The Future of Games as Art

Note: This is a work of satire, what follows is dense bullshit.

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Games are new. Film is over 100 years old now, literature has a 6000 year tradition, and games are a young upstart in comparison. To allow games to evolve we must look to what has come before it and understand the evolutions of those artistic mediums, or games will never be more than paintings on a cave wall, from an artistic standpoint.

Games as a storytelling medium are weak. Like black and white films, in the past technology has limited the storytelling potential of games with small text, midi sound effects, and limited storage space. In current years massive storage media has enabled us to put so much more into our games. We suddenly have the space for fully voice acted games, orchestrated soundtracks, impossible graphical fidelity, and finally games can inherit their narrative destiny.

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The evolution of games has always been an evolution in storytelling. Even the original games desperately tried to construct stories with the most limited forms of representation they had, through their manuals, their limited graphics, or reams of in-game text in a lot of DOS games. Every step forward in games has always been towards greater fidelity, greater understanding, and greater ability to instill meaning into our play, like films stepped forward with color, greater frame rates, clearer capture methods, sound, resolution, and in the modern age, the ability to integrate and fabricate digital effects on film. Games have similarly stepped up with higher resolution sprites, greater poly count, tessellation, normal mapping, alternate rendering methods, color grading, filters, and gained an ability to communicate more than they ever could before.

And yet, despite having come so far, so many games are mired in the past. We still use these genre terms like shooter, adventure, action, racing, and puzzle. Games like all other artistic media exist to influence us on a personal level, and dividing games up as we have is separating them from their possible emotional impact. We are too preoccupied with the nature of games to do things that we have only scratched the surface of what they can be as a storytelling medium. The biggest movers and shakers in that regard are ironically not the studios with the most monetary power, but the small independent studios who have nothing to lose and put their hearts and souls to bear for us.

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Regrettably, modern games are still mostly childlike and simple. We still have our Call of Duty, our Gears of War, our Mario, our Angry Birds. Most modern games are still telling stories about shooting things, punching things, or killing things, and we need to accept that games can be so much more than that. Humans are more than just the simple violent things we do. We form complex interpersonal relationships and find meaning in the way our lives progress. We have countless expressions of this in philosophy and world religions and this is reflected in the films we watch, the paintings we view, the music that resonates with us, and the books we explore. Games however are still caught up in this simple ideology of just meaningless action. Look at the way we divide up music, books, or films, like romantic, western, horror, opera, blues, drama, tragedy, punk, comedy. These all express ideas and emotions, concepts and aesthetics versus games that are obsessed with the actions within them rather than the way they affect us personally.

In a way, this is destiny. Even games like Call of Duty feel the need to include a barebones action film story with them, where before in games like doom or quake we were just tossed into levels and expected to make our way through them. If we were lucky, maybe it was some quest of revenge or saving a damsel in distress. The artistic and technological evolution of games has pressured even our most base games to make considerations for a fully formed story instead of merely a few lines and a single cutscene at the beginning and end forming some excuse plot barely pushing us forward.

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Games such as Limbo, Mass Effect, Ico, Spec Ops: The Line, Journey, Braid, and Heavy Rain have made great strides in storytelling in games, but for every measure their success, they still had to be bound to the abstractions and conventions of our era. Braid and Ico still had to present puzzles to lull the player into following and discovering the story. Heavy Rain still felt attached to the use of Quick Time Events to challenge the player. Mass Effect and Spec Ops both had to disguise themselves as shooters to get their story across to the audience. Fundamentally what we all want is for games to be accepted as an artistic medium, and to evolve into a means of telling us more sophisticated stories.

Games can have run times far longer than modern movies or TV shows in a completely seamless uninterrupted format. They combine every aspect of media we’ve ever had, sculpture, painting, music, cinema, and acting, they have the potential to be the most complete art form of all time, but to do that we must abandon the puerile shooting, reminiscent of mass media action movies, and tap into the core of human expression. With games we can more closely tap into human nature and understanding than ever before, that is the true art of games. Explosions and shooting will probably always dominate the mass market, but we must shed the idea that this is all games can be, because like films, paintings, books, and music, games have the distinct potential to tap into who we are.

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Roger Ebert and other critics have infamously lambasted games for not being art, and the debate over that continues to rage on in public forum and among experts, but I believe what you do, games absolutely can be art. They consist of everything that every artistic medium before them has. If all its constituent parts are artistic, the whole must be as well. Roger has never decided the fate of the galaxy aboard the Normandy, he’s never clubbed in Andrew Ryan’s head, he’s never nearly been executed by imperials, he’s never saluted at The Boss’s grave, he’s never been asked, “What is a man?”, he’s never seen his son, Jason, get run over in the street, he’s never seen Aeris killed before his eyes, he’s never received a kiss for rescuing the princess. We know the capability of games to deliver narratives. We know how artistic they are and how much greater potential lies in their future, we just need to believe it for ourselves, and show the whole world.

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