Friday, January 7, 2011

Are Video Games Art?

The Millions has an interesting article up about the long-debated status of video games as art

The idea of art has become fluid in the 20th century; pop art has confronted and challenged the idea that art implicitly carries value, and conceptual art has challenged the boundaries of what kinds of expression counts as art.  I like Roger Ebert, but his defense of the battlements of "art" from corruption by the influence of video games seems faintly ridiculous in an age where arguably the most prominent living artist, Damien Hirst, creates installations composed of animal carcasses in vats of formaldehyde.

Writers, I think, should look at video games as a mechanism containing new narrative possibilities.  Technology has advanced to the point where any story that can be told on film can be depicted in a game world, and the interaction between players and the world really implicates them in characters' actions in ways that aren't possible in traditional narrative forms.

One very popular subject of examination is choice; player are allowed to make choices at various points in the story that impact later events.  A game called "Mass Effect 2" placed the character in the role of a leader of a sci-fi special-forces unit, and choices made throughout the game determined whether his team members would live or die during the final, climactic assault on an enemy space-station.  "Fallout: New Vegas" takes place in a fully-realized post-apocalyptic Nevada, where the player can choose sides among any of three feuding factions, or betray them all.  Each option leads to a different resolution, which is an impossible mechanism in traditional linear stories, but progressing through it feels organic rather than experimental.  This is an exciting way to tell stories.

Meanwhile, other games juxtapose the interactivity of the media with a lack of any real capacity to influence the game's story, to significant emotional effect.  "Modern Warfare 2," had the controversial "No Russian" mission, in which the player was forced to massacre civilians in an airport.  And "Red Dead Redemption," leads players toward an unavoidable narrative resolution, despite its open game-world.  Hitchcock was concerned with the ways in which media makes viewers or readers complicit in the acts of characters, and I think he would have found the possibilities of these games fascinating.

At the same time, the artistic aspirations of games are necessarily undercut by structural concerns.  A game is expensive; new Playstation and Xbox games cost $60, so players expect a certain longevity to the experience.  This leads stories to become distended; narrative pacing is slack because value is perceived in length, and players can leave the narrative behind to embark on digressive side-missions or free-roaming.  The conventions of the form require numerous, often repetitive shootouts or car chases.

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