Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why Do I Love The Darkness?

I just started listening to this awesome podcast called Final Games.  https://soundcloud.com/finalgamespodcast

The format is this: He interviews a prominent game developer by asking them to choose 8 games that they can take to a deserted island.  The reasoning for why those 8 are chosen leads to great analysis and design insights.  Listening to this made me consider which games I’d take to last the rest of my life in seclusion.  And this lead me to a small quandry I want to explore now.  The problem is this: I really like dark, isolated, lonely-experience games.  Games where the world is uninviting, ugly, scary, weird, grim and dark.  Almost always dark.  

These are LAST kind of games you would want with you if you were never going to see another human again.  Granted, you can take the 8-game-island scenario more or less literally.  You could just list your favorite games.  But I like thinking more seriously about it, which makes the choices more challenging.  If you were never going to see another person again, you’d want games that could -in as meager a way as a computer simulation can do- replace what other people do for you.  Something that could fill that void of human interaction that we social animals have.  

But what this made my mind spin off to, was a deeply personal question.  Why do I love the darkness that pervades all of my favorite art?  The reason this puzzles me is, perhaps, predicated on a faulty notion that there’s a ‘type’ of person who like darkness in art.  And I don’t feel like I fit that profile at all.  The image that often gets projected through hollywood stereotypes, highschool cliques and musician’s lyrics, is that people who make and imbibe dark art are troubled.  


They were ‘broken’ by something in their childhood.  Absentee father, abusive mother, sexual molestation, substance abuse, etc.  This results in a personality profile of deeply troubled people.  People who can’t keep a relationship together.  Can’t stay away from harmful and self destructive actions.  Are never content with life.  Tend towards nihilism and depression.  The association seems to be that people who have dealt with extreme darkness in their lives go on to create or appreciate darkness in the art they love.  And… absolutely none of that applies to me.  Quite the opposite in fact.  I had a wonderful childhood, two loving parents who didn’t divorce, and with whom I still have a wonderful relationship.  I love life.  I’m at peace with myself and my place in the world.  I’ve never even tried drugs, and I’m not attracted to any of the typical self-destructive tendencies that those associated with dark media seem to have.  

Here’s a seed for a theory to explain this.  (Unless my perception of the ‘type’ of people who are attracted to darkness in art is just plain wrong, in which case this whole puzzle goes away.)  The thing I want to start with is the kind of music I grew up with.  The kind of dark and brooding music I enjoy the most, I discovered through a bizarre niche-of-a-niche market.  I like gothic metal a lot.  But in my formative years I limited myself to only music created by (ostensibly) Christians.  They used the dark aesthetic of the music, but wrapped around the substance of a Christian message.  

How dark or non-dark you find “the Christian message” depends on far too many things to interrogate here.  For ME, “the Christian message” is one of love and hope, healthy happy families and doing good for others. (Because that was mostly my experience with it.) So for the point of this exercise I’m considering it positive.  This created what is perhaps, a blindness to contradicting medium/message in me.  In fact, I comment on it in this video I created for a larger project that I haven’t finished yet.  But it makes the point I’m getting at here well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNYkNts3ji0

Christian musicians will co-opt an aesthetic and -in my current opinion- often sloppily and lazily plaster it over a contradicting message.  It works great for Evangelical Christian teens in youth groups because Christian teens have been cultivated in their subculture to love crap.  


I guess that will happen in any subculture where they feel the need to make their own low budget knock-off copies of the broader culture’s media.  But I don’t know of any other sub-cultures that do that.  Evangelical Christians do it because they are convinced the world outside is controlled by Satan, and most of its media is created with the purpose of leading us astray.  So we make our own music, books, and sometimes even really really really bad video games and movies.  The result is almost a Weird Al level of parody; but instead of the messages being swapped out for silly stuff like food and television, they are swapped out for Bible stories and morality tales.  Usually with some kind of come-to-Jesus message in there.  To be fair, I’m reflecting mostly on 80’s and 90’s Evangelical Christian artistic output.  The subculture has been making improvements in both modifying the message to match the medium better, and being more aware of the general level of quality that they need to aspire to.

