Games as a new media art form

For you, does story at least add something to the game, even if it’s non-essential, or do you think it actively detracts from the game? or is it just irrelevant to it?

I believe it’s mostly irrelevant, or a matter of user experience. One person once proposed an interesting reason why so many games have stories, it’s to make clear to the player what the objective is, and give them context for what is going on in the game.

Having a story helps lead the player along and gives them an idea what they’re supposed to be doing and how to play the game. Frequently narrative type content can be presented without any drawback, like in fighting games, characters have their own personalities, the backgrounds can be very detailed, the announcer and sound effects can be appealing. You can have a story and it can add all the positive things a story can add.

If I make a game it would certainly have a story, it’s part of selling a game to people. A developer at naughty dog put it like this, beautiful art is very good at attracting attention and poor at keeping it, stories are alright at attracting attention and alright at keeping it, systems are poor at attracting attention and very good at keeping it.

Stories detract from games when people start making a bad user experience (locking the user out of controlling the software) in the name of the story, when they start restricting or watering down mechanics in the name of the story, when they focus on the media product as a storytelling thing rather than a game system thing. This is why I get overly up in arms about it, because everyone is thinking of games as this storytelling thing; which is absurd in any kind of historical view, and crushes the greatest unexplored art form we have today. There is SO much we could be talking about for games that have never been discussed before in history, but everyone is caught up in reiterating ideas lodged in film, theater, and literature. Ideas we’ve done to death like the hero’s journey, camera angles, unreliable narrators, and all manner of “subversive” storytelling.

Then people like Roger Ebert see this pathetic scramble for legitimacy and call it puerile, because it is. If you read his piece on why games can never be art, you’d notice he opens the door for games to be art, then shuts it when he sees the examples presented, like Braid, Flower, and Waco Resurrection.

“Santiago concedes that chess, football, baseball and even mah jong cannot be art, however elegant their rules. I agree. But of course that depends on the definition of art. She says the most articulate definition of art she’s found is the one in Wikipedia: “Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.” This is an intriguing definition, although as a chess player I might argue that my game fits the definition.”

We should be arguing that Chess, Football, Baseball, and even Mah Jong are art, otherwise we’re not arguing games are art, only adjacent to art. Our examples should be Quake, Street Fighter, Katamari Damacy, and Tetris. Not “art” games.

Like, travel back in time to before 1973 and tell someone games are a storytelling medium, people will look at you like you are a madman, or ignorant on the topic. This wasn’t a transcendence or evolution of the game media that stories became attached to them, the same rules apply now as did then, we only have new tools.

What’s the problem with stories and settings? that’s been a tradition since the dawn of man. people have always told stories to communicate and to explain the world. that doesn’t mean the game part should be bad, but can you really fault someone for wanting a good story/setting?

Yes I can, because there’s inevitably a trade-off. No game has infinite budget. And as the story gets more detailed, either the gameplay becomes contradictory to it, or the gameplay is reined in to prevent contradictions, or vice versa. It makes me want to literally make a game and stick scenes from citizen kane in as cutscenes, no other cutscenes, just scenes of citizen kane and loudly proclaim, “This is the story!” It could be a metroidvania, it could be a first person shooter, rhythm game, action puzzle game, it doesn’t matter what type of game it is as long as it doesn’t bloody fit at all and it’s good to make up for being a dumb art piece with a message. Hell, pick another public domain film, have those cutscenes play in NG+ (though pretty sure CK is not public domain)

The problem I have with them is how it’s all anyone cares about, it’s all anyone analyzes, it takes up half the space of the best reviews most of the time. Nobody wants to voice what good gameplay is, it’s a “I’ll know it when I see it” type of thing with some vague-ass statements that seem to make sense occasionally.

The other problem I have with it is it’s like we’re so fixated on this perspective that the first thing people think of is the theme of a game. And all the parts of the game are things that fit into the theme rather than really coming at it from a systems oriented perspective. It’s like those psychological experiements, where if you ask someone to come up with a price for something, like how much they’d pay to buy a package of oreos, they might give you one price, but if you suggest a price to them like, “Here’s a $40 pack of oreos” They’ll always highball the estimate, and if you suggest a low price they’ll always lowball it. It’s called an anchor. By giving people a starting point, you’ll influence their decisions in that direction.

