Monday, December 18, 2006

Video Games On Tape

In response to the idea that the length of recent blogs makes them difficult to respond to and comment on, I’m going to try something a little different for the next segment of discussions. I’m going to do one blog on one idea. So no “Thirty Year Old Art: II”, just some more issues that relate to part one, starting with one that I have a really hard time fitting into any other discussion very well.

As far as how people consume and interact with them, video games are an interesting combination of movies and books. This was really surprising to me when it came to light (thank you Stuart) because I'd always sort of assumed that video games were most similar to movies. My concept of a video game was basically a movie that was interrupted by gameplay, or a movie in which you controlled the action. The only similarity I saw to books was the fact that they had a story. But the way games are experienced, not just the way they look, is in fact very similar to how people read.

Obviously different kinds of games share different things with other art forms. Abstract puzzles have little in common with any narrative art. But for the most part, and especially in the post 8-bit video game era, games have taken on much of the visual style and appeal of manstream movies and video media of similar subject matter. For example, science fiction settings in video games tend toward the robots and lasers that mainstream film uses. Explosions, gunfights, highspeed chases, panoramic landscapes, shapely figures and dramatic camera angles have all worked their way into video games as the technology to create interesting images becomes cheaper and more accessible to developers. Especially as CGI becomes a staple for action/adventure movies, the visual style of movies becomes imitated by video games. Video games and movies always seem to be interwoven, as they make direct use of each other's subject matter and pump out movies of games or, much more often, games of movies. Direct inbreeding of the two media never seems to work though. I wonder why...

The fact of the matter is that video games and movies employ vastly different methods of engaging an audence. Movies, television, music, theater, painting and sculpture are all what I would consider arts which require passive participation by the viewer. The audience participates in their mind, relates to the work in a personal way and adds to the work by bringing their own perspective, but the art will continue whether or not the people are paying attention or even present. A person can zone out in a movie and the movie persists. This is not the case in either literature or video games. The art will only exist if the viewer actively invites it to. If you stop reading the book, the story stops. There can be no story without the abstract shapes being translated into meaningful ideas as they are read. Similarly, there can be no video game unless someone plays it. It is true that a person can zone out reading a book too, or absentmindedly play a game without any thought, but the disruption to the artwork in these instances is substantial and different from the way a person can passively observe a movie or listen to a song without focusing.

I think this may be something that turns people off to gaming the same way people sometimes get tuned off to reading. There is a significant amount of effort involved in each that is needed to get the information contained in the artwork. Books and video games require some imaginative input from the audience to be fleshed out in their entirety. In 8-bit and 16-bit RPG gaming especially there's a lot of imagination necessary to become immersed in the world. The graphics and dialogue are limited and beg the player to mentally fill in the dramatic and visual gaps to make the story come to life. Those who are willing to do this find themselves in wonderfully emotional and exciting stories. Those who aren't find a flat, unengaging series of electronic bleeps, pixellated bodies and simplistic dialogue. Obviously there's a lot of imagination that goes into reading a book too, since you can't actually see or hear anything you read. The images and ideas in a written story only exists in the mind of the reader.

Games also need some imagination and thought to complete at all. Decisions have to be made, puzzles need to be figured out, initiative has to be taken to get anywhere. That is of course the point of playing, but especially for non-gamer types, this may be too much to do for the sake of having a story told to them. In fact, in this respect games require more effort that books do. Video games are sort of a half way point, which sometimes makes them difficult for people to enjoy. They require more effort than just sitting and watching, and don't allow for as much imaginative oportunity as a book. I think this middle ground is also a reason some people love them so much.

The other really interesting parallel between video games and books that i think is worth mentioning is the fact that, more so than most other arts, video games and books require a vocabulary in order to be experienced at all. This is more true in books than in games. Obviously books require literacy, but more than that, books require understanding of the specific vocabulary that is being presented in the story. Many children would be considered literate are completely unable to read many books, despite their ability to pronounce the words on the page. Even many movies in a foreign language can be understood by what seems to be a fairly universal vocabulary of images. I know I can follow spanish telanovelas about as well as I probably could if I spoke spanish. Games require a vocabulary also. Games have commonalities in what's expected of the player, the sorts of solutions that will probably solve certain problems, how to control an object in the virtual world, etc. The best example of this is fighting games. Street Fighter II's quarter-circle-punch has been a staple in video game vocabulary since its inception. When a player new to the entire genre comes to the controls, the motion is completely alien and sometimes incomprehensible. Just the fact that video games require instruction manuals and training for each game shows how much of a vocabulary is require to experience the game. Both video games and books understand that this is a potential barrier between their art and the audience, so both have developed "media supplements" in the form of walkthroughs and line/cliff notes. These allow the art to be accessible to people who would otherwise pass it by due to a failure to develop the necessary vocabulary.

So there ya go. Books and Video games. Now, how do we get more old people to play video games...

(it's still pretty long isn't it...)

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Thirty Year Old Art: Part I

Art is a difficult thing to talk about.

As much as it is an extremely old and intimate aspect of society, it is notoriously difficult to define. Disputes about what art is have been the subject of artwork for centuries. I’ve never had an art teacher who didn’t look at least a little uncomfortable when the subject was raised, or an art class that was satisfied with the conclusion. The definition expands and contracts regularly. However, there must be some boundary. If there is none, there is no such thing as art. If everything is art, the word becomes meaningless. I feel that art is one of the most important things in the world. For a person who things the point of living is experience, and I do, nothing seems more meaningful than a human endeavor who’s purpose includes experience for experience sake, and the communication of experiences.

