Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Trouble With Games As Art

Proposition: Games are art.

If you laughed, don’t worry: you aren’t alone. You can’t apply the word ‘art’ to games like Halo: ODST –not that it’s bad, you say. It just isn’t art.

When we started Charge Shot!!! a year ago, we began with the assumption that games were art. Games are capable of possessing the highest forms of aesthetic beauty, narrative prowess, philosophical complexity – and hurling them headlong into the messy cause/effect matrix of human input. The artful game would be a masterpiece of ingenuity, the pinnacle creation of a roomful of talents.

It’s not like I’m waiting for the messiah. These games exist. Hell, Jason Roher did it with Passage, and he didn’t need a roomful of anything but a laptop.

But the problem with positing games as art is that Passage happens so seldom. It ends up being a small bell sounded at the end of a very long, very noisy hallway.

If my argument veers off into some luddite, techno-anarchist rant, bear with me. I’m not condemning money, the freedom to make money or the benefits afforded to a design studio by big, huge piles of money. I’m just saying it should have less to do with the way we make games.

If the games-as-art doubter looks at Halo: ODST and wonders how a series can survive nearly a decade and remain essentially unchanged, the answer is simple: don’t mess with success. When Halo launched in 2001, it singlehandedly established the Xbox as a must-have gaming system, riveting Microsoft into the pantheon of console developers – without Halo, their cumbersome, overheating and underperforming systems might have fallen off the radar.

Halo has since become Microsoft’s prize pony. They’ve said so: much money depends upon the success of the next Halo game. The developers at Bungie haven’t complained about any creative shackles, and why should they? Their games are well-reviewed, well-received and played for years. They’re good games, and they make their proud papas tons of cash. But they’re allergic to change. They fear risk. ODST veered slightly off the beaten path with a few (ultimately minor) gameplay changes, and Bungie couldn’t move fast enough to reassure gamers that it was a fluke, a one-time experiment.

I’d like to put the Halo franchise in the hands of developers like Gearbox, a left-of-center studio whose latest title, Borderlands, skirted a line between fun and sociopathy. They could give Halo the revision it needs to become relevant once more – relevant, that is, to anything besides Microsoft’s profit margins.

Not every designer needs to be like Jason Roher, who literally lives in a meadow and is as much Henry David Thoreau as Shigeru Miyamoto. In fact, studios like Valve and Bioware are ludicrously successful, garnering critical acclaim, industry cred and Olympic-sized swimming pools of money (After Half Life, Valve hocho Gabe Newell bought a yacht. That was 2000). But their games don’t feel commercial in the same way Halo does. Valve’s Half Life 2 bears only slight resemblance in tone, form and character to Half Life. Bioware decided to blend a third-person shooter with dice-roll RPG, and while Mass Effect was successful, it was a gamble – gamers could have just as easily rejected it.

Ultimately, competence is a poor metric for noble intentions. After all, the people at Valve and Bioware are some of the best in the industry, and I can’t pass off their talents as the product of some manic, zealous drive to create a great game for the sake of creating it. They, like anyone else, probably wanted to make a big, sweaty wad of money. But if a drive for profit exists, it isn’t evident in their games.

When I play Half Life 2, I see an urgent, passionate desire to create a work of art. I think they pulled it off – some don’t, and that’s fine. These days, can really distinguish one space marine from another? But if Half Life 2’s torturous development has anything to say, Valve wanted to make something transcendent. They tore down what didn’t work, even if it meant rebuilding from scratch. They delayed. They undoubtedly frustrated stockholders. Then they delayed again. Their publisher started asking hard questions. And they remained delayed. When Half Life 2 dropped in November 2004, it had been six years since the release of Half Life. Valve took their time. The work came first.

How starkly the stands in contrast to the Call of Duty franchise, which faithfully pumps out a title every year. In order to keep the schedule rolling, publisher Activision gives prize-pony developer Infinity Ward a break every other year; Treyarch, the fluff girl, gets the odd-numbered games.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a fantastic game, no argument. But for all its craft, Modern Warfare 2 feels cold beneath the skin. It was a creature created by commercial, not artistic, need. In this case, success indeed illustrates my point – Modern Warfare 2 made activation $1 billion. The game was released a little more than three months ago. If Infinity Ward asked for another year to take the franchise in a new direction, do you think Activision would have said “Absolutely, guys, go make a work of art”?

Maybe I’m cynical. And when it comes to what goes on inside Activision CEO Bobby Kotick’s mind, I’m definitely uninformed. But so long as the dollar has sole authority over the creation of a game, art might just be out of the question. At the very least, the games-as-art naysayers will continue to hold the high ground.