I recently watched Mad Max: Fury Road. Generally speaking I’ve never been a fan of the action blockbuster, but the film’s very strong lead performances, intriguing and unusual world-building, rich sociopolitical subtexts and – most importantly – extraordinarily striking visuals and art direction elevated it far above the norm to something very compelling, singular, and original. I don’t ordinarily seek out behind-the-scenes stuff for most media I consume, but whenever something has particularly excellent visuals, I tend to look for any videos or information I can find on the creative process behind them (the Dark Souls Design Works and Half-Life’s Raising the Bar remain two of my most treasured books for just this reason). To my shock, it became apparent that in the overwhelming majority of shots, the cars were actually physically present on the shoots: those sweeping takes across the car “fleet” were takes in which all those cars were actually brought on set (though “on set” loses a little meaning in the middle of a desert) and filmed driving alongside one another. I was very pleased to discover this, speaking as someone who has always preferred the real-stunt for the car chase (or the costume or animatronic for the monster) to their CGI equivalents, but it got me thinking.
One of the most common questions I get on this blog, the various other sites I post about URR on, and in my website email inbox, boil down to “how did you program X?” or “could you please write more technical rather than design/progress-oriented blog entries?”. For the former I try to give a design oriented answer (“I made the system do A B C and keep track of D whilst factoring in E because I wanted it to output F”), whilst the answer to the latter generally boils down to “I’m afraid not”. I don’t write technical entries partly because there’s a lot of very new PCG stuff in URR that is (currently) unique, partly because I don’t find coding as a practice particularly interesting (I enjoy coding, but only because of the results produced at the end), partly because my code is rarely very elegant (since I don’t come from a Computer Science background), partly because I am remarkably ignorant of useful computer science terminology, and partly because I just think what the code does in the game and how a player experiences it is so much more interesting and important than anything I could say about lists, dictionaries and matrices (whatever those are).
I therefore find myself somewhat torn – I think the use of physical objects rather than CGI in Fury Road should be applauded (even though I suspect most viewers couldn’t tell the difference), yet I dismiss equivalent questions about my own under-the-hood processes, and have little-to-no interest in the coding of any other games out there, even those which I love and revere above all others. How can I resolve this apparent bit of cognitive dissonance? Does it actually matter for the appreciation of a piece of art how something is done, or does it only matter what the viewer/player gets from it; and does this vary across genre, or across different creative practices (film-making/game development), or in differing contexts between the contemporary states of different media formats?
There are certainly arguments that the process of construction is important to the overall artistic product. I’m sure many people would argue that there is undeniable artistry in the “production” of art – that producing film special effects through CGI or physical effects brings a different artistic quality to a film, just as I know of many programmers who certainly describe programming as an artistic and creative process. For myself, it’s definitely a creative process, but only as the means to the creation of the eventual creative product; I’m not a programmer who derive any pleasure from, or has any interest in, creating the most optimal code or the most elegant code or the most interesting and effective way of coding some particular element. It’s not at all artistic for me. Similarly, the perceived aesthetic worth of so many modern art movements are fundamentally contingent upon emphasising the form of production – drawn without the lights on, randomly thrown paint, using only certain pens or brushes, and so forth – that it seems hard to remove the process from the value of the final product. Indeed, in URR all the art is ASCII/ANSI art, and to me some of the visual pleasure in looking at URR’s graphics (if I may say so) comes from understanding the constraints and limits placed upon the artistic process, which is to say the particular process of selecting and placing characters and colours.
On the other hand, by suggesting that process matters, are we not inevitably suggesting that a piece of art cannot stand on its own merits, but we need to know its production for a full appreciation? This brings with it some pretty obvious problems: there are tens of thousands of ancient works we cannot go back and investigate the production of. For every one modern novel whose development can be traced across author interviews and hand-written notes later made available to an interested public, there are a thousand whose origins are shrouded by time. Certainly, we don’t know what we’re missing out on by not appreciating how these were written – perhaps every chapter of a certain work was written only on certain religious holidays, knowledge of which would bring new understandings of the author’s intentions – but there may nevertheless be meanings we can’t comprehend. But if we believe such production-oriented meanings are always important, we inevitably limit ourselves to only partial understandings of almost all works, and that just doesn’t seem right; some of my most profound experiences have been with art (of whatever form) the production of which I knew nothing about, or only learned about after the experience. Perhaps knowledge of how something was made should be treated as an enjoyable addition, not a crucial component?
