Some games, like Burnout, are “just for fun”, but can also yield meaningful analysis. By looking at abstract and conceptual art in other media, we can learn different modes of analysis.
Recently, I’ve been playing Burnout Paradise Remastered on PS4. It’s a fun game, and I can’t believe I didn’t play it when it originally came out in 2008. I wanted to write about, but kept wondering what there was to write. I could describe the gameplay, the graphics, the music, etc. But what would anyone gain from reading that? That’s what IGN is for.
This made me think of a more fundamental question: why is some art more resistant to analysis than others? And specific to Burnout, what is it about specific games, or types of games (racing, sports, and puzzle games come to mind too) that are resistant to analysis, compared to other games? I’ve thought about it from the perspective of many different media.
Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is ripe for analysis, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is resistant to analysis.
I will dive into these three comparisons. From here, we’ll have a better idea of what makes something more, or less, resistant to analysis, and how those factors pertain to analyzing video games.
Analyzing lyrical and conceptual poetry
TS Eliot wrote rich, textured poems that emphasized diction, form, and content in general. His poetry often has a lot of references, and feels very deliberate in every word. Goldsmith writes poetry that revolves around the concept. Conceptual poetry, when taken to their logical conclusion, doesn’t need to be read. What you are “reading” is not the text itself, but the concept of the book.
If you read Eliot from a close-reading approach, you will glean from it many types of meaning. If you read Goldsmith from a close-reading approach, you will find virtually no meaning. The only way to glean analytical meaning from the text of a Goldsmith poem, is if you approach it in a Derridean, deconstruction approach. This would entail dissecting and tearing apart the language, and trying to find meaning in the text, with complete disregard to authorial intent.
In contrast, let’s say you analyze Eliot and Goldsmith on a conceptual level. Goldsmith would yield a lot more, because Eliot had no conception of conceptual poetry, or at least, a very different understanding of it.
However, a more conventional, richly dictioned modernist poem will yield a lot more realms of understanding and analysis than a conceptual poem. For an extreme example of this, Derrida’s book Of Grammatology is 350+ page book that essentially is a close reading of one passage by Rousseau and his use of the word “supplemental”.
Analyzing narrative and literary fiction
As for my next example, Proust and Da Vinci Code, this comparison might come across as putting high literature against airport novels. That’s not how I’m comparing them, and I think schlock pop culture is constantly underrated as a source of analysis.
The dichotomy I want to make is Da Vinci Code is pure story. It feels like reading a novelization of a movie, or a movie spec script written out in conventional prose. In Search of Lost Time is a narrative in the sense that it’s a collection of events. But at the same time, people don’t read Proust for the narrative. The narrative elements don’t compound into a conventional story arc. People read Proust because the texture of the language, the density of the diction etc.
Analyzing abstract and allegorical paintings
If you compare one of Rothko’s paintings to Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, the immediately obvious difference is that Rothko is abstract and Bosch is representational. That is complicated by the fact that Rothko saw his art as impressionistic landscapes, and that does(/can) show in his art.
The core of the difference, however, has more to do with the fact that Rothko’s paintings are “impressions” of the forms and shapes taken by colors. Bosch represents individualized figures and details within the landscape. Rothko is about looking at the painting as whole, Bosch is about looking at the painting as a composite of details and images.
Even though Rothko’s paintings are abstract, let’s take his word for it and see them as representational. Then, we see Rothko as having a mild conceptual hook. It answers the implicit question “how would someone feel if they looked at an abstracted representation of a landscape?” All pieces of art start with implicit rhetorical questions, and these rhetorical questions are tied to the concept behind the art.
The elements of analysis
Based on this sketch, we can determine factors that make something analyzable.
First, the more that a piece depends on conceptual underpinnings, the more it resists analysis. Art with strong concepts yields more potential conceptual analysis. The content of art depends on, and builds upon, the concept, but the content is more fruitful than a purely high-concept piece.
