Subverting Expectations in Art

I’m always discovering more about why I love art and what makes a certain work of art stand out to me, and personally that’s one of my favorite parts about enjoying art. Over time I’ve found that I have really unique interests in the underappreciated areas of art, specifically the small details that often go unnoticed by others. I think these details often go unnoticed consciously, but have a huge impact on how we experience art, and that’s why I love to analyze and explore these details in order to better understand why a certain work of art feels the way it does. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about art that subverts the viewer’s expectations, whether it be a movie breaking the fourth wall, a game that has an artistic twist, or a song that features variations on a theme that take the listener by surprise. Eventually I would love to explore these concepts in all forms of art, but first I want to start with great examples from two of my favorite games: Journey and Monument Valley 2.


I talked about Journey in a previous post, in which I emphasized it as a game of quality over quantity. It’s an overall spectacular game, featuring a gorgeous color palette, emotional story-line, and a beautiful orchestral soundtrack. I was playing through it again recently when I rediscovered one of my favorite parts, in which the game takes this beautiful breathtaking moment to break its format and reveal itself as the work of art it is. The entire game is from a third person perspective, mostly limited to the back of the protagonist, except in this short and surprising scene where you’re surfing down sand dunes and suddenly enter a tunnel, where the camera pans over to display you in profile with this gorgeous and mystical cityscape laid out under a looming mountain and fiery orange sun. It really is breathtaking when you play the game; it comes out of nowhere, and evokes this feeling of pure serenity and awe that is completely unique to this game. The visual nature is perfectly complemented by a reprieve in the music, featuring a bittersweet cello representing the solitary character. It’s an incredible game as a whole, but I think this moment itself characterizes the entire artistic feeling of the game. Art is an emotional medium, and understanding how that emotion is conveyed is essential to understanding what makes it unique. In Journey, it’s this subversion of expectations and a fleeting moment of calm that forces the player to step back and evaluate how the game conveys emotion.


Another great example of art subverting expectations is Monument Valley 2. I’ve discussed Monument Valley before, specifically how it stands apart as a mobile game and how the soundtrack itself is a great example of thoughtful and well made ambient music. However, Monument Valley 2 does something special that the first doesn’t, and that’s including a variation of the theme, essentially breaking its own rules and forcing the viewer to rethink their understanding of the game. The entire game relies on ‘impossible geometry’, level design that is impossible in the real world, but stunning and satisfying in the minimalist world of Monument Valley. It’s 3D and geometric as a result, using an isometric style to make the impossible geometry possible, which in turn defines it’s artistic style and sets the expectations on how the game is played. However, in one sub-level of the game, seemingly out of nowhere, the game breaks its own format and the result is another breathtaking moment (that may sound dramatic, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that these details make me pause with appreciation and respect). Instead of following the expected 3D style, the level is suddenly in 2 dimensions. But that’s not all: interacting with the puzzle reveals the hidden nature of the level, in which a combination of clever 2D design and classic 3D impossible geometry provide jaw-dropping illusions and solutions. Not only is this surprise fascinating enough artistically, I love the self-aware shapes in the background that reveal their hidden dimensions depending on how the level is rotated. The designers clearly knew what they were doing, and since this is the only time this is ever done in the entire franchise, it doesn’t come off as cheap or gimmicky, but instead as an amazing artistic choice that sets Monument Valley apart as a work of art.

Hopefully I was able to explain how important these small details and artistic surprises are in developing the style of a work of art, and hopefully you can appreciate them as much as I do. I definitely recommend keeping an eye out for similar subversions in all fields of art; I think you’ll find that many of your favorite and most memorable pieces feature some element of artistic surprise.

