Friday, August 12, 2011

Art Games: The False Contradiction

I’ve been playing Hammerfight like crazy lately. Most of the game is mediocre, but the combat is ah…well, it’s transcendental. One of the guys over at Wolfire Games did a little analysis of it that captures the whole mechanic perfectly.  It’s innovative, effective, and above all fun. But, that’s not what really got me thinking today.

There are moments in Hammerfight that seem brutally unfair and aren’t tied in any way to the quality of the combat. The computer basically cheats you to death by virtue of its ability to manipulate the mechanics of the game perfectly. This is mostly acceptable though, because in games, especially singleplayer ones, difficulty sometimes necessitates that the computer cheats. Now, the best case scenario would be that the computer doesn’t cheat, but from a developer’s point of view that’s impossible. Historically, games have always been symmetric; both sides of the game are constrained by the same bounds, rules, and tools.  The competition comes purely from player skill and interaction. In recent times, games have become decidedly asymmetric, a direct result of their console heritage. But, this isn’t really what I was thinking about today either.

What I have been thinking about is art. I started a thread over on the RPS forums about TRAUMA, a game developed by Krystian Majewski that tells the story of a girl who is recovering from a car crash. The purpose of the thread was to discuss the role of art in games and what it means for the future of gaming, seeing as how more and more of these games are being made. Essentially the debate boils down to two views: 

  • Art games are good because they push the envelope and extend the definition of games into new areas. They foster innovation and give games more existential meaning and promote thoughtfulness. They may not always be good, but their willingness to be unconventional and try new things is admirable.
  • Art games are bad because they use games as a pretense for art and therefore don’t respect the medium itself. It uses games as a medium for an agenda or personal interest, but ineffectively because it allows “artists” who are not “game designers” to attempt things in a form that they aren’t familiar with or able to use effectively. They produce cumbersome, preachy titles with little to no gameplay and have messages that could be better served with a more appropriate medium like painting, literature, film, etc.
As the discussion continues, I find myself wavering in between these two viewpoints constantly. After playing through TRAUMA, I feel excited; it’s a game that provides impressive insight into the recovery process of grief victims. It doesn’t necessarily tell me things I don’t know, but it does evoke real emotion and provokes thoughtful reflection. At the same time, it’s not much of a game. It’s essentially a set of pictures which you click through and puzzles which you eye spy your way through. Stripped of the music, narrative, or background, it would be a complete and utter bore.

It’s immersive and engaging. It’s also restrictive and boring. Is this the definition of art?

Then there’s Hammerfight. It has an amazingly fun mechanic: indirect combat control. It forces you to learn something new and rewards you for mastery. It’s extremely satisfying to control this “steampunk gyrocopter” because of its responsiveness, but it’s also gut-wrenchingly unforgiving for the same reason. It looks nice too. But the story you play through is both meaningless and uninteresting: a classic hero’s tale of oppression, redemption, salvation, and glory. Granted, it’s presented in an interesting way with some admirable effort put into creating a branching storyline, but in the end though it takes a backseat to the combat, which is addictive bliss.

It’s immersive and engaging. It’s also restrictive and boring. Is this the definition of art?

To bring even more complexity to the issue, there’s a concurrent discussion about what the the future direction of games should and will be: whether singleplayer games are, by virtue of their asymmetric, “historically aberrant” nature, doomed to obscurity (or worse, oblivion) or whether multiplayer games, because of their ability to provide meaningful social interaction, should drive the direction of games design. The arguments are basically this:

