State of Play, Pt 2

Considering the artistic future of video games
by B. Kite  posted May 19, 2010
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This is the second of two articles on gaming culture inspired by this year's Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. Part 1 of "State of Play" can be read here.

Sidequest: Games and Movies and Books

Since some corners of both the development community and the press share a preoccupation with the idea of video games approximating or surpassing movies (specifically Hollywood blockbusters, if one leaves the phantom “Kane of games” out of the equation), it may be interesting to reverse the angle for a moment to take a brief look at movies and books that have utilized game structures. Jacques Rivette’s 12-and-a-half-hour Out 1 is a kind of game he played with his actors. Rivette gave them the freedom to come up with their characters, drafted a chart of interactions, and then let the proceedings play out as improvisation, only intervening through cryptic notes dropped into the purview of one character, who happened to be especially conspiracy minded. Out of this vast possibility space, the collective work soon began to take on its own internal logic, coalescing into definite forms and patterns, as each move had to be made in response to those already on the board, very much like Go. Later Rivette would invent a kind of citywide hopscotch in Le Pont du Nord, as if superimposing a grid of Snakes and Ladders over the map of Paris.

Experimental cinema is full of game constructions, with Hollis Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma perhaps the most famous example. The longest section of that film trains and then tests the viewer in a new “image alphabet,” in which each shot corresponds to a letter. Raúl Ruiz seemingly invents a new rule set for each film, and his Poetics of Cinema books serve as a veritable encyclopedia of means by which to break cinema free from the well-worn arcs of traditional narrative. In some ways, cinema itself seems too linear a form for Ruiz: some of his films seem to resist closure, as if the structures he’s set up could and perhaps should continue doubling back, starting again, and spiraling into new formations. Too bad he doesn’t make a game.

In Theory of Film Practice, Noël Burch coins the term “parametric narration” for movies that work with rule-based systems and strictly delimited formal sets. Ozu offers one example. The viewer need not be consciously aware of the formal systems he’s set in place, involving consistent camera-placement ratios in relation to figures, rhyming editing patterns, and playful narrative elision and misdirection. But for viewers who are, such elements introduce another level and a different kind of pleasure into the experience of the films. David Bordwell’s Ozu, or the Poetics of Cinema is the essential instruction manual.

Games and play exist on a shifting continuum, the former defined by its rule sets, the latter through its continual metamorphosis of object, referent, and activity. Play in its pure state is undefined by rules, or accepts rules on a provisional basis, ready to overturn them at any moment should a new possibility assert itself. Tati’s Playtime is an education in playful perception, alternating between sequences where attention is steered toward specific points and open fields in which the viewer is allowed to follow his or her own paths through a screen crowded with detail and incident.

Of course Burch’s parametric narration is just a variant on the kinds of formal systems that have long been operative in literature. Poetic forms like sonnets and sestinas are likewise rule sets, and a good deal of the fun in reading or writing them comes from seeing the kind of meanings and patterns such systems encourage and/or produce (how many striking metaphors have been born first from the exigencies of rhyme?) The Oulipo group, which counted among its members Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, and Harry Mathews, was founded as a mock laboratory for innovative rule sets.

All literature has some game aspect, though it’s more overt in some works than others. Joyce’s Ulysses is, among many other things, a bounded block of time and space, and readers are free to follow any number of itineraries within it, whether tracking the travels of Bloom’s lemon-scented soap or the mysterious peregrinations of the Man in the Brown Mackintosh. This was how Vladimir Nabokov read Ulysses, and as his Lectures on Literature demonstrate, it was his preferred means of approach for all fiction, not least his own.

This is just a swift overview of a rich topic. I’d go so far as to say that all artwork is interactive and involves a kind of play for both the maker and the receptive audience. Which brings us at last around to the—

Boss Fight

Internet disputes rarely resolve—they just dwindle down to vituperation, repetition, and increased incoherence. So the quest to change Ebert’s mind strikes me as doomed from the outset: he obviously has no interest in video games, and he certainly has sufficient claims on his time without them.

But if gamers’ investment in the subject mystifies me (and apparently baffles Ebert too, judging from his most recent column on the topic), so too am I confused as to why Ebert felt the need to weigh in on the issue in the first place. Since he has done so and continues to do so, and since many readers have probably skimmed the preceding sections just to get to this bit, let’s take a look at his arguments. (The full columns can be found here, here, and here.)

