Concrete Genie: A Retrospective Review of Art, Video Games, and the Emotional Journeys Available from Digital Interaction
Listeners to The Max Level Podcast will be well aware that Bryan (founder of Level Down Games) and I are fans of what have become known as “empathy games” – games that create emotional experiences for players as they roleplay a protagonist in a high-pressure situation. Life and death, relationships of family and friendship, love and hatred and backstabbing all are powerful experiences that most of us can relate to as a result of our real-life encounters. These experiences frame our outlooks and shape our thoughts and actions in the future. We all know a spurned lover hesitant to rekindle their affections, and likewise those doe-eyed admirers who champion their affections on any social media outlet available. Irritating those these examples may so frequently be, it’s easy to recognize the importance of these passions as a primary drive in our lives. Any time the undeniable power of human empathy can be conveyed through our favored hobby of video gaming, Bryan and I are quick to dive in with hearts bared for a fervent stir.
Title: Concrete Genie
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available On: PlayStation 4
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
Release Date: October 8, 2019
Game Purchased for the Purpose of This Review
Concrete Genie, a new single-player artistic adventure from developers PixelOpus and published by Sony, has been on my radar since its early trailers. Friendship, alienation, depression, and escape through artistic expression are clearly advertised central themes to Concrete Genie. I want to take this opportunity to review and explore not only the art, but the concept of video games and Concrete Genie breaking the barrier of games and becoming art itself. Be aware that this review will cover areas of the game that may be considered spoilers, and if you want to play without being affected by my opinions and interpretations, wait until after playing to read this review.
Ash, a young boy and center stage protagonist of Concrete Genie, is a budding artist in the failing and increasingly abandoned town of Denska. Ash escapes from the worries of real life, including being bullied by his peers and navigating a village ruined by oil spills and corporate greed, through doodling creatures and environmental decoration in his notebook. Through an unexpected tiff with his tormentors, the pages of his notebook are ripped from their binding and scattered by the wind across the dirty docks of Denska. In your quest to retrieve your work, you are aided by various graffiti characters, called “genies”, to open new pathways and dispel an encroaching plague on the town, known as Darkness.
Gameplay in Concrete Genie revolves around using your magical paintbrush to liven up the walls of your city with your genies, decorations, and imagination. Pages you collect are stored for use at any time, and creating small worlds of beauty throughout the streets of a grief-stricken sea town is as pleasing and comforting as it sounds. The motion controls of the PS4 controllers work acceptably for this cause. Creating a gorgeous landscape of your choosing is fast, painless, and unfailingly aesthetically rewarding. There are short sections of puzzle solving, light platforming, and even some end-game combat that comes as surprise, but the majority of your time in Denska will be spent as a painter, finding new combinations of décor for your murals and amusing collections of attributes for your newly animated assistants.
Graphically speaking, Concrete Genie is one of my favorite games this year on the PlayStation 4. Denska is a densely, though beautifully, packed town of dull, rundown buildings and businesses, cinder block walls, smoke plumes, clouds, and sitting water on cracked cement. The pallet of the town is of intentionally dull browns, grays, tans, and the occasional deep blue. A sad, but once thriving, ocean port is yours to brighten with the assistance of your paintbrush, which applies colors of blue, green, yellow, white, orange, purple and beyond in bright and neon varieties. Your paintings also turn on lights scattered throughout the streets, alleys, and sewers, and lighting all of them produce a gentle sparkle. The characters are cartoonish, but they fit in this world and are beautifully animated. Even their faces, which are rendered in a stop-motion style reminiscent of Laika produced films like Kubo and the Two Strings and Coraline, are aptly expressive and convey feeling authentically. In a game about art, PixelOpus took no reservations in assuring that the stylistic choices of Concrete Genie are purposed to be the game’s main delivery vehicle of its overarching message.
