the other way” but I can guarantee you that the right two lanes of Seneca always went south).
Our memories are forged in emotion; someone can become angry about a thing and believe it, then be presented with evidence to the contrary, and even if they accept the evidence in the moment, the anger is rooted deep; they may struggle to retain the facts because the emotion is so much stronger.
It’s why we invent things like mnemonics. You sing along, you feel the song, it’s easier to remember the order in which A, B, C, and D are organized, and so on and so forth.
To make someone care, you must make them feel strongly, and you cannot do this if you are obsessed with getting across the facts.
Here’s the playwright David Mamet (“coffee is for closers”) on the idea:
“…the play is the product of the conscious mind. It’s been overburdened by the necessity of expressing a consciously held view of the world. And the idea … is so important that it has to color everything. Each scene and each line of each scene must tend toward the right conclusion, that [the goal of the problem play] is good — and the unconscious mind will never, ever take part in the creation of this play.”
(I have removed references to the specific problem play example he gave, because if I left them in, then I’d have to copy in the preceding two pages where he conceptualizes a specific problem play)
Now, when I posted a photo of this page on twitter, someone went “but everything you write is informed by your subconscious,” and I can see how you’d think Mamet was saying that based on that excerpt, but if I posted all like six pages of this section of his essay contextualizing it, we’d get lost in the weeds and we’re at nearly 3,000 words already.
So, Mamet is not saying “the unconscious can be eliminated from your work.” What he’s saying is that art is the juxtaposition between conscious and unconscious, but the problem play, by being “about a thing,” will not allow the unconscious to participate and the story is unnatural/with limited value and minimal effect… except perhaps the uncanny valley.
The uncanny valley is concept is the idea that the closer you get to reality, the more difficult it is to believe that something is real. A colon and a parenthetical creates a face, like so… “:)”
A cartoon face adds more detail, and we accept it as a face:
Early 3D art adds more:
and so on and so forth until we get to those weird robot mannequin things that try to be as realistic as possible but something in the human brain is so so so fine-tuned to recognize ‘human’ that it recognizes the mannequin as being uncanny, and we experience an emotional aversion to it.
This is the problem with propaganda. It preys on the idea that the more you hear a thing, the more likely you are to believe it. If you only listen to Fox News, you will begin to believe it regardless of the facts. If you’re a dictator only listening to yes-men, you will start to believe that you are invincible when you most definitely are not.
So, when you write a problem play, when you attempt to convey a point, you will doubtless begin eliminating anything from the play that does not contribute to the central thesis… like you’re making an argumentative essay. And most people can spot that bullshit. Most people — especially the ones you want to convince — will reject it emotionally as untrue.
If you want to be persuasive, you need to convince your audience to care, and you cannot do this if you attempt to do so purely on an idea-driven level. People will reject it, because they’ll feel condescended to, or because their current way of life is emotionally ingrained in them. Consciousness can be powerful — it lets us solve problems like “how to cross this gorge? I remember seeing a falling log that crossed a creek a while back. This gorge is too wide for a single tree. But I bet if I connect several trees, I can bridge this gap” — but consciousness is a small part of how we understand the world around us. Emotion is the primary driver.
So yeah, originally, I was going to put this section as part 4 of the piece, but it flowed better this way, so now it’s part 1, I guess. So, from here on out, this essay is going to be about a couple of these topics:
- does your game have a worldview? (yeah lmao) can you remove your worldview entirely from it? (no lmao)
- does depiction mean endorsement? (not necessarily)
- does art communicate ideas? (intended: yeah, but that isn’t the point)
- does art communicate ideas? (unintended: yes)
Does Your Game Have A Worldview And Can You Remove Your Worldview Entirely From It?
So, a long time ago, a kid asked me a question: why do we write stories about humans? Couldn’t we write a story about an alien?
I thought about it a while and said that no, I didn’t think you could, because anything you think about the alien will come from the way you, as a human, think about the alien. You cannot actually put yourself in an alien frame of consciousness; you are limited by your knowledge and experience of the world in which you live.
A long time ago, I thought I could design an entire video game in my head. What I didn’t realize then, and wouldn’t figure out until a lot later, is how much stuff you actually just don’t think about, because making a video game, especially a real-time, 3D, first-person game, means inventing an entire universe from scratch.
When we sat down to pitch Adios, I had a pretty rough plan of what I wanted it to be. I knew, exactly, how I wanted it to end, and gladly told the publishers I spoke with what it would be. Right around the time we finally got funding, I sat down and laid out, in painstaking detail, how the game would go, from beginning to end. Even still, we had plenty of “okay, should I do it like THIS? Should I do it like THAT?” from every member of the team, because to make a map of the world that contains all the details of the world, you would have to make a map that covers the entire world, at which point it would be useless.
(that’s a reference to a brief story — a paragraph, really — by Borges)
You can think you contain everything in your head, but you cannot. There are limits. If you can’t even keep the universe of a game entirely in your head, then how can you expect to overcome the biggest limit of all: human consciousness.
You cannot write a story from an alien perspective because you are incapable, as a human being, with a brain built a specific way to act on instinctual levels, raised within a specific culture and era, of escaping that context. Most people have a difficult time simply acclimating to another culture — a guy from Missouri moving to Kansas will pronounce it “missourah” and a gal from Colorado moving to Kansas will say “sundee mundee tuesdee wednesdee…”
If you can’t even get that out of your system, what hope do you have of understanding a form of consciousness that isn’t from a bipedal species, that evolved a different way, that lived on a planet with biomes you’ve never experienced before, with a cultural context so divorced from your own.
James Scott’s Against the Grain argues that the reason we have last names is because of taxation. Can you imagine an alien world where the concept of money never got invented, much less taxation? How would that single shift change their entire way of thinking? Most people can barely think of a world without capitalism, because it’s the context they grew up in. Those formative experiences will stick with you, and it takes a great deal of effort to overcome them.
Even so, if you write a world-without-capitalists story, you, as an author, will be writing in the context of a person who lives within a capitalist system. The anti-capitalism dream that you have is defined by your existence within capitalism. You cannot rip that experience out of your body and soul, everything you know about capitalism will inform a story that you create, even if it’s a fantasy land where capitalism was never invented. Capitalism will still be reflected in your work, because you live in a capitalist world. In short, you cannot forget what capitalism is, and you cannot act as if your actions were not informed by capitalism (even if, like me, you’re anti-capitalist — I can only be anti-capitalist because I know what capitalism is).
As an aside: this, by the way, is why I generally think defining yourself as anti-anything is a bad idea, because you’re letting the other party set the terms for what you’re against, and do you really want to give them that kind of power over you? That said, my work is entirely anti-capitalist, but we have a good, firm set of definitions about what capitalism is, so I don’t run the risk of Jeff Bezos redefining capitalism and making me inadvertently pro-capitalist. But let’s look at the Republicans; they oppose universal basic income these days, because some Democrats support it. Fun fact, back in the day, when Tricky Dick Nixon was president, the Republicans actually invented the idea of Universal Basic Income. They reject their own ideas and beliefs because their existence is defined as being ‘in opposition to whatever the other guys wants,’ which means they must betray themselves; they become people without any ideals or value system. They’re a mirror-person, only capable of reflecting the Democrats. In a sense, the Democrats have dramatic influence over the Republicans.
Most sci-fi writers can barely think of a planet with more than one biome, and so they make fifty planets with every single earth biome they can think of and that’s just about all they got.
