The Language Problem
Film is such a well versed and analyzed format that we know terms for it that were invented by geeks and nerds who became out auteurs in time. To watch Godard is to learn about film. Can the same be said about architecture or games? Games have primarily grown up as play things. Heavily versed in consumerism and the language around them continues to be the same one used in magazines and advertisements.
I few weeks ago I had the idea of writing reviews of games that didn’t involve recommending a purchase. Similar to the way film theorists can create discourse around a film they might not even like. This proved to be a problem. A lot of what I like about games is their purchasablity and less their their qualities as a piece of art. Try to find the meaning in Kickle Cubicle, the heart of Majora’s Mask? Games are often empty in the ways literature and film are filling. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking at the bizarre Marxist truth of Star Wars or the epicenter of an art film like Peter Greenaway, we’re experiencing a textual narrative that’s linearity accentuates the conveying of meaning with in. This is similar to Ebert’s criticism of games in which he notes that meaning is often produced by the linear. Now think about Vito Aconicci or Bernard Tuschumi. Neither produce work with heavy linear storytelling ideas. Rather their work is either in space, social interaction, or performance / identity.
Games don’t exist often in the realm of truth novels can provide. While studios like Naughty Dog are trying, the exclusion of nonlinear mechanics and the inability of the player to realize themselves in the game takes away for the experience of it being a game. On the other hand games which are all mechanics and no storyline often don’t affect their audience in the same way. But the conundrum of meaning in the filmic sense and the experiential is a subject art criticism has longed resolved. No one argues that Joseph Beuys performances didn’t mean anything, the tension of man and wolf or the disgust of audience and masturbator is exactly what makes performance art captivating. The experience is meaningful with out needing the strictures novels and books require.
How does this relate to video game criticism though? When we think about Acconci or Beuys we know them through theory. Their work comes steeped in art criticism that in turn lets us analyze the real world in new and refreshing ways. We’re given a noticing task so we can catch the meaning in an act we would otherwise interrupt as unmeaningful. We begin to think about the tension of self and environment, the acceptability of certain social acts and their pairings in our everyday lives, we become more full because art is exploring subjects pertinent to concerns we face everyday. A psychoanalytic film might provide us with insight into a particularly creepy denizen of our day to day. But how did we arrive at this knowledge? It’s part of the pitch of the medium. Performance art advertises theory that empowers it and helps us. It comes steeped in a set ideas that establish meaning in a fashion previously unused. It makes meaning from space, action, or identity and that’s just to start with.
When we see writing about video games it is often in the form of advertising, when we write about games it is often about purchasing them. We’ve been taught to analyze and think about games in this way. The dissemination of a new language about games is only beginning. We hear critics talking about “mechanics” “ludonarrative dissonance” and other terms. The ability to think about games critically and in turn create meaning with them requires a better populace more informed by key gaming terms, until that happens we’ll all be just turning around pr points, spouting desires that only relate to games as commercial commodities, when we could be thinking about identification, what makes a mechanic compelling, and the other constructions these truly fake worlds provide. In other words if we can’t describe ourselves we can’t improve ourselves. Games don’t mean in ways we’ve been taught to look for, rather their meaning often shuttles by like so many commuters on a Monday train, this doesn’t just for the audience it goes for the creators too.
Wonder Flick creates tensions by introducing the player to an unfair battle field. The player uses up resources to deal damage with only a mild guarantee of similar resources. The result is compelling as each anxiety wave laps over the party as you try to succeed. The game simulates anxiety in a unique way. Already I am coming back around to a pitch buy! Buy! But am I doing that because the game lacks meaning or because the form was created in such a way? It’s the later I think. The mechanics in games, especially triple A games, is often made with markets in mind. Wonder flick is compelling because it sells, not because it means anything. In The Last of Us we’re presented with consistent resource conversation. The protagonist must sneak by hostile in order to save resources to fight more hostiles. The game rests on the idea of prediction, patterns must observed and tactical considerations of where to use set resources. The result however is quite meaningful. The context of the narrative and the story the gameplay shows are almost one in the same. In this sense naughty Dog has captured something, that games have narratives in their ludology as much in their story themselves. This is one of the points in Homo Ludens that games are themselves narrative. Such layers showing up in a triple a game should be celebrated, it shows the teams behind it are taking their job seriously not as providers of entertainment, but as artisans trying to move the medium forward. If pop culture can stomach an art form that uses the consumer’ s own initiative to move the story forward is another matter.
How many reviews of The Last of Us caught this clear quoting of Homo Ludens in its gameplay? How many readers were introduced to the idea of games as representative of / enacting something? Almost none. Do the consistent games of anxiety ridden exploration with resource management and prediction make the plot of The Last of us better? Yes. However, As long as we continue to replicate the market’s terse terminology of enjoyment and recommendations we’ll never truly understand what we want is depth in games and less the fun and consumption we enjoy today. The medium has spawned a player ship commendable in their intelligence, it’s just up to the media to spread the ideas and get the discourse flowing. We need to talk more about mechanics in games and less why we enjoyed them.