The fight for video games has raged for over a month now. It’s very heated at times, spiraling off into arguments about gender politics or cultural Marxism. And none of that’s what #GamerGate is about. Beating back the tide of cultural sanitization and standing against censorship of expression are noble, worthy causes that should be fought for, but ultimately this is a campaign about the soul of video games. And the reason video games come under fire so much is the idea they need to change, they need to mature, that they’re no longer just cheap entertainment and deserve to be held to the same standard as art…
Well, they are. They have been for years. And I’m wondering if all the examples of wonderful, artistic games are genuinely obscured by a culture that’s admittedly saturated in mindless ultra-violence, or if culture critics merely choose to over look them.
The root of this inquiry comes from various reviews and commentary made by the gaming media which seem to hold up and praise games for their ideological concepts and praise them as a higher form of art, questioning why other games can’t be. In particular rave reviews for Gone Home herald it as a perfect love story and an example of what games should be. Gone Home might legitimately have a great story, I don’t know I haven’t read it, but if a moving story is the standard games need to be considered art, games have been art for a long time.
Here’s a beautiful, timeless love story. A young boy meets a young girl and falls gradually in love with her. He wants to protect her from everything and shield her from the harshness of reality. Yet, despite seeming frail and dependent on others for guidance, she learns how to stand up for herself, to speak her mind despite the fact her ideas are unpopular, and even though she’s mercilessly persecuted for her beliefs she sticks by her principals even in the face of death. In the story she grows from a little girl in need of protection into the woman who saved the world from evil. I’ve seen a lot of arguments that Final Fantasy X has a lot of sexist overtones with the concept of guardians, Yuna’s passive personality, or even the skimpy clothes, but those all seem like minor nitpicks or are resolved by the actual events of the game. While Yuna begins very weak, a perfect portrait of a damsel in distress, she grows and matures into someone who thinks for herself and has a strong moral character. That’s called character progression, a sign of a well crafted narrative. I see her often eviscerated on the altar of ‘cliché damsel tropes’ but really I couldn’t find it farther from the truth. She does not exist merely to serve as arm candy to the male protagonist and her decisions weren’t just to serve the interest of the romantic plot. While she was willing to sacrifice herself ‘like a good little girl’ and be a part of the oppressive system, she woke up to the lie and stood her ground even though it put her at risk. She shows a full array of emotions and a strong, complex character. We’ve all been young, in love, and disappointed in the world at least once in our lives. FFX is a wonderful coming of age tale for girls that shows thinking for yourself and standing up for what you think are invaluable and that you don’t have to be the stereotype people expect from you. To discard it and say it’s not art seems like willful ignorance or a complete failure of emotional skill.
Maybe you think love stories are inherently trite cliches. You don’t want romance, you want real gut wrenching drama, something that tackles hard questions about identity and its role in society. How about a man who lived a hard life, grew up an orphan in the middle of a civil war, was forced to do terrible things just to survive, only to be manipulated and used by the very people he swore to serve and protect? Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is arguably one of the best cases of video games as art with a deep, post-modern narrative that provokes the player into looking back on their actions and feeling a complex mix of emotions as the story unwinds. Killing isn’t a glorified act, it’s the loathsome wetwork that is necessary only when you do badly, something you’re made to feel guilty about. It’s a cerebral game with strong messages about censorship, information control, social memes, and individual liberty. The game presents complex moral dilemmas to players and tells them to find their own answers rather than looking to others. It’s a narrative that leaves a lasting impact, and it’s carried by strong, multidimensional characters that show a complete set of deep and real emotions. Again, to wave a hand at it and say it’s nothing of value seems tantamount to invalidating similar writings such as A Brave New World as nonsense despite being regarded literature.
But they’re so violent, I’ve seen some protest. There was violence in Casablanca, does that invalidate it as art? Violence is a part of nature, as awful as it is. You can write a conflict without violence, it’s true, but a meaningful conflict needs to have impact, it needs to drive your story and raise the stakes to a point the one experiencing it is emotionally invested. That’s quality writing. A good story is one that connects with the reader on multiple levels and engages them as more than a passive observer. Because violence is often found in nature it’s often found in our stories. It ties us to real, observable phenomena that we can quantify. Saving Private Ryan is not a bad, trashy movie just because it depicts war or guns in it. The violence is used to heighten tension, so you’ll want to know what happens next, so you stay engaged. If the movie had no violence at all, there’s no tension and it feels like there’s no consequence for the action, which makes the resolution unsatisfying. A flat, uninteresting story is not a good thing. If someone struggles to feel invested in your narrative they’re unlike to finish it or remember it, much less recommend it.
