Thursday, February 17, 2011

Close, but no 1-Up: A critique of the Smithsonian's "Art of Video Games" exhibit

Last week, it was announced that the Smithsonian Institution, a museum and research institute funded and maintained by the United States government, would be opening up a new videogame-centric exhibit entitled “The Art of Video Games”.  Seemingly every gamer in touch with industry news rejoiced at this: finally, gaming was getting the respect it deserved, and from a highly official institution no less!  The implications of such a decision are actually pretty magnificent for the games industry.  While the Smithsonian is by no means the ultimate judge of a medium’s credibility, it does show an increased mainstream acceptance of videogames and a greater appreciation for the endless dedication and talent that go into their production.  Perhaps most importantly, it gives some genuine validation to the notion of games as an art form; while designers and thinkers have argued this for decades, to see a body acting in the interests of the general populace make such a claim is heart-warming for nearly every gamer and developer out there.

While the efforts of the Smithsonian are undoubtedly appreciated by gamers worldwide (and I am certainly one such gamer), after a closer look at the arrangement of the exhibit and the selection process for inaugurating new games, I found myself increasingly sceptical as to the validity of the exhibit.  Collected below are the core problem areas that I’ve identified for how this exhibit is being arranged, at least with the information that is publicly available.  I’d like to make it quite clear that the goal of this article isn’t to attack the individuals who are behind the Art of Video Games exhibit or the Smithsonian as a whole – I’m sure they’re all wonderfully smart, talented people, but I get the distinct sense that very few of them are gamers, and even if they are, they haven’t thought out the exhibit nearly enough.

Popularity = historical importance?

This is probably the most plainly visible problem with the way that the exhibit is arranged.  Rather than rely on a panel of experts, theorists, game critics, or their own intuition and research to select the games put on display in the Art of Video Games exhibit, instead, the Smithsonian has elected to put the decision on the shoulders of gamers, by fielding a vote on which games should be included.  To claim that popularity, even among gamers, is a good metric for determining the historical relevance and art value of a videogame, is simply short-sighted and naive.  While I’m not here to indict the personal tastes of mainstream audiences or any other group of gamers, the simple fact is that sales simply aren’t the only thing games can be or should be rated on.  Looking to votes as a guide for how to arrange the exhibit isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but to frame the process as effectively a popularity contest in the eyes of most gamers, and to use that as the defining metric for inclusion in the exhibit, is colossally insensitive to the individual games on display.

Adding to this problem is the fact that many games are placed in direct opposition with each other, despite them being both hugely influential and exceedingly important to gaming.  Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn and Fallout are both considered, rightly so, to be some of the best CRPGs ever developed, and set the standards for Western RPG gameplay and storytelling even decades after their release.  And yet, as a voter, I am supposed to put my vote into one or the other?  Both games are phenomenal, for different reasons; chances are the victor in such a vote won’t come down to which game truly deserves to win out (they both do), but simply which one has more fans.  It doesn’t help at all that they’re from the same, genre, of course, which brings me to...

Genre matters

While the Smithsonian have done a fairly admirable job of trying to categorise games based on platform and on genre, the actual categories provided are both far too broad and feature far too few games to make truly adequate selections.  One of the most nebulous of all of these categories is the “target genre”, which I take it the Smithsonian means is a combination of first-person shooter, flight simulator and generally any game which involves aiming, but then, based on their own inconsistency in including shooters in the category, I’m not sure the Smithsonian knows what it means either.  For instance, on the DOS/Windows platform, Doom II, Deus Ex and Unreal are all lumped together under the “action genre” category, yet on the Nintendo 64, Goldeneye 007 is listed as a “target genre”.  Why the inconsistency?

 One of these is not like the other.

It doesn’t end there, either.  One of the most ridiculous examples of the shortcomings of the categories provided can be seen in the Smithsonian including Diablo II, a point-and-click action RPG, along with Star Wars: TIE Fighter, a science-fiction space combat simulation, together in that “target genre”.  Not only were these games released a full six years apart (a massive amount of time in videogame industry terms), but they come from two completely different genres with completely different gameplay standards.  Even the primary mode of interaction with the game is different, in a category which is supposed to be defined by that mode of interaction!  To say that this is a bit of a mess would be an understatement.

