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Are games an art form?

No, don’t worry, I’m not quite so arrogant as to think that I can crack that little nut successfully, but the question persists nonetheless.

Each year, a fresh volley of stones is thrown from both sides of the fence with at least one traditional critic willing to paint a target on their back. My personal take on the debate? I honestly don’t care.

I enjoy games; I enjoy art; I enjoy music; I enjoy film. I don’t enjoy any of them because of what bracket they fall in to, so is there any point in even having brackets? There certainly doesn’t seem to be a great deal to be gained from arguing about where these arbitrary boundaries should be, that’s for sure.

Regardless of where you feelings on the matter lay, I think that it’s more than fair to say that even if the medium hasn’t quite crossed the ‘artistic threshold’ yet, it has made enormous strides since the days of Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Pong. One area of tremendous growth and development (and perhaps one of the single biggest prerequisites for being included in the ‘art’ bracket) being narrative.

From rather humble beginnings, the medium of game has explored everything from basic “he’s bad, kill him!” plots to far more complex and subtle affairs such as, well, “he’s innocent, should you let him live?”. Perhaps I’m being disingenuous. Yes, I am, because I know that a good game has hooked me just as much as any good book, film or album has ever done.

Oblivion ScreenshotTake Half-Life, for example, which represented a very significant milestone in the evolution of narrative in games with the entire, gripping story being told solely from the viewpoint of the protagonist, a silent one at that. Yet despite this apparent shackle it was, and remains, an expertly crafted experience that draws you in like only the best stories can. We weren’t just a spectator to Gordan Freeman’s thrilling exodus; we were Gordan Freeman. This level of involvement in narrative has been pulled off many times since but Half-Life arguably cast the mould for it in the action genre and it remains a good benchmark to this very day.

In recent years, the Uncharted series has raised the bar with a perfect marriage of in-game narrative coupled with explosive Hollywood inspired set-pieces and cutscenes to create an experience as absorbing as any of the great films it has modelled itself upon.

Moving away from pure action, titles such as Oblivion have embraced not only gameplay driven narrative but have featured worlds literally strewn with thousands of pages of text that have been painstakingly crafted to better flesh out the world it depicts. Now if you’re willing to interrupt your gameplay to stop and read these wonderful books, you’d find that at least half of your time would be spent, well, reading. One faithful devotee even went so far as to print and bind all of this work into a single, colossal tome complete with leather hardback cover.

Now that’s a staggering amount of creative work to leave lying around an already rich and diverse game world and I strongly doubt that you would find even the most ardent of traditional critics saying that this book isn’t an art form. Yet if such a book exists within a game, does that mean that the game itself, the vessel, is an art form?

Either way, narrative padding mechanics such as the wondrous books to be found in Oblivion are something that I actually take some issue with. Why? Well, whilst I’ve yet to come across a game that requires you to read such items to gain the true essence of the story, you can’t escape the feeling that by not experiencing them, you’re missing out on the bigger picture. Somehow the simple act of skipping such rich additions is a subtle but distinctly negative re-enforcement of the elements of the story that you are immersed in. In a sense, it makes you feel somewhat unworthy of being along for the ride. Despite this persistent, low-level feeling of guilt, I never feel as though I have the time, or more importantly the desire, to sidestep into such a carefully nested medium when I’m busy focusing on the game in hand. The end result is that, as someone who loves a good story, I feel as though the experience has been a somewhat hollow and incomplete one.

Metal Gear Solid Concept ArtAnd Oblivion isn’t the only game guilty of this. Did anyone really watch all the codecs in Metal Gear Solid? Did anyone bother to listen to all the audio tapes in Bioshock? Did they read all the PDAs in Deus Ex? When you think about it, this kind of narrative padding has almost become the norm for titles desperate to lift their mythology beyond the realms of what you see and hear whilst experiencing the core of the game. All Oblivion did was take this philosophy to the extreme.

Does this approach represent artistic convergence the scale of which no medium before has ever dreamt of being able to embrace? Is a game’s narrative more than the sum of its parts? Is it a gift from the gods to the hardcore faithful? Or maybe it’s simply good old-fashioned value for money? It could be any or all of the above, depending on your viewpoint.

Or maybe it’s something entirely different?

Perhaps … perhaps it’s just plain lazy. Certainly not lazy in the sense that talent, time, care and effort haven’t gone into crafting this padding, but lazy in the sense that it’s seen as a substitute to elevating the mechanisms by which the core narrative is delivered to even higher heights. Instead of really pushing ourselves to make story telling in games better.

Have we simply settled on hurling in other mediums in the hope that 1 + 2 = 5?

Did we peak early? Was Half-Life almost as good as we could expect to get in terms of directly experienced narrative? Are we now just throwing mud at the artistic wall, hoping it will stick, hoping that if enough of it dries in place we’ll be granted a chair at the grand dining table of culture?

Or maybe I’m lazy because I genuinely can’t be bothered reading a book in the middle of a great game.

 

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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.

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9 Comments

  1. I think Metroid Prime had to narrative spot on. You could choose to ignore the story completely or scan everything and dive right in to a quiet yet thrilling story, with no loss in basic narrative if you never read anything. 
    Can’t stand games like Metal Gear that shove it down your throat.

  2. The correlation between narrative and art isn’t exactly a straight one, and it is not the only thing in a game that can be considered art. I, unlike you, think that Uncharted has the narrative to gameplay ratio wrong. It understandably wrenches the power from the gamer whilst attempting to tell a story, the style it uses means that it HAS to, which in turn makes it feel like an on rails QTE, a poor form of storytelling.
     
    What people forget is that with different mediums, you have different ways of creating art. A game doesn’t – and quite rightly shouldn’t – rely on narrative for this. Film has gone through the same hazing period as video games, and I’m sure theatre did too.

    • @CalaveraBlues I think Dark Souls has it spot on. The tale is there, in the world around you but you end up having your own reasons for continuing on.

  3. As someone over at Eurogamer has rightly pointed out: studies show that gamers rarely complete games and this may have something to do with the quality of narrative that we see in the medium.
     
    I suppose it begs the question: is narrative in games held back because there’s so little chance that the majority of your audience will appreciate it, or do the majority of your audience give up because it’s not that gripping to begin with?

  4. I think most people finished Uncharted 3 because it’s a relatively short sharp shock of a game (though despite some decent dialogue and characterisation, the story itself is fairly rote). Compare that to GTA IV or Skyrim which are less focussed and basically let you make your own story.
    Either way, I’m sure if narratives were more engaging, players would have no choice but to see them through. The problem is, games ask for far more time and attention than films and it’s hard to sustain a compelling narrative over that length of time.

  5. And yet people will sustain it for a book?

    • @Luke Martin VA But narratives are the reason people read books; that’s rarely the case for games.

      • @Ben Webster VA Narrative – or escapism? I know what you’re saying, but I’m still sure we could get better stories into games. Breakdown, for example – now THERE was a story! Hmmm, that’s the next classic review lined up.

  6. The narrative in Alpha Protocol changes depending on how you play the game and how you respond in conversations, it’s well voice acted and while the story isn’t anything that ground breaking it’s well told.

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