December 17, 2007

How Are Games Art?

Now that I've conclusively resolved the debate about whether or not games are art, it's time to figure out exactly how.

Clive Barker argued that the nonlinearity of games didn't matter at all. "Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art." But Ebert and I agree that there's more to art, since a sandbox or a Lego set or, more to the point, a personal experience isn't art. I don't quite think that it's authorial intent that matters, but I'm certain that the "art" is the product and not the consumption.

I'm much more sympathetic to Warren Spector's shared authorship model, by which I mean I love it passionately. Essentially, the game finds a way to let players help decide the story, but the designer keeps it within preset bounds. Deus Ex, for example, lets the player make moral decisions through actions and dialogue (should I kill or stun the terrorists? do I switch sides?) and then provides feedback by adjusting future dialogue and game worlds. You feel like your decisions matter.

The big limitation here is that the more freedom you offer the player (i.e. the bigger their share of the authorship), the more work the developer has to put in. If you let the player decide in the opening scene whether he wants to make this a comedy game in New York rather than a Sci-Fi game on the moon, you now have to make two games. Deus Ex solved this problem by crafting a story that forced your player to complete all the levels regardless of his sympathies; it was always rational to complete the objective. That can't be done every time. But this just seems like a creative problem. A good enough designer will figure out a solution.

Chris Crawford, whom Spector names as an inspiration, writes in Interactive Storytelling that any sort of branching story requires too much work for too little freedom. His solution is to create an automated system of storytelling: the Erasmatron. It loads up an authored storyworld and allows the player to navigate the story at will. I'd love to play this. But while Crawford has made it clear that he considers interactive storytelling to be new and separate from games, it really just seems like a better, more efficient implementation of shared authorship, with more authorship reserved for the player.

Jonathan Blow gave a fantastic talk recently that partially argued for the importance of game rules in artistic consideration ("all games actively teach"), and The Escapist had a piece on the subject as well ("game rules are highly compact artistic statements"). Games like The Marriage or Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games take this approach. The idea is that all games can make a point by modeling a system and giving it context. By playing within this system and confronting its rules directly, we gain insight.

This sounds both intriguing and also very difficult. Usually when I've heard ideas about artistic games, the mechanics are already decided (e.g. "It's an FPS...") and a compelling story is glued on top. I think that game rules that compliment the story will become a critical component of artistic games in the future, in the same way that a fantastic artistic movie requires cinematography that compliments the story (and the acting, and the directing, et cetera).

Experimenting with game rules and basic mechanics, however, might require abandoning the safe methods of making a game "fun". Games might have to be compelling in other ways in order to keep players interested. A game without fun seems antithetical, but that might be the inevitable direction of a "serious" medium of art.

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