So what is art to me that makes it so easy for me to say that video games are clearly included? Well, for me, art is this (don’t worry I’ll explain): anything presented for consideration of the thing as it exists apart from the rest of the world. An apple eaten as food is not art. And apple looked at as an example of an apple is art. And apple looked at as an example of an object is art. Eating an apple is not art. Presenting yourself eating an apple is art. The taste of an apple is art if the taste is presented as such. Art can be seen to have many purposes, or none, but for me art serves the function of providing experience and conveying information. Words cannot say everything. It may help us understand others, or simply be enjoyable and enhance ourselves and our personal environments. It is essential to understanding our nature as people, and subsequently to be a responsible person.

Art can be anything. Any sense, any object, any idea. Through art we have the potential for self-expression. This, of course does not make everything good art, but the different ways in which human experience can be communicated are limited only to the number of things that can be experienced. Video games often employ so many conventional examples of visual and auditory art that the supposition that they are somehow excluded from the Art umbrella I think is irrational. They create emotional experiences, are often aesthetically beautiful, and certainly require skill and craft to create. So, yea, video games are definitely art.If you don’t like my definition, here are a few more. Video games still fit into them pretty nicely.

“The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” Britanica Online
“Any human activity which doesn't grow out of either of our species' two basic instincts: survival and reproduction.” Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
“An application of human creativity that has some form of appreciative value, usually on the basis of aesthetic value or emotional impact.” Wikipedia

I feel like it’s a good idea to explicitly say the purpose of this two part blog rather than just try and convey it in a topic paragraph. The purpose is (inhale) to explore video games as a viable high art form and encourage their expressive potential. Why try to encourage games to be more expressive and artistic? Partly because I love video games, but honestly, video games have become repetitive. As technology grows ever more amazing I see it being used in games the same way it has been used in movies: to make existing ideas more sparkley. Video games, a medium defined entirely within technology, should advances exponentially as technology does. Now don’t get me wrong, it has changed in profound ways! Games have morphed so fast it’s hard to keep up sometimes. From Super Mario Brothers to World of Warcraft? That's petty amazing. But even still, I’m bored with a lot of the next generation games. I’m tired of shooters, RPG’s, platformers, fighters and virtually every established genre feeling like they really haven’t progressed significantly in any way besides their graphics. I still get more of a kick out of my SNES than I do out of my PS2. This is partially nostalgia of course, but is also due to the types of ideas and interfaces that exist in some older games. For example, my favorite shooter remains Doom II, despite playing Half Life, Quake II, Metroid Prime, Halo and Descent (remember Descent? Yea you do!) to name a few. I want to see what video games can really do.

The other reason sounds more pretentious, but I believe in it. Every art medium has something it is able to express about life, experience and humanity that no other can. There are things that can be said through song and sound that nobody can ever depict any other way. There are stories that, when told through a movie format, will be understood in a way a book could never express. There are written ideas that could never be expressed visually or sonically. There is something special about every mode of communication, and video games are capable of expression. This means that they have something special they are capable of saying, and I want to hear it. At this point in the history of video games, I think they’ve been able to show us a lot about ourselves, but I think they’ve been imitating other art forms too much. I remain convinced that they have not really plumbed the depths of their expressive potential.

This first discussion I am going limit to exploring the qualities of the video game medium and how those qualities relate to art in general. A second blog will follow discussing the artistic/expressive potential and achievements of video games.

Dissecting art into parts is a task often more difficult than defining what qualifies as art in the first place. Most definitions settle around Form vs. Function, or something along these lines. The problem becomes the fact form and functions often merge. Form usually entails the physical manifestation of artwork, and function defines the social impact of a piece, be it intended by the artist or not. Clearly these two get mixed up, since many forms of art explore aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake and form is heavily used to convey information and is integral in the function of an artwork. The two seem inseparable, but I’m going to separate them anyway. A good work of art is one that uses form effectively to achieve a functional goal. I don’t think it can be said that some art has no goal whatsoever, because someone did it for some reason. If it was entirely accidental, it was not presented, and therefore not art by my definition.

I see form in video games as having two major parts: narration and interaction. In point of fact, video games don’t need much in the way of narration, since many abstract video games exist, but I feel like it’s fair to include narration as a basic component of video gaming since so much of the medium’s expressive potential comes from narration. All games have some form of narration, even if it isn’t much. Tetris’s graphics are a form of narration I think, albeit an extremely simple one.

When I talk about narration, I mean anything that allows the game to convey information to the player about the game’s world. This includes setting, story elements, gameplay graphics and sound, extra-gameplay graphics and sound, visual prompts, anything that lets the player know about the imaginary game world. I think it’s fair to say that just about all games, video or not, have some element of narration when considering this definition. The lines of a football field communicate to the players the imaginary world of the game, where imaginary boundaries become meaningful. Board games represent imaginary worlds where one plays with the use of a plastic avatar. What is unique about video games is the vast scope of narrative possibilities. Especially with fourth and fifth generation consoles, the possibility of creating cinematic-quality narratives becomes easily achievable. It isn’t technology though that allows for this communicative ability. Some of the most amazing stories to come out of games have come from 16bit systems. Video games really do have the potential to have stories as complicated and lengthy as any novel or movie, and thanks to the booming market and technological investment, the look and sound of just about any movie as well. Of course, video games are not movies or books. They are separated from being “just games” by their narrative potential, and separated from simply being narratives by their interactive potential.

