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The Nature of Art

The following picture recently won 1st place at the Colorado State Fair:

Don’t know about you, but that looks extremely cool. I could totally see picking up a print of that on canvas and hanging it on my wall, if I were still in charge of decorating my house. Reminds me a bit of the splash screens for Guild Wars 2, which I have always enjoyed.

By the way, that picture was actually generated by an AI called Midjourney.

Obviously people are pissed. Part of that is based on the seeming subterfuge of someone submitting AI-generated artwork as their own. Part is based on the broader existential question that arises from computers beating humans at creative tasks (on top of Chess). Another part is probably because the dude who submitted the work sounds like a huge douchebag:

“How interesting is it to see how all these people on Twitter who are against AI generated art are the first ones to throw the human under the bus by discrediting the human element! Does this seem hypocritical to you guys?” […]

“I’m not stopping now” […] “This win has only emboldened my mission.”

It is true that there will probably just be an “AI-generated” category in the future and that will be that.

What fascinates me about the Reddit thread though, is how a lot of the comments are saying that the picture is “obviously” AI-generated, that it looks shitty, that it lacks meaning. For example:

It reminds me of an article I read about counterfeit art years ago. Most of the value of a piece of artwork is tied up into its history and continuity – a Monet is valuable because it came from Monet’s hand across the ages to your home. Which is understandable from a monetary perspective. But if you just like a Monet piece because of the way it makes you feel when looking at it, the authenticity does not matter. After all, most of us have probably only seen reproductions or JPEGs of his works anyway.

At a certain point though, I have to ask the deeper question… what is a “Monet” exactly?

Monet is rather famous, of course, and his style is distinctive. But aside from a few questions on my high school Art exam decades ago, I do not know anything about his life, his struggles, his aspirations. Did he die in poverty? Did he retire early in wealth? Obviously I can Google this shit at any time, but my point is this: I like The Water Lily Pond. The way it looks, the softness of the scene, the way it sort of pulls you into a season of growth you can practically smell. Who painted it and why couldn’t matter less to me, other than possibly wanting to know where I could find similar works of this quality.

This may just say more about me than it does art in general.

I have long held the position that I do not have favorite bands, I have favorite songs. I have favorite games, not studios or directors. I have favorite movies, not actors. Some of that is probably a defense mechanism – there are many an artist who turn out to be raging assholes, game companies that “betray” your “trust,” and so on. If part of the appeal of a given work is wrapped up in the creator(s), then a fall from grace and the resultant dissonance is a doubled injury. Kevin Spacey is not going to ruin my memories of American Beauty or The Usual Suspects, for example. I may have a jaundiced eye towards anything new, or perhaps towards House of Cards if I ever got around to watching that, as some things cannot be unlearned or fully compartmentalized (or should be).

So in a way, I for one welcome our new AI-art overlords.

Midjourney prompt: “I for one welcome our new AI-art overlords”

Unlike the esteemed Snoo-4878, I do not presume that any given human artist actually adds emotion or intention into their art, or whether its presence enhances the experience at all. How would you even know they were “adding emotion?” I once won a poetry contest back in high school with something I whipped up in 30 minutes, submitted solely for extra credit in English class. Seriously, my main goal was that the first letter of each line spelled out “Humans, who are we?” Granted, I am an exceptionally gifted writer. Humble, too. But from that experience I kind of learned that the things that should matter… don’t. Second place was this brilliant emo chick who basically wrote poetry full-time. Her submission was clearly full of intention and personal emotion and it basically didn’t matter. Why would it? Art is largely about what the audience feels. And if those small-town librarians felt more emotions when hit by big words I chose because they sounded cool, that’s what matters.

Also, it’s low-key possible the emo chick annoyed the librarians on a daily basis, Vogon-style, and so they picked the first thing out of the pile that could conceivably have “won” instead of hers.

In any case, there are limits and reductionist absurdities to my pragmatism. I do not believe Candy Crush Saga is a better game than Xenogears, just because the former made billions of dollars and the latter did not. And if the value of something is solely based on how it makes you feel, then art should probably just be replaced by wires in our head (in the future) or microdoses of fentanyl (right now).