What era are you from?

No doubt for ease of understanding and to simplify the voting process, the Smithsonian have effectively categorised the history of videogames into five major eras.  While categorising games this way is in itself a bit haphazard, I do understand the intention.  However, once again the implementation is rather poor.  Put simply, games can’t be broken up into such discrete eras, especially in such a fast-moving industry.  There have been by most counts about seven major console generations so far, not counting some of the earliest gaming systems, and yet the Smithsonian have seen fit to break them down into just five.

Pause for a moment and consider: are games from 1993 really comparable to games from 2000, not just in terms of technology, but in sophistication of design, in game mechanics, or in narrative pacing and convention?  I think the only reasonable answer to that question is no, and yet the original PlayStation finds itself right next to the Dreamcast in the Smithsonian’s voting ladder.  Furthermore, why is there so much overlap between Era 3 and Era 4?  What is the major difference between an Era 3 game from 1994 and an Era 4 game from 1994, and why was this deemed a great enough reason to separate the two by something as drastic as an era?  Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it.

Arcade, arcade, where art thou?

Even though many gamers today are too young to so fondly remember arcades (in fact, I’m one of them), to underestimate the importance that arcades had on gaming’s development as an artistic medium and even as a language would be near-criminal.  Not only did arcade gaming by and large precede home gaming consoles, but it is responsible for forming some of our most fundamental notions of what videogames encompass, the basic building blocks that just about every game is made up of today.  Even if those conventions aren’t referred to in name, oftentimes mechanics can be traced back to their arcade roots.  Of course, I’m talking about things as important as extra lives, game over screens, power-ups, continues, bosses, side-scrolling, and too many other things to count.  The unique market conditions that determined arcade game development were responsible for these innovations, along with the technology that only arcade machines could provide.

 The Atari version of Pac-man is not exactly
the iconic version gamers know and love.

One of the most stunning examples of this can be seen in the Smithsonian’s casting of the Atari VCS version of Pac-man, considered not only to be largely inferior to the arcade classic in both visuals and audio, but also one of the worst adaptations of Pac-man ever.  Most gamers are intimately familiar with the original arcade version of the game, and to see it go inexplicably unmentioned in the Smithsonian’s voting process is, frankly, rather painful and even borderline offensive.  It displays an ignorance to gaming’s history that just shouldn’t be present what is an attempt at a definitive historical exhibit.

Bigger isn’t always better

This point is a little bit more esoteric and perhaps something that the Smithsonian isn’t directly accountable for, but I think it’s one of the most damaging flaws in the way that the Art of Video Games exhibit is arranged.  Marketing professionals have known for years that an easy way to sell a product is to attach a bigger number to it than its predecessor or competition.  The megahertz war in computer systems, the wattage war in speaker systems, the ever-increasing number of blades on shaving razors, the constant strain announcing that every sequel provides “more of what you love”... all of these examples are not the result of any truly inherent improvements in bigger numbers, but rather are an exploitation of a property that, for all intents and purposes, is inherent to humans.

Put simply, we always want more.  People are rarely satisfied, and when we are, often it’s only for a fleeting moment and we move on to other tasks centred around increasing our wealth, influence, happiness, etc.  Because of this, we’re also very easily duped by bigger numbers.  The implication of a larger number is always more, and that more is always better.  Gillette’s octo-bladed razors don’t sell because they provide a legitimately better shave than their cheaper two- or three-bladed razors, they sell because many people perceive the quality of the product to be better.  While many arguments can be made regarding the emotional benefits of the “feeling” these sorts of products provide, the simple fact is that in actuality, higher numbers don’t always mean that something is an improvement.

 The divisions between these eras may be
arbitrary, but the banner makes it appear otherwise.

