Catching colds and missing trains

Monday, 19 December 2005 — 12:59pm | Music, Video games

I can’t believe I missed the whole hullabaloo over at Roger Ebert’s (here, here and here) about whether the interactivity of video games preclude the medium from being considered an art form until I heard about it via this morning’s Penny Arcade. You probably don’t need me to point this out if you read this space regularly, but this is one of those precious few debates I live for. And yet the readers who had the time to respond dote on nothing but such platitudes as commercial appeal, the emotional involvement of the audience as a subject and the skill of the craftsmanship behind the work’s constituent partitions. Shallow, shallow, shallow.

I didn’t expect Ebert, of all people, to fall back on a correlation between art and the precision of authorial intent. I guess it makes sense, though, since the great advantage that film has over live theatre – and I say “advantage” to mean an objective freedom of control and artistic license, not as a value judgment – is that the frame of a projected image, the focus of the cinematography and the mise-en-scène on the whole make it a highly constrainable format for delivering something intended. The most gifted directors don’t just control what happens on set: they control how the audience perceives the set. (This is where I’d ordinarily say, “Hear that, Chris Columbus?”, but then the guy made Rent and earned himself a “Get Out Of Blog Free” card for his efforts.)

It’s also interesting that the first article linked above cites Steven Spielberg’s views on the matter, when Spielberg overwhelmingly favours the cinematic constraints that he so deftly employs, to the point where it is his rationale for not joining his colleagues Messrs. Cameron and Lucas in the resurgence of interest in 3D filmmaking. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The other thing to note is that the kind of games Spielberg discusses when speaking of the medium’s limitations is only one segment of what interactive design now offers.

I’m highly critical of the recent trend in video game design and criticism that has favoured a drift towards imitating motion pictures and, in general, movie-envy: from cutscene to task to cutscene. Game-stories are becoming rote and linear, all while filmmakers like Fernando Meirelles and Christopher Nolan are making great strides in freeing cinema of linearity, in the tradition of Orson Welles. This is why I endorse Nintendo, and demonstrate a sense of corporate loyalty to the aging Kyoto powerhouse the likes of which I only offer Pixar: their game design philosophy is still driven by the sort of interactivity that creates a story as you go – within finite constraints that are at once inductive, offering infinite possibilities. It goes back to the story-plot distinction, and too often nowadays the two are conflated.

I’m not saying the cinematic paradigm is invalid. Hideo Kojima, who kickstarted it with Metal Gear Solid, basically got into the business as a second choice after film. But the consequences of establishing movie-envy as the goal of the video game business is an overwhelming focus on production values and presentation, and more to the point, realism – hence why you see celebrity voice acting up the wazoo and the Xbox 360 leveraging high-definition visual output. It’s also why you see the likes of Matt Casamassina knocking Nintendo for its insistence on text over voice work, ignoring that the dialogue-bubble polyphony of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is in fact just as valid as the comic books from which the game borrows its narrative device.

Recently we’ve seen the emergence of the “sandbox” paradigm, its most public and controversial incarnation being the Grand Theft Auto franchise. (For my part, I think Animal Crossing is a better example, because it dispenses with progressive “levels” or “missions” entirely and establishes a complete dependence on a player’s responses to the pseudorandom.) And for all the talk about whether or not the identification of player with character has a residual effect on real-world behaviour, people still talk about the game-player as a freakishly involved and active audience member.

I would contend that the player is a performer. And to dismiss the possibility that a video game can be art based on its interactivity is to simultaneously dismiss as art all that we consider performance. In drama, the fact that a theatre company produces any manner of creative interpretation on William Shakespeare based on the dialogue transcriptions of the First Folio doesn’t invalidate a study of the script itself. Nor does it invalidate a study of Shakespeare as an artist simply because his input is never fully authoritative.

If you look at music, it doesn’t even exist without performance – and the constraints on performance are less and less rigid. I’m going to play the card that everybody who talks incessantly about music loves to play: John Cage, 4’33”. It’s a piece composed entirely of rests, and the sound dwells in the ambient response of the audience: coughing, chatter, confusion. The audience’s contribution, often ignored, comes into the foreground without asking.

Of course, there’s no shortage of people who still insist that aleatory à la Cage is not art. To be perfectly cynical, I think that’s a byproduct of an unconscious layman’s definition of art that has nothing to do with intent, craftsmanship, or anything quantifiable about a work outside of its context. I think most of us privately define art as directly proportional to the difficulty of its creation. We tell ourselves that computers are incapable of art, because art has to be harder than anything merely programmable. We tell ourselves that an abstract splatter painting, beyond its other crime of not representing anything outside itself, is not art by virtue of my-daughter-can-do-that. Vonnegut parodies one extreme in Breakfast of Champions, Rabo Karabekian’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (two perpendicular strips of neon orange tape on a green canvas).

But if we want to look for an example of improvised performance apart from its originator that we would indisputably consider art, we do not need to look any further than jazz. It doesn’t matter that bebop reduces to a bunch of noodling bound by mechanical laws of tonality and set over Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” or the bridge of “I Got Rhythm”. If you take a look at what bebop does with rhythm changes, there is no more “I Got Rhythm” – the melody’s been surgically airlifted, and the chords have been substituted with functional analogues. But Gershwin still wrote it, and we still think of him as a composer, the composer.

That’s what it means to play a video game: improvising over changes somebody else wrote, using an instrument somebody else made. And you can go nuts with however many choruses you want, but the original composition draws you back home to a destination that may be ordained. The emphasis on the performance does not devalue the foundational construction. Art can still exist within accident.

Few games actually do that, though. Most of them are crap.

While we’re on the subject, for those who are wondering: there is exactly one computer game that I think has unquestionably achieved the inconsistently-awarded honour of Literary Work, and its name is Grim Fandango. As with all the classic LucasArts adventures, of which it was the last of the line, the game is heavily scripted, and for the most part the player engages in sequences of dialogue choices that do end up being deterministic. But that determinism doesn’t detach the actions of the player from the progression of scripted action, and as a drama awaiting private performance on a personal computer, Fandango is unparalleled.

The Citizen Kane of video games? No, I wouldn’t say so, since the influence of Citizen Kane on filmmaking, beyond its killer script, lies primarily in form as an accessory to story; the same goes for Watchmen, the Citizen Kane of comics. The Casablanca of games, maybe, for its achievement as a superbly-written character drama where every line counts for something and contributes to a larger thematic fabric. It’s a noir tragicomedy on par with its non-interactive peers.

Why nobody has matched its storytelling excellence in the seven years hence is anybody’s guess.

This doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I have to say on the matter of video games as art, but I’m sure I’ll return to this again with a lot more depth.


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