Game Theory

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on May 9, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Oh, Internet. If there’s one thing you do well, it’s in presenting a complex, multifaceted issue as a binary yes or no question. Religion? Explainable in a forum post. Philosophy and morality? D&D solved that decades ago with their 3×3 alignment grid. Feminism? I’m sure there’s an aphorism regarding domestic household labor that’s appropriate.

To whether games are art, we’ve seen a great deal of discussion. “Yes!” sayeth those that have been touched by a game’s narrative or those holding high aspirations for the medium. “No!” shouts people that desperately skip plot segments and Roger Ebert. What do I say?

Probably something along the lines of “Do you have the complimentary handout that accompanies this lecture.” or, “Are you sitting down, this may take a while.”

There are people, such as my erstwhile semi-ambulatory Cali-furnishing Lucas Paynter, who paradoxically ascribes high artistic value to games and gaming while holding a good deal of them (the game itself or specific content within the game) as being beyond critique or needing no deeper analysis. Runes for runes sake, as it were. Granted, he’s never said both of those things in so many words, or at the same time, but the sentiment is there and it is not an uncommon one.

This stems from the fact that many gamers — most of them, actually — aren’t in any sort of position to really dictate what is and isn’t art. This isn’t unusual, or even something that should be taken as an insult. Regarding books, the vast majority of readers have no education, formal or otherwise, that would allow them to identify literary devices, to interpret from a literary standpoint, or formulate anything more robust that various treatises on whether and why they “liked” it.

Same thing goes for movies and music.

What we do feel when we game is something that feels almost personal, a feeling of grandeur when gameplay, graphics and sound blend together to form an experience that, to most of us, is ineffable. So when we see Braid‘s subtle blend of simple gameplay and gentle narrative, or Flower‘s touching juxtaposition of graphical prowess and natural beauty, we assume it must be art because articulating what we’re feeling and experiencing is difficult.

It does not occur to us that, while those games may be artistic, it is possible that they are not in fact art. But then, maybe we’re using the wrong word. What is art? If there’s one thing two artists agree on, it’s that the other has no idea what is and isn’t art.

So yes, it’s very possible for hundreds of artists to work for years and not produce art.

I’ve always supposed that video games have more in common with literature than people realize. It’s a comparison that works — much of the language used to critique film, gaming’s oft-held aspiration, is literary in nature. Films also add a visual component to their narrative that adds an additional dimension to the interpretation. Are we made small before the manic Charles Foster Kane? Or are we boxed in, ready to be preyed upon with Ripley and the colonial marines? Or are we part of the narrative, dropped into the action with no memory as to its beginning even as we accept it for its presentation in Inception? We can also the subjects of a film’s intense social criticism, as Funny Games illustrates.

These last two are key to understanding that games can be vehicles for interpretation despite the insertion of the player’s agency into the mix. Just as film added a visual dimension, games add an interactive dimension, allowing for a variety of conclusions to be drawn on what we can and can’t affect through the games rules and framework for interactivity.

So when it is through herculean and often futile efforts that Commander Shepard rallies against the complacency of the council and its allied races, we should understand that this highlights one of the key, unique facets of Mass Effect‘s grand tapestry: that humans are small potatoes, one of many races vying for council favor and attention, and ultimately you’ll need to work twice as hard to achieve half as much as one of the races that actually matter in the setting.

It is in these and other abstracts that allows video games to become vehicles for literary interpretation. Although games are incredibly well-defined — “through a mirror, darkly” becomes a practice in adjusting gamma, lighting, and reflection mapping — this allows room for a variety of literary theories to catch hold.

Of course, there are troubled waters for literary game theory all the same, not the least of which is the way games often disregard any concerted effort on the narrative until the game is nearly complete. There are exceptions to this, obviously. Studios that write stories first. However, most of what we play uses the narrative as a vehicle for the gameplay, rather than the other way around. As above, if we’re accepting gameplay and interactivity as legitimate facets of criticism then this becomes acceptable, but it isn’t difficult to imagine that a more focused approach can produce a richer, more literary narrative.

As well, for as much as I agree with the idea of Intentional Fallacy where authorial intent is concerned, some degree of understanding the “author” of a work — such as these designs-by-committee can be said to have an author — is necessary to achieve a fuller understanding and a more robust literary interpretation of a work. The concepts of the Intentional Fallacy still work — that much of what defines a literary work can’t be governed by specific intent or conscious thought (a sort of literary Laplace’s demon) — but it helps to know if you should be concerned with whether the game is just regularly postmodern, or a branch of Japanese postmodernism.

For those of you in the know, you realize that we reached the inevitable point in any discussion about literature, gaming and postmodernism where we are contractually obligated to discuss the seminal work in that arena: Metal Gear Solid 2.

