Videogames as Art?

Attention 360 fanboys – HALO IS NOT A GOOD SPACE OPERA.

I’m going to upset a lot of people by saying that, for the most part, video games are not a form of art. There are only a handful of games, particularly in recent times, which even approach the level required to be considered even remotely like art. They’re a form of media, but they haven’t yet managed to get to the same level as movies or stories… at least not in mainstream gaming. Many of you are probably saying “But Soldant, I HATE YOU and there are awesome games which are so artistic and wonderful and engaging.” Allow me to pick out a few examples to show why they are not really on par with movies. For games to ever reach that stage, they need to become pieces of interactive fiction, kind of like what Heavy Rain tried to do. In fact it’s Heavy Rain’s release which has prompted this kind of discussion.

1: DEUS EX
What’s good about Deus Ex is that it has a gripping storyline that twists and turns into a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. Its characters are compelling, the setting is near-future enough that it’s not a flying car utopia but a gritty hell hole, and there’s enough background detail to flesh out the game world. Deus Ex might have made a very interesting book, if it was linear. Still with all the strong points it doesn’t approach the same level as a movie because there’s still an abundant form of combat and stealth attached, which is fine for a game, but ultimately it breaks the storyline down a bit into a series of combat sequences. It’s fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t seemlessly blend the two.

2: HALF LIFE SERIES
The Half Life series is commonly quoted as being one of the best written games ever, and I half agree, half disagree. I agree because it’s a compelling storyline which keeps you guessing, and if it was crap there wouldn’t be heated debates about it online. But what makes the storyline so compelling is that there’s practically no information given. It’s like the videogame version of Lost; answer every question with a new question. “Who is The G-Man?” “Um… why does Eli Vance seem to know him?” And on and on it goes. Also, at its heart, the HL series are still FPS games where you shoot at things before taking a break to listen to characters talk to you as if you know everything. It’s good beause it immerses you in the game world, but it isn’t always a seamless blend. Fantastic game, not quite on par with interactive fiction and mass appeal.

3: HALO
Halo is an average video game, and its storyline is average, despite spawning books and pointless crap that doesn’t need to exist. I’ve vented my hate towards Halo’s undeserved success several times before, but that’s not my point. My point this time is that anybody who honestly believes that Halo’s storyline is the pinnacle of space operas should go read the back of a box of Special K; it’ll blow their tiny minds, because it’s more interesting than Halo’s plot. RedvsBlue’s plot is better, and it’s just a mess of pointless jokes. Don’t bring it up again.

4: Mass Effect 1 and 2
“Oooohh,” you’re thinking to yourself, “he didn’t just pick on the best game of 2010 so far, did he?” Yeah, I did, but I have a good reason. ME’s storyline is top-notch and is well acted, which would almost certainly get it up there in the interactive fiction realm, but it does have a downfall; the transition between combat and storyline is pretty jarring. You have a storyline sequence before you go fight enemies in an arena-style environment. That’s fine from a gameplay perspective, but not so good if you want to call your game a work of art.

So what does a game need to do to be more like interactive fiction and less like a game with a particularly good storyline, which is never going to win major acclaim outside of the gaming world. Let’s take a look at a few good examples of what might become real gaming artworks…

1: GRIM FANDANGO
GF’s unique environment is supported by a cast of amusing characters that are well acted and stay with you long after the game is over. It’s a completely linear experience, but it doesn’t really matter. The storyline carries the game and it does a fantastic job of it too. There’s no real way to “fail” Grim Fandango, only a way to delay the time taken to get to the end. It’s a good experience but unfortunately it’s rather dated and had poor controls.

2: Planescape – Torment
PS:T gets a mention here because it’s mostly story driven with a few RPG elements attached to it. The vast majority of it though is story driven and death has few real penalties for the majority of the game. The storyline is fantastic and is mostly connected through meaningful in-game actions, but it occasionally falls into that combat-trap which seems to be there for the trigger happy players. Then again it’s not an RPG without a bit of killing, is it? Still the story sits at the forefront and it’s smoothly connected without too many jarring stops.

3: HEAVY RAIN
Yeah, who didn’t see this one coming? Heavy Rain was created with the intention of telling a story, nothing more and nothing less. If anything has the potential to transcend a storyline joined together by a series of shooting sequences, it’s Heavy Rain. It’s got a great story with pretty good acting (which could have been better but was still good), with an element of non-linearity to it. More importantly though is that it uses a basic gameplay mechanic to enhance the story, not to simply string things together. There’s no rest or break in the actual storyline, even when you’re hitting quicktime events in combat, the entire thing blends in together. Ultimately, anybody could pick this up and “play” through the murder mystery… but is it really a game? Arguably not because there isn’t much “gameplay” here.

What do you notice from that list? Namely, they’re games that de-emphasise action and put a greater importance on the story. Ultimately that’s what can turn these games into “art”. Nobody wins prizes for making a tight shooter any more than somebody could say that Tetris is a work of art. It’s a good game, but it’s not going to be analysed like Milton’s Paradise Lost. FPS games with a strong story exist but they’re still FPS games, and the story is strung together between lengthy periods where you simply kill things as quickly as possible. Mass Effect and ME2 sit on the borderline; they have incredibly strong RPG elements with a fantastic storyline, but they still have sequences where you rip your way through a sequence of enemies as quickly as possible. Ultimately that can’t really happen in a game which wants to be taken 100% seriously, because the focus must be on the end result of the story, not how fast your trigger finger was in one of the shooting sequences.

I’m excited to see where games like Heavy Rain will take gaming, and how they might incorporate new elements to further expand on what they’ve got right now. A strong storyline isn’t always enough to elevate games out of the realm of gamers. It has to flow properly too.

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