Are video games art?
It’s a question that’s been bandied about for decades now. Late film critic Roger Ebert famously disputed the notion, stating in a 2007 online debate with writer Clive Barker, “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist…Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.” Ebert’s position is easy to dismiss as the product of contrarianism or outmoded sensibilities. It does make a certain degree of sense in light of the unilateral nature of a non-interactive medium like film, however. Consider a production like 1980’s The Shining. Master cinematographer John Alcott’s eerie, claustrophobic framing of the Overlook Hotel elevates a series of otherwise ordinary sets and exteriors into what feels like a proper character deserving of top billing alongside Nicholson and Duvall. If we were to somehow grant each and every viewer of The Shining the ability to pan and zoom the cameras in real time, Alcott’s award-winning art would be obliterated in an instant.
As for me, I’d always been a “rose by any other name” sort with little stake in the controversy. Whatever they are, video games have been a source of fascination and joy for me for as long I can remember. Surely that’s enough? This all changed recently when I encountered one singularly rich and challenging work.
Published exclusively in Japan by Media Ring Corporation, 1992’s Toilet Kids for the PC Engine may appear to be that most unexceptional of things: A basic vertical shooter that takes heavy cues from Namco’s Xevious. Some have gone so far as to call it a crude, low-effort clone of a nearly decade-old classic. Well, what if I told you that Toilet Kids, despite being one of the worst-reviewed PC Engine releases, is actually a complex, uplifting synthesis of psychology, philosophy, and mysticism?
Toilet Kids is ostensibly the story of a small boy (and his girl counterpart in the two-player simultaneous mode), who finds himself sucked down the loo during a late night bathroom run. He’s then compelled to pilot a flying toilet in hopes of liberating a magical land from a motley array of feces flinging opponents. Disembodied penises spray urine, hippos emerge from the rivers to belch caustic clouds, and reindeer fire triple spread volleys of poo pellets. Our hero’s only defenses over the game’s four notably short stages are a charge shot effective against airborne foes and short range bombs for the grounded ones.
With a premise like this, it’s plain to see why Toilet Kids has long been dismissed as so much juvenile schlock. Predictably, there are few, if any, who have undertaken any real analysis to determine why the game’s creators seized on such scatological subject matter in the first place. This is an oversight I intend to correct here and now.
To begin with, the choice of a young child as protagonist is, in this context, an obvious allusion to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. Freud described this as a five stage process beginning in early childhood. Each stage culminates in a conflict of sorts, the successful resolution of which contributes to the formation of a healthy personality. Conversely, failure to cleanly resolve a psychosexual conflict can result in neurosis. In particular, I direct your attention to the anal stage, the second of Freud’s five. The conflict here is toilet training itself. A child able to balance the instinctual eliminatory demands of the body with parental and societal expectations of self-control is primed to become a confident and productive adult. Trauma at this stage gives rise to so-called anal-expulsive and anal-retentive types instead.
Freud’s various theories have, of course, been widely challenged. Regardless, his was one of the most influential minds of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Even people unacquainted with formal psychoanalysis are familiar with terms and concepts like the id, ego, Oedipus complex, Freudian slip, and so on. The central narrative of Toilet Kids dovetails too neatly with the Freudian line for it to be mere coincidence.
Having now identified Toilet Kids’ central theme as the nascent personality’s struggle for self-realization, an enigma still remains: Why focus on the anal stage? What’s so important about bodily waste that the developers saw fit to literally plaster almost every screen of the game with it? To answer this, I need to shift gears from modern Western psychology to ancient Eastern philosophy. Specifically, to Taoism. This Chinese school of thought is predicated on the existence of the Tao, or Way, a sort of intangible natural order that shapes and directs the manifest universe. By studying the Tao and conducting his or her life in harmony with its operations, the practitioner can achieve enlightenment. Because it is effectively omnipresent, Taoist writers make a point of emphasizing that the Tao dwells even in objects and places shunned by most people. Take this except from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu as translated by Burton Watson:
“Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, ‘This thing called the Way – where does it exist?’
Chuang Tzu said, ‘There’s no place it doesn’t exist.’
‘Come,’ said Master Tung-kuo, ‘you must be more specific!’
‘It is in the ant.’
‘As low a thing as that?’
‘It is in the panic grass.’
‘But that’s lower still!’
‘It is in the tiles and shards.’
‘How can it be so low?’
‘It is in the piss and shit.'”
This identification of the Tao, the most revered divine power, with the discarded and reviled has direct parallels in another esoteric discipline of old: Alchemy. Though the practice is nowadays typically associated only with the fabled conversion of lead into gold, the medieval alchemist believed that all matter was endowed with a spiritual spark and contained within itself the seed of its own perfection. The most storied example of the alchemical process is no doubt the philosophers’ stone, a miraculous substance which could, among countless other things, cure any disease and confer immortality. The creation of the stone was a years-long endeavor beginning with the selection of the correct prima materia (“first matter”). In the ultimate expression of the transformative principal mentioned above, this raw material was rumored to be a lowly, commonplace thing. I think you see where this is headed. Yes, the alchemists would often begin their experiments with flasks of urine or dung. Perhaps they reasoned that something so viscerally disagreeable held the most room for improvement and thus the final product would be all the more sublime for it.
Having now reached the conclusion of this exercise, I feel I’ve arrived at a reasonably complete picture of Toilet Kids as an artistic statement. Its young hero’s journey is an archetypal psychodrama of becoming as told through the metaphor of a bare bones PCE shooting game. His triumph over the enemy’s excremental onslaught represents nothing less than the alchemic transmution of his own base elements into something altogether more rarified, in accordance with the most subtle yet powerful of universal laws.
The dictionary defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” While Toilet Kids may not rate as beautiful or appealing for most of you, I trust you’ll now agree that its significance is anything but ordinary.
April fools! This game is shit, y’all.