Friday, August 20, 2010

What makes games art?

One of the topics I have yet to address is my perspective on the "games as art" debate.  This is something that has by and large already been hammered into the ground.  It's at the point now where I think any discerning individual would admit that games have the capability to be art, even though the vast majority of them are generally not.  Rather than pore over whether the medium is capable of or conducive to producing art, I'd like to tackle the issue from a slightly different perspective, and instead offer up my opinion on what it takes for a game to be art in the first place.

The typical response, I think, when someone questions whether games are art, is to say "well, it's got great visuals, good dialogue, excellent use of sound, and it's fun to play!"  However, there is something incredibly fundamental that goes overlooked in this sort of argument, and that is that it does not consider the game as a whole.  To say that a game has wonderful visuals, well, that is a totally valid point, and the same goes for music and so forth, but in taking those elements in isolation, we lose their context within a particular game which is, primarily, a piece of work which is to be interacted with.  We're not looking at the experience of playing, but rather just the bits and pieces of it which can all be enjoyed in isolation.

Thus, I'd like to submit that for a game to be art, it needs to have something in addition to great visuals, audio, gameplay, etc., and that is a singularity of vision with regards to the game's purpose and meaning.  That is to say, all elements have to work in tandem with one another, thematically and functionally, in order for a game to ascend to a level where it can be considered a work of art.  I don't think that a game needs to have a deep or complex story to be art, nor does not need to be pretentious and "indie" about doing things to fit into this definition; any game is applicable so long as it achieves a certain level of unity and quality of execution.

As an example, I'd like to bring up the game Fallout, which some of the people reading may know is a game I'm more than a little keen on.  Fallout has one general theme which permeates every facet, and that is hope of new life in the wake of desolation.  The visuals in Fallout are brown and dry, for instance, but also have a certain vibrancy and colour that hint at hope; they're bleak, but not lifeless.  Similarly, the soundtrack interweaves haunting, synthetic keyboards with tribal drums and the ambiance of human activity, allowing for a wide range of moods that all fit into a single framework.

Fallout's world may be ugly, but it also has a level of 
care and detail which help emphasise humanity's struggle for survival.

Unlike most games, however, this direction also extends to the gameplay.  When the player is forced abruptly into the world, an ultimatum is placed upon him or her: survive, and save those who are close to you.  This may at first seem like a nearly insurmountable task, with deadly enemies abound, skill and combat mechanics to learn, and little to no direction on how to proceed through the game; however, through gradual mastery of the game's rules, the player is able to overcome and even nullify many challenges.  Becoming successful at Fallout is difficult, but not impossible; when the player prevails, the feeling of success against all odds is palpable.

There are two implications of my proposition.  The first is that we will have to rethink how many of our favourite games might qualify as art; this could mean taking the mantle off of some and placing it on others.  For example, BioShock is one of the most celebrated "art games" in years, and yet its relatively mundane shooter gameplay, no different than Doom 3 save for its philosophical narrative backing, suggests that it lacks the coherent vision I defined earlier.  Another such game is Portal; it may have a unique art style and dry, witty humour, but those have little connection to its puzzle-platform gameplay, and while they do make for an entertaining package, there is very little intellectually we can draw from the experience in a way that is unique to the gaming medium.

Conversely, this also means that we are going to have to take a harder, closer look at games that we may have dismissed as not artistic, and reevaluate them.  Unreal Tournament may be the last game you think of when it comes to considering games as art, and yet its simple, colourful visuals, upbeat soundtrack and fast, responsive controls all work perfectly in tandem with its lightning-quick kill-or-be-killed deathmatch gameplay; there is a singularity of function to it which is more effective than all the pomp and pretentiousness in the world.  Not all art has to have a high meaning or "message"; it can often be enough simply to relate to the human experience, and Unreal Tournament taps into it in a very primal sort of way.

 Unreal Tournament may not be an "artistic" game, but its use of
colour, sound, and design all work together to feed into its gameplay.

It is worth noting that, although quality of execution is important, I do not mean to suggest that a well-made and consistent game is automatically art.  A game does not have to necessarily be competently designed to be art, nor does it have to have intentions of artistry; what matters is the final product and whether or not it works to achieve a particular artistic goal.  Similarly, whether a game or not is fun to play does not matter, insofar as being fun is not part of its fundamental objective as a game.  A horror game, for example, may not outright declare to be fun or even enjoyable, but it is most certainly capable of being art, as the Penumbra series of games has demonstrated.

The major problem with this framework for interpreting games, I anticipate, is that it raises a few questions, such as whether a game is still a game if it isn't fun to play, and whether we can reasonably call serious games, i.e. medical training software or military simulators, art.  Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, this framework has no basis within it for actually quantifying or qualifying the individual elements of a game; it relies perhaps too much on vague language and "feelings" rather than things that can be objectively substantiated.  Because of this, we do not yet have a way of determining what games constitute good art, or bad art.  I plan to explore these issues in the near future.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]

Friday, August 13, 2010

Always bet on Duke

So this week, news that the Duke Nukem license had been picked up by Gearbox reared its head.  I was initially struck with glee.  Duke Nukem is a franchise that I've always enjoyed for its quality gameplay and its "help, I'm trapped in the 80s" attitude, so seeing it resurrected yet again was a nice thing to hear, especially coming from as capable a developer as Gearbox.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder whether or not Duke Nukem really matters anymore.

