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LONG BLOG

Left 4 Dead: an unlikely argument for games as art

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Over the years of its existence, the game industry has undoubtedly matured. What once was simply a neat pastime for a handful of geeks has become a multibillion dollar industry, servicing a huge portion of humanity. With this coming of age, there are bound to be some pretentious scholars who seek to legitimize the medium as one that can be used as art. I am one such pretentious scholar.

The debate has raged on long enough, with thoughtful, cohesive arguments on either side. I personally believe that games can be art, just like movies can be, books can be, and music can be, but there are examples in each medium that can also function purely as entertainment.

Thus, I think it is important to examine individual titles, to draw meaning and emotion from each. Before having thought about it much, I never would have imagined that a first person shooter revolving around the impending zombie apocalypse could be anything more than glorious entertainment. Having thought more about it, Left 4 Dead might be the best example of gaming as a unique medium for artistic expression.

Let me begin with an excerpt from Ron's blog. In it, he describes one experience he had on the rooftop finale of the No Mercy campaign.

"I stayed on the mini-gun to clear the horde that appeared to rain on our parade. As I laid into them, the other three survivors rushed to the chopper. I hopped off the mini-gun, grabbed the gas can, and high tailed it to the EZ. As Bill and Francis boarded the chopper Zoey got tackled from behind by a hunter. I tossed the gas can pulled up my shotgun and put that hooded freak back in the dirt. Zoey got up and ran to the chopper. No sooner than she got to the chopper I got bashed in the back by a giant piece of concrete. Another Tank had appeared and he was pissed... I was already low on health so that hate bomb he tossed knocked me to the ground. As I bled out the zombies surrounded me and gave me a prison style gang beatdown. I fired up into their faces, just trying to thin the herd so the thundering tank could finish me off... I was on the ground next to the ramp up to the EZ. On the ramp was the gas can I chucked to rescue Zoey. I took aim...made my peace... and screamed "GO, GET TO THE CHOPPEEEERRRR!", then fired through the crowd into the can. I really don't know what killed me, the fire or the burning Tank fist, but all I do know is it looked badass..."

At first, it seems like it's just a haphazard retelling of a generic zombie movie, but there are a few key points that truly stand out and highlight gaming as being more than just "cinema with a gimmick."

First off, the anecdote was told in the first person. No other form of art can present to the audience such a personal experience. Certainly, one could say, "I looked at that painting," or "I watched that film," or "I listened to that composition, and it made me feel X." But those are all passive verbs; the audience simply observes and comments (aloud or otherwise), whereas the player has active involvement in the events to unfold. From the excerpt, we have "I laid into [the zombies]," "I fired up into their faces," and "I don't really know what killed me," which are statements that no other form of entertainment could bring out.

This idea that interactivity is what sets games apart from cinema is nothing new. Destructoid's own Jim Sterling has made that point on several occasions, in writing and on Podtoid. However, another thing that sets Left 4 Dead apart can also be gleaned from Ron's retelling. That story he passed on was his, but more importantly, it was his alone.

Contrary to what Aaron Linde had to say on the matter on Podtoid, I don't think powerful narrative is the necessary element to bring games to the level of cinema. What that does, in fact, is exactly what games-as-art detractor Devin Faraci claims: it makes it so games are just cinema with little gamey gimmicks thrown in. No, I think that the story told above is so important for legitimizing games as a unique medium for artistic expression because although Ron's story could have been told through other media, and perhaps with better descriptions or more dramatic angles, there are millions of unique stories generated like this one, and they continue to generate, months after the game has released.

This is the single most defining aspect of gaming with respect to cinema, music, literature, or other forms of art. When an artist creates something using those latter forms of media, the end product is what it is. Two viewers can take in the same piece and get out of it something completely different from one another, but it is still an entirely static work once it is deemed complete by the artist. In procedurally generated or directed games, it is not until the player puts thumb to joystick that the piece becomes complete, and the story told will vary from player to player.

Left 4 Dead is the best example I could come up with for these ideas. I've never played the original Fallout, though I have been led to believe it is another good one. Are there others I've forgotten? Or more importantly, does interactivity and the ability to tell an infinite number of unique stories sufficiently differentiate games from other forms of media, and does it elevate them from purely entertainment to high art? How do you feel about it?
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About Darren Nakamuraone of us since 2:29 AM on 11.06.2006

Darren is a scientist during the day. He has been a Destructoid community member since 2006, joining the front page as a contributor in 2011.

While he enjoys shooters, RPGs, platformers, strategy, and rhythm games, he takes particular interest in independent games. He produced the Zero Cool Podcast for about four years, and he plays board games quite a bit when he can find willing companions.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Darren Nakamura knows several people in the video game industry, most of whom are Destructoid alumni. These include:

Anthony Burch, former writer for Gearbox Software
Ashly Burch, notable voice actor
Nick Chester, publicist for Harmonix Music Systems
Chad Concelmo, writer for Golin Harris
Aaron Linde, writer for Gearbox Software
Jayson Napolitano, publicist for Scarlet Moon Productions
Brad Nicholson, former publicist for Uber Entertainment
Alex Ryan, publicist for Kalypso Media
Jim Sterling, notable voice actor

Darren backs a lot of Kickstarter campaigns! If you want to see what he has backed, you can go here. If he ever reviews a game that he backed, that will be explicitly disclosed in the review.

Darren invested in Psychonauts 2 on Fig.
Xbox LIVE:Dexter345
PSN ID:Dexter345
Steam ID:http://steamcommunity.com/profil
Mii code:1257 7687 3747 6405


 

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