Irrelevant Troubadour

Games and Art: A Rambly and Probably Unnecessary Discursus
May 5, 2011, 4:11 pm
Filed under: video games

First off: Hola, amigos. What gives? I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but, well, I just haven’t had the urge to do much blogging.  But classes are over and I feel like the best way to spend this impossibly beautiful day is cooped up in my room writing words for the internet gods.

The “can video games be art?” debate is one that’s been hashed and rehashed countless times in everything from blogs to scholarly journals, and I can’t pretend that what I’m saying adds much to the discourse.  But nonetheless, it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

The main thing that, to me, sets games apart from other art forms is their difficulty, the fact that you can lose.  You can’t be bad at looking at a painting, nor can you lose at reading a book.  (although the argument can be made that some people appreciate art better than others, this isn’t really analogous to skill at games, since skill at art appreciation depends on one’s ability to analyze themes, forms, etc., whereas skill at gaming depends on speed of reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving skills–much more basic functions, in other words)  Yet it is very much possible to be bad at games.  In fact, the possibility of losing may be the one thing that ties all games together, since without this risk there is none of the tension that makes people want to play games in the first place.  Even games such as The Sims that can’t be ‘won’ in the regular sense of the word almost always have failure states.  Think about it: even if your sims have the biggest McMansion on the hill and have all their mood bars constantly full, you haven’t ‘won’, since you can keep playing indefinitely and there are constantly more challenges to take care of–but if your sims all die in grease fire, you’ve definitely lost.

How does this play into a discussion of games’ artistic merit?  Well, let’s talk about my personal favorite game of all time, Shigesato Itoi’s Mother 3.

If you haven’t played this game, STOP READING THIS AND GO PLAY IT NOW THERE’S A FAN TRANSLATION HERE.  I could probably write thousands upon thousands of words about this game and not come close to summing up everything that’s beautiful about it, but for this post I’m going to focus on one specific aspect of the game: the combat system.  The game uses a fairly standard Dragon Quest-inspired JRPG combat system for the most part, but there is one ingenious twist on the formula.  In Mother 3, by pressing the ‘attack’ button in time with the beat of the battle music, you can score combos on enemies to deal more damage.  It’s not necessary to win the game, but it’s really a brilliant addition to the otherwise moribund gaming cliche that is turn-based JRPG combat, infusing it with some of the intensity of rhythm games and adding another level strategy to the battle.

Why is this important?  Well, when I’ve played Mother 3, I’ve been completely unable to use the combo system.  I can occasionally get 2x and 3x combos by randomly mashing buttons, but for the most part it completely eludes me, whereas there are people for whom 16x combos just come naturally, as the video below illustrates.

My question is, then: because I can’t get combos, am I experiencing something different from the game?  Did I come to a different understand of Mother 3 than someone who flawlessly gets 16x combos for every battle?  I feel, in a lot of ways, like I got a completely different feeling from the game–I never got that feeling of being plugged into a rhythm, and in a sense I feel like I didn’t connect with the game on as visceral a level as I would’ve liked because of that.

It’s somewhat frightening to think that one’s appreciation of a piece of art could be hampered by something so simple as one’s rhythmic ability.  Indeed, this difficulty can become such a problem as to keep someone from playing the game at all; I still have yet to play the first game in the Mother in full, simply because it’s too hard.

I’d say that the closest analogy to appreciating a game as a work of art would be to playing a musical instrument.  You have a set score to go by, maybe the music is written out for you, maybe there’s just a few chords for you to improvise on top of, but to one degree or another, you can do what you want–and yes, like in gaming, there is a possibility of failure, as this middle school band dropout can attest.  I mean, there’s a reason beyond sentimentality that it was common to put “AND YOU” as a thank you to the player at the end of the credits of Japanese video games in the mid 90s: regardless of whether they player is actually creating anything by playing the game, they are needed to make the game happen.  If you start playing Earthbound (the second game in the Mother trilogy, for those of you keeping score at home)  and give up after the first dungeon (please don’t do this), the game is no longer “the story of Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo saving the world from unimaginable evil”, it’s “the story of Ness who killed a weird ant thing and then hung around in town for the rest of his life, until assumedly it was destroyed by Giygas”.  (this raises all sorts of concerns for those who integrate games or game-like segments into more traditional works, such as Andrew Hussie, but that’s something to tackle later)

(note: the following paragraph is intensely spoilerish) The Mother series actually makes this player-game relationship explicit, by  having it be the will of the player directly intercede in the game itself.  In Earthbound/Mother 2, it’s the prayers of the player that finally defeat Giygas.  In Mother 3, the relationship is handled perhaps even more brilliantly.  In the game it’s mentioned that the dragon whose release will cause the unmaking of the world will take on the character of whoever releases it–if it’s released by someone with love in their heart, it will remake the world into a utopia, but if the person does not, the world will be cast into the void.  The climax of the game involves the release of the dragon, after which the player is presented with a black “Game Over” screen.  A callous player would at this point shut off their GameBoy Advance and go get some cheetos, but that player who, as most have, has fallen in love with the world of Mother 3 and its inhabitants would probably stare at the screen for a while, perhaps pressing some buttons randomly.  And when they press these buttons, they would notice something remarkable: even though the screen is blank, they can still move and, what’s more, talk to almost all of the characters they’ve met throughout the game.  The player is both the dragon and the releaser of the dragon, since whether the player feels any affection toward the fictional world they’ve been living in determines whether that world survives.  The player actively creates the game as a work of art much as the passively experience it.

Difficultly and the risk of loss, therefore, impede the player’s experience of a game as much as they power the game in the first place.  Now, I’m not saying we should do away with loss in games–that would be to make them no longer games at all–but I feel like perhaps we need to re-evaluate notions of difficulty, or perhaps re-evaluate the idea that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to play games.

I am reminded at this point of a Let’s Play I watched recently of Earthbound by YouTube’s BakaUsagi.  One thing that struck me was that, in her last video, she mentioned that when she used to play the game in her childhood, she would turn it on and play, not to finish dungeons and fight bosses and collect treasure and general continue the game, but just to…wander around.  She would just hang out in the world of Earthbound, imagining what sort of conversations the four main characters were having.  She wasn’t trying to accomplish anything; she was just enjoying the virtual world for what it was.  That, I think, is what more games should encourage us to do–not to lose, not to win, but just to play.