This is going to be a long article, so I'm splitting it into two sections. The second section will hopefully go up in a few days.
Part 1: Motivations and That God-damned Question
For a long time, I’ve somewhat sidestepped the ‘Games as Art’ debate by saying ‘I believe games can be art, but they aren’t there yet. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with people of differing views and approaches on the topic, the net result of which has been to challenge my preconceptions about the medium.
In thinking about this, I’ve discovered why I took this stance: the debate of whether games are art or not is, for the most part, not a constructive debate, but a clashing of perspectives which echoes between interested parties. As such a charged debate, it doesn’t facilitate the creation of new ideas, instead preferring to take an existing game and argue over whether this particular game should be considered art.
In effect, I’m not so interested in the question ‘Are games art?’ as I am in the question ‘What can we do to help games gain a greater artistic value and elegance as we move forward?’
Because at the end of the day, art or not, the way we make games is lacking some basic properties that we find commonly in other media we definitely consider as art.
In this article, I’ll be exploring these differences and pointing out directions that games can (and hopefully will) go in the future. I’ll then look at games as a medium and make a judgement on their ability to be art.
But whichever way I feel about this, the message that comes from this article shouldn’t simply be that I chose one side or the other, but that games do have a long way to go as a medium, and that distance can only be covered by designers who choose to explore new methods of interaction and storytelling.
Part 2: What is a Game?
So in order to properly analyse the medium, we first need to know what a game is. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use ‘games’ to mean ‘video games’ for the sake of brevity. This is also going to include any ‘interactive fiction’ and ‘interactive art’ that people might call what is essentially a game.
The first thing to notice is that games have two parent media: they are, essentially, a marriage between board games (which includes everything from Chess to pen and paper RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons) and film (which includes television, short films and anything else that has audio and video and no interaction).
To understand what games are inheriting from these parents, it’s important to understand the major properties of these media.
The outcomes of board games are usually divergent, with different play leading to a different winner or game ending. The developer of the board game (as distinct from the GM in the case of a roleplaying game) usually does not attempt to control the story or implant any specific thematic content into the board game past what is required to justify the gameplay.
A film, however, is completely controlled by its director, who crafts the story in order to tell a specific story and to help the audience reach certain ideas.
The extent to which games inherit properties of these two media changes with each game: there is a spectrum between Board Game and Film on which games can lie. Games such as Bejeweled, Facebook Scrabble or the Sims are lie on the board game end of the spectrum, while story-heavy games such as Fahrenheit and Half-Life 2 fall on the film end.
Part 3: The Cracks
Now whether board games in themselves are art is a fascinating and separate discussion I’ll be discussing a bit further on, but its clear that there isn’t universal consensus on the topic. So I want to look at games in relation to established art forms, such as film, literature and painting.
There are three aspects of all these media that games do not possess. Firstly, the mediums meaningfully deal with a broad range of genres. Film, literature and painting all encompass genres ranging from action, suspense and horror to romance, comedy and feel-good (and countless more besides).
So far, games can do the first three of these well, and I’ve seen some good examples of comedy. And while you see romance in games (there could be a whole debate about whether it is dealt with meaningfully), it is always a side-plot in an action or suspense-based game. Essentially, where is the gaming equivalent of a Romantic Comedy or a Musical?
When I say this, I realise that every so often, a genre that doesn’t involve death and violence is well utilised (Façade was a good example), and I take this to be both an encouraging look to the sheer potential of games as well as a reminder that we shouldn’t use a lack of technology as an excuse not to try. We aren’t used to designing games in this way, so it will be difficult to get it right the first time, but if we do, we might be able to make games a more rounded medium (not to mention the massive untapped markets for the business people out there).
The second crack may be closed with improved technology, and that is the concept of widespread accessibility. All films are accessible to anyone that can see, hear and understand a specific language. All books are accessible to anyone with the required literacy skills. Directors and writers will play with the rules of writing or film-making, but the rules required for a base understanding are the same for every book or film.
This is simply not true for games. Every game has different rules required to play them. We need to present these rules to the player and teach them the rules before they can reach any understanding of what is happening. If we want to change the rules to create a different feel to a game partway through, we have to teach the player the new rules. This training requirement is a huge limitation to narrative game design, as the narrative must allow for training wherever it is necessary (and as awesome as Portal was in making this training mode a part of this story, there are a lot of stories which don’t work in that same way).
There is a definite design challenge in creating games where instructions are not necessary. I think that more natural controllers will improve this, but we still need to design games to make the effects of these controllers incredibly intuitive before we start to reap the benefits (the Wii, for instance, has not reaped these benefits).
