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Monday, August 22, 2011

Video Games as High Art

There are three games that stand out to me (and thus, three games that I bring up) when the discussion of "games as high art" comes to the table. Now, it's no coincidence that these three titles are the same as three of my four favorite games of all time, but the reason they are my favorites is because they stood out to me, not the other way around. The three titles in question are (in alphabetical order) - Ico, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and Missile Command. Let's look at them one by one, shall we?

First, let's start with the elephant in the room, Missile Command. I know what you're probably thinking "How can an arcade game from the 80s that's a bunch of dots and lines and bleeps and bloops be 'High Art'?". What few realize, at least conciously, is that missile command makes perhaps one of the most poignant anti-nuclear statements of all time. Game designer James Portnow (Extra Credits) perhaps says it best http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/narrative-mechanics. The elephant in the room isn't sonoticeable now, is it? Missile command is the perfect blend of narrative, gameplay, immersion, and entertainment.

Moving on, Ico is perhaps the closest to missile command perfection that one may find in this modern era of slick visual presentation. Let's get this out of the way, yes, even though cutscenes are infrequent, Ico is an incredibly visual game (unlike MC). The environments are vast and beautiful and serve to deliver an immediate sense of scale not possible in a non-visual medium (like the Lord of the Rings movies did for the books). The aesthetic of the castle in which the title character is trapped and the characters themselves are unique and almost feel like moving paintings. The biggest difference between Ico and a purely visual work is that almost everything that you see is as a result of player action. Ico is close to Missile Command in design in that it's very minimal. There is no hud, controls are relatively simple, and very little of the story is explicitly stated. Most of the story is created by the player as they guide Ico and Yorda through their trial. The true beauty in Ico is the game's ability to illicit emotional attachment to a fictional character. In many ways, Yorda was a proto-companion cube, except she was much better than the CC because the attachment is formed by the player, not by some witty dialogue that treats her like a living thing. As you spend time with her, a bond is formed. Things change from a necessity to protect her (since the puzzles are unsolvable without her) to a desire to do so as evidenced by a near-endgame event during which almost everyone (myself included) automatically jump toward Yorda instead of running for freedom. It is a truly unique experience that is yet unmatched in it's emotional immersion in any medium.

Now, you may be wondering why Ico and not the significantly more succesful Shadow of the Colossus. It has nothing to do with success, I assure you. It has to do with the fact that the narrative, while limited, is almost entirely told through exposition instead. The game is certainly unique, but uniqueness alone is not enough to herald something as an example of high art.

Finally, we move on to what is perhaps my favorite game... Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. MGS3 is probably as far away from Missile Command in terms of narrative/gameplay integration as one can get before falling into visual novel or JRPG territory. Non-interactive cutscenes aplenty that act as exposition with gameplay contributing very little to the story. This is somewhat justified in that in most of them the player character is an inactive observer anyway. However, the gameplay does one thing very well. Better than any film I've ever seen. It creates tension. That's not to say that previous games in the franchise don't, but not nearly as well. In every previous game in the Metal Gear franchise, the player is given sufficient cover/concealment to avoid contact with the enemy. Once the player memorizes the patrol pattern, one can easily maneuver from cover to cover. MGS3 is different. In MGS3, true sources of cover (walls, boxes, etc.) are few and far between. You must instead use imperfect concealment (grass, stumps, etc.) combined with conventional camouflage uniforms to maximize your camo index (chance that an enemy will pass by without noticing you). Unfortunately, there is no way to conventionally get 100%. This means that no matter how well you camouflage yourself, there is a chance that the enemy will spot you. This makes it so that every time a soldier walks near you, you completely stop moving, your heart beats a little faster, sometimes you ready your weapon and your eyes are pasted to the screen as you wait to see if that 85% index will be enough to fool this guy. If he does notice you, you have a very short amount of time to act before he calls for help. This situation is replicated throughout the game and it never gets any less intense. The other point in favor of this game is a single occurence toward the end. After defeating your character's mentor in a duel, a cutscene is interrupted and the game becomes playable again. Only one action can be taken, executing your mentor. The game forces the player to pull the trigger. In my opinion, it is by far the most compelling artistic choice I have ever seen in any medium and one that is only possible in video games. Also, MGS3 is the only thing that has ever made me cry manly tears.

So that's that I guess. Probably could give it a little more thought, but I can always elaborate on points later, if anyone cares (or reads this).

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