Power, Mystery, and the Hammer of the Gods

I stole this blog title from Jimmy Page, who said these three things were what he always sought in art. I couldn’t agree with him more. I have been much entertained of late, so I’m blogging it.

Sigur Ros: ooh, so mysterious

I recently saw the movie “Inni”, which is a filmed version of a Sigur Ros concert, but so much more than that. Even though I referenced Led Zep in my opening line, and have long considered them the best band in the world, I think I’m having to admit now that it’s actually Sigur Ros who should be crowned lords of all rock music. The movie is a brilliant, spare, elegiac showcase of an incredible band at the height of their powers showing that when music is done right, it’s a kind of sorcery. The dynamics, the intensity, the humanity of this band are all beyond description. I was lucky enough to see Jonsi (who is the genius at the centre of Sigur Ros) on tour last year in Melbourne, and I have come to understand that he is some kind of music god, perhaps sent by the Aesir to Iceland in the hopes that Coldplay would just shut the fuck up. If you don’t know who these people are and would like to know, try here, here, here, or even here.

Don't worry, you can (and I do) play a girl.

But I’ve also been deep, deep, and far away in the province of Skyrim. This week, in a brilliant spot of timing, I tore a couple of ligaments in my left ankle while out walking up the mountain. “Can you stay still with your foot elevated for a few days?” my phsyio asked. Why yes, yes I can. I fired up the PS3 and haven’t really moved since. The game is sublime. The landscape and the music are enough to keep me playing it, but add in the rumbling nightmare of a dragon attack, the immersive thrill of lovingly designed dungeons, and the awesome little medieval towns and… well, why bother doing real life, eh? To paraphrase Ralph Wiggum: “Oh boy, Skyrim! That’s where I’m a viking!”

Art is sometimes seen as only encompassing a few, fairly delimited (and uppity) things. Paintings, opera, maybe poetry. I dunno. But to me, this movie and this game are art. They are incredible expressions of human endeavour, pushing right out there on the boundaries of feeling and technology, to make something that is meaningful and valuable to others. It reminds me that art matters; it always matters. And I am so grateful for it, in good times and in bad.

Don’t fear the future of art

Okay, this is more about music and gaming than writing, but by now you’ve figured out that I’m really interested in the way that technology is changing our relationship to art (most interesting fact so far this year: the #1 Amazon.com CD for this year was also available free as a digital download… explain that one, naysayers).

This BBC article provoked some anxious responses on a music forum, about the possibility that gaming was overtaking music in popularity as an art form and so on with various doomsday scenarios in which we all become soulless bots. Ambient musician Deepspace (aka Mr My Husband) posted this considered and very clever response, so he is, in fact, my guest blog for today.

This is a vastly fascinating issue to me- I don’t really see it as negative either, especially in regards to music. I’ve played games since I was a kid, and my family plays games now, and I’ve noticed the massive change in society’s perception of games very recently, as recent as a couple of years ago, mainly through some pivotal games, such as the mmo’s, GTA, guitar hero and the emergence of the wii. They’re going to loom large on our cultural horizon for a while folks.

If you’re concerned for music’s sake though, you should probably stop now.
Music is one of the most cherished parts of any game designer’s ideology and, just for an example, music plays a massive part in those games I mentioned. We have new classical music, being written for a massive audience, and being played by massive ‘game soundtrack’ orchestras around the world. The fact that kids playing a game like Oblivion (to pluck one game out of the void) while listening to Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack music, is brilliant. They’re hearing something that is usually distinctly out of the listening habits of young people. Or take EVE online, which uses hundreds of ambient pieces by Jon Hallur. Since when have young kids gone bonkers over music that sounds like non-top 40, and sounds more like Debussy, Vaughan Williams or the Bladerunner soundtrack? Never. Also, the Grand Theft Auto series brings stacks of music (including Steve Roach) to a massive audience. Spore features Brian Eno and Saul Stokes. Music for games has come a long, long way from the bleeps of pac-man (as cool as those bleeps were). And this music is going into their heads. The fact that they’re creating wonderful associations to the music is a bonus.