You pull from what you know. That’s not a problem, that’s just what you have to work at. It’s a limit that can only be moved — and never broken — by the more knowledge you possess. So you meet people of other cultures, you get to know them, you learn from them, but if their lived experience isn’t yours, you will always be the person thinking about them rather than the person being them. You’re going to make assumptions, and those assumptions will always be the assumption of the observer.
Thus, you cannot write a story from the perspective of an alien about aliens unless you’re actually saying or doing something about being human, and the aliens are just a vehicle for you to explore Being Human.
I once consulted on a project shortly after a police shooting. The developer in question was from another country; I asked why his protagonist, who shoots people, was a police officer, when he intended to sell this game set in America, to Americans, when Americans were experiencing some level of awareness shift that maybe cops were tools of the state meant only to keep the powerful in power. His response was “we want the player to do good things, so if we contextualize the player as a cop, they will do good things, because cops, they are good people.”
Maybe in his country, that’s true, and of course we know that when children play cops and robbers, the cops are framed as the ‘good guys,’ though they’re portrayed as being on the side of ‘law and order,’ not ~on the side of good~ (even Superman’s “truth and justice” components of his tagline are more on the side of good than ‘law and order’ are), and robbers are framed as the ‘bad guys,’ so it’s easy for someone who is unthinking to decide that if their character is presented as a cop, the player will do ‘good things,’ even though nearly half are reported as domestic abusing pieces of shit, and that’s just the ones being reported.
Yes, if you are framed as the good guy doing good things, you will likely begin taking actions in line with being the good guy — it’s why Mass Effect players overwhelmingly play Paragon: the game presents you as the good guy doing good things, so you naturally choose choices that present minimal friction with that fantasy. Cyberpunk 2077 players are more likely to be morally interesting because their character is presented as not being the hero, but a person in a bad situation. It could go either way.
But you see how much of this is assumption? That guy’s spent his whole life hearing ‘cops and robbers’ are interchangeable with ‘good guys vs bad guys,’ one side is justified in their actions, the other is not. So he puts good guys into his game. He puts bad guys into his game. He puts you in the shoes of the cops, which he thinks are the good guys, and assumes you will simply choose goodness because you believe that cops are good, as he does.
Reality does not support his oversimplified worldview.
No matter how prepared you are, you can never know what is outside your own head. You are not omniscient, after all. Therefore, everything you say and do will be informed by how you understand or see the world.
In short, if the person asking you the question “is your art political” is asking you “does your art convey your worldview?” the answer is “yeah, no shit, Sherlock. No serious person could think otherwise, why would you even ask this stupid fucking question?”
This is a worthless question to ask anyone. We’ll get back to a way that question might have some worth in the next section.
“But hold on,” I hear some of you asking, “what about a story where a villain monologues? Are you suggesting that as an author, you are endorsing the villain?”
Does Depiction Mean Endorsement?
Occasionally, I’ve seen well-meaning people with good politics make a significant error when evaluating a work. They read a book, and in the book, some awful act is committed, and from this, they assume the author personally endorses the awful act. I’ve seen people argue that such a thing does not happen, but hey, it does, and it happens all the time.
Here’s a funny example of a tumblr user thinking that a book purporting to explain what guys find interesting in girls is a book on telling girls how to be to appeal to guys, and another tumblr user basically going “this book’s cover is meant to engage with girls who are struggling to love themselves; they’re the ones most likely to want a book like this, and the ones most in need of learning to love themselves regardless of guys.”
People miss the point all the time, and some people do so by assuming that depiction is endorsement. The idea that rhetorical devices (like hyperbole) exists does not make sense to them; it’s why people protest satire — Swift was punching up at the government, he was not literally suggesting that people eat babies to solve the hunger crisis. He was pointing out the patent ridiculousness of the people in power.
This, by the way, is why “but it’s satire” is rarely a successful defense — people want to bully, demean, and mock, and when they’re told “hey, what you did wasn’t cool,” they claim they were writing satire, but satire is about laying bare the problems with power — definitionally speaking, you cannot satirize the plight of the powerless. If you, as an American, write a story about someone in Afghanistan and it’s a comedy with all sorts of Afghani stereotypes, this is not satire, this is mean-spirited comedy. If, as an Afghani, you write a comedy about the American government, who, until recently, holds so much power over your land, and how imperialist it is, you’d have written a work of satire.
Satire is laying bare the absurdity of power by mocking it. Satire is not just mockery.
So if, in our satire, we depict an absurd and bad thing happening, we are not inherently endorsing the thing, but we also do this in drama. I’ve written a game called Adios. It’s about a man who has been doing criminal acts for around fifteen years; I find criminals interesting, because in writing about them, you can explore morality in a way that is more difficult when your characters are law-abiding citizens. People who break the law and still grapple with morality fascinate me. The law, after all, exists largely to benefit a bunch of rich racists — cops were invented to break up unions on behalf of the wealthy mine owners, and now cops are frequently deployed to keep non-whites and poors in line. Britain’s outlawing protests, America frequently uses copaganda — and that essay’s still coming — so I don’t see lawbreakers as inherently immoral, but rather as people who, through circumstance (a woman stealing diapers for her baby because she was fired from her last job for asking for disability considerations, for instance), may end up doing things that are right or wrong independent of the law.
Depicting someone who performs a criminal act without simply moralizing “crime doesn’t pay” so we can explore morality independently of laws (in part so we can separate the idea of law from morality, and maybe begin to question the laws under which we live) is not an endorsement of that thing. I think that Farmer, from Adios, is a good person. I also recognize that Farmer, from Adios, has been helping the mob dispose of bodies, and that’s probably a very bad thing. Yes, congratulations, I set up a difficult scenario so that you, the audience, could wrestle with difficult feelings. I did it because I was experiencing difficult feelings (unrelated to the law at all, mind you) regarding giving up something that I loved. The grieving of losing my ability to fly planes might not feel relevant to you; that was one kind of grief I put into the story, but far from the only one. In no way am I justifying the disposal of human remains for the mob in the story, however. I can still love the character, I can still say “I think he’s a good person in a bad situation,” but at no point would I ever say “it’s totally cool to dispose of murder victims for a criminal organization.”
So yes, you are always putting your worldview on display, but if you depict a villain doing villainous things, even if you don’t directly state “this is wrong,” you are depicting a villain as you see the villain. You are never depicting the villain outside of how you perceive them, though. The best you can get is depicting the villain as you see them seeing themselves. So if you depict the fictional Nazi actor Fredrick Zoller (played wonderfully — and by wonderfully, I mean that he makes us believe he is Zoller — by Daniel Brühl) in Inglorious Basterds, and you depict him thinking about what a hero he is, you are not, as an author, endorsing him being a Nazi. You are saying “this is how I think he sees himself, and he sees himself as a good person.”
Empathy is not sympathy; you don’t have to feel good about someone, support, or even like them when being empathetic. You can be empathetic with a megalomaniac — empathy means that you understand why he feels the way he does, it does not mean you think his feelings are valid. You just understand how he got there, even if he’s wrong wrong wrong (and as a megalomaniac, he undoubtedly is wrong).
Bad people often see themselves as good people, and it’s important that we understand that if we’re to avoid the uncanny valley problem in our fiction. Ever met a TV preacher? To depict one correctly, we have to depict them as if they believe they’re saving the world; it’s difficult for writers, especially beginning writers, to understand, that a person who is bad might see themselves as good or even do good things, but the purpose of art is to express human experience, and that means the troubling bits too.