To discover that message, however, we must of course consider that some message is truthfully available for conveyance. Personally, Concrete Genie spoke to me and forced a recall of memories from my childhood where escape came through art, someone else’s if not my own. I would see superheroes fly through the skies in my mind, defeating villains and saving days. Video games were my frequent resort, games like Warcraft and The Legend of Zelda where I didn’t have to worry about who I was physically or what kids at school thought about me, because in Azeroth, I was courageous and brave. In Hyrule, I had time to explore and new faces to meet and nothing was too big or powerful for me to overcome. I recount rolling my dice over a table with friends, adventuring through lands unknown in search of ancient relics. The people around that table weren’t nerds in glasses and comic book emblazoned t-shirts; they were wizards, barbarians, thieves and necromancers, and they felt safe here. They felt like themselves, more than they did anywhere else, care free. I taught myself instruments as I grew, because the sounds of strings and brass helped me express emotions that otherwise sat trapped inside. I had these outlets. Ash had his doodles and genies.
So what about the game – Concrete Genie – is it art? Can video games surpass the barrier of a digital, interactive story and become something greater? At present, this debate remains unsettled. Video games are provided certain protections by US law that are afforded to classic forms of art, like intellectual property laws and copyright protections. Museums have displayed video games as a means of preservation, showcasing the earliest moments of the medium and providing insight to the influences of current trends in gaming culture. But art is an ill-defined term, subject to interpretation with video games specifically largely disregarded as anything of import by much of the older generation.
In 2006, famed film critic Roger Ebert participated in a panel at the Conference on World Affairs. This discussion, titled “An Epic Debate: Are Video Games an Art Form?” provided the backbone of opinions of many major art critics in relation to video games as art, including the assertion that video games simply don’t explore what it means to be “human”, like other art media does. Defending this idea from later comments, Ebert proposed that the interactivity of video games inflicts a malleability to their structure that if applied to other forms of art would disrupt their meaning. If the ending of a piece of art can be changed, argued Ebert, then it destroys the integrity of artistic expression of the original piece, like if the Shakespearean classic Romeo and Juliet had an optional happy ending. In 2010, Ebert responded to another critic, stating that “one obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. [He] might cite [an] immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” Ebert is also quoted as saying that “to my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” Roger Ebert is not alone in his assessment; video game designer Hideo Kojima, Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey of indie dev studio Tale of Tales, and art critic Jonathan Jones have all declared in no uncertain terms that video games are something, but not art.
As an expert in certain scientific areas, I recognize that expert opinion is not only helpful but oft times necessary – however, I also recognize that opinion of any kind, and especially opinions in matters of non-scientific fields like art and the definition thereof, must be open to scrutiny, questioning, and speculation. In my life, I have been emotionally affected by various forms of art, be they film, television, painting, literature, sculpture, music, or, very frequently, video games. In a recent interview, actor and experimental performance artist Shia LaBeouf, when questioned about his contribution to memes and meme culture, declared that even memes can be art, and that “anything that moves you is art”. Surely, from this simplified but no less valid perspective, we can find art, or artistic expression, around us at all times. The patterns on your clothes, the scents of perfumes, the speech of leaders; if you are moved and touched as the result of some intentional creative endeavor, you have been a beneficiary of art.
The motives of Concrete Genie are deeper than the explicit events portrayed by in-game cutscenes, namely in its dealing with the psychology and humanity of bullies. The ruffians that roam the streets of Denska terrorizing Ash are each given small vignettes of their past experiences that have driven them into a life of tyranny – one child remembers squabbling and yelling parents, another recalls a father in prison. Ash catches glimpses of these traumas whenever he and another simultaneously grasp his paintbrush. A lot can be said concerning the power of art and creativity to bring these emotions to the surface and provide a healthy outlet of expression, but the message to me is more significant. Ash, through his own artistic skill, peers into the thoughts and experiences of his bullies and is able to reconcile their harsh exteriors with a jagged past. These children, antagonizing though they are, are no less important to the story of Denska than is Ash. The heartbreak, depression, and mismanagement of a once bustling town has left lasting effects on everyone therein. It is not difficult for my now-adult mind to imagine parents arguing over finances ruined by a career misfortune, or a child’s father, once an executive in the local oil industry, now sitting behind bars due to a white collar crime. None of this is ever distinctly stated, but I couldn’t help but wonder what led to these children’s broken homes. Nevertheless, the humanization of the thugs of Denska provides a much deeper insight to the human experience and how we, as flawed individuals, cope with the pains of misery.
