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Bob Muir avatar 5:06 PM on 11.02.2007  (server time)
Friday Rantoid: Do games need to be respectable?

Author's Note: As if to make up for last week's short rant, this post is long enough to bore a war veteran. So get those "tl;dr" comments ready and dive in.

IRC brings up a lot of interesting subjects. Sure, some of them are mundane topics like which hard drive to buy, quotes from a show I've never heard of, or the dolphin-sex life of Chad Concelmo. But every now and then, you happen upon something that you never really thought about before. A discussion emerged about our gracious editors and their varying art styles. Some of us (guess who) preferred the lengthy articles oft attributed to the likes of Rev. Anthony and Leigh Alexander, while others insisted that the quirky humor of writers like Ron Workman was some of the finest work on the site. Soon, a quote from Niero was brought up along the lines of "No one who writes about Princess Peach should expect to win a Nobel Prize."

Honestly, he's right. Game journalism (alongside its pretentious offspring "new game journalism") is essentially covering a medium in which the most popular games involve a macho soldier who fights evil aliens and a simulation of a sport involving men ramming their heads together over and over. It certainly seems quite tabloid compared to "actual journalism," which apparently involves covering shootings, political intrigue, and covert hacking operations. Then again, it's not really game journalists' fault that their craft is essentially a filter for company press releases. Gaming is still a young medium and is growing by leaps and bounds in artistic merit. It's very similar to how the film industry grew into a full-fledged art form. But I am not here to praise what Niero says, since we all know he is awesome. I would like to try extending the spirit of Niero's quote to games themselves: do games need the respectability that comes with becoming an art form?

Before I continue, let me define what I mean by gaming as an art form, or "games as art," since some gamers are confused by what the phrase means. In its base definition, art is simply the expression of human skill and imagination. However, in terms of games, this technically includes bad games, good games, and exceptional games. I think the reason for these exceptional games is part of the evolution of the medium to reach some meaningful, artistic goal that is above, say, something akin to Space Invaders. So if we were to redefine the base definition, games as art are skillfully-crafted games that solicit higher responses and deeper connections from its audience. Furthermore, there's a difference between games that are art and games that contain art. A game like Bioshock is art because there is something meaningful or intentional in most of the game's design and production. A game like Okami contains art because it's considered art-worthy for the accomplishments of another medium; the game itself is essentially a well-done Zelda for PS2 that succeeded in transferring a paintbrush art style into a playable game. I must qualify these statements by saying that art is subjective, therefore the games as art argument is impossible to define fully. You may view Okami as more than just a well-made game, and I think that Twilight Princess had its moments where I felt more than just the usual enjoyment from playing a game. I realize some of you may disagree with my definition, and I welcome any debate you wish to have, but I am going to continue with this definition for now, seeing as the process of definition could easily warrant its own lengthy investigation.

Now that the definition is established, let us look at gaming's "artistic roots." Its earliest incarnations were simple conversions of diversions like Ping Pong. When arcades exploded in the early 80s, Pac Man became a hit because it was fun. Games became popular because they communicated with base desires for fun and challenge. Effectively, they were interactive toys. For example, take Super Mario Bros., one of gaming's early hallmarks. It's a masterpiece of simple gameplay, ample challenge, and strong level design. It set the standard for the platform games for years to come. However, does this game exist on the same level as movies like Birth of a Nation? I'd say no, and not just because that movie's blatant racism. While Birth of a Nation also set standards for its medium, such as a strong story for the time, character development, and radical visual techniques like cross-cutting, none of those things can be found in or have an equivalent in Super Mario Bros. As I see it, the game is not art, it is just fun, interactive entertainment. And honestly, is that a bad thing?

As Yahtzee pointed out in his recent review of Super Paper Mario, games are supposed to be about amusement. How many of us have played a game like Ikaruga and thought less of it because it's just an arcade game? Guitar Hero is not artistic, but does that make it less enjoyable? The answer is a definite "no," since games were originally meant to be fun, and I think that sometimes escapes games made with the intention to be artistic. Compare the two heavyweights in the survival horror genre, Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Resident Evil is a series founded on jump-scares and action-y gameplay. When I pick up a game in the series, I know that it's not going to be deeper than "OMG THARS ZOMBIES IN THIS HERE HOUSE," but I know it's going to be fun. Silent Hill, on the other hand, takes a much more artistic approach to horror. There are few jump-scares, replaced with an encroaching sense of terror and psychological fears that, ultimately, is more successful than Resident Evil. I enjoy the series, as it has much more substance to it. However, the gameplay itself leaves much to be desired. Combat is stiff, pacing is slow, and it seems that the game is much more concerned with trying to be art than trying to be a game. It's much more fun to take out zombies in Resident Evil than it is to hack at penis-monsters in Silent Hill.

But step back for a moment: do games honestly need to be fun? That might sound like a weird question, considering the connotation associated with "game," but it's an important idea. Forgive me for where I'm going with this, but gaming has many parallels with the film industry in this area. The first films were simple, nonsensical affairs, more concerned with quick laughs and visual information than they were with such weighty concepts as narrative and structure. Right now, games are still in this area: simple, self-gratifying entertainment that ultimately does not hold much importance compared to other mediums. Games also currently have a financial need to be fun in order to get good reviews and sell well. But from the success of games like Shadow of the Colossus, we know that artistic games can be a success, provided they have fun gameplay as part of the package. Electroplankton, a piece of interactive art for DS, was only sold online because it was known in advance that the gaming public would not settle for lack of solid gameplay in their art experience. If that's the case, maybe most gamers need to have a game focus on being a game first and being art second.

So do games need to be fun to succeed? I think Silent Hill is once again a good answer to that. As I've stated above, the controls and gameplay in Silent Hill are weak, often the determining factor in a game's success. However, the game still succeeds in spite of that. Why is this? Because in art, the whole of the message is more important than the deficiencies in its parts. If I let the gameplay deter me, then I would be missing one of the strongest series in gaming.

Does this mean that the industry should attempt to shift its focus away from being mass-market and towards being a respectable artform? I think that would be a false dilemma, as there is no reason why games cannot cater to both sides of the market. Not every movie is a work of high art; for every Matrix produced, there are many Matrix sequels, enjoyable movies that ultimately have little real artistic purpose beyond entertainment. We're never going to see the death of pure escapist games, and trying to raise the prominence of artistic games is going about it all wrong. For gaming to continue rising in success, I believe that the industry should recognize its ability to play both sides and increase the importance of developing artistic games. Maybe then will snobby critics like Roger Ebert finally see what games can offer to society.

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