Most people in the video game industry, and many people who write about them for a living, hope for games to be taken seriously as art or literature. It’s just around the corner, we believe— the day the establishment flings open the door to us and lets us in, apologetic tears streaming from their eyes. “We misjudged you,” they’ll cry, “Just like we initially misjudged movies, jazz, and prose poetry.” Games are a brand new medium, we console ourselves, and these hidebound fogeys just need time to understand it.
The conventional wisdom is that we’re nearly there— that everyone on our side is just being a little too uncreative, or that the software tools are just a bit lacking, and that our wildest dreams are possible with just a little more cleverness in our game designs and some new technological developments. “Design challenges” at industry conferences exhort professionals to stretch their brains by sketching out an idea based around something perceived to be an unconventional subject matter (for games, anyway); Moby Dick, for example. We may not have much cachet, people may shrink away when we explain what we do at non-industry social gatherings, but hey! Just the other day we were talking about ideas for games based on Moby Dick! How could that not be serious and important?
We all believe in the future of the games (I think this is why we are here, right?), and while this site has become known for its skeptical tack, I want to point out I have nothing but respect for those who are courageously trying to expand our thinking about games. I am questioning things because I want them to get better. If there are significant limits to what games (as we know them now) can do, we need to understand those limits so we can overcome them. Critics of older media often dismiss video games without fully explaining why; this is an attempt to do it in their stead.
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Firstly, we have our “traditional” adaptations. Given that we wanted to maintain at least some semblance to the original work, we have a couple familiar options for Moby Dick: The Video Game (there are also ways to combine both approaches to varying degrees, but for the sake of the exercise I will talk about them as separates).
The first approach would be to keep the sequence of major events— Captain Ahab’s first encounter with the title character, his desire for revenge, his madness, and subsequent death— and attempt to insert gameplay sequences around those fixed points. The player therefore could have fun sailing the Pequod and catching whales at some point between Ahab’s first and second encounters with the whale. Success at these parts of the game would allow him to proceed further in the story. But no matter how much freedom the player was given to navigate the ocean in his own self-directed way, ultimately, the predetermined story of Captain Ahab’s obsession wins out, and at the end of the game, Moby Dick destroys the Pequod no matter what happened in the intervening time.
Most large-budget titles made today take this route (the average consumer does not seem to mind it at all), but many game designers and commentators find themselves dissatisfied with it. It means the player’s agency in the game world is only an illusion. No matter what the player does, or how well he plays, the white whale will kill Captain Ahab in a short cinematic scene after the gameplay is over. That’s the story that’s been set up for the player to experience, and he travels along that path like a tourist on a Disneyland ride. However much choice the player seems to have in between these story checkpoints, the overall path of the game is geometrically equivalent to those of film or theater or books. We choose to ignore the fundamental quality that makes games different and so compelling— their interactivity.
The other approach is to “open up” Moby Dick, to allow the player real, significant choices in the course of events and their outcomes. In this configuration, an especially skillful player might be so good at the game that he does indeed catch and kill Moby Dick, triumphantly achieving Captain Ahab’s revenge— and along with it, destroying the whole point of Melville’s story. Allowing such an alternate ending robs the work of its power; the story of Moby Dick is engaging precisely because Captain Ahab cannot find extra lives, rewind time or load an old save for a second chance, and the story of his obsession and undoing is fixed over time, a static sculpture in four dimensions.
The issue of these changeable outcomes is what the critic Roger Ebert infamously identified as the central problem with games-as-art, and despite the emotional flurries and dismissive grumblings from the gaming community, it is actually a good point without a clear answer. If Melville had so much as allowed for any possibility at all where Captain Ahab “wins,” no matter how remote, the work’s message and its interpretation of the world completely changes. Instead of destiny and fate, we would now speak of probability and chance. Work hard enough, get lucky enough, and anything is possible.
The problems of these two approaches show why, despite our high hopes and our big money, it sometimes feels like all we have to showcase for our vaunted new storytelling medium is either something that is basically a film or a book conflated with pockets of gameplay, or a cheesy Choose Your Own Adventure affair where no single story can really be granted sole authorial intent. This puts us in a strange bind: we’re either imitative of, and beholden to, the arts that preceded us (“if you want a good story, why not read a book?”), or we are unmoored in a postmodern haze, trying to argue that a quantum superposition of many possible outcomes is just as artful as a linear story (“this painting is a work of art and self-expression— but it doesn’t matter if that part is red or blue or green”). Neither of these options is fully satisfying.
