The following is the first in a series exploring the challenges of the artistic advancement and acceptance of video games.
I – The Theory of Gameplay
While many of us are already convinced of the artistic integrity of video games, it can be argued that there’s still more work to do in order to have the zeitgeist of our culture acknowledge the artistic value of games and for us, the gamers, to understand and interpret them in a more artistic perspective. Gaming as art is still somewhat of a puzzle—one that often takes slightly more convincing to those who don’t see it as such. But even if we accept it, we need to ask what exactly is it about games that makes them art? We know it’s not just the visuals, the soundtrack, the audio, the plot, etc. but something more. Inherent to virtually every great gaming experience is the overwhelming feeling of something larger than these components. The gameplay itself becomes the adhering quality that merges the various parts that make up a game together. As such it seems fitting in our quest to further the advancement of gaming as art that we ought to establish a critical theory of gaming—starting with the core facet of the experience itself: the gameplay.
Games are often an assembly of various art forms: fiction, sculpture (through 3d modeling), acting—even more so with the rising popularity of facial motion capture—music, and more. Importantly, it’s not just the objective existence of these components within the game, but the subjective experience of the player that factors in with this as well. This is where one can stake the claim that this intuitive experience, transferred to the player through the gameplay, becomes a major portion of the art of the game itself. Without this, it is wholly possible to see games that possess strength in other departments, but fall short on the gameplay—resulting in a poorly received title. As proof of this, games such as Too Human, Advent Rising, and even Lair demonstrate that a title can contain intriguing worlds, interesting plots, excellent music and sound design, good visuals, but will consequentially fail to achieve notoriety due to sour gameplay.
On paper, Advent Rising certainly looks like it would be an amazing experience. With Science Fiction legend Orson Scott Card handling the dialogue and screenplay and Tommy Tallarico writing the music and managing the game’s audio, what could possibly go wrong? In the end, the dynamics of the gameplay itself proved to be too abrasive to critics and gamers. What it ultimately boils down to for Advent Rising is that the game’s “flick targeting” system failed to capture gamers in the way that the developers intended. It seemed to be more buggy than anything else and along with some glitches, the dynamic between the player and the game was shattered. No story or excellent soundtrack could’ve prevented this. Without that core component of good and solid gameplay, the rest of the pieces that made up Advent Rising fell apart.
Games that also deviate from the norm too much or try to venture too far into uncharted territory have also been seen to suffer greatly. Too Human and Lair are among these. Both games were built on premises that were popular and original (for a game) but by trying something a little too different, both of these games suffered in the end.
Norse mythology is something that has worked its way into popular culture with ease, either by means of characters like Thor and Loki, or through popular usage of terms such as Ragnarok—often used in other games, movies, television shows, and books. So it seemed appropriate that a game such as Too Human, with a fresh take on Norse legends by spinning a story where the gods were actually an advanced civilization that predated humanity, would be successful. But this wasn’t the case.
Once again, gameplay becomes the deciding factor in how the pieces that make up the game come together. Too Human made a specific and audacious use of the right thumbstick on the controller. This was a move that didn’t mesh with the still current trend of assigning that portion of the controller to moving the camera or aiming. While there was a range of problems that many critics had with the game—the death scenes being one—by far the most offensive was this usage of the right thumbstick. It was too alienating for most players who expected the controller to behave differently. While it could be suggested that this was the fault of gamers not being open-minded enough, understanding the culture of gaming and what the gamers expect out of a game should’ve been an important step in the design of the title. Similar mistakes have been made elsewhere.
With the promise of piloting dragons—and who doesn’t love dragons?—Lair was hotly anticipated (it also was under the pressure of being a “killer app” for the PlayStation 3). Flying dragons in combat was an experience that hadn’t been represented in such vivid detail as was promised by Lair. With the reputation the developers had from their work with the well-received Star Wars: Rogue Squadron games, there seemed to be a level of trust that Factor 5 could deliver not only an amazing title but also a new addition to flight games. And with John Debney’s opulent soundtrack in 7.1 surround sound, being in the midst of a cinematic experience seemed even closer than ever. But the result was a frail escapade that made most gamers want to throw their controller across the room. With the PlayStation 3’s new Sixaxis controller, Factor 5 took a risk in making the game only playable via motion control—something quite uncommon at the time. Not only did this include the steering of the dragon, but also the simulation of snapping the reins to dash forward, or pulling back to signal the dragon to do a 180. While there were some gamers, myself included, who found the experience to be experimental and interesting, the majority of gamers and critics felt frustrated and ostracized by the way this game was to be played.
