Video games as art, Part II: Gamers aren’t Michael Chabon

(See also: Prelude and Parts I, III, and IV)

There’s a good discussion going on over at GameSetWatch about my post yesterday on the auteur problem and a related recent post. I’m not going to reproduce it all here, but it’s definitely worth checking out. I want to continue the discussion and try to respond a little more clearly here. My two posts, though related, are about two different issues.

Whose narrative is it, anyway?

The first issue is Roger Ebert’s contention that the structure of video games — the inherent reliance on player choices — “is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.” Many of the initial responses to his comments, and the comments to my post at GSW, take issue with his seeming dismissal of player control. John Beeler writes:

that video games are _games_ makes it an experience that is dictated by the player as much as the creator. Even in highly controlled linear narratives, like rail games or racing games, the player still has a choice: she can sit there while cars pass by (and lose), or she can participate. Both are, technically, playing the game. But I can’t put a book down and still be reading a book, or walk away from a movie and still be watching it. When it comes to film and books, there is no narrative save that which is generated by the creators.

Kieron Gillen sounds a similar note:

In games, the authorial control is in the bounds of the simulation the game creator has chosen to invent – the matrix of choices and expressions available to the player and the responses they want to create in the gamer with them. It’s obviously not the same sort of authorial control as film, but to argue that it isn’t is bizarre, strange and doesn’t engage with the form.

There’s no question that video game players are creating their own narratives and experiences and making their own meanings out of the games they play. Sometimes this is subtle, like Beeler’s example of racing games, and sometimes it’s explicit, as in massive online games where players do literally make up their own stories and personalities.

This is fundamentally different from movies, books, TV, etc. And Ebert’s point, which I largely agree with, is that giving players such influence dilutes an author’s control so much that, at this point, it’s barely there in terms of story. As I say in my original post,

if you have a story to tell, why would you want to dilute it by making it into a video game where each interaction changes the story you want to tell? That’s what authorial control is: Setting the pace of the story, the speed and manner in which information gets to the reader to move the narrative forward and fill out the dramatic arc; discovering things about the characters while writing the work and incorporating that into the story; not letting the narrative get caught up on conversation asides or thematic tangents.

This isn’t to say, as Gillen says I do, that video games lack any kind of authorial control. What I argue in the post is that the matrix of choices and expressions available to the player is at this point so limited and cliched that few games rise above the level of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Those books also give players choices, but sacrifice any kind of depth. This is where most video games are right now.

Beeler pretty much agrees with this regarding games that ostensibly have a story, but argues that sandbox games aka god games are different: “Players become producers of the narrative, as much as the game’s designers were. (I’m not saying this attribute makes games better than film/books, just radically different.)”

This is the fundamental reason why games are so appealing: you “watch” a movie, but you “play” a game (leave aside for a moment that we aren’t passive movie watchers; we all respond to and create our own meanings and experiences from them). Beeler gives a wonderful example of playing Battlefield 1942 with friends:

My third friend, Wally, had just spawned nearby, but John and I were already running to a plane. As the two of us jumped into the plane, not knowing Wally is running to catch up, lag in our video chat delayed Wally’s, “Hey guys wait for me!” until the prop had already started off. In the gunner position facing backward, I watched as our plane slowly left the runaway, and Wally instinctively executed on short jump, as if to say, “Hey guys..what…about..me.” It was not a Wells moment, but it was certainly as good as any Hitchcockian-The-Problem-With-Harry-humor moment. We produced a narrative…”

Video games, especially multiplayer games, are filled with moments like these. For one thing, this just shows that sandbox game creators are masters of game design to allow these moments to happen. But for another, real life is filled with moments like that.

We create our own narratives all the time. (Beeler brings up highways to say that highway designers are trying to tell stories; my brother wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Capital Beltway in Washington, and a big part of it is Beltway riders’ memories and reflections — that is, the personal stories they created about the Beltway.) What an Orson Welles or Michael Chabon gives us are stories that we can’t tell ourselves, because we don’t have the skills or knowledge or talents or time. That’s what author-controlled art is about.

As meaningful as player-created experiences in sandbox games may be, they’re still as bound by our own limits as any real-life-created experiences are. If I could tell stories as well as James L. Brooks or Kurt Busiek I would. Since I can’t, I’m going to watch their movies and shows and read their comics. A sandbox game can’t give me that experience.

Clearly, sandbox games aren’t supposed to give you that author-driven narrative experience. That’s why I say they’re masterpieces of game design, the same way the Settlers of Catan is. Should that be enough? I don’t know. Settlers (well, the Cities and Knights of Catan really) is an amazing board game. It’s not Pulp Fiction. I think the catch is, video games are presented and viewed as more than Settlers of Catan.

How about some variety in our game gods?

The second issue is much clearer. When it comes to video games as art, the discussion inevitably turns to Will Wright, Sid Meier, Shigeru Miyamoto et al. The constant referencing of these guys is bad because the video game greats are great primarily at one thing: game design (and, in Miyamoto’s case, caricature). This is nothing to scoff at. But there should be more to great games than great design — or rather, there should be more games that are great for other reasons.

Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, to use two examples I mentioned before, haven’t made any great movies. But their unique visual senses have shown new possibilities for movies and influenced much of what came after them. I think Alan Moore and Frank Miller are overrated, but they have brought new ideas and possibilities to the art and writing of comic books.

By all means, let’s celebrate the gaming greats. What we need is gaming gods who are great at different things.

— January 11, 2006

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