Do some games and movies use violence as a cheap tool for spectacle? Absolutely. And in those situations it’s intentionally presented in a different way. Few people compare Full Metal Jacket to The Expendables and then spit on the latter for not having a story of the same caliber. People acknowledge it’s not about the story, its about simple, less refined pleasures. No one is trying to masquerade around the fact that mindless violence is mindless. That doesn’t make one movie more of a movie or more of what movies should be just because they are different. They both have completely different designs, different intentions, and very different target audiences. No one expects to be enlightened when walking into a Michael Bay movie. And no one thinks all movies should be like that. All movies do not have to be Citizen Kane because it’s simply not everyone’s favorite movie. No one should police which movies are and which movies aren’t allowed to be made just because they value different ends. Joss Whedon’s Avengers, one of the highest grossing films of all time, is a buffet of mindless violence and less than Shakespearean dialogue. Yet there it is on the top of the charts alongside a deeply emotional, realistic, historical love story. Regardless if you like either, both, or neither of these films, many people did and both have as much right to be made and shared with the public.
The same is very true of video games. For video games it’s even more important that the one experiencing it becomes invested due to the interactive nature of the medium. The players are put in charge of of the game and are free to experience it any way that the rules of the game permit. Making the player feel like they matter, like their control isn’t an just an arbitrary nod, is as crucial to good game design as conflict is to story. If there’s no real interaction between the player and the game, it’ll fail to be engaging and be panned as a bad product. People can argue whether Gone Home is a game until the sun explodes and swallows the solar system, criticism that it’s a ‘walking simulator’ stemming from a failure to be engaging is a valid complaint. And while that’s fine it appealed to some and not to others, it’s fair to judge it on the merit of its content OR lack thereof. I can’t review it, like I’ve said I never played it, but if the majority panned it as a ‘bad game’ or even ‘ungame’ that’s a failure of the game to deliver on the essential points of good design. A game is more elements than a story, a good one must have those as well as a quality narrative to be among the best of the medium.
Let’s look at another mechanically similar game that was recently very well received by gamers; P.T. or the playable trailer for Silent Hills. The is very simple, you venture through the house and observe and interact with the environment in limited ways, but the design of the environments, the way the narrative is presented to the player, the emotions of fear and dread that it evokes with the smallest details engage players and keep them curious about the next twist in the plot. There’s an emotional investment and gameplay is used to tether the player’s actions to the game’s world, they feel the impact of their decisions and it effects them emotionally. The jump in your heart when you approach the door and click on the handle, bracing yourself for any sort of terrors you might witness, the paralyzing realization of your burdening you with responsible for what happens. Despite being a ‘walking sim’ the game grabs people attention, makes them apart of the experience, and effects them emotionally. It’s well received because it fulfills the basic conditions people expect of a good game design.
But I’m making generalizations. It happens. Whenever you’re talking about a hobby that millions of people experience it’s hard to be objective and it’s arrogant to make yourself into the megaphone that speaks for all of them. To say one is good and the other is bad and people like the other one more because personal reasons will always be a stupid argument. Because I said before, regardless of your like or dislike for one, they both have every right to exist and are both designed differently to accommodate a certain vision. Games should be judged on how they were executed within their design parameters, not by someone’s check list of ‘things that are worthy of being dubbed art’. And ultimately it is the consumer’s job to observe media and form an opinion. What people like, they like, and they’ll always support the creation of it regardless if it’s pleasing to another demographic or not. If you don’t like horror games it won’t matter how well P.T. is made you probably won’t like it and you won’t spend your money on the game when it’s released. Because you don’t like the content doesn’t mean horror fans won’t or that others won’t want to experience it.
Saying ‘this is what x should be’ will always be an ignorant quote that displays a stunning lack of social awareness. Games are art, they’ve been art for years. They’ve been deep, provocative, emotionally engaging experiences pushing the edges of visual storytelling for over a decade. Closing your eyes to the fact there are beautiful interactive narratives doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And because some media consists of projects that have no desire to continue pushing those edges does not make them lesser. Variety is important, creative integrity is important, and freedom of information is important. Because without those things new ideas don’t get made, boundaries don’t get pushed, and we stay a big fish in our isolated little pond forever. Growth must be organic, and in any consumer based industry it must be left to the market to filter failure from success. Restricting games to only fall within certain ‘artistic’ parameters or to allow a platform for only ‘acceptable’ ideals to be expressed is wrong, harmful to the medium, harmful to creative integrity, detrimental to the free-market economy, outrageously close-minded, and morally corrupt.