Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Gamer as Artiste

Here is a very interesting New York Times article from 2005 that raises a lot of interesting questions.  The author is John Leland.

Rather than summarize the article, I'm going to parse through it and pull out some of the more pertinent quotations:

"Mr. Spielberg, who has since contracted to create three games, challenged the industry to improve the storytelling, character development and emotional content in the same way it has enhanced the images and action. The medium will come of age, he said, 'when somebody confesses that they cried at Level 17.'"

Sielberg has finished
one of the three games mentioned, and has gone on to begin the second (previously). In fact, his call to action has been (at least partially) answered.  Jason Rohrer, Spielbergs new advisor, makes a meager living designing games that make people cry.

Not surprisingly, Steven Spielberg invoked film as a "model for the medium to follow", but as I've
argued before, videogames can model more than just one medium.

"Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggested that [videogames] are equally close to dance, as a medium of performance, or architecture, as a medium of creating unique spaces."

The articles author also gives some insightful comments on the videogame

"...the Xbox 360 allows games to look more like movies. Walls have textures; battle scenes show remarkably detailed characters moving independently. Such advanced technology, made possible by increased processing power, also raises the cost of developing games, which now run budgets of up to $25 million, including the expenses of licensing characters and music. This in turn influences the type of games that are produced: Of the 10 top-selling games of last year, all were sequels to successful games, tie-ins to hit movies or both."

I gave my own 
tirade on the Industry a little while back, but Leland's next question honed in on something a little more nuanced:

"As games gain attention as an art form, it remains to be determined just what sort of art they can or should be."

I have been thinking a lot lately about the effects that videogames have on society, through a cultural lens, rather than an artistic one.

First of all, I believe videogames are a volatile medium. Interactive Media is invasive on more than a sensory level - it is deeply psychologically stimulating. Without presupposing any of the effects they have on society at large, lets touch on the effects that videogames have on the brain. I've always been interested by one study in particular: After playing a simulation, subjects of a relatively recent experiment reported that their dreams consistently modeled their virtual experiences. While this was largely a test of procedural memory, it conveyed the effect videogames can have on the subconscious.

I believe that videogames will soon become the most influential of all art forms. They are psychologically invasive, culturally prevalent, and perhaps most importantly, economically viable. 

As videogames become a larger part of the collective conscious, the values that they convey become increasingly important.  I'm not saying every game should be packaged with a moral lesson - I just find it disconcerting that the vast majority of videogames involve death counts that rival most genocides.

Personally, I'm uncomfortable with the propensity for violence in videogames today. The number one best selling genre is the First Person Shooter and for me, this is a sobering thought.  I won't excuse the public for consuming violence and dreck, but it's the Industry that feeds it to them.

"...the video game industry [compares] to Hollywood of the 1930's, when studios created standards for their products but also imposed formulas for the movies they churned out, with rising budgets and diminishing creative risk-taking."

The key word here is "imposed". I believe innovation and individuality are sold short. Americans may always be more attracted to violence than to subtlety or nuance, but innovation does sell. While Gears of War and Halo may top the charts, flOw, Mirror's Edge, Braid, and Little Big Planet all experienced market success. Perhaps the most convincing argument for risk is the Wii, which continues to outsell it's competitors combined. While it will and should always be a presence, the Industry currently stifles individuality and innovation, propagating values that I find myself questioning far too often.  It's the responsibility of independent artists to counterbalance the industry's broadcast with their own unique frequencies.

"'What you need now is a garage band aesthetic, or independent film aesthetic for games,'"

Beyond values, I think there's a lot to be said about our relationship with videogames as a form of Virtual Reality. Personally, I fear true VR. I see it as a degradation of the real world. Games like Second Life depress me. So do The Sims, to be honest. I think even RPG's like Oblivion have some elements of true VR.

I see it as an insult to the medium, and to, well, life. Is the real world so dull, or depressing that it should be played out in a simulation bereft of imagination? Why should a videogame abandon all semblances of artistry in favor of realism? 

When I imagine true VR, I imagine someone examining a photo of someone rather than introducing themselves. Why accept a facsimile when the original is yours for the taking? Videogames must embrace the fantasy of fiction - lest they become an approximation of the real world outside our front door.

"'You're building the world from scratch. Why does it have to look like the world we live in?'"

Sadly, I suspect videogames are on an inescapable path towards an inescapable zenith.  Videogames will one day supplant many of the ways in which we interact with and manipulate the real world.  

Until then, however, I have a few ideas about what games
should be like. In my opinion, videogames should always aspire to some level of fantasy, be it a personal aestheticism, dramatic presentation, narrative singularity, or actual elements of the fantastic. Only games set in an historical context should strive for unadulterated realism. 

The best videogames will represent a reality as unique as the artist(s) who constructed them.