Second, when we look to narrative art, the narrative functions similarly to the underlying “concepts”. A narrative can be, and often is, a source of analysis. For example, folklore and mythology theorists mostly analyze narratives, and narratives can be analyzed in many different ways. But, the content of the narrative – the language, the diction, the rhetoric, etc. – has so much nuance and depth, that it has a lot more potential things to dig into and analyze.
Think about when you’ve analyzed movies or books for a class. Typically, the class discusses the narrative and form of the movie or book, to make sure no one had a wildly different narrative reading. From there, you begin digging into specifics, and that’s what most of the discussion entails. When movies are discussed or reviewed, their narrative is discussed. When movies are analyzed, the cinematography, writing, mise en scene, etc is discussed. When a novel is discussed, its narrative is discussed. When a novel is analyzed, passages are prodded and dissected.
And third, an important factor for analyzing art has to do with how representational it is. For example, if you take Early Netherlandish paintings, like Bosch, these are all highly representational. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” has relatively accurate representations of human bodies, animals, landscapes, etc, but it’s also representational in the sense that it’s allegorical. The figures within the painting represent things besides what its visually representing.
What I take away from this is that the more something relies on the conceptual underpinnings, the more it will resist analysis.
All media has some type of conceptual foundation that sets a medium type apart from others. The foundation of painting is that it’s paint on a 2D plane. The foundation of poetry is that it’s literature that uses the aesthetics and rhetoric of language to build meaning. The foundation of television is that it ‘s episodic, short form, audio-visual storytelling.
In other words, as Marshall McLuhan is often quoted, “the medium is the message.” Another way to formulate that (based on my use of concept in this post) is the medium informs the concept and the concept is the message.
However, if the concept is the message, then that implies conceptual art is more ripe for analysis than non-conceptual, but that’s not it. The media is the frame, like I said, the architecture, of a piece of art. The content is the message, but the message cannot be read except through the lens of the concept.
I think I’ve made my points clear: The content of a piece of art depends on the concepts to exist. The content offers more in terms of analysis, but the concept offers a different, but connected, type of analysis too. Typically, when you analyze what art means, you analyze the content. When you analyze what the art does, you analyze the concept.
In order to apply these ideas to Burnout Paradise, we must look for the equivalents to an art concept and content within the game. I would say the conceptual elements of video games are made up of the elements of that medium. The conceptual elements of video games include: digital interaction, player choice, game play, and graphic interface. There are more, but those four characteristics represent the core of the video game experience.
Since there isn’t conceptual video games (at least not in the same terms or style as art or poetry) then I’ll use ludic to describe video games. Ludic is the adjective form of gameplay, or things relating to gameplay. For our purposes, ludic is the video game equivalent of “conceptual” in regards to art and poetry.
Just like other art forms, there’s video games that are more ludic and games that are less ludic. For example, Tetris is nothing without the gameplay, and the game gives the player nothing more than the gameplay. Even things in Tetris that aren’t essential to gameplay, like the music, are complementary to the core gameplay.
An example of a less ludic game would be something like Until Dawn or Quantic Dream games like Detroit: Become Human. These are games that use tropes that are common in films, fitted into the video game medium. Just as other art necessarily has conceptual underpinnings, video games necessarily has ludic elements, but some depend on them much more than others.
How to analyze Burnout Paradise
Considering all of that, I think one of the biggest errors people make when analyzing games is that they don’t start in analyzing the concepts, the gameplay, the medium etc. When people analyze a film or poem, they start by understanding everything around the content. But most often, when people analyze games, the elements intrinsic to the medium (the gameplay), are often analyzed as separate from the narrative and artistic content.
I think there’s three reasons for this:
- Games are a young medium and there’s a shallow amount of theoretical foundations.
- Games are a pop culture medium, which attracts people who don’t engage with art objects on an analytical level.
- Games are often engaged with in two separate channels: content and gameplay. This post is arguing they obviously work hand-in-hand. But, for example, when someone talks about a narrative heavy game like Mass Effect, they talk about the narrative and artistic elements. And then, they talk about the gameplay elements. The way games are made more generally might contribute to this.