I mention all of this because the Smithsonian’s exhibit seems to be entirely centred around this arrangement.  The linear ordering of eras from 1 to 5, for example, suggests not only a very clear, predictable progression, but also that games from later eras are better than games from earlier eras.  Additionally, the numerical and progressive ordering of eras also suggests a clean, causal relationship which reads something like “and then this game led to this game, and this game led to...”, which, even in a highly iterative and even derivative field like videogames, simply isn’t the case.

Also concerning is that the same logic spills over to sequels.  Including both Fallout and Fallout 3 on this list, replete with screenshots which reveal little but visual improvements, suggests not only that Fallout 3 is a superior game to Fallout, but that Fallout 3 is a forward, linear improvement of Fallout... which, given the incredible differences in developers, game mechanics, camera perspectives, pacing, world design, narrative, problem-solving, quest design, and more, is obviously not really the case.  I don’t mean to suggest that my complaint here lies in that I think Fallout 3 is an inferior game to the original (although I do), but rather it’s all about what someone viewing the exhibit is going to take away from it.  Unless someone has had direct exposure to both games, or the Smithsonian provides very detailed write-ups and explanations of the differences between certain games, and ensures that these comprehensible by those attending the exhibit, chances are all but the most experienced gamers are going to walk away with a good degree of misinformation... and for an exhibit on a contemporary form of media where these problems can be much more ably remedied, there’s just no excuse.

What is this exhibit even for?

Once again, I want to stress my respect and appreciation for the work that the people at the Smithsonian are doing.  Considering that they are likely a fairly small team of people working to meet the needs of an entire industry, while at the same time perhaps not even possessing much background in videogames (I can’t say for sure), I think they’ve done a pretty good job so far.  But one major issue remains that I haven’t touched on directly yet, and that is, what is the purpose of this Art of Video Games exhibit?

Let me break things down a little bit more, here.  The Smithsonian website states that the Art of Video Games is to “explore the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers”.  Sounds good on paper, but what does it mean?

First off, there’s a very strong emphasis on visuals above all else.  While aesthetics in gaming are an extremely important thing, and no doubt the exhibit should stress in particular the technological constrains on art direction and design, at the same time this isn’t really fair to games as an artistic medium.  As a government-sanctioned institution, the Smithsonian should work to be open to all interpretations of art and media, and I have no doubt that they work hard to do this for other forms of expression such as film and sculpture.  Any reasonable art historian will argue that aesthetics are only a single component in understanding the importance of art, and the same credibility should be given to videogames.

The Smithsonian do seem to try to compensate for this by adding on the bit about “designers”, but who are they talking about here?  Art designers and design?  Game designers?  Project directors?  Sound engineers?  Foley artists?  Programmers?  Game development is such a multi-disciplinary field, and includes so many distinct talents and individuals, that it’s simply unacceptable to try to encompass all of these things by using an ambiguous word like “designers”.  “Design” itself is also mentioned, along with “innovation”, but similar problems arise: are we talking about visual design, sound design, original game mechanics, well-made game mechanics, novelty, or storytelling?  The juxtaposition of the word with a stress on aesthetics also suggests that they are even using the word as a synonym for artist, which again shows a lack of appreciation for the specifics of the videogame world.

Judging by the sorts of games that the Smithsonian includes on their list, they seem to be remarkably inconsistent... on the one hand, their official statement stresses visual splendour, with only a passing mention of design, and yet on the other hand most of the games on their voting list seem to be there for their excellence in design, storytelling and game mechanics more than anything else.  If I was going to focus on games with phenomenal art direction, I sure wouldn’t include Deus Ex or The Typing of the Dead on that list.  This lack of consistency really suggests to me that the Smithsonian just aren’t sure precisely what the purpose of their own exhibit is, and that is a real shame considering the symbolic, cultural and academic importance of the institution.

