Friday, 1 November 2013

Friday Musings: The Awkwardness of Games

What are games? How should we define them? Why do we even try to constrict them with the other forms of media? And why is talk about what defines, and what a video game is, always full of some sort of tension and uncertainty? What is it that makes games art, and not just another way of entertainment?

Those are all questions demanding answers. All of the questions are valid, and all are questions that at some point torture in varying degree anyone, who ever thought of the video games more than just a pass time. Something to burn time on. I think games are more than just a simple entertainment. I believe games, have potential to join that elusive society of fine arts.

Not yet though. Our medium is still not mature. It is still evolving, still in growth. And what is the most dangerous of all, is that it is an expensive form of art. Sure, some of you say. But so was painting, sculpturing and all other forms of art. Art was always domain of the wealthy. By that, art could be defined as the excess of society. But games are not only quite expensive to buy, but also expensive to make.

The games on other hand face another problem, that is absent from all other forms of art, well maybe not all. If you consider a performance an art, then they are both interactive in their nature. In games, there is no audience. The only audience is you, the player. And at the same time, the player is the protagonist of the game as well.

Unlike a film, where you can enjoy the experience, in games you are the one creating the experience for yourself. And unlike performance, where actors try to engage the audience to either entertain or make their point, in games this engagement of its audience stops as fast as you enter the game. From thereon after, you are to carve an experience out for yourself.

And this is where games usually fall short. They look upon their elder siblings in novels, films, and photography, trying to imitate them only to feel awkward after they do not quite pull it through. And then they ask why their elder siblings can make it work, but they do not. There are great stories in some games, great cinematics and beautiful vistas in others. Some rare examples have all of that in one game. And it still is not quite enough. The game is good, is praised, but something is missing.

It is like an elephant in the room that nobody is able to see, yet everyone feels its presence. Sole imitation of the other media is not enough. Games are the medium closest to perfection. Yet it is their interactive nature that depends on us, the players that makes them flawed.

The games are this strange mish-mash of storytelling, film, sculpture, painting, theatre, and performance art. With each of these forms of art, our medium has something in common, something it tries to imitate, to perfect it in its own way. Maybe it is just this similarity to whole array of different media that makes it stretched thin and wondering what does it really want.

To illustrate my point, let us have a thought experiment of sorts. Let us say we want to make a game. No matter how simple the game we are making will be, it will still end up with some kind of a story. Maybe the whole story is about heroine following the path that leads to a star, it can be as simple as a plumber trying to save the princess from the dragon-turtle-thingy. Or it might be the most elaborate feature of the game, with the whole game being an interactive story of sorts, where we spin it the way we want.

Now, no matter how very simple the game, the basis is still on the world and protagonist. Those two factors are always present. And what is more, these two factors must fit with each other. They must be consistent. Having a game made in painterly style, but photorealistic protagonist does not work. Or at least does not work in general.

Most of the games these days have sound. Most of them even a sort of narrator or characters talking. This is where the theatre comes to mind. It is in theatre where sound effects were invented. It is thanks to theatre that we have these characters talking to each other, trying to mimic life, just like theatre wants to show life on stage.

So what does this then leave for film? Or for that matter, what is there for performance art? Games took the pacing from films. All the cinematics these days are made as a homage of sorts to films. Games want to catch this feeling of wonder and amazement that is in all art forms, but shines only in films. And performance art, is the whole interaction between the player and the game. Where the player and the game are both performing in order to discover something new. To see what they can achieve. Performance art in games is when you first start moving to the right in your quest to save the princess, but then stop and try to go left. To see if there is something else.

But the real strength of the games that is their own, are mechanics. Systems of rules that make the world of games possible. And it is those mechanics that most of the time make or break the game. Games depend on mechanics  Mechanics are one sole feature that is their own. And in every game mechanics are different. And that is their beauty. That they can take so many different forms, so many different paths, and still make so many different games good. If mechanics of game work, it is very likely that game itself will work.

Mechanics are at the end, one thing central to all games. Mechanics are where games make it or break it. No matter what genre, all games rely on mechanics to work properly. And with the good use of mechanics in games you can transform a simple well known story into a work of art as the game compels the player to partake in it. And once we realize this, games might slowly leave their adolescence behind and decide on what they are and what they wish to be.

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