Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why Games Shouldn't Want To Be Art

There are currently a lot of phrases you should avoid when discussing video games in 2012. "Ludology" might be well on the way to being one: in a time where the upcoming slate of well-hyped AAA games include Mass Effect 3, Bioshock: Infinite, Halo 4, Max Payne 3, and Grand Theft Auto V, the "narratological" approach to games as easy and direct parallels to better-established forms of media (primarily film and theater) is enjoying a notable vogue. It speaks volumes that phrases like "the 'Citizen Kane' of video games" have been bandied about seriously in recent years with little to no humiliation on the speakers' behalves. This is turn points to the persistent hand-wringing over whether games are "art" or not; some still prickle at Ebert's original take from nigh on six years ago that they never can be.

But what does all this fervor point to? Where does the necessity to proclaim games as an high art-form, as a "legitimate" medium, stem from? And is it possible that he is not only right… but that it shouldn't matter?

As the generations of people who have grown up with access to video games has grown older, those who play them continue to wrestle with the old theme that video games are solely intended for children; while certainly this has been changing thanks to the inception of "casual gaming", the old bruises to our collective ego are certainly still raw. Being told that games can never be high art by someone who to many represents the 'old guard' of media criticism seems to almost directly target this sore spot; the natural response is to want games to be high art, to have some great counterexample to hold up to the world as a Great Work in the classical sense. Validation.
Commence two minutes hate!
So how would you go about that? Well, since the closest "acceptable" medium to games would be movies… let's all go copy that. Instead of all that "kids' stuff" about plumbers and hedgehogs saving princesses and scarfing chili dogs, we have to tell Important Stories That Matter! Hire Hollywood talent to voice act, chase realism in the graphics straight into the uncanny valley, include "adult" content and themes like sex and violence (but not in an exploitative, juvenile way!), and most importantly pare down stories to single, immovable linearity. Sure, players can have some "control", but if they ever get too much, it could never fit in the written script that the writers want to tell. And it simply would not do if we're to let the writers prove that their work can hang with the cool kids crafting screenplays and directing blockbusters.

The problem is that, well, to many people it doesn't seem to be working. One need only look back at the retrospective train wreck of Dragon Age II to see the dead end that this tack seems to be charging towards. Until computers are of the power to perfectly recapture the physical nature of the universe and the emotional capacity of real human people (like you'd see act in most films), there will likely always be that gap between video games and their ability to explore the human condition within the world laid out in their programming. There have been some interesting attempts like the faces-grafted-onto-marionettes Raymond Chandler antics of L.A. Noire and the everything-is-a-quicktime-event branching paths of Heavy Rain, but let's not mistake bold endeavors for achieving success.

If we choose Nolan Bushnell's Pong paddle as video games' Year Zero, we are looking at barely over 40 years of existing as a medium of expression, with much of that time coping with Moore's Law instead of exploring expressive capabilities. If we are intent on drawing parallels to film, then let's compare timelines there. Say the idea of a movie was similarly "born" 1878 with Eadweard Muybridge's experiment Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, documenting proof of horse in motion with all four hooves off the ground with 24 photos in rapid succession. Forty years on from that would land in 1918, two years after the release of the history-spanning silent movie (!) epic Intolerance by D.W. Griffith. (Yes, L.A. Noire had a generic first-person shooter sequence on the digitally remade ruins of that movie's film set.) Seminal first full-length "talkie" The Jazz Singer was still nine years out, and good old Citizen Kane another thirteen beyond that. Given those names and dates, I wouldn't complain if we retired any comparisons to Welles' masterwork until 2034.
This is just like Ocarina of Time where Epona-
Clearly, video games are still in a period of upheaval; mobile platforms, touch interfaces, movement-based controls, countless other experiments that have come and gone, and continuously improving software engines. But, as far as major developers are concerned the toolkit is complete, as if film had completed its ascendence with an dialogue-free black-and-white adaptation of the first half of Tarzan of the Apes. (You could even consider it the early 20th century equivalent a 'licensed product' maybe?) It's not a suggestion that any endeavors at meaningful work are a waste of time, but nobody knows if in 2021 we will achieve something as groundbreaking as "people's voices matching their lip movements for a whole movie" and make us realize how limited the tools we have truly are.

