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Games inferior as art?

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Link here, down at the bottom: Link

This is something that's interesting to me because I work in the video game industry and I have recently been wanting to turn my A&F blog into an occasional commentary on the artistic merits of various video games.

Ebert's answer is simple... games are inherently inferior art because they require player choices rather than authorial control. My disagreement with Ebert's position is simple: it's false. Games do not give up authorial control just because they allow player choices. In fact, many games are as linear as a book or movie, but hide that fact with varying degrees of success.

However, given the potential that interactive storytelling has an artistic medium, I think games have a long way to go. Ebert is right when he says that few video games can be compared with great works of art in other field. But the potential is there, and the interactivity inherent in video games at least in theory allows for works surpassing those of other fields, I believe.

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I'm with you on this one, oddone. I definitely think that games have tremendous potential, both for gamers to experience incredible stories in a very unique way, and for creators to tell incredible stories in a very unique way. Unfortunately, the reality is something of a catch-22. The games that strive for this ideal are often ignored by the public, and the video game industry isn't exactly the paragon of artistic excellence and creativity.

...I have recently been wanting to turn my A&F blog into an occasional commentary on the artistic merits of various video games.

That sounds like a fantastic idea. I'm not a huge gamer personally - my Xbox doesn't see too much action these days - but videogames as a medium, and the gaming industry overall, fascinate me.

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I probably should not chime in here, but I will anyway.

I love games for the PC. And I love Rembrandt and Paul Klee.

That said, I think some PC games offer a special kind of beauty for those who love them. The beauty is in the game play and in the art one sees on your monitor.

Take for example the first Age of Empires. Later games in the series may have bigger buildings and a lot of high tech stuff, but the beauty and magic in this first Age of Empires is hard to describe.

Like when you build a dock, and a fishing boat, and see the little boat going out in the water and casting its net, then returning with its catch to the dock to add to your food. (Sometimes I just want to watch it - rather than realize I must keep going, otherwise the "enemy" may get ahead.)

Or like watching your two priests go off into the desert and try to convert others and then build their own place.

If you have not played this, Age of Empires - Rise of Rome, you are in for a treat.

I know they now have Age of Mythology and Age of Empires 3, but going with that first game (and the music) is wonderful.

Did you know, you can still download the demo from Microsoft? Both AoE and RoR.

Just build those first little huts, a granary, a dock, and .... well, I am getting carried away.

It is not like those role playing games.

Anyway.

Sara

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Posted · Report post

The big problem with Ebert's statement (and I do love his film reviews) has more to do with that tricky "authorial intent" thing. Ebert's claim that is problematic, not only for video games but literature, film, etc. How important is authorial intent? Where does the reader come in? Where is the "text" created? These are all questions one has to ask. Also, does narrativity equal art?

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Posted · Report post

The "authorial intent" comment is key, yes, and I think I agree with him. Notice that he wasn't explicitly saying that video games are intrinsically less beautiful or less valid a form of creation - just that they are less "artistic". I understand his comment to mean that since interactive fiction lessens the creative role of the "artist", and increases the role of the perceiver in creating, therefore they are fundamentally less of an artistic communication through a medium.

Then again, it may well be that the perception of art as a one-way street from artist to audience never was that great in the first place, and that a broader understanding is needed. I just don't think I see it that way.

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Can anyone point to some other resources on this topic? (Articles, extensive discussion elsewhere, et cetera...) After years of focusing on movies and music, my department at Calvin is beginning to expand its scope to examine and interact with other popular culture expressions. First up: gaming. My first task is to compile a "reader" of articles that address issues exactly like the one being raised here. So if anyone has links that might be helpful, on both sides of this issue, I'd appreciate it...

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Can anyone point to some other resources on this topic? (Articles, extensive discussion elsewhere, et cetera...) After years of focusing on movies and music, my department at Calvin is beginning to expand its scope to examine and interact with other popular culture expressions. First up: gaming. My first task is to compile a "reader" of articles that address issues exactly like the one being raised here. So if anyone has links that might be helpful, on both sides of this issue, I'd appreciate it...

