On Art and Smart Games

(Posted here)

Hey guys, thought I’d write another longish #speakup post; this one’s about the list of artistic games on Brainygamer. I wrote it as an open letter to Michael Abbot, who runs the place. I cut out the introduction for Kotaku, since you guys already know who I am, hopefully.

I think something’s missing. See, the thing Clark was getting at–and the thing that precious few people fail to understand–is that he’s not talking about just “art.” He uses these qualifiers, like “true art,” or uses words and phrases like “puerile” and “intellectually lazy.” Those qualifiers are very important, because he’s referring to a divide in art that’s rarely (maybe never; I’ve never actually seen anyone bring this up) mentioned: high and low artCitizen Kane was, arguably, the first high art film. Most of what had come before were merely adaptations of other works (Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, etc), and while there had been a few stepping stones (like Metropolis, M, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Citizen Kane was the game changer. Most of the people who say that games “don’t need a Citizen Kane” don’t really understand what Orson Welles did to the cinema landscape. After Kane, everything changed.

Before I get into the high/low art thing, however, I need to back up one quick second and define art:

Art is a thing that is created or performed with the primary intent to stir up emotions within the audience.

In this way, many things are art. For every The Four Seasons, there is Baby. For every Jane,there is a Twilight. Actually, if we go by Sturgeon’s Law, for every one good thing, there are nine bad things, but whatever. The point here is that we see a distinct schism in art. Some things are timeless and will spawn endless discussion centuries after their creators have passed on, while others are transient, their laughable, short-sighted attempts at profitability greatly robbing them at artistic merit. The former are high art; the latter, of course, are the opposite.

The question should never have been “can games be art?” It should have been “can video games be high art?”

We then run into another problem: broad generalizations. The simple fact of the matter is that we can’t ask whether any one medium is art of any kind, because there are a lot of little differences. Baraka and Casablanca are art, but an instructional video telling you how to interact with customers or an advertisement for cold cereal is not. The Scream and Starry Nightare art, but the handicapped sign on a bathroom stall and a full-page newspaper advertisement with pictures of cars at low, low prices are not. The same is true of games: some are, some aren’t.

Perhaps the best description I’ve heard of games is actually Wikipedia’s: games are “structured play.” It gets right to the point and encompasses every game type, from board games, like chess, to sports, like basketball, to video games… except… well… video games are a bit broader than all that. There’s a reason no one says pente or basketball (the performance art that is the Harlem Globetrotters aside) are art–they call them games and sports. Unlike Risk or ōllamaliztli (sorry), video games use a lot of artistic elements, and I’m not talking about the craftsmanship of board pieces or illustrations on cards or anything. Some tell stories. Some exist more to craft mood than anything else. These video games are more than just games–they’re hybrids; instead of being merely tools that structure gameplay, video games combine elements of other art forms, like storytelling, with rules-based systems, and you get video games.

As technology has progressed, however, things have gotten really weird. Some might argue that, at some point, they stop being games and become something else. We’ve added all these simulation elements–instead of enemies adhering to specific rule sets, with rigid, turn-based battles, we’ve got things that try their hardest to simulate actual encounters. Games like STALKER aren’t really games anymore–they’re entire worlds to explore. Some games use their mechanics like a sculptor might use his tools, shaping an artistic experience out of it. Somewhere along the line, some video games moved beyond just structured play and got into something more.

In other words, some video games are art, some aren’t.

This leads me to modify the question: “Can some video games be high art?”

And, since we’re asking that question, we’re going to want proof one way or the other, so the next question that follows is: “are any games worthy of being called high art?”

The answer to the first question, I think, is yes. There is very little academic discussion centering around games-as-art, and what few attempts are made tend to be weak attempts at justifying one’s love for a particular title. Most of the “intellectuals” (oh yes, scare quotes seem very well deserved) who debate games are little more than educated fanboys, and they rarely seem to be educated about the right sort of things. I’ve encountered more enlightening discussion of game and game story through random commenters I’ve met (we get into these cool discussions about Aristotelian philosophy and the strengths and weaknesses of the medium and how the medium doesn’t lend itself well to traditional storytelling) than I have reading about games by people who fancy them serious critics.

