An entire subgenre...
October 01, 2008

Discussion on some forum I go on about Mass Effect leads to discussion about the nature of videogames as art. In a bizarre example of misjudgement, I thought some may be interested in what I had to say, so it's below.

This is in response to a suggestion that the truly great and important games fall into "an entire subgenre of entertainment of their own, richer than any Mario (no matter how good) will ever be."

I'd be interested to see what people's opinions are on the matter.

It's interesting, isn't it? While I loved Mario Galaxy - and it is a wonderfully-crafted videogame - it'll never appear on the cultural register of anyone outside of the medium (aside from the fact that, well, it's Mario). To have a mass appeal as a work of art (whether a game can be a work of art is another debate, but the short answer is: yes, it can), there needs to be a richness to the concept or fiction beyond what's expected simply of that medium.

Novels have the benefit of being pure storytelling, and as such, there's only one factor to analyse in deciding whether the thing's good or not (arguably two if you consider the quality of the writing, but I think that quality's a given at the high level we're talking about). Films have more to consider, but the movie industry is so central to so many cultures that almost everyone's familiar with all the facets of a good film.

Games are more complex. They're seen as a pure leisure activity, and not in any way an academic or creative pursuit. Mario, while great, does nothing to change this viewpoint - and nor should it, really. Even the games that non-gamers talk fondly of (Pong, PacMan, Tetris, Doom, Mario 64, Sim City, The Sims, Spore... just to go through the years; you could argue that The Sims has some social relevance as a life study, but you'd be wrong, because it's programmed) remain entirely fixed in the realms of 'something to have fun with', whereas I doubt anyone would refer to - fucking hell, I don't know - Ulysses as "a fun read".

So the games at the top of my pile, since I primarily approach things from a creative standpoint and relish in developers trying to be more artistic in their approach, tend to be the ones that achieve something more than pure fun-factor. Bizarrely, these games almost always fail to sell in any significant number to the non-gaming public, and yet they're arguably the titles that non-gamers would get the most out of. This is one of the reasons I thought BioShock and - to a lesser extent - Mass Effect were important releases, because on top of their fabulous storytelling ability and interesting political and social arguments, they were also incredibly commercial in their gameplay approach.

If you look at all the finest games (in this sense) over the past few years, all have been culturally relevant in some way. Half-Life and System Shock 2 arrived at the birth of the 'fear of technology' era, in the midst of the Millennium Bug scare. Deus Ex arrived in a Matrix-obsessed universe. But all of these are pulp fiction at heart, pure pop for the masses, misjudged in their approach as complex, user-unfriendly games (Half-Life is the slight exception, but that only sold in the millions because, well, it was the greatest game ever made). Now, we're seeing a new breed. Invisible War uses a pop-sci-fi front to talk about the dubious nature of some organised religion. Half-Life 2 reveals the terror of living under an opressive government at war. Bloodlines talks about social hierarchies and the horrors of the organised crime world, but makes all the characters vampires to draw in outside blood. BioShock does a similar thing but with more of an emotional gut-punch to the story. Maybe that's why BioShock's been probably the most popular with casual gamers, but I still rarely hear any "intellectuals" discuss this sort of stuff in comparison to other great artistic works. I wonder what we need to do to change it.

My bet? More of this sort of thing. It's still in such a minority, and I can't understand at all why people aren't buying into it.

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Suskie Suskie - October 01, 2008 (01:14 PM)
It goes without saying that video games are meant to entertain, but one area that the non-gaming world doesn't often take into consideration is just how much potential for the advancement of storytelling that games offer. Look at Mass Effect, which I think is the perfect example. Here you've got a game that functions to entertain, sure, but also offers the kind of storytelling depth that no other form of media could hope emulate. That's because books, movies and TV shows all lead characters along set paths toward predestined outcomes. With Mass Effect, we really see how involved the audience can become, how the player can literally shape the plot as they go along. I've played through the game three times now, and each time I've been blown away by the impact that each of your decisions has, and how broadly it can affect the direction the story goes.