I can't think of any articles off the top of my head. However, you might want to try contact some of the gaming websites, such as IGN, GameSpot, etc., to see if they've published any articles of the sort.

If I think of any, or stumble across some, I'll pass them along.

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I just finished a seminar on Digital Humanities, and part of the course was asking the question "Can games be literature?" As you can guess, this sparked some serious discussion.

If I have some time later I'll dig up some of the articles and point you guys toward some more scholarly work on the subject.

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My church is just starting up a men's study group, and interestingly enough, one of the topics we'll be discussing is video games. It's not for a few months yet, so I don't know too many specifics, or what angle they'll be approaching it from, but I found it interesting and even encouraging that video games are even part of the curriculum.

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Posted (edited) · Report post

Why Ebert Was Right

...there can never be a strong storytelling game because games lack authorial control. It
Edited by opus

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I agree with you, Alan - my kids and I are enjoying the 2 Katamari Damacy games (on PS2) presently. The narrative is rather goofy, but the visuals, music, and humor are quirky and terrific.

Yesterday's NYT 'Arts and Entertainment' section had an article on video games as art, BTW...

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So art has to be narrative?

Thanks for repeating my question Alan. Basically I just don't see how giving up authorial control makes something "less" artistic, as the notion of authorial intent has taken a pretty solid thrashing in the last 20 years of critical theory anyway. Of course us film people have always loved clinging to autuer theory (myself included).

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Posted · Report post

...there can never be a strong storytelling game because games lack authorial control. It

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Posted (edited) · Report post

So art has to be narrative?

Thanks for repeating my question Alan. Basically I just don't see how giving up authorial control makes something "less" artistic, as the notion of authorial intent has taken a pretty solid thrashing in the last 20 years of critical theory anyway. Of course us film people have always loved clinging to autuer theory (myself included).

Well, FWIW, we would probably have to define "narrative" to figure out if art is it.

Edited by GreetingsEarthling

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Posted (edited) · Report post

I only glanced through the various comments so if someone already said this, then AHEM me - but I like this thread - it makes me think of creation itself as God's work of art - yet clearly a work that gives us choices while having a linear direction from the alpha point to the omega point.

I think a game will always have that sense to it - that we can play it well and get to the end where we "beat the game." Our whole family jumped up and cheered when my 10 year-old, 16 years ago, beat MARIO BROTHERS - Nintendo.

In the same way we can "do well and prosper" in the game of life, which is called the Deuteronomic Principle, and "end well" by understanding how the Author created the world and learning how to master this life from our Master

Edited by Denny Wayman

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Ok, you guys. I've been thinking about it and I'm going to make this thread into the topic of my short essay paper for that Literary Computing seminar.

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Denny composed an excellent post, but I do have some contention with video games being considered "high" art.

Starving video game designers who are unappreciated geniuses will never exist. It is a commercial venture, first and foremost. Its not like anyone is finding a copy of an obscure Sega Genesis game to get out the old console and cartridge for appreciative play. Due to the very necessity of a console, any given game limits its life to a year and a half, at best.

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Michael,

I'm really ignorant of what you mean by "high art."

Are you saying that short-term art - like "performance art" is "low art" - or is there some distinction made by artists that says it has to last more than a year and a half?

Denny

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Posted (edited) · Report post

Denny composed an excellent post, but I do have some contention with video games being considered "high" art.

Starving video game designers who are unappreciated geniuses will never exist. It is a commercial venture, first and foremost. Its not like anyone is finding a copy of an obscure Sega Genesis game to get out the old console and cartridge for appreciative play. Due to the very necessity of a console, any given game limits its life to a year and a half, at best.

