Aesthetics, and the argument of games as art

When I think about things that succesfully display a pleasing set of aesthetics, it’s hard to explicitly identify what I prefer, or what appeals to me the most. In essence, it comes down to the artistry and construction of how to appeal to the audiences personal preferences. How the creator designs whatever world they are attempting to portray often comes down to a few key, somewhat cliched choices. As a rule, it often comes down to:
-Visual Design
-Audio Design
-Content

The Wagenheimer game development blog refers to this as “Min-Maxing” – “Min-maxing is exerting the minimal amount of effort to get the maximum benefit in a game. Gamers and game developers are experts at this; they quickly understand the game and then find and implement the optimal path to win.” (http://bit.ly/6GXkw4). He also goes on to say that aesthetics can often be used to pigeonhole the specific product into a genre, which could distract potential investors from participation. Consider this in regards to Japanese Anime:

Monster is the adaptation of the manga of the same name. It features the story of a troubled doctor trying to come to terms with what he’s done, and his eventual fall from societal acceptance. The manga originally claimed several awards and is known a a defining title in terms of artistic credit and exceptional intricate and well developed plot. It could be the kind of thing expected to be seen in mainstream television.

However, because of its aesthetic style, that being animated, it would naturally put off a specific branch of audience. For many people not invested in the animation style, or even the fact it’s in a non-English audiotrack, they could be turned off the idea of watching it, dismissing it as a “Cartoon” or “Something for kids”.

So how is it possible to use aesthetics for good? What is it that sets certain things apart as “Art”, or what common misconceptions can be construed due to the definition? In this report, these are some of the concept I intend to investigate, by looking at the development of games over time, and how their aesthetic style changes due to this. By looking at several different titles, I intend to discern the distinct differences between each, and use existing theory and critical thought as examples of public perception.

Black and white lines

In the infantile age of videogames, think roughly the 1980s, many pieces of software were released that tried to accurately simulate, often, what the name dictated. Think games like Pong and Asteroids. With the very basic technology they had, they still managed to accurately represent what they intended. Pong is a game in which two players try to hit a cube back and forth, with increasing speed-Like Ping-Pong. Asteroids featured a small triangular spaceship which shot small bullets to destroy geometric shapes supposed to be asteroids. While modern generations could look back and scoff at the primitive graphical fidelity, there is something charming and pleasing to interact with. The fact that people could simply associate basic white lines on a black background is testament to the early programming and graphical design of the games.

However, this is not to say the game lacks depth. In terms of aesthetic depth, the sound design on Asteroids is actually surprisingly key. A consistent beeping continues to persist in the background, increasing as the player gets increasingly further into the game, attempting to simulate a raising heartbeat. While Asteroids may have been an important figurehead in establishing setting and atmopshere in a videogame, it has naturally been dated and seen as relic of a time past in modern generations. Although it raises an interesting idea in terms of aesthetic presentation. Is it possible to inflect setting and an immersive world with the bare minimum, demanding the user to take an active interest and interperatation? In this regard, game designer Greg Kasavin comments:

Space Invaders, the iconic 1978 arcade game whose entire narrative is so conservative, it’s limited to the two words of its title. The high concept of defending Earth from evil aliens combined with those expressive-yet-abstract shapes encroaching toward the bottom of the screen to create what’s probably the world’s first “epic” videogame. But if you took Space Invaders and changed only the name, maybe to something more literal like “Shoot the Sprites”, the high stakes wouldn’t have been there and players’ imaginations wouldn’t have run wild from it.” (http://bit.ly/djeuwo).

1) “Content

From a basic standpoint, games are a static piece of entertainment. They exist as a distraction from the real world, yet can often invoke emotions depending on narrative quality and content. Considering this in terms of the merits of “Videogames as art” is a very contentious topic which often raises debate. Roger Ebert is known as a veteran film reviewer, whos opinion has been accepted far and wide. However, in his infinite wisdom, he claims that “Videogames can never be art”(http://bit.ly/dqMP32). He says that “Videogames can be beat… everything else is simply experienced”. In this, he elucidates on the notion that videogames as an artform seem to be relatively redundant. He argues that simply due to the limitation of the medium, and the inherent mechanics behind the “Art”, games will always stand out as an ineloquent expression of artistry. I would contest these arguments however, with specific reference to Bioshock and modern Japanese Role playing games, such as the Final Fantasy series.