Room for improvement

In light of all these somewhat scathing complaints, I do want to mention that there is plenty of time left for the Smithsonian to amend their arrangement of the Art of Video Games exhibit.  Hiring on more consultants for the historical and factual validity of their exhibit would be a great start, as would ensuring that the votes of mass audiences are a less central component to the selection process.  Many of the additional problems could also be solved by getting rid of some of the more nebulous and ill-defined genre and era categories, and replacing them with in-depth write-ups detailing how certain games are artistically important, and for what reasons they have been honoured by their inclusion in the exhibit.  As it stands now, though, the Art of Video Games is a nice gesture with poor execution backing it up; as someone who loves videogames, I’d too love to see them acknowledged in a manner that truly befits them.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The blessing and curse of silence: on voiceless protagonists

One of the most remarkable and interesting things about the just-released Dead Space 2, a game which has received accolades both for its storytelling and artistry in horror and tension, isn’t the fact that the game has received a visual facelift, or that the monsters are more terrifying than ever, or that the play is better balanced.  What struck me, rather, in examining some of the pre-release information on the game, but especially after coming into contact with the game itself, is just how different Dead Space has become now that its protagonist is fully-voiced.  The world of gaming has a fairly long-standing tradition of silent protagonists, including veritable lineages of heroes who speak with their actions, not words, and rather than continue in that direction, Dead Space has left those ranks, presumably in the interest of moving its narrative forward.

Isaac Clarke’s decision to open his mouth isn’t one that has implications for fans’ conceptions of the character, however.  Rather, the decision to move away from a silent protagonist has greater, farther-reaching consequences than that.  Dead Space draws heavy inspiration from two games in particular, Half-Life and System Shock 2, which are also well-known for having voiceless heroes.  In this article, I will examine those two games in order to understand the effect a silent protagonist has on a game’s design and narrative, and ultimately, how Dead Space, and games in general, are changed much more significantly by the decision.

Half-Life

The original Half-Life is one of the most influential games of the last twenty years, notable for being among the first shooters to set its gameplay not within nondescript castles and spaceships, but to create a believable, lived-in world that was itself used as a way to further the game’s story. In Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist working at the top-secret Black Mesa Research Facility; disaster strikes when a teleportation experiment results in the facility being overrun with hostile aliens.  As Gordon, players have one real goal: to escape the facility using both firepower and brain power to overcome the aliens, the facility’s increasing stages of degradation, as well as the government troops which are called in to “erase” the mistakes made by the science team.

Throughout, Gordon never says a word, and yet Freeman is one of the most fondly-remembered characters in all of gaming, a curious phenomenon considering that Gordon himself only really appears on the game’s box artwork and in the main menu screen – the game never breaks its first-person perspective, right from the beginning.  How can a character who effectively has no personality and nothing to say to others even be considered a character at all?  And how can players’ relationships towards him be so deep and affecting?

 Players likely absorb more of Gordon's personality from
promotional artwork such as this, than actual in-game events.

The reason, it occurs to me, is that players aren’t fond of Gordon Freeman himself; rather, they are fond of the experiences they had while in his HEV suit.  Gordon is not a military man, or (at least on-screen) a genius, or a romantic, or even much of a male to begin with.  Almost any and all traits about Gordon can be inferred not from the things Gordon does, but from the way players interpret the game world and the comments of other characters.  “Catch me later, I’ll buy you a beer”, a security officer tells the player.  Gordon’s locker features a number of unimportant items, yet appropriate for a scientist.  A colleague mentions “delays in the project again”.  The world, the characters and the dialogue are at once specific, but also open and abstract enough to allow for nearly anyone to put themselves in Gordon’s shoes.  Thus, it’s misleading for players to say they like Gordon.  What they really mean is that they like how Gordon facilitated their journey through Half-Life.

Yet despite Gordon’s lack of speech, the game and level design in Half-Life is so phenomenal not simply because it creates good gameplay out of convincingly real environments, but because it always provides a plausible reason for why he never opens his mouth.  The vast majority of Half-Life’s character interaction occurs early in the game, and during this time the player is ushered on as quickly as he or she arrives, on account of Gordon’s tardiness.  The subsequent dialogues in the game come mostly from characters who the player has no direct access to: scientists behind closed doors, a voice over a radio, soldiers who chat amongst themselves but open fire as soon as they detect the player, and so on.  Those that the player talks to more directly often have no reason to linger, as they themselves are also in the process of hiding, running, and, of course, meeting grisly ends.  The various characters that populate Black Mesa serve both a way to visually communicate danger and story to the player (scientists lined up and shot by soldiers, security personnel wounded by a new alien foe, etc.) and to inform the player of game mechanics or provide hints on how to proceed.  They are functional in terms of guiding the player along, but their purpose is served as soon as their lines are spoken.  Few would benefit much from any additional dialogue.