All that background is to help me hash out the chemical soup that my aesthetic proclivities evolved from.  Another clue to help me suss this issue out is something I’ve recently discovered as I’ve been going back and listening to the ‘real version’ of all the Christian imitation bands I made myself listen too until fairly recently.  So I’ve been exploring the back catalog of musicians like Korn, Marilyn Manson, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Slipknott, and others.

And what I’ve found is that I can’t tolerate them for very long.  As a non-musician I can’t really tell if they are musically superior to the Christian knock-offs I know and love.  But I sure as hell can tell the difference in lyrical content.  And that’s what puts me off.  No, it’s not the swears.  I’ve built calluses to those over the past 20 years of working in the videogame industry, and they don’t really register with me any more.  It’s the generally self-destructive message that pervades these artists.  It doesn’t wear me out because I’m thinking “Those terrible people spreading their filth and making the kids do the bad things!”  (That’s the response I always heard from my Evangelical Christian Youth Group culture.)  No. I’m thinking “Those poor people are suffering so much and damaging themselves with such horrible self-talk and life choices and philosophies.”  It just makes me sad for them, and for anyone impressionable enough to be influenced by them.  I take some solace in the idea that a lot of the lyrics not direct descriptive utterances, but a lot of it is about projecting an image.  But that image is something that makes me sad.  And again, double sad when I consider all the impressionable young people who don’t make the distinction between image and aspirational lifestyle.  And so I can’t listen to these artists for prolonged stretches of time even though the musical wrapper is indistinguishable to me from the Christian knock-offs I love.

And so, I’m learning that I love the aesthetic of dark, but not the substance of it.  And that sounds incredibly shallow, and perhaps even pretentious.  And it’s ok if that’s what I am.  But being shallow and pretentious doesn't match my values, and so I’m looking for a way to address that discrepancy.  

But first, here’s a competing theory.  I MIGHT be a shallow pretentious person, OR, I might have stumbled onto an element of darkness that is not inexorably bound up with self-destructive nihilism.  This must needs get into some philosophy of art, and for that… I don’t apologize!  But to keep this as manageable as possible I’m not going to quote Kant, Burke or even Lord Shaftesbury on the subject.

I’ll just try to summarize my premises when it comes to creating and consuming art.  (A good exercise for any artist who wants to imbue their work with intentionality) ((Which is maybe the wrong way to do art… for all I know blind reflexivity is the only way to make good art.))  (((The reason I opt for intentionality is that I don’t value art over love.  I want my art to be done in service to love, which, perhaps inevitably, will devalue the status of the art itself, pushing it down the spectrum towards propaganda)))  ((((Ok, this is the last of the parenthetical asides.)))) (((((Oh wait, one more thing. I’m totally feeling my way through the following section, so it’s sure to be full of overlooked concepts and is also sure to evolve as I think more about it.)))))

I feel like art exists as a way for humans to communicate feelings to and from one another.  Feelings that non-artistic mediums fail to transfer adequately.   Ok, sorry… one quote….  Tolstoy said: “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”  This is the school of artistic definition I most closely align with.  Because implicitly, I assume along with those feels come values as well.   

Since each human is unique in their experience and physical/mind makeup they are receptive to particular frequencies of art, which I’m now arbitrarily calling aesthetics.  Some mediums excel at certain aesthetics, and are weaker in others.  Dance can do joy, and sorrow really well, but anger is not its strong suite…. At least that I’ve seen.  Video games are fantastic at power fantasy and agency, and not so good at the experience of character development.  Sculpture is great at majesty or contemplation but not super at movement-oriented experiences. (Except mobiles)  In general, the “best” art (by which I mean ‘most effective at communicating experiences/feelings’) is that which closely align the medium and the aesthetics.  Keeping in mind that the medium informs and influences the aesthetics.  A poem read aloud and a poem carved in stone produce different aesthetics even if the words are the same.

