Friday, May 29, 2009

Games As Art... Or Not

"Can Games Be Art (tm)" is a big question that a lot of people have asked over the years. There are heated arguments on both sides, and I don't really intend to get into that here. The fact remains, a lot of people believe that some games are art, or at least art-like, and this article is addressed to those people.

Passage, Braid, and Gravitation
Since I count myself as one of those who believe that games can be art, for me this raises the question of should they be? Through a quite old post on the Braid news page, I recently encountered the game Passage, an artistic little 5-minute game that stirred up a lot of positive press coverage in 2007 and 2008. If you have not played it (or Braid, for that matter), I highly recommend both -- Braid is well worth your $15, and Passage is worth more than the $0 it costs.

I won't give anything away about the themes and such in Passage, but suffice it to say that it is basically an experience with a variety of meanings and choices you can make. It eschews most of what we consider "game like" functionality, and in fact has no written story either. It's more like a symbolic work of interactive art that you experience in the fashion most suited to you.

I thought it was neat and thought provoking, but then I set it aside. It had communicated what it needed to, and I was moved to think about a few things in a new way, and then there was no reason to go back.

I was intrigued enough to try another of Jason Rohrer's other games, Gravitation, however. At my age and in my life circumstances, I actually connected a lot more to this one, and was quite moved. There are more choices to make here, and the symbolism is heavy on the ground at every turn. Play the game first, but then you might find this deconstruction by GBGames to be quite illuminating. I know I did, since I had missed a couple of the things they pointed out, though I did see most of it for myself.

Here again, though, Gravitation is not a game in the sense that it is challenging or something that you "win" or "lose" in the traditional sense. The game has a time limit, and you do what you can during that time, and in the end you are left with some accomplishments and some failures. Like life, you can't have it all, so whether you feel like you won or lost at the end is up to your interpretation. I felt like I lost. I think that's part of why it impacted me as much as it did.

I thank Jason Rohrer for making these games -- they are artistic, thought-provoking, and they are a worthy extension of the industry. We need more stuff like this.

Philosophy and Braid
All of what I said above is how I really feel. However, if all games followed a mold like Passage and Gravitation... I don't think I would be a gamer. The experiences are too short, too fleeting, and more snapshots than anything else. I've never been that into short stories or short films for much the same reason, although there are many special ones that I appreciate (Hills Like White Elephants, by Hemingway, is a favorite of mine, and there are a variety of excellent short films out there -- I think I've posted links to a few of them in the past). At core, though, I'm a novel guy, a feature-length film guy. It takes a lot to get invested in a new game or story, and once I am past that threshold I want to be able to hang around for a while.

Enter Braid. Braid is not an overly long game, but it has a lot more meat to it. There is a skill component to Braid, as well as the artistic aspects. Like Rohrer's games, Braid is a rather philosophical game, and there is a ton of symbolism in it, but at the same time it manages to actually have a lot more traditional game-like elements to it. There are some wicked puzzles in there, and some interesting and clever game mechanics to be explored. Ultimately I found that a lot more satisfying, and I spent a lot more time with it, even though I wasn't quite as moved as I was by Gravitation.

Fortunately, I don't have to choose between them -- I can play artistic games like Passage and Gravitation, and I can also play games that have other skill/puzzle elements in them, like Braid. Which brings me to...

Silent Hill 2
For me, I can never discuss games as art without coming back to Silent Hill 2. I connected to this game like I have few others, and was permanently changed by it. I played this game over eight years ago, and it still enters my thoughts on at least a weekly basis.

What made Silent Hill 2 so special? Well, for me, it was the method by which the story was told as much as the story itself. The game plays like many other survival horror games -- basically it's a third-person action game, and you move around, hit stuff with weapons, find clues, solve puzzles, and encounter bosses and cut scenes. On the surface, this really doesn't sound like a recipe for art, does it?

However, it is these mechanics which add so much to the story, I think. In a novel, all you have to do to experience the rest of the story is keep reading; in a movie, keep watching. In a game, there are many challenges that you, personally, have to overcome. In Silent Hill 2 those challenges range from figuring out a boss fight, to searching for clues, to solving a difficult puzzle, to getting up the guts to open a door or stick your hand in a dark, slimy hole.

I'm not generally a fan of horror. It took all my courage to make it through Silent Hill 2, and the "reward" for my courage was a shocking revelation about my character that was more horrific to me than anything that had happened before. The game's ruminations on illness, loss, abuse, relationships, and guilt were incredibly poignant, and made even more so by the interactive nature of the entire experience. I was quite conscious of the fact that, had I made different choices, I would have received a different ending. But, based on the choices I made, the ending I got seemed as much a commentary on me as it was on the character I was playing. Once again, I came away from the game with the feeling that I had lost, even though I had technically "won."

What sticks out most in my memory years later, however, is the journey. I share protagonist James Sunderland's feelings of loss when I think about the game, and honestly it was his determination to find his dead wife that made me able to complete the game. He entered into a world of horror, and exercised what little power he had in order to find the answers he so desperately needed. By extension, so too did I.

Portal is another interesting game from the last few years. It is probably the funniest game I have ever played, and it was one of the most in-your-face-clever with its design. It didn't have the impact on me that Gravitation or Silent Hill 2 did -- no such weighty themes here -- but still it was a hugely worthwhile experience. It forced me to think about physical space in new ways, and the humor was worth coming for all on its own.

A Grand Text Auto article made a lot of interesting comparisons between Passage and Portal, and I think that their conclusions are by and large valid. However, I happen not to agree (we're all entitled to our opinions, right? I'm sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with what I've said so far). The main point that I disagree with is the criticism that since Portal doesn't have deep philosophical underpinnings, it's just a collection of clever game mechanics and little more. They compare it to Mario Kart 64, which they point out is not really a game that many people play these days.

