A Comment on Video Games as a Medium

(Because Open ID blog comment systems are crap and for some reason never want me to comment regardless of what blog it is, this time I think because the comment was too long, and because I felt the need to say this, I’m posting it here and hoping to post the link in the comments instead. And for those of you absolutely sick of the ‘are games art’ debate, not everyone has had this debate and if we who have gone through this question and hammered out the answer do not take our time to educate or at least inform the debate then we really are Ivory Tower wankers.)

I don’t mean to be insulting, but this is a pathetic argument one step above a straw-man. But it’s not your fault. What you are describing is not the failure of video games or their creators “to convey emotion, philosophy, and commentary on humanity and all of its general screw ups/triumphs” it’s a your (I’m using the collective your that amounts to nearly all video game players) ability to understand what you are playing. Yes video games are mostly schlock, but then the saying goes “90% of everything is crap.”

There is a small minority of video game players that do regard games as art, but additionally taken the next step to treat it as such and criticize it as if it were. Just like movie critics, literary critics and dramatic critics are a minority of the people who enjoy their chosen medium. Most are working hard to figure out how to describe and explain the nature of video games and how they do all that you say above in your definition of art and more. We lack a universal critical language and ability to accurately describe the experience of playing them.  The lingo used by most gamers are listing categories and not critical descriptors, nor universal; I’ve never heard “manic shooter” before and know them as bullet hell games or shmups (Shoot + them + up).

I’m going to address the two games you bring up. First Final Fantasy VII is a beloved darling of many people, even among critics, but few people, if any should they be honest, consider it art with a capital A. Most consider it just as you describe it. You admit not to being as in to video games as you once were, so I wont call this a straw-man and give you the benefit of the doubt. You also may not know that the style of presentation and conveyance that Final Fantasy VII promoted and made popular has had a large backlash in recent years, to the point where many critics hyperbolically call the JRPG genre, of which FF7 is an excellent example, dead.

You claim you wish it was a mini series or a novel instead and in the case of Final Fantasy VII I’d say you are probably right. But any video game that utilizes the medium’s inherent assets to convey meaning cannot be soundly adapted. Just as books version of great movies are bad and how even the best movie adaptations of great books fail to live up to their printed counterpart. Why? Because you cannot translate the inherent nature of one medium to another. The best transitions are those where the original work uses only surface level techniques to convey meaning like basic plot or character and do not enhance it with a book’s ability to use poetically descriptive prose, or a movie’s ability of camera angles and shot depth, or a comic’s balancing of image and word to build something greater etc etc. A game that doesn’t enhance it’s basic meaning with mechanics is better off as something else. But then most consumers in all mediums do not care about such things.

Now, Radiant Silvergun, a game I haven’t played, but from your description of it I have issue with your conclusion to it. You claim the ending was something great against the 70 minutes of filler leading up to it, to which I counter, without those 70 minutes of build up and challenge would that ending have meant anything? Would the somber, sacrifice for the greater good ending of Casablanca have had an emotional impact were it not for hour and half build up. No. I’m not saying this is art either, because I have not played it, but even from your very sparse description of the game, it sounds like that the changes from what the game’s previous 70 minutes had gotten you used to was part of the effect. In other words, those 70 minutes were necessary for the final boss battle to mean anything.

You speak of story as your only example of conveying a sense of art. You focus on it almost exclusively in your description of video games. In contrast I’d like to give two examples that convey their emotional meaning through play and have no real story: Tetris and Missile Command. Both are classics, the former on the Gameboy and every system since and the latter from the arcade.

Tetris conveys a feeling of fatalism. You can’t win Tetris. The game will keep going and for a beginner, the infinite play of the game doesn’t matter, because they have difficulty surviving. The blocks keep falling and you have to try and get rid of them, but you will eventually be overwhelmed. However, to one of the greatest players who can play a single game for hours on end, the feeling changes and it becomes more of a commentary on protestant work ethic. You keep doing the work, because it’s there. The blocks keep falling and your job is never done, and yet you persist. Should you stop working, you fail. You lose. You may say I’m reading too much into it. Many people have said this to the academics who have brought this reading of Tetris forward. To that I say Missile Command. I wont explain here, because this video has already done an excellent job of it:

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/2545-Narrative-Mechanics

Pay particular attention to the effect the game had on it’s own creator.

There are a lot of people who don’t see video games as anything more than a toy (I’d like to note there are toys out there that are themselves considered art.). These people cannot see beyond “the best use of video games is to unload some of your brain’s stress and replace it with entertaining visual cortex massage” when in fact that is a video game at its most pedestrian. I do not fault you personally for this view. It is merely the product of lack of critical ability towards this specific medium. This is the opinion of a movie goer without such a critical abilities about movies, for what is Transformers 2 but a “visual cortex massage” despite being crap. Or the opinion of people who call books boring who lack basically literary analysis skills (thanks to the American education system faulty administrative practices, their number grows). Video games are capable of so much more and there are hundreds of designers and critics who strive both to create games of artistic merit and successfully describe them.

I responded to Ebert in my own post last year and considered myself done with art debate, but this was such a backhanded defense of video games from what I can tell is an otherwise intelligent and critically thinking person that I had to respond. Your line of thought was the line of the most forward thinking about 15 years ago and would be the film equivalent of saying that no sublime movie can come from a comic book (The Dark Knight), it’s out of date.

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