2013-04-05

Entertainment vs. Art

What Makes a Game Good?

Since I've started following art games, I've been analysing games with a literary lens, much like I would movies or novels. This contrasts with how I used to view games: a game succeeded when it was fun and well-balanced.

There seems to be two ways to evaluate the quality of videogames: mechanically (fun) and artistically (literary). I use the word "artistic" here to describe the qualities of art games. Here's how Wikipedia defines them:

An art game is ... a video game designed to emphasize art or whose structure is intended to produce some kind of reaction in its audience... and they are the result of artistic intent by the party offering the piece for consideration.

I know that every videogame contains art, and that the meaning of each game is subjective, but there is a difference in the way that games for fun and games made to convey a message are designed. It's just a different type of videogame, and one is not better than the other.

It's like there exists a spectrum with purely entertaining games at one end and videogames as artistic expression on the other.

Fun Games

Games are made up of game mechanics. A well-designed game usually translates to a fun, entertaining game. For many, a good game is necessarily a fun game; it's the way we traditionally decide if a game is good or not.

Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario 64 are incredibly fun because their mechanics were revolutionary and superbly designed for their time. The Uncharted series is a prime example of a game built to be fun, and the series succeeds at delivering spectacle. At the end of a game like Uncharted or Mario, the player is satisfied. You're not always left questioning life or anything, but that's not the game's point.

The most popular multiplayer games fall into this category. My online shooter of choice is Counter-Strike for its balanced competitive gameplay. There's a reason why League of Legends is so popular, and it's not only because it's free-to-play. StarCraft's popularity in Korea is almost unbelievable. There is a whole esport community that has developed around these games because mechanically and competitively, they're as good as it gets. I'm simplifying this category, but their end goal remains the same: fine-tuned fun.

Art Games

For a briefing on how videogames are moving beyond fun, I invite you to watch this episode of Penny Arcade's Extra Credits: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/beyond-fun.

If I were to discuss a game like To the Moon or Journey, I wouldn't be raving about how fun it is or how balanced the mechanics are. Often, mechanics in art games are very minimal, such as Hush, September 12, Cow Clicker, or Darfur Is Dying. It's the way that it makes the gamer feel and what it makes them contemplate that really matters. Minimal mechanics can even be preferable: Jason Rohrer's art games Gravitation and Passage benefit from having  simple mechanics that can then be interpreted as metaphors (http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/mechanics-as-metaphor-part-1).

Spec Ops: The Line

The most recent game I played that fits the bill is Spec Ops: The Line. I learned from trusted videogame sources that it's worth playing for the message, but that the gameplay was not so good. It was even Yahzee's game of the year, and what this especially bitter critic says while discussing why this game is his favorite of 2012 highlights this duality within videogames:

"And thanks a f***ing bunch Yager Development, cause now I have to keep playing modern military shooters just in case they turn out to be the most exciting thing to happen in videogame narratives for f***ing years! It's my game of 2012 not necessarily for being the best game functionally, but for being the game that most f***ing deserves being played." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6V6MI1ZSRfg)

To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.

Spec Ops: The Line is a substantial game, but not a fun one. When discussing it, you must consider the social context in which it was made, the clichés of the shooter genre, and its study of war-related mental issues. The PC Gamer review sums it up well: "A generic shooter with lots to say." Extra Credits even dedicated two episodes to the game: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/spec-ops-the-line-part-1 (can you tell  I really like Extra Credits?). It's not one I'll soon forget, and the mediocre gameplay isn't going to stop that. In this case, it even strengthens the game's message (as discussed in the Extra Credits videos).

The Best of Both Worlds

While I love many videogames for either their mechanical or artistic side, these two qualities are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, a videogame will be satisfying and challenging all the while meriting literary study and critique. Last week's BioShock Infinite is a great example: while I had a lot of fun playing it, I had as much (if not more) fun analysing and discuss its plot and significance.

A fun anecdote: while discussing the game with a friend, he stated that he wouldn't play the game if it weren't fun, whereas I would definitely have. I've even read an online article stating that the game would be better without the shooter mechanics. I guess it all depends on what you're looking for in a game.

While Braid is often cited as an excellent art game, I know it's success is equally due to its great gameplay. I would also consider Portal and the original BioShock as a blend of these two game types. Judging from these examples, games that somehow manage to excel in both mechanics and artistry are a recipe for success.

The Genre Problem (Again!)

Is Call of Duty better than Spec Ops: The Line? Professional reviewers definitely thinks so. Their sales most definitely tell a similar story.

As I discussed in my last blog post, traditional videogame genres and classifications all but ignore the actual content of videogames. Mechanically, Call of Duty is better than SO:TL, and the reviews scores show this. However, there is no real conventions when it comes to the artistic merit of videogames. Thus, many gamers will pass up on SO:TL for being a generic shooter while ignoring the fact that it kicks Call of Duty's butt under a literary lens. Unfortunately, review scores will not reflect this.

If it's not fun, it can't be good, right? Wrong.

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