But I am also not going to pretend that typing “hubris of man monolith stars” and getting this:

…isn’t impressive as fuck. Not quite Monet, but it’s both disturbing and inspiring, simultaneously.

Which was precisely what I was going for when I made it.

Legion Praise

As Shintar pointed out in the comments last time around, almost all of my coverage of Legion thus far has been either AH or complaint-related. And that’s fair – it has. I suppose we all just sort of take it for granted that WoW’s general gameplay is genre-defining and spectacular in most every way. Indeed, that engaging gameplay is precisely why we complain: if only X or Y could be fixed, we’d feel better about getting lost in the oblivion of killing mobs for hours.

Well, for this post, I won’t take it for granted. Legion is vastly improved in almost every way.

For one thing, all mobs everywhere are multi-tap capable. You know, that thing that Guild Wars 2 (and presumably others) have been doing for 4+ years already? Between the multi-tap mobs and the multi-tap resources nodes, the very fabric of open-world social dynamics has changed in Legion. Members of my own faction are no longer competition. Demon Hunter zipping around and collecting all the quest mobs in the area? Cool, let me just toss a Sunfire into that pack and get credit and looting rights to everything.

Granted, I might be more miffed if I were a spec without easy AoE.

There have been a lot of concern over the Great Ability Prune this expansion, but I have largely enjoyed having action bars back. More conditional and/or specialized buttons raises the skill cap, sure. At the same time, what is actually important is the feeling one gets pressing what buttons one has. If you only enjoy pressing 1-2 buttons of your 12 button rotation, what good is that?

In this regard, Legion is a massive, massive leap forward in most of the specs I have played. I smile every time I cast Full Moon on the Balance druid. Grappling Hook on the Outlaw rogue is fucking magical. You never quite realize how beaten down you have gotten over the years in regards to terrain until you gain the freedom to actually “teleport” up a hill you would otherwise have to traverse around. And speaking of Outlook rogues, Pistol Shot as an ability just feels so good. The sound, the action, the proc, the utility of having a ranged, technically spammable attack is perfect.

I have not spent much, non-Invasion time with the other alts, for reasons I kinda already got into with my complaint posts. What I will say though, is that the simple existence of class-specific content is an extremely good motivating factor in getting said classes leveled up and/or at least played some to see it. I didn’t like Unholy DK gameplay during Invasions, for example, but when I heard that the Lich King is involved in the artifact quests? Sign me up. It might only be an hour or two of specific content (and some locations are shared), but it is more than has existed for quite some time.

Leveling zones have been spectacular this expansion as well. It normally goes without saying, but I really do appreciate how much care Blizzard takes in not being as predictable in the art design department. Remember Wrath of the Lich King and the Northrend continent? Everyone expected every zone to just be all snow and zombies all the time. And while there was a lot of snow and zombies, you also had Grizzly Hills and Sholazar Basin and so on. In a similar vein, there is kind of a expectation in Legion for… well, Legion everywhere. Demons and green fire and Chronicles of Riddick-esque architecture. Not so much, actually. I started out leveling in Highmountain, and things have pretty much been up (har har) from there.

While I have not hit level cap just quite yet, I have high praise for the scaling leveling tech. There is more content than necessary for reaching 110 – which is good – but would typically present an issue within the zones themselves once you outlevel them. “Do I see the conclusion of this quest chain now, or come back later when it’s trivial?” I remember that being a major issue in Wrath in Grizzly Hills, as that was a zone I wanted to spend more time in, but outpaced the content available. Between the scaling mobs and scaling rewards, this is not an issue anymore.

I will admit though that there feels like a bit of a loss in the tangible feeling of level progression department, insofar as mobs are almost always the same level of difficulty. Sometimes it feels liberating coming back to older zones and having the run of the place, you know?

Quest-wise… this is WoW. People often complain about having to kill 10 whatevers in MMO quests, but that’s kind of why we’re playing a game with 10 million hostile whatevers, right? Besides, those sort of quests are filler and/or padding for the actual story/plot quests, which have been fantastically meaty from a lore standpoint. So much so, in fact, that I suspect the quest writers have been reading a bit too much Game of Thrones. Gods, demigods, Aspects… no one is safe. I legitimately wonder what Blizzard is going to follow this expansion up with – the old (figurative and literal) pantheon seems to have swept away, so they’re either wrapping things up or making room for new guys.

