While I have never been what one might call an “intense” gamer, I have for years been a student of visual and printed forms of media.I have particularly followed the on-going argument related to computer gaming as art.I do this largely because it amuses me to find politicians who can barely spell “computer,” and lawyers who have an opinion about almost everything, expressing their remarkably intense and often nonsense-laden opinions.I truly believe they need to be spanked once in a while.However, spanking politicians and lawyers is not my objective.
As a student of media, I have a few thoughts related to gaming and I want to share those with readers of Tap-Repeatedly. But more, I want to solicit their opinions. It has always been a point of interest to me that so few games reach the stratosphere in sales volume; in fact, most are dismal failures with only about 2% of games developed even covering the expense required to create them. I am sure we could all come up with our own examples, and that’s fine, but for purposes of this discussion ask yourselves why so few become “balls-out bestsellers.” Why do some games, like the Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Max Payne and God knows how many others become such winners in the marketplace?That’s the question of the day: WHY?
Let’s start with that simple thought.What makes some games balls-out bestsellers?And, for the sake of discussion, let’s just use Rockstar Games as our pincushion.Rockstar has had a virtually unparelled string of such games.For fun, take a look at the list of Rockstar-published (and, in some cases, developed) games produced for the major platforms in the last few years:
Grand Theft Auto series
Max Payne series
Red Dead Revolver
State of Emergency
The Italian Job
Wild Metal: Reclaim the Future
Of these, how many actually sold into the stratosphere? Fewer than you might think. GTA, to be sure, is a balls-out bestseller. But the Max Payne series took years to reach platinum; Manhunt was a sales disaster despite the squawking press associated with the release of both of its games; Red Dead Revolver was well-enough received by critics but failed at retail. The rest on the list are forgettable at best, forgotten at worst.
Rockstar has the reputation, more than most other industry leaders, of creating games that provide a dark world, often plagued by evil forces, filled with violence, and an environment in which blood seems to rule with the primary theme being to create havoc.Their games are characterized by violence, with good against evil where evil usually reigns.
If we accept that premise, then we are stuck with an interesting dichotomy.If their games are indeed characterized by violence, why have only a handful become “balls-out bestsellers?”If one accepts that gamers are discerning people looking for depth and creativity, it becomes a poignant puzzler.Perhaps the answer came from a comment one of you provided.In a comment on “In Defense of Gaming,” reader Marquezpointed out:
“If something moves you, if it makes you think, if causes you to catch your breath and haunts you long after it’s finished, it’s good. And that’s really the goal to strive for–not the abstract label of “art.”
Marquez is right, trying to define anything as art is too subjective, too available to personal feelings.In essence, what is art to you may not be art to me.I, for one, find it difficult to consider paintings of Campbell’s soup cans as art, but to each his own.But the very fact that so few of Rockstar’s games have satisfied our criteria of “balls-out bestsellers” implies that gamers are looking for something more.If you think about it, in fact, Rockstar’s reputation of success appears to rest on just two game series: Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto.So, WHY?Why these two series and not the others produced by the very same studio?
My opinion, more as a critic than as an intense gamer, is pretty basic.I believe we are all seeking something that goes beyond the blood.Sure, the blood attracts us, but it doesn’t hold us… it becomes boring and droll without some other hook, something to keep us glued to the screen.To me, that something is beauty!The beauty of the art, of the dialogue, of the plot, of the elements that make me stretch my brain and my imagination.There is nothing more thrilling than the “AHAA!” that moment when the it comes together and your chest puffs up in exaltation.
I mean, really, how did you feel when you managed to defeat the obstacle course at the end of Halo?Didn’t you laugh yourself silly while playing Armed and Dangerous? Didn’t you marvel at the mind-expanding science in Bioshock?So, bottom line without carrying on forever here: whether it’s greed, stem cells, economics, vainglorious science, religion, class, avarice, the protector/protected relationship, or even the fight for power – good or bad – games can have many themes. The trick is, too truly succeed, they must affect us in some difficult to describe way and that way is different for all of us.
The clear implication here is that there is more to gaming than blood, more than killing. There is, if properly constructed, a hard look at life and the beauty it brings to us; there is the requirement we do something! There is the requirement there be that certain something that makes you gasp with pleasure, or agonize with pain, or simply get a wonderful, surreal feeling of satisfaction. To me, that’s art…but I am open to other opinions.