Interaction in gaming is represented by control schemes, game engines, button configurations, controller layouts, on-screen commands, and what sort of visual perspective the player is forced to take (this last one bleeds into narration a bit, but whatever). The interactive element of gaming is what sets it apart from any other art medium. Interactivity in gaming forces the player into a particular persona and a particular perspective. It also makes isolated aspects of the game particularly intimate to the player. By allowing control over certain aspects of the imaginary world and not others (as must be the case in any video game) game designers force the player to become more familiar with the things they have control over and interact with, and less familiar with elements which are completely beyond their influence or participation. This happens in all art media of course because we can only handle one perspective at a time. When watching a movie, you are forced into the perspective of the camera, and sometimes the person the camera is focused on. When viewing a painting or sculpture you are limited by the object's orientation in space. I think this is more palpable in video games because of the harsh contrast that is sometimes created between what the player can see, and what the player can control. It's important that the player be more focused on their character than on the background textures and the sound effects, else they are likely to make mistakes and fail in the game’s objectives. However, the case may be made that the more blurred the separation between what you can interact with and what you can’t becomes, the more immersive and effective a game becomes. Personally, I think this is a stylistic element of gaming that will not work all the time. Certain games are more effective when you are aware of the fact that you are playing a game, and some require the sense of loosing one’s self in the imaginary world in order to fulfill their function.

In the course of reading up on this subject, the issue was raised that a distinction should be made between interaction and participation. This actually has a lot to say about the nature of games as art. There seems to me to be a fundamental distinction between a situation in which there is a specific narrative which a player is able to have some degree of participation in, as in an RPG, and a situation in which there is some substantial amount of give and take between the established game narrative and the player. The few games that i can think of that are decent examples of this type of interaction are MMORPG's, The Sims (especially the later ones) and that-really-neato-game-Nico-showed-me-at-Warren's-house (TRNGNSMAWH). I’m actually going to leave this for the next blog since I think it has less to do with establishing the nature of video games, and more to do with the specifics of how expressive and valuable video games are and can be.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding video games and art is the next subject. The function of video games. First of all, some comments on my view of the function of any art. I’ve mentioned it before, but I think it bears repeating. Much of the purpose of art is the communication of information. Thoughts, feelings, stories, perspectives, and even objective reporting can sometimes be conveyed more effectively through artistic craft, and I think this is one of the most important reasons that we value art in culture. The words we speak to one another do not allow us to understand each other well enough. But through art, we often get a little closer to the truth hidden inside each person's head. Each art form allows for acute understanding of humanity in a way that the other art forms simply couldn't do. Video games must do this as well, and being such a unique art, must also tell us something special about ourselves that we would never know if they didn't exist. What is that special something?

Art may convey information because the artist intended it to do so, or it may do so without the artist even knowing that it’s happening. It is the case that anything that is consumed conveys to the consumer information. You can’t experience anything without having some impression left on you. So there is no such thing as art which conveys nothing to its audience. However, many many works of art are made with the express purpose of being beautiful. The pleasurable nature of art is for many people its only value, and probably the other reason it is so important to us. Despite the fact that I think this is limiting, it must be accepted that this is also an extremely important aspect of artwork. Unless a work of art is enjoyable on some level, it won't be experienced by anybody.

The function of nearly all video games is entertainment as far as i can see. This of course does not mean there is a purely lowest-common-denominator appeal in gaming. Games range from mind-numbing keg-drinking fuck-screaming frat house center pieces to very subtle and sophisticated imaginary explorations. Even so, the function is entertainment. This is, however, the point of most art that exists in any medium. The majority of art is created for its aesthetic appeal, hence the stereotype that art must be aesthetically appealing. And let's not forget that just because the function of a work of art is to be entertaining does not mean that it is necessarily low brow or shallow. Art may seek to entertain by being intellectually provocative, or may couple elements of hedonic enjoyment with more complicated messages. This does exist in the video game world, although examples are often few and far between. Often enough the most complicated alternative function of a video game besides entertainment is to tell a story, which arguably is the same thing. If the point of the gameplay is to be fun, and the point of the story is to be enjoyable, then the game really is only about entertainment. However, just as a very serious movie can use expensive camerawork and special effects to reach an audience, so can a video game have enjoyable gameplay and a very sober plot.

I think one of the reasons that video games become targets of the label "pure entertainment" is that often times there is too much effort going into making the gameplay, the interaction of the game, entertaining and not enough going into making the gameplay and story mesh. When the narration and the gameplay don't make enough sense together, or don't rely on one another enough, they seem like separate entities. Because of this, the gameplay can be viewed as pointless and meaningless. The fact that video games' best defense by the public is "it builds hand-eye coordination" is insulting. You might as well say that's the reason to let your kids try out for Little League. That and callouses. But when a game's narration and interaction are too disjoint or too undeveloped, the game looses the qualities that make video games so amazing and becomes simply objects moving through space at the commands of fingers. Either just a hand-eye exercise, or a hand-eye exercise interrupted by a cartoon. To be expressive and worthy of our time, games need to not only create interesting narratives and gameplay, but merge them together to create one complete work.

An example of a game which I think uses gameplay and story elements together well to serve its point (though that point is agian only entertainment) is Metal Gear Solid. The Playstation one, not the Game Cube version which I think beomes distracting and overly complicated. While it may be argued that the controls, perspective and engine are clunky and difficult to use, I think that this game utilizes different gameplay modes and puzzles to keep the player feeling like they are Solid Snake in the story that the FMV sequences illustrate. The game frequently tries to make all the rediculous little errands you have to run make sense and tries to remind you constantly why your character is doing all this crap. The way the gameplay is set up you really can't diverge much from how one would imagine the story playing out. When you are supposed to be stealthy, you are stealthy. It's not that you can't kill the enemies, but it's very hard to survive if you let people know that you're trying to kill them. Few of the different gameplay elements seem superfluous, and with the exception of battling gigantic robots on foot with a rocket launcher, the game is damn near plausible. Whereas many RPG's could probably be made into books or movies without losing too much of their appeal as stories, MGS's very interesting plot is reinforced by it's gameplay, and the gameplay would be very near unenjoyable were it not for the story. Few games manage to really merge gameplay and narration this way. It is almost more important to make the gameplay make sense with the plot in this case than it is to make the gameplay enjoyable by itself. I think this is a good example of a video game, who's function is still pure enjoyment, executed in such a way that it becomes art worthy of consideration by other art media. Other examples of games that are complete, successful examples of the video game art medium in my opinion are Super Mario Brothers, Doom, Final Fantasy 7, Starcraft, Katamari, The Sims, Riven and Shadow of the Colossus to name a few. I notice when I'm trying to think of examples that I don't include many games with a plot. The absence of plot and the extremely simple narration is one of the things that makes Super Mario Brothers and Doom work for me. Very few games have been able to create a well rounded work of art while maintaining a decent story. I think the reason for this is that a complicated, engaging story requires a level of complex interaction that is very difficult to design, and even more difficult to make enjoyable and appealing to a wide audience. It's much easier to make an exciting story, and pair it with somewhat unrelated but very exciting gameplay.

