Alan Wake, Heavy Rain, and the Art Debate

Its been a long, long time since I’ve written on here and for that I apologize. Going to try to get back more regularly from now on. This article, however, is what I’ve been thinking about lately. Its mostly about the whole video games and art thing, but from a comparative perspective. Hope you like it.

I am often left wondering why video games feel the need to be compared favorably to other art forms in the media space. How often do we read about the “are video games art” debate in popular media, in the enthusiast press, and on the blogs of the casual observer? Exhibit A is the recent flare up (again) of the Roger Ebert issue. There are, in my opinion, several problems with this question. The first is the validity of the question itself. Secondly, even if we excuse the illogical nature of the question and ask it anyway, is the comparative nature of the question. I’m going to comment only briefly on the first issue for the moment, however, in order to move on to the more relevant second point.

Mass Effect 2

If, briefly, we worry about whether or not video games are art or can contain art, we miss the boat entirely on what art can inherently be. Art has no straightforward definition. Art is subjective, to a degree indefinable, and, whatever definition we come up with, ultimately immanently deconstructable. Therefore, one or another definition and its consequences will change nothing concerning the true nature of this debate. From a logical and philosophical standpoint, inferring a broad definition from the particulars of a single viable art form out of which must come a paradigm that has parameters to encompass other media outside of the particular invites the skeptic to continuously refute the initial point. In other words, if we glean our definition of art from video games themselves, then the analysis of said definition will inevitably reveal a failure to encompass other art forms. Vis-à-vis, if we do so from, let us say, painting, then the same concept would also be true. The definition of art should, in fact, be amorphous; it should be broad enough to encompass new fields and new media forms. Art, despite what others may imply, should not be confined to either the high towers of academia, or to the gatekeepers of taste. Neither has, of necessity, demonstrated that their track record is all that grand.

The notion of art and video games, however, is both to broad and to narrow to be of much use to the practical debate concerning whether or not video games or good, hold merit, achieve goals, or provide entertainment. It is a notion that can be and should be championed, but to the common consumer, as well as the more discerning one, the issue is a by-product. I’m more interested, presently, in the comparative nature of video games.

In our recent slate of video game releases, all the major triple A titles have had one

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

principal thing in common (other than the fact that they have sold very well). What do Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain, and Alan Wake have in common? Principally this: they are all compared, favorably or unfavorably, to other forms of media. The single player campaign of Modern Warfare 2 is compared to a Jerry Bruckheimer film; Uncharted is compared to an old school pulp adventure flick, Mass Effect 2 (more on this issue in a moment) a sci-fi space opera novel, Heavy Rain to an interactive movie, and Alan Wake to a Stephen King opus. Other games could fall into this category, and other blockbusters eschew this comparison; but these at least, serve well to make the point. We need to stop comparing games to other forms of media in order to establish the validity of that game, either as an artifact with artistic merit, or in order to give the game some market validity outside of itself simply as itself, with its own particular defining parameters.

Let me put it this way: none of the games listed above could ever be described as a particularly bad game (outside of one or two of the more jaded critics). All of the games bring something new and interesting into the media form. Whether it is the massive amount of options in the Call of Duty series, the humor and character of Uncharted, the grandiosity of Mass Effect, the interactivity and emotionality of Heavy Rain, or the atmospheric qualities of Alan Wake, all of these video games has something worth playing, building on, or iterating on in further game development. However, we lessen the value of the game when we continuously attempt to draw favorable comparisons between these games and other forms of media. Several recent playthroughs, comments, and articles have brought this issue more closely to my attention in recent days.

First, it has been announced that Legendary Pictures has picked up the movie rights to Mass Effect (I’m not certain if it is for the series or for the first game). That, in and of itself, is no big surprise. Gamepro’s recent article on Hollywood and video games (“Hollywood Games”, Oscar Zagal, #261) makes it especially clear that the trend of video game to movie adaptations is not going away. Now that the movie industry has discovered that good comic book adaptations can make a lot of money (and that bad ones sometimes can too), this trend is unlikely to stop. And there are excellent adaptations of comic books in the film industry: Spider-Man, Nolan’s Batman series, and Kick-Ass are just a few. While there hasn’t been a video game adaption worthwhile yet, the entertainment industry is not going to pack its bags in that field and go home.

Uncharted 2

My issue, however, is not with video game or comic book to movie adaptations. The intertextual and interconnected nature of graphic art, film, written media, and playable media will be with us for as long as those forms of media exist. There is no escaping that. Either from enthusiasm at seeing how one form of visual or written media appears in another form, or simply from the desire to make money, there will always be crossover experiences. I remember when I first read The Road by Cormac McCarthy when it was released. The first thing I thought was not that “this would make a great movie.” Did it make a great movie? To a certain degree: yes, it did. No one in his or her right mind would fight the inevitable onward push of a movie version of Mass Effect or Heavy Rain. It probably will happen eventually. If not with those games, than with others.

No, what drew my attention when I saw the announcement for the Mass Effect movie were the comments drawn by users. “Finally,” I thought to myself, “I see some common sense.” For the users were, by and large, appalled by the idea of Mass Effect as a movie. When the writer asked for suggestions on casting, the majority of responses were not about casting ideas, but rather simply saying “they should not make this into a movie! It is a video game and no movie can do it justice!” This, I said, is a step in the right direction. Because it indicates that the receiver of the specified media (or art) form, the gamer, was finally beginning to stand up for the validity of their media form as having merit in its own right. Instead of saying: This is great, now people who don’t play games can experience the Mass Effect universe, they were essentially saying that in order to experience the Mass Effect universe you should play the game.