Expression, though, isn’t endorsement, and just because you can’t see the condemnation doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I never expressly condemn Hitman in Adios, but the man kills people for money; it’s a repulsive job to have. It’s just not something I need to wax poetical about. I am not writing a problem play about why being a killer is bad; you should have maybe picked that up by listening to the Farmer express his inner turmoil of staying on the job.
But it’s also because the morality of Hitman’s job is surface. What matters is that Farmer is dealing with an internal conflict; to deviate from this conflict to say “by the way, Audience, being a hitman is Wrong,” would only distract from the emotional state the way an alarm clock wakes us from a dream. It would weaken the story to simply declare this. In a story about two people leaving things left unsaid, because that is who they are, having them straight up just make a moral judgement like that would feel fake, and none of you would have been able to buy into the story at all from then onward.
“Does your art have a worldview? Because you have this guy in the story who does questionable things, and you didn’t outright punish him for it” is not a valid line of questioning. Presenting questionable content in a story is not endorsing that content!
Reference is not argument.
When you see me putting a character in a story and that character has a questionable worldview, I am not saying “he is right to be this way.” If I then depict the character as getting away with something questionable, I am not saying “so it’s good that he did this.” My point — knowing me and how I write — is to, say, bring the audience who is okay with the world as it is right now to a state of discontent. I may want the audience to see injustice happen so they leave the story feeling “now I want to fight injustice.” If I preach at you, if I say “so you must fight injustice,” you may go “ah, okay, the idea is complete, and now I feel fulfilled” (there’s a psychological process in which telling people about your plans makes your brain feel as though your plans have come to fruition; it robs you of the desire to see your plans through — this is that same mechanism).
So if I tell a story where an injustice happens and I leave it at that, you may find yourself, in real life, desirous to take action to quell injustice where you see it. In short, by telling you a story about a Republican who takes bribes and gets away with murder, you might see a Republican try to get away with something in real life and be more willing to take political action to oppose them. You are no longer complacent.
It was the conservatives who insisted that crime be depicted as “crime doesn’t pay,” which is why Jimmy Cagney screams “top of the world, ma!” just before he explodes.
Their insistence on simplifying art into a sermonistic moralizing is a fundamental rejection of what art is: a means of helping us deal with the world around us. We cannot understand the world and the people in it if the signal-to-noise ratio favors the noise of it all.
Our brain says “that’s not the way the world works.” If every villain got his due, if every villain was punished, then we couldn’t make art about dealing with injustice. And as a victim of real, physical, violent injustice, as someone who will never get any kind of recompense from the harm that was done to me, I find it reprehensible that people would try to say “no, you can’t talk about this hurt you’re going through, we need to write stories that lie and say ‘crime doesn’t pay.’”
The sad truth is, crime does pay unless good people fight it. And you and I both know that. We all do. Pretending we live in a world that is purely, completely, and totally just is so fake that our brains will reject the untrue message, no matter how good the intention. So we must be honest, and being honest means we must not be didactic, because didactism is about convincing people to change.
Sure, I’m trying to be didactic here. I’m a persuasive essayist. I keep it to the essays, though. It’s not in the fiction. The closest I came to giving a lesson in Adios was this: there is no lesson. There aren’t any. At least, not in that way. The real truth of that scene was that Farmer had finally accepted that he was going to die, in the midst of sharing his proudest achievement. What possible lesson could there be there? No, it was a moment in time where a man grapples with pain. I am not even teaching you how to grapple with pain; I’m showing you how I grappled with it, and if that speaks to you, if that heals you, then I’ve done my fucking job.
A Brief Interlude
I know I just got done saying “depiction doesn’t equal endorsement,” but I’m about to get meta. I know a staunch Republican who argues against everything from LGBT to medical care. Don’t agree with his politics at all. However, he’s a world-renowned expert in his particular scientific field, and he can tell you all about how to Build Things in a certain way. You can trust him on that; he won’t steer you wrong until he starts telling you about The Deep State trying to kill the God-Given President Donald Trump. But like, if you want to know how to make a boxcar lighter and better for shipping, he’s your guy.
The same thing is, sadly, true of the playwright David Mamet. His earlier work, like The Verdict, is powerful and mesmerizing. His essay “Letter to the Writers of the Unit” is a spectacular distillation of what drama is and why people care. However, he’s drifted increasingly Right-wing, far from “that’s dumb” and all the way over into “holy shit, that’s repulsive” territory.
However, he is also an extremely good playwright — though most of the work he wrote you’d be familiar with mysteriously predates his shift right wing (huh, it’s almost as if being Right-wing is a fundamental rejection of the truth of the world in favor of keeping things the way they are because it benefits you, and to be Right-wing requires you to live in a dishonest reality, which is why there is almost no good right-wing art out there, and Ted Nugent’s Stranglehold is good because of the guitar work, not because Ted Nugent votes Republican) — which means that if he says “this is how drama works,” he’s probably correct about that.
Based on the years and years and years I’ve spent studying art, I would say that Mamet’s general ideas about drama specifically are correct, even though I’d disagree with him vehemently on anything pertaining to politics — in the sense that he’s very much moving in a MAGA-chud direction and I’d never fuckin go there.
Now, I shouldn’t have to put in a disclaimer like that; the argument itself and the evidence presented should be enough, but a curious thing happens when we are confronted with an argument that contradicts what we believe to be true: we try to find a way around it.
I’d say there’s nothing wrong with this, but that’s not entirely true. There’s nothing wrong in the sense that this is a natural process — the brain is working as intended; you require some level of certainty in your beliefs to avoid being a person who believes whatever they’re told. To maintain a sense of personhood, you need some level of skepticism when an idea is presented to you. The problem is that the subconscious mind often overcorrects — someone linked me a video of Joe Rogan being absolutely annihilated by a guest on his show. Rogan said “ivermectin stops covid,” and the guy said “no it doesn’t, here’s evidence,” cue ol’ Rogan googling furiously and finding the guy was right and Rogan was wrong, and Rogan still sits back and goes “well, I’m still gonna believe what I believe.” Just absolutely galling level of self-awareness there.
So yeah, if I say “art is not to be didactic,” and you’ve come from a religious fundamentalist background or constructivist theory or something, you might want to reject what I say. You might say “hmm, who is he referencing here,” bypassing my argument entirely and going to just one of my sources, and then you go “ah well this person has other opinions that are tangentially related at best and those opinions are bad, so I’ve decided to reject Doc’s entire argument.” You can see, on paper, how that’s horse shit, but that’s also why I do need to show my work here.
You now know about this little cognitive protection mechanism. If you still throw the baby out with the bathwater, you’re the person who threw a fuckin’ baby, not me. That’s on you.
Does Art Communicate Ideas? (intentionally)
“Is your game political?” is a difficult question because some people will say “no” because they think the question is asking “is your game’s genre political,” and it isn’t. Some people understand that this question means “does your game have a worldview?” which is a stupid question to ask, as we’ve demonstrated above. Of course it does, numbnuts! You cannot write a work without having some kind of perspective! Why are you even asking such a dumb question?
So at this point, the artist gives the asker a benefit of a doubt; maybe they just suck ass at asking questions (if you ask “is your game political,” you do in fact suck ass at asking questions if you meant to ask ‘does your game have a perspective?’ because you should’ve just asked that).