Many of these points may seem obvious at first: bad or confusing gameplay equals a poorly received game. But there’s more behind all of this. What it boils down to is that we as a culture need to start pursuing and constructing a theory of gameplay and game design. This may sound a little vague or unclear in terms of what it actually means to build a working theory and furthermore what it means to actually implement it in the construction of games, but there’s good reason to pursue it. By looking at other arts, we can see the existence of a working theory serving the art form in ways that advance it. Music theory happens to be a good analog to what I’m trying to convey here.
The construction and role of a theory for art, particularly in music and hypothetically in gaming, can often be confusing. The origins, however, happen to be quite simple; they are based on the results of various discoveries through practice. In music, this starts with the experimentation of mixing certain chords, scales, or notes together and observing the effects of the results on the composition and subsequently the reception of the public. A similar thing may be said in terms of developing a working theory for gameplay; we can actively observe what tends to work, and what usually doesn’t—or what has worked and what hasn’t.
These foundational rules of a theory are not permanently fixed in stone—a common mistake—but are rather subject to the changes in various time periods and cultures. Musical theory has changed quite substantially since the 17th and 18th centuries; certain ways of utilizing harmonies that were once unthinkable are now widely accepted. And I’m sure a similar thing can be said if we look at gaming over the years. A proper analysis of this evolution is crucial to gaming overall, but that is a topic for another discussion entirely.
Even though we see change in artistic theories across time, it does not imply that the current rules of the theory aren’t to be broken. This happens to be another common misconception of a theory in art—especially in music. Deviating from the norms of a theory doesn’t always spell disaster or result in boisterous condemnation from intellectuals; it allows the creator to know how far they are leaving behind what is culturally acceptable or how far ahead they are proceeding. This by no means suggests that forging a path away from the theory immediately means that no one will appreciate it; it just means that there’s a risk of the message and experience of the art getting lost—as can be seen in the examples above. The theory serves as a guideline for the artist to be aware of the specific affects of the “rules” and ultimately how the usage or deviation of such will be culturally perceived. Rules can always, and should always, be broken in art—but a working theory establishes a way of consciously understanding what the effects of such things can possibly be while still leaving the door open for experimentation. We need to start embracing these concepts in video games.
If such a thing existed, at the same level we see in other arts, it’s fairly plausible to say that many games that have slipped under the radar or were poorly received would have been looked at very differently had there been a working theory of gameplay. Either the developers may have chosen different routes, or found ways to make their ideas implemented better, or the gaming culture might have had a different understanding of some of these games and new ideas.
Like with music, much of a theory’s construction has to be done by those creating the work. But this needn’t exclude the gamers; they represent some of the most invested connoisseurs of any form of entertainment or art. As such, if we are to truly work towards the construction of a working theory of gaming and gameplay, it should rightly include those playing the games. This involves a new level of responsibility from the gaming community. One that I contend will be worth it.
Building a theory requires the invention of a new form of vocabulary, and—one could say from the example of music theory—an entirely new language. This demands a different approach to the discussion of gaming. While there’s more to say directly on the matter of discourse and dialogue in the gaming community, I will state here that I feel that gamers need to collectively reach a higher consciousness in how we discuss games. And it is fair to say, in my experience, that this is a part of the natural evolution of gaming as an art; this implies that we need not force it, but we should embrace more of it and become more aware of it.
We are seeing a progressive evolution in the artistic abilities of gaming—especially within the last couple of generations. This is something that we need to take serious note of in order to become an integral component in its advancement. This will lead not only to more amazing experiences in gaming but also the cultural recognition and respect of video games as art. The developers owe it to themselves as the artists to begin progressing towards a working and established theory of gameplay. And it is the gamers who are the mavens of gaming to become a part of the growing discourse centered on gaming as an art.