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Then, we have what I will call “systems-as-art”. An example of systems-as-art in its simplest and unvarnished form is Rod Humble’s experiment, The Marriage, wherein a couple of floating squares (one blue, one pink) drift around a field but must meet certain different conditions in order to prevent the “game” (that is, the marriage) from ending. Playing it is an exercise in attempting to sustain equilibrium in the face of change, something we understand to be the author’s interpretation of what being in a marriage feels like.
Humble argues that a set of rules by itself can communicate meaning and achieve the status of art. By the same logic, if The Marriage is a work of art about marriage, then chess is a work of art about conflict and war, Monopoly might be a work of art about capitalism, even the sport of basketball could potentially be a work of art about, say, agility and endurance. Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, goes even farther, suggesting that the creation of internally consistent rule systems is a superior method to writing for the conveyance of philosophy (although in the same interview, he also mentions that nobody has yet fully understood the meaning of his game).
The Marriage is almost completely devoid of context. The system of its rules exist and operate with the barest of any qualities that might attach the player to what is going on. The two squares change position grow or shink in size, and become opaque or transparent. The player may understand (by dint of the game’s title) on some level that one of the boxes is meant to represent the husband, and the other box is the wife, and he may try to keep them together. But it’s also likely that he will see the colored, geometric shapes and not feel much of anything. What brings us to care about a colored square in a video game world?
One of the moments of emotional resonance in Portal is the incineration (by the player’s own hand) of the coyly named and designed Weighted Companion Cube. One could argue that the Companion Cube is just as nonrepresentational as the boxes in The Marriage, but context is the key. It is the only cube of its kind (it has hearts on it, as opposed to the numerous nondescript cubes strewn throughout the game). The level in which the Companion Cube appears is impossible to solve without it. The player’s nemesis, tormentor, and unreliable narrator has specifically advised the player not to become attached to it. Finally, this villain suggests that the Companion Cube cannot speak, but if it could, it would politely ask the player to destroy it. This is very clever: at that moment, the player can’t help but to imagine the Companion Cube speaking. What would it say? “Please don’t incinerate me,” probably. We feel sorry we have to destroy the Companion Cube to progress in the game. Despite ourselves, we hope we will see it again somehow.
Why would you care about a simple box in a video game? Portal, I think, offers a better answer. Our experience of the Companion Cube sequence draws us in, it interests us. The Marriage doesn’t do that, and that is its fundamental weakness: it is not particularly fun or engaging, except by virtue of the fact that it is one of the first and few deliberate explorations of systems-as-art. Humble comes close to acknowledging this, saying that “The Marriage is intended to be art,” and “meant to be enjoyable but not entertaining in the traditional sense most games are.” Distancing the work from the “entertainment” of popular games is fine, but even the most artsy, obscure and difficult works must connect with an audience somehow. I am not sure a system of rules by itself is the best method to achieve that. If rules are art, could not one just as easily publish a rulebook, and leave it at that?
None of this is to say that a system of rules cannot be of artful construction. I have no doubt that, if we wished it and worked for it, we could at some point have departments at forward-thinking arts colleges devoted to the creation of not-very-representational rule systems as art. This might make some of us feel better about ourselves— that there is a recognized, serious side to our medium. But I can’t help but think something like that would be a Pyrrhic victory, with “art games” sharing space in an airless pantheon next to twelve-tone music or hypertext novellas while the rest of the world goes on listening to primordial melodies and timeworn stories reinvented in the style of the day.
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It has become a recognized cliché in these kinds of conversations to ask, “have games had their Citizen Kane yet?” It’s not as if the moment Citizen Kane was released, everyone suddenly decided that the medium of film was serious and important and the next great art form. But I think there’s a reason we have been speaking in terms of Citizen Kane and not, for example, Un Chien Andalou. While both are important milestones in the history of the medium, Citizen Kane is accessible and easy to like. It synthesized much of what was known about filmmaking up to that point into a coherent whole. It married technical innovations with a good story. It showed that a film could be high and low, art and spectacle, serious and entertaining all at once. A medium that can deliver all of that in one package is a great medium indeed.