The first two Duke Nukem games were fairly conventional 2D action platformers with some light-hearted over-the-top action movie humour, but it wasn't really until Duke Nukem 3D that the series burst into mainstream gaming discourse, with its exaggerated macho-80s Duke blowing up aliens left and right, all the while taking a few minutes to tip a stripper on the side.  It was and still is totally tasteless, but also very well made, and one of my favourite games of all time due to how well it holds up today once it's got some mods plugged in.

Duke Nukem Forever was the much-awaited follow-up to Duke Nukem 3D, and was in development for, on and off, over ten years, switching game engines at least a few times, even as other Duke games like Manhattan Project were released.  Every couple of years it would resurface, and it became the industry's running joke for vapourware.  Technology changes and lack of funding eventually caught up with it, and last year it was announced that the game had effectively been cancelled.  Most of the gaming industry gave a little sigh and moved on, disappointed, but also totally unsurprised at the same time.

Duke Nukem 3D's major appeal was in its "rebellious" use of sex, violence 
and strong language, all intended to poke fun at self-serious games.

Now, Duke is back from the dead.  But what does it mean for gaming?  To really figure it out, we have to go back to the release of Duke Nukem 3D.  The appeal of Duke 3D at the time wasn't so much its gameplay, because there were plenty of games that did the same thing just about as well.  Rather, Duke Nukem 3D was appealing because it came out at a time when shooters were just starting to become dark, depressing and, for lack of a better term, "more serious".  By contrast, Duke 3D's tasteless, crass and campy humour stood out from the pack of repetitive fantasy and sci-fi games, and its inclusion of partial nudity no doubt attracted a lot of gamers.  It was gimmicky, for sure, and that gimmick served its purpose.  When it was announced, Duke Nukem Forever again filled that niche as "serious" titles like Half-Life, SIN, Unreal and Soldier of Fortune were making the rounds.

It seems like in 2010, we're overdue for a game that doesn't take itself seriously.  Various shooters flood the marketplace, the vast majority of them proclaiming that realism and authenticity are the highest of virtues.  Call of Duty, BioShock, Gears of War, etc. are all good games, but their success has also led to stagnation in the industry, and instead of making games with new ideas, we're seeing developers churn out copies of the big hits.  Medal of Honor, Singularity and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine all seem to be alternate takes on the respective games above, and while I'm sure they'll be good in their own rights, it's quite clear that the reason they were ever made to begin with was because the successes of those earlier titles convinced publishers that they could be the next big thing.

If there were ever a time for a game to come out and give them the literal finger, it'd be now.  And yet at this point, I'm not really sure that it would work, or rather, I'm not so sure that Duke is the one who should be wagging that finger.  Duke Nukem is a character that millions of people know about, but as an actual brand, the potential for new Duke Nukem games feels limited.  A successful Duke Nukem title hasn't been released in years, and when put next to a dozen other games that are likely to offer up more content, it's hard to say how far Duke's old gimmicks will get him.  Moreover, Duke Nukem, even through parody, risks being turned into the very thing that it mocks; I can only handle so much online run-and-gun combat, and I'm not convinced that a Duke Nukem game would be able to stand up on the quality of its gameplay in the same way it could fifteen years ago.

Moreover, there's the issue of the violence in sex in Duke Nukem.  In the mid-90s, seeing digitised computer game breasts was a relatively uncommon thing, as was extreme violence, and much of Duke Nukem 3D's appeal was in this "forbidden fruit" aspect.  These days, with titles like Grand Theft Auto and The Saboteur featuring full-on strip clubs and lap dances, a new Duke game wouldn't have much wiggle room before it became illegal to sell.  Obviously a lot of this hinges on the execution of such a game, but most of Duke's appeal came from how excessive it was, and there's a cap on just what developers can get away with.

 Even in 15 years, Duke has hardly changed a bit, but do
we still look at him as a parody, or as an outdated relic?

Finally, games have matured immensely since Duke Nukem 3D.  Certainly not all games are high art, but the number of evocative themes touched on by even more whimsical and pedestrian titles far exceeds the corridors of Doom and Hellish vistas of Quake.  It's always good to be able to step back and laugh ourselves, but there are so many other games that have done self-parody since Duke Nukem 3D (and with varying levels of subtlety, to boot), that the question of whether we need Duke anymore is ever-pressing.  Who knows - maybe Duke needs to grow up a little bit.

While I'm hoping for the best for the inevitable Duke Nukem 3D follow-up, I'm not sure if Duke has a place outside of low-price downloadable games, the modding scene, and nostalgia.  It's a name that has been irrelevant for far too long, and the basic gameplay it did well in the past has been done better a hundred times over by other games.  Duke Nukem wants us to think "it's just a game", but at this point that may be its problem more than anything else.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]