It’s been a turbulent few years for the whole Games as Art debate. Roger Ebert votes against them. Jason Rohrer blows us away again and again. People are obsessed with finding the Citizen Kane of games, and they’re looking in the most bizarre places.
Grab the nearest game box and flip it over. There’s a good chance you’re looking at a list of features, components of the overall experience. You’ll find similar lists in game profiles on services like Steam. These bullet points are PR/Marketing speak, bred in press release brainstorm sessions and slapped on the packaging to help potential customers make an “educated” decision.
In their attempts to influence the customer, publishers are reducing games to mere buzzwords. The Games as Art debate is simultaneously frustrating and tiresome, but this type of marketing is easy fodder for Ebert-sympathizers. Also, depending on the content divulged, bullet points can tip a developer’s hand and reveal key wrinkles in gameplay that have otherwise surprised the player. Why are so many companies willing to spoil the experience right on the back of the box?
Proponents of games as an artistic medium often invoke Valve’s Half-Life 2. Starting with the first Half-Life, Valve revolutionized first-person storytelling by completely doing away with cinematic cut-scenes. The player sees everything that protagonist Gordon Freeman sees. He never loses control of Gordon unless an enemy has somehow immobilized him. By combining this style of storytelling with rock-solid gameplay and a world rich with mystery and lore, Valve created a game (Half-Life 2) that can still feel groundbreaking even five years after its release.
However, the packaging (see right) for Half-Life 2 does everything it can to articulate the game’s magic to a perspective customer and, in so doing, completely dumbs it down. Just look at the preposterous bullet points. “Digital Actors.” “Advanced AI.” “Stunning Graphics.” “Physical Gameplay.” It’s not necessarily Valve’s fault that this is how they have to market such a landmark game. It’s endemic of the industry, but simply pointing out the craft that went into Half-Life 2 does nothing to capture the immersive story. Give me a plot teaser, for pete’s sake. A peculiarly combat-proficient scientist returns after a mysterious twenty-year absence to help reclaim Earth from alien oppressors. That sounds interesting to me. Maybe mention a few of the characters, which should give you a chance to name drop voice actors like Robert Guillaume. This box is pretty conservative in what it reveals, actually. The packaging for the Xbox version actually shows a picture of the Gravity Gun, which is sort of a spoiler, if you ask me.
Half-Life 2’s marketing fails by focusing on how the game works instead of what it is. On the flipside, check out the box art for Shadow of the Colossus, another entry in Games as Art canon. While Shadow of the Colossus is notable for its sparse narrative and surprising amounts of pathos, it definitely contains a lot of gameplay. The player must help the protagonist slay a series of giant beasts in hopes of appeasing a mysterious entity who, maybe, will revive his (the protagonist’s) fallen girlfriend. He must search out, climb, and ultimately stab the hell out of these things. But you wouldn’t know the mechanics of that from the box. It looks like a movie trailer. It’s even got a fantastic tagline: “Some mountains are scaled. Others are slain.” The publishers could’ve easily broken the game down into its composite parts:
- Ride across barren, lonesome landscapes on your horse, Agro
- Climb and slay 16 massive Colossi
- Use your sword, bow, and wits to solve puzzles and best enemies
- Breathtaking vistas and soaring music provide a cinematic gameplay experience
While none of these statements are false (though the language of the last is me being a tad satirical), they certainly don’t capture the mood of the game like the actual box art does. Billing Shadow of the Colossus like the cohesive experience it is, sans gameplay-revealing bullet points, respects the integrity of a game trying to deliver more than just a good time.
And isn’t that the goal of some of these titles? To deliver more than just “a good time”? Isn’t that the point of the whole Games as Art debate? Unfortunately, games are a medium born out of the computer entertainment business, which had no Artistic ambitions when it got started. And games are primarily concerned with things the audience does, not sees or hears like movies, books, and music are. So of course marketing will be concerned with things the player can literally do. But it’s just pathetic that such a subversive game like BioShock gets packaging that calls it “The Genetically Enhanced Shooter” and says nothing about the Underwater Dystopia of Rapture or the title’s exploration of Choice. There’s more to BioShock than being able to shoot bees out of our arms.
Conflicts between artistic and commercial interests are neither new nor unique to gaming. However, if developers truly want to strive for that mainstream artistic breakthrough, they’ll need their publishers to do away with reductive bullet points and learn how to sell the game without selling it short.