Monday, January 23, 2012

The Medium Doesn't Excuse The Message

I don't find the arguments that games are not art at all credible, but this isn't because there are a lot of artistically successful games, but because art is broad and inclusive. I grew up with teachers and spent a good deal of time with art and music teachers as a youth. Art, to them, is not just stuff that sits in museums while we talk about it with our pinkie extended, though those may be extremely important works of art. Art is the conveyance of emotion from artist to audience, and the provocation of thought and reflection, and anyone in the world can and everyone in the world should be an artist at various times in their life. The growling death metal band and the experimental dance troupe are all artists. The guy struggling with how to propose marriage is an artist. If toys are works of art, and anyone who has seen a child play with a toy will readily admit they are, then games must be too. Once we reach that conclusion, we have a basis on which to critique games as art. My own particular area of interest is in critiquing story elements of games.

All Stories Serve Two Masters

Often when people critique the story in games, they preface the remark with some variation of the apologia “Of course, the story in Halo has two masters - it has to serve the game, as well!”  But this overlooks the importance of medium to all stories, however situated.  A well-made radio drama will use restrictions and strengths of radio drama to tell a compelling story, as will a film, a series of brick-thick novels, or a feller sitting around a campfire.  Each of these media has different advantages and disadvantages, different strengths and weaknesses.  Les Misérables, Victor Hugo's classic, is an excellent example. Consider this passage from "Cosette":
"On a fine May morning last year (1861) a wayfarer, the person who is telling this story, was coming from Nivelles, and was proceeding toward La Hulpe. He was on foot and following, between two rows of trees, a wide paved road which undulates over a constant succession of hills, that raise the road and let it fall again, and form, as it were, enormous waves. He had passed Lillois and Bois-Seigneur Isaac, and noticed in the west the slate-covered steeple of Braine l'Alleud, which looks like an overturned vase. He had just left behind him a wood upon a hill, and at the angle of a cross-road, by the side of a sort of worm-eaten gallows which bore the inscription, "Old barrier, No. 4," a wine-shop, having on its front the following notice: "The Four Winds, Echabeau, private coffee-house."
     About half a mile beyond this pot-house, he reached a small valley, in which there is a stream that runs through an arch formed in the causeway. The clump of trees, wide-spread but very green, which fills the valley on one side of the road, is scattered on the other over the fields, and runs gracefully and capriciously toward Braine l'Alleud. On the right, and skirting the road, were an inn, a four-wheeled cart in front of the door, a large bundle of hop-poles, a plough, a pile of dry shrubs near a quick-set hedge, lime smoking in' a square hole, and a ladder lying along an old shed with straw partitions. A girl was hoeing in a field, where a large yellow bill — probably of a show at some Kermesse — was flying in the wind. At the corner of the inn, a badly-paved path ran into the bushes by the side of a pond, on which a flotilla of ducks was navigating. The wayfarer turned into this path.
After proceeding about one hundred yards, along a wall of the 15th century, surmounted by a coping of crossed bricks, he found himself in front of a large arched stone gate, with a rectangular moulding, in the stern style of Louis XIV., supported by two flat medallions. A severe façade was over this gate; a wall perpendicular to the façade almost joined the gate and flanked it at a right angle. On the grassplat in front of the gate lay three harrows, through which the May flowers were growing pell-mell. The gate was closed by means of two decrepit folding doors, ornamented by an old rusty hammer.
     The sun was delightful, and the branches made that gentle May rustling, which seems to come from nests even more than from the wind. A little bird, probably in love, was singing with all its might. The wayfarer stooped and looked at a rather large circular excavation in the stone to the right of the gate, which resembled a sphere. At this moment the gates opened and a peasant woman came out. She saw the wayfarer and noticed what he was looking at. 
     "It was a French cannon-ball that made it," she said, and then added: "What you see higher up there, on the gate near a nail, is the hole of a heavy shell, which did not penetrate the wood."
"What is the name of this place ? " the wayfarer asked.
"Hougomont," said the woman.
    The wayfarer drew himself up, he walked a few steps, and then looked over the hedge. He could see on the horizon through the trees a species of mound, and on this mound something which, at a distance, resembled a lion. He was on the battlefield of Waterloo."
In what conceivable way is this passage about Cosette or anything that happens to or concerning Cosette? This passage is about the author - the author is describing a journey he made to a location that turned out to be important to Cosette's life. In a movie, this scene would not exist, in a play, it could not exist. Only in the form of a novel (and, in Hugo's case, an epic, masterfully written novel of 896 pages), could this scene not only exist, but relate directly to the theme of the story, evoke emotion about what the reader is about to experience, and provide imagery to which he will return again and again. But does Les Misérables, on any level, "serve two masters", the dramatic needs of the story and the constraints of the literary form? It's absurd to say so. One reason why we say it's a classic novel is because of its uniquely novelistic pacing, because it occupies the creative constraints of the novel in a constructive way rather than in an uneasy adaptation.

