Monday, January 28, 2008

'Video games as art' debate ends

Before reading any further I highly recommend going here and just going along with what will happen, it should take about 10 minutes at the most. The following will mean much more if you take the 10 minutes.

I would also like to thank for bringing this to my attention and indirectly causing me to write this.

As video games, the fastest growing and evolving form entertainment, become more and more legitimate in the eyes of the general public, many questions about their merit will arise. Do they have any effect on people’s behavior? How should the government (if at all) legislate them? Are they simply a fad?

Those questions will get answered – indeed some of them already have been. But one will always remain: are video games art?

Video games undoubtedly have the capacity to move a player emotionally. The advances in storytelling, graphics and writing in the industry have elevated many games to almost Hollywood film-like levels. Many a gamer has confessed to crying during Aeris’ unexpected death in the classic Final Fantasy VII or being deeply afraid and disturbed in Silent Hill 2. The question “can video games affect the player?” is not a debate – it is a fact.

But art is a difficult term to define. For a very long time film was not considered art and in some circles, is still not on par with literature and the craft arts (painting, sculpture, etc.). Video games have the stigma of being the new kid on the block. Being barely 30 years old and targeted mostly to the 18-35 male demographic are two major factors that have kept video games from becoming art.

Up until very recently I was inclined to agree with the sentiment that games weren’t art. They have a learning curve, appeal to a somewhat narrow sub-division of people and require significant time/money investments.

All that changed with a game called Passage.

Passage is an extremely minimalist game. Its visuals are no better than any Atari game. The controls are nothing more than the four arrow keys on your computer. Its story – non-existent. In fact it’s difficult to call Passage a “game” at all as there are no goals and it isn’t really “fun.” But if that is true, what is it?

My first play through the game started like any other. I moved my on-screen character from left to right, like thousands of other two-dimensional games, towards some unknown goal. Upon seeing a female character (known as Sally from here on) that looked like mine, I walked up to her, and we were suddenly joined. Upon grabbing some treasure and seeing my presumed score (the number in the top right hand corner) rise, I thought I had the game figured out.

As I progressed it became obvious that I could not access certain areas with Sally. Soon the pixilated characters started to change, subtly at first, only eye and “clothing” color changed. Then my characters began to visibly age, graying hair and a slower walk. Suddenly, Sally died - became a tombstone almost instantly. My avatar became hunched and the soundtrack slowed, with the never ending right side of the screen becoming more and more blurry. My character’s death was almost foreseeable. There was no goal in this “game,” no princess waiting to be rescued, no bosses to be defeated.

What Passage does that is so unique is that it manages to ask philosophical questions within its core “game-play.” While story-driven games like Killer7 and the Metal Gear Solid series have asked questions about politics, among other things, they have done so in narrative, not game-play. The decisions you make while playing Passage can be interpreted as decisions in life. Would you be better off without Sally? Should you go hunting for treasure? Explore laterally or always move forward? Try to beat the inevitable or accept it? Grieve over Sally’s death or move on? Although it is doubtful the way you play Passage is the way you live your life, what if, on some subconscious level, it was?

I read on a message board that a player simply stood over the grave of Sally, unable to move on. Whether true, exaggeration or sarcasm it did not shock me that a player had that reaction. Upon her death I kept trudging forward, although with a moment of surprise and shock.

How could the death of a character with no voice, no personality and no real relationship to me or my character whatsoever have any effect on me or anyone else? In many ways this death meant more than that of Aeris, Old Yeller, or any other character in any form of entertainment, because it felt real. I chose to be with this girl, I spent time with her, I grew old with her and I watched her die suddenly.

One can play through the game without Sally. While she does double your “score,” she doesn’t offer any abilities like a super jump or fireballs. That decision also allows the player to explore more freely and possibly make up for that score differential with treasure. But traveling alone, especially after playing the game with Sally, is a lonely experience. Sure, you can acquire more treasure - but some chests contain flies. And, as I assume is true in life, growing old and dying alone is a depressing ordeal. The game allows players to choose to travel alone or with Sally and the only reward/penalty one receives for either choice, is purely self-imposed.

My personal moment of intrigue during the game came during exploration. I admit that I like to explore during games, so it was not a surprise that I did the same during Passage. What was different was that I wasn’t allowed to go to certain places with Sally alongside me. I kept try and trying to squeeze into areas obviously made for one character, hoping that it was a glitch. But through it all I don’t recall thinking that I wish I didn’t have her along.

After playing Passage it is almost impossible to come away without a reaction. Some cried. Others felt an overwhelming sense of emptiness. Some didn’t get it. Others laughed. I don’t care if this is game, “interactive art” or something that defies definition. I do know that it is one of the most interesting philosophical pieces of media I have ever experienced. I urge anyone with even a fleeting interest in gaming (or philosophy, or art) to take five minutes and play this game. Even if you feel nothing or don’t understand it, that probably says something about you - that’s more than anyone can say about Super Mario Brothers or Halo.

Update: Creator, Jason Rohrer talks about what he wanted to say making the game


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