The fact that some bands are now releasing albums on Guitar Hero (as much as I despise that game) shows that people want to be more active in their response to music: so they are merely pressing buttons to the rhythm, and trying to get a score- but they are still enjoying the music… When people dance to music, they’re just shaking their butt, so why is this worse? But why are they doing it? I think people stay indoors a lot more these days, and where in the past they would go out and nod their head (or their butt) to a live band in a club, (let’s hope they don’t stop completely) now they’re doing it in their living room. While I cringe at the thought of doing this, Gen Y’s seem perfectly comfortable in doing this.

I see gaming as the ultimate form of opera. This may seem like a whacko observation, but opera came along in the 17th century and brought together music, staging, literature, costumes etc into a cohesive whole. Gaming is bring together graphic art, music, literature, lifestyle, movies, sport, interactivity (i’ve probably left out some others) into something amazing. It kind of had to happen- it’s the next step beyond the linear delivery of the movie or the book. Not that it will replace those, as people don’t want all of their senses to be engaged all the time. As for music disappearing….there’s not a chance it ever will. Music is something we will always do, and it actually prospers in the face of adversity.

I’m not saying we should all become game music designers either, but I think the palette of acceptable sounds, for the new audience, has increased massively, and is bigger than ever.

Hmm. Makes me want to go out and write for games. Anybody understand that particular career path?

Is that my imagination in your corporation? I do apologise.

I have Kate Eltham over at Electric Alphabet to thank for directing me to this marvellous article in the London Review of Books about video games. Gaming doesn’t get much serious attention in the mainstream media, although it’s hugedy-huge. Many of you already know that I am one of the 13 million or so World of Warcraft players worldwide (how on earth can that be considered a marginal cultural practice?) and so it’s refreshing to see serious attention being paid to gaming.

Lanchester makes so many interesting points, but the ones that really stood out for me were about gamer creativity: “the most interesting thing about… games,” he writes, “is what is done with them by the user.” He doesn’t specifically reference WoW in his article, but I have always appreciated the “sandbox” potential of the game. One of the best nights of play I had was not the night I critted over 6K in Gruul’s Lair and picked up epic drops; but the night my husband and I, set loose in a beta-test version of the Lich King expansion, rode our horses across every inch of the new continent of Northrend. Just exploring, looking around, appreciating the graphics, soaking up the atmosphere. It felt like we actually went on a journey (and not nearly so expensive as real travel, plus the kids were asleep and not bored or vomiting on us).

But, more importantly, the relationship players have with their characters or “toons” in WoW can actually be a creative one. From the moment you choose their race, class, and faction, you are taking part in a process of character development. Then, as you spend time with them over many many (many) hours of game play, you can become quite invested in them, their journeys, their histories (in-game and, for some people especially those on “role-play” servers, outside-of-game), even getting a sense of what they will or won’t do. There was a recent kerfuffle on the WoW forums when a player took offence at a quest that involved torture, essentially arguing that his toon wouldn’t do it. For the purposes of this blog post, I bravely posted a forum thread about how players felt about their toons’ personalities, and found that quite a few players do seem invested imaginatively with them: they are creatively engaged with the game through the narratives, both in-game and imagined, of their characters.

But Lanchester asks, am I playing with my character as if she is a puppet (in much the same way I pull the strings of the characters in my novels), or is Blizzard Entertainment playing me as if I am the puppet? Is the sense of creating a character real or “just some horrible corporate simulacrum”? He suggests that “nothing within a world so fully made by a corporation can be truly creative.” But isn’t that to believe that corporations are gigantic, money-hungry, power-wielding monoliths against which we are powerless? They’re not and we’re not. In fact, gaming corporations tend to be staffed by gamers who are creative; I’m sure most of them would revel in the knowledge that the end users were also getting that juicy feeling that we all recognise: when our imaginations are firing up, and our possibilities are multiplying.