In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been orbiting around two gravity wells of interest. On the one side, I’ve been eager to play and beat games that have been decomposing in my Steam list. As such, I’ve managed to get through:
- Call of Duty: Black Ops
- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (What can I say? “Pop gaming” interests me; both COD games were short and not particularly interesting, but I felt compelled to play something simple and thought-dulling.)
- Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction (an awesome game with some really enjoyable gameplay mechanics)
Beating those three games was a major victory for me because I generally don’t commit myself well to beating games. Far too often, I think of myself as a “collector,” which is an absurd notion given the fact that there is nothing physical about my Steam game collection. It might as well be water vapor for all the collector value it holds.
The second gravity well I’ve been orbiting is a bit more philosophical. It’s been a question that’s been floating in the back of my mind since I wrote my last piece on the future of gaming. What is so special about games that can make it a distinct medium from every other form of art? Every form of art is presented through a medium. Every medium has a strength that serves the purpose of the art. Let’s take a look at some popular media and see how they aid art’s purpose:
- Film: A visual and auditory journey, crafted to be consumed in a single sitting
- Television: A visual and auditory journey, crafted to be consumed in multiple sittings (for a series, which is more easily viewed as a art, rather than say, a stand-alone episode of a sitcom)
- Novel: A narrative capable of exploring multiple characters; unique for the ease by which an author can explore a character’s mind.
- Poetry: A medium for playing with the beauty of language, while generally being a concise and effective way to explore emotions.
- Graphic novels: The merger of visual media with novels, able to tell and show the reader something in a way that can be more introspective than other media.
- Traditional visual art (such as paintings, sculpture, photography): A piece that places extreme focus on visual elements and design
- Video games: ???
Actually, I don’t see this as being a particularly difficult question. I view the strength of video games as an artistic medium to be self-evident: interactivity.
The most successful games to be called art are those games that elicit strong emotions, while at the same time connecting the player to the work through interactivity. This interactivity can come in multiple forms. It can be an emergent experience, through which during the course of play, the player is exposed to a complex and deep narrative–a narrative that may or may not have been “programmed” into the experience. It could also come in the form of a player being made to engage directly with the world in order to progress through a story. This is a strength of novels, but when you allow the player to make decisions that ultimately affect the outcome of the story, then this story becomes a deeper, more meaningful experience for the player.
In addition to the Call of Duty and Splinter Cell games, I also played Analogue: A Hate Story, an Indie title from developer, Christine Love. It’s a science fiction adventure game that has the player investigate the logs of a derelict “generation ship.” The generation ship is a large space vessel designed to fly to other planets (over the course of centuries) to eventually form new colonies. It’s got a heavy Korean feel to it and while I am not normally a fan of the anime style (probably fodder for another essay), it’s subdued and well-done.
The player interacts with the game by reading logs, and then asking one of two AI programs to comment on what the player just read. Eventually, the player discovers the reason behind why the generation ship became derelict and can resolve the story by siding with one or none of the AI programs.
For a game that takes place entirely within the constructs of a command prompt and a bunch of dialog entries, Analogue: A Hate Story is a great example of how even the simplest of games can use interactivity to enhance its own artistic value. Taken as a standalone story, the surprise reveal in the game would not have been particularly interesting. However, since the player must work to find out what happened on the ship and to the AI, the payoff is more rewarding.
Analogue: A Hate Story is a very simple game, one that I will probably not return to since I got what I wanted out of it. I do recommend playing it though, as its structure is something I hope we might see more of in the future, particularly as the medium continues to mature.
The potential of video games to be an effective art form continues to improve as developers take risks and use new ways to bring the player into the experience. The “Citizen Kane of gaming” might be a long way off, but at least we are seeing improvements across the form.
I, for one, am excited to see what the future holds.