Tag Archives: games

Games as Art – Part 3

3 Feb

Games are not movies. It’s obvious isn’t it, not a fact that escapes anyone? Well, not really, no. Developers, especially in the current generation of games, but going back to early titles like Dragon’s Lair, have sought to emulate the on-screen excitement of a big-budget blockbuster. Prime examples are some of the most successful current generation titles, and some of the most critically acclaimed. This is a worrying trend in some ways. While it creates a game that feels like an exciting rollercoaster ride, it also removes any hint of substance from proceedings. There is opportunity to explore storytelling possibilities, yes, but only through cut-scenes. This is redundant, it’s almost as if the developer and writer wanted to make a film and decided to throw in a few interactive sequences.

I’ve read many times that the sequence in Call of Duty 4, in which you crawl from a helicopter destroyed by a nuclear explosion, is pivotal, wonderful and dramatic. It’s not though, it’s a pointless attempt to use interactivity to add drama to the moment, but it amounts to pushing ‘up’ on the controller or keyboard. It looks great, genuinely like a movie, but it’s a game, and the vague reminder that we need to keep pressure on the controls is hardly using that to help tell any story. If Gradius had an overblown and complex plot, would anyone have cared? Of course not, it’s a shooting game. So is Call of Duty, but with the graphical power at developers fingertips they can make it more than that. But why bother? A poor version of a Tom Clancy adaptation is hardly going to keep me playing, the gameplay does, same as in the past, and enough of its audience are quite content with explosions as drama.

It makes sense that games turned to Hollywood for inspiration, to be fair. We do a lot of shooting, running and jumping, it’s like playing the action hero. Alongside Call of Duty; Uncharted, Gears of War and many others give the player the feeling that they are the hero of a Michael Bay movie. It’s fun, I won’t deny that, but again, that’s the gameplay. The stories are poorly acted (Lester Speight aside) and poorly written, merely tacked on as a sort of reward to the player, some vague sense of progress in lieu of a high-score. A phoned-in celebrity voice cast is usually enough to gain high praise though, and so we rarely see much better in that sense either. Big explosions, set-pieces which involve the player’s character, but are purely background are exciting, but at this point it’s easy to ignore them, games are over-saturated with these movie moments and ultimately, they add little to the overall experience unless used extremely sparingly.

I suppose though, for once, I should give Infinity Ward a little credit. They did attempt to use the interactivity of the medium to make a dramatic and powerful statement with ‘No Russian’ in Modern Warfare 2. It turned out to be one of the most pointless and heavy-handed pieces of storytelling since ‘P.S. I Love You’ was adapted for the screen, but they tried. The problem wasn’t the lack of choice, that would have made no sense in context, but the lack of development. Thrust into the body of character who the player is in no way familiar with, to then be told to shoot civilians in an airport, should have had a little more exposition than a loading screen debrief, but what followed was far worse. Immediately after the killing spree, your character is shot and killed. No warning, no plot advancement, just shot in the face. A character who should have spent the rest of the game agonising over the choice he was forced to make was simply removed. A few levels later and I’m breaking some sort of Sergeant Major from the Boer War out of a prison in Russia, with all the drama that entails. I had to google the character after the big identity reveal, and I’d finished CoD4. As I said, the story is pointless. But again, I’ll give IW some credit, it was an interesting experiment, and had they invested in some actual writers it may have been tremendously successful and a real statement about the power of games to speak to us.

2010 saw the release of Heavy Rain, which almost overnight became the poster child for the kind of interactive storytelling which could be unique to games. It had a lot of promise, but ultimately in its rigid structure, which sought too much to emulate movies, it failed to offer the kind of experience it’s creator, David Cage, was so sure it could. The controls were well implemented, and I don’t necessarily think that games need a challenge. The fact that some characters could die and the game would continue was a brilliant concept. The execution was let down in the lack of any real emotional depth. The plot was closer to Criminal Minds than a classic thriller and attempts to be ‘edgy’ came across as crude and somewhat ill-advised. Was it really necessary, for example, to have the female lead strip to escape her captors? Surely the option to simply refuse immediately, rather than drag it out would have made sense, and offered a far more empowered and interesting character. In following the plot and inevitable the cliches of the movies, Heavy Rain simply failed to deliver an interactive experience of any more depth than a choose your own adventure book. It was a compelling way to spend a few hours, but only in the same way it’s often enjoyable to sit down and watch a few episodes of a favourite TV series, or a movie franchise. In the end all the choices led to were varying over dramatic endings, we assume they’re meant to seem intelligent because they’re all depressing. A lost opportunity perhaps, but not the direction games should go in order to take advantage of what makes them unique.

