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The Art of Darkness: How Video Games Can Learn From Maus

A column article by: Alex D. Jones

“Good literature makes artistic demands, flexes and contorts narratives, resists limpid morality, compromises reality's details. Regarding the Holocaust, this seems unconscionable, even blasphemous. The horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald need no artistic amplification.”
- Menachem Kaiser, The Holocaust’s Uneasy Relationship With Literature


Video games are young. Whilst advances in technology have seen them grow in surprising and sometimes delightful ways, they are still undeniably caught in the throes of adolescence and - like anybody who has gone through adolescence knows - it is a time of great internal conflict. Simply put, video games cannot decide what they are. Some of us believe they should be sports, some believe they should be modes of artistic expression, some believe they should just be fun activities, some believe they should be tactical, or simple, or story-driven, or devoid of narrative entirely; the litany of niches and in-groups is endless. “Gamers” are a subculture so diverse, segmented, even perpendicular, that to try and define “gamers” as a whole is becoming increasingly erroneous, and this should be reflected in our idea of video games as well. Simply put, we shouldn’t try and pigeonhole what games “should” be, but instead think about what they “can” be. It is with this in mind that I believe video games can step out of the shadow of their turbulent childhood and become a mature medium.

I am not alone in this idea, and other commenters, critics and writers have dubbed this philosophy “the search for our Citizen Kane”, after the revered “greatest film of all time”. The search is one for a game that is at once technically sound and artistically significant; it is the hunt for a game that uses its mechanics and interactivity to say something about who we are and the society we live in. It is a quest fraught with debate from disagreements on what we are searching for to disagreements on whether we even need to have the search in the first place. The cause is noble, but it’s a search for maturity that has fallen victim to conflict symptomatic of the immaturity it seeks to escape. Maybe we need to take a step back and give ourselves some room to breathe. Maybe we should try something easier and more understandable. Maybe we don’t need to worry ourselves about our Citizen Kane.

Maybe what we need is our Maus.


Maus is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about his father’s experiences as a Jewish man in Nazi-occupied Europe during the late 30’s and early 40’s, and the way those experiences inform their father-son relationship. As the plot develops and Art’s father, Vladek, moves to Auschwitz, it becomes a comic book about one of the greatest tragedies of humanity in history - the Holocaust - whilst also turning on itself, and discussing the problems entailed by the representation of such an event in a medium such as comics.

 


 

At the time of its run, it was critically revered; here was a comic book that was audacious in scope and yet so heart-breakingly personal. Along with titles such as Watchmen, it was considered one of the highest examples of what comics could do as a medium. It was brave enough to tackle a subject matter as horrifying as the Holocaust and smart enough to do it with an artistry that pervaded every panel. It helped raise its medium into the mainstream spotlight as one that could be mature.

I do not say this under the assumption that there are no video games that have conveyed intellectual or emotional themes successfully; Bioshock, the Fallout games, Braid and countless other titles spring to mind as examples of games that have done just that. What we need to learn from Maus is consideration. It is a work that is self-aware; it knows that it is trying to cover an incomprehensible topic through a medium that was best - if not exclusively - known for costumed crime fighters at the time of its publication. Such self-examination results in poignant scenes of autobiography in which the character of Spiegelman wrestles with the concept of a Holocaust comic in a way that does not apologise for its form, but champions it as a valid medium of artistic expression. Maus teaches us that if you’re clever enough any medium can explore difficult topics in a way that’s meaningful. It’s simply a question of backing up your choice of medium.

Throughout all of this, one game stands out as a work that shares some similarities with Spiegelman’s masterpiece. Recent release Spec Ops: The Line from Yager Games looks like an unremarkable third-person shooter set in the Middle East at first glance. However, much has been made of the game’s attempts to be a smarter example of it’s genre with writing from Walt Williams inspired by Joseph Conrad’s seminal novella Heart of Darkness.

 


 

On the surface, it is a game about the horror of war, but a closer look at the game’s narrative design and script betrays that it is also a game about the war shooter genre - not a pastiche in the sense of Deathspank or Grand Theft Auto, but an examination with a much more serious intent. In a review of the game for Kill Screen, Yannick LeJacq comments that “It’s a game waging war with itself on every level, questioning and juggling every motif precariously even as it deploys it” - a war very reminiscent of the way Maus deconstructs its own use of animal metaphor at points, opening the belly of its own beast to give credibility to the construction of its artistry.

In both Maus and Spec Ops, self-awareness is a sign of maturity because it takes the subject matter seriously. This is not the case with the aforementioned lampoons of Deathspank and Grand Theft Auto, whose jokes about their respective genres and themes seem throwaway, like an inconsequential chuckle rather than a hard deconstruction. As Lana Polansky notes in an essay on satire in games, also for Kill Screen, “Genre conventions like fetch-questing may be questioned with a line of dialogue, but are never quite exaggerated or subverted”. In essence, pointing out a problem is not the same as solving it. If games are to tackle the issues of their own kind, they will have to do better than half-baked reference humour.

As optimistic as people may get about Spec Ops, we’re still quite a distance from that seminal work that brings video games to the forefront. However, there is a growing school of thought amongst developers, the media, and most importantly gamers, that we can do better and that we shouldn’t be afraid to try. It will take a while, but one day we will make great art just as long as we remember one very important thing: we must never, under any circumstances, apologise for doing it through video games.

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