Prescribing our Described Worlds: Video Games Pt. 2

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The year was 1997 (or was it 1998?).  I was hanging out at my friend Ben’s house.  The Nintendo 64 had been released and his parents bought him one.  I would never think about asking my parents to pay $200 for a video game system, let alone the additional $30-$50 for games.

But I had $100 of my own money and because of the N64, the Super Nintendo’s price was reduced to my range.  I bought one and played the 2 games that came with it.  But Ben had had a Super Nintendo for a decade and 30 games to go with it, 30 games he would soon just give to me because they were worthless now that he had the next best thing.

That particular afternoon in 1998 (or 1997) I snatched one of his games called “Final Fantasy 3.”  I asked him if we could play it and he immediately dismissed it as “too complicated” and “single player.”

I insisted, being offended by the “too complicated” part and so we put it in and watched the credits roll.

It was the 3rd Final Fantasy to be released in the USA but there were 5 Japanese games before it so the numbering was later changed to reflect the Japanese games.

What followed has been a decades long infatuation with quite possibly the greatest video game ever made.  The graphics were gorgeous.  The music was overwhelmingly beautiful.  The plot was intriguing.  The characters were fully formed and moving.  And the game play did not consist of bouncing on enemies or punching or shooting them.  For awhile I played through the game once a year.  Now I go back to it every other year or so and I am always moved by its brilliance.

Yesterday I presupposed that video games are artistic expressions.  I know a few who disagree with me but, mostly because of Final Fantasy 3 (or 6 as it would later be correctly numbered), I hold to the claim.  With that claim I argue that video games should be subjected to the same critique and engagement as the other arts.  That is why I dismissed some of the more ridiculous claims that Christians have made against art.

Today I want to talk about two wider criticisms and apply those to video games.

The first is what I called “prescriptive criticism.”  These are the critics who judge art based off of the world that is supposedly prescribed.  I would include most “Christian” critics in this category.  These critics are always focusing on “what’s the message?”  And if the critic agrees with the message then they deem the artwork “good.”  If the critic disagrees they label it “bad.”

In the case of Christian music, critics don’t pay attention to the melody, the beat, the vocals, or the instruments.  They narrow in on the lyrics and ask, “Does this song mention Jesus enough times?”  “Does this song portray God as able to fix all our problems?”  “Does this song’s God like 6 day creationism?”  “Do these lyrics quote the Bible?”

The problem with such a view is that not all art is prescriptive.  Some art just wants to describe the world as it is and let us figure out where to go from there.  Christians seldom know what to do with that art so they tell the art what its prescriptive message was and then dismiss it as being erroneous.  This is why all the “Christian” art, especially that which is loved by Christian radio and Christian publishers tends to be prescriptive.  They are all sermons in the form of a novel, song, movie or video game.  This has led to some horrible artworks produced and made popular by otherwise well meaning Christians.  In turn many cultural critics have written off the entirety of Christianity as being “close minded.”

So a counter movement has sprung up that I roughly identify with Christian Hipsters.  These are the descriptive critics.  They don’t ask, “Do I agree?” but instead “is this true?”  By this they mean, “Does this movie, song, video game accurately represent reality as it is?”  With that question some justify watching all manner of profanity, arguing, “The world is a profane place and we shouldn’t ignore it.”  I would agree but it is still hard for me to believe that watching pornography is a way to acknowledge pornography exists.  The same goes for graphic violence.

The real problem with descriptive critics is that they seem to deny that good art can be prescriptive.  Some of the best novels and paintings and even video games have prescribed a better world for us and asked us to strive towards it.  Others have shown us a worse world and begged us not to go there.  Here I think of utopias (like Star Trek) and dystopias (like the Walking Dead).

So I think a better way to critique art is to dig past the conscious questions of “do I consciously agree?” or “do I consciously verify that this is true?” to our subconscious participation in the piece.

On a deep level, what is happening to us as we engage the art?  Are we opened up or closed off to our neighbors and their realities?  Are we filled with hope or despair?  Do we become better at problem solving and critical thinking or do we suddenly start thinking a gun is the answer to all of life’s solutions? Are we made angry and is that anger justified and focused on the evils of the world or is it just that type of abstract anger that is angry for no reason?  And in the case of Zuma Blitz, why am I forgetting to blink?

Tomorrow I will talk about games that fail the above test but let’s go back to Final Fantasy 6.  At first glance FF6 fails the prescriptive test because it doesn’t mention Jesus and it seems to suggest that magic and brute strength are the way to solve the world’s problems.  To add to its “evils” it never quotes Scripture *cough* shameful *cough*.

The greatest moment of the game was when the world was decimated into a wasteland by the antagonist. Walking through this village after the disaster was chilling.

It also fails the descriptive test because we do not live in a world where magicians are running around setting things on fire.  There was never (nor will ever be) a great war of the Magi that decimated the planet.  And every time we get into a confrontation we can’t mystically summon magical Espers to appear and help us out.  More than that, there are not three statues somewhere out there that need to be perfectly aligned or else the world will go bonanzas.

However, there is a prevailing belief that the world all ready has gone bonanzas because our harmony has been misaligned.  There are many who believe we are all ready living in a post apocalyptic world.  And as you go through the game, you find that it is not the brute strength or the magic powers that end the ruin and save the day and bring about harmony.  It is the characters (14 of them!) learning how to love.

With a full 14 characters this was the best cast any of the Final Fantasies would have.

The protagonist, a woman named Terra (top left corner), regains her powers when she falls in love with a group of orphans.  Locke, the thief, comes into his own when he finally grieves and moves on from the death of his fiance.  Edgar, the Prince, fights for the love of his people.  Celes repents of being an Empire General and learns to love her adopted grandfather who works himself to death building a raft for her salvation.  Throughout the game all 14 characters learn to love and in so doing find the power to realign the world and defeat evil.

Beyond that surface, dare I say “conscious” message, the music, the visual art, the dialog, even the game play, all come together to fill the player with a subconscious peace, harmony, hope, encouragement and love that help us survive our dystopias.  This subconscious nudge towards all the virtues is out of this world but, at the same time, firmly grounds us in the realities in which we live.

That and the game is just too much fun.

See you all tomorrow where we visit the opposite end of the spectrum.

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