With Shigeru getting his French knighthood and the British Academy of Film and Television Art giving awards for computer games, I was mulling over the old computer-games-as-art question. The comparison is inviting, not least because games are full of things which were historically the domain of other art forms – visuals, music, dialogue, narrative and so on. And I have no doubt that, as the industry develops, there will be games that demand to be regarded as important artworks. I just wonder what they’ll look like.
The normal game dynamic is that the player is continually attempting to complete tasks in order to progress to the next part of the game. The task could be almost anything – to kill enough zombies, get around a track quickly enough, solve a puzzle, make enough money – but the usual experience is of being stuck much of the time, of repeatedly attempting the same thing, or of wandering around aimlessly trying to work out what you should be doing. Much of good game design is trying to keep the player just the right amount frustrated.
And however much your character interacts with other characters, the central experience is of playing against the game. The storyline and characterisation are fundamentally a sideshow. They add flavour and help keep you engaged when you might get too frustrated and stop playing, but despite endless claims over the years of more intelligent interactivity, the narrative isn’t what drives the game forward, it’s just the backdrop to the action.
It’s hard to see that task-completion dynamic as a basis for a work of great art – something rich, nuanced, emotionally and intellectually engaging – and one possibility would be to make things that don’t even pretend to be ‘games’. One trope that’s been doing the rounds for years now is the idea that, as games get more sophisticated, they’ll become more like interactive movies. Well, an interactive art movie would presumably not play like a game, in that there would be no pre-defined objectives; it would be more like a fluidly evolving scenario you could take part in. The technical difficulties in trying to create genuinely open-ended situations with complex, believable characters would be staggering, of course, but if it could be done it would be interesting.
Even more interesting, perhaps, would be a game which harnessed the task-completion dynamic in some way, and used it in the service of something more sophisticated. I can’t see what that would be; but that’s probably just a failure of imagination on my part.