Here’s another essay assignment for my course at UT Austin. The title of this post and the discussion of two or three artists are mandated by the assignment; the particulars beyond that are my own doing. By the way, skip at least the last bit if you intend to play Bioshock at any point, there are “spoilers” afoot.
Faced with the task of examining why and how a few artists have utilized cyberspace, I actually have relatively little knowledge to start from, at least as far as traditional (inasmuch as cyberspace can be “traditional”) fine artists go. While I refer to myself as a student of modern and contemporary art, my academic interests are mainly in painting and sculpture, and I have deeper knowledge of artists who came of age between the end of World War II and the around the 1970’s, before cyberspace made its way into mainstream culture. There certainly are plenty of artists both involved in cyberspace and the traditions of studio practice and museum presentation… the problem is that I’m not very familiar with them.
So, instead of doing myself and anyone else who might read this post a disservice by hastily scouring the internet for cyber-artists to subject to rushed and superficial analysis, I think it will be better to focus on a cyber-artistic topic that I know much better: video games. Since the days when my parents had to warn me against “inviting myself over” to visit friends with video game consoles, through getting a Nintendo 64 in the mid ‘90s, and up to currently living in an apartment containing an impressive (to me at least) eight video game consoles, video games have been a part of my life. Now that I’m increasingly interested in writing about art, I have also begun to occasionally write about video games on similar terms. I think this is exciting, as video games are somewhat overdue to be examined in greater depth than they are in the consumer–advice–styled consideration that they are typically given.
I don’t think it’s necessary to stage an “are video games art?” debate to begin this discussion. That debate, like any “is this art?” debate, gets bogged down and becomes uninteresting all too easily. And in the particular case of video games, the debate has the weird effect of always bringing Roger Ebert to mind.
At any rate, for this post I will focus on the narrative aspects of three video games, which ought to allow those with more traditional views on art to remain within their comfort zones. After all, narrative is very often present in film, theater, and literature, and is frequently present in painting, sculpture, photography, and dance as well, and each of these is considered an artistic medium (sorry if I’ve left anything out, I haven’t meant to). Video games’ ability to present narrative, to tell stories, thus puts them in close enough company with accepted art forms that to deny video games the status of art might be to demand an unpleasant sort of purism from these other media. But that’s getting into the debate that I promised I wouldn’t get into. Sorry.
When it comes to presenting a narrative, each medium seems to have its own advantages and disadvantages. The most striking such advantage (in my experience anyway) is literature’s ability to directly describe internal states of mind, which are often difficult to represent in other media. Clearly enough, film is typically an advantageous medium for stories that require visual impact (this probably wouldn’t be very compelling as a novel, but it makes for enjoyable cinema). Painting can display an advantage in telling allegorical stories which demand extended contemplation.
These advantages often answer the question of “why?” for media like literature, film, and painting. So what would be the “why?” of video games, the “why?” of cyberspace for this particular medium? What new options do video games put at their creators’ disposal, and how do those new options enable different sorts of storytelling? Rather than attempt to answer this question directly, I will present three video games and explain how they each present narrative in ways which are largely exclusive to their medium.
The first game up for consideration here is BioWare’s Mass Effect, the first game in a trilogy which premiered in 2007 and whose final installment is slated for release this March. BioWare has a reputation for creating games with strong employment of narrative elements; the conventions, mechanics, etc. found in BioWare’s games essentially make them into a sub-genre unto themselves, even as the games each deal with different subject matter, settings, and gameplay mechanics. A hallmark of BioWare games is thus that, instead of subjecting players to a previously prepared story, they allow players to experience a story that they control to a large extent, from the point of view of a main (player-controlled) character. This is no mean feat, as video game technology is not yet sufficiently advanced to allow players to actually engage with virtual worlds that are truly as complex as our own world, where rich new stories can be generated spontaneously (and even with unlimited computing power, the conceptual aspects of current game design would pose their own limitations). In lieu of this kind of interactivity, BioWare gives players enough meaningful choices that a solid sense of control is possible.
A key set of choices in Mass Effect occur through the game’s dialogue. Plainly enough, a character will seem more like an extension of the player if they take on the outlook that the player wants them to have. The different responses that the player can compel their avatar to give in Mass Effect’s many conversations don’t range widely, but they do allow for dialogue to branch out in different directions, and they do affect the course of the game’s larger story. By the end of the game, the total effect of the decisions that the player has made in dialogue is quite massive (I couldn’t resist), and this gives the player a sense that their character’s experiences, and thus their own experiences, have been uniquely shaped to their liking. It would indeed be difficult for two people to play through Mass Effect’s dialogue in the exact same way. Players will fall into typical archetypes because the game (limited as described above) is ultimately not all that flexible, but the sense of control certainly is there, especially if players’ disbelief can remain suspended (and it certainly must in a game full of space ships and aliens).