Feature Innovation vs Franchise Innovation

Josh Korr (previously) puts in a quick word about Feature Innovation and how it fails to push the industry forward.  Read the article here.  This quote encapsulates the problem nicely:

"...if video game writing remains cliched and bad, more believable faces won’t make a game any better."

This mentality, (improving features, rather than franchises), has its roots in a very understandable problem: the technology that videogames rely on is constantly changing; but, it still doesn't forgive the industry's inability to recruit real talent in the areas that count.

The only way to accommodate the medium's reliance on technology, is to craft art that outlasts the hardware behind it.
While I support Korr and his complaints about the industry entirely, this particular stab at EA predates their involvement with Mirror's Edge, a very flawed and 2-dimensional game that nonetheless carried its weight in innovation.

Breakdown: The Videogame Medium

I'm going to try to consolidate some of my ideas on the whole videogames-as-art idea.  I realize a lot of my earlier posts have some contradictions, and I'd like to solidify all of the things I've been talking about, (previously: Videogames Vs High Art, The Videogame Industry, The Videogame Auteur, Diversity of Videogames as an Art Form, Gameplay)  

I'll try to break it down as succinctly as possible.  

If you happened to actually read the earlier posts you'll notice a lot of overlap.  My suggestion is to start here first.  Ideally, it will be a lot more straightforward.


First off, 

Videogames as Art

Videogames are not considered Art.  They are considered entertainment.  Film began in much the same way, but eventually proved itself as a medium capable of great artistry.  

What differentiates cinema from interactive media?

I believe the most potent issue, is that Videogames lack significant auteurship.

Every other medium is propelled by the presence of visionary artists who create personal and unique work, (not to mention tasteful, relevant, and intellectual).

I can count the number of true videogame auteurs on one hand.

UPDATE: I insinuated one very important ingredient, but failed to mention it explicitly.  The significant presence of true and recognizable Auteurship will garner the attention of true and recognizable critique (as opposed to review).

Which brings me to my next idea...

Videogames that Model Other Art Forms:

With auteurship as a standard, or at least an expectation of the medium, we have to decide how videogames are critiqued.

Many games will (and do) resemble other forms of art.  Therefore, the criteria for analysis will be similar to that of the medium they aspire to.  (There simply aren't any videogame writers who compare to Melville, or videogame directors who compare to Kubrick.  In addition gameplay rarely serves the narrative, and instead dilutes it). 

While videogames do model other forms of art, they are unique, and as such their differences must be taken into account. Interactive Media's most notable and defining singularity is the players ability to manipulate the medium.

Which leads to...

Player Input

Gameplay is the area where videogames need to grow most.  The secondary elements of the medium will always draw upon other forms of art, and as such, these elements are not really limited by the nature of videogames.  They are limited by the ineptitude of the industry's writers, directors, voice actors and other artists.
Player input in and of itself has kept interactive media from being 'High Art'.

Ebert's condemnation of player control represents only the most notable of countless similar criticisms: 

"Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control"

On the one hand it is my belief that an artist can have authorial control in a videogame. 

We can see the clear signs of authorial control in works like Oddworld: Abes Exodus, Stranger's Wrath, Shadow of the Colossus, Heart of Darkness, etc.  These 'authors' simply don't compare to the auteurs of other art forms, (however much we might like their stories).

On the other hand, I believe that player input will one day rival authorial control.  Games like Echochrome and Braid show the artistic and intellectual value of gameplay, while something like flOw attests to the plasticity of 'gameplay'.  Little Big Planet capitalizes on classic gameplay conventions while perfecting a kind of virtual Lego Land.  Jason Rohrer (previously), on the other hand, uses mechanics to evoke ideas and emotions as powerful as those of any film.

Not one of these examples compares to the level of auteurship present in other mediums, but each and every one attests to the potential videogames have to both model and rival today's definition of 'High Art'. 

The Final Word:

So what does it all mean?  How does it come together?  What's keeping videogames down?  

I'll try to sum things up for you as best I can:
  1. The auteur needs to comandeer the videogame medium.  That's the first step.  This will lead to a shift in audience.  The current generation of hard core gamers, nerds, geeks, what have you, will be either left behind, or converted.  The shift will also attract real critics.
  2. Where videogames model other art, they need to model it successfully.  I believe this requires the cohesion of narrative and gameplay.  In the case of visual art and other non-linear mediums, the guidelines are more plastic.  (This step is entirely dependent on the first step).
  3. Where videogames differ from other art, they need to differ with comparable auteurship.  In order for videogames to transcend their name, they must move beyond their twitchy, trigger happy roots.  Gameplay must evolve.  People like Will Wright (Spore), Jason Rohrer (Passage), Jenova Chen (flOw), and Lorne Lanning (Oddworld) have helped to broaden our ideas of what a 'mechanic' can be, but we still have a long way to go.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Nobi Nobi Boy

Game director Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy, has a new project in development called Noby Noby Boy (or Nobi Nobi Boy depending on your romanization). 

The game features innovative gameplay and centers around having fun, like its predecessor, Katamari.  