The basic one has remained unchanged since its first formulation in 2005: “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control….To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.” In 2007, in response to some remarks by novelist and sometime game designer Clive Barker, Ebert offered some ironic clarification of his position: “Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell’s soup. What I should have said is that games could not be high art, as I understand it. How do I know this? How many games have I played? I know it by the definition of the vast majority of games. They tend to involve (1) point and shoot in many variations and plotlines, (2) treasure or scavenger hunts, as in Myst, and (3) player control of the outcome. I don’t think these attributes have much to do with art; they have more in common with sports.” At the end of the piece, he returns to the soup motif: “Barker is right that we can debate art forever. I mentioned that a Campbell’s soup could be art. I was imprecise. Actually, it is Andy Warhol’s painting of the label that is art.”

One exchange between Barker and Ebert needs to be quoted in its entirety:

Barker: I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written Romeo and Juliet as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn’t taken the damn poison. If only he’d have gotten there quicker.

Ebert: He is right again about me. I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would Romeo and Juliet have been better with a different ending? Rewritten versions of the play were actually produced with happy endings. King Lear was also subjected to rewrites; it's such a downer. At this point, taste comes into play. Which version of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s or Barker’s, is superior, deeper, more moving, more “artistic”?

Shakespeare is certainly at the top of any list one can conceive when it comes to some shorthand signifier for “high culture,” but in other respects his inclusion is a little odd. No manuscripts for his plays exist, and it’s widely held that many of the texts we have are based on the fallible memories of his actors. As a consequence, some of his plays exist in variant forms, and some of the differences are pretty large. Which of the two versions of King Lear should stand as the statement of Shakespeare’s authorial control? The squabbles that issue has provoked have carried on for centuries, with no resolution in sight. Most single-volume editions of the play are cherry-picked amalgamations, according to the editor’s preferences.

In addition, it’s rare for Shakespeare to be performed without additional edits imposed by the director or dramaturge. Directors also take great license in interpretation, imposing a variety of conceits on the plays that would have been inconceivable to any Shakespeare we care to imagine. Should this be taken as a sort of coup, some attempt to wrest control from Shakespeare’s ghostly grasp, or is it yet another indication that art often involves a play in bounded fields and a continual overturning?

Warhol is surely the worst possible example Ebert could use to support his argument, since it’s highly possible that his own painting on any particular canvas was limited to his signature. Even the selection of colors for his prints was often left to trusted delegates, who also wrote two of the books credited to him (he didn’t call his studio the Factory for nothing). The importance of Warhol, and Duchamp before him, lies in part in the fact that they complicated the notion of “authorial control” almost past recognition. In its place they substitute a term more nebulous but finally perhaps more workable: that of sensibility. Warhol may have had little part in the day-to-day products of his Factory, but its operations were still galvanized by his presence and his aesthetic. It often fell to his collaborators to work out exactly what this aesthetic was (the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol is one brilliant product of this search). But trying to locate the Warhol sensibility at any particular point is a little like an experiment in quantum physics: one can only guess its position through inference, noting the territories through which it passed. And as for Shakespeare the controlling author, the search for his individual sensibility baffled some of his best readers, including Hazlitt and Coleridge. Borges wrote a short story on the premise that WS himself was a man utterly without qualities, but that God granted him universality in recompense.

As Ebert is surely aware, precisely this issue of control was one of the prime criticisms of the auteur theory, on the grounds that most studio directors lacked the right to final cut, were often assigned actors and technicians, and in many cases didn’t even originate the projects but worked where they were assigned. Despite this lack of authorial control, the argument goes, sensibility shines through, a magnet among metal filings. I think it does nothing to diminish the auteurist approach to note that it is, to a greater or lesser extent, a thought experiment.

So sensibility may well be a collaborative fiction, but it’s probably a necessary fiction for anyone with an active interest in any kind of artwork. The work and pleasure involves an ongoing process of coming to terms with the sensibility in question. One measure of the richness of the sensibility might be the extent to which it simultaneously stands as both distinctive and elusive (Bresson has been one of my favorite directors since I was 15 or so, and part of the reason for that is that every time I feel I finally have a handle on him he flows into a new and more complicated formation).

The fundamental problem with Ebert’s argument lies in his apparent assumption that games either are or want to be a fundamentally narrative medium. In fact, games can do interesting things with narrative, some of which involve player choice and some of which don’t (contrary to Ebert’s item no. 3, many games, including the Halo and Half-Life series are utterly linear and contain no plot variation, assuming the player survives from one story node to the next. I can’t see that this fact either gains or loses any art points for those titles). But I think it’s a mistake to consider games as essentially story-driven in nature. Part of the reason games are so often thought of in this light is undoubtedly due to a hype contingent among both developers and the press that takes any opportunity to tout some coming together of film and games—“interactive movies”—as the inevitable future of both media.