In any case, there it is. Legion is a lot of fun. I have complaints for days and days about all manners of things, but it comes from a place of frustration with wasted potential. That AH business, for example, would easily keep me entertained for 3 months if they fixed the throttling.

Alas, it is what it is. Which is 90% good, even if the 10% gets all the attention.

Review: Bioshock Infinite

Game: Bioshock Infinite
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 96
Completion Time: ~14 hours
Buy If You Like: Stripped down, Art-Over-Substance FPS console ports

If only everything had this level of polish.

If only this level of polish extended to the gameplay.

Something that I struggle with when starting a videogame for the first time, is under which critique rubric I am to judge the experience. Sometimes the circumstances makes it easy: a $10 indie title ensures low-expectations, with potential high returns on either an entertainment-per-dollar basis (FTL, Binding of Isaac, SPAZ) or even an artistic one (LIMBO, Bastion). Indeed, in the years since the indie game revolution gained steam, I have found it increasingly difficult to justify $40-$60 Day 1 purchases of even AAA titles. What is the point, other than proactively (and expensively) avoiding spoilers? It was with this thought and a few other development team concerns that I initially decided to forgo Bioshock Infinite’s Day 1 purchase. That is, until I watched this fateful Adam Sessler video review. I mean, how could you not whip out your credit card right there?

Now, some 14 hours later and $45 poorer, I am wishing for an alternate reality in which I waited for the inevitable 75% off Steam sale to purchase the game.

Bioshock Infinite follows the story of Booker DeWitt, as he searches the floating streets of Columbia to bring back a girl to erase his debts. It is immediately clear at the beginning that Columbia is both visually stunning – seriously, where did these guys pull this fidelity out of the Unreal hat? – and an overt, artistic repudiation of Pax Americana fetishism. While rifling through picnic baskets and trashcans for every last silver dollar, you will run into signs of the blunt, religiously-justified racism and bigotry of the early 1900s. While I would be surprised if this is the first videogame rendition of this particular theme, Sessler is not wrong about game aspect of Bioshock Infinite functioning as a more effective prism to explore this theme, than had this been a book or movie and showing the same thing.

She is the color in this Paint By Numbers.

Elizabeth is the color in this Paint By Numbers.

Sessler and the other reviewers whom have catapulted Bioshock Infinite to a 96 (!!) Metacritic score are also not wrong about the brilliant elegance of Elizabeth. Rescued fairly early, Elizabeth initially serves both as a foil to the stoic/cynical Booker and as a player narrative stand-in. As the game progresses though, she provides a sort of… warmth that becomes noticeably lacking from the game proper whenever she is absent. Sometimes it is mesmerizing just watching her run around – the number of animations are incredible – or when she sits at a park bench as Booker stuffs his face with candy bars looted from the pockets of the slain. Immune to all damage, Elizabeth nevertheless avoids feeling like mere window-dressing (even in combat), while also avoiding the immersion-breaking pathing bugs we have come to expect from companion AI. She is simply… there. Present. And Bioshock Infinite is better for it.

I would also be remiss if I did not briefly mention the absolutely amazing soundtrack. While the omnipresent “angry violins” battle music gets old pretty fast, nearly everything single other ambient score is both haunting and melodic. Periodically there will even be barbershop-quartet-esque pieces that quite literally caused me to remove my hands from the keyboard and mouse to simply experience. Hearing songs like Will the Circle Be Unbroken and God Only Knows satisfies a need I never even knew existed. Any game that can fit in classical Mozart in a way both consistent with the fiction and powerful in execution gets mad props from me.

Unfortunately, where Sessler and all the other reviewers go off the rails is when they talk about (or conspicuously omit talking about) the actual game bits.