Understanding that it couldn’t be that stupid of a question leads us to the third possible meaning of the question “is your game political?” which is this: “does your game advocate for a specific worldview?”
Now, this leads us to a whole can of worms.
First, the critic may be, foolishly, of the notion that your work must argue for some kind of political viewpoint. We’ve already talked, at length, about why that’s dumb as shit. Art is not didactic. We did a whole essay on that and we’ve re-explored it here in part 2. No, art does not need to argue for any one thing. Adios, my latest game, presents you with concepts like grief, loss, and connection, but it’s about trying to put you within the emotional context of that scene — the game is not an argumentative essay, and anyone who thinks fiction should be an argumentative essay understands neither the essay nor fiction as a form.
Second, the developer may be, foolishly, of the notion that they’re above it all, so they simply ‘present two sides’ and let the audience choose. It sounds like a noble thing; you’re saying you wash your hands of any responsibility, you’re presenting just the facts, ma’am (a phrase popularized by the pro-cop propaganda television show Dragnet, which definitely wasn’t just the facts), and people are free to choose for themselves.
While people are free to choose for themselves, the problem with this is, well… pretty simple. As I recall, leadership on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare said they wanted people to decide for themselves. They also portrayed an American war crime as something the Russians did. This is misleading — the game might portray its Americans as edgy, but it never portrays them as institutionally corrupt enough to murder civilians in a war crime known as the “highway of death.”
How can people pick for themselves if you fictionalize an incident, make it fun, and have clear protagonists and antagonists? You’ve already directed people to one side. Once you fictionalize reality, you rob your audience of the ability to make informed decisions.
If you put the burden on your audience to make a choice, you’re just trying to avoid your responsibility to be truthful. You’re lying to yourself, pretending that you can be unbiased, but we had a whole section on that already; you can no more be unbiased about the world than you can truly understand what it’s like to be an alien. You have only your frame of reference with which to express the world as you see it. So “we leave it up to the audience to decide” is the line of the milquetoast artist-pretender, the pseudo-artist.
So here comes Mamet, roaring like a lion, with something I find particularly insightful:
“…the play is the product of the conscious mind. It’s been overburdened by the necessity of expressing a consciously held view of the world. And the idea … is so important that it has to color everything. Each scene and each line of each scene must tend toward the right conclusion, that [the goal of the problem play] is good — and the unconscious mind will never, ever take part in the creation of this play.”
“hold up, Doc, didn’t you quote this already?” Yeah, and I’m quoting it again. There’s more, though.
Throughout the middle section of Three Uses of the Knife, Mamet argues that art is a mediation between the conscious and unconscious mind; it’s a different way of seeing things than the Tarkovskyian “the purpose of art is not to instruct but to render a person’s soul capable of turning to good.” Mamet phrases this as ‘finding peace.’ Every artist I’ve read frames art in this way — it’s about making sense of the world, taking feelings we have, the way we feel about the world, and doing something about it.
So when Mamet presents the example of the “problem play’s” lack of efficacy, he returns to an idea he’d brought up earlier in the book: we can tell (like we can with the uncanny valley), when someone is simply trying to convince us of something, and we no longer believe it to be true. Art’s power comes from our subconscious recognition — that lizard-brain part of our minds that knows what is uncanny and what is real — of the truth. The good art is the art that brings us some level of peace and understanding because we see in it the artist’s struggle to find peace and understanding. If the artist positions themselves above us, to become an instructor, we revolt. We go “no, no, this can’t be it.”
This means that when art says things, it must do so in a way that is not condescending. In other words, you can say “I’ve been dealing with my dog’s death, so I wrote a story about what it’s like to deal with a dog’s death,” but you cannot say “I watched my neighbor feel sad about her dog’s death and I don’t think you should feel sad about it, and here are my reasons why.”
In games, we have this idea I call “themeparking,” which is when a designer takes a specific concept and then makes everything in the game about that. An example of this is Need For Speed Payback, a game set in a Las Vegas-like city, where the bad guys are called The House, and you’re the Wild Card or whatever. Everything in the game is casino-themed; it’s a theme park about being in a casino. Themeparking is largely limited to aesthetics — it thinks reference is all you need to be about something, so everything becomes warped towards this one aesthetic goal.
Now contrast that with Death Stranding, a game about the ways in which humans connect with each other. Sure, it’s a game where your rope is referred to as a ‘strand,’ which isn’t how anyone would actually refer to a rope in day to day discussion, while technically correct in a dictionary definition sense.
And that’s the difference — what Kojima is doing in Death Stranding is exploring meaning and coming to a conclusion. He is not preaching to you; he is saying “look at all the ways we connect to each other. Isn’t that beautiful?” That’s why you can hug the game’s ultimate antagonist in order to succeed — because he is saying this is how he thinks the world is. But he isn’t necessarily trying to persuade or convince us of something. He has plenty of scenes that have nothing to do with it; he is letting his unconscious into his work, rather than rejecting scenes for “not being about the theme.”
Rather than make an aesthetic theme park about connecting, Kojima is showing, in his work, what connections are and how they work, but he’s not so didactic as to say “this does not belong because it’s not about connection.” His characters do not operate in service to a thesis. They are people, not devices.
This is an area where Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us 2 falls flat; Ellie, one of the two protagonists, is not a person, she is a vehicle for the message. The theme park here is “zombie stories,” and Ellie’s actions are dictated by genre convention, rather than “what a person would do.” Rather than trying to understand humans, Druckmann condescends to us through his protagonist; she acts according to the demands of the Theme, which is Violence Begets Violence And That’s Not Good, so even when she has a natural conclusion to her arc, the story decides she’ll throw it all out the window because it really wants to make sure we understand that violence is bad. A person develops in response to stimulus, the way a plant grows toward sunlight; a vehicle for the theme will not develop, they have no internal consistency. They do as the sermon demands. In doing so, they don’t feel real, and the audience struggles to accept the work as meaningful.
Every person that exists has thoughts — these can be defined as “the thing going through your mind.” Thoughts come in a few different categories; broadly speaking, we can break them up into: memories, sensations, and ideas. A memory is simple enough: a concept of the past you personally experienced. A sensation is something that may be a memory or something you create: I imagine a tune in my head, I can hear it in my mind, the hearing is the sensation. Sometimes, these things are combined — I hear a song I’ve heard before in my head, both sensation and memory.
Then there’s ideas.
Ideas are all the other things.
An idea might be a scene for a story you’re going to write. It might be a solution for a prickly math problem. It might be a plan to go on vacation in the future. It can be a ton of things. Most of what we invent in our brains are ideas. So when we ask “does art communicate ideas?” the answer is “no shit, dude,” because “a guy got out of his car and walked into his apartment and sat down on his couch” is an idea.
But okay, okay, when you say idea, you mean more like Big Thoughts, right? So you’re thinking “is the art about something”? Not “yeah, dude, it’s about a guy who goes home and sits down,” but “is there something beyond that?”
Or, in other words… we’re back to that important question:
Why should I care?
You probably don’t care about a single-sentence “guy goes home” story. There’s nothing there, no grip, no purchase. It’s a thing any one of us do. Why should you give it attention?
Is the idea about something that matters to me?