Where i find video games truly come up short is when I try to think of games who's function is not entertainment. A work can be entertaining without entertainment being it's function (at least as far as the creator's inentions are concerned). For anybody who enjoys abstract shapes and unconventional imagery, cubism and abstract painting are indeed entertaining. But this is not necessarily their function as presented by the artist. Jackson Pollock's work is not so much about showing how pretty and aesthetic abstraction can be as it is about exploring what art is and how art could/should be produced. The function of Pollock's work is to present questions about artistic aesthetics and the process of creating emotionally expressive paintings. For many, his art is downright ugly. Yet even some who don't care for the way his paintings look still have a certain respect and appreciation for what he is doing with paint and canvas. Pollock's work is an extremely well executed merging of form and function, each working together to reinforce the other, a true example of how to express ideas visually. Few games approach the design process with the intention of using the interactive and narrative capabilities of gaming to convey a message to an audience. games like Grand Theft Auto may contain insights about culture and gaming, but the purpose is still to entertain. The only problem with this approach is that it limits the sort of artistic repertoire that games are allowed to make use of. There are established formulas for what is going to excite people and what sorts of game genres are going to entertain a mass audience. Games usually are based in some sort of action or competition with the computer or other virtual beings. control schemes are limited to ones which are consistent, easy to understand and easy to commit to reflex. Again, this is not a bad thing, but games need not be limited to such conventions. Games could make more use of multiple or unpredictable control types, or more exploratory and constructive, less action based gameplay (Katamari, Myst). I wish I could make better suggestions, but honestly it's hard for me to think of how games could achieve a greater depth of expression. Still, I insist that they are limited by so little that they must be able to convey information in their own special way that is as valuable as a novel or a dance.

Before I shut up, I'll mention that I'm not oblivious to the fact that many works of art, video games definitely included, are valuable not because of what the artist intends, but what the artist's work unintentionally says about the world he or she is living in. Such is a value of World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, Counter Strike and Miss. Packman among many others. By deciphering what it is about playing games that is enjoyable we learn about our own culture as well as what makes us people. A game's artistic function may be completely devoid of any intention, and simply be the impact that it's had upon society.

Video games are an complicated art form, complicated further by the politics of culture and technology. They've only been around for a little over thirty years (Pong was available in 1972). Many of us have been alive during their entire evolution. Only in the last five or so years have video games created such a social impact that the medium has become an issue for discussion and allowed them to contribute to the Art Debate. A hundred years ago music was defined in such terms that much of what we listen to now would not be considered music. The notion of listening to Merzbow would not even have been entertained, it would be valueless. Video games have undergone many evolutions, but like all art in it's adolescence, video games have only been experimented with for a short while. Video games may become different in the future in ways we don't imagine now (ahem, Wii). There's still a lot we haven't played.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Gotta Catch Em All!

Consumerism is something I think we all accept as part of our lives.

We can sometimes blame it on capitalism or sometimes on our particular version of product advertising in this country, or even live in a state of denial and say that we consume because we need the crap we see on TV. There is something fun about consuming, though. I'm not sure if I think it's natural or the result of some social something-or-other, but I am embarrassed to admit that getting stuffff (extra f's to emphasize the uselessness of said stuff) is a great joy. Only my poverty keeps this in check. That, and video games. Few forms of entertainment have been able to make such wonderful use of this drive to collect than video games. Equipment, abilities, items, power-ups and level-ups have long been a recurring element of gaming. From Doom to Soul Reaver, Metroid to Diablo, Blaster Master, Gradius and every RPG ever, games often require you to amass items and abilities, and there is a certain enjoyment to collecting them for the purpose of having them. What is interesting is that the desire to find virtual items is similar to the desire to purchase, and looking at how the desire to have manifests in gaming gives interesting insight into the desire to consume in general. The compulsion to consume exists in a greater or lesser degree for each of us, and brings a different degree of pleasure for each. Some gamers will pass by treasure chests in favor of advancing the story. Players may ignore every side quest that does not required to understand the plot or finish a level. But the desire exists frequently enough to warrant a little examination.

I love stuffff. As a kid I collected everything that resembled a dinosaur, had all the ninja turtle toys and attempted to get the play sets, collected stickers, coins, stamps, rocks, animals (short lived thanks to parents), knives, cards, comics, and I do believe at one point any object which I figured I could one day in the future use to fashion a robot including spark plugs, springs, circuit boards and wheels. I had this great fantasy of being the sort of person who has anything you could possibly need when you need it, no matter how obscure.