Considering this, I’m going to start by analyzing the ludic elements of Burnout: Paradise, and then see how that connects into the conventional artistic elements.
When I describe Burnout: Paradise to people, I usually describe it as if Tony Hawk Pro Skater was a driving game. There aren’t tricks like Tony Hawk, but it is a game where the world has a “playground” quality. Every facet of the world is designed to facilitate driving. There are ramps, shortcuts, and collectible items (ie breaking through gates, jumping off parking garages, and breaking billboards are points you ‘collect’).
Another interesting major feature of the game is that it is an open-world driving game. It’s more open than most open-world games. Basically, you’re plopped into a city and countryside that’s filled with missions. If you lose a mission you can’t redo it, you just keep driving to the next challenge.
In other words, you have no sense of orientation in the world. It’s not like Grand Theft Auto where you have a house, or houses, that function like your home base. There are quest givers you go to repeatedly. You have a groundedness in the world. In Burnout Paradise, everything is rooted in motion. The challenges are always somewhere new. You always just start where you left off. There’s no fast-travel to challenges, or redoing them without driving back.
It reminds me of a quote I read about Los Angeles once (sorry, I googled and couldn’t find the exact wording, or who said it), that basically said that most cities are experienced in place, by being in the space, but Los Angeles is experienced by movement through the space. Most video games are most cities, and Burnout Paradise is Los Angeles, in this parallel.
Analyzing Burnout Paradise
This open-world, free-form element is what makes Burnout Paradise a great game. It’s a sandbox of really fun gameplay elements. However, like Tetris or Tony Hawk Pro Skater in their absolute embrace of gameplay, doesn’t leave room for as much narrative and guided content. These types of games live in the medium itself, rarely transcending to the type of content usually ripe for analysis.
But, we can analyze the aesthetic and non-narrative elements of the game quite easily and go from there. For one, the aesthetic of Burnout Paradise came out in 2008, and it’s the most 2008 feeling piece of media I can imagine. I’m transported back to high school when I played it, and I never actually played it in high school.
The game is set in a fictional California-based city. The saturation is high, very colorful. There’s a lot of neon/pastel pseudo-graffiti style graphics that were popular at the time. The music feels very “of the time”, featuirng LCD Soundsysten, Avril Lavigne, NERD, Sugarcult, Senses Fail, etc. Even the vintage music feels somehow distinctly relevant to the style of vintage music that was popular at the time. For example, there’s Guns N’ Roses, Twisted Sister, and Faith No More, which from my experience, was one of the big genres of music that people had nostalgia for in the mid to late 2000s.
In terms of the actual cars and driving, the feel of the driving is very light and arcadey. The cars control notably different from each other, in contrast to driving simulations where the differences between vehicles is more nuanced. Also, the cars aren’t replicas of real cars (like in Forza), probably in large part because a big feature of the game is wrecking the cars and flinging them around. The effect of this is that playing the game feels like a digital, driving game equivalent of playing with Matchbox cars.
With all of these features, I feel like we can pinpoint and take away some points of analysis from this game. For one, the tone and aesthetic of the game, in feeling so rooted in its place in history, presents a near retro-futurism. It encapsulates a specific sense of optimism that existed at that time. It was after the shock and violence of 9/11 and the destructive aftermath in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. These wars were still going on, but the 2008 election was that year, and people were optimistic, for probably the last time in American history, so far.
Burnout Paradise came out right before the Great Recession. It came out before Occupy Wall Street and before we became disenchanted with Barack Obama. Of course, a lot of people like Obama, but he certainly led to an increased skepticism of the Democratic Party from the left, and an even increasing belief that Democrats don’t want to properly save us in the “Hope and change” department.
In this way, it is presenting a positive vision of the future—it doesn’t present a utopia, but it is a projection into the future of a very specific tone and attitude of a narrow zeitgeist.
