Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Walking Games: The acceptance of nothing and rejection of games

Some time ago, IGN user and, one-time and possibly current, reader gameplayer1000 (S/O BRAH) pointed me in the direction of Jim Sterling's darling vlog thing "Jimquisition" and specifically, his opinion on "walking games"/"art games" or as he put them, "Lazy, Boring, Ordinary, Art Games". First of all, I think it's clear that he's being intentionally aggressive and offensive with this, his decrying of "pretension" and all sorts of other buzzwords that are attributed to games not fitting the status quo (of sorts) isn't probably his true intention, or at least, I will say it's not for the sake of not sounding like I'm hating him as a person or whatever. However, in the context of this article of his, it's how it's framed, spiteful and arrogant. Because of this arrogance, he really doesn't even make a sufficient point in the entire video; most of it is spent trying to clamor about promoting his superiority in not being "fooled" by their pretension.

But aside from his attitude throughout the thing, he attempt to make points in the video, mostly about these games becoming "normal", and noting four games (one of which is a free flash game, another that's a free downloadable, really meaning that only two of these games have actually gotten any sort of attention outside of small circles... not really supporting his idea that they've become as standard as FPS), so really, it only comes to question about the variety one can have within these games where all you do is "walk around while some vague story reveals around you". With a supplemental post (I'll post it sometime after this) I'll actually go into the games in which he brings up, but let's just consider what it is to be this "walking game".

First of all, I don't intend on actually getting into this whole "games are art" thing... It's relatively meaningless unless we can, at the least, accept a general outline of what a "game" is and what "art" means in context. In this article, "game" is simply going to refer to "interactive media". Anything that involves you directly manipulating a character or function of the story in this case will count (sure even choose your own adventure books whatever). The reason I do this, is because of the connotation of a game. It's structured in a way that assumes an endpoint, and rules you abide by in order to get to that endpoint against a chance at failure. Under these, most of what he mentions really wouldn't be considered a game (The Path is funny about this, but I'll go on that in the supplemental). I also believe that part of that connotation invites the entire issue of his article... these "psuedo-games" are boring to him. You don't contend against a chance of failure, you just mess around until you finish. To him, this is all the same, you aren't presenting anything new by this structure, and you can't variate within it.

That's worth discussing, because if this is true, expression in game is largely in danger. For a good reference point, let's compare these "walking games" to FPS, as he suggests in his article. In the boards, I actually mentioned that I believe Passage is as different from Dear Esther as it is from Call of Duty: MW. Again, I'll try to refrain from going too much into actual examples until the supplemental, but the argument is that with Passage and Dear Esther you're doing the same thing. He argues that because you are so limited in actions, they are similar... partially true, but movement is a large subset. You can "move" in many ways, and movement can mean many things. It can be literal progression, but it can be metaphorical, it could mean aging, maturing, "exploring" in an existential stance, a number of things. Movement can be as different from movement as walking is from shooting. In this article however, he refrains from it, stating that in all of these games you do the exact same... nothing. You walk and the story unfolds around you.He argues, if I want to be detached and experience a story, I'll read a book.

So what's the difference between a walking game and a book? Space and movement. Reacting to space and environment. Not the actual atmosphere, but the literal space. Not the direction, the actual movement. You still have manipulation directly on the characters and story and environment. You have an effect on the composition of just WHAT is going on. You are walking, the same as your character in Halo is shooting. You do things yourself that the character does. In Dear Esther (the main game from his article, mostly a direct comparison on it) you experience the isolation and wonderment of this island metaphor first hand, and you experience it based on your own interpretation and path of discovery. With a novel or a film, you have the island, you can even have it exactly as it is in the game, but you have something set, you have a wonderment that is stifled by the bounds of the artist (well, bound more tightly). You can't necessarily lose yourself in the expanse of the island. Dear Esther may not be the most metaphorically strong game when it comes to the structure of a game, but it prevents an environment meant to evoke the same sense of self-discovery as the story of the game. You're not given an identity from the onset, you spend this time discovering the island wondering what it involves, who it represents, and what you are doing there. The fact that you're doing nothing works as a way to lead to this sense of self-discovery, and it without a doubt strengthens the concepts of the story, making this sense of desperation resonant tenfold.

The most troubling portion of this article, however, is the demand for action. He, himself, partially makes up for this by bringing up Journey, and discussing what it does well in the confines of "not doing much" (although praising Journey but denouncing Every Day the Same Dream is a bit silly to me). There is a demand that resounds from the gaming community. A sense of power, and a desire for the unimaginable (funny enough, Journey is nearly directly a commentary on that). It makes sense, it's arguably biological, at the least hegemonic, to have this desire for competition and superiority. However, in demanding this, we lose a chance for expression. By demanding from developers to force this sort of interaction, we are essentially demanding that they neglect expression in the case of it. It's obviously possible to express emotion through gameplay while still making a technical demanding game (I punched with tears in God Hand), and it is obviously acceptable to not express emotion, but to contend that a game that puts such a focus on expression that it neglects interplay is worthless is just closed-minded.

Anyway, this is a topic that is really focuses on examples I feel like, or at least it's better to use examples, so wait for the supplemental, I'll explain the worth of Passage and Every Day the Same Dream and probably try to go somewhat in depth with The Path and how it somewhat comments directly on this article. It shouldn't be long before it's up (at least some time tomorrow, hopefully tonightish)

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