Video games have points of contact with narrative film and literature, just as they do with experimental film, dance, and architecture. Like movies, they’re a bastard medium, and they may be better off embracing this inner bastard rather than tying their future to any single precursor. Who knows what might come of that? Let’s perform a thought experiment of our own: transport Ebert back a hundred and some years, reconfigure him as a theater critic, then show him some of those filmed stage plays I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. What sort of future could he imagine for that medium? And yet even this seeming dead end proved unexpectedly fruitful, as later directors such as Rivette, Paradjanov, and Straub/Huillet found new expressive uses for just those flat, frontal, utterly “theatrical” stagings that seemed such a hindrance to the medium’s development.

Now take Ebert a bit further back and make him a painting critic at the birth of photography. How could this be an art when it’s obviously nothing but a mechanical operation, showing no trace of the maker’s hand?

The long and short of it is that it seems to me an a priori mistake to declare any new expressive medium artistically dead in perpetuity. Artists are scavengers and have colonized every such medium that’s come into view and there seems to me no reason in abstract why video games should be an exception. I think it’s also a mistake to set strict confines on what art can be, using arguments based primarily on previous models. Every new medium has overturned these and gradually built new forms from the rubble.

Moreover, reconfiguring the discussion around sensibility rather than some myth of complete control allows us to both glimpse the artistic possibilities of the medium and reconfigure our appreciation of older works. It may be more fruitful, for example, to think of Finnegans Wake as a possibility space than to read it as a novel. Possibility spaces aren’t infinite—they have rules that allow for some modes of interaction while disallowing others. The Wake is a huge possibility space—Joyce himself sometimes thought of it as a divinatory device, predicting events that postdated its composition. Huge but not infinite—it might be difficult to support a reading that took it as a washing-machine repair manual. I suggest that any prognostication on the artistic future of video games should look to works that most explicitly aim toward an expansive field of response, whether these be the plays of Richard Foreman, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, or Tati’s Playtime.

But the question remains: are there any games that could stand the heat of that company or is the medium mired in a perpetual adolescence? This is the explicit Ebert challenge: “To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.” Well if, as I would argue, much of the meaning of video games is contained in their mechanics and the feel of play, that’s a pretty thankless task, since Ebert recently branded two interesting indie games, Braid and Flower, “pathetic” on the basis of descriptions and screenshots. But for what it’s worth, I’ll make a case.

Let’s Roll

Katamari Damacy is a Japanese title that might be translated as “Clump Spirit,” rather in the sense of “school spirit.” It is an expression of enthusiasm for clumps and the activity of clumping. Each of the songs on its eclectic, inventive soundtrack invites us to consider clumping from another angle, whether cosmic, nostalgic, or romantic (sample lyric: “I know you love me/I want to wad you up into my life”). The clump, the wad, the smooshed-together ball of heterogeneous elements: this is the katamari, and it is a paradoxical object, an emblem at once of order and containment as well as chaos and slop. So too the game, which could be seen with equal justice as either sweetly nonviolent or else taking full-on idiot delight in wanton destruction. In fact, it is and does both, in a single movement that is the game’s core mechanic, and as such it stands as one of the loveliest aesthetic experiences I’ve encountered in recent years, and one that could exist only in a video game.

The plot is knowingly and charmingly stupid: The King of All Cosmos, a fatuous tube-headed individual, has accidentally destroyed all the stars in the sky. (The Japanese original blames it on drink. The American release softens this to disorientation brought on by high spirits.) It’s left to his diminutive son, the Prince, to bring light back to the night sky by rolling up katamari of sufficient size to serve as substitutes. The game starts out small, as the Prince navigates the tables and floor space of a Japanese apartment, picking up thumb tacks, coins, erasers, anything smaller than his current katamari (which registers each addition with a satisfying smock). As the katamari grows, the Prince is able to roll it outside and into a small town.

I should pause here for a word on the visual design. Katamari Damacy isn’t a new game. It was released in 2004 for the PlayStation 2, and its graphics hardly pushed the envelope even for that last-generation console. A weird fact of video games, though, is that it’s often the graphical powerhouses that age most quickly. Katamari Damacy settles into a comfortable niche of stylization, a world composed of soft blocks, and as a consequence remains, to my eyes, utterly undated. Within its workable graphic parameters, the designers were able to indulge their love of detail: each object is a little present, and there are a huge number of them in the game. The game environments too demonstrate a careful attention to the mundane (the layout of objects in the homes, the decentered, curving lines and tracks that indicate possible routes of travel, bears a strong resemblance to Manny Farber’s tabletop paintings and shares some of their deliberate confusions of scale, along with their interest in doing representational justice to toys and the toy-like). In addition to this sprawling, cartoonish cornucopia of the daily objects of Japanese life are the odd inventions that crowd the corners. Ceramic cats that zoom around town in sports cars, dancing cows and flying horses, the collection of bizarre “cousins” hidden in each level.

