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Friday, January 27, 2006

Games As Narrative, Games As Art

I've become immersed lately in literature. Specifically public domain short stories that I might possibly be able to convert into text adventures. Right now, I'm working with some Lovecraft. The rationale here is more pragmatic than anything - it provides me with a solid narrative to start from and reduces what I need to stress about. Focus on the game mechanics and some new content rather than all new content.

However, reading and re-reading all this text makes me wonder about some of the comments we've heard about games and art. Ebert essentially curtailed games as being inferior forms due to their inherent complexity, user interactivty and general ludology. Hideo Kojima declared that because games do not "radiate for a singular person", but rather provides a service, they stop being art. Functionality betrays artistry. Or something like that.

The gamebloggery in general took Ebert to task for his statements, although old Roger has managed a feasible defense for them. His best point is that it's difficutlt to showcase an example of a game which could rub shoulders with commonly accepted works like you can with poetry, fiction or film. The punditry has been less harsh on Hideo, probably in part because they're too busy playing his Metal Gear Solid series and in part because his logic was a lot harder to follow.

Seriously, I love the guy and he's a rock star of game development. But when a central portion of his argument depends on how much a work of art can radiate to a person out of 100, the logic gets a little fuzzy. In the end, though, he's really saying something quite similar to Ebert.

Allow me to try and paraphrase for a specific example, that being fiction. If your novel doesn't need to do anything but tell you a story, it has a chance of being art. Once, however, it's required to provide new functionality like scores, storing booleans, keeping save games, presenting help menus and other services ... it's too cumbersome.

In short, what was the last piece of art that required you to read a manual?

It's not the worst point in the world, although I do think there are exceptions on the fringe that the argument flat out ignores. I've seen some installation pieces that required setup, instruction and explanation to fully experience. So one issue with this logic is that it takes a somewhat narrow, although not terribly so, view of art.

Fiction, for one, does provide a service. It can, among other things, generate a narrative for the reader to explore. Now, if I take Poe's Masque of the Red Death and manipulate the text to become more interactive ... is it still art? Would this defeat Ebert's complaint that nobody can point to a game as being artistic? Few could argue with Poe being an artist, so wouldn't adaptations of his work still be considered art ... even if they've shifted mediums? If Lovecraft's The Lurking Horror was art, then was Infocom's adaption as well?

As for Hideo's functionality clause, how well does that stand up for the different states inherent in an interactive work? In his own example:

You don't have to be able to drive a car, but if it's called a car and it has artistic elements in the visuals, then it's art.

So, while standing beside your Ford Fiesta and admiring the curves of it's impressive body outline ... it's art. Once you get in and drive it though, it's just a car. So some things exist in a kind of Schrodinger's Cat way of being potentially both one thing and another, depending on observation. I'm not entirely against this concept, as long we then agree that games can easily exist as both art and not art.

For a modern example, while I'm watching a graceful yet sinister dragon-like animated statue dip in and out of the water in Shadow of the Colossus ... I find it hard to argue that isn't art. I don't think anyone sitting in visible range of the television could really find it much different, although obviously being art it's subjective anyway. Once I jump on said creature and start cursing at the controls because I'm barely dangling off the wing ... we've left the artistic realm.

Plausible compromise or cheap cop-out? I'm not sure. I do know that when I finish the game this weekend, I'll be a little sad not to have a good reason to gaze on the work from the developers. How is that any different than having to pull oneself away from a framed masterpiece at a museum?

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Clamatius said...

I'm guessing you've already seen it, but just in case you haven't, the best Lovecraftian text adventure I have seen is Anchorhead (you'll need a Z-code interpreter). Thoroughly recommended.

Josh said...

The name rings a bell, but I don't think I had added it to the collection yet, so thanks for the link. I'll probably run through it this weekend when I should be writing instead...

3nki said...

I'd say something is art if it makes a person consider it as if it is. in other words, art is a state of mind. a beautiful tree can be a work of art if i am in the right mood and look at it critically, or openly, in the sense of open-minded, appreciating it's various aspects and opening my mind to its influence. if i dismiss it, or simply catalog it as "a tree", one instance of the common tree object, without letting it have a chance to "come in" and influence my thinking, then it wouldn't be art. so, art is in the mental outlook of the observer.

just my 2¢

Josh said...

And for more on that, see Beauty is in the Eye of Q*Bert ...