Video Games Are Not (the same kind of) Art

I love Joe Hill.  He’s one of my favorite writers, and though I did discover him through his father (a relationship he initially worked very hard to keep quiet, at least until he’d established himself as a legitimate author in his own right), I’ve come to really enjoy his work.  Not to mention his presence on social media, especially Twitter.

[Insert beat here about how Twitter is hardly intended to be a place for nuanced discussion, which is something Joe has commented upon himself a number of times.]

Which is why it pains me to take him so to task for something he was talking about in his tweets earlier this week.  He attacked video games as an art form, talking comprehensively about their potential to be a true art form—minimal, in his opinion—and not just in terms of their current execution, but in the possibilities of the medium overall.

So here’s where I come in; let’s dance.

There were a whole series of tweets, some responding to other people’s comments, others just expanding on his original point, but the most critical one said this:

Which is how I start off more from a place of disappointment, rather than entirely anger.  He doesn’t realize that he’s contradicting himself…or else he’s making a wildly broad comment about the limits (or lack thereof) of basic-level processes, methodologies, and mediums for Art as an entire thing.  And he’s never demonstrated hubris at that absurd magnitude before.

So I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, that he was just riffing in 140 characters or less, and didn’t realize that the more accurate, less pontificating version of what he said is:

The core point being:  no, there’s no way that a game will ever provide the same kind of intense connection with its audience that a novel will.  It will be different, because it’s a different art form, and interacts with the audience in a different way.  Even books and movies give entirely different kinds of impacts on their audience.  As does music (and even different kinds of music) and sculpture, and dance…  Isn’t that kinda the key distinction between the different forms of art, even more so than the medium by which it’s conveyed?

Now, the intensity of that impact…?

The thing is, I could have agreed with the implication of that original statement if it had been qualified by a temporal perspective, or even if that temporal perspective had been entirely left out of the equation.  But unfortunately, a few tweets later, he went there:

And

And that’s ultimately, what set my fingers to typing here.

We’ll start off first by further exploring whether or not games are capable of having the same intensity of impact that other mediums can have.

(The answer is “yes”, by the way.)

True, there are plenty—nay, an abundance…nay, the vast, overwhelming majority of games released to date operate at best at a barely-juvenile level of artistic complexity and aspiration.  Even the most story-driven of the most ambitious games clock in with a narrative and artistic impact upon the audience on par with the bottom feeders of the straight-to-paperback publishing market, or network prime-time television.  Often with high production values, but I’m honestly just happy if a game makes basic coherent sense when playing through it.  Most don’t.

And yet, there are games that blow so far past any lowered expectations for the art form in their execution and delivery, it can leave my head spinning.  Just a few examples:

Bioshock

The game is beautifully made, with great gameplay, and honestly, that’s most of what I would ever ask from my time playing one. Then, about 2/3’s of the way through, there’s a twist:  you find out that the disembodied voice that’s been guiding you through your adventure is actually the villain.  And he’s brainwashed you to carry out his nefarious plans by manipulating your basic expectation to follow commands if given in a certain way.  You know, like what you’re supposed to do in a video game.  He hasn’t just been manipulating You the character, he’s been manipulating You the gamer.

Limbo

A very simple game that takes the core concept of video games—attempt to accomplish certain goals, many of which you’ll often fail on the first attempt, but don’t worry, you’ll be reset to just before that goal and given another chance to succeed, and then another, until you finally complete that goal, then it’s on to the next—and views it through the prism of the Sisyphean approach to purgatory (thus the name of the game), comparing your repetitive, standard actions in playing a game of any kind to the endless, pointless suffering intended for those too good for hell but too bad for heaven, and wraps it all up with a narrative that doubles down on that meta-perspective in a profound, thought-provoking, yet ultimately depressing manner…but the gameplay is so good, you keep playing anyway.

Heavy Rain

Okay, most of this game is wildly ambitious, and sadly ultimately fails to fully realize just about all of those ambitions, but there are a few moments that exceed them brilliantly.  One of those is a sword fight…but not with an enemy, it’s with your (the main character’s) son, using toy swords in the backyard.  It’s a sweet scene, a dad playing with his kids, and then, all of a sudden, up come the standard button prompts, a quicktime event, and when I first encountered it, my gamer instincts took over, and I successfully deflected a few attacks before landing a strike…on my son.  And it hurt.  And I realized, the point of this portion of the game—if you’re approaching the role-playing as a loving father trying to do good by his kids—is to not win.  To intentionally lose.  To put the controller down.  That was the intended way to experience this part of the game:  to not play it.  And it was so effective, I had to not just put the controller down but pause the game and try to wrap my head around what had just happened.

