Musings on Video Games and Art, As Inspired by Autechre

February 18, 2010

For whatever reason, even as we debate whether video games can be “art”, whether they should be “art”, whether they should aspire to “art”, or even whether we want them to be considered “art”, there is no doubt in the general public’s collective mind that music can certainly be “art”. This is because we’ve had “artists” like Beethoven, and Debussy, and Zappa, and Varèse, who have advanced the boundaries of the medium while displaying a technical proficiency for it.

Given that we can so readily and easily accept music as “art”, then, it seems to come naturally that musicians are “artists” — indeed, the two words are used almost interchangeably when discussing a piece of music. And yet, to call these musicians “artists” is to level the assumption that they are framing their music; they want it to be “art”. Is all music “art”? Is Britney Spears “art”? Does what the Jonas Brothers are doing qualify as “art”, if it is so obviously also product? I have nothing against the music of The Jonas Brothers, or Miley Cyrus, or whoever the Disney Princess of the day happens to be; it just seems that if we’re going to keep questioning whether a video game like, say, Bioshock 2 (or Passage, or Braid, or You Have to Burn the Rope) can be “art” at all, we should hold our definition of the word in higher esteem than to throw it around willy-nilly in other mediums.

I mention this, because I’m listening to the latest Autechre album Oversteps this evening, partly because I have to review it at some point before it comes out, and partly because it’s fascinating me. I’ve been listening to it a lot over the past week, and I’m enjoying it far more than I’ve enjoyed an Autechre album in a long time. That it’s enjoyable at all is something of a rare feat for Autechre in the post LP5 era; recent Autechre albums are things to study, things to dissect, things to tear apart and analyze bit by bit, but you have to be one of a very special breed of human being to truly enjoy them.

Because of this, Autechre is touted as an electronic music “artist”. What they do is readily accepted as “art”, because it is not easily understood, it inspires discussion, and every Autechre album is very much like and unlike each that came before it.

The words that are coming to mind where Oversteps is concerned, however, are “enjoyable” and “accessible”, not in any broad way, but in the context of Autechre’s recent work. Does this make Oversteps any less “art” than what has come before it? Is Oversteps the first time Autechre’s really tried to make something enjoyable since LP5, or did it happen by accident? Or were all those other albums in between accidents, or worse yet, some kind of sick joke they’ve been playing on us this whole time? Do “artists” always make “art”, or can they pick and choose their moments?

If that's not "art", I don't know what is.

And if these questions can exist in music, why are we so focused on an all-or-nothing sort of inclusion for video games? Why do video games need (God help me) a Citizen Kane before they can join the club? Why don’t we ever talk about music’s Citizen Kane?

As per their own version of the status quo, Autechre’s inspired a whole bunch of questions, with no answers anywhere in sight. I subscribe to the old adage of “if it has a frame on it, it’s art” — that “art” is whatever we want it to be. I believe that games have been “art” for a long time now, and the fact that we can even ask the questions above, discussing the place of games in culture, comparing them to literature, and coming to wildly different conclusions as to what it all means is all the validation they need.

Wow, is reviewing Oversteps ever going to be difficult.



  1. […] Schiller wrote about ‘Video games & art as inspired by Autechre’ – electronic music versus electronic […]

  2. I love your article. I am a huge Autechre fan. It took me a year of off and on listening to finally “get” Confield. I don’t know if I’d say I enjoy it, but before I “got” it, I thought it was just an arrhythmic mess. I love earlier Autechre so much that I figured there was something I was missing.

    Their work since Confield has been more accessible (in my opinion) but still difficult. I do enjoy most of Draft 7.30 and Untilted though. I don’t know if I’ve quite “gotten” Quaristice. I like to listen to it, but when I reflect on it, it never leaves a clear impression.

    In all honesty, I was nervous about Oversteps. I will buy anything Autechre does and try my darndest to “get it”, but I hoping for something less challenging than their recent work. I was extremely pleasantly surprised after listening to it. It’s something I can play on my car CD player without the other passengers thinking I’m crazy.

    Being a game maker myself, I can tell you that their is an artistry to making games enjoyable outside the visual art, the music and movies that go into a game. Not every video game has to challenge the boundaries of what the medium is (like what Autechre has done recently) in order to be art. In the end, I think people who don’t see video games as art are curmudgeony dinosaurs that don’t play video games, so they want to keep them out.

    PS. I still can’t say I much care for their collaborations with the Hafler Trio though…

    • I almost forgot about the Hafler Trio thing…my brother got me æ3o&h3æ for my birthday some years ago, and it was in such fancy packaging and looked so pretty that I couldn’t help but be let down when I actually listened to it. Nothing against drone, but when Autechre’s involved, I usually expect something, I dunno, busier.

      Your comments on the “artistry” of game development is a point I try to make occasionally, but have a hard time backing up – at least your comment has me thinking I’m barking up the right tree.

      In any case, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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