 Funny, I can think of another protagonist whose whole
shtick was his self-awareness and in-game commentary...

What’s more, the dialogue in Half-Life is constructed in such a way that the potential responses Gordon would make are so inconsequential as to be easily abstracted out – other than an “okay” or “thanks”, the player is never left with the feeling that Gordon is “too quiet” because there’s never a compelling enough reason for him to talk in the first place.  Even if he were to have a voice, what would he say?  “Wow, that was a big explosion”?  “Ouch, that looks like it hurt”?  “Holy [expletive], this is messed up!”?  Such lines would totally weaken the game, and risk turning it into a parody, especially considering it’s a mostly solitary journey.  Even in situations where a voice might be useful, such as in the event of the player’s injury, Gordon’s voice is instead substituted by that of his HEV suit, which informs the player of potential hazards and communicates in-universe when ammunition and health are low.

Half-Life is a game whose story and narrative progression come not from gross amounts of exposition, but as a natural product of the player’s exploration and goal of survival in a hostile environment; Gordon says little because the environment already says all it needs to, and because were he to speak, he’d simply be mirroring exactly what the player is already thinking.  Valve were extremely wise to make Gordon a mute; the decision plays to the strengths of Half-Life as a visceral, personal experience, rather than an interactive film, as many games today aspire to become.

System Shock 2

Many of System Shock 2’s strengths mirror those of the original Half-Life.  Taking place aboard the Von Braun, an experimental faster-than-light spaceship, the player character is an unnamed soldier who has modest field experience in the military, which the player is able to tailor in order to influence his or her various starting skills and abilities.  In System Shock 2, the player is even more of a literal blank slate than in Half-Life  – all the more appropriate for the RPG-style upgrade system that offers up the ability to upgrade the player’s “cybernetic rig”.  After a disaster of unknown origin damages much of the ship and either kills or transforms the crew into monsters called “The Many”, the player must follow the commands of a Dr. Janice Polito, who sends orders via radio; the player has little choice but to obey.

System Shock 2 is, of course, most famous for its major plot twist during the second act (which I intend to spoil, so fair warning!).  The gravity of seeing Polito revealed as SHODAN, the quasi-dominatrix bitch-AI villain of the first game, and of the player coming to the realisation that he or she has been working for the enemy all along, can’t be understated.  Betrayal is, of course, a universal language, and so that alone should be enough to make players’ blood boil, but I’d like to take things a step beyond such rote storytelling tropes, and posit that the reason why this moment is so important and effective is actually precisely because of the silence enforced upon the player.

 Peeping in on the spirit world is pretty much the closest
thing to "character interaction" the player does in System Shock 2.
System Shock 2 resembles Half-Life in that the player must explore a lived-in world that has been hit by disaster and decay, but the mute protagonists in both games serve very different roles.  In Half-Life, a number of contrivances were required to ensure Gordon’s silence, as his dialogue would be redundant or ultimately useless to advancing the story, and potentially even damaging to the experience.  System Shock 2, meanwhile, places the player in a world where he or she is totally isolated.  There are absolutely no characters the player can actually interact with in any non-violent manner.  Rather, the player is occupied by ghosts of the events leading up to the disaster, audio recordings left behind by the former crew, and the radio instructions of Dr. Polito/SHODAN, as well as others later in the game.

