Going the Distance

In my orig­i­nal Additional Pylons, I intro­duced the idea of dis­tance. I haven’t stopped refin­ing my under­stand­ing of the con­cept since then, and so today I’m going to share some of my thoughts regard­ing its ram­i­fi­ca­tions and inves­ti­gate some incred­i­ble artis­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties that gam­ing’s nat­u­ral­ly low level of dis­tance opens up.

To that end, I am going to begin by iden­ti­fy­ing an impor­tant func­tion of art that is often simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a sig­ni­fi­er of qual­i­ty art: the cri­tique of struc­tures and styles of thought, and the offer­ing of a fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. I am going to stand on the back of Jarrod’s post on art way back when, as well; read it if you haven’t already, because it is quite good, and I see no rea­son to trek back over the path that he’s already laid down.

Art That Burns Down Your House

Art is a slip­pery thing, and its traits are noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult to define, but what I have to say here should­n’t be too con­tro­ver­sial. I sug­gest that most fan­tas­tic art caus­es us to revise our knowl­edge of the world, as opposed to just telling us what we already know. In other words, good art is rev­e­la­to­ry, if not to us then rec­og­niz­ably rev­e­la­to­ry to an other. Art tends to smudge con­tem­po­rary bound­aries, and art often plays a part in the re-drawing of bound­ary lines. Dickens chal­lenged aspects of indus­tri­al London’s social struc­ture; Van Gogh paint­ed a world of such vibran­cy that changed the way we view star­ry nights; any poet worth any­thing offers star­tling insights about the nature of an expe­ri­ence, draw­ing con­nec­tions so per­fect and sub­tle that we can’t help but see and feel dif­fer­ent­ly about his or her sub­ject.

An artist, and an artist’s work, must often destroy some­thing in order to offer a new view, or the expe­ri­ence, when it becomes art, must involve a revi­sion of one’s per­spec­tive. The “vic­tim” can be as sim­ple as genre con­ven­tion, or as com­plex as a mas­sive social and cul­tur­al assump­tion about the state of the world, but gen­er­al­ly speak­ing good art will crack a view­er’s under­stand­ing of the world, even if just a lit­tle and just to make space for some new, minor insight. Good art changes the way we view the world.

A piece of art need not engage with social issues or time­less human strug­gles in order to reveal. A great deal of poet­ry does just fine by exam­in­ing a sin­gle, intense expe­ri­ence. In fact, the video game medi­um, like poet­ry, is unique­ly capa­ble of ren­der­ing intense indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. Where video games most clear­ly diverge from poet­ry is in “read­er agency,” and in ideal length. Poetry shares insight; the author takes the read­er by the hand and inves­ti­gates a sin­gle (or small series) of thoughts and images, but it is ulti­mate­ly one, pre-determined path. The read­er does not have agency, even though the read­er’s expe­ri­ence of the poem will be unique. Video games (as they exist now, due to both indus­try and styl­is­tic expec­ta­tions) are more suit­ed for length­i­er inves­ti­ga­tions of broad expe­ri­ence, sim­i­lar to what one would find in a novel, and yet the focus on a sin­gle avatar char­ac­ter resem­bles the merg­ing of “author” and “read­er” that occurs in poet­ry. This is par­tial­ly because agency has a lot of impor­tance in sto­ries that fea­ture char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, and giv­ing that agency to the play­er can be an incred­i­bly pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence.

However, as I noted before, not all games have such lofty aspi­ra­tions, and they don’t need to. For instance, the inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence found in Guitar Hero is enough to make the play­er feel a lit­tle bit like a rock god; its a huge por­tion of the game’s appeal, dis­cov­er­ing that you’ve got bits of Clapton or Hendrix in you, then caper­ing about and show­ing off in front of friends. Guitar Hero offers lit­tle nar­ra­tive trap­pings; any nar­ra­tive is most­ly pro­vid­ed by the play­er, or by the social con­text in which the game is being played. But what is there is enough to place the play­er in the shoes of a gui­tar play­er on stage. Is it enough to spur a revi­sion of per­spec­tive? I sus­pect yes for some, no for oth­ers. Art isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly uni­ver­sal.

World-view and Art

To focus this dis­cus­sion a lit­tle more close­ly on the sub­ject of video games, it is worth address­ing what makes video game art dif­fer­ent from any other form of art. The cur­rent state of video games means that the tar­get demo­graph­ic are young American or Japanese indi­vid­u­als (most­ly American males on our side of things; I don’t know near­ly enough about the Japanese mar­ket to make any state­ments on their demo), at least for the sort of high-profile, A‑list games, which, inci­den­tal­ly, is where most of the devel­op­ment dol­lars for push­ing the bound­aries of the medi­um are like­ly to be found. This is not to say that star­tling games-as-art won’t be found else­where; in fact, one could make an argu­ment for cer­tain Indie games as some of the most influ­en­tial and star­tling exam­ples of games-as-art in the last few years, but gen­er­al­ly speak­ing those games have bud­getary lim­its that form an insur­mount­able wall in cer­tain areas of devel­op­ment.