First of all, have you ever heard of an emulator? That extends the life of a game considerably. The main limiting quality at this point is that early graphics are just plain-old out of date, which is why game makers are starting to re-release great older games ported to new engines, like Half-Life to the Source Engine on the PC or the rumors of Final Fantasy VII to the PS3. There are also games which have undergone practically no significant gameplay innovations in years - the Madden series comes to mind - but are merely released with graphical updates every 15 months or so. Seen from one perspective, they're still the same game.

Secondly, as for "there are no starving video game artists", I'm sorry, that's just wrong. To cite just one (former) example, try Knut Mueller, who single-handedly designed the game Rhem, using Bryce 3D and Quicktime. It's an absolutely stunning achievement also, perhaps the most complex puzzle/exploration game ever released. Minimal story or personal interaction, just a giant, minutely-designed world of gears, levers, pipes and obscure clues to puzzle through. It made it into mainstream retail after people started to realize the sheer scope of the thing. Since, he's released a (IMHO inferior) sequel.

Edited by GreetingsEarthling

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Posted · Report post

The Elder Scrolls franchise is kind of an interesting specimen in this debate: a fantasy rpg series where the emphasis is on making the game world feel lived in and allowing the player to choose the kind of role they want, while making the "main story" stay more or less the same and resonate in different ways depending on what the player perceives their alter ego as.

http://www.elderscrolls.com/tenth_anniv/tenth_anniv.htm

I was playing one of the Morrowind addons the other day, running errands for a treacherous king whom I had no particular loyalty to, just biding my time to get to the bottom of certain mysteries, and his lieutenant rewarded me with "the same sword the Royal Guard uses, deadly and true in the hands of a good man, but burning the hands of the disloyal." Well, it has a "cast fire damage on self when strikes" feature, making it inherently dangerous for the player to handle. To a player with a "good" character who's faithfully carried out all the King's missions, that's a symbol of his treachery. To me, who, when sent after the people who were plotting against him, slew the scheming nobleman involved but spared and allowed to escape the bookish idealist and the hired sword involved in the same plot, and spared the publisher of subversive pamphlets, the weapon carries a different signficance: neither I nor the King trust each other any further than we can throw each other.

Food for thought, anyway.

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"...the rumors of Final Fantasy VII to the PS3..."

Sadly, these are nothing more than rumors. A tech demo featuring the opening scene of Final Fantasy VII was shown to demonstrate the graphical power of the PS3, but Square has already said that a full remake will not happen. Similar rumors started when Square did a tech demo for the PS2 of the ballroom scene in Final Fantasy VIII.

But back on topic...I'm glad the Final Fantasy series came up, because it's a great example of how some games (specifically today's cinematic RPGs), while still interactive, do have a great deal of authorial control.

Take Final Fantasy VII, for example. The most touching, poignant moment of the game is without a doubt

the death of Aeris

. There's nothing that the player can do to stop or reverse it - it just happens. Without that event, the story couldn't progress. Now on the other hand, there are optional side events in the game - recruiting extra characters like Yuffie and Vincnet, gaining the most powerful limit breaks and weapons - but they're a lot like the deleted scenes you'd find on the DVD. Not necessary to appreciate the story on a personal level - they're just fun and interesting.

I could blather on about Final Fantasy for a while - it's my favorite video game series by a longshot. But I'll hold off for your sakes. I guess what I'm saying is that with extensive character design, carefully and professionally done scores, painstakingly detailed artistic design and intricate plots, most RPGs I've encountered lately come closer to what I'd consider art than banal films like Fantastic Four.

~MJE~

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Posted (edited) · Report post

"cinematic RPG"

I'm not familiar with that term. Which games fall under that category?

Edited by GreetingsEarthling

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"cinematic RPG"

I'm not familiar with that term. Which games fall under that category?

I think the recent Final Fantasy games - starting with Final Fantasy VII and continuing through Final Fantasy XII - are often considered the epitome of "cinematic RPGs". I think the term came to be when describing RPGs that often incorporated very elaborate cinematic cut-scenes as a major part of the story, gameplay (i.e. Final Fantasy's summons), etc.)

