Tuesday, June 2, 2009

interactive aesthetics

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that the content would not be all work-related. I wanted to make this blog into a collection of my own interests which include music, videogames, and literature. This is my first post on these topics. I promise that any posts like these will be as colorful as possible in terms of providing links to articles, youtube videos, etc. to allow you to fully appreciate my interest in the topic.

Are videogames an artform? I would certainly argue that there is some truth to that idea. Art is defined by Merriam-Webster as " the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects ". Aesthetics, furthermore, is defined as " a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty". Given these definitions, videogames definitely fit into the scheme of artwork. Games are an experience on multiple levels of sense: sight, sound, and sometimes touch are combined into an interactive experience that "tickles" the senses of the user, so to speak. With the development of technology over the last 30 years or so, the ability for videogames to appeal to one's senses in new and unique ways has increased dramatically: music, landscape and character design, and graphics have all become much more sophisticated, for good and for bad.

Here are some of my favorites that have challenged my perspective on the artistic value of games:

Okami (PS2 and then the Wii)
Check out some of the beautiful artwork from the game here: http://www.creativeuncut.com/art_okami_b.html

Katamari Damacy games (PS2, XBox360)
Definitely one of my favorite songs from the soundtracks can be found here:

Metal Gear Solid (hereafter "MGS", PS)

Each of these games influenced me in a unique way, but MGS did so in a way that was not only beautiful aesthetically speaking, but also challenged the boundaries of the relationship between videogames and reality.

I recently returned to Metal Gear Solid out of curiosity and I was struck with aspects of the game which I realized for the first time. This is a reflection on some of the themes and gameplay, and where MGS sits in the history of videogames.

The first time I played Metal Gear Solid (MGS) for the Playstation was close to 10 years ago. It came out in 1998 and whether I actually played it that year or the year afterwards is unclear to me. Nevertheless, it's been a while. It also means I was between 12 and 13 at the time it was released, and so I had forgotten much of the story. Returning to the game after so many years was quite an experience. I was able to reconnect with familiar characters while at the same time revisit an intriguing storyline that I'd largely forgotten. There were also some deeper themes that I was able to contemplate for the first time: I was not as seasoned a gamer as I am now. This has allowed me to look back on MGS from a sort of "meta-gaming" level, thinking about the game not just as-is but its larger place in videogame history. This was a very rewarding experience. I can only imagine what it would be like to now, say, revisit a game like FF7 and go through the same experience (you can revisit the classic Aeris death scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wx3duFYCcho). But, somehow, something about MGS is unique. It was revolutionary in a fundamentally different way from other "pathbreakers" such as FF7.

What do I mean by this? I'll try to explain it as clearly as possible. MGS takes itself very seriously at times, and at other times, blatantly reminds the gamer that they are playing a videogame. The storyline is very complex, involving the threat of nuclear war by a group of terrorists, genetic experimentation, and love/betrayal/intrigue. This is all set to the backdrop of a gameplay system that does not emphasize killing the enemy. Instead, the theme in MGS is espionage: sneaking past guards, covering up your footsteps in the snow by crawling over them, using chaff grenades and stun grenades instead of automatic weapons, and other elements that were, frankly, a very cool idea for a videogame. It also makes the action much more suspenseful, and when you put it all together with the storyline one can see why this game gets quite intense at times. (More than once I found myself jumping in my seat when spotted by the enemy, or agonizing over a missed sniping shot that left me completely vulnerable.)

So far so good, right? Yes, but at times the game purposely reminds you that you're playing a videogame. This comes from multiple areas: characters in the game telling you to "press the circle button" at a particular point to proceed, or having to locate a code to progress in the game that comes from the back of the CD case of the game itself (who would have thought when a character in the game tells you to "look at the back of the CD case" for a passcode you need that you would literally have to find your copy of the game and check the back of it?). There are many more examples, one of the more outrageous of which is where one boss battle actually requires you to switch game controller ports so the boss can no longer "read your mind", and they use their psychic powers to move your controller for you (utilizing the dual shock feature of the Playstation controller). Check out the very disturbing battle with Psycho Mantis here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azYdJ9dPx5o . Instead of distancing you from the action, all of these features actually engross you more into the story, action and gameplay.

People who take the game itself too seriously will find these ploys cheesy. That explains why a very small number of people actually do not like MGS for these reasons. When you read negative reviews of the game, this is exactly where they identify their concerns. Most people liked the game quite a bit, and that's because they took the game and these "meta-game" aspects together, and saw them as a package. It is after looking back many years that I understand Hideo Kojima's (the director's) intent more clearly and therefore can enjoy the game even more.

I think what I really appreciate about it is this combination of game and reminding you that you're playing a game. Not only do these features make the game purely more fun, but they also give the gamer a better appreciation of what the creator of the game is trying to do in terms of making statements about the videogame industry, society, politics, etc. Sure, the game is fun. Sure, the meta-game stuff is thought provoking. But I can easily imagine someone taking the meta-game part too far. Think about a game where you're constantly reminded that it's just a game: you'll never be able to get into the story because some designer is hammering his agenda into you. And, great games have obviously been designed without any meta-game features: classic shoot 'ems like Metroid or RPGs like Zelda totally immerse you in their world and that's what makes these games so charming. Metal Gear Solid stresses both in a way that allows you to truly appreciate what Kojima is trying to do, and it's that kind of smart game design that allows me to group it in my mind with classics such as Chrono Trigger and Kingdom Hearts which are more world-immersion games.

Finally, check out this interview with Kojima, where he is asked whether videogames are art:

Kojima argues that where art and videogames diverge is at the point of interactivity. I would agree: art is meant to be experienced as something that someone else has made, it is the artist's creation you are experiencing. As soon as you alter the world, it is no longer the developer's artwork. The question becomes -- are there games that allow the user to create art as he moves through a game? I think level design features of, say, Little Big Planet, or "freeform" games like Katamari Damacy or Noby Noby Boy may actually fit into this category, but it's definitely the topic of an entirely new post. For now, I will go back to the MGS series and see if I can uncover the comprehensive philosophy that Kojima has given us with his games.

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