Friday, May 21, 2010

The Real Question (and Answer)

In response to Christopher Totten's Gamasutra blog post, "Roger Ebert: Hero of Videogame Discourse?":

While I agree that Ebert's challenge ultimately will be beneficial to games, I disagree with the angle this essay approaches it.

When you started applying how games can be considered as social artifacts that reflects the society we live in, I must argue that virtually anything people create today can be considered just that. It's nothing unique to games.

But I think we're missing the point here.

Agreeing with Max Bowman, I think the real question is not if game is art, but if it can achieve enough artistic value to be accepted as a valuable asset to our society, and to humanity at large. I think Ebert was also asking this when he initially brought it up--he compares it to other works that he considers to have more "value." Even when he declares that games can never be art, he doesn't say game != art, but rather, people will never create a game with enough artistic value.

I know that people are actually arguing that games can achieve this status when they say that game is art. And I do agree with them, however, I do not agree with the reasons: Shadow of Colossus or Ico or a few other pop video games.

Today's games share one and only goal: to reach point B. The winning condition is to see the end of a story. Gameplay is used to make that travel from point A to B interesting, to immerse players into those elaborate, virtual worlds. At the point B, some event occurs, then again, a new point B is revealed. Player starts trotting down the path again. If delivering story is the focus, then game is not the best medium to use. Shadow of Colossus or Ico is all good, but the thing is, it still falls short--very short--of taking full advantage of what is unique to games.

Instead, I think Brenda Brathwaite got it right. Goals and rules (not mere game mechanics) are the swords and spears of games. They're what's unique about the games, and should be utilized to create unique experiences. Her games, Train and Middle Passage, does just that. The experiences you get while playing those games, are quite unlike anything else. Playing Middle Passage is nothing like watching Amistad, for example.

I think devs really should start thinking about not small machanics to make pulling that trigger feel good, but rather a bigger picture of the meaning of each and every rules and goals. All the techniques at how to utilize these in creative ways will, in my opinion, form games own language and ultimately grant games more artistic values that we are hungry for.

UPDATE: The author of the post responded to my comments. My response to his is also attached.

@Peter Park: I would argue against the goal of games simply being "to reach point B." Maybe in a game such as "Final Fantasy XIII" or some FPS's where the game is a long winding tunnel, but there are many more games where the journey can provide a wonderful aesthetic experience or allow for deep reflection. I, despite your arguments to the contrary, would cite Shadow of the Colossus as one (am I actually doing evil by killing the colossi?), as I would many of the Super Mario games (the aesthetic of a beautiful cartoon world/galaxy and the joy of movement.) I can understand your frustration and belief that the "A to B" system is where the meat of many games are, but I think you're underestimating the point of many of those mechanics in the middle. Braid is a good example of a game where you must take an avatar from a starting point to reach a goal (a puzzle piece), but I would say that the mechanics of reversing time and other time-manipulation tricks are what make the game a rich experience. Ultimately, when the player does reach the "ultimate B", the end of the game where the true nature of his relationship with the princess is revealed, the game's time manipulation mechanics are revealed to be a part of a much broader and richer theme. Do all games use their mechanics in an artistically meaningful way? Of course not. But that doesn't mean that there are no pieces of art to be found in pop games.

@Christopher Totten: You say that the point of video games may lie within the journey between point A and B. I don't disagree completely. However, saying that is, IMHO, same as taking a book, and trying to make the book look aesthetically pleasing, like monks did in Medieval Age where they wrote a same book over and over while trying to make each letter as beautifully as possible. The work can be appreciated as artistry in writing skills, but it misses the point of writing a book: communication.

The gameplay between point A to B can be masterfully done, as it has in Super Mario Galaxy (to come to light, I've yet to play this game. But I have no doubt that it is fun... I do plan on playing this some time in future). However, my argument is that game as a medium can be used to do so much more than making pushing A button fun, just as a book can do much more than be a display of scribing skill.

For Braid, while it was indeed an exciting revelation at the end, I think the movie Memento was infinitely better implementation of backward progression of story and that "oh-shit" moment to put an exclamation point at the end. Even for Shadow of Colossus, I strongly believe that it could be a better experience were some master studios like Studio IG to create Original Video Animation of it.

My point is that there are other mediums to do a singular, uni-directional narrative experience better than an interactive medium can do. To really realize the full potential of game, I believe we should focus on the system itself than just game mechanics or telling stories.

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