>Playing at Art

>With the flame-wars of whether video games are really art or not; over for several years (hopefully), we can perhaps move-on and look at methods to inject more artistic merit into videogames.

For those still unconvinced of its art status – the fact that videogames turnover as much money as film (appealing to your commercial side), an idle contemplation that society considers ceramics as art (appealing to your political side) and a casual play of Half Life, Psychonauts, Silent Hill, Bioshock, Grim Fandango, Myst, Okami, Impossible Creatures, Electroplankton, Heavy Rain and/or their sequels (appealing to your –well – artistic side) may cause you to reconsider.

Is art in video games desirable though? Well aside from the altruistic vision of it helping shift millions of young, single men out of darkened bedrooms and engaging in senses, emotions and the range of human experience (maybe even with girls); there is a commercial imperative. Many popular video games are simply too task-orientated (even Stakovian) and realistic to have much of a chance to hold artistic integrity e.g. Call of Duty, Splinter Cell, Total War series etc. Realism is still impressive in a video game but barely. In less than ten years – photo-realism will surely make real scenes/characters broadly indistinguishable from gaming ones. There will need to be new qualifiers of what makes a game interesting and different to others (in addition to playability of course).

Old games were weirder and more abstract due to technical necessity but the whole market was also less commercial. Individuals could straddle both coding and creative chasms and their vision alone (much akin to a film director) could carry a game along most of the development life cycle; creating crazy, organic, beautiful, engaging worlds that stay with you. As a result, old games were more – artistic. Indie gaming still largely works like this but the big names will need to blend production values with indie approaches to compete; that or at least – chillax and get their freak on.

If an indie gamer can produce a free online video game that has a goal, consistent art direction, makes a clear existential point and puts a smile on your face – in less than a week, what can a Duke Nukem Forever–esque development life-cycle and budget do?

Here are some practicable suggestions for making mainstream video games more artistic right now:

1) Reuse existing world concepts. There is very little truly new in art. Almost every piece of art could be argued to be (at least in part) a rehash of a previous piece. This is fine. One of the key reasons why people visit art galleries is because they also like history; they want to associate the lineage of ideas over time. They want to learn something new as well as simply see something new. Homage is rife in cinema and is completely relevant. This relevancy, together with fusion, synergy, consistency and challenging people with the vernacular of the time is more important than a (probably futile) attempt to come-up with something that no-one in history has ever considered before. Portal looks to be influenced by 2001, the indie game above looks to be influenced by French New Wave (which in turn was influenced by Film Noir); there are other examples. Instead of another dystopian sci-fi setting why not (re)create ancient Alexandria in 3D; including the Pharos Lighthouse and library then overlay it with modern graffiti/technology to create a hybrid/alternate world that – although new will also appeal to historians/art-lovers and gamers alike. There are plenty of street maps for ancient Alexandria on the web and no-one has ever created an FPS virtual world of it before. The whole thing could be rendered in a Banksy/Frank Auerbach style (linked through the natural monochrome ethic of the artists). There are a host of mathematical/astronomical and philosophical precedents in that location to hook an emergent storyline into. It would be new. It would be art.

2) Be creative around the medium. There is much more scope in terms of the medium for creativity than there is in building your gaming world. This is because a good deal of the infrastructure surrounding gaming hardware e.g. webcams, email, broadband, downloadable content, mobile, 3D, touch-screen, GPS, micro-payment, IM, photo-realistic graphics, accelerometers, tweets has only been in widespread use for a dozen or so years. Some games have attempted to capitalize here e.g. Little Big Planet uses the PS3 Eye camera for level design and Grand Turismo will purportedly use it for head-tracking. There was a point-and-click game from a few years back that sent actual emails from game characters to allow the plot to enfold in real-time. These games are a fraction of the market though. Nintendo have led the way here for the last few years but there is so much more creative scope; there is barely any integration between Wii and DS consoles for example.
3) Decorate the corridor at least. There is a staple in FPS video games levels of – the corridor. There is no real issue is using this device but surely they were born to show-off graffiti, framed prints/paintings or imaginative entrances/exits etc? Graffiti in particular is easy to incorporate. There is a certain motivation associated with it that perhaps many designers will not have also they are maybe weary of reproducing existing graffiti due to perceived copyright reasons but – take it. If later some street artist complains that you are infringing their copyright – pay them. The designer will always have the fact that graffiti in public spaces is illegal on their side (unless the Government has set-up a “graffiti wall”). Anyway, it is a better way of commercializing and improving graffiti quality (Biasquiat-izing it!) than the naive suggestion of sticking QR codes (linking to a site to allow prints to be purchased) onto graffiti.

4) Increase cooperative options. With the notable exception of the impressive Left4Dead series, cooperative games have declined in popularity. Gauntlet was once the most popular game in the arcades. Games designers have chiefly concerned themselves with death matches and single player experiences for the last twenty years. Yes – MMORPGs and social gaming e.g. WOW/Everquest/Mafia Wars and others have become popular over the same time but they are very – trading, chatting, building and/or fighting focused. Also the esteem these games afford Goblins and suchlike is arguably derivative and therefore not creative/art. It is tough to find cooperative PS3, Xbox or PC games. Cooperation, in theory, creates participation, unscripted interaction and a more open/fun approach. Removing (or sharing) competitive imperative should allow more focus on the environment and contemplating why we are there; mainstream artistic drivers.
5) Kill the main character. The concept of video game character was invented effectively as a vehicle to get around technical limitations e.g. “you are a bat trying to stop a ball (due to monochrome/block video output) in Pong”, “you are a Brooklyn-based plumber (due to sprite colour/pixel restrictions) in Super Mario Bros”, “you are a space soldier (due to all the corridors we plan to make you run around) in Doom”. Take this away and you remove the back story (an element of the art component certainly) but gaming back stories are invariably dull, childish or an afterthought anyway. You have the best back story – your own life to date. Video games that play off this, allowing you as much free-range as possible will create more possibilities for expression and that means more art.
6) Design for glitches. There is a sizeable sub-set of the video gaming community that seeks out glitches (Google “video game glitches” and get 11M+ hits). Glitches are well publicized and repeated when they are found. Ones that create hidden or bonus worlds (perhaps because you have been able to jump beyond a wall that the designer did not intend) are particularly popular. The downsides – screen freezes, save game corruption, lengthy waits should be minimized by creating a wrapper that the game runs in and (in real-time) elegantly returns the user to the game world. Glitches (basically software bugs) are always going to happen but unlike commercial software development, they create something new, something imperfect, something challenging/exciting, something able to be contemplated, explored and potentially even resolved; something very much like – art. The glitch as art is not limited to video games and is even becoming a form in its own right.
7) Allow objects to be uploaded (or at least changed) and persisted. This all adds to creating a richer world which others can incrementally build upon (see 1 above). Over time, we will then have something recognisably – newish affecting the game itself (new adventures, cultural touch-points or just new graphics). Farmville allows for simple pointillist graphics to be persisted by planting crops and Second Life supports complex scripting to allow anything to be built as a 3D model/photoshopped and uploaded. Some median between the two of these is probably appropriate for mainstream video games.

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