Just as Funny Games puts the audience on the spot for deriving entertainment from brutal violence while expecting some manner of heroic happy ending, Metal Gear Solid criticizes the player for idolizing and lionizing soldiers even as the events that make them so “bad ass” hollow them out and leave them as empty husks who know nothing but conflict and see no use in themselves outside of it.

At the same time, while it is probably gaming’s ultimate literary work, it tends to not be very good to its gamers. It’s a good, solid game, the same kind of solid game that the original Metal Gear Solid was with more tossed in, and the same kind of fun gameplay that would carry the series to fruition.

An average gamer will enjoy the gameplay but become lost when the plot turns in on itself, heavily relying on irony and deconstruction while presenting the Japanese perspective on postmodernism in the form of directly critiquing the player and the space they occupy, incorporating them into the postmodern condition whether they like it — or realize it — or not.

To them, it’s a “bad game” because you couldn’t play as Snake, because Raiden ran around naked for the last part, because they didn’t want to fight Solidus, and so on. Not realizing that was the point.

More than movies or books, games are presented as entertainment. When you leave a theater or close a book angry, agitated, horrified or disgusted it is easy to accept that as part of the experience. However, the one pratfall of the medium is in placing in the player’s hands agency over the plot, however inferred, allows expectations of positive rewards to bloom.

You must play through the game to see the plot after all, and the easiest way to goad you into doing so is through positive reinforcement and rewards. So when a game like MGS2 comes along and basically yells at you for playing it, the line is drawn between “good” games and literary games.

That such a line exists, however, should let us rest assured that games can be artful and literary.

  1. *claps a bit*

    I do feel somewhat called out, though. :-p I suppose I should clarify my own stance, as I see it, in light of this: I do feel games are an artistic platform, and I wholeheartedly endorse any attempt in them to be art, whether they be from an indie developer or a major studio. I do not, however, feel that all games are unilaterally art: some are simply made to be products, some are simply made to be games, though both might have artistic elements in them. It does get complicated when one tries to decide who qualifies as the author (is it the writer? the creative director? does it vary from game to game?) in a medium made very much at times by committee.

    Back when I was finishing up my degree, I took a theatre class and studied a bit on a German playwright name Bertolt Brecht. He favored approaches to theatre that might provoke the audience and get them more involved, something more akin to watching a boxing match and loudly rooting for the underdog than attending a symphony and sitting quietly and listening. Brecht had a particular mantra that I’d taken in and internalized, believing that theatre is a form of entertainment, and the first duty of entertainment is to be “fun” in some way; so I believe is true for games, that they need to be “fun” on some level before they can engage the participant further, and if they can’t even do that, they probably shouldn’t be doing anything at all.

    I think some games only go as far as being fun, and that’s fine. I think some games are less fun, but still engaging enough in other areas that they make up for it. Others, still, try hard to be artsy and don’t succeed enough as games in the meantime (I think El-Shaddai was a recent example for me, a title that was quite impressive in regards to visual style and had some quality voice acting to boot, but whose gameplay very quickly tired).

    That said, I would concur that MGS2 is a relevant and provocative game, if a little long-winded at times. The betrayed expectations that Raiden represent, brilliantly handled as it was at the time, do undercut the experience, but I think Raiden is closer to us than Snake (in terms of personality, not hair) than most of us would like to admit. I think some of the problem, at the time, was that the game simply attempted to be much more profound than anyone was expecting or in the mood for, especially compared to the first game. I would probably have seen it like picking up a Soul Reaver sequel and suddenly having Raziel bust out some phat rhymes or something… word.

  2. MGS2 suffers from relying on its paradoxical cinematic qualities to impart the narrative and the setup for much of its message: specifically, the exhaustive use of non-interactive cutscenes in a fundamentally interactive medium. I will grant that MGS is fundamentally a video game and can’t be made into a movie without losing essential parts (much of the game’s postmodernism comes from the playing and the player, in fact), but it is telling that Kojima could think of no better tool than to just talk at the player for hours on end.

    While I agree it was more profound than what most gamers expected, it wasn’t more profound than what the first game allotted for. The first game also possessed this allegorical critique of hero fantasies, games and gamers, but these I think were secondary to the very solid and plausible near-future narrative. MGS2 swapped the priorities on these, so the plot became a plaything of the metaplot. Again, not a bad thing, but then you’ve got obese bombermen on rollerblades and double triple secret incest.

    I do not, however, think a game needs to be fun, as “entertaining” can mean many things. Closely related (possibly with no difference) is that it does need to encourage the player to play and not get too much in the way of that.

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