7 July 2010

Why Videogames Are Not Art

or, How Mass Effect 2 Ruined the Mood

I was finally finishing Mass Effect 2 (caution, thar be slight spoilers here!). I'd done all the loyalty missions. I'd upgraded my ship, flew through the relay thingy, fought a bunch of weird bio-mechanical dudes. I killed the last big baddie. I'd saved my crew. Hell, I'd saved the entire damn galaxy - humans, Turians, Solarians, Quarians, Geth, Asari, even those funny little guys with the breathing problem that kept calling me "Earth-clan". It was all very dramatic - intense, and fulfilling, and (more to the point of this post) cinematic.
As the last big foozle explodes, stuff starts falling all around. Again, a very tense, tightly directed sequence that is the payoff for thirty-ish hours I invested in the game. As my party and I are running for our ship, a slab of something from the baddie's ship falls on Shepard and knocks him down. Shepard gets up....

...and his backpack clips right through the huge slab of alien masonry.

Oh, videogames! How much money was spent on that final sequence? How many man-hours and blood and sweat and tears by extremely talented people? How much of myself was invested in that final scene? (Too damn much, for this to make me react the way that I am) And, sure enough, videogames show that, once again, they are videogames.

Provocative title aside, what is my point? My point is really that video games have a long long long way to go before they can be considered as being able to deliver complete emotional experiences. Videogames as a medium are at the point where, for a small sliver of time, they can be provocative, terror-inducing, funny, tender, capable of inducing a panoply of emotions. The problem is that this is only for a tiny sliver of time; then, it's back to the grindy, videogamey foundation. It's not that videogames are not capable of creating an emotional response, it is that they cannot sustain it for any length of time.

Think of a game, any game, where you've had an emotional response. Think about how long you were actually responding. Then think about something that happened shortly thereafter that "took you out of the moment". I could have been a technical glitch or an achievement pop-up (dammit, don't show those when they would be off-putting in the game to show!). It could have been some ham-fisted story-telling, incongruous dialog or action by an NPC. It could have been something else. But I am pretty certain that something happened that killed the emotion you were feeling. You may have gone on and had fun with the rest of the game, but something important died then. Something important about our shared hobby and us as people.

"It's just a game!" I hear you saying, oh hypothetical reader. "Who cares?" And you have a valid point. It is just a game, something we do for fun and entertainment. But we also watch film and read books and listen to music for the same purpose. We would not tolerate something like this in those media; it would be decried as being "bad". Poor dialog, for instance, in a book or film makes for a bad book or film, not a great one.

Why should we give videogames a free pass on this? Mass effect 2 was a really well written, well directed game; I don't think anyone would hold it up as being "bad". On the contrary, one could successfully argue that Mass Effect 2 much much closer to the pinnacle of videogames story-telling and "cinematic" experiences than the nadir. So we are not talking about a "bad" game here by any means. Which I think proves the point about why videogames are so far from being able to carry an emotional response for any length of time - if a really good game works less well in this regard than a poor piece of music or a novel, that's a problem with videogames as a medium. The fact that it works well sometimes, for small instances of time, just makes the "videogaminess" of it all stand out in contrast that much more.

What gamers accept as being "just a game" would not be tolerated in the worst Uwe Boll claptrap. Games have the ability and the promise to be so much more than they are, but we settle for so much less. And that's sad.

1 comment:

Duoae said...

Awesome! Congrats on the first article!

I agree mostly.... for me the problem with most emotional investments in single player games is that rarely is your effectiveness on the game world variable. No matter if you play a game like ME2 for 10 or 30 hours you can still win....

The saying goes, "time waits for no man", and quite often in art there is a portion of this philosophy in the piece whether it be a person pushed to fight for their (or someone else's) life, a painting that requires much thought and study to comprehend or music that rushes to its inevitable end - a cacophony of ideas and emotions that are transient but repeatable enough that you can get your head around them.

In games you don't always have this and in the one aspect of games were the interactivity and immediateness of the medium could be at the fore of art (i.e. multiple paths, meanings and endings) it is rarely exploited.