Sunday, April 20, 2003

I've been talking with M'lakMavet and Archimedes lately about games, and their artistic potential. M'lak will have an article out on it soon, but I have a few thoughts of my own that I thought I might as well share, especially since that last post about the war has been up so long.

By way of preface, the interactive aspect of gaming doesn't invalidate it as art. Hamlet is never the same twice, and people have done some pretty wacky stuff to it (and other Shakespeare plays) over the centuries, but the fact that the end product depends so heavily on who actually executes the show doesn't invalidate theatre as art. The difference of course is that you can name examples of great theatre, but not examples of great games. Oh, you can name any number of "great games" according to the standards by which games are judged - but not according to the standards by which all other art is judged. I wager it's a safe bet that none of the games we've seen so far will be played in our children's time, let alone in five hundred years. And it doesn't count if they're played for sentimental value, or the novelty of history. People may remember Bach's music fondly, but ultimately they play it because it's phenomenal music no matter how old it is. We have no games like that.

But one day, hopefully, that will change - if game developers become artists, or artists became game developers. But still I think there are some major mental tasks to complete before we get a really great game. One of those is figuring out what the strengths of the medium as an art form actually are. Interactivity is the most obvious answer - but what does that really mean? And what about interface? Should games strive for a simple interface, as Archimedes would have it? Quite possibly - after all, the more intuitive the interface the more complete the immersion, and immersion is something that even today's poor excuses for games are fairly good at. Presumably we should seek after immersion.

But will there perhaps be a place for an art form where the interface is actually part of the experience? Before you scoff, remember how much cooler sims can be inside a cockpit pod, as at Virtual World. In some ways of course that's just a way of increasing the immersion factor: controlling a BattleMech with two sticks and foot pedals is more believable than doing it with a mouse and keyboard. But in some cases the interface is difficult for difficulty's sake (e.g., virtually every fighting game known to man). Imagine a game where you have to master the interface (which, for a large part of gaming history, was virtually the entire point) to really enjoy the game. You might scoff, but technical proficiency as the price to participate doesn't doom an art form. Else where would musicians be, or dancers, or painters, or filmmakers? Of course you can often enjoy their products passively (and so can you enjoy a game without playing it, as the Koreans have taught us with their devotion to StarCult ... er, Craft). But even passive enjoyment isn't necessary: virtually nobody who doesn't already know how to waltz enjoys watching other people do it. And yet the waltz was a viable, extremely popular form of art for decades, and social dance in general continues to be a viable popular art today. So I will not dismiss the possibility of a genre of games which are real art but require you to master their interfaces to really enjoy them. Maybe one day my son will describe such a game to me with the same glow with which I describe the waltz or lindy hop to a non-initiate, and he'll smile at my benign ignorance as I smile at so many others'.

Another hurdle is technical mastery. I think that game developers have their standards insufficiently high when it comes to the technical execution of their craft. Perhaps this seems surprising to say of an industry where graphics and system demands supercede each other so rapidly, but when it comes to game design itself the rate of progress is not nearly so fast. StarCraft's level of play balance is still exceptional, and not the rule - but why? Is it because all the RTS designers worth their salt work for Blizzard? Maybe, but I doubt it. Why is it that game designers think that a game is complete if it has a fantastic multiplayer component but a lackluster single-player, or vice versa? StarCraft makes me think that the idea of the single vs. multiplayer game ought to be more of a niche concept than it seems to be: the play balance in StarCraft is equally necessary for the single player and multiplayer (assuming you're into high standards of quality), since you play all three races against one another and the tactical problem therefore needs to have a multiplayer-like balance (unless of course you're not interested in creating an interesting tactical problem, which is deplorable in a designer of combat-based games). Granted that's probably not how Blizzard thought of it - but why not?

It occurs to me that aside from the non-acknowledgement of games as art (which is I think the root of the problem of people's perception of them) one of the problems people have with games is that they cause you to spend all your time inside, pretending ("posing," perhaps is a more accurate term), or both. Besides the fact that those objections are obviously silly (why then is acting okay?), it occurs to me that we object to anybody spending all their time in "idle" artistic activity. It's not okay to spend all your time inside at your paints or your books any more than your games (though large portions of time devoted to them may be acceptable). As for posing, I think that's a misunderstanding of what the pretending in games is actually pretending. Hint: it's more than just what's on the screen. Which is true of all good pretending. I may never be a hoplite, but I can still take my place in line of dance, raise my arm to high port, and charge ahead into the mill of Terpsichore.