Video Games as Art?

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4 Responses

  1. Zvi Rosen says:

    Interesting post (and hopefully enlightening to those who look down their nose at games). Two brief observations, a bit contradictory, that don’t quite do it all justice:

    Firstly, the lack of authorial control in a game is something of a myth, and Half-Life is a great example of this (I’ve not played 2, owing to time and system constraints). Going through Half-Life, especially for the first half of the game which is in underground passages, you are on a fairly linear path that the game’s designer’s have set you on. The trick is that it doesn’t feel like you are on a path, even if on reflection you notice you could only have gone forward that way. This also enabled the use of scripted sequences…scripts only work if you that the player will arrive at a certain place having already completed certain tasks. This holds true in the “Surface Tension” level discussed in the post as well…while finding that vent may have seemed fortuitous, the game design was meant to push you towards it. In fact, Surface Tension is commonly regarded as one of the greatest levels also because it managed to keep up the, err, tension in an open, aboveground, area, and ramp it up by using the added vulnerability of being in the open. This trend may be changing with more action-oriented “sandbox” games such as GTA, but most first-person shooters keep you on a rail, even if you’re not quite conscious of it (which was part of the joke of the Half-Life level “On a Rail”.

    On the flipside though, I think the criticism that games are not like movies only seems reasonable since movies are the most superficially similar pop-culture item. However, this criticism points out not only the greatest weakness of computer games, but also their greatest strength. Movies are a depictionary medium…art in its conventional form. The artist’s vision is presented to the viewer, whose interaction with the work is purely on a reactional level. Games, by contrast, are (shockingly enough) an interactive medium, in which the gamer does not merely react to the scenes presented, the gamer’s actions lead to them. While this limits the absolute power of the artist designing the work, it allows a depth of engagement movies don’t allow, and while this depth is hard to a acheive, especially in an ultimately immature medium, it has capacity to engage us in ways movies dare not, and many games have already done just that.

    A game has already been made which was little more than a series of vistas with little more than reaction from the player…it was called Myst, and was a dead end. The game paradigm has tremendous potential…let’s hope it’s used for more than brainless adolescent amusement (which of course most movies are also).

  2. Kornsac says:

    It’s unfortunate that we look to games to tell stories in the same manner as books and movies. Strict authorial control cannot offer choice, consequences, and deep involvement to an audience.

    Deus Ex is an example of a game that uses these strengths rather well. It is thought provoking in a way that a purely narrative story cannot be. It challenges the player’s notions of liberty and morality precisely because it offers choice. It allows the player to directly experience freedom and moral choice, so the theme is much more powerful than it would be if these things were discussed in terms of the actions of other characters.

    Game designers are able to choose how much freedom to give players, and this choice may be artistic as well as technical. A game can well guide players through a preconcieved story, but many of the smaller details are left to the player, rather than the author. It makes an experience unique to each person that plays the game.

    Games may not work as well for “good old-fashioned” storytelling, but for a designer who understands the use of player choice, a game can make a much more effective presentation of ideas than traditional non-interactive media.

  3. Bruce Boyden says:

    Zvi and Kornsac, great points.

    I agree that the amount of player choice in, e.g., Half-Life is subtly limited so that the player has the illusion of having a lot more freedom of movement than they in fact do. This allows the game designers to plot the overall journey and add in scripted sequences — they will always know where the player has been, where they are headed, and which direction they’ll be coming from. And I agree Half-Life does this very well (ironically, I think the illusion of freedom is preserved better in Half-Life than HL2). So the game designers clearly have a great deal of control over the way the game unfolds. But when it gets down to details — whether the scene I described becomes a “chase scene” or a long, hard slog — the game designers have very little control, beyond a few nudges. Partly I’m approaching this issue from a copyright perspective, and if you think of games as audiovisual works like movies, which courts traditionally have, one of the things that matters most is what appears on the screen. The level of detail Stanley Kubrick was seeking in the Shining is just not possible with video games, unless like in Myst player input is limited.

    One of the developments I expect to occur is that games will have multiple paths in the future. Open-ended games have been around at least since Elite, but they tend to have very little structure or overall narrative. It should be possible to build into one-player games, however, the type of structure that exists in MMORPGs, or for that matter, pen & paper RPGs — set pieces surrounded by large expanses of random monster generation. I’ve never played Deus Ex, but I’ve always wanted to for that very reason — and because I was a big fan of System Shock 2 and Thief, done by many of the same people. While that will be great for gameplay, I think it would reduce “authorial control” even further. That’s not a bad thing; it just means games are a different type of narrative exercise than films and literature.

  4. Daniel says:

    If you liked System Shock 2, you’ll love Deus Ex. Kornsac is right about the way the game challenges your views of freedom and allows you to choose different paths. At the same time, though, I felt like it was one of the more “cinematic” games I’ve ever played.

    The soundtrack for Deus Ex is also top-notch.