There is a certain security that comes from collecting which is created by the ability to have a tangible record of the past. By taking photographs we ensure that the past did indeed happen. When we collect things we not only find a way to pass the time and feel productive, but we have a log of all the productive things we've been doing and what fruits our labors bore. Each time we collect another level we are reminded that we're doing well. Every treasure chest means we're going the right way. It's comforting, being able to see and label those landmarks. Buying new furniture makes a new apartment feel like a life change rather than a new space. Souvenirs can be anything as long as they remind you of the place you got them in or the people you were with. It's fun to see armor and weapons and effects build up on characters. One of my favorite parts of Super Metroid was to start a new game after beating it, just so I could be reminded of what the old Samus looked like. It made me the experience of the game feel more solid when I could really see the changes that had occurred in the course of the game. I still want to be able to see all of my books and DVDs in one place, just to compare the ones from my childhood to the ones from a few months ago. Comparing them makes the changes I've gone through as a person more definable, more real.

The letdown comes when we take a look at the receipts our lifestyle has left us only to realize that we've wasted our much money have you spent on Magic cards? Wow, that sure is a loStamps.stamps. In the realm of video games these emotions are played upon in very interesting ways. There is a fair amount of disagreement as to how much hoarding of stuffff is too much. I tend to draw the line at utility in most games. Collecting stops being fun when I can't possibly need what I'm going for. When another level means nothing, when I have the best weapon I'm likely to get, when collecting these damn in-game cards means all that's going to happen is I'm going to get more cards WHOOPTY DAMN DOO, it's time to put the packrat to sleep. It becomes necessary for a game to provide constant obstacles in order to make searching out collectibles make sense. If nothing else we are going to need something to try our new toys out on. Yet the compulsion to collect and the joy that comes from collecting sometimes is surprisingly strong. People begin inventing reasons to collect.

My favorite delusional reason: it's an investment! BULL! You are never going to sell those cards so take them out of that damn plastic sleeve! You don't need two copies of that comic cause it's never going to be worth enough to bother selling. Interestingly enough, video games took this excuse to such an extreme that it actually became a practical reason. Kids in my highschool started saying they weren't wasting their time because they planned to sell their character. Every day after school they would sit and play Everquest with the express intent of selling the login id on eBay. To my knowledge they never actually did since they had become too attached to the character in the mean time (we'll sell the next one, we swear). This has even gone so far that there are warehouses in China and Korea filled with people playing World of Warcraft for the express purpose of selling gold, characters and items. Video games have actually allowed compulsive collecting to become profitable!

Yet even as I poke fun at people for collecting useless things, I remind myself how much fun I still have going to Amoeba and filling my basket with cd's I already have on my computer. Like it or not, collecting stuffff is fun for many of us. And so at long last has come a game who's entire purpose, whose ENTIRE purpose, is collecting. Enter the extravagant and glorious Katamari Damacy. The very fact that the game is so rediculous absolves us from the guilt of collecting frivolous things. There is no chance of deception, this game is next to meaningless. And that's what makes it great! How can you feel bad for collecting useless things when thats all there is in the game? It's bright colors and stylized graphics continually pound in the message that that this game wants you to just have fun! Somehow it's a great feeling to be plopped down in a bizarre, vibrant world of recognizable objects and pick them up one after another, eyes ever focused on what's in front of you, rarely pausing to consider what you just got. Sifting through the managery of junk you've collected back in the menue screen becomes immediately and depressingly boring. The whole fun is in obtaining.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Colossal Yarn

The realm of fantasy is boundless.
The worlds we create are reflections of our imaginations and desires. Yet we tend to see similar worlds represented in fantasy, ones we can all understand and relate to. This is by no means a mistake. If nobody can relate to our fantasy, nobody can join us in our world. And so, thanks to well known fantasy epics and centuries of composite folklore, we have a schema for what a fantasy world looks like. Fantasy oriented video games often reflected this.

Our fantasy worlds are full of goblins and dragons, giant insects and fire. There is good and there is evil. You can be what you want, but the lines are there. We fight with swords and we fight with magic. We struggle for make-believe glory and for the greater good of unreal worlds. We find friends and foes, we live life as we expect life to be led, albeit in a place we will never see. We have never experienced anything like Shadow of the Colossus. This game has taken elements of fantasy that are so ingrained that it almost seems like just another take on an old concept. It's not. It's new. All of it.

First it's important to see what makes this game familiar. Young boy protagonist with sword, damsel in distress. Pretty standard. Fantasy world: monsters, magic sword, lack of technology, large European style architecture, vibrant natural surroundings, horse.
Okay I think that's about it for the environment. Now for gameplay. Largely puzzle oriented. Use environmental and behavioral clues to figure out monster's weak spot. Prince of Persia style platform obstacles. Finding hidden items in the world boosts your stats. This is basically the game. This doesn't even begin to describe the game.

Shadow of the Colossus is amazing because of the intensity and complexity of the emotions that the game evokes. Playing creates a visceral, palpable reaction which I feel is more powerful and tagible than in the majority of the games. While it is an important quality of any game to be emotionally engaging (or you simply wouldn't want to play it) Shadow manages to create an environment that is staggering in its emotional depth. While many of the game and environment basics are familiar, the way they are presented makes the game a unique play, as does the multitude of familiar game and genre aspects that are left out.
The way the player interacts with the graphics is different from nearly every other game, especially one with a fairly straight forward platform engine. The vast, beautiful landscapes and haunting, glorious Colossi draw the player in purely on the basis of wanting to touch and experience all that can be seen. The slow, meditative pace of the game (including the absence of plot, believe it or not) forces onto the player an intense focus on the immediate and enables the player's unconscious interpretations of the world and events to exist unchallenged.