Simply put: Bioshock Infinite is not a very good FPS title, and absolutely not at all a good Bioshock title from a gameplay perspective. The skeleton is all there, with Vigors replacing the Plasmids, but there isn’t any meat. The gunplay is simplistic. Environmental damage combos are virtually non-existent. While the eight Vigors available seem to be a comparable number to the original Bioshock, the (usually) extremely open battle environments lends itself to one or two extremely OP strategies. For example, in an early combination with some equipment, using the secondary fire of Murder of Crows to create a single nest trap can disable dozens of enemies across the entire map; when one nest triggers, the crows chain from enemy to enemy, stunning and damaging them, and all enemies leave nest traps if they die while afflicted. Alternatively, once the Possession Vigor is upgraded, it essentially one-shots most enemies in addition occasionally scoring you kills if they actually get in some damage on friends.

For the record, I played beginning to end on Hard difficulty. So when I say things like the gunplay was simplistic, I do not mean that enemies fell over from one or two shots. Instead, firing the guns takes little skill, and there is little variety in the types of guns – there is no reason to have the Machine Gun, Burster, Repeater, and Crank Gun in the same game, for example, as they all occupy the same design space. While the skylines provided a useful gimmick to certain battlefields, their primary purpose seemed to be giving you the opportunity to one-shot weak enemies with a melee attack that would otherwise only remove 20% of their health.

Da Birds, da Birds.

Da Birds, da Birds.

The fingerprints of Console-ification are also all over the place. Bioshock Infinite uses a completely oblique Checkpoint system, with no Save & Exit option. There are no Quicksaves.  Booker has a regenerating shield, and can carry only two weapons at a time. There are no First Aid Kits or other inventory-esque items, although there is “clothing” that acts as swappable passive abilities. While changing clothes might have added some depth to the combat, the reality is that most of the items are hopelessly weak in comparison to the aforementioned OP combos.

While some of these things do not sound bad on their own, the problem arises when you then apply these simpler systems to an artistic game so focused on encouraging  exploration inbetween the banal combat. Why barge into every non-locked house on the street – and see the thematically consistent bigotry – if there is quite literally no point to do so? Even if I accept that Checkpoints aren’t all that much different in practice than Quicksaves, the ever-present hunt to replenish my First Aid Kit supply drove me to explore every inch of Rapture, to my ultimate edification. Conversely, I explored Columbia out of a vague sense of propriety, like when an acquaintance takes you on a tour of his house even though you couldn’t care less about what the pantry looks like. Don’t get me wrong, I explored every masterfully crafted inch of Columbia that I could. But the whole time I sat there thinking “There is no reason for me to be here,” which I count as a deficiency in the game design, especially given how the original Bioshock played out.

Finally, in an effort to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, I will not talk about the specific issues I had with Bioshock Infinite’s plot or overall narrative. Suffice it to say, I did not feel that the actual message the writers were trying to convey made a whole lot of sense given what was presented and foreshadowed. Indeed, the whole narrative felt disjointed, likely due to the first half of the game consisting almost entirely of exploring Columbia’s working class issues, rather than the more fantastical premises that dominate the later game.

Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite is clearly an ambitious game, but at the end, I felt like nearly every aspect of it did not live up to its inherent promise. While that is a shame, that doesn’t mean you should avoid the experience altogether. Bioshock Infinite is definitely a game worth playing, it is simply not worth playing for full MSRP, or even half that amount. If you can wait, you should. And as far as Sessler and the others predicting Bioshock Infinite’s long-term “lionization” and discussion “for years to come,” well… I think they will be waiting for that for quite some time. Perhaps until the heat death of the universe.

SimCity and Meta-Criticism

After a long period of reflection, I had originally decided to not join in on all the schadenfreude surrounding the SimCity debacle beyond my post two weeks ago. Not out of any moral sensibilities – heavens no! – but simply out of a lack of fucks given. That, and I certainly couldn’t keep up with the torrent of other blogger updates on the developing story, when it seemed some new embarrassment was revealed daily. Kotaku even had a SimCity Disaster Watch graphic created to handle all the articles.

At one point though, I was almost tempted to purchase SimCity myself out of a longing for gonzo journalism combined with the thought of a free EA game. Then I simply browsed EA’s catalog, realizing that unless they gave away Dead Space 3 (they did, dammit), I either had all the games or the value’s promotion was $20 max.