So, okay, we tell a different story. A man gets up off a porch swing, seeing the closest person to a friend he’s got bringing a new delivery for the pigs to eat: a human body. And our man, well, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, our man says he’d rather not help his friend do this sort of thing anymore.
Ah, okay, this is interesting. It’s a situation we’re not familiar with, but we can imagine the implications of this; if this guy’s bringing a body to dispose of here, we can assume this is probably an illegal, maybe even immoral act. There’s tension here, and we want to see how it’s resolved. The tension is then complicated by the knowledge we have that you don’t just quit a criminal enterprise like this; there’s too many secrets at stake.
What springs forth from this is a story about two men arguing about a goodbye neither of them wants, because there are other things they want more, and this tension.
But this is not a treatise on goodbyes. This is me, presenting you, with an emotional impasse, so that you can feel the truth of it, resolve it, and find, as Mamet says, some kind of peace, the way I endeavored to find peace for myself when I wrote the story.
And yet, because it’s a story about two men arguing, there are ideas in it. I conveyed personal beliefs — I don’t think everyone needs to speak to grieve, and I don’t think every story needs to impart a lesson — and I gave characters beliefs of their own; Farmer believes in God and Heaven, because he’s a Kansas boomer farmer. Of course he does. Hitman’s an agnostic, I think, because to fully accept, as Farmer has, that there is a God and that God can judge, he would necessarily feel guilt, and I’ve written him as someone who is running away from things that make him feel bad (because I have known people who try to do that and this is how I understand them to be — I’m not trying to say “this is how agnostics think,” but “this is why this particular man is agnostic”). He’s also someone who struggles to let things go, which is why I don’t feel he’s an atheist — I think he likely grew up going to Sunday school, and some part of him can’t let go of all the tradition he grew up in. We may be exploring more of that in Adios 2, which is his story.
But the key thing here is that this work is not a one-track essay, right? What hopefully compels you is that the first half is a story about a disagreement, and the investment you have in it is about the shifting dynamics of tension (this is an essay I already have 2000 words completed for and will publish soon) between these two people. That’s what makes you want to know what happens. I attempted to pepper in interesting detail — a story about ghosts, a musing on how pigs think — to keep your interest, but nowhere in Adios could you say “ah, Doc’s thesis is…” because a thesis statement is for essays, not fiction.
My next game, jokingly code named Waifu Death Squad, started out in several different locations. One original question was “is it ethical to overthrow a nation?” because there are games like Just Cause 2 and Mercenaries that are quite fun; mechanically, the video game process of destabilizing a power structure feels great to do, but rarely is destabilizing a nation an ethical action.
So I came to the conclusion that it’s probably ethical to overthrow fascist oppressors, but not much else (if you’re the most powerful nation in the world and you invade a nation to give them some ‘freedom,’ you’re probably not engaged in an ethical action; America’s invasion of Iraq was always unethical). This got put into a blender of inspirations — questions like “what if Resident Evil’s Albert Wesker saw his plans to create a super race come to fruition and he began his own empire?” and “if a major problem of setting games in the real world is presenting otherwise innocent people as the bad guys, like Bolivia in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, painting them with a brush to create morally uncomplicated enemies, reducing them to a caricature, couldn’t we just create a world that isn’t like ours at all?”
That got the mind racing — I love the heightened reality of Ace Combat, a series which gives the player an opportunity to struggle, emotionally with feelings like “being outnumbered,” or “desperately racing against the clock” without making any player anywhere in the world feel that they’re being presented as the bad guys. This allows a level of universality.
So, okay, this gives me an emotional framework with which to hang my narrative. So I started coming up with scenes, and some of those, placed next to the ideas I had, like “what would I do to characterize this villain? well, if he’s a fascist, he sees the world the way I understand fascists perceive things, so he sees himself as a member of the in-group, and he sees everyone else as being in the out-group; he has an irreconcilable conflict between his mistaken belief that he is superior to all, and his mistaken belief that despite his superiority, he is simultaneously the underdog, which allows him to perceive himself as justified in his unjustifiable violence. He is a bastard and a murderer and he must be defeated.
Okay, so, there you can see, I do have an idea, but this story is not an essay on “why fascism is bad.” You may come away from this story understanding why fascism is bad if you didn’t previously; it might help you put into words why fascism is bad, and I am consciously saying “fascism is bad,” but I’m not going to mug for the camera and pause the narrative to try and prove that to you. I am going to put my observation of the world into characters to tell a dramatic and engaging story, and hopefully the way in which I’ve done this will allow you to connect emotionally with so much more than just “fascism is bad.” I want you to think about grief, loss, bonding, duty, power dynamics, class consciousness, and a ton of other things, but all of that is coming through “alright, so I have a rich girl in this scene, and I have a rich guy. She is upset with him because she thinks her station is above his, how do I make this scene interesting?”
My values have made it into the work, my characters are driven by my values (or how my values contradict theirs — I think fascism is bad, so my villains are fascist and my heroes are antifascist) — but if at any moment I preach, I’ve lost your trust as an author. You will no longer believe what I’m saying to be true, unless you’re already converted and you just want to use my work as wank material, jerking off to how you already know of your own righteousness.
But the real key to all of this came when I realized that I couldn’t write this protagonist as some kind of blank slate that the player could put a personality onto; no, this character existed, and he’d existed in my head since I was 17.
In 2005, I got sick. Real sick. I talk a lot about chronic pain and chronic fatigue, and that’s when it first started. In 2006, as doctors failed time and time again to give me answers or any kind of treatment, I found myself lost. Between 2006 and 2008, I developed a character for a roleplay forum I was on. I won’t say what anime it was for (we used the anime setting as our world, then would post a few hundred words up to tens of thousands describing what our character did — when playing with other people, we would essentially be alternating chapters and interactions), but I will say that this character provided me with a level of shielding from the chaos around me. It wasn’t intentional, but where I was scared and confused, so was he; while I struggled to understand what was going on, he slowly started working things out. Writing him fighting helped me fight, and that helped me survive. And, by the time I finally had some semblance of an explanation for what was going on, I didn’t really need him.
I never gave him a proper conclusion.
To me, this revelation was earth-shattering. Suddenly it all clicked; this character saw the world in ways a lot like I did (though not exactly, we are different people, and he’s a soldier for a nation, I’m a soldier waging a one-man war against my illness). With the advantage that was more than half of my entire life ago, I have a lot more lived experience; I can put things into words, I can express things. I can finally tell his story.
So, what was I dealing with? Hurt, loss, confusion. I was a millennial, just entering the workforce. I still remember the classroom I was in when my economics professor told us we were about to have a massive economic collapse. A year later, the 2008 collapse happened, just like he said. Everything the boomers ever told us — you’d have to go to college, take on a ton of debt, all that shit — fell apart. The world is not the one we knew.
It became easy to take these ideas, that fear, lack of certainty, that sense that you’re trying to hang on as everything you were ever told about how the world’s supposed to work upends your life while anyone lucky enough to be born before you is established enough to survive without much trouble, and work those feelings into Waifu Death Squad.
So I can tell you that this story is carrying these ideas; it is carrying the worldview of a person who lived through multiple economic collapses, who barely remembers a life without war — one of my first memories is of the Bosnian war, which raged from 1992 to 1995 — and who is now staring impending environmental collapse in the face. It’s an uncertain and scary time.
This is a story about how the only way to survive it is if we give a fuck about the people around us, and we brook no fuckin’ fascists in the process.