One of the most valuable experiences one gets from playing SotC is the mesomorizing effect that playing it has on all who view it. The act of traveling from one places to another in this game is an event. Vast landscapes and monolithic terrain dwarf Wander and much of the time spent moving from one place to another is spent looking at where you are going and what you are passing by. This means that players are less able to think about the act of traveling a means of getting somewhere, and must instead view it as something to be paid attention to in and of itself. From the start of the game, the protagonist's slow trek across the tremendous bridge that separates the game's environment from the rest of the imaginary world sets up the player to anticipate entry to the foreboding castle at the end of the path. Yet because the bridge is so great and the time spent crossing so long, the player must begin to notice the surroundings and the immense bridge itself. This coupled with the fact that the bridge and the path to the castle are so breathtakingly beautiful makes the idea of reaching the end secondary to the wonder of watching the journey to get there. Such becomes the case with all travel in the game. Whether through mountainous valleys or by gigantic cliffs and always through vast open fields, it often becomes necessary to stop and remember where you were going after getting lost in the scenery. Like a zen garden this focus on the immediate small details of the world means that the player becomes more familiar with the world, more immersed in what the character is doing moment to moment. The game environment stops being simply a background to be passed through, and becomes an examination of the sublime nature of things huge and vast. Players are therefore more likely to consider what would in other games be an unremarkable progression of gameplay (such as the arrival at the resting place of a Colossus) to be a more meaningful and powerful event. After riding with Wander, scouring valleys and meadows and becoming lost in the environment, the arival of battle becomes more impactful and more significant. Victory and defeat become more intense when the player is more focused on and invested in the subtleties of the world he/she is playing in.

It isn't just the journeys that make the game enchanting though. Because of the game's heavy use of the puzzle-like gameplay needed to figure out how to get Wander up onto the Colossi, it becomes necessary to watch the monsters go about their animations for a few minutes while trying to figure out the solution to a given problem. This is something players are welcome to do, too, since the animation and style of each Colossus is so amazing that we would sit and watch even if it wasn't necessary.

Apart from the hypnotic visuals, the game implants it's emotions in the player with numerous ambiguities and it's considerable lack of exposition. There are next to no clear explanations for the reasons behind any of the events in the game or what is going on at any time. Where many games would begin an adventure with murky questions and slowly reveal details until a clear picture is presented, Shadows maintains its secrecy the entire way through. This is infuriating and brilliant. Like the extensive trecks that are necessary to move about the game, the limited information that is dangled in front of your face throughout serves to force your attention to the task at hand and immerse yourself in the moment. Yet there is just enough information provided to you for you to feel like you know what's happening at some level. Wander is trying to save a girl (don't know who she is or what is wrong with her) and enlists the help of a deity (not sure what sort) who provides him the solution of killing the Colossi in order to save the girl (unknown why this will help). The end of the game does enlighten us to one of these mysteries, which allows just enough closure for the player to not feel cheated. In the mean time, this ambiguity allows the game to be so recognizable, yet so indefinable, that it approaches surrealism. Players are searching the entire game for clues as to what is going on, and as such are paying attention to every detail. Players begin to see Wander's appearance changing, make note of the subtle changes in the game after each conquered boss, and explore the landscape and starting castle for anything out of the ordinary. This search not only strengthens the emotional focus on the immediate, it allows each player to fill in the information slightly different. The plotline becomes largely subjective, and the value of certain tidbits changes from one player to the next when so little is made clear, making the plot very personal to each player. The male-female relationship, the tremendously melodramatic self sacrifice and the utter impossibility of the feats that Wander must face lead the player to search for meaning in the task at hand and form his/her own motivations for Wander. The longer the player plays, the more they become immersed in the world and invested in searching out and defeating the Colossi, the more they stretch to understand what is driving this boy to such a task. By the end of the game, Wander's beaten and deformed body compliments the mental state of the player.

Of course none of this would matter if the actual gameplay, the Colossus battles, were not something special. Well, the Colossus battles are something special. The emotional attachment and intimacy created by these battles completes the effect of the game as a whole. Shadow is nothing if not visually beautiful, and nothing shows this off more than the Colossus introduction animations. The very first encounter the player has with one of the giants is immediately an emotionally complicated experience. Subtle nuances of the game ensure this. The game forces the player, in true Shadow fashion, to watch the beast before being able to engage it. Even when the player is allowed to control Wander and approach the Colossus, it moves to quickly for Wander to catch up. There is no music and no sound save the tiny crunches of Wander's feet, and the enormous tremors of the giant's. The player is likely to be overtaken by awe at this point. The creature is not a threat yet, and the size and creative desing of its body is amazing and unexpected. When the monster sees Wander, the music enters and calm awe turns to "how the hell am I going to kill this". The entire battle is a combination of recurring excitement, anxiety and tension. Once the puzzle is solved and the creature's defeat is only a matter of time, the player is once again able to gaze at the Colossus with an affectionate eye, soaking up the rich detail of its texture and the oddly familiar, aboriginal design of it's character. Excitement heightens as the final blow draws near and as Wander's sword finally plunges into the behemoth's sigil relief and joy washes over the player at the completion of the seemingly impossible task! And then a funny thing happens. That relief is clouded by guilt and sadness as the monster falls. Bittersweet music accompanies the glorious creature as it topples from it's graceful stance. For a moment I become sad and secretly wish I had not done what I spent so much effort doing. I remind myself that it's for a greater cause, which I course I don't understand. With conflicting emotions battling in the player's mind, he/she is sucked back to the starting castle, where numerous bizarre visual recurrences provide a disturbing and confusing congratulation.
Such is the nature of each battle. Each creature is surprising and majestic, each one scares the hell out of you, each is a joy to explore and a feat to destroy, and each time the victory is soured by the destruction of something amazing. Except for the last one. That guy was an ass.

