Monday, September 12, 2011

Joystick Cinema; The "Art" of the Video Game

Thomas Dunn on the much debated assertion that Video Games are art.

It isn’t exactly groundbreaking news that Roger Ebert is a pretty outspoken kind of guy, and sometimes his opinions can be more than a little controversial. Whilst I personally agree with him wholeheartedly on the state of contemporary 3D cinema as just the latest in distracting gimmickry, his argument last year that video games cannot be labelled as art seemed to offer a rather outdated model as to why this was the case. 

Essentially, video games merely consist of moving from objective A to B he says, an exercise in skill and repetition that cannot allow for a full bodied narrative in the way that good cinema might – it’s too distracting, too distanced, too encumbered by its own mechanics. You might initially respond as I did, thinking “huh, maybe in Super Mario Bros. twenty five years ago – but what about Grand Theft Auto, or Monkey Island, Shadow of the Colossus etc., etc.” But, in a way he seemingly didn’t realise, Ebert’s right; videogames are essentially about a direct manipulation of events along a delineated pattern, no matter how “open world” or falsely “free choice” it may advertise itself as. There is a path, or a series of paths that lead from a start-point to an end-point, already pre-determined, that one must move through by playing the game (I am exclusively talking about single-player narrative gaming here, or else multiplayer gaming strongly rooted in a thematic campaign. Competitive gaming that sells itself on skill over a personal experience, as in the cases of Street Fighter or Dance Dance Revolution, is largely a separate breed). But why should this stop videogames from being labelled as “art”?

The root of the problem lies, I believe, in Ebert’s implicit comparison of the idea of a video game to that of a film, and whilst the pair have similarities, there are fundamental differences that many people – not merely Ebert, but even those who argue for the validity of video games – seem only vaguely aware of. This sense of difference is realised in how often ardent gamers clamour for their favourite videogames to be adapted into film, as if this will somehow justify their appreciation of the medium’s highlights to a wider, non-gaming audience. To look at some of the most recent videogame adaptations, such as Max Payne and Hitman, is to see that the results always fall flat, pleasing no one; the resultant work seems to treat its subject matter with a level of condescension, as if it’s above the material. It only fuels the general idea that video games are the stuff of silly stories and childish fantasy play, and whilst there’s plenty of this, the best games step beyond such matter, but not necessarily on an obvious plot-level. For those of you who’ve played Hitman, consider, can that game ever really translate to screen? I don’t think so – at least, not without it becoming something rather distinct from the appeal of the original material.

This is because the best narrative video games today aren’t trying to just simply tell a story bound up in the process of moving from A to B, but the exercise of moving from A to B is instead one that leads into an immediate, intensely vicarious experiencing of an atmosphere in a way that not even film can achieve; as corny as it sounds, when you play a game like Limbo or Shadow of the Colossus – chosen because of just how minimalistic their approach to story-telling is in favour of “objectivised play” – you are soaking up an atmosphere that is just as worthy of attention, and as well realised, as that in a good film, a good book, or good music. It’s merely going about it in its own way. The opening minutes of Limbo are included below to try and illustrate the entrance into a highly atmospheric world....

....but really the only way to fully understand what I’m arguing is to go ahead and play the game; to just watch it defeats the whole point. The narrative structure becomes entwined in the reward/ punishment scheme of gaming as something the player works through to offer a sense of achievement and consequence. Every time, say, the boy dies gruesomely in Limbo, you are directly responsible, and those who were immersed in the work felt suitably disturbed by this situation on a level that extended beyond watching a nameless boy die tragically in a film. As similar as it may be to the death of a beloved character in a film or a novel, there’s just something slightly more penetrative that comes from the more pronouncedly vicarious nature of the game world.

Further, I believe this is a large part as to why the open world games produced by Rockstar, such as LA Noire, Red Dead Redemption and the Grand Theft Auto series are just so successful. Their scripted narrative heavily emulates the classic features of, alternately, film noir, spaghetti westerns and modern crime, and when you stop to consider any of them they have moments that, homage or not, are founded upon rather derivative plot turns. Vice City, arguably the best of the GTA games, is by and large a retread of Scarface with a bit of Miami Vice thrown in for good measure. The reason why it works is essentially the same as that of the more easily identifiable “ambient” currents of the likes of Limbo – the well-realised open world environment links with a highly temporal pop culture to strongly emulate a zeitgeist that, in playing, one experiences more directly and is thus more involved in. It’s more than just the tension of a good gaming sequence, though that is part of it (such sequences can exist outside of narrative gaming, as illustrated in the competitive games referenced earlier). All the points together allow for a sort of washing-over through a more total immersion.

Like cinema, video games are an impure medium, reliant as they are on the coupling of audio and visual – and with so many games being so derivative of filmic trends, it’s not hard to see why people compare them in what I think are the wrong ways. Video games shouldn’t be made into films, what’s the rush to do so? You’re merely stripping away that direct involvement that makes video gaming so unique in the first place as a story-telling medium or “art.” Daft plot or no, Metal Gear Solid, in its later iterations, is undoubtedly encumbered by its growing obsession with cinematic cut-scenes in lieu of extended game-play, and at its core, it’s thus no different to any other cinematic adaptation of a medium that, in being so reliant on “frame” narratives that allow for immersion and ambiance, can’t carry into a more densely plotted two hour feature. There’s nothing wrong with that, it should be embraced. Objective hunting may be what stops video games from being films, but it’s what makes the best of them great. I for one hope studio suits never make an adaptation of Limbo; I’ll work from point A to B all by myself, thank you very much.

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