A Blank Canvas

A Blank Canvas
The Milkman Cometh

Lara Crigger | 17 Oct 2006 08:01
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Editor's Note: This article contains spoliers for the games mentioned.

Midway through the game Psychonauts, in which you literally infiltrate characters' minds for some hands-on therapy, the hero, Raz, encounters a security guard named Boyd. As Boyd shuffles about, babbling incoherently about squirrels, conspiracies and fortified milk, it's clear he's not all there and his mind has been broken for quite some time. But he refuses to let Raz pass until he can locate "The Milkman," so the hero leaps into Boyd's brain to determine who and where this Milkman might be.

The subsequent stage, "The Milkman Conspiracy," is one of the shining gems in a game already crammed with memorable moments. But more than that, it's a striking and deeply disturbing portrayal of one man's lost battle against his own insanity. When I think "art in videogames," I think of this stage.

Art is the method we use to quantify and express "the human condition," the sum of those experiences which make us uniquely human. In a way, it's a coping mechanism, a technique that sorts through our jumbled lives and makes sense of things. The achievement of art is not beauty, rebellion or social commentary (although, of course, it can include all three). Instead, art is a reflection of our experiences, through which we filter ideas of what we could and should be.

To that end, art must aim to be as realistic as possible - not in the sense that it becomes life-like, since that would be mere imitation; but that it captures life and distills it down into its vital or true essences. Particularly with works in visual media, such as sculpture, oil paints and yes, even videogames, the artist must fight a constant temptation to settle for life-like art. After all, accurate reproductions of a subject's physical form, be it with sharper lines, increased pixel count or higher resolution, are beautiful and generally well-received. The football players in Madden '07 drip with sweat so perfectly rendered, you could taste it. But pretty sweat alone does not make art.

The key is to partner the visuals with a certain degree of abstraction, which allows viewers to open up and interpret what they see.

In many cases, it's actually easier for viewers to decipher abstract art, or art in which the subject's physical form is not accurately depicted. When a graphic is too life-like, it becomes distracting in the same way that robots which appear too humanoid make us feel uncomfortable. We put up similar mental barriers. But there's something about abstraction, something primal that makes us drop our guards, allowing the art to penetrate our psyches on a more intuitive level. In fact, abstract visuals are sometimes the only way truly difficult emotions and experiences - tragedy, sadness, love, even madness - can be communicated without seeming melodramatic or maudlin.

Take, for instance, Shadow of the Colossus. Undeniably, the game is beautiful; the towering mountains, sprawling grass plains and crystalline lakes are stunningly rendered. And yet, as lovely as they are, the landscapes are not entirely substantial. The color palette is too muted and ethereal, like a faded photograph, and the mountains, plains and lakes seem too large for the space they inhabit. The environment is utterly isolated, empty, even apocalyptic. It suggests that some great tragedy has occurred here, and, perhaps, may still be occurring.

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