Investment of this sort is next to nonexistent in most other games. The depth and variety of emotion that is interwoven in a careful and sophisticated way makes this game feel like one of the few truly complete games that exists. Nothing feels like it was left out by accident, nothing feels overdone to a fault. The melodrama makes sense when you feel it so clearly. Playing this game expands the notion of what fantasy is and what it means to be part of another world.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Value of Video Games

I suppose it must be a given that anything created by a culture is demonstrative of that culture’s values and attitudes, but to make a statement that a medium is expressive of a worldview suggests to me that the expression is somewhat specific and significant. What does WOW really say about society? That we like fantasy? That being part of an online community is fun? That we like to talk and escape reality and have attached out emotions to certain characters? That whacking monsters with a club is fun, especially when it lets us whack bigger monsters? Among the profound social messages found within GTA is that we are indeed a people with aggression to vent, and that it is possible to enjoy the fantasy of wrongdoing without becoming criminals. I’m not sure I would really label those as worldviews and values. Games don't tend to have anything to say.

The reason for this is likely the lack of intention in the game developing community. It has only been in the last ten years that game consumers have been adults in large enough numbers for games to be marketed exclusively to adults. It almost never occurs that a game is designed without entertainment being its exclusive purpose. There have been only a few games that have the express purpose of conveying a specific idea to an audience, while being entertaining at the same time. (I can only think of a few examples of this, including Oregon Trail, America's Army and educational computer software. More games may be added to this list soon, however.) What becomes thought provoking is analyzing what we are entertained by. The developers create something that is enjoyable, and it is the sociological puzzle of discovering What is it about this game and these characters that holds our attention and imagination is worthy of debate, not the message of the game itself. There is no message in the game itself. Even the most subtle and sophisticated games are designed to be entertaining alone. What becomes exciting is to see what variations of graphic interaction are indeed enjoyable, and what they tell you about yourself. In fact, video games have more in common with pornography than they do with film or literature. They are designed to tap into our hedonic enjoyment of experience without compromise. This becomes increasingly true as games become more adult. And this is indeed their value. They allow us to express our desires and explore what excites us by giving us control over our entertainment.

What becomes unique in video games that is different from any other medium is the intrinsic interactive nature of them. Where as immersion and experience are facets of most other art media, they are seldom the primary objective of them. A truly wonderful video game need not have any story, any characters, any anything except some sort of kinetic interaction. Of course, this is true about games in general. The most significant difference between Tetris and solitaire is the equipment necessary to play them.

The unique aspect of video games that is unmatched by any other medium is the ability to provide the enjoyment of a game, the enjoyment of interaction, with the enjoyment of narration. Arguably the most awesome video game of all time is Super Mario Brothers. Even when discarding its cultural and historic value, Super Mario Brothers couples interaction and narration that is simple enough to be absorbed quickly, and varies both enough to be surprising and continually engaging. Its incredibly basic platform gaming enables any player to understand its rules immediately, and allows for a large degree of play variation. Whether it’s navigating enemies’s behaviors or numbers, or dealing with a level’s design or movement, the game seldom repeats an obstacle long enough for the solution to become automatic and mindless. Similarly the narration, the environment look and character appearance, is abstract enough to be universally surreal and familiar enough to be immediately endearing. Simple graphic design means that minor color, enemy and architecture motifs add an unexpectedly large emotional element to what is essentially a meaningless kinetic puzzle. While the game is addictive and wonderfully entertaining, it is the emotional attachment to the world that has allowed the franchise to endure.

Such is the truth with all video games. Whether it is the emotional attachment to the gameplay or the game environment, it is emotion and not thought that draws us to gaming. We play so that we can feel, not so that we can think. This is perhaps the most unfortunately assumed aspect of gaming, because for us to think and feel together makes us better people.


Blood is an interesting thing isn’t it? Seldom is there a sense of apathetic acceptance for the presence of blood, save perhaps in the medical and meat packing industries. In most other contexts the presence of blood is met with some sort of emotional response. When seen in the context of a real person it is met with fear and revulsion. On the news it is a magnet for attention, capturing fascination and fascinated horror. If placed in a truly fictional environment it can elicit anything from disgust to elated excitement. Obviously there is something special about blood, but it cannot be chalked up to simply the fact that it is part of our body. We can see images of brains and think them mundane or bizarre. We can see skeletons and be entertained by their humorous visage. The disassembly of the human body is not alone enough to subject us to disgust and fear. Nor is the presence of violence alone enough to satisfy our desire for violence. The presence of the prodigal red liquid is necessary to satiate our bloodlust. Its absence serves to sanitize copious violence. What is it about blood that can instill us with such phobia? Why does the sight of it in flight bring such unparalleled relief to our secret primal desires?

Blood denotes tragedy and violence. It signifies crisis and loss of comfort. It is the aftermath of something horrible, and the beginning of some new horror to come. Moreover, it means something is wrong. It means something in the safe and predictable world has gone awry. Yet it is not always so.

Blood is just under the surface of every part of our bodies at all times. To see it is to know that some membrane has broken; its natural brightness staining and shattering the earth tones of our clothing and living spaces and lives.

It is one of the few untamed liquids in our domestic world. Our environments are composed of solids and shapes. Geometric and manipulateable. Liquids become imprisoned in vessels. The few times when liquids are permitted to leave our control are often regarded with caution and disdain. With few exceptions, blood is never contained. Its arrival is unexpected and surprising. Its recognition is automatic. Once it appears, standard and practiced behaviors come into place. Halt its flow, dispose of its residue, eliminate its threat to our psyche. Blood is to be controlled and disposed of.

Blood is evil.
Yet blood is our life.

To die is to loose the flow of blood in the body. Brain damage, heart stopped, loss of blood flow, loss of oxygen. Heart wound, unable to pump blood, loss of oxygen to cells. Asphyxiation, loss of oxygen, blood is rendered useless.