But it’s not a persuasive essay. I’m telling you what it feels like. Like Kojima, I am exploring the possibility space, but this isn’t a theme park. I am communicating my discoveries to you; I will not preach a sermon in the story. If I want to do that, I’ll go to church and stand behind a pulpit.
You come for a story, you’ll get a fuckin story. And maybe, as Mamet says, it’ll help you find some peace.
Does Art Communicate Ideas? (unintentionally)
Yeah, dude. When I wrote about The Last of Us, I pointed out that people who obsess over zombie fiction gradually shift their understanding of reality to be purely fiction. What starts off as a surprising dramatic twist meant to make a story exciting goes through a long and twisted game of telephone until you have someone trying to say something about human nature but completely divorced from any lived experience — their commentary that people really are this way is just a collection of “greatest twists in zombie fiction that are all based on a writer’s choice to make a story more exciting.” It says nothing about human nature at all, though it purports to, and because the author thinks the work is important, the author becomes incapable of actually paying attention to human beings.
And that’s why you don’t have to take Neil Druckmann seriously as an artist, because that’s all his work is, packaged in the ever-ridiculous McKee’s formula. There’s no humanity whatsoever in The Last of Us 2, it’s just repackaged zombie tropes you’ve heard time and time again, trying to tell us that “violence begets violence” and little more.
It struck me how, when a stupid motherfucker online compared The Last of Us 2 to Schindler’s List, a genuinely good movie (though also, in a way, a feel-good movie, because it reassures the audience that they’re good people and would never do the things the Nazis did, which is how you get people arguing for prison camps in Texas despite viewing themselves as Oskar Schindler), and Druckmann said nothing. It’s nice to hear that your game is as good as an Oscar (no relation)-winning Movie.
What he did next really bothered me, though. Some people said “that’s a laughable statement” and he immediately pounced, telling the people who said “maybe the schindler’s list comparison goes too far” that they were being too hyperbolic. He felt, it seemed, entitled to the praise, not to the criticism, and he was happy to direct his legion of fans towards people who said maybe his art wasn’t really that artistic.
Not surprising for a guy who’s been known to scream at his employees for not getting enemy placement right in a level.
But, more to the point, people who consume work like The Last of Us, the final result of a game of telephone, think they’ve got it all figured out. They look at what they’re missing in the game’s inventory — things like guns, knives, and ammunition — and stock up. Some of them take it even farther, seriously arguing in favor of using swords as a survival mechanism “because they can’t make ammunition after the apocalypse.”
When covid hit, none of them had any toilet paper.
They were so divorced from reality that they were basing their understanding on fiction designed to thrill, filtered through a game of telephone, and now their entire understanding of how humans work in an apocalypse is rooted in TLOU’s absolutely ludicrous assertion that everyone would simply devolve into conservative groups dedicated to pain and suffering.
Thing is, all our science actually shows us the opposite: when bad shit happens, people band together. The Last of Us shows us nothing about human nature. Instead, it lies about who we are while purporting to speak the truth, which is why it is irredeemably reprehensible. It’s okay to have dramatic twists where, say, you find yourself at odds with a rogue biker gang, but that was just a small part of Dawn of the Dead. Every unoriginal bastard who rips it off is just ripping it off — there’s a thoughtlessness here, a complete unwillingness to see people as human fuckin beings. It’s someone with no lived experience pretending to be wise and important, and recoiling at any criticism that points out his work is puerile at best.
It’s awful, and has no place being called art.
But it does serve a really useful point, which is that art can convey ideas that, if left unquestioned, can be assumed by the audience to be the truth. The longer this process progresses, the less truth remains until all that’s left is horse shit.
Art is about rendering us capable of turning to good, but when the artist believes he’s better than you, when he says “ugh, look at these fools, these animals, look at how they turn on each other at the smallest thing,” when he has no love in his heart for his fellow man, he cannot allow himself to speak to you truthfully. And if his art is without truth, then it cannot say anything of value to you; it is a lie, and it endeavors to make you just as bitter and immature as the artist who told it.
There’s a reason why Agent Smith is the villain of the Matrix: “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we… are the cure.” There’s a reason why the unhappiest people on social media are the ones who call Twitter a hellsite and refuse any attempt at curating their feeds not to suck. There’s a reason a certain kind of person loves fiction like the movie Avatar that creates fictional beings for humans to be evil to and says “we’re the bad guys and I know it,” but that certain kind of person would never actually fight imperialism. There are people who want to be above it all, and they let their odious assumptions rot and fester just so they can tell themselves that they get it and they’re good people. If you believe you’re above it all, then you justify violence against everyone beneath you.
If you convince yourself that everyone is beneath you, then you can convince yourself that you’re so great there’s nothing you can do to change anyone. It’s finding comfort in helplessness, instead of going “I am just one of many; I can’t do this alone, I need to work alongside everyone else in order to make the world better.” The arrogant person does not want solidarity; the arrogant person wants to feel they are righteous by declaring everyone else unrighteous. The arrogant person may vote blue no matter who, but they’re a conservative at heart — they resent solidarity, they need the world to be bad guys with themselves as the good guys, so they can feel good and do bad.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this; as a disabled person, I’ve been physically harmed by people who want to see my disability as some sign I’m a bad person, whether it’s “ugh, a guy in a wheelchair, great,” or “your medical treatment plan is inconveniencing my schedule, so I’m going to try to disrupt it,” or “I’m going to steal all your clothes to teach you a lesson about being irresponsible since you go to the hospital three days a week and don’t work sixty hours a week like I do.”
Too many people want to believe they’re the good guy and there are bad guys out there that need to be stopped, and the rules no longer apply when it comes to dealing with the bad guys. They want to believe, in essence, that it’s okay for them to shoot people, because this is a hell world and everyone who isn’t them are hell people. More exciting to stock up on ammo so you can dream of shooting your neighbor than it is to buy toilet paper and offer to share it with same neighbor, I guess?
I felt like breaking up the section here for readability’s sake, but if you’re going “hmm how is this about unintentionally communicating ideas other than The Last of Us example,” trust me, I’m not done. This next section is all about that, as well as bookending the essay by returning to the way I opened the first one.
This brings us to The Division.
Ubisoft is really weird. Publicly speaking, they’re willing to put LGBT characters in their game, they’re willing to present a wide range of characters of all sorts of body types, their games always have a “this game was made up of a team of a ton of different people,” and so on and so forth. If you’re not paying much attention, you might think Ubisoft is a diverse and interesting studio, but there’s more to it than that.
There was a big scandal about abuse at Ubisoft, not just in their main studio or their big Montreal and Toronto studios, but pretty much everywhere, even Ubisoft Singapore, and many people feel the results of Ubisoft’s promised cleanup have been less than satisfactory.
It’s really weird, like I said. Publicly they’re doing some stuff that seems genuinely progressive, other times they’re doing absolutely stupid bullshit like putting NFTs into their games, killing those games so hard that the next update is literally “we will no longer be supporting this game.”
But then there’s The Division.
Tom Clancy isn’t what we’d call Left Wing. His idea for Rainbow Six dealt with left-wing terrorists (who, hey, do exist, sure, but Clancy’s own work is largely very pro-conservative, jingoistic stuff), but he generally structured his work around the idea that the American system of government is good (Jack Ryan literally becomes President and Clancy seemed to think this was a good thing, as I understand it).