But we also can’t just go off of that reading alone. We don’t get a lot of analysis simply by contextualizing the tone of the game in its historical moment. The fact that it’s a driving game adds a lot more depth to its tone, aesthetic, and context.
In a way, the game represents a vision of the utopian world promised by the auto industry and car culture. The promise of car ownership is that you’re free! You’re free to drive wherever you want. You have your own individual train, but you don’t have to follow tracks. Your spouse may nag you at home, and your boss may nag you at work, but when you’re in your car, it’s your rules.
This is, of course, not true, but it’s the ideology that car culture, especially in the U.S., is predicated on. The reality of car travel is traffic, linearity, waiting, and nearly as little freedom in an everyday sense as a train. In Burnout Paradise, driving as it exists in real life is synthesized with the idealized version of cars that we have when playing with toys as children.
In one sense, this might seem like Burnout Paradise is glorifying car culture, but typically, I don’t take things that present an idealized version of something on face value.
Yes, the game glorifies the ideological underpinnings of car culture. But, by presenting a glorified version, one is always compelled to compare and contrast to the real version. For example, a novel about a dystopian future is usually seen as a critique of the present, because we can compare the elements of dystopia to the present moment. But, a novel about a utopia future can just as easily be seen as a critique of the present if we contrast the elements with the present moment.
Burnout: Paradise offers several little glimpses into the game’s standpoint regarding cars. For one, there’s an abandoned elevated subway track through part of the town. There’s several large sections of the map with abandoned freight railroad tracks. They’re not only abandoned, but actually have ramps for cars to jump all over them. There’s no pedestrians in the game. There’s also a heavy emphasis on road rage, one of the major competition-types in the game is just running other cars off the road. The way to unlock new cars is they will try to knock you off the road, and if you knock them off, you get their car.
All of this has the “window dressing”, the presentation, of the world promised by cars: complete freedom united within machine. Parking garages are for you to do tricks off of, not park. But in showing the world promised by car culture, we see how that world isn’t possible, and in fact, wouldn’t be good in reality.
We can almost see the game as a critique of cars, because Burnout represents a driver’s world that has never existed and never will, but is embedded into car culture as an idealized form.
I realize I didn’t present a proper, analytical conclusion about Burnout: Paradise, more just the broad strokes of some of the elements I take from the game. But the point of this post was never to write a thesis on a game, it was to demonstrate how to approach analyzing a piece of art that resists analysis.
My simple conclusion is that Burnout: Paradise presents an idealized, almost utopian vision of individualist, consumerist world dominated by cars, indicative of a type of middle class optimism and aesthetic of the pre-Great Recession. The game is offering this world for fun, but, if you were to take away any prescriptive meaning from the game, I feel the take-away is actually a critique of car culture, because it includes within it the idealized version of driving in the game, and highlighting how unrealistic it is.
There’s some dissonance here between the game and the analysis though. This is because most games, especially games like Burnout, aren’t meant to be analyzed, especially in this way.
But again, there’s a reason I focused so much on general art analysis at the beginning: this is meant to be a post about art that resists analysis in general. And, at the same time I wanted to write about that, I was playing a game that struck me artistically, but offered little in the way of analysis.
The ultimate takeaway from this post is how to approach art when it’s operating more on a conceptual level – a level that resists typical analysis of content.
The way to analyze on this level is follow these trains of thought:
- What are the elements of media, and how is this piece of art unique within a specific medium? How does it challenge the conceptual underpinnings of the medium?
- What is the general tone, or themes of the piece? What impact does this have on other elements of the piece, other elements within the genre or medium, and the historical context of its time?
- How are the tones and themes connected to the conceptual elements of the piece, and how do both these things interact with the medium?
- And finally, take the descriptive observations you’ve made about this interconnection of themes, context, and concepts, and figure out how they can be seen as normative. A key element of analysis is teasing an argument or perspective from a piece of art. By analyzing the elements of art, and attempting to derive meaning from it, you’re converting something descriptive into something normative. In other words, art analysis is the only academic dominion where deriving an “ought from an is” is not only acceptable, but necessary.