To say that a video game story must "serve two masters" is simply to say that it’s a story.

What most people mean by this phrase is that there is something else going on other than the story in a video or board game.  The mechanics of the game, often abstracted from the fiction, also need attention of both the creator and the player.  Often times, the player only engages with the mechanics and has no use for the fiction.  Other players focus almost exclusively on the fiction and see the mechanics as clumsy intermediaries for how they want to interact with the fictional world.

I absolutely reject the idea that video gamers can or ought excuse a bad story, or a plot hole, by saying, "haha, it’s a video game story, what do you expect?" What I expect is a story that helps get across the emotions and experience of the game, a story that fulfills its purpose just as well as the story in a novel or a movie fulfills the purpose of story in those forms.
Art Doesn't Need A Story

Diane, Seated by Richard Miller
What is the story of Diane, Seated by Richard Miller?  Miller, an American sculptor, usually worked with realistic poses of people.  This sculpture by him is remarkable in part because "Diane's" pose is awkward, though I don’t think “artificial” is the right word.  To me this sculpture is of a real person exploring the flexibility of her body, stretching like someone performing yoga or a dancer warming up.  We’ve all seen children contort themselves into weird positions, it’s part of how they learn what their bodies are about.  

I think this is a very effective sculpture.  It conveys emotion and provokes thought.  But can this sculpture in any way be thought to tell a story?  No, not at all.  If there is a story in this artwork, it’s a story I imagine in response to a mere suggestion by the creator (and perhaps the model?)

Story is just one tool in the artist's toolbox. Narrative is an easy way to connect with an audience's experiences and imagination. The human mind naturally organizes its experiences into stories. Story allows audiences to quickly absorb those experiences, but remember that the overall goal of art is not necessarily the experience, but the emotion.

In fact, there are even textual works of art that don’t have a story.  They are called poems.

Out of their loneliness for each other,
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
From "Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron", William Stafford

What is the story of "Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron"?  Well, a heron, in a city, unexpectedly takes flight.  The end.  The emotion conveyed in this poem does not come from a story - the heron doesn’t face any obstacles and there isn’t a character that changes after facing dramatic tension.  The impact of this poem comes from the words and the imagery the words evoke, not from the story the words tell.

There is nothing that says games can’t be like sculpture or poetry, without much of a story at all.  Games and toys can convey emotion and provoke thought - be effective art, in other words - without having anything like a story.

Pac-Man, 1980
What is the story of Pac-Man?  There’s perhaps about as much as there is in Diane, Seated, maybe even a bit less.  A yellow being runs around a maze eating dots, chased by ghosts. Some larger, blinking dots allow him to temporarily turn the table on the ghosts. Fruit sometimes appears. When one maze is out of dots, another appears.  It’s not a narrative, in the normal sense of the word.  But there’s no question that Pac-Man provokes emotion and thought.  The urgency of a game of Pac-Man is conveyed through the music, the sound, the use of color, the top-down point of view, the fast movements, and the blinking of the lights. 

Pac-Man is a highly effective piece of art, like all great toys.  But any "story of Pac-Man" comes from my own projection onto it, not from anything inside it.

So What?

This is all a very roundabout way of saying two things, both as preface to the Game Story Reboot project I'll be exploring on the blog. First, putting a story in a video game does not excuse it from being a good story. The story should benefit from being in a game in the same way a great movie's story benefits from the visuals of a movie and a great television show's story benefits from the ongoing nature of the television show. Second, if a game doesn’t have much of a story, that’s often okay.  I don’t want this project to make people think that the only way to effectively convey an emotion is with a story.  It just so happens that stories are my favorites.  I love to read them, I love to write them, I love to tell them.  It’s out of that love, (and not any particular qualification that I have), that this project is born.

The idea came about after reading a lot of really good "design reboots" on Gausswerks. The author there has an excellent sense of game design and art design. Me, I'm a story guy. So I'm going to do some Game Story Reboots - looking closely and critically at the stories in various video games (and maybe in a few other places too, like popular movies or whatnot.) Let's get started!