Thrillers are weird because A) yes, in the real world, there are bad people who will stop at nothing to do harm and it’s exciting to see them stopped, and B) they tend to reinforce the idea that existing power structures are good and must be maintained.
Cop shows convince the population we need cops, and we’ve seen enough violence in the real world (I knew a serial killer! it’s good that he can’t kill people anymore! I don’t know how he would have been stopped without force, and if you made that a movie it will always be an exciting cat and mouse game!) to think that’s true, but we’ve gotten to a point where cops can commit crimes with relative impunity. We shouldn’t have celebrated that Derek Chauvin went to jail; we shouldn’t even have had to worry that he might get away, since he murdered a man on film.
So, if you tell a thriller, you may find that your narrative reinforces existing ideas about cops; Michael Bay’s Ambulance is exciting because there’s a police chase. It would be a lot less exciting the story was about the social workers who, in real life, could have been called into help, or if we had socialized healthcare (the entire reason the protagonist robs a bank is to pay for his wife’s surgery — you wouldn’t have this premise in a movie set in Sweden; she’d get the treatment for free). In a just and good world, the excitement of “a car chase with an ambulance” wouldn’t actually happen. But we want entertainment.
So, as a writer or creative lead, you need to be careful that your story does not reinforce mistaken beliefs about the world; you don’t want your story about “an exciting bank robbery” to convince the audience that this is why the LAPD needs a multi-billion dollar budget. If you do that, you’re making the world worse by empowering one of the worst organizations on the planet to continue to kill innocent people unimpeded.
When the show 24 came out, Justice Scalia argued that this is why we needed torture, because if Jack Bauer hadn’t tortured somebody, the nuke would’ve killed people (a nuke did, in fact, kill people in a later season, just after Jack tried to torture someone — I wonder what Scalia thought of that and whether he felt it disproved his point). Never mind the fact that reality shows that torture not only doesn’t work but gives the torturer bad information, because the victim will tell the torturer what they want to hear, as opposed to what they need to know. Someone who actually performs torture won’t get what they need; it’s ineffective, it’s bad practice. But here’s Scalia insisting Jack Bauer is a real person and that fiction should overrule reality.
Rest in piss, Scalia.
So here’s The Division, a story that says “what if, in the event of a crisis, the government activated secret cops who would be judge, jury, and executioner.” Basically, any ordinary person — it could be you — could get deputized, given a gun and zero oversight, and told “aight, go shoot some people.”
Now, I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s something Tom Clancy would have been into. He probably would have recoiled at the idea of an extrajudicial murder squad, since he loves the American government’s propaganda about itself — his heroes follow the rules. His books show the system works and the enemies are the ones who would tear that system down. The Division changes what the system is.
There’s a really cool conflict in the game where a bunch of blue collar types, like firefighters and garbage men, calling themselves The Cleaners, decide the only way to stop the plague is to burn it out. While technically correct that it is a quick way to stop a relatively quarantine-resistant plague, New York was simply Cut Off Entirely From The World and the implication, at least in the first game, is that the plague has been stopped there. The Cleaners, rather than accepting quarantine, simply decide to “do something about it” by committing mass murder of anyone who appears to be infected.
This is the perfect kind of enemy to be stopped — we have people using flamethrowers to kill homeless people, that’s exactly the kind of person it makes sense to use force against, because they won’t listen to reason. They’re basically just Nazis at that point, trying to purge anyone they see as unclean.
More importantly, The Cleaners have probably the most human story in the game; they’re wrong, the game knows they’re wrong, but their motivation is clear; the leader of The Cleaners, Joe Ferro, has some of the most heartwrenching audio logs in the game. He’s doing something horrible, he knows he is, but he’s so desperate to fix the world that he’s willing to sacrifice himself, to become the villain, to make the world a better place. “Please,” he begs his niece on an audio recording he left for her, “don’t believe them, don’t believe what they say about me. I just want you to be safe.”
Ubisoft is very good at selling their games by selling people on a fantasy. “What if you could…” is a very crucial element of making people care about games. I cannot drive a Lamborghini in real life, due to having a net worth of like negative fifty thousand dollars thanks to school loans, but I can buy a $60 video game with my next paycheck that lets me drive one in the game. Neato!
So “what if you seemed normal, but at any moment you could become a gun-toting badass,” is a cool idea. Ubisoft takes this further in The Division 2, which came at a point where they seemed to have some kind of internal policy that their protagonists should be cops (Far Cry 5, you’re a marshall, The Division 2, you’re called “Sheriff” and a sheriff toy is used to denote you on the map in the White House, in Assassin’s Creed Origins, you’re a ‘medjay,’ basically a wandering law enforcer in Alexandrian Egypt).
They bring in the Video Game shit, like “defeating a boss gives you cool loot!” and they set it in a world where anyone might shoot you, and you can run around and rescue people in need of rescuing (reinforcing the idea that you are a hero). They pay weird lip service to the idea that police brutality is bad, but they can’t pull it off. “just another body on the pile” shouts Larae Barrett, an ex-Rikers inmate, and that could’ve meant something if it wasn’t for the fact that before you get to her fight, you have to fight your way through other Rikers who all act like they’re in the game Manhunt, and you get to watch her torturing and murdering innocent people; it makes her argument ring hollow.
One of the big marketing pushes was this idea that you’d betray your friends for uh, a slightly better machine gun or pistol or something, except that generally, in co-op, people like working together, so eventually they backed off on that, and The Dark Zone, while a feature in The Division 2, didn’t have nearly the push as the first game did; they worked much harder on a cooperative endgame than a competitive one, where you’d work together to fight the AI than your friends.
But The Dark Zone never made sense.
Why, exactly, would agents of The Division, people trusted so highly by the government to be judge, jury, and executioner in the time of political unrest, go AWOL by the hundreds, because one of their own, Aaron Keener, decided to do some kinda societal reset? How could this happen, right under their own noses?
The Division doesn’t concern itself with this. It’s a game, first and foremost. Because it’s unthinking, it just says “yeah, uh, looters are bad and you should shoot them.” It doesn’t examine in any meaningful way the implications of its choices. When I write a story, like Adios or Waifu Death Squad or anything else, meaning spirals out of incidents. We live in a causal universe; because x, then y. If the government put together an undercover police force, what would happen, and what would that mean, and was it the right or wrong thing to do? You don’t have to write a treatise on something, but as a writer whose job is to be truthful (and in telling the truth, help your audience find peace and become capable of turning to good), if you present something, you should explore the implications of that, rather than use it as simple set dressing. You’re not writing an essay, but for people to feel that your work is meaningful, you must give it some meaning, and you can only do this by telling a human story.
The Division doesn’t want you to think about this, The Division wants you to have some loose motivations to engage in some really enjoyable combat design and a somewhat bland loot system (that got better over time, but is still based on real world weapons so it’s not super exciting). It wants you to explore visually exciting areas (fighting in Washington, D.C. in The Division 2 is themeparking at its most themeparkable! Every mission takes place in a different museum or landmark! It’s visually diverse! It’s exciting!). The game doesn’t talk about the American government — how could it? It was developed by a Swedish team owned by a French company. These people haven’t the foggiest idea what to say about America or Washington, D.C.! To them, it’s a tourist destination, and that’s what it is in the game too.