The final crack is an incredibly important in our understanding of games as a possible artform, and it involves the concept of elegance. As a general principle, a decent example of a film, novel, poem, painting or sculpture will contain some sort of elegance within its components, wherein different components will complement each other. The pacing of the Da Vinci Code complements its plot. The music of Iron Man will complement the editing style. Note that I’m choosing works here that are not considered to have a huge amount of artistic value on purpose: this is a property of most effective works in the medium, not of the few very notable works.
In games, my general observation is that we’re becoming pretty good at getting the cinematic aspects of a game to complement each other (art, story, writing), and we’re very good at creating complementary aspects from board games (mechanics, level design, learning curves etc.), but these two aspects rarely complement each other. As with the genres example, there are a few standout examples which achieve this (Portal, Braid, and to an extent, Bioshock). Interestingly, these games have all done stunningly well commercially.
The repair of these three cracks aren’t necessarily going to determine whether games are art or not, but the exploration of them will certainly create some new and exciting game designs and push games that aren’t bejewelled into a more ubiquitous role in society.
That’s all for today. Next time: What is art? Are games art? Will I get lynched? Stay tuned for answers to all these questions and more!
Recently, I’ve come across an interesting expression of Hollywood cinema as a form within which works have a set of four simple characteristics:
- Concealment of decision making (a.k.a invisibility of the film-making process.
- Subordination of style to story (a.k.a stylistic aspects are utilised to tell story as opposed to being important in their own right)
- Style reinforces reality effect (a.k.a immersion and realism within the film world)
- Reality effect rests on centring and continuity (in both a macro and micro sense: for instance, a cut between two places where a similar action is occurring in the centre of frame creates a sense of simultaneity of events)
These four characteristics are used in most Hollywood films, across a range of genres, quality and popularity.
So the question is: how do games stack up? Do they utilise these characteristics, and more importantly, do we want them to? 1. Concealment of decision making
In terms of films, the decision making which needs to be concealed involves any aspect which calls undue attention to the fact that the film is designed, which would therefore create a disconnect between the viewer and the world being viewed.
If we apply this principle to games, the parallel is the opacity of game mechanics. Games whose game mechanics are transparent, and which encourage the exploration of the nature of these mechanics, are displaying the decision making process for all to see (similarly to films, as soon as you think about how the game works in order to master it, a disconnect is created between yourself and the game).
This transparency applies heavily to RTS and RPG games, which wear their rules on their sleeves. It needs to be noted that for many modes of play, a transparency of game mechanics is required
to make those mechanics work. Starcraft would never have become the phenomenon that it did, had it not been for the ability of players to understand the base components that drove it, and thus strategise it. But doing so sacrifices much of the connection to the story and emotional content that the player might have.
In this, we see direct competition between the two media that lead to the development of games: film and board games. So the question becomes: when making a piece of interactive fiction, how do we choose between transparent and opaque gameplay?
In some ways, we have to admit that we cannot make gameplay completely opaque. If interaction exists, a player will try to understand the nature and workings of that interaction.
An interesting case here is the RPG – in particular, the JRPG. These games separate a mechanics-heavy combat phase from a story-heavy exploration phase. This allows the player to connect emotionally to the story, but ensures that gameplay still exists (I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it doesn’t suffer, as a lot of JRPG’s have fairly simple gameplay). 2. Subordination of Style to Story
If you look at films from the Hollywood vein, you almost invariably find that the stylistic aspects throughout the entire film are designed to service the story. This has a similar effect to the invisibility of decision-making: to create immersion in the narrative
of the film (as opposed to immersion in its inherent beauty and style).
In terms of games, we first need to decide whether gameplay is a stylistic aspect. It can be argued that while films have two major components: style and story; games have three: style, story and gameplay. This leaves us with two options when discussing a gaming equivalent to the Hollywood idiom: we can either see style as being subservient to both story and gameplay; or we can see gameplay to be an aspect of style, which then should be subordinate to story.
In either case, games are becoming increasingly proficient at utilising non-gameplay style to serve story. So the remaining questions are: do we use non-gameplay style to serve gameplay; do we use gameplay to serve story; and should we do either?
Non-gameplay style is often used to justify gameplay (sword-fighting is found in fantasy games, Portal
was set in a lab to justify an experimental portal gun), but I have trouble of thinking of an example where non-gameplay style actively enhances
gameplay and our connection to the gameplay in the way that style enhances story in Hollywood films (I am open to suggestions here as I think this would be a fascinating study).