Keita Takahashi is a good example of a videogame auteur; one whose work doesn't aspire to the criteria of other art forms.  His games are far from High Art, (as he admits openly in this interview), but the innovative mechanics and singular aesthetic of Katamari Damacy have been used again and again as an example of the medium's artistic potential.

I've always seen a similarity between Takahashi's work and the work of artist collective Friends With You, (Sam Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III).  For me, games like Katamari and the upcoming Noby Noby Boy show how the sensibilities of visual art can permeate a videogame.

Korr Values

This article, by Josh Korr, investigates much of the videogame issues I've been talking about.  He's got about a three year head start, and his ideas are both compelling and succinct.  

The article is largely a response to Roger Ebert's statement about videogames as art (here is an extended 'conversation' between Ebert and artist Clive Barker):

“…I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.
I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.”

Josh Korr goes on to examine some of the inferiorities that Ebert insinuated in his statement:

"First, he is responding to the fact that right now, the player choices and evolving storylines are more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book than anything else. That is, the “story” consists not of illuminating interactions with others or with the character’s own thoughts or imagination; not of original dialogue that brings out the characters’ personalities and journeys or highlights the greater themes in play; not of landscapes and scene shots or descriptions that underpin the greater theme or symbolism of the work; not of asides from the author that do all of the above or take you out of the work for whatever reason."

But he also touches on the nature of criticism itself, and focuses a lot of his four-part discussion on the singularity of gameplay as artistic criteria.

"It’s pretty clear as Ebert says (admittedly with little knowledge of actual games) that the vast majority of video games thus far are inferior to the dominant forms of narrative art according to the accepted measures of assessing that art."

People like Jason Rohrer (previously) accentuate some of the ways in which videogames warrant their own criteria.  I believe that player input can be just as evocative as 'authorial control'.  The problem is that few videogame auteurs are comparable to the auteurs of other art forms: subsequently player control, the medium's defining aspect, is seen as a detriment to it's artistic potential.  On a simplified level Jason Rohrer has proved this: his games show how player input can evoke emotions as complex as those evoked by any other medium.


Also mentioned in the Rohrer article is an upcoming game directed by Steven Spielgberg.  'LMNO' is described as E.T meets North By North West.  The game has been championed as the first major videogame in which gameplay focuses on a relationship, namely "a touching and ever-changing relationship between you and a mysterious female character who holds the key to many futures."

According to EA: "LMNO is in development at EALA under the creative leadership of Doug Church (Creative Director) and Lou Castle (Executive Producer)," the publisher stated. No concrete timeframe has been provided for the release of LMNO.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Rohrer is acting as Spielberg's consultant throughout the game's development.  While I'm not fond of Spielberg's films, I have a good deal of faith that this project will be interesting and well executed.  I think the fact that he began his foray into the medium with Boom Blox, a physics based game likened to Jenga, shows that he's taking steps to understand it at it's most fundamental levels.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Jason Rohrer

Here is a very cogent and interesting article about independent game creator Jason Rohrer.  
Writer Jason Fagone echos many of the complaints and ideas about videogames I've started to explore, and goes on to postulate many many more.

"Game companies have spent so many years trying to make skulls explode complexly and water ripple prettily that they haven't invested any time in learning how to make games that are as emotionally dense as the best novels and films."

The article touches on auteurship and the industry, (with a few testaments to the upper echelons of the development hierarchy), but it focuses heavily on the man himself.

"Why can't we make a game that fucking means something? A game that matters? You know? We wonder all the time if games are art, if computers can make you cry, and all that. Stop wondering. The answer is yes to both. Here's a game that made me cry. It did. It really did."

-Clint Hocking (a Ubisoft Designer) speaks at a 
Developer's Conference about Rohrer's games

I've been talking a lot about gameplay, and Rohrer is perhaps the best example of someone who crafts evocative and emotional mechanics.

"Rohrer is trying to make art in a medium that most people don't even think is capable of art."

 The first page of the article focuses on the game Passage, a simplistic pixelated adventure "about the inevitability of death".  Jason Rohrer doesn't realize these philosophical ideas with cinematic bookends or dialogue boxes; his games are far from arresting: he evokes deep emotions through mechanics.

For instance, one of his more recent games hinges on the idea that "Mistakes you make, early on, haunt you through some game mechanic later." 

Rohrer's games, (which are less than a 10 minutes long) also bring into question the videogame experience itself.  A game doesn't need to absorb 10-15 hours of your time.  It can be thoughtful and engaging without consuming your life.  

A game like Portal provides another example of a more thoughtful and less extensive gameplay experience.  

Jason Rohrer is an interesting and compelling figure that seems to be pushing the medium forward almost effortlessly.  His games accentuate the fact that gameplay is more than point-and-shoot; it's simply another way to experience art.  I have yet to play his games, but I plan to make a donation...his family subsists off 14k a year.  Here's a link to his site.