So for the sake of clarity I’m removing the medium from the equation and focusing on aesthetic.  I want to talk about the intended experience/emotion.  An aesthetic is produced by a couple different factors.  Two of these are the technical aspect, and the emotive content.  For example, if you hit an E minor piano key, that produces a specific sound that is technically repeatable, recordable, reproducible.  Press it harder or softer and you modulate the emotive side of it.  Put it in various contexts, and you can modulate it like crazy.  Put a red dot on a blank canvass.  Now fill the canvas with red. Different emotion/experience.  Now put that canvass in an all-red room.  These are technical factors that anyone can do.  And the technical aspect informs the emotive aspect, adjusting the aesthetic.

I think this partially explains what happened in my brain to cause me to be so attracted to dark art.  My exposure to it was usually within the context of life-affirming narratives and presuppositions that the Christian artists placed them in... not the self-destructive ones that normal cultures pair with those aesthetics.  (Again, I know for many people Christianity has NOT been life-affirming, but associated with guilt, hypocrisy, abuse, manipulation, anti-intellectualism, etc.  I’m only speaking of MY internal associations with Christianity, not some impossible-to-ascertain “objective” view of it.)  It’s like taking that all-red canvass and putting in an all-white room rather than an all-red room.  The different context does something to the aesthetic.   

I think there may be something beautiful and life-affirming in dark aesthetics, but the artists that are generally drawn towards dark aesthetics tend to be hurting people who find in those aesthetics the closest match to their self-destructive tendencies.  In other words, I don’t think that ‘darkness’ (aesthetic darkness) is intrinsically evil, but through its repeated use by self-destructive people it has grown that association in the minds of most people in most cultures.  

One thing I’ve been doing here for the sake of … haha… brevity… is lump all dark aesthetics together in once conceptual bucket.  Now I want to blow that bucket up and look at the parts in more detail.  Here’s a good example of a breakdown of flavors in the “goth” world; the one-stop-shop for all things dark.


As you can see, the word ‘goth’, as it applies to modern aesthetics has all sorts of facets, meaning that all sorts of people can be attracted to “the style” for different reasons.  I just realized this can also be seen as a venn diagram of other style’s cultures overlapping with one common trait: eyeliner. For the record, I think there should be a law that everyone must wear eyeliner.  It makes everyone look better.  Even babies.  
But anyway, back to goth…. Some people like the horror aspects.  Some people say that horror isn’t even a part of goth.  I’m attracted most to the metal, victorian, romantic, steampunk, and fairy/fantasy aspects.  

There are things considered dark that I very much do not like such as the aforementioned song lyrics about destructive lifestyles.  For other examples, gory violence doesn’t bother me, art that focuses on death doesn't bother me, but neither holds any attraction for me.  Insanity is another theme that’s often in dark art that niether attracts or repels.  But depictions of torture -especially sexual torture- outright repel me.  Oh, and there’s that whole thing of deformities and disease that I guess some people are entertained by that I am not at all.

I guess that’s quite a lot of caveats, huh?  I wonder if most people who like dark art have as many elements that repel them?  But anyway, excluding those elements, I love a dark mood.  Feeling unsettled.  Sad.  Eery. Mysterious. Scary.  Most art that accomplishes those moods (without the previous list of themes that don’t resonate with me) I love.  Yet the context of my life is one of comfort, joy, peace, love, etc.  

Most people can tell you their favorite genre of music.  Rock, Jazz, Classical, Rap, etc.  I don’t have a favorite genre.  I simply love any music in any genre that’s in a minor key.  For instance, I don’t like Country, Classical or Christmas music.  Except the stuff that has that dark sound.  Here’s my favorite Christmas songs.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wl4u8lnDQs




So there’s something resonating with me on a deep level, but it’s not connotations to destructive lifestyles or an attempt to promote myself as a brooding artist or anything like that.  But if my attraction is not those things, what is it?  Here’s my best guess...

Maturity, Wisdom and Real Love all require something in order to attaint them.  Pain.  Struggle.  Hardship.  Things we’d normally assign to the list of life’s ills, are, ironically, necessary for what is best in us to come out.  I recently (In old-person-time) found my “Calling”; my sense of purpose and set of goals that guide and direct my energy in life.  I made a Mission Statement for myself, and am using it for my future creative/business endeavors.  

