Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Art and the Game

I've been thinking recently about how video games are perceived. Yes, I know, not exactly a “deep” subject, but stay with me. For some reason that I don't fully grasp, video games seem to be relegated to second-class status compared to other forms of entertainment.

It's easy to see how this could have started. A quarter century ago, video games were fairly primitive. Your character was a blocky splotch on a screen drawn in black and white, or at best, preschool colors. Music and sound were equally primitive or nonexistent. The plot (when there was one) was insulting to an adult's intelligence. Most grown-ups didn't want to play video games for the same reason that they didn't feel inclined to eat macaroni and cheese very often: maybe their kids thought it was great, but their experienced palate demanded something more sophisticated. Only a very few games rose above the crowd and had something resembling a real plot, but most of those were text-based interactive fiction, meaning you had to type out what you wanted your character to do, then read the result. The primitive text parsers of the time made this less than fun: it's kind of hard to get into the story when you're too busy trying to figure out which synonym of the word “attach” the parser will accept. And for every really good IF title, there were scores of lousy ones.

The perceptions didn't keep pace with the technology. Many games today have deep and interesting plots coupled with equally deep and interesting gameplay. The visuals are beginning to seriously rival Hollywood. The beeps that passed for sound and music have been replaced with high-quality sound effects and rich soundtracks. I have played some games with soundtracks recorded by full orchestras. There's even a rich and vibrant independent game industry.

In fact, the visuals are now becoming so realistic that I think they're starting to suffer from the opposite problem: diminishing returns. I mean, it's amazing that the technology can make a rendering of a human that is so detailed that you could count the pores on their face, but ironically, the closer a rendering gets to reality, the less impact each improvement has. Games (and CG effects in general) have been going for hyper-realism, but what I want to see is hyper-unrealism. I see pores every day when I look in the mirror; show me something that I have never seen before. In fact, this trailer for the upcoming game “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet” is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Anyway, there's one thing that a game can do which Hollywood's offerings cannot: actively engage you in the proceedings. Because you control the actions of the protagonist, the character becomes an extension of yourself. A well-crafted game will nurture that relationship so that you feel empathy with the protagonist more than would be possible with a film. Games which employ the first-person perspective take it even one step further, having you see the world through the protagonist's eyes. Some even make the protagonist silent and give no clues to their identity, thereby allowing you to make yourself the protagonist. (Human beings seem to have an odd way of filling out missing information with parts of themselves, resulting in a combined work that's more compelling than the work alone. It's why a monster movie is scarier when you never get a good look at the monster until the end, and why people are often disappointed with movie versions of books.)

Despite these advantages, the video game remains a lesser citizen in the entertainment world. Video games are not recognized by any of the major award shows, the increasing blur between movies and games notwithstanding. While movie soundtracks can be found nearly anywhere music is sold, game soundtracks, which are often just as good these days, are rarely seen. Many people accept that some movies can be considered art, but few grant the same status to games, despite the fact that their production frequently involves many of the same artistic skills. Why can an actor perform or a composer write music for a movie, and it's art, but if they do it for a game, it's not?

If you want to experience games as art for yourself, I'd suggest the following, in no particular order:


Anonymous said...

I ran into Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet last week. It looks awesome. Have you played Paper Moon?

Robert said...

Yes, I have. I forgot to list it. I've added it and “Psychonauts” to the list.