Speaking of Final Fantasy VII, Animefringe posted a pretty lengthy article concerning the game's legacy. It's full of spoilers, but well worth the read. I knew the game had spawned a few other titles, such as the Advent Children movie, but I didn't know it had become such a franchise.

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Of the mutiple video game threads that have sprouted on the forum, I think this is the best one for this article from today's WSJ Opinion Journal:

The Brain Workout

In praise of video games.

But even if your 13-year-old is spending a lot of time offing enemies thrown at him by Tom Clancy's new Ghost Recon, there's no hard evidence that he'll want to try homicide in real life. The most comprehensive study yet on the social effects of such kill-or-be-killed games, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan, found that prolonged playing of Asheron's Call 2--a gory online multiplayer fantasy--didn't make study participants more belligerent. Some observers speculate that playing violent video games may be cathartic, channeling pre-existing violent impulses into virtual reality, where they can do no harm. It's worth noting that the emergence of video games as a major youth enthusiasm has occurred at the same time as a striking drop in juvenile violence. Maybe Sen. Clinton should be encouraging more gaming instead of calling for a federal crackdown on it.

For me, I won't be buying a game system for my boys as they grow up. That's because my oldest (4 years old) gets plenty of that type of interaction from very his own personal computer, and the baby will follow suit. The upside is that 80% of his "games" are educational at this stage, and he is also learning basic "paint" programs and being introduced to word processing software. It helps that his dad runs and Elementary Computer Lab. Right now the just-for-fun games are mainly Uno, the new-fangled versions of Breakout, and racing type games.

And lest you think all of this "gaming" is rotting his brain, he is reading, writing, and working math at the 1st grade level.

He will probably graduate to real games as he gets older. My favorite gameplay is anything Command & Conquer (although I wish they'd go back to the old style), and I can see him jumping into that type of gameplay during his pre-teen years.

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I'm more of a lurker than a poster, but I'd like to throw a couple of cents into the discussion, via the works of Bungie Studios as an example of games that are creative, narratively coherent, and even (prior to their acquisition by Microsoft) an "independent" group of artists.

Their earliest success was the Marathon series, a first-person shooter that was released around the same time as Doom(hardly a paragon of artistic, narrative integrity). The game-play was similar to(if more sophisticated than) other FPSs of the same time, but scattered throughout the different levels were computer terminals, which revealed fragments of a monologue written by a "rampant" artificial intelligence, the primary antagonist of the series(which your character was constantly manipulated by, but is never actually directly confronted). The terminal texts were whimsical, usually sarcastic and poetic, sometimes delving into metaphysical subjects like the nature of consciousness, and occasionally revealing fragments of a massive science fiction plot about ancient alien civilizations that was lurking behind the game-play. You could almost call it a post-modern deconstruction of the FPS genre ;)

Their next project was the Myth series, a fairly unique Real-Time Strategy. The story was a dark fantasy about a human army fighting a losing war against the "Fallen Lords", a group of evil sorcerer types, heavily influenced by the Black Company book series. The levels were fairly free-form, allowing you to take multiple paths or strategies to complete your objectives, but the narrative integrity was preserved in the spaces between levels, a series of excerpts from a foot-soldier's diary. In many players' opinions, the story told by the series was on par with some of the better fantasy yarns of the 90's.

And of course their most popular (and most mainstream) creation, the Halo series. The game-play appeared to be fairly free-form, without heavily disrupting the pacing and narrative of the story-line. Citizen Kane this ain't, but

the first appearance of the Flood: the foreshadowing prior to the grisly discovery, the video taken from the helmet camera, the mad dash escape from the infested complex

was scarier and more exciting than most any sci-fi action movie scene I can remember.

So anyway, it seems to me that it is entirely possible to provide plenty of player-driven action and choices, while preserving the intended narrative and even pacing of the game's creators. We definitely have not seen the penultimate work of the medium yet, but the potential is definitely there.

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