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Sacrificing the game for the art? Not so much.
Published on November 22, 2008 By mittens In Gaming

Esquire's Future of Video Game Design is considered required reading in these parts from today onward. And, given this revelation, Jason Rohrer's Passage is also now considered required playing.

The Esquire piece brings about one of the game industry's favorite set piece discussions (along with digital rights management and booth babes): games as art. It's a topic I've discussed once before but don't relish discussing at length all too often. Discussions that wiggle around the specific semantics of a term as loosely defined as "art" aren't really conducive to any sort of definite conclusions; it's as subjective a viewpoint as the concept of "fun." Everyone knows art/fun when they see it or experience it, but trying to describe it as a definite concept is considerably more difficult. We can all point to examples of games which make us, as the player, feel artistically enlightened such as Braid and Rez just as easily as we can point to games that serve as their antitheses like Madden NFL 2009 or Gears of War 2. The same can be said for music and cinema. It's not about the definition of art, it's about the experience. And an experience isn't a conclusive piece of evidence either way.

I believe that anyone who plays Passage, in particular, will agree that it is an emotional experience. If one allows themselves to enter into the type of mindset when trying out Passage that he/she would when listening to music which conjures up pleasant or enjoyable memories or emotions, it seems a near-certainty that he will come away feeling something after the five-six minute journey. Passage stands out to me as the product of someone that has the ability to channel so singular a vision into a program and the result is, basically, an interactive emotional experience. That said, I'm hesitant to call Passage a game. Sure, it has all the trappings of a typical game: a linear progression composed of love and death and a metric by which progress is measured (the score counter in the upper-right), but these features don't make the title a game so much as they seem like set dressing for a just-interactive-enough movie that uses basic keyboard controls as a way to ensure it has the viewer's attention.

The current search for artistic games within the game industry is a witch hunt. But no witches will be burned in this witch hunt, no. The end goal is to make the witch be our friend. We want to make our witch famous so we can take her by the hand and show our friends in other industries that we have our own witch too -- one that is unique to us. The casualty in this search is the game; videos games are a medium which sacrifices that other stuff, like narrative, for the sake of the player. We all want our games to tell unique stories that could rival that of any book or movie but the concept of the narrative is diametrically opposed to the intrinsic dynamism of video games. The more a writer tells his story, the less the player controls his.

Then again, Jason Rohrer seems to have found a way to maintain gameplay and a dynamic story. But can it be extrapolated to a AAA game?


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