In Bioshock, the player controls the character of “Jack”, a person that has survived a plane crash, and landed in the underwater dystopia known as “Rapture”. From the onset, it is apparent that this flawed piece of paradise was once something special, and this is consistently explained throughout the narrative. Through clever use of audio logs (Recorded entries left throughout the city of Rapture by former residents), the story and history of Rapture is explained to the player. On the base level, the player can choose to ignore this, and simply play in a world of a stylistic interperatation of the 1950’s. However, on a deeper level, the way in which narrative and content is explored through the player actively engaging in the world expands and leads to a thrilling and well orchestrated story. In a conference talk at the Game Developers Conference, he claims “In a way, nobody cares about your story” but then goes on to detail his reasoning to explain “Games should be built that encourage players to discover the narrative. Most people will miss that, but those who have actively seeked it out will have an enriching time due to the passion they had to find it” (http://bit.ly/Nemut). However, he also explains that “Games are not the real world. A lot of problems with people suspending disbelief is that they run into something that doesn’t have grace. It doesn’t work.” Considering this, it’s paramount to examine the meanings behind what Levine is saying. It seems that Levine is inferring that in regards to a videogame, narrative is hard to make a player interact with. Movies are different to this. In a modern movie, or any story driven narrative on screen, the suspension of disbelief is often confined within a very well detailed space, in which the director can forcibly create a narrative structure through the use of shots, cuts and mise en scene. It would appear that video games are restrained then, in regards to how much artistic content can be shown. The concept of free choice and exploration in a game dictates that aesthetic storytelling is hard to effectively display, without turning the game into what is essentially a movie.

Designer Clint Hocking refers to this as Ludonarrative Dissonance. He argues that although the player actively participates in shaping their own decision, in which little sisters they want to choose to kill or save,  there is a distinctive tonal shift and consideration from the player in which the disregard for the idea that everyone has to kill Atlas, and all have to proceed at this fixed rate. “Many games impose a narrative on the player. But when it is revealed that the rationale for why the player helps Atlas is not a ludic constraint that we graciously accept in order to enjoy the game, but rather is a narrative one that is dictated to us, what was once disturbing becomes insulting. The game openly mocks us for having willingly suspended our disbelief in order to enjoy it.”(http://bit.ly/95Gmai). However, this lack of apparent narrative dischord, or ability to have self imposed choice is not always seen as a detriment.

Steve Gaynor infact goes on to imply that the lack of a story creates the most realistic and engaging forms of aesthetic narrative. He argues that through emergent gameplay mechanics, the story that the player creates themselves through a chaotic algorithm can often be more exciting, and in essence, creates a more personal authored experience.”The most memorable stories I recall from these games lay outside the narrative spine; the immersion model of meaning would be best served by a game that had no static central story weighing it down at all, just as our own lives have no predetermined single path.” (http://bit.ly/9jsPzu)

Now consider the difference between that and the Final Fantasy series. Whereas Bioshock is a Western designed games, that takes influence from the same culture (System Shock 2 and Ayn Rand), the Final Fantasy games create narrative quality through a very Eastern inspired culture and set of ideologies. They often attempt to create incredibly well refined story, and often come across as visualised novels/movies, rather than games (However loaded that comparison may be…). On creation of the first game, creator Hironobu Sakaguchi has gone on record saying “I don’t think I have what it takes to make a good action game. I think I’m better at telling a story”(http://bit.ly/Icvkg). Over the cycle of Final Fantasy games however, they have gone from being simplistic, 8 big games to quite literally epic length stories, often focusing entire games on specific characters interactions and story development.

The leap and change in storytelling has changed throughout the franchise over the decades. In the original Final Fantasy, the drive behind the story was the collection of 4 crystals, to defeat a time travelling super demon. Skip forward to Final Fantasy 8, a game authored as a love story between two characters. The game begins as Squall Leonheart, member of SeeD, an elite fighting force wakes with amnesia after being struck down in training with his partner. Over the course of the fifty (!) hour plus game, we see the development of his character as he interacts with Rinoa Heartily, his  ever more prevelant love interest. While there is another overarching plot of another time travelling wizard, the central focus in this game is the love story between the two characters.