In System Shock 2, as a result, the player is never author of his or her own experience with respect to the story, and never feels that way – it is only action that the player has control over.  Although the game gives a lot of freedom in how the player solves problems and deals with the challenges presented, the objectives are wholly forced upon the player.  When told to reroute the power at a particular terminal, or to turn on the ship’s engines, the player doesn’t have a particular understanding of why the request is made, and no real explanation is given – nor can the player request one, either.  The persona of Dr. Janice Polito, and later SHODAN, is that of an insistent, almost childish woman who cannot be placated; no matter what the player seems to do, it’s never enough to satisfy her, and despite successes, she grows increasingly frustrated, antagonistic and demanding as the game wears on and the player is made to perform more and more dangerous tasks.  When the player finally reaches Polito, only to find her dead body and the enormous, self-indulgent image of SHODAN floating above, the realisation strikes home so soundly not because the player has been betrayed, but because he or she is reduced to nothing before a god.  The player, a “mere insect”, cannot even speak; the privilege has been forcibly denied by the game’s design, as well as the narrative.

 SHODAN: villain, murderer, god-queen, cyber-dominatrix, and... weakling?

SHODAN’s insistence upon making the player do everything for her, however, ultimately ends up being her downfall.  SHODAN is a powerful, malevolent and wholly imposing villain, but she is also a wordy, self-obsessed, implacable one.  Her goal, the destruction of The Many, the bio-engineered life form responsible for the disaster on the Von Braun, and her own former “children”, is something that she cannot accomplish due to lacking a physical form.  The player, who goes on to defeat The Many and, later, SHODAN, is able to succeed not through the power of insults, or demands, or any words at all, but rather, through action, the one thing that SHODAN is incapable of performing herself.  The player’s resistance to SHODAN is not something of finesse, or logic and reasoning, but brute force.

Thus, System Shock 2 doesn’t use the imposed silence of its protagonist in order to render the player as a blank slate for the purpose of building a customised avatar, or for railroading the player down a particular story path without needing to provide an excuse for doing so.  System Shock 2’s use of a silent protagonist, instead, is utterly fundamental to the impact of the game’s central plot twist, and, ultimately to what the ending symbolises: the victory of deeds over words.  Of course, the suggestion that raw, “masculine” firepower is the solution to “feminine” talk and idleness has problems of its own, but that’s a topic for another day.

“I shouldn’t have said anything...”

The first Dead Space was a success largely because of the way it was able to blend a horror atmosphere and sense of isolation with action-oriented gameplay.  Effectively a continuation of Resident Evil 4’s game mechanics, but set to System Shock 2’s futuristic aesthetic, it leveraged its silent protagonist by once again leaving him as a blank slate – beyond being male in a rote industrial job, players had very little sense of Isaac as a character.  Even when he was made more human by the suggestion of his past relationships, these were typically abstract enough that most players could identify with him, without being pulled out of the experience or suddenly made aware that it was “Isaac’s story” and not “my story”; the fundamental line between self and other was not crossed.

For Dead Space 2, however, Isaac has become a fully realised character.  His past is now far more fleshed out, his role in the story is less of an outside observer and more of a fundamental player, and he is wholly identifiable as white, male and American.  Of most consequence, though, is that the division between the self and other has been breached.  Whereas Dead Space was focused around the player and his or her exploration of a terrifying, hostile environment, Dead Space 2 is focused around Isaac’s own endeavours; the player is largely just along for the ride.

 Isaac's girlfriend Nicole was probably the
closest thing he had to a personality prior to Dead Space 2

I want to stress that this doesn’t necessarily make Dead Space 2 a worse game, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative is weaker, or that players can’t connect to Isaac as a character.  However, the relationship between the player and the game has been shifted radically, and has dire implications for the future of the franchise.  Dead Space is no longer about the player and the science fiction universe, it’s about just another white male American with a history of personal anguish.  The language players use to describe their interaction with Dead Space as a franchise has been irreversibly changed.

In any case, I hope this article has served its purpose as a thorough analysis and has highlighted some of the important ways in which the protagonist of a game can vitally change the direction of that game, from its narrative, to its level design, to its mechanics, and to its central meaning and message.  What matters to me isn’t that games have silent protagonists or not, but rather, it’s that developers, as well as fans and critics, are sensitive to the impact such decisions have on the experiences they have.