In most games, gameplay isn’t used to serve story, but story is hung around a basic gameplay idea. The exceptions to this are very interesting - my two favourite games at the moment, Portal
, create a synthesis between gameplay and story where both aspects serve the other in a symbiotic
way. In terms of designing games, this invites us to think of both aspects and how they can work for or with each other. And while gameplay will probably precede and drive story in most cases until our technology improves, building gameplay around a story would be a fascinating endeavour. 3. Style reinforces reality effect
This essentially means that style is used to bring you into the reality of the film (especially if the situation is in a unreal world). This even applies in films with unusual styles: in Memento
, the fragmented structure is used to help us understand Leonard’s reality; and in A Scanner Darkly
, the constantly shifting cartoonish visual style gives us insight into the way that the drug addicts portrayed see the world.
This is an area where games have borrowed from Hollywood and excelled at, whether it be the way that Bioshock
creates the world of Rapture or the intricacies of City 17 portrayed in Half-Life 2
. I think that games have an inherent advantage over films in this arena: games afford their designers to create small details in the environment that aren’t completely relevant to story, but which can be seen by some players due to the exploratory nature of games.
There is a single aspect of games which has thus far failed at assisting the creation of a reality, and that is in the reaction to a player’s actions. Whether it be the inability for us to generate conversations for NPCs or the lack of meaningful consequences for our actions (especially in games with a so-called morality mechanic such as Fable
), we simply lack the technology to really sell the worlds we create in terms of reactions (note that I haven’t played Mass Effect and intend to soon, but when people talk about it, they speak of ‘x diverging storylines’ or ‘different endings’, which implies something that diverges in a binary sense rather than something that has sold the player on the reality of the reactions).
The question of whether we want to create truly realistic reactions, or whether we can control reactions to appear
realistic while still servicing some greater theme is definitely something which should be explored as technology progresses. It should be noted that the Hollywood paradigm doesn’t demand reality, but the illusion of it.
In the meantime, a game in which the world had an intrinsically linear or binary diverging nature to it (which actually meant something) could prove to explore this idea further. 4. Reality effect rests on centring and continuity
This, of the four principles, is the least conceptual, yet is still steadfastly adhered to: you very rarely see a film that messes with continuity, and when they do, it’s usually for a story reason (e.g. time travel), which means that continuity is actually enforced. Centring, on the other hand, is more of a specific editing technique.
In games, we enjoy the same continuity that we see in film. A game with a story will strive for continuity to create the reality effect we see.
Centring is a different matter. I would argue that any game which moves from an interactive mode to a cutscene violates centring, bringing us out of the game and reminding us that it is, in fact, not real. Note that within the cutscenes, centring is generally followed, and within the gameplay, centring is also followed, but the two modes simply do not match in a way that jars the reality of the experience.
I think we’ll see a phasing out of cutscenes as our ability to tell story within the interactive mode increases (see Warcraft 3
in the way that story is told), and so technology is a driving factor here. Conclusions
I think that this article really emphasises some of the inherit differences between games and film: we cannot apply film principles to games simply because they are such radically different modes of expression. Yet this does not discount the importance of the film-like components of games, just as we cannot ignore their board game-based roots either. It is when these two aspects of games are reconciled by game designers and serve each other that the most profound ideas can be found.
Over the last week or so, I've been writing an essay for an Arts History subject on Eisenstein's theory of montage and the conflict between Eisenstein and Vertov regarding their films. In recap: Eisenstein's montage is defined as a "collision of two given factors (from which) arises a concept". Importantly, in order to be montage, the collision must be designed to create this concept (so real-life conflict cannot be classed as montage). Both film-makers did this, but while Eisenstein's concepts (or syntheses) were clear and directed, Vertov constructed a number of concepts accessible from each collision, each of which asked questions of the audience rather than directing them to think in a certain way. From these differences came much conflict between the two men.
Personally, I prefer Vertov's approach (I'll take a movie that makes me ask difficult questions about the world rather than one which tells me what to think any day), but this doesn't mean that Eisenstein's approach doesn't have any merit. I'm also interested to see how computer games stack up to this idea of montage (which Eisenstein demonstrates to be found within other mediums such as artwork, poetry and literature).
So I'm going to take a representative sample of some games that I've played/know enough about to discuss. I'm certain that other games exist that would be interesting to place here (people keep bringing up Mass Effect), please feel free to suggest some or analyse them in comments.
