by Jessica Mulligan
As one might imagine, the column Just Give Me A Game, Please caused something of a stir. To which I say, "Good." One of the purposes of this column is to get people talking about the issues because thats one way change happens, and Lordy, do we need some change in this industry.
The Case For Art
By Raph Koster
Henry James wrote, in "The Art of Fiction," that the first obligation of a story is to be interesting. And Jessica Mulligan, in her Biting the Hand column of a few weeks ago entitled "Just Give Me a Game, Please," made the case that the first obligation of an online game is to be fun.
Now, I wouldnt know to draw the parallel unless I was an artsy type myself. Theres no hiding it, no denying it I mean, Jesus, Im quoting Henry James. Ive spent time in the ivory towers of creative writing programs, Ive waited nervously in anterooms for my turn to play piano in front of a critical groups of music profs, Ive worried over the right shade of gray to use in a still life of well-polished bones and bottles, and Ive even done poster artwork for theater productions. Many might say (well, why ignore it: they did say) that Jess article meant, well, me.
But when Jess asked if Id write a rebuttal, I had to think about it, and ask other peoples opinions. You see, its sort of fashionable to put down being artsy, these days. After all, the publics image of art is religious icons dipped in excrement, its tediously boring French films, its dumping cases of type on a page and calling it poetry. These days, you can read about Art (with a capital A, of course) and substitute in this phrase: "pretentious, incomprehensible, shallow, manipulative, boring crap." Why sign up to defend something that has that rep?
Well, its a valid rap. I have no tolerance for artsy crap. I find pretentious, overly craft-driven, self-referential, obscure, tangled, and weighty books to be garbage. Same for movies. I dont like most foreign films. I think its the problem with poetry today. Its why jazz lost its audience. Why nobody cares who is writing the Great American Novel. And this may be the shortest rebuttal in history, because I agree with the premise that the first obligation of an online game is to be fun.
Nonetheless, Im here to make the case for art. Because unlike Jess, I think that its something that the game industry, and especially online games, need now more than ever.
Art or Entertainment?
First off, let me dispose of the false dichotomy that plagues all these debates. Art and Entertainment are not in opposition. Now, Ive got a broad definition of "entertain" (and here you can substitute in any number of words that all mean roughly the same thing: captivate, intrigue, command attention) but I think most people do too. Art that does not entertain is bad art. Games that are not fun are bad games.
This does not mean that good entertainment is necessarily art. Entertainment is hard. Most people suck at entertaining others. Its a goddamn hard skill to learn, and if it werent, wed have many more stand-up comedians in the world, a heck of a lot more mimes, and we wouldnt have 500 channels with nothing on, boring radio and lame movies every summer weekend. Entertainment is hard and theres nothing wrong with trying to master just that.
But art offers more than just something that is compelling. Art can do many things: entertain, challenge, teach, explain, amuse, inspire Art subsumes entertainment. Which is why we often preface "entertainment" with "mere." Its a small part of art. A vitally important one, certainly, because frankly, art which doesnt entertain is art which is going to spectacularly fail at accomplishing all the other things in that list.
So lets definitely cheer on the notion of Entertainment. Its a tough road to go down in the first place (how many crappy boring games were released last year?) and if all we manage is to entertain, then we should be justifiably proud of the work weve done.
But that doesnt mean we scorn the desire to go further. To take the next step and say, "well, thats hard enough, so I am going to settle for doing just that part, because then I know that I will please the audience " if that gets adopted as our national creed then we might end up with our media filled with emptyheaded blow-em-up movies, endless "reality" shows, and lots of bubblegum pop.
Oh wait, that already happened.
Art doesnt just offer pretention. In fact, when you see a pretentious artist, youre probably seeing one of three kinds of people: a poser who doesnt know what being an artist is actually like; someone on a government grant; or an actual genius, in which case you should just avoid talking to them. (Most geniuses arent very civil.)
Theres a difference between being pompous and being an artist. I dont know how many working artists (of whatever sort) you know, but most of the pompous ones cant make a living. Artists have to speak to people. Otherwise, they cant afford to do it again. And out in the real world, people who want to make a living at being artists know this (their other chance is to become snootily pretentious and live off of government grants, of course, but those are then the people you probably havent heard of). Real artists know that you cant forget entertainment, because its what gives them their next meal. Heck, they even have a term for that lengthy period of learning they go through, when they learn their chops and learn how to entertain. Its called "paying your dues."
So what does art offer?
The single biggest thing that art offers is an emphasis on craft.
