Monday, June 23, 2008

Video game apologists: Looking for art in all the wrong places

Alright, I can't take it anymore. For the umpteenth time, a video game fanboy has tried to substantiate the claim that video games are art by pointing to Final Fantasy and a bunch of in-game cinematics. Gaaah. Somebody is wrong, and I must speak.

Video games can be art, but not for the reasons these guys think.

First of all, Roger Ebert was so transparently wrong to begin with that it's almost ridiculous that gamers got defensive about it. Ebert's claim was, in short, that games cannot be high art because they require the participation of the player. By this standard, architecture, sculpture, and installation art are not high art, since full appreciation of those works requires the audience to navigate a space established by the work's form. But that's ludicrous. Any definition of art that excludes these forms is silly on its face.

I mean, come on. Are you telling me Roger Ebert knows more about "art" than the MOMA and the Guggenheim Foundation? There's just nothing to prove here. Don't even bother trotting out your favorite games; it's wholly unnecessary. This claim can be disproved a priori.

On the other hand, as the foregoing analogy illustrates, the other art form that video games most resemble is not cinema; it is architecture. A large contingent of video game apologists, eager to prove that their favorite form deserves the cultural capital endowed by the label "Art", have latched onto the cinematic properties of video games. This is probably because, in our day and age, cinema possesses a cross-product of high-culture respectability, low-culture accessibility, and economic influence that no other art form comes close to matching.

But likening video games to cinema is a fundamental error. Video games may borrow the aesthetic language of cinema, in the same way that architecture can borrow painterly or sculptural gestures, but the nature of a game is that it is an abstract state space through which the player moves. Indeed, video games, like computer code in general, can be viewed as simply the abstract version of architecture.

And so it's not surprising that, although games have come a long way, the games that currently try hardest to be "cinematic" almost always end up being unsuccessful as art. My definition of successful art is this: an artifact that provokes a powerful and seamless aesthetic reaction in the viewer. A good art work seduces us into believing wholly in the world that it proposes, whether that world consists of the abstract geometries of a Mondrian painting or the intricately braided themes of a Beethoven symphony. "Cinematic" games like Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, etc. foolishly attempt to create a game world by mimicking the conventions of mainstream narrative feature film. And they fail — because mainstream narrative feature film centers on interactions among people, and today's computers are incapable of producing even vaguely convincing simulacra of human beings.

Walk up to a character in a typical "cinematic" computer game and say hello. Then say goodbye, turn around in a circle, and say hello again. Chances are, the conversation will go exactly the same way. You can do this a dozen, a hundred, a thousand times, and not once will the character notice that you're acting a little strange. And let's not even get into the painful stiltedness of dialogue trees.

Now, traditional narrative art forms like fiction, theater, cinema, and comics are all unrealistic in numerous ways. But this doesn't matter; our brains are wired to forgive many infidelities in representation, so long as human interactions follow a logic that is recognizably human. Or, at least, as in David Mamet plays, that they follow a course that's deliberately crafted for aesthetic effect. By contrast, conversations in computer games are not deliberately crafted to be stilted, artificial, limited, and repetitive; they just are, because of technical limitations, and an attentive audience can never escape this realization.

Thus, most so-called "cinematic" video games can be highly effective entertainment, but they can at best be middling art.

So when do games succeed at being art?

I can't lay out comprehensive criteria, but I can give a few examples. It seems to me that the following games actually succeed at creating experiences that are both seamless and aesthetically powerful, although in different ways:

  • Geometry Wars Retro Evolved. Yes, you heard me: Geometry Wars (UPDATE 2008-10-26: note that this video does not use the in-game soundtrack). It's the ecstatic love child of Stan Brakhage and a techno music video, in video game form.
  • Shadow of the Colossus. This is the rare example of a game that achieves seamlessness despite being relatively cinematic in presentation. Pay attention, and you'll see how this game succeeds where other games fail: you're practically the only living human being in the whole game. Almost everything else that moves is either an automaton or an animal. The experience is nearly wordless. The aesthetic texture (the visuals, the sound) is breathtaking, but also exceptionally stark. If Shadow of the Colossus were a film, it would be an art film; no mainstream Hollywood studio would greenlight it. And within the dream logic of its lonely world, everything fits together. I could write a great deal more about this game and how it speaks to me, but that's a subject for another day.
  • Echochrome. An abstract exploration of spatial perception and motion with immaculate visuals and music. Would not be out of place installed in the MOMA.
  • flOw. If you like Mark Rothko paintings but not flOw, then I claim that you are a hypocrite.
  • Katamari Damacy. This game is not exactly my bag, but both as a work of absurdist aesthetics and as a cunningly crafted explorable state space, I cannot deny its success.

Now, to the above list, I can add a very long list of games that succeed wildly at being entertaining, and have some merit as art, but don't fully succeed at the latter. For example, BioShock, Okami, and the Half-Life 2 episodes achieve higher quality, both as entertainment and as art, than 99% of television shows or movies; but you can see the man behind the curtain a little too often for them to be wholly successful art works.

Lumines is the video game equivalent of pop music, and roughly as artistic.

And then there are games like Civilization, which manage to be tours de force of complex state space design, but aesthetically barely rise above the level of a board game. If Civilization IV were a work of physical architecture, it would be the New York subway system.

And so on, and so forth. Basically, many video games succeed as entertainment; some of those manage to be less-than-great art; and a very small number manage to achieve a unity of presentation and gameplay construction as to be really good art. And given how far the circle of "art" has widened in the past century and a half, only the most blinkered kind of fool would claim otherwise.

But please, please, stop trying to convince people that games are like the grown-up little brother of cinema (or, even more nonsensically, of literature). They're not. I mean, really.

p.s. I have deliberately elided all mention of multiplayer games, which deserve a whole other analysis. To what extent can collective experiences be art? The Fluxus movement's answer: plenty. Presumably computer-mediated participatory group activities can in theory be art as well. My major uncertainty is that I don't think I've ever played a multiplayer game that I'd describe as a "seamless aesthetic experience". One thing's for sure: listening to a thirteen-year-old bitching into his headset mic does not qualify.

* People familiar with the world of academic game criticism may recognize the distinction I draw as one of "narratological" versus "ludological" game appreciation, with the position I take being roughly ludological. I don't entirely buy into this distinction, mostly because I find "narratological" to be a terrible misnomer. The visual or aural properties of a game are sensory; they are not necessarily narrative.

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