Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Playing Something

I’ve been trying to find games to write cultural criticism of, and I’ve been having a hard time. See, I play mostly single player games, I always have. I like stories, I like narration. This is the main reason I’m so frustrated with the industry and feel the need to make a damn blog about it. However, video games are very culturally relevant. My problem is the games that have become cultural phenomena are frequently games I don’t play. Online games, massive multiplayers and open ended games like The Sims and online communities like Second Life (which by the way I just heard about. God I’m lame) have become so popular and addictive that they’ve become the poster children for gaming in popular culture. Which makes it frustrating when I don’t play them. I don’t even like them. In fact, I’ve avoided them ever since Starcraft was more popular in online form than single player. I didn’t even play Unreal Tournament for more than a few minutes before deciding that a shooter without levels wasn’t worth my time. Granted this has been to my detriment, as I’ve missed out on an entire aspect of gaming culture, but thinking about my taste has brought me to an interesting conclusion.

Games which are open ended, which have little or no linear narration, are much more interactive than games which have an established framework or story. That is to say, the game relies on the players’ input and changes depending on what the player does. Most games are really more participatory than interactive. Like books, they require the audience to be engaged, but the story remains the same. The player is constrained by the game’s rules, levels, plot, whatever. One perspective has been that games are not making full use of their medium by not being more interactive, that if they are only going to be participatory, they might as well be movies. However, the more a game has an established narrative, the less possibility there is for reciprocal interaction. Conversely, the more interactive a game is, the less narration is possible, hence World of Warcraft and Second Life. This, however, seems to actually be one of the reasons for the widespread popularity of games like WOW and online shooters. You get to play it how you want to.

Something amazing happens when you get people playing games that are really open ended. The flow of expression is reversed from the direction it normally goes in art. Ideas in art generally go from the artist to the audience. In a single player game the creators are presenting ideas that are being received by players. Open ended games actually take the expressive ideas of the players and inject them into the game and into the community. The game becomes less a finished work of art, and more of an art medium for the players to express themselves with. The players become co-artists with the creators, not just consumers of the art. This is very nearly unique to gaming I think. It’s like a visual artist presenting a work that’s paint and brushes and a blank canvas and saying to the audience “GO!” The artist’s work is part what s/he presented, but mostly what the people do with it. Even with online shooters the game is not so much the level and the guns and more about the people you play against/with. The game is about you and your friends, vs. Doom which is all about the levels and the enemies.

Games like this are appealing because the purpose is still to be fun, and are recognized in broader culture (and sometimes over-analyzed) because observing people play not only reveals what's inside the heads of the game developer, but of the players. Indeed because there is nothing that you have to do in WOW or the Sims, everything you do can be read into as being something that you want to do, whereas in God of War you can actually place some of the blame on the developers for forcing you to do such violent things. That's bs of course cause you chose to play, but I think the role of the player really is more intimate in open ended games.

I don’t consume art to express myself, I do it to learn about other people and their ideas. I play for stories and new ideas and immersion, not to be part of a community or share my own ideas. I guess this means I oughta give online games a second chance. I would learn about gamers and what gaming means to a big portion of both players and observers of the genre. But I want stories dammit! I want to see single player games being more artistic and expressive. Thank God for Eternal Darkness and Killer 7.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Super Corporate Mascots Melee!

I've been talking about theory a lot lately and I think it's time I got back to actual games. After all I've only written on one actual game this whole time. So I'm going to focus on one that we all know and most of us love.

I love Super Smash Brothers Melee. It makes great use of the Gamecube’s graphics, its gameplay format and engine are innovative, it’s accessible, it allows for lots of personalization of gameplay, it’s really great. I’m not going to talk about all that. What I want to have happen is what the Esquire article mentioned. I want to provide criticism of this game, not a review. So, I want to talk about what this game says about society and those of us who play it, not from the perspective of a person buying a game, but from the perspective of art criticism.

Nintendo owes much of its longevity to the popularity and accessibility of its iconographic characters. Starting of course with the Mario franchise, which established no less than a dozen easily recognizable character icons of the Big N, Nintendo has been steadily making an attempt to create brand loyalty by encouraging players to form emotional bonds with its pixels. This has been remarkably successful. Few will openly admit to hating the Mario character. Even if you hate the games, the Mario character is charismatic and cute. But how can he be? He has no personality! There is next to no story for Mario to be part of! In fact much of his character bio was projected onto him after his inception.

The fact of the matter is that iconic images allow us to form emotional bonds easily by being open ended and subjective. Nintendo has a tendency to make their characters as iconic as absolutely possible, cartooney and simple.

Most people who love the game (or at least the ones I’ve talked to) will agree that the characters in Smash have moves and fighting styles that suit the character’s personalities to a surprisng and pleasing degree. Lots of this has to do with the moves coming directly from the characters' games of origin. Mario performs most of the moves from his various games, Link has some of his weapons, Kirby can eat people, etc. But often times people (my friends) get the feeling that other characters who are hardly even featured in their own games (Fox, Captain Falcon, Game and Watch) have moves that suit their characters’ personalities. Just like the U.S. audiences read into the simplest aspects of the Mario graphic and came up with “Italian plumber”, the game designers have included simple, archetypal behaviors for their icons. We eat it up and project personalities with nearly no information. We choose characters that we claim to like, although we have nearly nothing to base our liking on. We claim to dislike a character's personality, when what we really don't like is the fact that we suck with them. I know I get frustrated when i like a character that I'm no good with, even though the only real contact I've ever had with the character is using them within the game. This is a very real phenomenon and is not limited to Smash in any way. People anthropomorphize everything. What’s neat about Smash is that it illustrates not only that we are all very eager to do so, but that we seem to do so in a similar way. We agree that cute things are small, quick and light, that villains are big and slow and self-confident, that heroes are modest and powerful, and that old crappy hand held games (Game and Watch) are funny and quirky.

This doesn’t bring me to my next point at all, but I’m going there anyway. Again, what I think is so cool about this game is its illustration of Nintendo’s icons. But this game is particularly interesting as it illustrates, and spawns conversation about, Nintendo’s game history as it relates to other brands. Looking at the characters in the game you can basically see Nintendo’s retail history, from black game crystals to Pokemon. This is in itself interesting, but it becomes more interesting when we say “man, I wish there were some more characters. But who would they be?” Now we start thinking about who owns what. We say “oh, they forgot Bomberman...good.” or “oh, Nintendo bought Sega, they could include Sonic! Can’t they put in Final Fantasy characters? No, those are owned by Square.” The very fact that we know who owns what says something about consumer culture. But the fact that the characters we know and love are so deeply linked to the brands which created them is something unique to video games, and comic books I suppose. Video game cross-pollination in games like SNK vs. Capcom and Soul Caliber 2 removes us from the imaginary world of the game and puts us in the shoes of enthusiastic consumers, to the financial benefit of the company I would think. We begin to form opinions of a company based not on the quality of their products, but on the basis of which brand icons we care about. It's hard to hate Nintendo when you love Mario. It a good reminder of how deeply incestuous business and creativity are, and how much of our cultural history recorded on sales receipts.

So yea. Awesome game. Maybe sometime in the future I can talk about that fact.