What's the point of games?
People have been asking that question since... well since games were first created! Is a game just about flashy lights and loud noises or is it a medium to convey meaning and messages? Are games dumb fun or are they meant to constructively teach you something?
The answer is yes ...both, neither, either!
The concept of 'artsy' or 'pretentious' games pop up a lot, often in contrast with the idea of 'mindless' games – shooter usually being the suffix attached, but what makes a game one or the other, and is one more the 'real' game than the other?
Typically when a game gets labelled as 'artistic' or 'pretentious' it's at the far end of the scale, games can have meaning and games can just be fun, when games push it to such an extent that they focus more on meaning - even just the supposed meaning or message of the developer - then they start to loose that sense of fun and just sort of become a 'wtf?!' moment. Vice versa, when a game gets derogatorily referred to as 'mindless' – a prefix that gets applied to a lot of modern shooters, it's often because people feel that though they're fun they lack intellectual credibility ...a lot like a Michael Bay film.
Artistic games are usually a lot more abstract in their representation of objects and themes or attempt to challenge the player intellectually – possibly burying the meaning of the game beneath layers of metaphor in order to create a game that can be interpreted on multiple levels. For instance a game about war could work on the one level: This war [The war in the game] is bad, people died, it ended badly [and the player just experiences those emotions alongside the characters]; or alternatively it could be saying 'Hey, war is bad in general'; or it could be passing comment on society as a whole in the way that it represents the interaction between different bodies within the game – is it trying to say something about the division between haves and have-not with the relations between the characters? Or is it passing comment about how war makes men equal?
In books and films this sort of underlying message is pretty much universal – almost all films have some sort of message behind them, even the bad ones. A lot of the best films use this in an 'artistic' way to express some sort of deeper message about what it means to be human or about life - Apocalypse Now for instance isn't just about Martin Sheen hunting down some crazy guy, no, like the novel it's based on, it's also about the nature of being human and what happens when we're taken away from the safety of society and placed in a world unlike our own - aswell as the ugly reality of war. To some extent when we talk about 'artistic' games we mean something along these lines – games are often viewed as artistic when the story isn't just about pushing your funny buttons or your excitement buttons but also about conveying something that touches you intellectually.
Alternatively a game could be artistic by attempting to use abstract objects to represent everyday things or common gameplay tropes – I'm sure we'll all seen a platformer where your character isn't human, where you play as a stickman or a bunch of moving blocks or something equally abstract. Games like these aren't necessarily trying to stimulating the player intellectually but instead use visual metaphors or imagery to stimulate us visually. Limbo, is an excellent example of this, a specific decision has been made about the art-style, which while the game itself may follow a very simplistic mechanic, adds an extra layer of meaning to the game – moving it away from being a simple platformer. This combined with the ominous hero who never speaks yet frequently dies a variety of horrific deaths adds an extra dimension to how we interpret Limbo. It becomes 'different' from everything else because of those intentional stylistic choices and the effect they have on us when we play it.
Limbo is the most obvious example of this in simple terms, as I've just stated, but this sort of intellectual depth can pop up in others games, take for instance Deus Ex Human Revolution. Not only does it attempt to convey a message about the rights and wrongs of the cyberpunk world Adam Jensen inhabits but it also stylistically makes an artistic point in the way that world is portrayed – the heavy use of night-time settings, the strong presence of gold in the colour palette and the omnipresence of advanced technology and urban locations all contribute towards our perception of the game and what its trying to say to us.
Some mainstream games do try this, Human Revolution I've already mentioned, Bioshock is another game that is both enjoyable and conveys a message. A lot of indie games meanwhile try to strike out using their own unique interpretations of what a game 'should' be to impress the player – games like Limbo, Flower, Eufloria and World of Goo all have an interesting take of what it means to be a game.
Games usually referred to as mindless tend to focus on very concrete, often very easily understandable gameplay mechanics, characters and themes. Games like Modern Warfare and Gears of War, Fear 2 and Crysis 2 are good examples of 'mindless' games - though arguably none of that are really that mindless. Games like this for the most part don't explore the depth of human emotion nor the complete range of themes that affect human beings but instead focus on the more visceral, emotive and engaging aspects of human nature. A lot of games end up being labelled 'mindless' mainly because they prioritise being fun over originality – they basically try to do what's been done before because they knew people will enjoy that, but often don't have that unique a plot.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (and it's sequel) are often used examples of this type of game, because they go down the (well) tried-and-tested path of being an FPS military shooter - with a lot of explosive scenes, fast action and a plot akin to something Tom Clancy might write. The plot is simple, if unrealistic, but it serves well enough to motivate the action and most levels consist of staggering cinematic moments, scripted events and moving through waves of enemy soldiers. Neither of the Modern Warfares tries to blow your mind, instead they're fun and entertaining.
