Games as art: the deeper issue

My friend Simon just wrote his opinion on whether games should be considered art. I wrote a wordy response to it, and I either planned to or already have written my opinion on whether games should be considered art. It doesn’t matter.

DISCLAIMER: I’m going to be awesomely ageist here, for (I believe) good reason. Also, please note that someone is “old” to me when they start acting “old.” You can be an old fuddy-duddy at 10, and young at 100. It’s a mindset, not a physical thing, mkay?

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I’ll remove the cause… but not the symptom!

I admit. I was listening to my original Roxy Cast recording of the Rocky Horror Show (the one where it’s impossible to tell the difference between Janet, Columbia and Magenta), so I couldn’t help this title.

What I actually wanted to talk about is a bit of short-sightedness in regards to dealing with new media and bullying of behalf of well-intentioned parents and grandparents.

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Branches vs Stakes

Oh, how wonderfully witty and punny of me.

Anyway. I was talking to my friend on Tuesday night, and we were discussing Bioshock. What was interesting was that he said something like, “I don’t know, I didn’t like it because it lacked what I liked the most in System Shock. You basically can never die because there are health stations everywhere. It wasn’t scary.” I asked him whether he meant that, in System Shock, the stakes were higher, and therefore there was a real fear that you’d lose. This was exactly what he meant.

While personally I am a big fan of “safe,” linear use-your-brain-puzzle-solving-adventure games with witty dialogue, I completely understand what he’s getting at. Once, games were hard. Really hard. They were scary (and not being they had horror themes): they filled you with adrenaline, and while the loss was frustrating and disappointing, the win was less “epic” and more “masterly.” There was a struggle, and there was eventual success. I do need to clarify that I’m not talking about games that are so dicky and tricky that it’s almost impossible to play in the first place, though. I’m talking about games where the stakes were high: you had a lot to lose.

Recently, Peter Molyneux has… well, gone back on his advocacy of branching storylines, emergent gameplay, multiple endings etc. He says that people get annoyed when they feel they’ve “missed out” on parts of the story, simply because of a choice they made. Hmm, that sounds like good ol’ anagnorisis and peripetea to me! But I think this really touches on a mistake made by a number of developers.

I don’t think people need more choice or agency within the storyline of the game. Sure, branching narratives sound cool, but they basically boil down to an electronic choose-your-own-adventure book. Wait.. “book”? Shock! Horror! Games aren’t allowed to be like any other type of pre-existing media, are they? Well, apparently they are… hence branching narratives.

But what about situations where it’s so important that you do things right (ie, succeed in achieving the win-conditions), that you actually become so immersed due to the game gradually building to extremely high-stakes? Psychologically, he higher the stakes, the greater the payoff. The more options, the greater the chance of feeling “ripped off” by the “wrong” choice (I put these in scare quotes as these are both emotionally-driven, personal responses that may have nothing to do with the actual storyline, events, or writer/designer’s intentions). Statistically, we are happier when we have less options, less room to move, less potential we can potentially fail to realise. Once a peasant, always a peasant. Game didn’t quite go the direction you’d hoped? Oh well, time to go plant some seeds (aka, write some fanfic).

Old Media Envy

Much of the writing in the ludologist tradition is unduly polemical: they are so busy trying to pull game designers out of their “cinema envy” or define a field where no hypertext theorist dare to venture that they are prematurely dismissing the use value of narrative for understanding their desired object of study.

– Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.

But if these designers have “cinema envy” (and trust me, there are so many who don’t), then I think the designers and academics who praise Emergence above all else actually have a severe case of Tabletop/LARP envy. Or maybe even envy of those kids who, free of the constraints of adult behaviour and sports with rules, construct and morph their own experience for a variety of purposes. And I just don’t understand why that’s any better or more legitimate than envying the other screen arts.

Game, or Electronic Exhibit?

I don’t believe that highly-realistic, well researched/thought-out/fleshed out game worlds immediately lead to a more immersive, captivating, enjoyable experience for a gamer. To me, something like this isn’t a game, it’s an electronic exhibit. Why would I want to go to one? I walk around, I look, I get bored, I leave. Maybe, if I’m lucky, something about that world makes me feel safe. It becomes like listening to music. But again, this is not a game.

Irrespective of that, there exists some narrative, some plan, some fantastical argument which is made to communicate meaning. Some things are grouped together, others are not: this forms connections in my mind as I make the effort to read into and understand this constructed reality. And constructed it is. No one delusional or over the age of seven believes it to be a real place. At best, we imagine and hope it is real, and through this, we can convince ourselves of it. We will indulge in this fantasy. But it is not real, we know it isn’t, and we leave when our need for that experience is met.

There is nothing wrong with constructing that mood (in fact, I believe “mood” is paramount to the enjoyment of a game), and it can be addictive to those who enjoy it. But denying the game in favor of the spectacle becomes like a bad play with really good set, costumes and props. It might be interesting , but is it really engaging?