Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I know I'm quite late to point out that Roger Ebert doesn't think video games are art, but I only just came across it by chance. It is a very interesting subject (and it is equally interesting to read some of gaming community's responses).

A common response to his comment is that 'art' is a hard thing to define. Indeed! I'm not entirely sure how one would go about calling games art - it is easy to try and see direct relationship with existing forms such as literature and films, which leads us to strong stories and cinematic gameplay. While there is no doubt that these can make up a great game with substance, I think the interactivity allows for things that you can't get otherwise. I think art can come in through the experiences we let the player have (and I think there may well be other ways too).

Ebert's complaint is that since games yield control to the player, you yield control of whatever artistic statement you are trying to make. I guess he means a couple of things. First, that there is a lack of flow - instead of walking through the door to have a deep conversation about whether the ends justify the means, the player might choose to spend a couple of hours on something largely inconsequential (upgrading armour? Although you tell me it's inconsequential when your party has fallen and that armor is all that remains between you and a Glabrezu!), disrupting the flow.

Second, that choice has the potential to make the experience rather silly, and consequently not profound - said deep conversation could be side-stepped by a mindless threat as one's first response, which would turn the supposed climax of the game into a free-for-all melee.

His reasoning that since they lack the structural control that you get with movies or books, they lose the ability to become art does not entirely convince me. I guess he is suggesting that with traditional art-forms the artist has direct control over what he is trying to impart, and how this is done, but I think that non-linearity and the control one has over the game world has the potential to create some form of art. It sounds like Ebert doesn't think such potential even exists, which I respectfully disagree with.

Now, having stated my claim - as for whether the potential has actually been realized at this moment in time, I would say thus far, probably not - at the moment there aren't any games that I will try to defend as being art. My current experience is that there aren't many artistic games that have been made (but it has been a while for me, no?), and those that are artistic I would not say contain enough for me to confidently proclaim them as being comparable to the best in other mediums. Still, to me, these games are at the very least more than just 'shallow' entertainment. I'm not sure any of them will be studied in classrooms just yet, but I do think they demonstrate that games can be intelligent, and have an interesting synthesis of story and gameplay. If one takes the average modern game to be like a Hollywood blockbuster (usually ephemeral, as it is designed to be purely escapist entertainment), then these kinds of games are from the alternative cinema - something with more depth and some amount of sophistication and artistic vision, even if not a masterpiece.

I'm afraid I'm not intelligent enough to be able to expound on why exactly I "feel" games can be art - I have to resort to vague terms like "gameplay structure" and "non-linearity", which I guess is just me dodging the question. All I can give is subjective testimony that I have played games that I have felt to be artistic, even if not quite high-art. So, with that confession made, I might as well muse a bit on my personal list of artistic games. They are a touch 'obvious' I suppose, which does make me want to try and find out more games with meaning. I don't know whether a common thread makes itself immediately obvious, but I guess what makes these games in particular come to mind is that they had some feature that somehow resonated, moreso than say just a button-masher.

Ultima VII, of course, for the sense of an active world (I was recently reminded that there are no generic NPCs - everyone, even the lowly peasant, has a name and role to play, and a unique opinion on the state of Britannia), and maybe nostalgia. There is a sense of a lot of effort put into the history of the land (all the books about the history of the place, much like how it was done for Ultima VIII), which for me left a lasting impression. It might have been made in '92, but it has not aged a bit for me (the graphics make it very playable, even today).

The sevens have it with FF7, which is supposed to be overrated but in my naivety I still consider it to be a true experience rather than just a game. The characters are strong, and I am one of those who find the story to be fascinating too - at times funny, serious, sad, and trimphant, it is to me, quite simply, an epic. It features a very famous scene that many gamers have said brings them to tears, and any game that does that has to be doing something right.

Even if I consider Baldur's Gate 2 to be a more satisfying game, Planescape is more in line with my intuitive feeling of what constitutes an artistic game. It might be the most "literary" RPG ever (it is the most literary one I've played), and like the others on the list it has strong characters and a very well-done story. When the plot unravels and you approach the end-game, you are posed with what I still think to be a deep philosophical question, which you perhaps would not expect in a game. Regardless of the constraints the game places on your potential answers to this question, reflecting on the question and the context it is asked makes me wonder whether a game has ever been this incisive.

Half-Life is probably the most cinematic game I've played*, even though I suppose the emotions it gets across are rather "obvious" for a video game (suspense, tension, and what have you). But it is simply done so well, and has many memorably tense moments that you have to get around, not to mention a few of those head-crabs that jump out of nowhere. I guess this is an example of an experience that seems like it is common to a lot of other games, but which happens to be done far better than most.

