Monday, June 01, 2009

It's a Game, It's Not a Game, Whatever: It's Art

Last week I discovered The Path, an interactive piece of software developed by Tale of Tales. You navigate one of six young girls away from the short and easy path to her grandmother's house and into the woods to discover things and people, and her "personal wolf". Much of the onscreen activity comes from the software, rather than from any sort of direct control.

Is it a Game?

First things first: notice that I didn't say "game" in the above paragraph. Why not?

The home page of The Path describes the work as "a short horror game", and you are exhorted to buy the "game". Yet, on the About page of Tale of Tales, they claim that their purpose is
to create elegant and emotionally rich interactive entertainment. We explicitly want to cater to people who are not enchanted by most contemporary computer games, or who wouldn’t mind more variety in their gameplay experiences. For this purpose, all of our products feature innovative forms of interaction, engaging poetic narratives and simple controls.
Games are one type of interactive entertainment, but not the only type. The above paragraph is nearly devoid of the word "game", except insofar as their aim is to target people who play games with something different. Instead, they call their work "interactive entertainment", or "products" with "interaction", "narratives", and "controls".

Similarly, on the bottom of their site is a small About box, which reads
We make interactive projects that often take place in virtual spaces. Our motivation is mostly artistic. We want to discover and exploit the enormous expressive potential of realtime technology.
"Interactive projects", "realtime technology".

So what is The Path? Is it a game? Is it even entertainment? Is it an interactive experience?

The Problem with Calling This a Game

The problem with calling The Path a "game" is that people then evaluate it as a game.

As a game, it is perforce classified as entertainment and recreation. As a game, it is contrasted to other games with regards to fun, replayability, accessibility, decision-making, flow, strategy, excitement. These are yardsticks for evaluating games.

But it is evident that The Path is not meant to be most of these things. It is deliberately trying to tap other emotions other than fun, isn't concerned with replayability, provides more story than decisions, has no defined goal on which to hang strategy, and is meant to produce a very different type of excitement.

A great number of critics of The Path, lulled by the word "game" and the criteria as to which all games must perforce satisfy, see fit to criticize The Path as falling short in one or more of these criteria.

Other critics take issue with all designers of products such as these, claiming that people who design non-fun, non-replayable "games" should stop sullying the name of games, and stop looking to games to make artistic points. In their eyes, games can't make these points, because that's not what games do.

Maybe they are right. If you DEFINE quality in a game as fun, replayable, goal-oriented, flow, and so on, then these are not quality games. And one can never make a quality artistic game, because by definition, cognizance of art is and can never be more than an interruption in the flow of the drive to win. Beautiful graphics and lovely game play are by necessity lost within flow, strategy, and goal-orientation. Winning, as a goal, is antithetical to the concept of art, at a very core level. And so if a game requires you to win, any message irrelevant to winning can only detract from the game.

I have no issue with this. I don't like to argue about what "should" be the definition of "game". If that's your definition, then we just have to come up with another word for what projects like The Path are. Just be aware that others will argue that game could consist of interactive activities that are not necessarily goal-oriented or fun.

The confusion arises because this software is designed by a "game company" for a "game platform" and called a "game". But can only games can be created by game publishers or experienced on game platforms? You can watch movies on most game platforms, can't you?

Is it a Movie?

Rather than be held up to the standards of a game, what if we consider The Path a movie?

If you go into a movie expecting a game, you're bound to be disappointed. No controls! No goals! Movies, or more broadly theater, television, film, and other performance arts, have their own criteria for quality: visuals, sound, composition, acting, plot, theme, and so on.

How does The Path rate as a movie? Anyone?

No, It's Not Quite a Movie

You can fail to finish a movie, like you can fail to finish a game. A movie might present difficult to understand metaphors that are a challenge to understand. A game gives you challenges that you must overcome; however, these are typically overcome by discovering some spot on the board or control sequence, not through epiphany.

We expect movies to be non-interactive, and for good reason. Part of the art of movie making is pacing, narrative juxtapositions, specific shot angles, story arc, and so on. You could create an interactive movie that is simply a "choose your own adventure", where all of these are guaranteed regardless of what choices are made. But that's a very low level of interactivity.

Most games allow you to move forward and backward, in endless loops, angle screens from various directions, and fail to complete part of the narrative. Can that ever really produce a cogent work of art?

What is it?

What do we do with interactive entertainment that is not a "game" and not a "movie"? They appear to be more movie than game, if we burden game with all sorts of requirements that non-goal oriented activities, or even goal-oriented but non-win oriented activities don't have. We could simply call them interactive movies.

Interactive entertainment borrows from both games and movies. It's somewhat interesting that game developers, and not movie producers/directors, have been primarily the ones interested in making them, since conventional wisdom seems to think that they're more like movies than like games.

The reason for this is that even those dipping their toes into these waters so often labor under the illusion that they must include game trappings. There is still a feeling of having to throw in entertaining game play or the possibility of winning, or goals, or quests. None of this is truly necessary. But when they are not, what is there in its place? You have to fill the void with something gripping.

The Path

Reviews: fidgit, Slate, Brainy Gamer, Videogamer, IGN, neoSeeker, Eurogamer, Bit-Tech, Horror Style, Die Hard Gamer Fan (truly hates the game, and gives spoilers), Joystiq, Escapist, Pop Matters, GameZone, Indie Gamer, and many more.

I am not a video gamer. This is the first video game I've bought since Myst, a game I also didn't understand or complete. The only other video games I've played (since around 1990) are online board game implementations and Minesweeper.

That makes me a complete newbie with regards to video games. As a newbie, I am unused to devoting more than ten minutes to a single-player game - I devote an entire day to tabletop games, but usually a dozen different ones throughout the day, and interspersed with social and strategic interaction. The Path is puzzle.

I'm not into puzzles. I don't enjoy wandering around trying to find deliberately obscure clues and items; I enjoy trying to work out metaphors in movies, but only because there is no single right solution. In a puzzle game, there is usually only one right solution and no clues that you're even getting closer. And the solution is usually pressing the right key or crossing the right square, which is hardly deep; it's methodical.

I spent two hours wandering around in the game, discovering things, interacting with things, and collecting things. I admired the personalities of two of the girls, and suspect that there is a whole lot more to discover, but I couldn't be bothered to continue. Nearly all of the things I see in the above reviews are not things that I discovered myself; I wouldn't know they exist unless those who actually know video games and had the determination and hours of time to complete them neatly wrapped them up in an article for me to read in a few minutes.. Maybe I'll give it another go some other time.

That's where I have a problem: as a game, of course it's slow, ponderous, and not really rewarding. As a movie, it's slow, ponderous, and not really insightful over the first few hours. If the entire thing could be played in 2 hours AND I would be guaranteed to discover everything within that time, I would probably think that it was an amazing game. But The Path is obviously aimed at experienced video gamers who know what to expect. Not movie goers and what they expect.

For someone like me, whose never played a long game, I can't possibly devote 12 hours to it to get this experience. Give me a boiled down version of the game and I'll love it. Make it into a movie. If interactive games are going to be this long, they're not going to reach the public any time soon.

Further reading: see my articles on games and art, and games and winning.
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