Resonance

Okami

There’s been a fundamental change in the way we talk about videogames. Mechanical and graphical discussions have been ever-present since the medium’s inception, but lately they’re taking a backseat to discussions about deeper themes, undercurrents that go beyond a game’s scripted story. Players are willing to think about what games are saying implicitly.

That’s a really important change – we’re allowing games to flaunt their artistry.

We’re engaging with the content, asking ourselves if there’s something more being said. It’s not the game’s inherent qualities that have changed, but rather the audience’s willingness to connect with those qualities to pry out and explore deeper themes, to allow games to resonate with them. We like to think that games are advancing, and that one day they might be art, but the responsibility is on us to respect the stories they’re telling, and frame them within our cultural consciousness.

Proteus

Players are feeling this pull more strongly with the emergence of indie games that challenge the idea of what makes a game – and what makes a game interesting. Dear Esther and Proteus have sparked massive amounts of discussion about what games actually require to be considered games: For a long time, we were stuck on the idea that they need to be fun, that they need to provide mechanical challenge, but we’ve reached a point where games can just be a space to exist in and explore.

This shift has bled into the mainstream as well, with the Bioshock series spurring discussion on deeper themes in videogame stories and how they synergize with moment-to-moment gameplay. Though Bioshock Infinite arguably fails to develop many of its themes and never quite rationalizes its action with the overarching story, there remains the fact that players are actually beginning to take this seriously, that all of a sudden there has been a vast paradigm shift in the way we view videogames as a medium.

It’s not important in the sense that this will validate gaming to the world, as if that were even something which need be done. But it’s a large step towards videogames growing in diversity and scope, toward the medium branching out in unexpected ways. It’s a step toward having better conversations, toward enjoying games on another level of awareness.

Earthbound2Crop2

It was while reviewing Devil Summoner 2 that I was struck by the enormity of this shift. I couldn’t have connected with the game’s themes of player apathy and hopelessness if I didn’t recognize that the game was able to make such large statements. For a long time, I didn’t allow roleplaying games to make statements – they were basic stories about good conquering evil, and that was all.

My willingness to connect made the game meaningful. So it is with anything else that one might consider art, whether it’s created or found, man-made or natural. This willingness to engage with a work makes it artistic, not intrinsic quality alone.

All this is true not only of storytelling games, but mechanically focused ones as well. For my part I could never say that Super Mario Kart is pure craft, that there is no artistry inherent in its design. There’s so much nuance in every aspect of the game, so many meaningful interactions between every part, that it takes on a mystical quality.

MetalGearSolid3

Fans of the medium tend to argue in this way: It has music, is that not art? It has visual design, is that not art? So when they come together, is that not art? And I would say that no, those qualities are not art, they are the beginning. The moment when a work resonates, when it becomes something to someone, is the moment when art is created.

Perhaps a programmer felt this resonance as he labored over powerslide physics, or a visual designer felt it in the use of sprite-scaling to create three-dimensional worlds. Maybe the game never resonated until a child unboxed it and experienced it as a whole. Art is created in these moments of personal connection – and some players never feel that connection at all.

While a work is engaged with, while there are still eyes, it will always be in a constant state of art-and-not-art. Because art is situational, personal, and changing. We connect with art and, unless we abandon it, it grows with us all our lives.

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