01 Apr

Video Games as Art Pt. 1: Possibility

Faye Wong in Chungking Express, 1994

I’m 33 and grew up with video games as a part of my life. I have many many happy memories of playing various games both alone and with friends and family, of being totally engaged, drawn into a world and playing all day, all night, till five o’clock in the morning trying to see what came next.  I miss that. When I was younger it was not so hard to find that feeling. There was a lot happening in the world of games, both technologically and creatively. It was exciting and as a young kid and then as a teenager I was, shall we say, easily amused.  As I, and my generation have grown up, I feel that we’ve left games behind to some extent.  Many of us still play but those moments of total immersion are fewer and harder to come by.  As some of us accumulate responsibility in the form of jobs, children, girlfriends and wives many of the gaming experiences which we still enjoy become out of reach due to timing issues and the fact that our girlfriends DEFINITELY do not want to sit and watch us fly a spaceship through endless boring space and talk inscrutable jargon to unseen people over a headset for hours and hours (I’m looking at you Eve Online).

The reason I’m starting this project and my own journey into game design is because I want to reclaim some of those lost experiences, and create new ones which I haven’t had before. I went to film school for a few years at NYU and studied, along with how to make films, the history and critical theory around cinema.  When film making was first discovered by the Lumiere brothers in France it was perceived as a technological novelty.  Look a train is coming at you out of a tunnel! People dove for cover, and then laughed.  No one considered it to be a valid artistic medium for the expression of big ideas or unique experiences, including the Lumieres themselves.  This was in 1895.  It took almost a century for artists to take the technology and use it to create experiences like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (1994).  In the hands of passionate artists what was a visual novelty became a powerful medium for expressing big emotions, thought provoking ideas and intense visual beauty.

With the incredible increase in the pace of our culture and the acceleration of the spread of thought through digital technology I think that what took nearly a century for cinema can happen much more quickly in the medium of games.  And I think not only can it happen, but it will. Already there is a movement of game makers who see themselves as artists more than solely entertainers and who seek to impart into their work something more evocative than a pure roller coaster ride.  Certainly the roller coaster ride will always have it’s role, as it continues to in film, but there is among some of us a hunger for more.  As an adult who grew up with games, I want to continue to play games, I want that feeling I had when I was a child of flow, immersion, wonder and deep engagement. But the things that allowed me to feel that when I was a child are not quite the same for me now. As an adult with more sophisticated tastes, someone who likes to read Leo Tolstoy, William Gibson and William S. Burroughs I want to experience this class of refinement in my interactive entertainment.  I want an adult experience. And please, please don’t confuse adult experience with a teenage boy experience of pornographic sexuality, cartoon violence and one-dimensional ‘darkness’.  I understand that for many this is provocative and daring is and that this is a relevant stage for the art form to go through but I do hope that we outgrow it soon.

My fantasy is that in my lifetime games will evolve to an aesthetic level that would be immediately recognizable as art and enjoyable as such by both the core audience of game fans, people like me who grew up with them, and by my non-gamer girlfriend who likes arty movies.  I truly don’t know what this will look like. I don’t think it will look like the unimaginative ‘games as interactive movies’ movement that we see in a great deal of top dollar product.  If it does then the games industry is going to need much, much better writers, actors and directors because many of the cut scene heavy titles that we see with obvious cinematic pretentions really need work in this department. Bad voice acting anyone? Nothing is going to ruin your sense of immersion more quickly.  I think instead of trying to be like other existing art forms, like cinema, games will need to develop our own unique aesthetic vocabulary just as cinema did, and then deploy that to create new experiences. In terms of the mechanics of the medium games are very inspiring. It feels like we could subsume all other media within them: writing, film making, music, visual art and then add interactivity. Truly the potential feels limitless. The challenge is to figure out a way to deploy all of that first of all to create the kind of deep and powerful feelings that those mature forms have been able to allow us to experience in the hands of their master practitioners and then to go further and to use interactivity, the truly new part of the gaming medium and open up new experiences which have never been possible in the forms which have come before. I am impatient to see what comes next.