The problem with stories and settings is that they’re like an anchor. When you say stealth game, you get a picture in your head of a stealth game you’ve played or heard of. Now I ask you, what’s another way to distract guards? You’re probably thinking of tossing objects, or making a sound at your location. Or incapacitating them temporarily. Think of the central game form, stealth games are about when the enemy vision cone passes over you, they enter alert and try to kill you. The ostensible goal is to get them to look another way. If they just move into a corner or something, then they’re not really interacting with the player anymore. How can you make a stealth mechanic that continually keeps threatening the player with being found out, but the player can counter this in a variety of ways that don’t trivialize the enemies? Like mechanics that the guards can enact and the players can enact back and forth to continually threaten discovery and evade detection? Something that doesn’t just end up being a timing thing of moving through guard patrols as they go on their cycles.

I agree that it’s not something people should be so ‘aggressive’ about, however. Screaming, “IMMERSION” is stupid when there are more important things in the world than video games.

When you stop considering things from the perspective of “how do I add to this fictional universe” and from the perspective of how you can add additional counter play and depth to the system.

Like for example, we have people declaring that throwing objects to distract guards in stealth games is immersion breaking because nobody would fall for that shit, especially if they saw the object being thrown, but you don’t hear many alternative suggestions, because think about it really hard, what else can you even use to distract guards besides drawing their attention to a point away from you? If you can’t distract or mislead guards then how boring does the stealth genre become? Now consider the problem from the perspective of where else can guard attention be led other than to a remote place, usually far as a stone’s throw?

Additionally, how can you make it so that place is close-by enough that the player can’t trivially eliminate the guard threat by simply attracting their attention to a place the player isn’t going to? My first thought on the matter was, what if the point that attracted guard attention was tied to the player position in some way? like it was 5 steps to the left of them or something, so guards wouldn’t go directly to the player’s position, they’d move to the position 5 steps to the left of them, or to be even more daring, the spot projected 10 steps in front of them in the direction they’re currently moving, however that’s still pretty damn close to the player, so players have to watch out. Now, can you think of any way that this would make sense in-universe? Imagine the premise was you can control where this noise making point was relative to you, but never permanently eliminate it and it moves as you do. Suddenly, totally new game premise.

It’s not the type of thought that would even occur to someone trying to work in the framework or context of picking verbs to use from things that exist in any fictional universe, it’s decidedly anti-immersion in that respect even if it would probably work fine as a game mechanic. It’s easy to think of ways to represent it, like an after image moving in front or behind the character, or even just a marker with waves emanating from it. But how do you really explain something so arbitrary and contrived in a way that makes any type of immersive sense? The funny thing is, this is how the pink ghost in pac man is actually programmed, and the blue ghost has a similar but more complicated algorithm.

I have an article in development about first person shooters and crazy ideas we can do for those and none of them make any sense, like slow moving projectiles you can fire that will disappear if your opponent can hit you, that’s a clear and ridiculous abstraction.

They’re not only interested in stories, but you seem exclusively interested in strategic elements of games. Games can communicate other things appart from deep strategy, and different from stories too, things that are systems-oriented and exclusive to games, just not in the sense of strategy. Like, to give a dumb, but hopefully ilustrative, example, the random spread that you always criticize, I agree that it doesn’t add to the strategy, but it could be used to give a “sense of futility”, where the end result is independent of your aim, which can communicate the “despair of war”.

And examples like this continually getting brought up to me is why I say no one really values games. The “despair of war” isn’t a value of the game. In a systems sense, there’s no conception of what the despair of war is supposed to be. Does Poker convey the despair of war because it’s so random and degenerate? SF2 because damage and stun is so random? Despair of war is an idea outside the game being brought into the game as a matter of comparison or similarity, the gun being inaccurate doesn’t say shit, it’s just a hitscan with a huge RNG on it. (otherwise halo combat evolved conveys the despair of war perfectly with the assault rifle, which is patently fucking ridiculous looking back at the story).

The sense of futility isn’t getting close to fun, it’s creating a sense of frustration. Players get frustrated when they lose consistently and feel like their input doesn’t change the outcome significantly. The only things games can communicate is their strategies, if it’s communicating something else, then that’s because you’re layering a different type of feedback on top of it.