Monument Valley

The history of mobile games is volatile at best, built on cheap gimmicks and popular trends, as seen in games such as Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, and Flappy Bird. Overall, mobile devices have long been abused and misused as mediums of quality artistic expression, lacking notable works of art and remaining barren of any significant creative expression. It is certainly not due to any inherent limitations of the medium; most modern smartphones can compete with modern laptops and computers relative to graphics and hardware capabilities, but more likely due to the precedents set by the first mobile game gold rush, started by simple, cartoonish games that relied on repetition in order to increase advertisement time. However, one game series stands apart from the rest in every single way: Monument Valley is a stunning and surprising work of art, featuring an amazing style, atmosphere, and complementary soundtrack, all relying on a simple yet endlessly fun and fascinating gameplay. Not only does it demonstrate the true artistic capabilities of the mobile medium and set the bar for future artists and developers, it does it all without relying on cheap ads and gimmicks.

Image result for monument valley game"I discovered Monument Valley when it was first released in 2014, as I was scrolling through the home page of the Apple app store. It was praised as a truly unique puzzle game of “impossible geometry”, and it featured a minimal yet beautifully crafted art style. It was actually the first mobile game that I paid money for, which was certainly unusual at the time, especially considering it was $2.99. In hindsight, I find it fascinating how quality mobile game studios are forced to sell their games so cheap relative to console games, which often range anywhere from $20 – $60, just because the mobile market is dominated by cheap games that depend on adds and in-app purchases. Needless to say, it was the best $2.99 I ever spent: since I first opened the game I couldn’t stop playing, I was completely immersed in the colorful and intricate world of Monument Valley.

The game relies on a simple tap to move mechanic, as the player tries to guide the protagonist Ida to the end of each maze-like architectural wonder. My favorite part is the clear care and detail that went into every level of the game (of which there are only 10 levels), as seen in the design, art style, atmosphere, accompanying soundtrack, and subtle plot that is developed throughout, as the player discovers more and more about this forgotten world of impossible geometry. Compared to other mobile games, its simplicity is its greatest strength: it features a few main characters, a simple mechanical concept, and puzzles that are challenging but never impossible. However, it sets itself apart in its quality and artistic craftsmanship, where each level is its own world, full of clever tricks and beautiful geometric design, which perfectly complements the game itself while also making every frame a work of art in itself.Image result for monument valley 2 game"

Monument Valley is entirely unique and deserves to be recognized as a work of art, just as significant as any great album or famous painting, if not more so for its role in breaking the expectation of what a mobile game has to be. It is not meant to be played endlessly and mindlessly, but instead appreciated and savored; it is not a pitiful attempt at money grabbing, but a beautiful artistic concept that was perfectly executed through the mobile medium. The developers continued to build on the exceptionalism of Monument Valley with Monument Valley: Forgotten Shores, and Monument Valley 2, which I both equally recommend (Monument Valley 2 deserves its own post, considering how it expands on the themes of the first game while completely revolutionizing its art style). I would love it if these games could receive more recognition, not only because they deserve it, but because they represent everything that mobile games should be.


The Lighthouse: A Master-Class in Immersion

 Immersion – A state of being deeply engaged or involved mentally

Last Friday I decided on a whim to go see The Lighthouse at the Michigan Theater; I’m a devoted fan of horror and thriller movies, and the trailer had peaked my interest a few months prior. I figured why not treat myself and go see a movie alone and get into the Halloween spirit. Based off of the trailer, I went into the movie expecting something terrifying and entirely unique; leaving the theater, I definitely felt like I had watched something unique, but I certainly wasn’t terrified. In fact, it’s hard for me to say whether or not The Lighthouse truly falls into the genre of horror; more likely it’s a psychological thriller. Hardly any scenes made me jump or frightened me, and in general there were more scenes where the entire audience was laughing, purely at the absurdity of certain situations. Needless to say, my feelings about the film were mixed, but after mulling it over for a while, I’ve started to understand that it had a much more profound impact than I first thought. Something was nagging at the back of my brain, something that made the film hard to forget, and the more I thought about it, the more I started to see why it’s so much greater than I first realized: because it creates this complete feeling of immersion that has you on the edge of your seat, holding your breath, and it achieves that incredible effect with so little flair.