“Make the world more loving with stories.” I think I’ll change that from ‘stories’ to ‘art’ more generally.

My understanding of life -which has come about through my own experiences and hearing about other’s- is that the process of becoming more loving requires pain, struggle, hardship, frustration, disappointment, sadness, confusion, and a lot of other elements that pervade dark art.  So in that way, darkness resonates with me as a necessary tool of enlightenment and growth.  And maybe that explains why I’m only attracted to darkness in a shallow or pretentious way.  I’ve never seen darkness as a destination, but as a means to an end. Or at least an opportunity for growth.

I don’t find this explanation completely satisfying, and I’ve worn myself out thinking about it for now.  So rather than having a nice conclusion, I’ll go full circle back to a list of Deserted Island games.   

But first, here’s a list of games I adore for the dark and lonely atmosphere they exude.  
Dark Souls/Bloodborne
Darkest Dungeon
Don’t Starve
Metroid
Shadow of the Colossus
The Legend of Zelda

As much as I love those games, I can’t take them.  They would just exacerbate the loneliness.  (I’m leaving myself one exception as explained below.)



  1. Worms 2  
While it lacks some of the movement finesse  of Worms Armageddon, it’s far FAR superior weapon editor makes this the standout in the series.  Not only does the game auto generate random levels for you, but it lets you paint your own, leading to a very robust toolset for creatively prolonging the kinds of experiences you could have in this game.



2. Legend of Zelda  Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Ho boy, this was tough.  I started this blog post before BOTW came out, and had the original Legend of Zelda in this spot because even though it violates my point of not bringing lonely dark games, the fact that it is THE game that inspired and propelled me into my career of game development, and the nostalgia element was enough to warrant a place in my 8.  But since playing BOTW, I’ve found so many similar-but-superior elements in it, that it managed to bump the original in my heart.  


3. The Sims 2: (Characters carry over to XCom 2)

I’ve never played this game.  It’s absolutely insane to take a game you’ve never played.  But here me out.  I’ll be missing my family a lot.  And I can’t think of a better game for simulating my family than this one.  Plus, I’ve got this wacky meta-game idea.  I’ll make families for all the soldiers in the next game on my list.  So they will with have a full home-life, giving them even more impact in both games.


4. XCom 2   

Here’s a game of endless strategic depth, and a team of compatriots.  I love turn based tactics games, and so picking only one was difficult.  But I’m pretty happy with this choice.  Especially because I think it will be really easy to make my squad look just like the Simms that will play them in Sims 2.  


5. Spelunky  
I feel like there is nothing special about Spelunky.  Except for the fact that it’s perfect.  There’s no original system or mechanic that makes it stand out.  Back when it came out there was.  But even today, it’s just the incredibly perfectly tuned nature of every element that just makes it the best feeling game out there.  It’s like a distilled form of videogames in one magical drop.  It’s charming, funny, terrifying, enraging, joyus, dramatic, silly, rewarding, mesmerizing…  

6. Nuclear Throne

I’ve already said a lot about this game here.  http://joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/2016/07/rogue-lite-life-lessons.html  That should explain why this one is coming with me.


7. MotorStorm: Pacific Rift

I generally am not drawn to racing games.  But there are definitely times where I’m in the mood.  And this game has almost everything I want in a racing game.  Huge variety of vehicles, gorgeous and creative environments, fun physics/crashes.  I haven’t played it in many years, but I just know I’ll regret it eventually if I don’t bring a racing game.


8. Civ V + Expansions  

I started Civ on number 3.  Throughout the years my ability to carve out the tremendous amount of time these games deserve has been harder and harder for me.  But I adore them SO much.  I still feel upset every time I think about how little let myself play them.  But, being on deserted island for the rest of my life means that won’t ever be a problem again!  The colorful fun visuals, infinite variety, and superb balance that later expansions brought to 5 make it my final pick.