So it appears there is often a difference between Western and Eastern designed games then, in narrative form. It could be seen as the East(In regards to Final Fantasy) using empathetic and relateable teenagers to create “Epic love” stories, whereas the West (Bioshock) expressly designs games with themes and immersion to create the sense of disbelief. Narrative is an incredibly strong aesthetic device, at least in regard to the argument of “Can art be games”. Speilburg seems to think “I think the real indicator [that games have become a storytelling art form] will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17.” (http://bit.ly/9HGgeA). If this is any indication of how games can be art, at least in Speilburgs retort, we’re in the Renaissance.

2) “Audio Design”

When considering a memorable experience, or something often evoking fond memories of artistic merit (often a titilating idea), it’s hard to really remember things without audio. When thinking about Videogame music and how it evokes memories, or implies certain themes and meanings, it can often be brushed off as just a secondary sense that’s just there. However, what about games that explicitly push forth audio content and the incredibly lucid visual design and reactive game that can emmerge because of this?

Take for example this video of the game “Audiosurf”

The forefront of this game is the implementation of a music importer. The core gameplay mechanic has the user import their own personal choice of music into the game, which takes the synth and wave form and creates the visualization based on this. It then allows the player to race down the track in what’s been described as “Barreling down a fretboard in a visual supercar” and referred to as “The game’s best quality is its dramatic range. It can be an easy, relaxing experience or rocket-ride forward at eye-melting speeds. It’s an excellent fusion of casual and hardcore gameplay styles, and has an unlimited amount of content to keep you coming back for more.”(http://bit.ly/aaGXwL). So how can we view the aesthetic merits of audio design in making an express authored piece of content? There are definetely several games that place it at the forefront of their design, and implement it well, sometimes as a playable visualizer

Beat Hazard(above) again seems to take delight in using player music to generate a striking visual representation of audio form.

However, audio design is not only used as a way in which to express various styles of music to the end user. Take for example, this scene from Final Fantasy 6

The memorable scene invites the player to actively participate in the idea of putting on an opera show. The character of Celes is a magitek knight suffering from amnesia, and fakes the role of Maria to entice a world travelled gambler, Setzer, to the opera house. The idea that a game released in 1994 could feature a full on opera scene, lasting over 30 minutes is a testament to the outstanding quality of the audio and implementation of it. While again, looking back at movies, and even animation, it’s easy to use audio in an all too seemingly….false way. Consider the ending to The Last Samurai

However we may have felt about Captain Nathan Algren throughout seems almost cheapened by the ending. A combination of the drawn out narration over the top and the dreary, yet somewhat uplifting music seem to overrule the actual story behind it, using audio to imply that we should feel sorry for him, and creating the sense that simply by placing a sad track behind him, we feel a sense of empathy towards him.

Not to say however, that games don’t also follow this notion

(View from 1m30 to 3m)- The fact that the audio composer uses the deep foreboding track ahead of time almost pre-empts the entire scene with the taint that something bad is going to happen. Further this with the framing of the character in such a way to never avoid such a thing, it begs the question- can audio cheapen an experience by being overbearing on its intended audience, diminishing its quality as an aesthetic quality?

To finish off this discussion, consider this final scene from Eternal Sonata

The game features music at its very core. The game illustrates the mind, life, and death of famous Polish composer Fredric Francois Chopin as he faces his last days alive. The combination of the musical composer and the deeply haunting and memorable pieces of music used to exemplify his ongoing descent into madness truly identify the idea of masterful visual, audio and narrative authorship.

3) “Visual Design”

When people often associate things with “Art”, it’s usually paintings/scupltures and very rarely games. In terms of visual and graphical fidelity however, games have never been closer now to photorealism. However, reality isn’t the only thing that defines itself as art. Take the difference between the Mona Lisa and any of Picassos later, asbstract cubism pieces. In terms of creating a believable (Within the confines of the predetermined world state) and aesthetically pleasing world, it’s appropriate to associate style and realism as one. Take the following examples as games that could (Under the above expressed concerns) be construed as art.