The Lighthouse is entirely black and white and is presented in a square aspect ratio, much like classic movies or shows like The Twilight Zone (a personal favorite of mine). This gives it an aesthetic that stands out from other horror movies today, and was largely what peaked my interest when I saw the trailer. It feels so gritty and stylized, like an old documentary that was never released, which pairs perfectly with the story of two grizzly men keeping watch over a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean, completely stranded and abandoned. That grit creeps into the characters, especially the older lighthouse keeper Tom, played by Willem Dafoe, who completely embodies the idea of a sea-worn sailor. This pairing of visual style and complementary characters makes the story feel so authentic: even though it seems so far removed from reality, it felt like I was sitting at the table with them, eating dinner and being dragged into their arguments. I didn’t realize the effect while I was watching it, which I think is further proof of just how convincing it truly was.

In the end, it was the power of the movie to draw me in that made it horrifying: it felt like I was a part of this eerie, stormy world, and every small element of horror was amplified by the immersion. The music and sound design throughout was incredible, being constantly oppressive and bearing down on the audience like a great storm. The few moments of shock and surprise hit much harder than in a typical thriller; they completely threw me off balance, either in disgust or confusion, and then kept me off guard, never knowing what to expect next. I can appreciate those qualities more now, having discovered how subtle they were in the moment, but how long lasting the effects were because I was so enthralled at the time. I think that makes The Lighthouse special in a way that most movies aren’t: it presents the audience with something subtle, uncanny, and disturbing, and immerses them completely until only afterwards they realize the crazy roller coaster they just went on. Not only does this style set the film apart, it makes me want to go back and watch it again.


A Style is No Means to a [Tr]end

Not only in fashion, but in technology, language, behavior, and design, there is a clear distinction between trends and style. Trends are always changing, but style is timeless. Specifically in fashion, trends change with the seasons. New lines of clothing roll out in advertisements as the trees lose their leaves. As celebrities set new bars and companies put out new lines, trends dictate the decisions of society. Perhaps a ploy of a consumerism, trends keep people spending their time and money on conforming to the latest change. New smart phones slip into our pockets with trivial changes in speed or new aesthetic value to the interface, new shoes slip onto our feet as the laces make minuscule alterations, and new words slip between our lips as Internet and TV icons develop fresh lingo. There are stages to this construct, from ignition to burning out. Initially, influential members of society, be them celebrities or anonymous people we cross paths with, set the trend. They update the ever-changing indicators of what is relevant. These individuals or groups hold an incredible power of suasion, and once they define the new “in”–be it with intention or not–the new line is set for the masses. The second stage in the life-cycle of the trend is acceptance. Once adopted by the general public–or a specific community–the trend becomes commonplace. Those who embrace it are seen as aware, and those who do not are irrelevant. The third stage of the trend is death. Trends typically have a short life, but the process of death may vary in length. Sometimes, trends may perish overnight, but in others, the death may be a slow process of decay. Those who are trendy know when a trend is on the decline and jump ship to avoid the look of ignorance. This is the stigma trends create.

Style deflects this.

Styles is a matter of personal choice. True style can withstand the test of time and conditions, and while it may be influenced by both, it is dependent on neither. Style, be it in any industry–fashion, behavior, or design–is a form of expression and art and something that is eternal. It is an outward display of personality and originality and gives a unique edge over the masses who conform to the current trends. Styles cannot be “out,” and therefore, cannot ruin an image. In a broader sense, it is an immortality and speaks louder and stronger than any trend. While trends are means to an end, style is a sustained source of identity. Developing a style is a practice of developing character and forming something that cannot be destroyed. Although many styles may be created in physical mediums–things that can be lost or destroyed–the spirit behind the idea lives on.

Invest in style, it doesn’t go ‘out.’


Don’t get me wrong: I love art. But I don’t want to seek out art somedays. Currently it’s rainy and drab and nasty outside.