The fact that someone would ATTEMPT to convey the despair of war rather than only tells me they don’t give a fuck about games, they give a fuck about powerful messages like the despair of war. The despair of war isn’t what games are, from the inside, none of it looks like war except in the most superficial and abstract sense. You have a bar that depletes and upon depletion sends you to a checkpoint or respawn, potentially spawning new enemies or setting the state back to a prior one. We call this health/ego/hitpoints/heart rate/mana/energy/stamina/manliness and all number of other ridiculous name. The program itself has no idea what this variable is. It just follows the orders it consists of. The program has no idea what movement is, the program has no idea what attacks or defense or strategy are. Board games don’t either. We just label a ton of things to make their function a bit more intuitive.

You can replace all the symbols with other ones that provide the same feedback and the game works the same way, it’s still the same game. See texture hacks and model swaps in brawl:

The characters are the same characters, move the same way, have the same feedback even though the theme is totally distorted and mismatched. You’re still playing Brawl exactly the same way you were before, no better, no worse.

From the inside, all games are abstract strategy games.

I agree with you on games, but saying that Poker conveys the futility of war or whatever because of the randomness is a false equivalency and doesn’t really help your cause. Part of immersion is the aesthetic presentation. To convey war, you need the aesthetic of war… which poker isn’t.

My point was that the aesthetic of the game isn’t the game. Just looking at the game systems, there’s no aesthetic, there’s only feedback. This feedback conveys the state of the machine, it doesn’t mean anything else but the state of the machine, which is why I jumped to a game that is obviously modeling a completely different thing like poker. The point I was trying to make is that to convey war, you need something outside the game, like the aesthetic, to inform you of that. It’s not something inherent in the game.

I understand that a story is an imposed layer over what a game communicates, but then how would you explain games in relation to other art forms? most other art mediums have been built around an imposed abstraction, usually related to storytelling. Figurativity in painting imposes our associations. with real things over a medium that’s fundamentally about colour and shape, usually also with some theme or story in mind. It could be argued that Rothko’s colour fields and some other abstract approaches were a more fundamental expression of visual art.Something similar could be said of films. Music seems to be the only medium that has always been developed in its core expressions without imposed abstractions, specially instrumental music-always been about organizing pitches in time, only incorporating extra-musical elements ocassionally, in very limited form.

Lyricless music, typography, architecture, abstract sculpture, composition, color theory, motion graphics, many types of poetry and prose, product design, furniture design, electronic art, some people would say cooking is an art, light design, landscape design, dance, the performing arts, textiles, pyrotechnics, arguably programming (definitely anything in the Obfuscated C Contest), and probably some others.

Games are a different type of art form. They’re not an artform that is based on imposed abstraction. They’re an artform based on the desirable qualities of rulesets. Have you ever played a spoken word game? There are a couple, like 20 Questions, Ghost, and honestly the rest are kind of shit. We have Scrabble, we have countless countless card games, pool, golf, hockey, football. On the video game end we have tetris, dance dance revolution, candy crush. A lot of these don’t have any type of story, don’t represent any type of thing outside the game.

Games are the art of challenge, art of rules systems, art of strategies. Like a lot of other types of art, they don’t necessarily seek to represent, they simply stimulate, much like music. And through their individual expressions of different rulesets, they stimulate very different parts of our brain.

This is why I continually say, people who are in favor of games as an art-form, and want to push “art-games” usually are rigidly opposed to games as an art-form, and are the type most likely to post praises of the stanley parable, gone home, the walking dead, etc. It’s like they have this association with modern art or something and think they’re great and intellectual for being able to accept these alternative art forms, not realizing that games aren’t defined as loosely as art is, and it doesn’t make nearly as much sense to push the border of what games are. It’s like submitting a song and calling it a painting and supposedly…. Actually I think I should do that to a modern art gallery or something.

The point is, games are an art form that convey a totally different type of information from other art forms, but we already have a bunch of art like that. Think back to all the games that don’t have any type of story, like 20 questions, rock paper scissors, poker, and so on. Try seeing the games that use representational art styles in a similar way.

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