Braid

By all accounts, Braid is jaw droppingly beautiful. With its incredibly broad range of pastel and hand drawn backgrounds, Braid really does come across as a work of art. Each backdrop, each character, everything about this game looks as though it has had such attention and care to it, that to call it anything less then a visual tour de force is insulting. “Braid takes obvious influence from Super Mario Bros, its creative importance reminds me most of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel, Watchmen.” (http://bit.ly/cg9kfy). Combine this with the afforementioned subtle musical inflections, minimalistic as it were, and very thought provoking narrative, and “If you’re looking for a game as art, this is it”

Flower

Flower is art. Flower tells the very loose story “In the words of developer thatgamecompany, Flower is a “videogame version of a poem, exploiting the tension between urban bustle and natural serenity”(http://bit.ly/9LSO3Y). As poems are often something associated with fine art (Dante’s Inferno etc), it’s clear to see how this can be appropriate. However, Flower does this in a clever, innovative and thought provoking way. As the afforementioned notion of a visualised poem, the incredible visual representations of this through use of art alone really help to define this as a visually striking and resonating game. Starting the dark, dreary level with one colored petal, and going on to spread colour across the vapid and destitute wastes by flying over them with the assortment of visual colours really helps set in stone a game in which visual aesthetic design really comes ascross as its strongest feature.

Shadow of the Colossus

Visually, Shadow of the Colossus isn’t all that visually….stunning. Created at the end of the Playstation2’s cycle, the sheer volume stretched the game to breaking point, often resulting in spikes within the game, and bizarre glitches. Despite this however, the game looks absolutely phenomenal. The sheer vastness of the landscapes really help to frame Wander (The protagonist) in a lonely, barren and empty world. The intense colour pallette used only further continues to further this point. Very washed out whites and pale colours only elucidate the idea of loneliness. In terms of artistic design, metaphorically it contradicts itself. Spare foliage, ruined temples, dying trees and other varied pieces of architecture really bring this world alive. This world in which there is nothing but the player character, and several vast, wandering colossi. Probably best tummed up in the quote “What makes Shadow of the Colossus so fantastic is akin to trying to describe why the bodies of work of Picasso, Bach or Beethoven are unquestioned classics; you can do your best, but any of these examples must be experienced in full to truly be understood, and especially appreciated.”(http://bit.ly/9EEoiw)

In closing, I hope to have explained the arguments for and against the idea of games as art. In a way, it’s hard to pigeonhole any one piece of media “art”. For a definition so unsubstantiated and subjective, there really is no defining characteristic/style/developer that truly exemplifies the logic behind games being construed as art. When considering the idea of what really makes something as art, arguably defineable as “Something that titilates”, or “the products of human creativity”, it is entirely valid to refer to game as art. Whether or not this argument would hold up against classic movies, things such as the ever regarded Citizen Kane, can only be told through time. Seeing as the movie industry has over a decade under its belt, and the videogame industry is no more than 40 years old (Within reason), the only limiting factor to whether we can truly define games as art rests with the progression of media, generational acceptance, and the consideration that “Can controlling a space prince as he rolls up Japanese objects to create beautiful galactic planets and stars really be something on par with Michaelangelos David?”

Extended Bibliography (In order of reference)

http://www.wagenheimer.com/the-game-design-canvas-aesthetic-layout/
http://kasavin.blogspot.com/2010/04/narrative-recognition.html
http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html
http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=17531
http://www.clicknothing.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html
http://fullbright.blogspot.com/2008/11/immersion-model-of-meaning.html
http://uk.pc.ign.com/articles/855/855509p1.html
http://www.gametrailers.com/video/part-i-final-fantasy/22250
http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/42613/
http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/braid-review?page=2
http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/flower_4
http://uk.ps2.ign.com/articles/658/658991p1.html

Games referenced:

Pong
Asteroids
Bioshock
Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy 8
Braid
Flower
System Shock 2
Shadow of the Colossus

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