I prefer to become art.
Now this isn’t some pseudo (or real) hipster montage of postmodern thought about how all of us are performing our identities and subjectivity at all times, even though we are (ba-zing!), but rather “becoming-art” is a lifestyle choice that I’m very conscious about. I’m very aware about how my body can be positioned as, wear, or become art itself.
For example, at no time do I walk around without performing. I am either:
1) Singing/”Rapping”/Humming/Whistling to music. Which isn’t, hopefully, me as a white man taking up more space than I need to, but me as a bored white queer man who is sick of listening to the buzz and hum of cars and cookie cutter robot-peers. I’d rather be listening to Azealia Banks. Music and sound and noise is beautiful and, especially, when I’m mid-travel I need a little extra inspiration to get where I’m heading (and to forget about the looming drones).
2) Wearing ridiculous clothing. I am a huge fan of monochromatic aesthetics and gray as a way of being; however, there comes a point when the seasons shift, or die, and the sun seems to fade away into a palate of only white/gray/black. THIS MAKES ME SAD. So I cope by wearing neon prints with other stripes with other fabrics with leather with hats and scarves and giant earrings, and rainbow umbrellas. Becoming the overwhelming stimulus I try to avoid or cling to is comforting. When I know that it is myself that is obnoxious–I can handle that. The trees no longer lay claim to being that beautiful shade of emerald, the sky can’t brag that its really that sky-blue, fire can’t embody all that is red, but I can: all in one outfit.
3) Reciting quotes from my favorite books. At no point are there not lines from books circulating in the vast cavernous hole that is my mind. Because I read for the majority of the time that I’m awake, I find it nice to recite lines and share literature with the world! From Toni Morrison to Jesus to James Joyce to bell hooks to Vladimir Nabokov to you name it (or rather I’m a snob so I’ll stick to the people that I know). People always get confused when I tell them that I study English and Philosophy, so it’s nice when I can actually share how cool these areas are. How beautiful they are. How “AHHHHH” they are.
Now I’m not trying to say that everyone needs to be art all the time but I find it’s the way I cope best with being in Ann Arbor. It gets boring looking at the same white, hetero, temporarily able-bodied men in their polos, boat shoes, and pastel shorts–so I say, “liven it up!”

While it can be overwhelming being the art for the designated spaces I’m in, it is more comfortable to seek solace in groups.
Have nail painting parties–there is nothing more I enjoy than having sparkly middle fingers.

Have team shopping events or days where you swap clothing with your friends.

Have days where you and others can annoyingly match in terrifying ways.
Although I’m a broken record and constantly talking about how I’m art itself (. . .) I find it important to reemphasize that I’m glaringly semi-offensive to everyone’s eyes. The sensory overload that is myself is so important to who I am these days. I actively want to be a bit too much because being just enough is so banal.
As I come into senior year I realize more and more about how much I don’t care about most things in my day to day life. I care when and where and how I need and want to care. But other than that . . . I’m a canvas full of life ready to explode.

Trend-Setters or Trend-Stoppers?

I love high fashion. Ever since I was a pre-teen my obsession with foreign designers and unique style icons emerged, and I can’t seem to shake it. With high fashion comes trends that are transferred from the runway to the people around us (studs, color-blocking, ombre, etc.). Trends are great, they keep the youth of this generation flowing with creative ideas like decades of the past (70’s hippie, the 80’s, 90’s grunge, etc.). However, with the waves of trends and styles that drift in and out of our generation, I feel that we may never reach the heights that the 70’s or 80’s have reached.

The 80’s was a decade in fashion known for vibrant contrasting colors, excessive makeup, wild hair, and leggings (ah, where they were born). Since the beginning of the 21st Century, the trends that runways have produced and brought to the masses have yet to create a long-lasting stamp on the people of this time. We do have waves of trends that stay with us for a few months, but then something new sweeps the scene  and the trends that we’ve loved so much are forgotten and regretted.

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I suppose that’s a part of fashion, but I fear that there will never be such an iconic time again where a trend makes a mark on the world for a decade or more, and we all embrace expression through style.

We do have the hipster” trend that has kept its standing for a good year (oversize shirts, leggings/skinny jeans, loafers, glasses that you don’t need, etc.), but I’m not sure if it’s strong enough to make a statement for those who will look on this time in the future and think of style and its evolution.

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