Sadness itself plays a central role in Concrete Genie, arguably the most highlighted emotion of the game. The Darkness, a strange creeping purple goo that blocks paths that covers walls (and eventually trapped children and genies in its grasp) is discerned by Ash to be the product of the negative emotions that have been allowed to envelope Denska in recent years. It is because of the Darkness, or sadness of Denska’s inhabitants, that these once thriving and lively streets are now bleak and deserted. These feelings cause damage when directly confronted, but Ash realizes that the only way to eliminate the Darkness from Denska is to provide beauty through his painting. For Ash, his art represents companionship, excitement, nature, creativity, and fun. The interaction with his art, and completing murals filled with vines, trees, stars, butterflies, and totems, produces a power stronger than that of the darkness, and is the eventual empowered force of its banishment.
Luckily for non-artistic gamers such as myself, your ability to create and modify art with perfection is never requisite to pass each stage. Each drawing in Ash’s sketchbook is easily copied to their canvases with a few small clicks and swipes. One will quickly notice, however, that Ash’s drawings are anything but masterpieces. The genies are mostly bulbous monsters with varied amounts of quickly drawn feathery indications along their bodies and bent single lines for arms and legs. You can make some truly unique beasts with each new genie genesis that resemble the doodlings of a grade school child. Much of the same can be said for the decorative elements, which includes uneven stars and scribbled celestial bodies, but never did I feel that Ash’s creations were “ugly”. Quite the notion effect happened upon me, in fact. Even in a beautifully rendered graphical city with high polygon textures and emotive characters, my favorite images were those I was able to create. My genies were individualized for how I thought they should look. Even my 4 year old child, just beginning to learn appropriate pencil technique, was excited to help me pick wings, horns, and tails for the genies, and loved watching them move along the walls and burn, zap, or blow obstacles out of my way.
In my own experience, the most beautiful things in our lives are those that make us comfortable, allow us to feel safe, bring us happiness, show us love, protect us, provide for us, love us. Surrounding yourself with these factors, be they family, friends, or art, is crucial to the defense of our spiritual selves. The final moments of the game involve your own paintings being overrun with Darkness and fighting against you, only to be recovered by a display of love and tenderness to rid the sadness and return the genies to their intended form as they have done for you and your home. Truly appreciating art requires patience and dedication, and in return it feeds one with emotional vigor and intellectual enlightenment.
The visuals are the star of Concrete Genie, but are complimented by a beautifully atmospheric original soundtrack composed by Sam Marshall. Many of the tracks provide an ambiance appropriate to Denska’s dark mysterious roadways, with echoing plinks and loose time signatures backing a small orchestra of winds and strings. Xylophones, flutes, violins and cellos comprise the majority of melodies, but the infrequent and well-placed action song provides synthetic instrumental noises with an air of tension. Standouts of the OST include “Ash”, which begins unassuming but slowly evolves into a fully realized heroic composition worthy of our protagonist, and the combination of “Darkest Night” leading into the title track “Concrete Genie”, which explores nearly every tonal shift of the game from fast paced electric action to deep emotional portraits with a reprise of some of the riffs earlier in the soundtrack in broad crescendos, ending with a single tender note. It is amazing that such a dynamic soundtrack sits backseat to visuals, but that it does is a testament to the complexity of the artistic package delivered.
Concrete Genie is not everybody’s game, especially those who don’t already have a deep appreciation of visual art. The story is catered mostly for a younger audience, as a single adult doesn’t appear in the game outside of hasty flashbacks. The gameplay remains mostly static throughout its admittedly short six- to nine-hour playtime, outside of the aforementioned combat sequences that, although properly functioning, don’t really provide any new experiences or challenges that any gamer wouldn’t already be familiar with. The trailers for Concrete Genie do thankfully provide an accurate representation of the game, so if those trailers intrigue you, I think the $29.99 pricetag may justify this creative endeavor.
Art, by its very nature and definition, is something that should be created for the purpose of appreciation. For many, art is something that, either via its formation or consumption, is a means to express, value, or understand emotion. Because we all experience and react to emotions differently, “art” means something different to each of us, and your response is intensely personal and intimate. You should not let critics interpret art for you; remember, anything that moves you can be art. This is my observation of Concrete Genie. Not only is the game full of beautiful art, but crosses the barrier of typical video game experiences to become an art project itself. The sentiments contained through this journey are characteristic of my personal development and I am grateful for the sensitivity for its developers. I don’t believe Concrete Genie will win any big awards, but it shouldn’t be passed up by fans of this specific craft.