Monday, January 18, 2010

How can games have artistic merit?

Just to be clear: I'm using the term "artistic merit" to denote cultural value- a creation whose worth extends beyond simply providing entertainment. I have no interest in the concept of games as art, because I'm not an artist- the most high-falutin' label I'd give myself is "craftsman", i.e. someone who focuses on the *craft* of a creative effort rather than its potential for abstract self-expression. The concept that does interest me is games as a medium for storytelling; and that's a matter I already worked through a year ago. In some ways that post concluded my personal ruminations on game design, because I'd finally identified my priorities as a designer and could thus pursue them in earnest. I'm not revisiting the subject because I've since advanced my definition of a good roleplaying game; I'm revisting it because I've since advanced my definition of a good story.

See, in my mind a story's 'artistic merit'- the quality which earns it the right to be taken seriously by society as a whole- doesn't just come from the quality we refer to as depth. By my understanding, that concept doesn't take into account another factor, which I label as authenticity. Authenticity comes from working to ensure that your story makes sense; that the internal logic is consistent, and the plot points occur naturally rather than being forced. Creating an authentic story requires that you actually do your damn research on the subject matter, and work through the implications of any fantastic elements.

Call of Duty 4 provides a good example of a story that has authenticity without depth. It's not trying to explore beyond the surface of its characters or grapple with any particularly complex themes. But it offers a portrayal of modern warfare that's well-researched and avoids being compromised by unrealistic set pieces (like the sequel's snowmobile jump). I see both war hawks and doves refer to the game as though it had clearly taken their side; this happens because the game focuses on a genuine portrayal of the subject matter, leaving the interpretation in their hands.

The oft-praised, oft-mocked anime Code Geass is the opposite- a story that has depth but lacks authenticity. It's constantly striving to grapple with advanced themes- human nature and how it acts in concert with society to steer us towards prejudice and violence (rather than just having speeches about fighting spirit and twoo wuv). The characters are complex and multifaceted; I still remember how my jaw dropped when a journalist named Diethard explained his personal motivations and philosophy-and this was a minor secondary character.

But because of that lack of authenticity, it's still not something worth taking very seriously. The story has few qualms about using contrived coincidences to augment the level of drama, rather than having the plot develop in a particularly feasible, natural manner.

So how can a game have depth, and how can it have authenticity? Well, I made this post more to pose this question than to answer it. But I'll take an initial stab at it anyway...

I think that depth in a game's design (again, the focus here is on mechanics first and foremost, rather than a background story told through other mediums) comes from the system's exploration of ideas and concepts. Specifically, the exploration of ideas and concepts in an original and thoughtful matter, both via choice of subject matter and personal interpretation. A hypothetical example of an rpg with this conception of artistic depth could be one that explores an abstract side of a real-life scenario, perhaps quantifying an abusive relationship via the hopes and vulnerabilities of those involved.

Authenticity in a game's design is trickier, but the closest example I can come up with is whether the game's mechanics dictate the narrative in a believable fashion (rather than causing you to feel like events are scripted and/or the result of arbitrary game mechanics). In a way, I'm touching on the concept of a game's "Simulationist" value here.

On the whole, this has been an interesting thought experiment, but it hasn't quite led me to any major insights. Perhaps I'll revisit the matter again some other time.

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