Now, you may have noticed by now that I haven’t mentioned intellectual stimulation at all. There’s a good reason for that: when Clark talks about intellectual stimulation, he’s not talking about puzzle or strategy games. He’s talking about the intellectual stimulation that comes from artistic merit–the part where we start critically discussing things.

This brings me to my primary criticism of the list: most of the submitters don’t seem to know what they’re talking about. A ton of games are on there only because “they make me think a lot,” which, again, isn’t what Clark is looking for. It provides an idiotic counterpoint to his claim. Many of the submissions are riddled with spelling errors and barely give reasoning beyond “I really like it and it moved me.” Movement is all well and good, and listening to wubstep makes me feel something on an emotional level, but that certainly doesn’t make it high art, which is what Clark very clearly wants.

You have basically two kinds of art games: narrative and mood. Narrative games would, of course, be games with the primary intent to tell a story. In a perfect world, the game mechanics are subservient to the story (the “gameplay > story” fallacy is a really big subject I could get into, but I don’t have the time; maybe later?), functioning as the language or technique that conveys the story, but more often than not, people focus too much on the gameplay and not enough on the story, which is the equivalent of a novel with a lot of very nice words and a story not worth telling. Mood games are… things like STALKER or Shadow of the Colossus. They are the ambient music and the abstract paintings of gaming.

Many of the games on the list have no right being there. Uncharted 2 possesses the narrative depth of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Mass Effect 2 is a poorly-written (there’s no second act where the team gels, jarring the suspension of belief) white supremacist gameHalf-Life 2 is a mess, its narrative structure oddly centered on Eli Vance. Red Dead Redemption is apredictable unevenly-written (FBI man’s random speech, for instance; characters waxing eloquent at random), ludonarratively dissonant game. I’ve given up watching television shows that are better-written than Heavy Rain, like Lie to Me. Strategy and puzzle games don’t really belong there at all because of the whole sports thing (in fact, Starcraft 2 is kind of the majority of the esports scene).

I’ve noticed that some people mention how a work is referential as if that makes it an intelligent work, but merely being referential isn’t what makes a work good. The other day, someone, when discussing Metal Gear Solid with me, argued that it was excellent because it featured science, science fiction, and real-world events. I’m sorry, but there’s more to art than that. Metal Gear Solid is a narrative joke, and no one with any knowledge on the subject of good storytelling could honestly call it a work of art on that front. Yes, it does a lot of interesting things and plays with the medium, but there are many films with excellent traits that fall flat on their face where script is concerned, which prevents them from being considered high art. Transformers 3, for instance, has some fantastic direction, camera work, lighting, and special effects, and is one of the best uses of both IMAX and 3D filmmaking ever, but that doesn’t save it from being low art.

A lot of people, no doubt, will feel defensive about this: that’s good. The current arguments for why some of these games should be considered the pinnacle of the medium are weak, and an intelligent defense of a great many of these games needs to be made. I can’t really do a lot to back of my claims in the interest of time and space, but I’d gladly do so at a later date. Also, I assume there will be a number of people who read this and get really upset; people tend to be more invested in games than other mediums, presumably because of a level of some sort of involvement bias (I realize this isn’t a real term, but, as far as I know, there is no term to describe the cognitive bias where you spend time with a thing you enjoy and become reluctant to admit its faults because you feel as though you’re admitting that you wasted your time), which, I think, is part of the reason gamers seem to be significantly more prone to anger and fanboyism than fans of other mediums.

Games, even the most-loved, highest-rated games out there, deserve a lot more criticism than they get, especially when it comes to narrative, and that is what Clark is upset about. As I look at the video gaming landscape, I see a small number of games (ten, at present count) that might be considered the Gone with the Winds and Wizard of Oz’s of the world. Clark believes he’s found it in Braid and Journey, but the only that strange, weirdly-insular, self-involved field (the same few critics seem to pop up over and over again, for one thing) that calls itself games criticism really seems to care. I see no Citizen Kane of gaming, or even a Watchmen, but I hope we get one soon.

So… um, yeah.

Basically, I’m disappointed in the list as it stands. I feel like it would benefit some filtering.

Also, I think you only need one entry per title, but maybe that’s just me.

~DocSeuss

PS – As a synesthete, I’ve always found Rez to be a bit lacking. Still qualifies as a mood game, I guess.

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