Please note that in saying that a game does not utilise montage, it doesn't mean I don't think it's worthy of praise or is a good piece. It's simply a different way of looking at the way we create games and their creative content.
I'm going to avoid the word 'art', because like 'religion' and 'politics', it seems to foster discussion which is less constructive than I'd like.
This is a simple case, but a very important one. The Sims (and its sequels) has been cited as being one of the most important games in terms of allowing players to create their own stories (The Movies also falls under this category, as well as a dozen other games). While this is an important property of games in its own right that I find fascinating, it falls into the same pitfall as real life, as the conflict encountered in these self-made was not designed by the game's creators. There are, however, two avenues for montage to exist within these games.
Firstly, the games can become tools for players to create their own montages. This is especially true in The Movies, where a player can create a movie and show it to their peers.
Secondly, through mechanics. It can be argued, for instance, that the multi-faceted nature of the needs of the Sims is a collision between the player's objectives and the game's rules that demonstrates the complex and multi-faceted nature of, well, nature (I refuse to believe that the simultaneous need to eat and go to the toilet shows anything about human nature, and feel that the emphasised importance of these primal needs dilutes the meaning that having the balance your sim's social life and work life can provide). But I must also protest calling this montage, as it really is a mechanic which has been created to add fun rather than meaning to the game (and thus the synthesis is not designed). It's be like saying that Starcraft's use of limited resources is a message about the dwindling resources on the planet Earth.
The Sims also has a fairly 'complex' spectrum of emotional states and interactions between its inhabitants. I say 'complex' in inverted commas, because compared to reality this spectrum is grayscale, and pretty badly pixellated. This possible collision between the game's possible states and reality's is a direct result of technology limits: if it had been designed purposefully to examine whether our so-called emotional complexity is really fairly simple, it could be an interesting point, but all indications are that if technology was better, the simulations would be more complex.
GTA 3: Vice City
GTA is an interesting sub-case of Sims-like games. Like the Sims, it is a very open game, allowing players to really create their own individual stories. However, GTA has always retained a sense of self-parody, with senseless violence which is often ignored in games being openly rewarded. Specifically in Vice City, the gratuitous violence that the player commits conflicts with the radio talk about violence in video games and the knowledge that everyone in the city is guilty of something, leading to an awareness in the player of the state of violence in the gaming industry. It's not my favourite way of dealing with violence in games (I much prefer games that find ways to be fun without the need for killing, or those that actually deal with the consequences in a meaningful way), but it's definitely an interesting study.
Max Payne 1 and 2
Okay, so these are games that I actually want to look at again to see if what I remember is correct.
From what I remember, they feature a very rich usage of montage in a cinematic sense, combining cutscenes, comic-book scenes and voice-overs to create some interesting ideas (I'll expound on what these are when I actually play it again). In terms of gameplay, I feel that montage is not used effectively: the most prolific gameplay attribute is bullet-time, but this is never really utilised in a conflict to create any sort of synthesis. The drug sequences, where Max relives his wife and son's murder, are an interesting exception, but again I'd want to play it again before I look at what ideas it invokes.
Half-life 2 and it's progeny
I'd argue that these games, like Max Payne, excel at utilising montage at a visual and stylistic level to tell story, but fail to integrate gameplay in the montage. You just need to look at the conflict between Breen saying "it's safer here" and the metro-cops and their billy-clubs to see an emerging concept of oppression, and I feel that this is one of the really strong aspects of the series. What makes this especially strong is that the story is told in a very natural way, without taking the player out of the moment of the scene by cutting away. Thus, we are free to notice these strong cinematic aspects of the game.
The epitome of this stylistic brilliance can be seen at the start of Half-Life 2, where you don't have any weapons, yet feel compelled to run away from metrocops when you really don't need to be so rushed at a gameplay level. This ability to create fear without resorting to creepy girls and lots of blood is really quite an achievement.
This game interests me in its ability to create moments like these, and it comes very close to the gaming experiences that I'm interested in, but doesn't quite make it. I feel this is for two reasons: firstly, the game doesn't utilise its gameplay in creating montage and thus doesn't involve it in the process of creating ideas; secondly, the game has these wonderful moments of stylistic montage at the start of the game, but these quickly devolve into style and typical fps gameplay which do not contribute to the ideas of the piece in this way.