If I decide to make a game about Kaiju destroying Tokyo, because that’s how these stories go, I am not necessarily saying anything about the Japanese government; how could I? I’m not Japanese, I don’t know anything about their government (okay, that’s not entirely true, but I don’t know enough to speak with any authority). What business of it is mine to comment on population growth in Japan? At best, I could talk about the treatment of foreigners, and even then, I have no personal experience with that. If I set it in Tokyo, I’m setting it as a genre-savvy tourist, nothing more.
The Division 2 isn’t a political game in the sense that it has nothing to say about Washington, D.C. It’s not a political game in the sense that it has nothing to say about the idea of The Division as a unit working at the behest of governance. There is nothing it’s saying or doing, consciously, to convey to you any sort of ideology.
It’s a bunch of Swedes and Frenchies setting a theme park in a visually distinct tourist trap. It’s as political as Dead Island, a game about fighting zombies set on an island resort.
The Division series is just the game of Cops and Robbers for the modern era, a game played by children, with a child’s understanding of the world. It’s simplistic, it’s unthinking, it implies nothing. It’s just trying to be fun.
This is a game by adults. This is a game that thoughtlessly reinforces the idea that someone has the right to kill, that all you need is a license from the government and what you do after that is inherently righteous. It handwaves the reasons for why The Division might be a horrible idea; its villains might also be Division agents, but the game hasn’t got the balls to say “the only right move here would be to disband The Division.” It’s called The Division; it’s at war with itself, it can’t say “the whole idea is stupid” even when Aaron Keener and his associates proved, in game, that it is stupid. Unquestioningly, it draws a moral line that says “if the government authorizes it, it’s good. If the government doesn’t authorize it, it’s bad.”
Like I said earlier, it’s law and order, as opposed to truth and justice. It’s saying, whether it means to or not, that what’s good or bad is based on what the people in power tell you is good or bad. It gives power and authority to the people with money, the class above you and I. That’s where it says legitimacy comes from.
Further, just like The Last of Us 2, it’s reinforcing the idea that in the event of a societal collapse, most people are bad, but unlike The Last of Us 2, which at least tries to say “revenge bad, I think, but I’m not really sure” The Division says “you? No, you’re not bad, not you, never you. No, in this apocalypse, you’re free. Get to murderin’.”
Ain’t that fuckin inhumane?
It just wants to be a theme park, but it’s communicating, by failing to explore the ramifications of any of its ideas, a worldview that just isn’t true, and just like The Last of Us 2, it encourages you to see yourself as better than everyone else around you.
Does Art Say Things?
So. You’ve probably figured me out by now. To the question “should art say things?” I think the people who ask this question are asking if art should preach, if art should be purely conscious, if art should themepark its way into having A Message, and to that, I must vehemently disagree.
But to the question does art say things? I think the answer is yes. Maybe it’s only saying “a guy came home and sat on his couch,” but maybe it’s saying more things than that. For art to function at all in its intended purpose, it must be truthful; if you are not truthful, then you will say things that could, and almost assuredly do, harm people. Everything you write, everything you make, as an artist, says something, even when, correctly, you’re not using it to debase yourself by preaching.
The art might say “this is how the artist sees the world.” The art might explore the implications of things, as the artist sees them. The artist can never escape her own head, inventing something utterly divorced from herself, because all art is personal, all art is an expression of the self. Sometimes, that will be political, often times, it won’t have anything to do with politics. Other times, the critic will decide that, like a conspiracy theorist, he has found some Great Secret that only he can divine, and now must position himself as the person who Really Understands, citing Death of the Author in case that pesky author says “I wasn’t communicating that at all.” In some cases, the author will say “I am not political,” and their art will communicate something they didn’t intend to be political. I may write about Godzilla attacking Tokyo because I like movies about giant monsters attacking big cities, and Tokyo is traditional, but Japanese people may feel, as is their right, that I shouldn’t be the one telling that story (or they’re cool with it, I don’t know).
Politically, I don’t think right wing art could ever be honest; there’s a tweet I’ve seen going around that asks “leftists, what’s the conservative art you enjoy?” and the responses are largely stuff like “I really liked James Woods as Hades in the Kingdom Hearts games, and I wish he wasn’t a huge fucking chud.” Very rarely is the art itself right-wing. Disney’s Hercules is not, as best I can recall, a work of right wing media, it just has an actor who likes right-wing shit. I enjoy the television show Andromeda, but it’s not because of Kevin Sorbo’s politics, y’know?
Why is that? Why isn’t right-wing art as successful as left-wing art?
I think it’s because right-wing art can’t be honest.
At its core, conservatism is rooted in the idea that there is an in-group and an out-group. The in-group is good, the out-group is bad and attacking it. This justifies the right-wing’s violent response. Almost all right-wing art is predicated on the notion that There Is An Enemy To Be Defeated, and while there’s nothing wrong with art about overcoming struggle (all drama is about overcoming something, even ourselves), the right-wing art says, at some level, that might makes right.
The right-wing art cannot accept that someone ‘other’ could be good; they need to be faceless barbarian hordes, screaming at the gates (it’s why so many Republicans love ancient Rome, they love the idea of the Romans holding off the barbarians, they love the idea of the Romans as the last bastion of civility). A right-wing story will never be about a character meeting others and finding that their way of living is just as valid as the conservative’s, because that would mean allowing change, and change is antithetical to conservatism.
So a right-wing story cannot be true, because a right-wing story cannot ever accept, in any way, that there are people other than the right-wing whose lives are valuable or meaningful unless the meaning of their life somehow elevates the hero’s own struggle. “I am better than them,” the conservative says, “I am the hero who saves the undeserving.” That sort of thing.
It’s so condescending and awful that it’s not hard to see why that kind of art never lasts, unless the violence is so thrilling and so exciting that the audience wishes to overlook the problems, like with The Division. Getting loot is fun, you know? So of course a lot of people are gonna play the game, politics be damned.
I think as a creator, your responsibility to your audience is to be truthful. A conservative cannot be truthful, by definition. And yet, to be truthful, you must not preach, because preaching is a form of argument, and to make a compelling argument, the preacher may be tempted to leave out something, to distort the truth in order to call their audience to action. A preacher may not give the whole truth, because an idea may seem irrelevant to him. When he preaches, he plays telephone.
If you, as a creator, are truthful, then you must examine the implications of everything you say and do. You will find that, inexorably, the way you see the world seeps into your work. You might be able to say “this work I have written is about this,” but being about something isn’t the same as sermonizing. It’s just where you are at the moment, what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling. Adios is not a sermon on grief; it is an experience that, I hope, will let you heal from your grief. Waifu Death Squad is not a game about convincing you to vote to stop climate change or antifascism, it’s a game that will, hopefully, help you emotionally reckon with the things in your life that feel too big, and will help spark in you the desire to love everyone around you, not just the in-group, and fight with all your might against the things that would harm them.
You can’t write art if you don’t love people, because you can’t see people for who they are if you don’t love them. You’ll warp them into things it’s easier to hate if you want to hate them. So you’ve got to love. You must love.
All of this is to say that “is your art political?” is a bad and meaningless question. A better one might be to say “your game presents these two ideas, what did you mean by that?” or “what do you want your players to come away feeling?” If the author attempts to shirk responsibility for, say, changing the origin story of a fictional war crime, then press them on that, point out why that’s bullshit.
But yeah, no shit, sherlock: everything we say comes from our point of view.
We can’t escape our own heads.
Posting this again at the end of the piece cause it’s like a seventeen hour long read. If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing: