23 December 2009
One of the strangest novels ever written sees the hero, disgusted with bourgeois society, lock himself away in solitude to pursue artificial pleasures. Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884), constructs a device to blend liqueurs in unprecedented combinations, sows a garden with freak plants, tries his hand at making perfume and has a tortoise’s shell encrusted with gems. The book was later said to be part of a fin-de-siècle artistic movement, characterised by a kind of aestheticised neuroticism, whose members were dubbed the décadents.
Locking oneself away to pursue artificial pleasures, of course, is one possible description of playing videogames. You could write a contemporary version of À Rebours in which the hero isolated himself from society with a house full of consoles, which would add to Huysmans’s principled décadence a more depressing cast of decadence in the modern English sense of unhealthy self-indulgence.
But Oscar Wilde (whose Dorian Gray reads Huysmans) offered a more interesting definition. In classicism, Wilde said, the parts are subordinated to the whole; in decadence, it is the other way round: the whole is subordinated to the parts. Perhaps videogames are decadent in this way — except that in many of them, the whole, rather than merely being subordinated to the parts, is more or less obliterated by them. Intense attention and a kind of grim super-creativity are lavished on game parts — guns, monsters, exploding barrels — but considered from a sceptical distance, these atoms of interactive stuff appear to be floating in a formless void, with no overarching organic significance except for that desperately strained for by the hastily written and cliché-filled script that seeks to paper over the arbitrary cuts between topographic and temporal stages.
A modern videogame goes like this: first, one damn thing after another; then varying combinations of those things until you get bored or finish. If you do bother to finish it, you are left with the sickening certainty that, after all, it was less than the sum of its parts. This is true of some of the very best games, from Metal Gear Solid 4 (where Kojima’s problem, one could argue in this context, was that he didn’t make enough hard choices between parts) to Batman: Arkham Asylum, which I played with great enjoyment until about halfway through, when I was suddenly overcome by a nauseating apathy and switched off. I knew that I would miss some fine spectacles, but I had already had my fill of its basic parts: the guards-in-a-room situation and the dodge-spam-dodge boss mechanic.
Wandering around the halls of Gamescom in Cologne this summer, I noted certain sociological signs of decadence in videogames — the sheep-like punters happily wearing BioShock-branded surgical masks, presumably as ironic commentary on swine-flu fever; or the recruiting stand manned by the German army, complete with actual APC, holding out the implicit promise that young men who like to play war games will find actual war even more fun — but the signs of technical decadence in contemporary videogaming were just as clear. There was so little determination to push the form onwards: instead of invention, there was an atmosphere of listless variation on the old. Even the best indie games seemed to be cycling through permutations on Thrust, Defender, Robotron and other classics — how long before this ceases to be homage and becomes laziness?
The vexed relationship in Wilde’s definition of “decadence” between the parts and the whole was evidently also part of the problem. Because certain genres are now set in stone, many games can only distinguish themselves by pointing to certain unique parts. So this football game promises you “freedom in physical play”! (This tagline for FIFA 10 seems to be a euphemism for “better fouling”, and videogames really are becoming “decadent” in the sense of moral decline if sports simulations now encourage you to cheat just like the pros do.) This racing game makes the edges of buildings blue against the white sky, because chromatic aberration is the new lens flare as a graphical marker of realism! (GT5; and the Gran Turismo series, of course, bears heavy responsibility for the general fact that “realistic” now means “as though viewed through a camera”.) Oh, look, this fighting game has no idea what to do, so it fills the arenas with spectators throwing fruit or repetitively squatting as though they have appalling gastrointestinal irritation! (Tekken 6.)
The unhealthy odour of rotting, purposeless, contextless imagination and invention that we breathe in Des Esseinte’s country house is all too often found in modern videogames — which, so to speak, cannot see a tortoise without wanting to stud every square centimetre of its shell with jewels (and don’t even ask about the wider ecosystem in which the tortoise might best flourish). What happened to the tortoise in Huysmans’s novel? Labouring under the weight of its novel decoration, it died.