But let’s get back to rolling. Once on the streets, the Prince is confronted with a host of new objects to collect, as well as the town’s busy, addle-brained citizens. Should he happen to bump into one, it repels the katamari with a loud thwack, dislodging a few items from the clump. That is until the katamari grows large enough to clump them in turn (when this happens, they flail and scream until squashed under TVs or cabbages or whatever the player happens to be rolling up at the moment). As the game progresses, the fantastic shifts in scale increase. It is a singular thrill to move from the minuscule stage of picking up paperclips to the game’s later stages of utter, unimpeded rampage, plucking out buildings, mountains, clouds, and finally, at the very end, the countries of the earth itself. It brings the player back to old and almost forgotten impressions of childhood, a capsule recapitulation of the wonder of movement, the frustrations of navigating a world so out-of-proportion to oneself, a growing sense of mastery of the environment, finally a child’s fantasy of omnipotence. These are deep-seated impressions we never quite shake. Proust, Dickens, Leiris and others have tried to recapture the framework of childhood in words. Vigo and Ozu are among the directors who have shown it on film. Katamari Damacy returns it to the muscles.

The game is the fruit of a beautiful sensibility, that of creator Keita Takahashi, who came to games from sculpture and thus well-equipped to mine the medium’s tactile potential. Player control of the katamari involves using both joysticks to steer the unwieldy thing. It is, especially in the early stages of play, a pretty clunky process—it’s not uncommon to find yourself trapped behind a pole or some other obstacle, shedding precious bits of your clump as you try to break free. At a time when most commercial game designers seem to be streamlining player input to the point where it’s easy to execute elaborate moves with the simple mash of a button, Takahashi takes pleasure in clumping up his mechanics, trying to find the sweet spot between control and chaos, a spot that might be the very ground of play itself.

Takahashi’s sensibility is at once proudly childish and wholly sophisticated, since the game mines some territory around the roots of acquisition and materialism—or, more basic still, our ambivalence toward objects. The roll of the katamari is at once an act of destruction and one of preservation. Objects are smashed together into the clump but also itemized on a collection screen that can be viewed between levels. It isn’t a statement of ambivalence; it’s the thing itself given expressive form. The nearest equivalent I can think of is the object orgy that concludes Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point: how terrible/beautiful are the things humans have brought into the world, how wonderful/horrible to see them destroyed.

In a 2009 GDC talk, Takahashi offered some insight into the game’s creation: “In [Katamari Damacy], I wanted to show an ironic point of view about the consumption-based society. But I wanted to make more objects—if it were empty, I would feel empty or lonely. But when these objects are rolled up and absorbed by the Katamari, they’re gone. Then I felt empty.”

Unsurprisingly, that ambivalence extends to video games themselves. After reluctantly agreeing to work on a katamari sequel—We Love Katamari, released in 2005—he started work on a new title that he hoped would address what he felt to be the earlier games’ shortcomings. “Katamari had rules in there,” he said at GDC. “You had the Katamari size goal, and the time limit as well. I wasn’t happy with that existing. In the last remaining one second, it’s perhaps possible to create a huge Katamari, and maybe use your time well. But even that doesn’t quite make me happy. This was a formula, and I felt like it somehow betrayed my vision.”

His next title—Noby Noby Boy, for the PS3—moved further away from rules toward the sphere of pure play, having no time limits or immediate goals whatsoever beyond whatever provisional goals players themselves set, as they stretch their wormlike Boys over a floating patch of ground populated by roving carrots, inquisitive sheep, and hammer-fisted, toppling robots. It was not a financial success, with many gamers expressing frustration at the lack of guiding objectives. I think it looks great but I haven’t played (with) it. I don’t own a PS3.

Takahashi is currently on leave from his company, Namco, in order to design a real-world playground in the U.K. One report says he intends to construct it from soft blocks. He has also said that he has some new ideas for games.

So gamers rejoice: the Welles of the consoles may or may not arrive, but in Takahashi the medium has found its Tati.

Thanks to D. Cairns, Craig Keller, and Mahon McGrath. 


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Katamari Damacy, designed by Keita Takahashi
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B. Kite lives in Brooklyn. He has written on movies and books for publications including The Village Voice, The Believer, and Cinema Scope, as well as appearing in the anthology Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY, 2008).

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