I do, however, want to commit to internet posterity my intense loathing regarding articles like this one from Time.com. These middle-road Apologist articles and their asinine, straw man arguments infuriate me to heights even EA cannot hope to surmount. Consider the following:

EA was never, ever obliged to make SimCity a single-player game, nor do these accusations (accurate or no) from modders that the existing code is just a few steps away from being a single-player game hold much water when it comes to EA’s obligations. So what if the game could have been a single-player game.

First, who said a single goddamned thing about obligation?

Look, I can follow the twisted derailment of thought that conjures forth the implied “obligation.” Someone stating that SimCity should have had a single-player mode is assuming a sort of game design high ground, harkening towards a moral edifice that does not strictly exist. Because the game should have been a certain way, Maxis/EA has an obligation to Comment out Line #22 in the code design a single-player mode. That’s where the implied obligation comes from, right?

If so, we live in a terribly nonsensical world, one immune to criticism or judgment of any kind. Did McDonald’s give you cold french fries? Too bad, because they aren’t obligated to give you hot ones. No complaining! Did you tell the waiter you wanted a medium-rare steak and they gave you well-done? The chef isn’t obligated to bend to your whims, knave! He or she is an artiste! Movie previews aren’t obligated to represent the actual feature film, and if you don’t like it, go back in time and don’t buy a ticket!

Of course, the author clearly is being pedantic here. The point most people are bringing up is that SimCity, both conceptually and literally, doesn’t need to be always-online. There is no requirement for it to be so, despite the rather flagrant falsehoods claimed by the development team and embarrassingly contradicted by the modding community and a Maxis insider. Maxis/EA has no obligation to accede to reason, of course, but they certainly invite the valid criticism that accompany such quests for profit at consumer expense.

Which segues nicely into this nonsense:

You can ask, you can even petition, but I’d like to think we’re not at the point where we’re now telling painters, musicians, writers and artists of whatever stripe — game designers included — what they have to do.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t shake your fist indignantly and shout “but games are art!” then hold game designers to a different standard.

This is truly an despicable appeal to diversion. “Stop complaining about game design direction, or else games won’t be art anymore!” First of all, there is nothing sacrosanct about art. Authors have editors. Directors have focus groups. Fundamentally, all art is an exchange, and every artist considers his or her audience when making a piece for presentation (even if they imagine it is an audience of just themselves). And this is besides the fact that these game companies are businesses selling a product for profit. Games can be artistic products, but these companies are selling them to consumers, not putting (selling?) them in museums.

The pernicious worm at the core of this abhorrent article is the same one I have seen in similar, depressingly frequent articles: an implicit admonition of criticism itself. “Stop complaining,” these authors say, “you are lucky the artists deign to create anything for you filthy plebs.” No, I deny your thinly-veiled nihilism. Gamers have a right to reject anti-consumerist design. Gamers have the right to call out poor gameplay. The gamers who made the SimCity franchise successful in the first place have a right to protest design they feel is taking said franchise in the wrong direction. Is EA/Maxis or any game maker obligated to do anything? Of course not. Does that make levied criticism illegitimate? Hell no.

You are always entitled to your own opinion, and people can judge for themselves whether it an opinion worthy of consideration. And it is my opinion that Time’s article of meta-criticism – and all articles in the same vein – are specious nonsense, and nihilistic besides. Nothing is beyond reproach, else it demonstrates a perfection impossible to manifest in a universe of subjective minds.

I can only hope that the next EA CEO coming in can spare the 5 minutes of his or her time to understand why the company continues topping the worst company in the world charts. A quick memo to Maxis authorizing an offline mode would pull the teeth out of this endless negative PR; a gaming policy of not monetizing every single pixel with endless online passes could even get gamers to forgive Origin (or maybe just running some goddamn sales).

Bam, done. You’re welcome, EA.

P.S. While writing this article, a friend of mine pops up on Steam chat saying that the Mass Effect 3 servers were down, meaning he couldn’t play the single-player DLC he legitimately purchased through Origin weeks ago. This is the world we live in, folks.