So, “why” should the story of Mass Effect be told in a video game? Because there really is no equivalently interactive medium available. The closest traditional alternative is the “choose your own adventure” book, which is rather clumsy by comparison. It’s not that a CYOA couldn’t include all of the permutations of Mass Effect’s dialogue… it’s just that the book would likely be prohibitively large. Additionally, while a CYOA has the disadvantage of making its means of offering choice physically apparent to readers, a game like Mass Effect can make discarded options invisible to its players, yielding a virtual reality which appears seamless (minus the big but necessary seam involving the player, the screen, and the controller, of course).
Another game to consider is Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim of 2011, which is part of a series that dates way back to 1994 (a very long time in video game history). Like BioWare, Bethesda has established its own set of conventions, mechanics, etc. which add up to a sort of sub-genre. The most important element here is Bethesda’s “open world” style of game design, where players are able to traverse huge virtual spaces with minimal restrictions. Narrative elements remain fairly basic and almost always optional; players can pursue a large number storylines which vary in size and depth, or they can simply go exploring, earn wages cutting lumber, steal from unsuspecting townsfolk, etc. Once again the game is limited and certainly doesn’t feel like a true virtual representation of a world like our own, but quite a lot of wacky things are possible (with this openness leading to a significant internet sub-culture of memes, blog entries, and YouTube clips, some interesting, some uninspired).
“Why” Skyrim should be a video game is even more obvious; no other medium could offer such a font of interactivity and visual representation. Perhaps the closet equivalent would be an oral tabletop role playing game; games like Skyrim indeed trace their inspiration (and medieval aesthetic) back to games like Dungeons & Dragons. But tabletop games only offer what their players can bring to the table (sorry) and are clumsy in the same way that CYOA books are clumsy, insofar as their means of operation are necessarily apparent, and may draw players away from their narrative. Skyrim, alternatively, offers professionally designed stories and mechanics, as well as the same invisible mechanics and (essentially) seamless reality as Mass Effect. While tabletop games ultimately rely on players’ imaginations, Skyrim does all the work for you (whether that’s a good thing or not is up for debate). It’s also not possible to truly reproduce a past D&D game, while Skyrim can be experienced by more than a small group of people.
A final game to consider (as always; I usually can’t have a sustained discussion about video games without mentioning it) is 2K Boston’s Bioshock. While Skyrim and Mass Effect seem to be attempts at giving players as much control as possible while still presenting fairly compelling and technically feasible stories, Bioshock takes a very different tack, grabbing players by the scruff and forcing them to sit back and enjoy a largely predetermined ride. In Bioshock the player-controlled character is literally dropped into an underwater world gone wrong where violence is infinitely (another pun, for the initiated) more valuable than dialogue. Indeed the protagonist does not speak at all throughout the entire game. Instead, they progress through a long series of dangerous rooms. This, graphical polish aside, isn’t all that different from the long series of dangerous rooms much older games like Doom, at least as far as everything strictly defined as gameplay goes.
“Linear” if often a dirty word when describing video games today, but Bioshock’s master stroke is that it puts linearity to narrative use. The player begins the game thinking that they are helping another character fight against corruption in the aforementioned undersea dystopia. Eventually, however, it is revealed that the protagonist has been subtly brainwashed from the start. Now, while only the player-controlled-character was literally brainwashed, by definition, in a linear game, the player wasn’t given any choice either. They were, in fact, forced to unknowingly lead the protagonist down the single path offered by the game, come what may. Some players may find it frustrating that the game would, in a way, chastise them for taking the only option available (outside of turning off the TV). But the frustration or (if the player is truly engaged with the game) guilt that the player feels is very closely related to experience of the protagonist, and this allows players to experience Bioshock‘s narrative in a very direct way. That sounds like a groundbreaking form of narrative expression to me.
The “why” of Bioshock’s involvement with cyberspace and video games should thus be yet more obvious than the “why” of Mass Effect or Skyrim; it is truly impossible to create this kind of experience in any other medium. Video games allow players to control narrative progress step by step in a way that is impossible in any pre-determined medium like film or literature, and by responding to this control Bioshock dupes players in a fantastic fashion. The only rival here might again be tabletop role playing games, but there a feeling of arbitrariness might be unavoidable in a story like Bioshock‘s. At any rate, Bioshock suggests that, while Mass Effect and Skyrim can achieve impressive but ultimately imperfect openness in narrative presentation, presenting a perfectly linear narrative is well within the realm of possibility for video games. Bioshock thus succeeds by presenting a linear narrative which nevertheless takes advantage of the interactive nature of video games.
In concluding this post it is tempting to reach for some kind of generalization about narrative presentation in video games that might lead to an overall “why” for video game art. At this point, though, I think I’ll hold off on such a pronouncement. Instead, it’s better to just remember that a video game is different than a painting, a film, a dance, etc. and by that virtue alone it will have its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the presentation of a narrative may require the particular advantages and disadvantages of another medium, but in some cases presenting a narrative as a video game may be the most compelling course of action.