However, spanking politicians and lawyers is not my objective.
Great column, T3! I agree that there is “something” in great games that bad or even just “good” games lack. The trick is that in order to really appreciate that “something” the game itself and its designers have to overcome all of the mundane hurdles to allow the player to experience that “something” without being distracted/annoyed by gameplay or technical issues.
I am probably not very qualified to weigh on this subject. Looking back at things, I play very few games. I would say that over the last four years the only games I have really played for any length of time have been: Civ IV, KOTR, Football Manager, Eastside Hockey, Freedom Force II, Half-Life 2, and Left 4 Dead.
That said, there is an entire “American Idol” type audience (for lack of a better phrase) for video games out there that make games like Sims so super successful, that don’t seem to be all that interested in “art”. Well, I guess they are, they just must have a very different view of what “art” is.
Thanks for your comment. Sounds like you are very much like me as a gamer. I have never become adroit enough to master them; or maybe, smart enough. Like you, I took a whack at Half-life for example, and ran whimpering for the sidelines because the game was smarter than I am. That does not mean I didn’t love its technical accuracy, the outstanding graphics, and the dose of science it forced me to learn. That is what I mean about a well constructed game, it provides insight if you are able to grasp it, technical expertise if you are able to understand it, and just an overall good feeling.
I had the same problem with “Half-Life.” I bailed on the first one quite quickly and it wasn’t until a friend of mine “gifted” me “Half-Life 2” and hounded me mercilessly to play it that I finally took the plunge. I was pretty much hooked from the beginning. That first scene in the city where you really have no weapon and are getting bulled by the combines and have to run for your lives totally immersed me into the game world and character.
Actually, I think, for me, as a player, that’s what I’m looking for out of a great game: Immersion. While immersion comes in different forms for different types of games, if I am sufficiently immersed in a game that’s when I’m happiest. It’s that point in time when the game essentially becomes your reality and even after you’re done playing it you’re thinking about what happened or your next move.
In “Left 4 Dead” for example, it’s a cinematic immersion. There are points in that game where I feel like I am taking part in some climactic scene of a movie and it’s quite a rush.
In “Civ IV”, it’s pretty much total immersion. If I am playing in a game, that game essentially becomes my world. Even when I’m not playing it, I’m thinking about my next move, what my capital should be building and how to take out Monty and those damnable Aztecs.
In sports sims, immersion is also key. You have to feel like you’re running an actual team and the players are actual people with personalties, emotions and desires and your actions have consequences with respect to each person.
Great games immerse you in their world. There is nothing that will break that immersion more quickly than technical glitches or game play issues that just don’t make sense or somehow detract from the world you are trying to be immersed in. They are constant reminders that you are playing a game and a flawed one at that.
You got that right, Ajax. I love the word “immersion” because it is just perfect in terms of our discussion. Nowhere in your comment did you suggest, or even allow for the possibility of passivity. That simple fact is that concept you refer to as immersion is what lifts gaming above the visual, passive arts, such as movies and tv. You mentioned the Civ series. In my humble opinion, the Civ series is without a doubt not only one among the finest works in the field, it was (again in my opinion) the trendsetter for most of the games that followed.
That said, you are exactly right, though, when you suggest that technical glitches can affect the immersion. Though we all understand these games consist, often, of millions of lines of code, we cannot accept weapon that doesn’t fire immediately, or a command that stutters before employing. You put it best when you said it detracts “from the world you are trying to be immersed in”
Great article and some good thoughts on the different and deeper levels of “interactivity” in games.
FWIW, I always thought the point of Warhol’s Soup Cans was exactly what you pointed out, Tony. How can something we see everyday, something that is spewed out on an assembly line be considered art just because some guy copies it onto a screenprint and deems it so? I think maybe Warhol was saying that trying to define what is and isn’t art in any absolute way had become basically senseless. So a soup can was just as valid as a Turner landscape. He was a cynical guy though.
Great article, TTT!
Speaking of art that bends the brain, in 1953 Robert Rauschenberg spent a month erasing a Willem de Kooning drawing. The resulting work of art was, you got it, a blank piece of paper. It now hangs in San Francisco’s MOMA.
On one hand, you kinda wanna slap everyone involved. On the other hand, it’s hard not to see that Rauschenberg was making a point, and a damned interesting one.
Not that I’m advocating for “Erased Half Life.”