My answer to that is... well, sure -- not many people do play MK64 these days. However, I and many other people sunk countless hours into it in the few years after it came out. And if it hadn't been for MK64, arguably we wouldn't have had the two sequel Mario Kart games, both of which still are played at the present time. Most genres are iterative, and just because players move on to the most recent iterations after a few years doesn't mean that the stepping stones in the middle are worthless. I read different books now than I did when I was a kid, but those books I read as a kid were, in many ways, more formative than the ones I read now.

Varying Degrees Of Art
I can see how this sort of thinking is troubling when you start thinking of games purely as art -- because they aren't purely art, are they? Otherwise we'd just call them art and be done with it. Some games, like Passage and Gravitation, are almost purely art. Others, like Braid and Silent Hill 2, are a pretty good blend of art and gaming. Still others, like Mario Kart 64 and Portal, I'm hard-pressed to define as art at all.

These are all still worthwhile experiences
. There is more to life than just art and philosophy. There is also math and science (Portal with its spatial thinking), and there are also skills/trades/sports. Learning the timing and skills of MK64 might not be as productive as learning to build a treehouse with your kids, or taking up wood carving, but it is still a skill and I believe it can sharpen our minds and reflexes for other aspects of our lives. Plus, a multiplayer game like Mario Kart is a great way to connect and relax with friends and family.

I live in a gamer family, and most of our family gatherings are spent around the card table or around board games. The board and card games are an end in themselves, even though they aren't imparting artistic or philosophical wisdom, and they are also a vehicle through which my family can spend time together. The same is true of tennis, which we often play together -- there's nothing deep to be learned from your average game of tennis, but it is a skill that many people find valuable and worthwhile to pursue. There is room in this world for all kinds of games, I think, and they all teach us something different.

AI War Is Not Art
My most recent game, AI War : Fleet Command, is most assuredly not art. This does not offend me, I am not sad about this, and nor do I feel like it devalues the game. I think I've already established that a great many awesome games are not art. I think that pretty much all strategy and tactics games are not art -- they rarely have much of a meaningful story, and instead focus on hugely complicated feats of puzzle-solving, skill, and, well, strategy and tactics.

I don't feel like this is an insult. If it works for Chess, one of the oldest and most respected games ever, then I think it works for me and everyone else developing RTS/RTT/Turn-Based games. These games are about competition (against other players or the AI), and stretching your brain. They are tennis for your mind. There's a need for games like that just as much as there is a need for artistic games, and I don't believe that you can put relative value on one style of game versus the other. You or I might personally prefer one style or the other, but that mostly amounts to taste.

Games like Passage and Gravitation give players a new way to think about certain aspects of life, Braid gives players a new way to think about time and its consequences, Portal gives players a new way to think about certain spatial relationships, and AI War gives players a new way to think about strategic, military, and logistical problems. I couldn't be more pleased with how AI War turned out, since it has some legitimately new ideas in there and manages to approximate certain battlefield conditions better than any game that came before. But that doesn't make it art.

The Future For AI War
Like Mario Kart 64 and (possibly) Portal, does that mean that AI War is destined for obscurity in the span of a decade or two? Possibly, I guess. And I'm okay with that, if some of my novel ideas make it out into the genre at large. I will have made a permanent contribution to a certain school of thinking if that occurs, and that seems like a worthwhile accomplishment to me.

Long-term obscurity is not assured, though -- games like Warcraft III, Total Annihilation, Age of Empires II, and of course the venerable Starcraft are still very much alive and well today, a decade or more since they came out. Will AI War have the staying power of those other games? Only the oracle knows, but without the hardcore competitive component it seems less likely. But then again, I'm going to keep expanding the game for at least a couple of years, so by the end this is likely to be one of the largest strategy offerings around, so that might change the equation a bit.

Whatever happens, if I can entertain players for the next few months and years, possibly helping to evolve how they think about issues of strategy and logistics, then I'll be happy. Even if I had never released the game, I evolved how I think about these issues, and that was worthwhile in itself.

In Conclusion
I've already stated, repeatedly, that I think there is room for all kinds of games in this industry. I am a fan ("connoisseur" sounds pretentious, otherwise I'd say that) of almost all of them, so my games are going to be a reflection of that. My first attempt at a highly artistic game is going to be Cayenne, an action-RPG that I hope to release in late 2010 or sometime in 2011. Cayenne will be an adaptation, update, and expansion of the first novel I ever wrote. In many ways I want to try to accomplish something of what Silent Hill 2 did, albeit with entirely different subject matter.

Like great wines, great games come in all manner of varieties. What tastes awful to one person is another person's delicacy. There are very few games that are purely art, or even which have a high degree of art-to-game ratio, and so I'd like to see more of those. I could do with fewer crappy licensed games or generic shooters (but keep the good ones coming!), but in the end there's not one genre I can shake my finger at and say "you don't deserve to exist." In the end, no game is going to please everyone, but if it finds any audience at all, somebody found value in it. That's worthwhile enough for me.


Unknown said...

A bit of a necro here. I'm currently writing a review of AI War, explaining the artistic experience I have derived from the gameplay. Just thought you'd like to know.

Christopher M. Park said...

Cool! While I don't think that AI War is inherently art, that definitely doesn't mean that players can't derive an artistic experience from it. In fact, it seems like people in general derive artistic experiences from all sorts of non-art aspects of life, which is one of the coolest things about art.

And, of course, it's all semantics anyway, when one speaks broadly about a subject like this. What individuals do or don't experience is so much more concrete and real.