The problem with games is that for the most part they fail to capitalise on their interactivity. Moral choices are nice, but never really live up to their hype, always falling into the trap of black and white decisions. Give the homeless man a bottle of water, or set him on fire and eat his charred remains. What games can do though, is use the fact that we have input to create something altogether different to a movie. As much as I say Bioshock had an over-rated story, and it does, the ending was something that no other medium could offer. That, for me, was an incredible triumph. Games can tell a story that even the greatest novel never could, and like all great art, makes us think about ourselves and the world, but more so how we engage with that world. Interactivity is a tool which is rarely used for anything other than allowing us to shoot the bad guys, there is no other choice. Games like infamous may ask whether we want to be naughty or nice, but ultimately, we still kill the bad guys. When a game asks us why we do this, the violence suddenly seems all too real, it’s not Bruce Willis or Arnie killing indiscriminately, it’s you. Even the greatest novel can never say ‘you’re a killer, but why?’ A game can.

Developers have very occasionally used this power to aid their storytelling, and it’s a disappointment. The few which have, as ‘No Russian’ has shown, are hit and miss. Shadow of the Colossus might be the best example of what a game can ask, because great art doesn’t just tell stories, it asks questions. Killing the Colossi, the enormous beasts which wander serenely through a barren land, makes the player feel evil, it’s almost depressing. You quickly start to question your motivation, and whether the entity which guides you to kill in order to save the girl is truly on your side. This hasn’t stopped players from adoring it, the bleak atmosphere is beautifully imagined, and the gameplay is wonderful. These things make it compelling to play, but the moment you see that awful black liquid streaming from what was once a peaceful giant is harrowing. It’s an incredible way to use a game, and it reveals to us as players the role we are playing in shaping the world we inhabit for that all too brief period. It should, by all accounts, put us off, but it’s almost complete silence begs so many questions. The answers are never the right ones, or the ones we want, but that’s not the point, it says so much more than shooting non-descript Middle Eastern and Russian people ever could, and that’s without sacrificing gameplay or graphics. Games have an incredible position, a wide audience, and a means of storytelling that’s as yet hardly been explored. They are primed to be the next great storytelling medium, as long as games like SOTC continue to be made, and continue to sell well enough to encourage others to go further with how they use that medium.

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Games As Art – Part 1

20 Jan

Why games should be critiqued

This is part one of what will be a multi-part examination of games in terms of art. As far as I’m concerned, games can, are, have been and will be art, but this is far from an accepted view, just ask Roger Ebert. In saying this, I can sympathise with those who see games as mere entertainment, if not violent pornography. The industry at times seems to be regressing, in terms of creativity, originality and most importantly, content.

The reasons for this are manifold, from publishers and developers simply wanting to cater to their perceived audience, to the obvious profit to be made from games which sell well despite their derivative nature – yearly iterations of FIFA being a prime example. We, as consumers, have failed to reward the developers who make something more than a ‘product’ and transcend the medium. Sales figures for Ico or Okami, for example, reveal that these niche titles fail to garner the support they deserve from what is considered a niche community already. But that in itself is a problematic viewpoint, movies, books and any other medium are dominated by the same throwaway entertainment that games are. Mainstream media is entertainment without substance for the most part, and sub communities have emerged which support independent music and arthouse cinema. No one really sees the latest ‘Transformers’ movie as art, and film critics reflect this in their analyses of media such as this. The same goes for the latest albums by pop acts. Games have quite clearly become part of mainstream media culture, the tremendous success of the latest Call of Duty games, amongst others, have shown this. Yet, there is no real defined sub culture of gamers who value their medium on artistic merit. No one should consider Call of Duty games art, and I sincerely hope no one does, because they are simply mass-market entertainment, like most Hollywood blockbusters or X-Factor winner’s albums, but there are games that deserve to be considered pieces of art, certainly.