Again with Gears of War the complaint is often that it's too shallow, Gears focuses on a very macho interpretation of war, in which despite the horrific events going on around them the focus is on the camaraderie between the characters and their ability to rely on one another in the midst of all the head exploding and blood-letting that goes on. So in that sense Gears won't win any accolades from pretentious film critics anytime soon, but the thing about Gears is it doesn't matter: It's fun. And it also does something a lot of games have been incapable of doing – showing the barbarity and hopelessness of war whilst also being really fun. Usually when films/books/games try to tackle the realities of war they end up being depressing (for obvious reasons) and something you don't really feel like returning to anytime soon, with Gears that's not the case.
Typically people complain about these sorts of games because they feel they take away from the originality of gaming as a medium. In my own personal view of games I tend not to delineate between the two types, granted I like clever games, but mindless fun is just that – mindless fun. Something we could all do with sometimes.
One of my favourite games of the last decade is Doom 3, I was quite a big Doom player as a kid (- sorry, haven't killed anyone yet Daily Mail!) so when the Doom series was rebooted with Doom 3 I jumped on the chance to play it. Games like Doom 3 are sort of why I'd consider labels like 'artsy' or 'mindless' too crude to be used about a lot of games – even the ones generally associated with them, because even though I'd consider the gameplay mechanics of Doom 3 quite 'mindless', everything else about the game isn't. Though you spend the entire game rinsing and repeating with the same mechanic of 'walk down corridor, monster pops out; shoot monster' its everything else that deserves the real praise in Doom 3. Though the game might not try to send a deeper message about war or politics it does an amazing job of creating a rich, near-future science-fiction world in which the player really feels a part, and really feels trapped. And though the premise of the game may be hammy the direction behind the art-style, the voice acting and the story itself is really, really good.
In this sense I guess the problem I feel there is with labelling games as 'artsy', 'artistic', 'pretentious', or on the other end of the scale as 'mindless' or 'dumb' is that we often end up missing how nuanced games can be – granted if a game's artistic you might sit down, play a couple of levels and think 'wow, this is pretty weird!' but that doesn't mean it's not necessarily fun; likewise just because a game's mindless fun doesn't mean a lot of time, effort and thought hasn't been put into the game. Think of all the work that went into making Modern Warfare, all the artists and designers who spent hour after hour working on the game and putting all the detail in.
Mirror's Edge is another favourite of mine, mainly because of how different it is from anything else out there, the stark colour scheme, the first-person platformer gameplay and the emphasis on avoiding combat makes it a really enjoyable experience. Granted the story is pretty shit (I skipped most of it the first time through) but the gameplay's good enough that it doesn't matter.
I also really like Gemini Rue and Limbo for their art direction – Gemini Rue because it's an interesting slice of cyberpunk fiction and Limbo because the art style is so unique and downright creepy at times. Both rely on very simple mechanics – Gemini Rue is literally 'find puzzle, find item to solve puzzle, solve puzzle' for much of the game, and Limbo is near enough the same – 'find puzzle, figure out solution to puzzle, solve puzzle'. However both these games are entertaining, and do something no other game does, in an intelligent, yet understandable and enjoyable way, and that's what matters.
I guess on a personnel level I tend to keep away from describing a game as artistic or mindless, mainly because the two terms seem derogatory - almost accusatory, as if trying to be clever when making a game or trying to be fun and not bother about intelligent aspects is really that bad a thing in a game, when it's not. The exception to that rule being when a game either goes too far in one direction or too far in the other, and more often than not games like that end up playing badly, either because they try too hard to be intelligent or they're just too shallow.
Personally I'd describe a game as pretentious if in trying to achieve something (no matter how interesting) it becomes too self-involved, too self-obsessed with congratulating itself or making itself seem grander than it is. For example, though I'd say Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an intelligent game, I wouldn't say it's pretentious or self-involved because at no point does the game demand you know things that you could only know if you were inside the developers' heads. Granted it does something completely different to pretty much anything out there on the market, but it does it in such a way that you can enjoy it without engaging too deeply with the world, and if, on the other hand, you do want to engage with that world then you can and there's a wealth of information for you to delve into.
At the end of the day it really doesn't matter if games do convey immensely intelligent themes or attempt to wow us with a unique take on how their game world appears. True, clever games are excellent, and it's nice when we're engaged intellectually, but fun is also important and sometimes trying to put intellectual themes in something just doesn't work – I mean does anybody think Mario would make a good mouthpiece for commentary on Iraq?
What matters most of all is that a game engages with the player, and tries to give them something they want, whether it be intellectual stimulation or just plain fun. The best games aren't necessarily the most intelligent or the most shallow, they're the most engaging. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Limbo, Bioshock, Modern Warfare, Gears of War or Doom 3 are successful because they all do this, maybe in different ways but they do all do it and that's what matters, because when games engage us that's what makes them enjoyable, and more importantly: That's what makes them good games.