Grim Fandango is beautifully produced, and is certainly one of the most stylish games I've played. The concept is in itself interesting, and I cannot fault the execution. A very good story, and again, very good characters combine with the excellent music and atmosphere to make this one of the most unique and enjoyable games I've ever played.

Another game that I think was most probably important, but not necessarily enjoyable, is Facade. It is great to see that there are people interested in making games like these, even if they don't necessarily work out. It most certainly has an artistic bent, but, as many pointed out, the execution wasn't quite there. But that's ok, because it shows that such things can be tried, and will hopefully inspire more games in a similar vein.

Of course, I can't say that any of these can be compared to some of the great films or novels of this century, but as many have pointed out, the field is young. True, it is dominated by creating something for mass consumption, but that does not mean that something good cannot come out of it. We just need a Sgt. Pepper! Or, maybe better yet, a VU & Nico...! I guess software itself is fairly young, so perhaps in the future it will be easier than it is today to try and embark on the task of creating artistic games. I guess if you want really artistic games, with no care for commercial success (now we're talking early Lou Reed, pre Loaded anyway), you need more independent publishers, or companies that believe there is some artistic potential for the medium.

But look, there is also the important question - does it matter if they don't strive to be art? Not to me - I am not a purist (not anymore, anyway), and believe there is a place for entertainment that doesn't necessarily look to have long-lasting worth, or reveal to us something crucial about the human condition. You won't see me throw away my copy of Quake anytime soon! But I think there is the potential for games as a different sort of art form, and this should at least be explored and done justice. How far can we go with them? I am not sure!

Then again, maybe I'm wrong (although, like I said, I strongly suspect not), but that just means games are no more (or not all that much more) than entertainment - it doesn't discount the fact** that they are at least intelligent entertainment (like a good episode of The Simpsons, I suppose?), and that is no shame at all. Even if something isn't "art", it doesn't mean there is no value to it!

The nice thing about this topic is that sifting through online discussions on the matter has brought up many examples from other gamers of games they consider to be artistic. It seems as though there is an avenue for me to explore yet!

* Sigh, that was a fair while ago. Yep, it's true, I am not a gamer anymore!

** Fact? Arguable as always, but I think it is hard to argue yes, a "fact in my opinion" :)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

For you blue

It is for you, even if you never read it
It is funny we should be strangers after so long
Seeing your photo suggests time means nothing
Eight years ago in a hot classroom are as alive as you or I.

I suppose someone else would have done better
Would not judge you for who you became
Not for being what I was not, nor could be.

So I hope you realize who I am
Not quite the one from those days
Mocking that which was dear to you
(Never mind that you might do the same now!)
I am sorry for you both
It seems you made at least one choice wrong.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Deja-bleedin'-vu, as a compatriot might say, as I walked out of the room and heard people talking about how relieved they were that it was over, with no suggestions of any difficulty whatsoever. I shared their relief, but I was much more concerned with the very real worry that I had bleedin' bombed (my compatriot is in a particularly foul mood, eh?). "I'd be worried if there wasn't an ex in the front", I heard someone say, and so worried I was.

When I was thinking about this, the first analogy that came to mind was that of a king who is surveying his land in ruins. It isn't especially good, because it's easy to connect the dots and think that I'm implying things I'm not; for instance, I don't think of myself as royalty, mathematically or otherwise. But I do feel as though my powers are waning, and it is quite a sad sight to behold. I remember how I used to be able to finish high-school exams an hour before the scheduled end, and also how I took this ability for granted.

I am now forced to hope that it is the last maths exam I will do, because otherwise I would be hoping that I...well, you know, fail this one. It's sad when you are content with whatever, as long as it is a pass, but I suppose I am at least partly to blame. I'm lazier than I used to be, and certainly nowhere near as fluent as I could have been. I suppose a life as a mindless hacker is all that lies ahead.

Am asked, quite seriously, "But didn't you say it comes more naturally to you?". I just laughed and said "Yes, which shows what a sorry state I'm in!"

Update: It turns out that scaling, my old friend, bailed me out, but as he did, he said "This is the last time, buddy - next time, you're on your own".

Monday, June 12, 2006

Most probably throwaway, but I'm having the darndest time trying to finish it. I liked the idea a while ago, but this isn't quite what I had in mind.

"...You know what I mean?"
He asked affably
It was a cruel moment of indifference
When I did not feign sympathy
It might have been the coffee
I was missing so dearly
For I replied simply
"No, I do not;
Further, I never have
For I think you quite mad".

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Ah, that Wildberger. Perhaps you know of the author of rational trigonometry? Well, he has an interesting article that suggests that set theory is flawed. It is more cogent than you might expect; after all, he is an associate professor, although I suspect I need a few more reads to try and fully understand his argument. Ah, were that I able to muse meaningfully on the foundations of mathematics! Instead, I have no choice but to dream.