Finished and unfinished video-games

25 07 2012

I never understood the argument that video-games are unfinished. It’s usually brought up during a discussion about whether or not video-games are art. As it’s usually phrased, the argument goes something like this: a video-game is like a pencil or a brush, a tool to make art, perhaps, but not art itself. This is because, by interacting with the video-game, the player shapes it into being as a work of art.

As a life-long gamer, I cannot make heads or tails out of this line of reasoning. Certainly, you can use video-games as an artistic tool, if you so wish. For instance, you have “machinima,” which is the art of making movies within the visual space of a video game. There are also filmed speed runs through a regular video-game session, an activity closer to a sport performance, where the skill of a player is shared online for the admiration of many. But neither of these shape the video-game into being, as a work of art or otherwise. They are, in fact, new products, separate from the original.

Now, you might say: “Well, sure. A video-game is finished, as a product, before you play it. But it is not a work of art. You can, however, use it to make works of art, like machinima.” This is still strange. Admittedly, video-games are an impure medium. They can behave like a board game, they can have cinematics or movie-like interludes, they can slot whole novels into hyper-linked menus, and they can even adopt the aesthetics of a spreadsheet. Multiple media languages interact within the space of a single work, and it can be rather difficult to determine what, exactly, video games are.

With so many traps to ensnare the intrepid investigator, a few things should be clarified. As if the medium were not thorny enough, commentators with no video-game experience insist on contributing to the debate, muddying it up. During a printed conversation between Roger Ebert and Clive Barker, the following claim was made: if Romeo and Juliet had been a video-game, players could have chosen the happy ending. Ebert then said: Art is about an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. Now, berating Ebert for his thoughts on video games has become passé, but the stance he’s defending is not his alone, and the point he’s communicating is key to the “games are tools for art, not art” argument. The problem is not that I disagree with his opinion. The problem is that his opinion is certifiably false.

Romeo and Juliet: The Game would not necessarily give players infinite choices. It could, but a team of designers would have to script these choices, and, most likely, would never even bother, as the vast majority of video-games have only one ending anyways. Whenever a video-game has multiple endings, the fact’s advertised in visible ways. “Branching story-lines! Your actions determine the plot!” All plastered in big letters on the box, right below the title. Otherwise, the video-game will have a single, inexorable ending. This is precisely the theme behind Shadow of the Colossus, where the continuous slaughter of hulking demigods inspires guilt in the player, without a more peaceful option ever being made available, outside of shutting off the game system. You can also close a book or walk away from a movie.

The “video-game as a tool” argument sounds logical to those who don’t play video-games. It hinges on the idea that players somehow change the meaning of a video-game, or make the video-game mean whatever they want it to mean, through their interaction. This is understandable if video-games are interpreted through the filter of film. In a movie, meaning is derived from the fixed and endlessly repeatable choreography of images and actors; while in a video-game, the choreography and rhythm of imagery and characters is often up to the player. Thus, a perception arises that a video-game is like a sound-stage before a film-shoot begins. Except not. Machinima notwithstanding, most players don’t make art when they play.

Oh, sure. You have modifications, or mods. This is when players use a game’s graphics engine to build a different game or add content to the original. But that happens in film, too, with found-footage avant-garde shorts, for instance. The sort made by Martin Arnold or Peter Tscherkassky, who re-cut and re-shape older movies to produce new, startling visions. We have another analogue in film coloration. Ted Turner was a film modder. Is film, thus, artistically incomplete? Yes, in as so far as no art is complete. Even a book can be re-issued and re-printed, with each new edition containing unique misprints or para-textual information – binding, cover, prologue, introduction, etc. – that changes and re-frames the content of the text. Is literature artistically incomplete, too? The point is that, when a viewer approaches art, there are always two choices: muck around with the contents or submerge utterly into them, like the scientists in a Sound of Thunder, who can walk among dinosaurs but cannot – or are not supposed to – modify their surroundings. And, if you do muck around with the contents, the result is either a new product, as with machinima, or an altered version of the original, as with colorized film.

Can you submerge utterly into a video-game’s contents? Well, yes. This is strikingly obvious, but, to know this, you have to have played video-games. Sure, in some titles, like RPG Maker, Second Life, Sleep is Death, and Minecraft, players are responsible for much of the in-game content. But these are rare. Most video-games offer linear or multilinear paths with pre-scripted narratives and laboriously pre-built environments. Players might have a choice about where to go and when, but they’re not making anything up. At all turns, they enter areas that have been constructed for their discovery. Players enjoy this. I enjoy this. As Ebert argues, a certain lack of control, a distance, is necessary for art to be appreciated as such. It is part of the out-of-body experience, where foreign ideas and themes meet our personal, investigative eye. And, importantly, this happens in a narrative landscape. Some of the best video games – though not all – are closer to architecture than to film. Video-games give us a space, a constructed environment in which to move, exert our own creativity (to a point), and interact with a landscape charged with meaning. The story of a video-game is around us. We walk or run above, under, through, past, or besides it. The decadent art-deco funhouse horror of Bioshock and the lonely, harrowing spaceship in System Shock 2, with their cataclysmic and enigmatic tales of disaster, slowly uncovered in environmental details and audio recordings; the cyberpunk trappings of Deus Ex, with its mountains of readable newspapers and books; the ancient ruins of Metroid Prime, with their tortured back-story available as a series of scannable records; the melancholy, sorrowful island of Dear Esther, with its ghostly narration; the dreamy, nostalgic, memory-space of the house in Braid; the Medieval 2.0 faux-pixelated pastiche of Superbrothers; the tranquil, alien, moody labyrinths of Knytt;  the sweeping pixel-shaded vistas of Dragon Quest VIII; and the distorted, deranged, rainbow-nightmare of Majora’s Mask. None of these environments can be changed or altered in any way by the player. They can only be discovered. Like a building or a garden, but built for the express reason of conveying a narrative universe. Even a text-based adventure, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, is about a city, a space where things happen, and we run into them or not. This brand of storytelling, admittedly, is of a different kind than that found in movies. But storytelling it is, and it inhabits a different aesthetic territory.

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