Friday, April 24, 2015

Addendum: Interaction and Art

     In my previous post, I kind of glossed over my rationale for the artistry of games. It wasn't really the point of the post, or something I care to argue about - I was instead attempting to explore an example that confuses the interpretation of that artistry rather splendidly. After it came up in the comments section, however, I feel that omitting an explanation of my own was a mistake. This began as a reply, but got long enough that I opted to give it a post of its own rather than split it into several nested comments. Also, fair warning: wall of text ahead.

     The part of the comment that caught my interest is this:

"I toe the line of agreeing with Roger, as a programmer I certainly consider my work to be creative, but it falls short of art. Yet a completed game has tons of artistic elements, so I think it toes the lines as art."

     This a valid way of looking at games, totally. It really gets at the heart of the development process, too; there's level design, narrative composition, 3D modeling, texturing, sound production, approximately 23 septillion things relying on programming & math, and a myriad of other fields involved in the game making process. Sometimes it can be quite a. . .murky issue to classify these as art, but in many cases it really isn't - a beautiful painting is a beautiful painting, whether it's hung on a wall or displayed as the background in a platforming game. But while this is a valid interpretation, I don't think it's necessarily the best one. Let me attempt to explain why.

     I think it's helpful to ponder on what makes games so different from the other art forms. I mean really, what is it? They're certainly no more limited than a book is - Planescape Torment had some 800,000 words of dialogue, flavor text, and straight-up text narrative, and is often lauded more as an impressive literary accomplishment than any other kind. (Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a more recent example - I should really write about the superb prose in that game some time). Nor are games really more limited than film - indeed, many games practically are movies. Whether we're talking about the groundbreaking cutscenes in Warcraft 3, the identity crisis Call of Duty is going through, or David Cage's continuing crusade to just make movies and pass them off as games by releasing them on consoles - the cinematic scope of the medium is hardly in question. (Other examples include the 3rd and 4th Wing Commander games, which have hours of FMV with Mark Hamill). Music? We broke through that barrier in 2013 when Austin Wintory was nominated for a Grammy - and frankly, the exclusion of game soundtracks as "artistic" music has always been ridiculous, though perhaps that's just my opinion.

     My point is, why do these things alone not prevent games from being anything but art? They certainly contain art. We often refer movie soundtracks as art despite being contained in another medium, just as we do with certain book illustrations and so on. So why is it still in question that games are art? What is precluding them?

     The obvious answer, to me, is interactivity. That's what separates games from traditional media; you can do things with games in ways that could not even be dreamed of with film or with prose. This is why I've moved on from the straight comparison to books that I mentioned in my initial post. It's also why I think so many people have trouble picking a game to champion the medium as "art". It's because the "art" of a video game is so very different from the "art" of a book or a movie or a song.

     For example: Hotline Miami is a game I consider art, but not for anything apparent to an outside view. It looks ugly as sin - really, it's one of the most visually offensive things I've ever seen - and disgustingly violent. At a glance, it appears utterly puerile, distasteful, and disorienting. And yet, I consider it art because of how the player interacts with it. The fragility of both yourself and your enemies, the way violence serves as both the game's narrative backbone and as its primary antagonist, the fear, tension, thrill, and regret of beating a level - these are all things one can only really appreciate if they've actually played the game. More importantly, however, they are how the game tells its narrative. Hotline Miami's exploration of psyche (and psychosis) would be non-existent without interactivity; with it, the game has become something more meaningful - to me, at least - than Drive, the movie that served as one of its major inspirations (it's very much worth watching, by the way).

     I've written about this game at length before so I won't continue to wax poetic about it here, but the core idea I'm getting at is this: Interaction - the ways in which it is both freed and restricted - is the art of a video game. The narrative a game tells is not the one it forces you to sit through in arduously long cutscenes and reams of text, but rather the one you create as you play it. A "good" game, then, is one with meaningful interaction.

     Hotline Miami is good because it forces you to interact with it in a way that explores violence viscerally and valuably. Skyrim is good because of the range and freedom of your interactions - I've had entire five post emergent narratives come out of a single evening with the game. Most of the modern Call of Duty games, conversely, are "bad" games. Not because of the graphics or the plot or the fact that you shoot people; those may be good or bad, but they don't make or break the determination of the overall product, just as a good soundtrack can't fully save a bad movie (or a bad soundtrack fully ruin a great one). CoD is bad because the player's interactions aren't meaningful. You can get through the entire first mission of Black Ops without firing a single shot, the only option really provided to you. That's why it's a bad game.

     Something to point out here, in case you hadn't noticed: this is a really weird idea. Ludology - the more generally encompassing term for this concept of interactive narrative building - is actually becoming a fairly extensive field, but nonetheless it's not a very familiar one for most. This is what made E.Y.E such a. . .such an experience, I'll say, because it helped me remember how alien all of these concepts can be. As I said, its not unlike someone rearranging all the buttons on your web browser to random screen locations, and then replacing the icons with dwarven runes.

     To tie back into the initial post, this was something I felt Ebert realized in his revisitation of the subject. He didn't understand the experience of playing (or in the parlance I've been using, interacting with) a game, nor did he care to understand it. As such, he declared himself unable - and, again, unmotivated - to make a proper evaluation of their artistic potential. I think it's also one of the reasons his death had as large an impact on the gaming community as it did. While he may not have understood games, his thoughts on them - and the subsequent discussion - inadvertently got very close to what makes them special.

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