How do we, as appreciators of the medium, find the diamonds in the rough? Personally, word of mouth has been the only way I can distinguish a genuinely incredible game from a functionally good and enjoyable piece of fluff. It’s not quite the same as reading a film critic’s view when approaching a movie. The gaming press gives similar merit, if not more, to the latest big-budget, all action explosion-fest. There is no real attempt to separate the art from the games, and the video game press has a lot to answer for in terms of what we consume and why. Opening the latest copy of ‘Edge’ magazine, Rock Band 3 is the highest scoring game reviewed, earning a 10 out of 10, which surely means it is an incredible, amazing piece of entertainment. And to some I’m sure it is, but to me it’s another sequel to a series which has limited appeal. It’s just music with added button presses, no substance. Fun of course, I won’t deny that, but I could play Rock Band 1 or 2 couldn’t I? Call of Duty: Black Ops has a press average, according to metacritic, of 88%. But why? If it were a movie it would be panned by critics. It’s the seventh sequel in a franchise that has basically had the same gameplay for its entire lifespan, and made one major change in setting for the fourth in the series. Hardly an achievement, especially when the game is now repeated every year. Even the most derivative of books or movies doesn’t repeat on a yearly basis. (Except maybe Cecilia Ahern’s ‘novels’)

There is an obvious answer to why the gaming press see fit to award high praise upon these games however, and it’s not that they’re pressured or bought by the publishers (though this does occur). It’s that gamers value gameplay. If the game plays well, it’s good, simple as. This held true in the past, when games were simpler, and the yearly sequel, and incredible volume of copycat development had yet to emerge. Now though, developers have the power to create realistic virtual worlds, offer characters who can portray realistic emotion and really touch the player in ways that the technology never allowed before. But aside from a handful of cases, we get to shoot Nazis or zombies in the face, over and over. If we’re really lucky we get to play thinly veiled American propaganda and shoot terrorists. Why we can’t see a ‘Hurt Locker’ or similarly intelligent depiction of war, is down to two things. Firstly, developers know that gaming magazines and websites will praise a game, even if it’s the twentieth game of the year to offer first person gunning down of non-descript Middle Eastern people, if the shooting is well implemented and lots of things go boom. Secondly, the gamers themselves are the problem. Not only is there the mass-market, who hungrily lap up the opportunity to blow someone, anyone, into oblivion, but also the ‘informed’ gamer, who reads the reviews and buys accordingly.

The lack of separation between trash and triumph is a real shame. Every other medium has a community who will look past the mass marketed dross and find those hidden gems that have something different to say, a social comment or a different take on the human condition. Gamers don’t have this community and it may be down to the lack of a press which supports it. They do give games which tell a different story, or even the same one in a different way, praise, but all too often it’s overshadowed by the more polished gameplay and graphics of the latest blockbuster. Bioshock is a fine example, it earned great reviews and was heralded as gaming coming of age. Despite having a vastly overrated plot it managed to tap into the reasons we play and the things we do in games – a fine achievement. But the same press told us to go buy FIFA and Call of Duty as well, giving them similarly high reviews. Why review at all then? What separates a remarkable game like that from a by-the-numbers war-em-up, or a sports game only different to last year’s because it has the latest rosters? Why not just assume the games which get the highest marketing budgets will be the best. What does it take for a reviewer to point to Black Ops and say “It’s Modern Warfare with a slightly different setting.” and to actually award it a low review score because of this fact?

The gaming press fails to recognise the gulf between a game that has something to say, and one with something to kill. Reviewing games isn’t working, it just leads to derivative sequels being praised over genuine innovation and intelligence. The gaming press caters to an extent for the smaller niche market of supposedly intelligent gamers, yet gives as much, if not more, praise to the blockbuster games, the ones that have no substance and nothing new to offer. Where is the critique? Reviews can only give so much. Sometimes a film is poorly shot or even has some lacklustre acting, but is incredibly good for other reasons. Can’t the gameplay be a little less polished, but the game still amazing because of what it says to the player? If games were critiqued, and not simply reviewed, if they were seen as art from the offset, then we might see a more intelligent and rewarding game being, not the norm, but a larger part of the industry, a niche market in the vein of arthouse cinema.
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