—————

These are only a few examples; there are plenty of others (though not as many as any fan of video games would like…they’re more the exception than the rule, still).  And what they all have in common is that they’re not trying to emulate the methods of other forms of art to achieve a similar result.  What they do is acknowledge the fundamental underpinnings of this specific art form, and build upon those to create an artistic high-water point that is unique to this form.

Can you imagine a book, or a movie, or a piece of music, where the best way to experience it (in a non-sarcastic way) is to put it down, or turn it off, and deliberately engage with it in the exact opposite of the way the medium is supposed to work?

I will agree with Joe—whether he intended this or not—in the notion that games will never have the same kind of impact that other forms of art have if they try to directly emulate them.  But when they embrace what games are, and approach serious artistic goals from that starting point, the possibilities are just as endless as with any other form of art.

The other point I wanted to take him to task on was his comment about how mature the medium is.  Because, mistaken-application of Moore’s Law aside, the particular comparison point he used isn’t about the maturity of the art itself, it’s about the technology of the production and presentation medium.  And his comparison, in those terms, fails.

The more fair comparison would be that Pong is to Skyrim as A Trip to the Moon is to Ben Hur.  Yes, Skyrim and other games released today are very impressive but so was Ben Hur compared to the silent, black and white, single-stage first movies ever made.  Knowing what technology is still to come—not just from publicly-available demos of tech that’s already in use, but also from extrapolating beyond that 5 or 10 years into the future—games down the line will make Skyrim look like Ben Hur does today:  not as crude as origin-state fidelity, but flat and cartoonish compared to what’s yet to come.

But there’s an even more fundamental error with his comparison beyond just what benchmarks he’s using:  he ascribes the maturity of an art form to the fidelity of its production and presentation.  Which is incorrect.

My revised benchmarks hold even more water here.  Although you could encounter artistically-mature films as early as a few years after the medium was invented—Nosferatu, Metropolis, etc.—even after the technology had evolved well beyond that state, most films were attempting to hide their lack of anything more than basic narrative coherence and one-dimensional characters behind high production values and bombast.

Same with games.  I’d put Zork up against any game made today, in terms of a fundamentally-profound impact upon its intended audience, but the vast majority of games made since then are simplistic affairs, luring people in with addictive gameplay (an activity, not an art, when taken by itself) the same way that movies would lure people in with air conditioning and popcorn.

Because it’s never been the impressiveness of the technology that has defined the maturity of an artistic endeavor.  The bleeding edge is seldom much more than spectacle.  The real innovations in any art form happen in the wake of that bleeding edge:  as the shiniest and most impressive “toys” get shinier and more impressive, the “current” level of tech does one important thing:  it becomes cheaper, and more accessible.

Although there are a number of factors that contributed to the golden age of cinema—the 60’s and 70’s—from the maturation of a post-war generation, to the increasing awareness of people as a planet-wide species…one of the most overlooked factors was that the cameras and lights and editing apparatus and everything else that goes into making a movie with sufficient presentation qualities to be taken seriously was suddenly affordable without requiring the apparatus and economical reserves of a studio behind it.

Easy Rider wasn’t made in the 50’s not because there weren’t artists and storytellers with the mentality that would understand, envision and appreciate it, but because none of them would have been able to get the financing and support structure to get it made.  But by 1969, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper could rent two trucks, a couple of motor cycles, a motor home, and some cameras, and make the whole thing themselves.

And that’s the portion of the story of video games that hasn’t happened yet.  Once games passed out of its infancy (where, much like movies, the novelty of the art form itself was sufficient to outweigh that the productions were low-budget affairs born from a few, dedicated pioneers), with only a few exceptions—like Limbo, listed above, or things like Journey—games have and continue to be the purview of giant teams of people with the financial resources to support them for months, even years.

But we’ve finally reached the point where the current technology is sufficiently capable that, over the next several years, as even more powerful technology gets more impressive (and expensive), the current level of technology will become more affordable and accessible.  Some of the things I’ve already seen—Minecraft being the very front edge of the vanguard of even more amazing things yet to come—are going to open up the art form to artists determined to push the boundaries of what’s possible, not just to gather enough financing.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s on the way…and am pretty sure that even Joe will be glad to stand with me in 15 or 20 years and look back on the golden age of games, when they finally matured into their own, potent art form, and celebrate the blessings that art has given to us as a people.

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