This is the principal issue that I have. Rather than allow our games to be co-opted by other media forms, we as gamers must stand up for our form of media. Not only to be proud of the media, but also to refuse to allow the comparisons with other media to ruin what is true and valid about the video game experience and the logic of video games themselves. To do so calls into question the very nature of video games as a medium of entertainment, interactivity, and art itself. When Charles Dickens was writing Great Expectations as a serial novel in newspapers in the nineteenth century, does any literary critic really believe he was writing and, at the same time, believing that he was creating art? No. He was writing as many chapters as he could to entertain the masses, prolong the story, and make more money. Did it turn out to be art? According to some, yes. Does that mean it is art? Not necessarily. Video games are inherently similar to this situation. We make video games and we play video games because we enjoy them. Do they sometimes ascend to the sublime? Yes. Do they sometimes, as C.S. Lewis says, make us see with a thousand eyes and yet remain ourselves? Absolutely. But it will be art as a video game—not art as a translation of some other media.

Mass Effect, to me, is a positive example of this situation. It embraces its video game logic and does not hide the fact that it wants to be a video game. Uncharted 2 and, more recently, Red Dead Redemption do the same, in my opinion. While they both draw on other media, neither seems to succumb to the media that it uses as inspiration. Rather, they work the film and written forms into their own internal logic, making them subservient to the internal workings of the game instead of trying desperately to reproduce the experience of other media.

However, there are three negative examples that shed light on my second issue with the comparative nature of video games and other forms of media. This issue is, to some degree, a reverse form of my first point. Video games will always—I repeat, always—sell themselves short when their primary inspiration is to attempt to replicate some other form of media experience. The three most prominent examples in my mind are Modern Warfare 2, Heavy Rain, and Alan Wake. At the risk of over simplifying the assessment, Modern Warfare 2 strays away from the strides made in the first Modern Warfare and attempts to replicate the experience of a summer blockbuster movie; Heavy Rain attempts to be an interactive movie, and Alan Wake an interactive Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel. In their attempts to achieve these goals, these games sacrifice the nature of what makes them video games and thereby short-circuit the very attempt to obtain merit outside of the confines and parameters of what makes them valuable in the first place.

Alan Wake

The game that put this foremost in my mind was my recent playthrough of Alan Wake. As a published literary critic and a great admirer of Stephen King, it was not too difficult to make the correlation between novel and video game. The game, in fact, all but slaps you in the face with it from the very beginning. Not only is their the fact that the game begins with a quote from Stephen King, but the protagonist is a novelist (who starts the game off as a bit of a douche), his manuscript is coming to life, and he self-referentially talks to himself through TVs scattered throughout the environment. The game itself, while given some small degree of expansiveness, is largely linear in its construction. The voice over provides the unneeded (and mostly unwanted) narration, and the manuscript pages read like a high schooler’s creative writing attempt at imitating Stephen King.

These devices are drawn into the games narration and, combined with a combat system that is at first satisfying but grows rapidly stale, all work against any possibility of the game achieving that which it sets out to do: create, in a video game, the mood, tone, and feel of reading and playing a Stephen King novel. This occurs for one reason alone: rather than create a video game that is influenced by the form of a novel (or, secondarily, a television show), and incorporate those elements into gaming logic, the game creates a mishmash of other media elements that retains the logic of those forms. Thus the game never meshes into a cohesive whole. It remains a game of parts that never coalesce into an immersive environment. This was doubly disappointing as, first the game itself, and secondly being a game from Remedy, who managed to create the opposite effect with the Max Payne series. I have no doubt that the games troubled and long development cycle contributed to this to some degree or another. But such problems must be set aside when taken as a final product. The artifact created is the artifact that exists.

Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain, in a similar fashion, does the same thing with the film industry. As a game, the product has much to applaud: the emotionality of the characters, the interactive system that creates tension in some of the more emotionally or adrenaline charged scenes, and the obvious attempt to use realistic graphics to immerse the gamer into a world that is not their own. All of these things succeed to varying degrees (and depending on which reviewer you are partial to). The games downfall, however, is in the attempt to build tension in traditional visual fashion (i.e. film and television). In trying to imitate the film noir, or HBO TV series formula, the game succumbs to a massive amount of plot holes that are, to some, irredeemable. I believe that Heavy Rain goes further in its accomplishments than Alan Wake does; yet it ultimately fails because, unlike the Mass Effects, Uncharteds, and Rockstar games, it places the imitation above the game experience. In doing so, the game form suffers and the gamer suffers most.

Thus, the problem. There is no argument to the fact that all forms of entertainment and communicative media will continuously circle around each other in an endless chain of memes and signifiers, constantly and consequently self-referential. Since various forms of media have arisen, we, as creative beings, continuously strive to meld, synthesize, and create various experiences that will both separate and tie forms media together. Whether it is the visual and the written, the interactive and the visual, or the written and the interactive, we will constantly be holding media forms up against each other in attempts to defend or detract from our perceptions of art and value, artifice and consumablity. Video games, as the new kid on the block, are at a distinct disadvantage. Its older step-siblings (the word and the form) have a clear head start. The natural inclination for validation is nothing to scoff at, but the tendency to run around and claim, “our game is like this movie” will do nothing but continue to harm our industry and its attempts at validation. Validation will come; but it will only come when games embrace themselves for games, when we make other forms of media subservient to our logic. The hegemony of film and writing must be broken, but it will not be broken by finally gaining acquiescence from their critical community. It will only be broken when the apparatuses of film and writing are made to adhere to the logic of video games, for, by their very nature, video games will not adhere to the logic of film and writing. I see strides made in this direction and I believe that further strides are just around the corner. And someday, I know, video games will take their place in the pantheon of culture, not just as entertainment value, but also as true and valid signifiers of culture and those who embrace them, not just for titillation, but also as art.