All the arts are half science. When you go to learn to be a visual artist, a painter, say, dont think you get handed a beret and a brush and told, "express yourself on this canvas." No, its more like you get handed some sheets of colored paper and some glue and told, "read these 40 pages on luminance, weight, and color theory, then create a visually balanced design using one big square and one little square." It means sitting and learning the difference between a major and a minor scale. And then between modal scales and the major and minor. And then about non-tempered scales. And then about Neapolitan sixths and false cadences. It means classifying clumps of words into trochees and iambs and knowing why it matters that a line ends in a spondee.
Art means you develop terminology and language. Class clowns entertain (well, mostly because at that age, our standards arent yet high enough). Its done instinctively. People who are serious about a craft talk to others about their craft. They work hard at defining what it is they do, how they do it, and by formalizing and classifying their practices, they discover new ways to do things. And they respect their history (a favorite theme here at Biting the Hand).
Art brings perfectionism, because the goal of the entertainer is to do well enough, but the goal of the artist is to do better. I was once working on a drawing that was 2x2 feet in size, for three weeks. Midway through the third week, I was erasing a bit near the corner and the paper tore, just slightly. Not all the way through, just enough to make the surface perceptibly rougher than the rest of the sheet. My art professors reaction? "Oh, thats a shame, now youll have to start over." Be nice to have those standards in our game launches, yes?
The other big thing that art brings is ethics. Yes, there is such a high-flown phrase as "the responsibility of the artist." Entertainment is notoriously irresponsible. My current poster boy for a lack of cognizance of the impact the arts can have on people is what happened at the Woodstock concert redux, when Limb Bizkits performance actually whipped the crowd into a greater frenzy. The responsible thing to do would be to calm the crowd down (in the 1960s an equally ugly concert ended with a death, at a place called Altamont. But Mick Jagger at least had the sense to try to persuade the audience to settle down).
OK, now you ARE getting artsy. Do we need that stuff?
Silly question. Of course we do. Badly, in fact. The last few columns here at Biting the Hand have been about the need for common terminology, the need to launch titles that are polished and not buggy, and the need to be honest and respectful of your customers.
Ragging on those developers who speak of "using storyline to encode ethical systems" and "teaching moral lessons through gameplay" in times when we are under fire (and in lawsuits!) over tragedies like Columbine seems foolhardy. And surely were not saying that games cannot aspire to the level of your average men-in-tights superhero comic book? Isnt this why the Ultima series is revered by gamers? Isnt this what popular novels do? Movies?
Were making virtual places here, and theres other people on the other end of the line. When we put in a feature, its there for player A to use on player B. And when we choose to ignore pretentious phrases like "encoding moral values" and thus abdicate our "responsibilities as artists" were not only doing a disservice to the players, but to the whole industry which is struggling for legitimacy.
When we criticize game developers for using phrases like "communicating an expression to the audience" or "artistic differences," surely we dont mean that all RTS games have to have the same ruleset. There are people out theremanywho buy a game because a particular team, designer, or company made it. Thats what the above two things mean. Why are they "artsy?" Or is it just artsy to talk about it?
Then whats the issue?
Forgetting that there are people out there. You see, the pretension and pomposity comes about when you let those things above get in the way, and you forget to entertain or even to respect the audience.
But thats bad art.All innovations in game design are going to be "experiments." And yes, when you play a game, youre stuck playing it with the features that the programmers and designers put in there. And it isnt necessarily the best way for the game to work. But you are playing the game they made, not the game that you wish were there. And yes, they have to decide what to put in, and yes, they are going to decide based on their own best judgment, make trade-offs, and yes, even have a "Vision." It wouldnt get done if they didnt. This issue is really about is features and decisions that dont pan out. Or that players dont like. Yes, these do happen, and sometimes a designer may choose to not have a feature known to be fun in favor of trying something new.
The choice is simple. Have the old, fun way. Or try something new. Sometimes the new thing turns out to be fun. Sometimes it doesnt, and now we know. If we choose the door on the left every time, well eventually end up with only one game. Yes, it is a bad thing when un-fun features are in a game. But that is the price of progress, and I am not afraid to say it.
So I say, hooray for Art. If it means that this medium we love might develop and grow, if it means that well learn enough about it to have common practices, if it means that we will demand perfectionism and also depth of content and theme, manage to respect our audience along the way, and still always make things fun, absolutely heck yeah. Im not going to be ashamed to be one of "those people" called out in Jessicas article, and hopefully neither will you.