Blood is our band-aid. Its course is our body’s tried and true method of maintaining its shield from the threats of the external. It is our life and it flows from us, escaping its incarceration in our bodies, betraying its life giving properties as it ventures into the world around us, leaving us behind.

I was cut once at work. A staple punctured my thumb. It managed to miss any significant nerves. I felt nothing. Blood left my finger freely. My first reaction was typical. My heart rate increased and I went for a rag. But the absence of pain changed the situation. Stopping the blood meant stopping the pain. But there was no pain. No reason to stop it.

I let it flow. A thin thread of my life trickled down my thumb and circled my knuckle. Held away from my body, its bright color dazzled me. It meandered over and traced my veins, creating an ironic dichotomy. I was entranced. My fluid inside come to visit my eyes, benign and elegant. Untamed and nimble. The unseen beauty of my body revealed in contrast to the external world in which my body thrives.

Its vivid color. Its unmistakable brilliant crimson glow.
My blood stopped its dance of its own accord and I was genuinely sad for its absence. My coworkers were mortified. I was bleeding. Bleeding! Wash your hands! Nurse your wound! Fix yourself!

Fear of blood has been rationalized by the threat of infection, but exists because of the circumstances that accompany its entrance into our safety. At the same time, the semi-universal fear of blood is met with a semi-universal attraction to it. Whether triggered by hormones or environment, whether it brings delight or simple fascination, people pay attention to blood.

I’m sure not everyone has bloodlust. I’m sure not everyone who seeks blood has a desire to see it. But thirst for violence exists. And violence is not complete without blood. Death is not true without proof of life’s absence. If we desire death, we desire the image of life leaving. Of pain coursing and safety spilling.

At times however, bloody violence can be grounding. A blood-smattered surface is an effective conveyance of a violent act, and is more tolerable than perhaps seeing the act take place, or further, of experiencing the suffering of the victim. It may in fact be soothing to have one’s senses washed with red warmth rather than be forced to endure the empathic sensation of pain.

Yet this is not what I see bloodlust to be. To me, searching for the sight of life fluid strewn on one’s body and environment is not so much the want to create sadistic pain and suffering, but is more a draw to the powerful image of profound destruction.

All the afore mentioned imagery serves to imbue blood with magical symbolism. To draw another’s life from their body is to create an elegant destructive act. It is creation from destruction, control over the untouchable, ultimate freedom from restraining taboos. To see blood is to witness the disassembly of the most fragile and sacred of paradigms. To create blood it is to experience the most tantalizing of destructive acts. To create blood is to witness the reversal of the elusive property of life. To experience dynamic death with eyes and skin and nose is to know elusive life with the same senses in a more tangible way than is ever possible.
However, not all thirsts for blood can be attributed to such a spiritual exploration. There is also a definitive expression of power in killing, and especially in drawing blood. To be in combat can be experienced not only as the fight for one’s self, but as the fight for someone else’s self. Victory exalts the victor in any contest, but in a contest where life is the reward, triumph means the prize of two lives, the winner’s and the loser’s. This relationship may not be experienced clearly without the tangible aid of life lost, the visual and visceral witnessing of life leaving the body. To coerce the life from another’s body, draw the profound red ocean from another’s world, is wearing victory, displaying the fascinating macabre of your own mortality in front of your own eyes, holding your own death before you while maintaining the safety of life. It is selfish in the utmost.

A final interpretation of this bizarre enjoyment harkens back to the idea of destruction as creation. Whether correlated to hormones or to gender specific child rearing behaviors, like the thirst for violence an enjoyment exists which focuses on the chaotic destruction of objects.
Breaking things is fun. It is a pleasure that may be related to that of careful dissection of objects, an endeavor viewed as much more benign. The fascination with how things are constructed is one that is not at all uncommon. Engineers often regale friends with tales of their earliest interest in taking machines apart to see how they work. Few children have never felt a sense of fascination for a diagram of their own muscular structures in a biology book. Knowing how things are put together is interesting. Taking them apart is entertaining. Breaking them can be exciting. Watching an object smash into pieces, seeing the textures and weights and viscosities mix and interact can be fascinating. The act is violent. It requires force, creates noise. Muscles flare and hormones churn. The result is a temporal sculpture. Dynamic artwork with the element of surprise as one of its rewards. Objects which are familiar and plain become transformed into dancing arrays of novel shapes. Tensions are released as plastic coverings shatter and wheels tumble into space. The rigidity of the world is stressful. Objects resist our will and obstruct our desires. The physicality of the world around us exerts a sort of power in the sense that we are unable to change it. Breaking objects fills some of us with a sense of control over our environment that nothing else can match. Not only control, but dominance. Nothing alludes to power the way destruction does. Whether it is a fallacy or not to associate the destroyed with the weak, the destroyer with power, it is done. The powerful have the power to tear us apart.

Among the objects in the world which exert more power over our free will, which limit us in infuriating ways, is our own human form. Our body constricts our desires and imaginations. It is our most intimate possession and our most intimate obstacle. The fear of pain and death suffocates our behavior and puts blinders on our willingness to act. Yet this fear cannot lessen the desire to destroy, to master and control and rule, the human form. In fact, it may even serve to heighten it. How exciting to command control over the human body. How freeing to separate one’s self from the confines of height and weight, breath and pulse, hunger, thirst, thought. The fantasy of disembodied life endures in religion and folklore. Persistent thought and experience after death is life’s reward for many. When reason falters in the face of emotion and passion overtakes the mind and imagination, murderers become triumphant knights of the human condition, triumphing over humanity and surpassing the human form. To destroy the body can be to vicariously liberate one’s mind and free the ethereal self from flesh for the brief moment that act is in progress. Creating gore may for a brief instant exalt a mortal to a position of spirit. To destroy a body might feel like conquering all of humanity.