art games at GDC

On Friday I had the pleasure of attending the artgames session at GDC. This post is based on my notes, and I am happy to correct any errors or inconsistencies.

John Sharp (Professor, Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta) introduced the panel and made some poignant references to what the panel was not going to be including just about amazing art in games or art made from video games like Cory Arcangels Super Mario Clouds, or even art made in conversation with video games like Eddo Sterns Tekken Torture Tournament.

He went on to assert that the main feature of video games that were to be connected with art was the idea of interactivity.

I found the format to be quite interesting in that four presenters were chosen to talk about other peoples games.  From this standpoint we were faced with acknowledged experts providing critical observations of work in the field.  From this standpoint there was a very “fair” appeal to the whole proceeding.

Jason Rohrer presents on Judith by Terry Cavanagh and Stephen Lavelle.

Jason made a compelling case for Judith as a work of art talking extensively about choice and the craft of making a video game. The work uses the mechanics of the game and the narrowing of control to convey it’s meaning. Set in two times, the player initially has a certain amount of control in both. The designers however use programmed sequences to wrest control and create narrative sequences within the game engine. This is more than using storytelling in cutscenes (cinema). His contention is that this is the craft of game design and that it is a form of expression, with a focus on the interactivity and the flow through the game to its inevitable end.

The contention is that there is frequently superficial choice to be made by the player but that only certain actions advance the game, and the story hence the choice is not relevant. The keystone to interpretation of this work is that it is a game about control.

The second presenter was Wesley Erdelack who talked about Jonathan Blow’s Braid.

Erdelack is working on a PhD in Moral Philosophy and there are times that his academic training overcome his critique of the work. He makes the assertion that playing a video game is like doing science, that one tests, fails retests and “solves” the system. The rules of the game are not necessarily disclosed up front and that oftentimes the play is the exploration of and exploitation of these rules. Learning the rules allows you to beat the game, to anticipate the way the world behaves

He comments that when we think of others as a manipulable object we are prone to a certain type of alienation. And that frequently games make us treat others (the princess for example) as objects that follow simple rules. He asserts that we know the product of rules and we know they are manipulable.

In the end he discusses the great depth of the metaphor within the story of Braid. He says that the story is about ethics and lays out a deep interpretation.

His closing advice to us is to treat the player as a human, art is more than wistfulness, say something with a game about what it means to be a person.

Anthony Burch makes a case for Far Cry 2. His discussion focuses around the pragmatism of evil and he talks about several features of the game that come off as a lazy way around programming (see ZeroPunctuation). The fact that you start out with crappy weapons and have to actually kill people face to face but that you find better weapons that let you kill from clear across the map is somehow mollified by everyone being hostile to you. In fact they will all take the first shot relieving the player of any moral obligation and supporting his role as a “good guy.”

The hostile harrowing environment situation to end a war morally justifying your death-dealing. Further the civilians that represent the good guys cannot be killed. So as Burch puts it, no one will complain when you kill a guy in self defense.

The interesting part comes at the end of the game when your former buddies decide to kill you. Burch says that of the eight mercenaries that start with you, all of which will jump in front of a bullet up until the end two to five will remain and attack you in the end. You are left with the choice of seeing them killed off during play to improve your chances of survival at the end. The moral dilemma is that three of these characters are totally loyal to you and you must kill three before you can start to reduce the number of people attacking you at the end.

This is the pragmatism of evil. You have no real choice, you can justify this by being the hero and perhaps succeeding in the last mission, but you cannot leave the three innocents alive unless you want to make this extremely difficult.

The one thing Burch fails to mention is that by intentionally killing the innocent companions you have essentially taken on the same role as the traitorous killers that will assault you.

The final presenter, Frank Lantz, talked about the games of Mark Essen also known as messhoff.

Lantz talked about Flywrench and The Thrill of Combat. His assertion was that these games are art because they are represented in galleries. Certainly this is true, and it was refreshing to hear this said out loud. He goes on to say that art is a mode of operation, a particular cultural context, a protocol, and that Flywrench and The Thrill of Combat are games, not an appropriation, deconstruction or reference to games.

Lantz continues by discussing the formal qualities of the games and the sense of style that the artist has in creating them. Lantz then provides a basic demonstration in style in the music industry by contrasting the Monkeys version of Stepping Stone with that of the Sex Pistols.

“The important thing about art is style” as reflected in it’s tone of voice. Lantz’ final plea is that we need new styles of games, that it is not just about the expression of big ideas or content.

After the session I heard someone comment that they disagreed with Lantz right up until he played the two songs, and then it all came in to focus.

Overall I think the session was a success, it is nice to see game developers dealing with the issue of fine art in the same way that artists have for decades (centuries?). After the session I had a chance to sit down and talk with Anna Anthropy too, and it is from her that I pose my final thoughts. One of the fundamental qualities of the contemporary art world is that art is held up to critique. Whether this be in the academy or in the art press, independant voices form theory and what is eventually a consensus about artworks and bodies for work from artists.  If the idea of artgame can bring more critique to videogames or if artgames can elevate or broaden the scope of video games like art cinema does for cinema then it is unquestionably good. The difficulty comes from the assumption that there is intrinsic value in something being art. There is not, but there is meaning, dialog, and process. It was refreshing listening to the presenters consider and critique the games presented.

As a storytelling medium, games will without a doubt become the most compelling. With infinite patience, and metaphoric mechanics there is a lot to be said.

Finally and as an aside, I learned my lesson a long time ago about saying that something is not art. But I do have to say that I just don’t undersand Far Cry 2 as art unless it is in the same sense that Transformers 2 is art cinema.

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