Note about that last paragraph: yes, my standards here are high - I talk in terms of my aims in creating games, rather than whether I enjoy them. I really enjoy fps gameplay, and Half-life 2 is an exemplary example of this. But this gameplay is rarely, if ever used to tell us something interesting or to create story, and I'm rather sick of the 'killing ridiculous numbers of people' paradigm that permeates AAA games. So I want to evoke some discussion on how we can use gameplay to tell story and create montage: from here, we might start finding new forms of gameplay that can do this, which don't rely on large amounts of virtual death.Bioshock
This was a game, which to me, had a single moment of brilliance within an otherwise solid game and narrative experience. I speak, of course, of the 'Holy Shit' moment in the middle of the game, where the automatic, linear mode of gameplay that we are all used to becomes a vital plot point. This sudden awareness of the way we play games is a conflict between our expectations of games and the reality that asks us whether we should really be following the instructions of games so blindly. The rest of the game is full of stylistic montage that I described above, but again I found the effects of this was severely diluted by killing people gameplay or a lack of consequences (in the case of the good/evil conundrum).
Portal has a special place in my heart. It's gameplay is simple, yet brilliant, and the game did a wonderful job of making the story mirror the gameplay mode (training is conducted through the main body of the game, during which the story is about GlaDOS (I don't pretend to remember exactly which letters are capitalised) teaching the player how to utilise portals, and the more panicked utilisation of these skills begins once GlaDOS leaves the player to become their opponent). In terms of montage, the game leverages heavily on conflicting textures to intensify the differences between the two modes of gameplay and modes of GlaDOS' persona, as well as building tension in the earlier segments. I could also discuss 'The cake is a lie', the player's love and subsequent destruction of the companion cube and the hilariously contrary statements of the turrets as examples of montage: in particular, the companion cube is an amazing usage of gameplay to drive story and illustrate GlaDOS' insanity.
This is a really great example of a game that utilises gameplay to create story in a decidedly non-meta fashion (in that it doesn't examine the nature of the underlying game mechanics, but utilises them to layer ideas over the top). I think the condensed nature of the game is instrumental in making this game the powerhouse that it is: in a typical game, these ideas would be drawn out over a much larger gameplay time, where they would lose much of their impact.
I am personally very interested in meta-gameplay ideas, which utilise the underlying idea of a gameplay element in story (for instance, the idea of instantaneous travel, or a transfer of momentum, or any other number of consequences of portals, are only explored in a gameplay environment, and a story treatment to mirror these could be fascinating), but the lack of this really doesn't take anything away from the game. If Portal 2 is to match the original in terms of its narrative brilliance, however, I believe that this is one way for it to do so.
A wider analysis of Portal would surely reveal more (I wrote an essay about it a while back and may post it here with some changes, or just write something new about it).
This game does a great job of utilising gameplay to reveal plot. The game uses time manipulation (which has been introduced throughout the game) to invert story from that which is expected based on the gameplay provided sans time manipulation (ie. mario platformer). The game relies around puzzles with pieces, and throughout gives you pieces of the story you need to assemble yourself. On smaller scales, the game doesn't appear to give us much more than gameplay-driven puzzles, but I haven't really closely looked at things like the level titles and the main story text (which is rather verbose but seems fairly innocuous so far). There are a few nice conflicts with our expectations from mario-like platformers that create a sense of parody (rabid rabbits, anyone?), and stylistic montage definitely exists, but I'm not seeing any gameplay-based montage on the smaller scales.
I haven't completely completed the game - there are things (I won't spoil exactly what) I still need to collect to be privy to the entire story.
But this in itself is an interesting choice: that the story should be less rich for people who do not have the time or inclination to finish it. I don't begrudge the choice - I feel that those that take the effort to complete a game should be rewarded. But I wonder at the wisdom of not allowing all users experience what I'm guessing are story elements which will fundamentally change and possibly enrich the experience of the game. Now I can (and possibly will - I'm not the most patient puzzle gamer) use a walkthrough to achieve the same result, but by doing so I'm getting taken out of the flow of the game (which is exquisite).
I'm well aware that the joy of figuring these elements out is important, but I do feel that there's a limit. If the game had been a bit more explicit of what it was that I need to collect the second time round (I did look at a walkthrough to work that out), but not how or where they were, this might create a better method for this game. I've also gathered that one of the things can only be collected the first time you enter the level, meaning I might need to start the game from scratch to get the whole story. This, in my opinion, would be a bad design decision.
So games have gotten pretty good at montage using stylistic aspects (ie. any techniques that can also work in cinema), but are just starting to utilise gameplay in the same fashion. That makes the next decade a fascinating time for the way that games are made.
This is my first Flash game (which was actually made using the Flex API).
Being my first game, comments are much appreciated.