Monday, June 1, 2009

Playing with Art, Continued

I’d like to offer a sort of response today to a post Daniel wrote a little while ago. (“Response” may not be the right word. Continuation? Sequel? ...Pastiche? One of those.) In any case, here’s my take on the dramatic potential of the gaming medium, as well as my take on its shortcomings. I shall also mount a withering rebuttal against its critics; be warned, for I stand tall upon my soap box. I agree with Daniel on a key point here: video games offer a storytelling medium that in many ways differs from past disciplines, and should be understood entirely on its own terms. The genre’s detractors have unfairly maligned it by holding it up to the standards of other realms of art, asserting that it fails to claim the dramatic ambition of literature or the visual vibrancy of film. This line of reasoning is nonsensical; I could as easily point out that the Moonlight Sonata lacks Picasso’s visual aesthetic, or that Picasso himself populates his works with characters lacking the depth or complexity of those presented by a Rushdie or an Updike. In short, an apple is a thoroughly deficient orange. To ignore the proper category of a video game and lump it in with seemingly similar creations – to group it with the movie because of its presentation, or with the superhero comic because of its content – presents a misguided estimation of both its current worth and its potential for future achievement. When one judges, say, Braid against Casablanca, one’s initial assessment of the former cannot help but be overwhelmingly negative: there is not the same reach for visual metaphor, nor are the characters drawn with the same depth; Braid can be sometimes accused of naked ambition in its structure, while Casablanca earns its dramatic heft slowly and by measures. This judgment would, however, be remiss on two counts. First, where Braid has obvious shortcomings when held against a classic, it also has a manifest – if less heralded – merit: namely, the narrative moves at the pace of the player. Victory or defeat carry more weight as they are bought with effort and dedication, triumph grants greater satisfaction as it is the culmination of work. This immersion is the aspect of the video game that is irreproducible in any other medium, and it is on the strength of such an immersion that the best games expand the boundaries of the territory to encompass ground unmapped. The second point to remember is that video games remain in their relative infancy. This is crucial to any attempt to properly judge their current progress: a reasonable historian would designate the birth of the modern video game at or around 1972, when Pong was introduced to arcades. (An even more generous historian, when judging modern games, would move the start date to 1985 – when Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. and popularized the platformer.) This puts the age of the industry at roughly 37 years (or 24). The movie could be said to trace its origins from the 1878 filming of the horse “Sallie Gardner,” though a more agreed-upon beginning can be found in the 1888 film Roundhay Garden Scene. The first narrative films were Christian documentaries on the life of Jesus, produced first in France in 1897; the first stab at continuity was made by Robert W. Paul’s Come Along, Do! in 1898. This means that Braid, made in 2008, is the product of an industry and an art somewhere between 24 and 37 years old. Casablanca, made in 1942, is the effort of a medium at the ripe old age of at least 44 - or even 54, or 64, depending on which “origin” story you buy for film. Braid – along with other games that have been cited for their artistic reach – is still the work of an art that has not fully grown into its adulthood. I would argue that it is following the developmental arc common to every innovation: it is still seen as a diversion, as the indulgence of the ignorant. It should be remembered that sushi, in its modern form, was considered fast food in Edo Period Japan; the novel had its start in fancifully fictional “histories” popular in the 15th century; the tragedy was, initially, the drunken culmination of the Dionysian orgy. Humble beginnings, indeed. We are still in the drunken, fanciful, fictional, fast food era of gaming. To measure these early rumblings against the heights of established art is to improperly chart the course of the future; we end by saying “Here is the extent of its progress,” rather than “Here is the promise of its beginnings.” The Mexican director Guillermo del Toro – once confined largely to superhero and fantasy cinema, now called upon for arthouse fare – spoke on the potential for the video game in a recent interview in Wired magazine. In his words:

In the next 10 years, we're going to see all the forms of entertainment—film, television, video, games, and print—melding into a single-platform "story engine." The Model T of this new platform is the PS3. The moment you connect creative output with a public story engine, a narrative can continue over a period of months or years. It's going to rewrite the rules of fiction….Think about the way oral tradition became written word—how what we know about Achilles was written many, many years after it made its way around the world with different names and different types of heroes. That can happen when you allow content to keep propagating itself through different kinds of platforms and engines—when you permit it to be retold with a promiscuous form of mythology. You see it when people create their own avatars in games and transfigure their game worlds.
Heady stuff. I like the idea of promiscuous mythology, and I strongly endorse del Toro’s likening today’s games to the Model T. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we strap jet engines to the thing and see how far it can fly. In the reasonably near future, I want to discuss where I think games should be headed to better fulfill their potential, and what changes I’ll look for before I’ll be willing to call the medium mature. In the meantime, though, what are your thoughts? What do games lack now that serious art possesses, and how can they grow up?


  1. While we may be a decade or two from the Casablanca of Video Games, check your timeline; have we already found the Jazz Singer? Would the Wii qualify as a genre-redefining device, opening up gaming to much wider populations? Just a thought. And who do we get to host the Gaming Oscars?

    Kratos: "And now, the nominees for Best RPG..... actually, nevermind. I'll just kill everyone in this room."

  2. I like your idea that the Wii (or perhaps Wii Sports and company) is the Jazz Singer of video games, if only because that implies that video games are going to get more complex, interesting and profound as time goes on, and not less. The casual trend that the Wii has sparked has disheartened many gamers looking for rich experiences, but this theory makes it seem more like the jumping-off point to something greater.

    To that I say: right on.


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