  • Singleplayer games are historically anomalous because they are a result of modern technology. Modern gaming has grown accustomed to their existence, but in reality gaming is a fundamentally social activity and ought to be designed that way. Moreover, any game that desires financial success in the medium must necessarily be social and strive to create an experience between individuals as opposed to an experience for individuals.
  • Multiplayer games, because of their social and technological focus, kill creativity in game design. It turns it and the creative process into an unnecessarily structured discipline that results in stagnation and a lack of innovation by virtue of its external, audience focus and reliance upon obsolescizing the present. If multiplayer games become the definition of games, then games will soon stop attempting to do new things, and instead rely upon innovation outside of the medium for progress.
I haven’t seen anyone yet attempt to connect these two sets of arguments explicitly yet, but I think they have a lot to do with each other.
Raphael Koster predicts the demise of singleplayer gaming.
Art games, like TRAUMA, are decidedly in the camp of singleplayer games because of their focus on narrative, setting, and linearity. This is what proponents of the demise of singleplayer understand as the dooming factor. But, when singleplayer games are played by many people, there is an eruption of meta-interaction based on that decidedly isolated experience. This is very different than a “multiplayer game”, but it still has the effect of generating social interaction. What some pro-multiplayer game designers advocate is the implementation of social tools into singleplayer games to facilitate this kind of meta-interaction. However, the true value of these games isn't in their ability to generate social interaction; it's in their choice to push the boundaries of "accepted" game design.

At the same time, art games are often so pompous and presumptuous in their presentation that they aren’t very good at utilizing the best thing games have to offer: interactivity. Most art games nowadays are so passive that they may as well be movies, which is a direction for games that I totally disagree with.

In short, art games are good because they expand the definition of games, but they’re bad because they often aren’t very good games. They foster creativity and maintain the ideal that games are made from passion for the medium, which promotes the idea that game design isn’t subject to any kind of science or marketing force. But, they fail at being good games though because their focus is so purely aesthetic that they often miss the point of games as a form of art itself.

Then you have games like Frozen Synapse, which is pure multiplayer. Their monetization model is even built around it (buy one, get one). The gameplay is pure and simple, which facilitates a meeting of minds as opposed to a railroaded “adventure”. In addition, its intended playstyle relies heavily on adequate access to technology. It might even be said that this game wouldn't have made it in the market had we not existed in a time where such interconnectivity was so widely available.

On the other hand, it’s a shallow experience because it lacks innovative mechanics and fails to introduce new ideas into the medium. Its style is very straightforward and there’s no compelling thought or exercise in challenging presuppositions. It’s an old game given new life by virtue of technology, not something in and of itself.

In short, multiplayer games are good because they propagate the medium and ensure its survival as a cultural artifact, but they’re bad because they stagnate the medium by their reliance on external supports. They reinforce the current cultural milieu and celebrate its success, but they fail to address its faults or push the medium into the future.

And finally, you have games like Hammerfight (which isn’t a multiplayer or art game per se), where by virtue of its excellent gameplay is really some transcendentally good fun to play by oneself and against others. It naturally lends itself to multiplay because it’s got a killer mechanic, but it’s also got a classically interesting (if somewhat trite) narrative that evokes some surprising emotions. More importantly, the mechanic itself (that is, the “game” part of the game) is so novel, so interesting, so “artful” that it actually creates the same sensations that unabashed art games attempt to. In fact, I’ll argue that Hammerfight is an art game. Its art is the gameplay.

I think this is where my point really lies. This debate between adhering to design principles, doing the tried-and-true, and doing what games have always been doing (generating interaction, advancing technology) versus allowing freedom in design to test what games can do (evoke new emotions, provide new experiences) hasn’t been fruitful thus far because people think these things are mutually exclusive. I guess you could say that I’m a conservative reformist when it comes to design: I believe that games have a defined boundary, but we are nowhere near discovering it. What I mean is that game design in principle shouldn't be shackled by anyone's presuppositions past, present, or future; rather, it should be whatever it is the creator wants it to be. And if these games are being made by people who are passionate and knowledgeable about the medium, they will inevitably either transcend the medium and become part of the sociosphere by virtue of their proper use, or be excluded from history as a result of being revealed as an improper use of the medium.We won't know until somebody tries, though.
Ian Bogost mulls on the subject of singleplayer game design.
We all know art can be fun. Why can’t fun be art?