What's most worrisome is that, rather than approaching games as something new, a great deal of those who we look as the new class of auteurs in "indie developers" are going through the same aspirational phase of a little girl playing dress-up in her mother's clothing. While it's unfair to expect the format to age in exactly the same way or avoid including other influences, one can't help but get the impression that there is ample room left to explore within the constructs available now, and that retreating into nostalgia or deconstruction could possibly be premature.

The trend to force video games into premature adulthood is nowhere more obvious that in some samples of journalism. What makes something like Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf worth fawning over? In the rush to claim dibs on crowning the next of indie gaming's cognoscenti, we get treated to a long lead-in declaration that games are quite clearly already art and that they are so highly-evolved that those who break the foundational principles of being "readily comprehensible" or "not irritating" are bold auteurs.
Hey, their lyrics, not mine...
It's arguable that the very existence of KDFW proves that gaming has attempted to race so far ahead of itself and adopt aesthetics several levels beyond its good graces; to have faux-retro graphics, something should theoretically be old enough to be well-ensconced. What many would consider to be the distinguishing line between a "new style" and an "error" would be a mastery of the practices being done away with, and anyone who writes phrases like "user-unfriendly", "haywire logic", and "corrosive" as praise obviously thinks that criteria has been met. It seems like a cruel joke that the game's creator would be congratulated for his work as daring to think differently instead of just being an annoying derivative of the WarioWare series with a coat of intentionally garish pixel art by some dude who really likes reheated 80's pop culture leftovers. Let credit be given where it's due: the same review also includes the following sentence: "Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf will hardly become anyone's go-to argument in favor of games-as-art - hell, it's not even a good game by any conventional measure."

So here we are, not even half a century into the life of this medium's life and we're already trying to make it act like its older brothers and/or tear it apart. We do everything we can to the stories, the soundscapes, and the visual aesthetics in an effort to legitimize our passions to outsiders; we're trying on everything single visual or cultural influence on the rack and hoping we find one that fits. What could we be missing? Where could the answer lie?

If you ask me (and let's pretend you do), it's because none of these arms of the narratological approach hold the answer. Video games, to me, have the power to be something altogether different; rather than attempt to emulate other mediums (and fail) by playing to their strengths, it seems like the best choice is to focus on what sets games apart, and to be proud of that distinction and draw our strength from those unique powers. We should not let people who would rather be pulp novel writers tell the tales that matter to us, but instead look for developers and programmers that give us spaces and systems where we create our own stories through our actions and interactions.
Do people come back to Super Mario Bros. and it direct platforming descendants for the thrill of saving a woman from a dragon… turtle… thing… or the joy of getting to a level's end from their own ability to play, the control and feel of the way Mario leaps through the air and responds to the buttons you press? Is completing a raid boss in World of Warcraft satisfying because you defeated another of the countless subordinates of this patch's threat to Azeroth's safety… or because you and your friends had the skill to overcome a challenge set up in the rules of the game? I would suggest the latter in both cases. Video games, as multimedia constructs, can do other things, but its the machinations of the game that are their greatest asset by virtue of their largely unshared power.

And so after this long and winding path, we again run up against Ebert. Should games be put on the same pedestal as movies? No, certainly not. Games have a unique and vital power all their own; to entertain, to reveal how we react to the world, and to serve as stages for human tales played out by participants. And the number of people who would join in is growing all the time, and the ways to do it are getting more varied, thanks to those who see the wonder inherent to games and new ways to play them. Our true heroes should be, and often are, those who can bring out the joy of feeling in control, of being a participant and not just a passive observer.

Here's to hoping the majors relearn to love games for being games; the sooner, the better.


  1. When thinking about the relationships between traditional media and games, games and art, I'm always reminded of Marcel Duchamp's quote: "I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art - and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position."

  2. Thanks for writing the article I've been meaning to write for a while now. As I've begun to focus less on console games (though I still love 'em, don't get me wrong) I find myself turning to small Flash games to get my gaming fix. Obviously lacking in the budget department, most of these games necessarily are completely dependent on gameplay. It's apparent that, with the big boom in mobile and Facebook games, people like video games most when they're being games, and it certainly will be entertaining when the companies with huge budgets can again make that work in their favor.

    I do think that the current style of "storytelling" games can have their place, though I think the most successful ones are the ones that can reach out to the player in a way that books or movies can't. This dimension is a little more difficult than having a customizable avatar, but the games that get it right can be magic.