Remember how Roger Ebert famously spoke out on his belief that video games are not art? If I were ever to get into a serious conversation with him on the subject, I'd use Mass Effect as my prime example. This is a guy who's been professionally reviewing films since long before most of us have even been alive; I know he appreciates deep and innovative storytelling techniques. His problem is that he doesn't understand that there can be so much more to video games than, I don't know, shooting aliens or whatever. I don't blame him for being ignorant on the subject, considering his age, and especially since his highest exposure to video games has been the awful movies they inspired. But I do blame him for being so outspoken on a subject he knows so little about. We gamers scoff at him not because we disagree, but because he simply doesn't know what he's talking about.

Could BioShock also be labeled as a storytelling experience that couldn't be recreated in any other medium? I guess, but for different reasons. Irrational created this beautiful, unique world from the ground up, and wanted us to explore it from our own perspective, not from the predetermined viewpoint of some fictional character. It could be argued that the twists in the final act wouldn't work in a movie, and I agree, but I honestly don't think that was the focus of the game. The focus was in keeping us absorbed in this fictional underwater city, and it did that well, and like no other form of media could.

As for the game itself, I believed we've already established that there is no such thing as "too much debate" about BioShock among us HG dwellers; to repeat what's already been said a million times, you could take out the narrative and it wouldn't be nearly as special a game. Bringing it up in the same breath as Mass Effect is something I'm opposed to, largely because of the intentions of both teams. The so-called "moral dilemmas" in BioShock were hilariously half-assed; thing is, I don't think they were meant to be a focal point in the overall design, which is why I didn't so much as mention them in my review.

I'd say you could have made some of your points in that big paragraph near the end a little clearer. You bring up Half-Life 2, for example, as a revelation of the terror derived from living under an oppressive government, but isn't that a concept we've seen underlined in hundreds of movies and books? If you mean to say that its point of view transports you into that world rather than making you a casual onlooker, then I agree, and that's the narrative strength that something like Half-Life 2 can provide: We're not just watching these events, or reading them. We're experiencing them for ourselves. I don't know about you, but when I was younger, I would watch the old Star Wars movies and then daydream about piloting an X-Wing down the trench of a Death Star, because it looked like fun. And then, years later, I played Star Wars Rogue Leader and discovered: Hey, this IS fun! That's the power of video games.

There are some, like Super Mario Galaxy, that contain nothing more than what's on the surface. They don't reach for new narrative heights, and exist only to please. I have no problem with that. Hell, if a Mario game offered branching conversations and moralistic life-or-death conversations, it would be silly and out of place. Those games are always welcome. It's the games like Mass Effect, however, that really demonstrate what we gamers can experience that no one else can.
Lewis Lewis - October 01, 2008 (02:13 PM)
My point wasn't that Half-Life 2 et al say something that no other medium can, but that it's silly to dismiss the videogame when it can deliver an equivalent story to film, literature, whatever, from its own unique standpoint. But I do think HL2 is a prime example of something that wouldn't work in any other medium (aside from perhaps as a faux-documentary), more so than something like BioShock, which wouldn't work solely because of its 'videogame parody' twist. Half-Life 2 was the first game where I felt the actual world was the starring character (even in a game where Alyx Vance exists, too), and exploring it and existing in it was the primary effect. Which other media do this to the same level? In terms of fiction, I can't think of anything. Paintings or photography, maybe, but they only provide a snapshot.

Videogames have the advantage - and I'm quickly moving away from my original point here, so forgive me - for precisely this reason. No other medium allows for the reader to create his/her own interpretation in this way. There's a Source mod called Dear Esther which is a prime example of this, though the game itself is weak and unfocussed. The player visits an island, and the only showed narrative is a series of randomly presented letters from someone who once visited the island. Through these letters, combined with the player's own exploration of the world, it is possible to unwravel a story - but no two interpretations will be the same. Each is absolutely valid, and can reach astonishing and revelatory conclusions. It's haunting. There is literally no other art form that can achieve this.
Suskie Suskie - October 01, 2008 (05:47 PM)
That's the point that I was getting at. It's a shame the non-gaming world can't understand what drives us.

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