I used to run a semi-regular letter column here on the site, Shout At The Devil. When we got comments under each article I discontinued it – you could Shout at me right there – but when they get shut down I didn’t start it back up, figuring I’d wait for the new redesign, when comments would return. Well, that’s still on the horizon and with my latest Devin’s Advocate about video games as art earning me a bunch of email feedback, I figured I’d resurrect the old lettercol (and what better day to do that?) to give you a sampling of what people are saying. I’ve only chosen the best of the responses, leaving most of the truly mouthbreathing ones in my trash can.
Justin shouts: Hey Devin,
First of all, much love for your Devin’s Advocate postings and all things CHUD. I’ve been visiting the site daily for a few years now, and your work in particular has really broadened my cinematic horizons.
But the main reason I’m writing is to address your most recent entry about “video games as art.” First of all, let me preface my very brief and probably flawed argument by saying that I don’t really care how video games are categorized. However you want to define them, I think we both agree that games aren’t just mindless shoot ’em ups. I also agree that the vast majority of game writing is terrible. Yes, that includes BioShock and Braid.
However, I have to disagree when it comes to your argument that the games people are propping up as art are just movies with “game” gimmicks attached. Story intensive games may share many elements, but I think that the controlled interactivity is the key ingredient that holds the best games together.
To be clear, I’m not talking about cut scenes or even real-time “conversations” with other characters. Metal Gear Solid may be compatible with the PS3, but there are only a handful of moments of play in between the hours of (dreadful) movies. But when these segments end and you as the player are given choices (even if they’re just of the “shoot this guy or not” variety), I think that’s where the “games as art” folks have a valid argument.
Many games today emphasize “choices,” at least as bullet points on the back of the boxes. But you and I know that behind the scenes, the developer’s hand is guiding players towards some kind of conclusion. Any slight variations on a path will inevitably lead towards a similar outcome. And along the way, the developer is seeking to immerse players in a world, or isolate them, or scare them, or whatever else. The point being that he’s trying to evoke a response from players based on his own creative input and life experiences.
Take your example of Grand Theft Auto IV. In your Advocate, I’m under the impression that the “cinematic” moments for you are the dialogue sequences before each mission, or perhaps even the missions themselves. But for me, just being in that virtual New York was a thrill. I was overseas teaching English at the time of its release, and so when I got my hands on a copy, it was like briefly being back home again. And I think for anyone who has been to NYC, there is a familiarity there that made the game stand out.
But those slow taxi drives through Times Square, or the helicopter tours at night, or even just seeing virtual people interact with each other? For all of GTA’s celebrated “freedom” to do what you want, the developer still has some control over what you see and do. This world is not at all complete in terms of infrastructure and architecture. You can’t go inside buildings or even obey the law. And yet, I found myself forgetting this, at least briefly, because the developers had created such a detailed replica. I forgot about how static so much of that city was partially because of my own expectations, but also because I was too distracted to explore these elements in the first place.
I could point to a handful of other games that display these same qualities – including the game that started all of this, Shadow of the Colussus – for the same reasons. The best examples tend to be structured so that the player is given some degree of freedom to explore the world, but not so much that it’s impossible to manage and guide him or her. I think video games actually do become art once the writers put down their pens and just let players interact with their virtual worlds.
If you managed to make it through this entire incoherent email, hats off to you. Again, I really appreciate all the work you do, and I look forward to more of your columns down the road. And whether or not we agree on this topic, I’m glad that CHUD’s been promoting the MCP stuff too.*
*(Though honestly, I wish Alex had his own site for this stuff. I worry that his work may get overshadowed because CHUD is movie-centric. But you would know what works better than I.)
Devin replies: Your argument seems to be that video games are art because we get to decide how to interact with them. I don’t see how this is any different from any other art. You can hang a painting in any direction, or put it in a dark room and only enjoy the textures. You can watch a movie in slow motion, or reverse, or enjoy it as a series of still frames or as audio. Every art form is interactive, as we, the audience, must interact with it in our own way. I will get something very different out of a book than you will because I interacted with it in my own way. I agree about Alex – his stuff on the site is absolutely terrific.