In watching Fury Road I also found myself quite surprised that, in essence, I couldn’t tell the difference. I’m sure some people who viewed it realized “wow, none of those are CGI” just as I’m sure others thought the same way I did – “I assume these are CGI, because that’s the norm” – but that was my particular experience. I actually recall some time around halfway through the film thinking “wouldn’t it have been cool if they’d actually got all these cars in these shots?” but such a possibility seemed too remote to be worth taking particularly seriously. I think there is some broader point we can learn here about how the expectations of any art-form, especially in an era of major technological change (CGI in cinema/TV, and the expanding horizons of hardware/software capabilities in games more generally), can come to shape our experiences within that art-form, and even trip us up. Now that we expect so much to be done in cinema through CGI, it actually comes as a shock to learn that something wasn’t made using such a technique.
In turn, that highlights one of the things I find so compelling about the worlds of Dark Souls and Bloodborne (yes, I couldn’t go through a single blog entry without bringing these games up again) – they deliberately produce that same surprise in the player by allowing you to later explore areas that, in 99% of other games, would be mere skybox (background art that shows parts of the game world that cannot actually be explored). You spend much of the game staring at these areas that you expect to be inaccessible, and then when you get there, visiting that place has far more impact than some new location one had never even observed before gaining access. Just as films so often feel slightly more “real” once you know CGI was minimal, the same can perhaps we said about game worlds when you find more of the visual world to be physically present than you perhaps expected.
As with last week’s piece, I’ve mainly been throwing out ideas here rather than putting forward a particular argument; I’m not yet sure myself where I stand on these questions, and I find the arguments I’ve outlined here (and I’m sure there are many others I’ve omitted) to be equally convincing on both sides. Ultimately, however, I am inclined to think that whether or not it “matters” how an artistic product was produced depends on our appreciation of that medium. I have the deepest appreciation of games and literature, a strong appreciation of cinema and television, and then from there I have a tremendous drop towards my level of appreciation of music, theatre, dance, poetry, and other cultural forms. This is not of course from any rejection of those forms, but they just don’t happen to be the cultural/media forms that especially interest me. But because I know games so well, I can “step behind the curtain” and appreciate how they were constructed if I so desire; I rarely do, but I have the knowledge and expertise to do that. By contrast, I have no real ability to do that for music, as I can barely tell instruments apart, let alone come to appreciate how the method by which an album was constructed should be considered when appreciating the final product.
This does not guarantee that I will have a more shallow experience of that piece of music than someone else, but it certainly alters the nature of my experience from the piece of art itself, to the piece of art and its methods of production. When one engages with the latter, its production methods inevitably find their way into one’s brain: I cannot view a film of a game without considering how it might have been created. Such elements have to matter when we are in a position to consider them, and are bound to influence our consumption of the art; but when we are without them, I don’t think we are any worse off. To return to games, which are after all the focus of this blog, I certainly don’t feel I lacked anything in my appreciation of games when I was younger and didn’t know much about game design, development, and production. Nevertheless, now that I do, I cannot help but appreciate something that subverts our expectations of game production, or a game that was a struggle for a single developer to produce, or a game whose visual or storytelling elements, perhaps, clearly demonstrate a remarkable commitment by its designers or writers. How much production methods matter perhaps therefore depends more than anything upon how much we know of those production methods, what production methods we have come to expect, and the extent to which a piece of media breaks away from those norms and tries something profoundly new – not the pure pragmatics of the basic processes that constitute programming, filming, or putting words to paper.