A while back, I tried playing “Spec Ops: The Line,” and put it down within twenty minutes. The combat was stilted, character movement sucked (I’m a stickler for that), and aiming was sloppy and unsatisfying. It played like a poor man’s “Gears of War,” I wasn’t interested, end of story. And then a weird thing happened: it got a ton of good reviews. And this in and of itself might not have been that strange—I’ve disliked acclaimed software before—except that almost all of these reviews acknowledged my complaints, and fawned on the game anyway.
You see, apparently “Spec Ops: The Line” is just brimming with adult themes and moral complexity, and this mitigates any concerns about the gameplay. “Spec Ops” is acknowledged as a middling shooter, but supposedly it’s okay because it’s got a powerful narrative. No, it isn’t. It’s time we all faced an important truth about video games as an art form. Allow me to be the guy who indelicately blurts it out:
Story does not make a game. In the list of things that are important to a game working, story is not number one or two, and it’s probably not even number three. Story is great, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient for a good video game. And I really want you to listen closely to this one, because it’s the most important thing I’m going to say in this entire article: story is not what makes video games art.
When you’re arguing with someone that they should approach this medium with the same respect they afford movies, or music, or literature, do not for the love of God say, “Yeah, I know ‘Mario Bros’ is kind of silly, but if you play ‘Bioshock’ or ‘Shadow of the Colossus,’ you’ll see that video games are really mature and should be considered art.” You are talking nonsense, you’re babbling incoherently. Logic like this is born of a grave misunderstanding of video games and art in general. Let’s try to quickly clear up both right now.
A perfect definition of art is probably impossible, but let’s go with Aristotle’s theory that it’s more or less an imitation of life, or the natural world. He astutely observed that there is an innately human pleasure in the imitation of a thing, and the recognition of that imitation. Our brains like to look a bunch of colors and say, “It looks like a face!” We like it so much we do it to objects that aren’t even trying to imitate anything, like clouds or ink blots. And we’re so good at it that we can make fine grain distinctions between imitations of various quality, even when we lack the skill to create those imitations ourselves.
So art is imitation, whether its object is a tree, a building, a feeling or an idea. Exactly what each piece of art is imitating can be hard to say, especially when it’s imitating more than one thing. The movie “Aliens,” for example, is imitating hundreds of things, from the way people sound when they talk to imaginary creatures and speculative technology. According to Aristotle, the most important imitation in “Aliens” is the plot, which is an attempt to imitate the successes or failures we experience in real life (many argue that character is more important than plot, and they’re wrong, but that’s another article). None of us have ever led a team of future marines on a mission to LV-426 to rescue a bunch of colonial terraformers, so you might think “Aliens” is up a creek, but what the movie is actually imitating is Human Experience 101: being stranded, being afraid, seeing a scary animal that wants to hurt you, facing death, facing pain, overcoming fear, conquering past trauma. We have all experienced all of these, and we can recognize James Cameron’s success or failure in capturing their essence (he succeeded wildly, “Aliens” is a masterpiece).
Okay, so where am I going with all of this? Right here: movies are primarily a storytelling artistic medium, video games are not. Story and video games are frequent bosom buddies, but video games are not dependent on story to lift them up into the rarified air of art. Many of the greatest games of all time have no story, or very little. “Super Mario Bros” is a breathtaking artistic achievement that stands the test of time and continues to find a new audience every day, and yet its “story” is incomprehensible nonsense. “Minecraft” is one of the most exceptional imitations of the natural world ever conceived in any medium, and is a work of art in the deepest sense imaginable, and yet there’s really no set “story” at all. Therefore, what we see is that by propping up “Heavy Rain” and “Final Fantasy VII” as art because they have good stories, we unintentionally scuttle the foundation supporting our entire medium. Story can contribute to a game being excellent, but we must not commit the logical fallacy of using it to buttress video games’ claim as art. Video games are art whether they have stories or not. A bad story is more harmful than none at all, since it can diminish the game by destroying suspension of disbelief, but if the game is good enough even this will not matter (anyone played “Crysis 2″ lately?).
So how are video games art, exactly? There are two primary ways, and the first is world-building. Using everything from painting and sculpture to architecture and animation, video games create an imitation of the world. As in cinema, this imitation succeeds when it achieves a subjective statement of meaning that is felt by the audience. “Gears of War” and “Halo” both depict futuristic wars against evil invading aliens, but the latter is full of gorgeous natural environments and wide open battlefields meant to conjure the heroism and bravery of war. “Gears,” by contrast, takes place in destroyed buildings, dark caverns, and sieged fortresses that remind the player of war’s desperation, pain and misery.
So far, video games are very similar to a painting hanging on a wall, and since the painting is an unchallenged member of the “Art” club, it seems almost impossible to deny video games entrance. The only recourse Roger Ebert and his ilk have is to somehow prove that a painting, sculpture, drawing or picture is somehow robbed of its art-ness when rendered in a computer. I don’t envy that task. For example, in order to create the magnificent world of “Skyrim,” thousands of beautiful paintings, sculptures, pictures and drawings were created by a team of hundreds of artists, and I imagine Roger would confer upon most of these individual pieces the status of “art,” as would most people. And yet, by his logic, once they are collected together through the magic of computer code, they aren’t art anymore, and they don’t add up to art, either. I guess no one told Pixar that.
The second mode of imitation video games employ comes from the gameplay itself, in which the player is tasked with completing challenges using skills and equipment the game provides. This is imitating the successes and failures of our lives, much like story, but here we’re active participants, and empathy is no longer needed as a conduit to involvement. Movies show you people struggling in the hopes that it will remind you of your own struggles, but in video games you’re the one struggling. There’s more to this, of course, but game design is a deep and complex field and let’s not get sucked down that rabbit hole.
The point is this: video games involve the active engagement of a player inside a world that imitates life, and those are the qualities that determine their success or failure. If a game has fun gameplay inside a unified world of proper magnitude, it’s a good game, and nothing else is needed. A compelling narrative can bolster and enhance either of these, especially the latter, but it’s only a supplement, not a foundation. Gaming is not the only art form with this relationship to story: a good song can become great if it tells a compelling yarn, but it would be folly to thereby assume that the lyrics are making the music art. An instrumental is no less artistic than a song with lyrics, and a video game without story is no less artistic than “Fallout 3.”
So if story isn’t needed to make games art, or to make them good, then why are they so important lately? Why is a game like “Spec Ops” getting praised for “story” when its gameplay isn’t up to snuff? I think we secretly covet the respect that film commands in popular culture, so we try to make games more like movies. We want people to like us, so we tell them how our thing is just like their thing. This is stupid and we should stop doing it. Video games are capable of many things movies couldn’t dream of. Cinema draws a line between creator and audience, video games allow that line to be blurred, maybe even obliterated. Movies involve passive watching, video games active participation. Video games are the future, and their importance and power will only increase as they evolve to maturity. We should not inhibit this evolution by demanding that video games walk and quack like another art form.
Overstating the importance of story in video games is an act of insecurity, a self-conscious display of “look how sophisticated we are.” I’m all for improving narrative in our field, it leads to colossal victories like “Portal,” “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” and “Uncharted.” But all of those games would be a blast without any story, because they’re built on solid foundations of core gameplay and unified world-building. “Spec Ops: The Line” can have all the heart-rending dialog it wants, but until it sharpens up that cover system and works on its gunplay, it’s going nowhere fast in my book. Maybe they should’ve made it a movie.
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