What this means is that the most high-profile games that have the most poten­tial of reach­ing the sta­tus of being good art are also intend­ed to be appeal­ing to the young American male demo­graph­ic (so they can sell, so the game pub­lish­er gets a good return on their huge invest­ment), and the pri­or­i­ties of those pur­suits are some­times mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. This means that cer­tain risks are down-right dan­ger­ous for pub­lish­ers, and that cer­tain per­spec­tives and tropes with­in game gen­res become vir­tu­al­ly uni­ver­sal.

This can be prob­lem­at­ic for video games, since pre­sent­ing the same per­spec­tive over and over again can get stale, and can thus ham­per the qual­i­ty of the over­all expe­ri­ence a game can offer. Here’s an exam­ple: When was the last time you encoun­tered a first-person shoot­er that does­n’t place you in the shoes of an American or an American ally? Now, most FPS games are made in America (I will just ride on the coat-tails of Extra Credits here), so there’s good rea­son why game devel­op­ers make their pro­tag­o­nists fit that mold. But pre­sent­ing the pro­to­typ­i­cal everyman/hot-blooded-American tough guy with a heart of gold/granite with­out fail means that the expe­ri­ence has become a lit­tle stale.

I’d like you to play a quick game of pre­tend with me, so bear with me and with­hold judg­ment. The American FPS pro­tag­o­nist is a tried-and-true model, so let’s do our best to invert it; what if an FPS had you play as an insur­rec­tion­ist fight­ing the American or pseudo-American forces? This could make for some inter­est­ing art. Imagine intense scenes of war­fare, punc­tu­at­ed with the ills that a large occu­py­ing force nat­u­ral­ly gen­er­ates. Homefront made an attempt at work­ing in sim­i­lar themes, and I have no idea how suc­cess­ful they were, but I think we can all agree that it’s a lit­tle strange that the insur­rec­tion­ists in their story are Americans.

Let’s take this one step fur­ther: what if an FPS fea­tured an honest-to-god Muslim insur­rec­tion­ist? What if the game tried its best to real­is­ti­cal­ly por­tray the effect of an American occu­pa­tion on Iraq? I’m going to ignore the fact that a polit­i­cal storm straight out of hell would con­sume this project and, in all prob­a­bil­i­ty, result in actu­al vio­lence, and focus only on the “game” here; the real­i­ty of the mar­ket and the soci­ety isn’t exact­ly what I’m focus­ing on here, though it is impor­tant to the dis­cus­sion. Such a game need not take sides, nor actu­al­ly sup­port vio­lence, but rather seek to human­ize inno­cents and the “enemy” side of the con­flict. The impor­tant part of such a game would be to recast cer­tain arche­types and char­ac­ters, caus­ing us to con­sid­er the assump­tions we have about such char­ac­ters, and thus about such peo­ple, even if our con­clu­sions are the same. That’s what good nar­ra­tive art does. Of course, this is an extreme exam­ple, and there’s a great spec­trum of other expe­ri­ences the play­er can have between the Terrorist game and the FPS games of today.

A game need not even be a first-party title or have a high bud­get to encour­age this recon­sid­er­a­tion (though it can cer­tain­ly help). The game Spent is a phe­nom­e­nal exam­ple of a sim­ple game that pro­duces empa­thy and under­stand­ing of a life that is some­what alien to most middle-class Americans. Regardless of soci­o­log­i­cal out­comes, such a game reveals a dif­fer­ent sort of life to the play­er, and that alone can make it a wor­thy expe­ri­ence.

On a side note that is par­tial­ly relat­ed, one issue that video games rarely (never?) tack­le is reli­gion, or if they do it is through a sur­ro­gate, non-existent faith. It’s a strange deci­sion, espe­cial­ly since a char­ac­ter’s nation­al­i­ty is hard­ly ever up for debate and in some cases actu­al­ly implies faith. For instance, it is a fact that every con­flict in the Middle East right now, and every con­flict por­trayed in games, has reli­gious over-tones, but games have failed to engage with it, prob­a­bly because it is a risky endeav­or. I under­stand, but would also note that some risks are worth tak­ing.

In Conclusion

I have just scratched the sur­face of inves­ti­gat­ing how the rev­e­la­to­ry power of art dif­fers or is the same in video games. I’d love to hear your opin­ions on what I have writ­ten here (and I’m sure you’ve got some, some of it’s a lit­tle volatile), and am espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in fur­ther sug­ges­tions along the same lines. What big themes do you think are absent in video games today, and what themes are well-represented? Why do you think that is?

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/