Posted by: bracehare | October 6, 2011

Aesthetics in video games

There is this problem I have, and maybe you have it too.  I will be having one of those ever common “are videogames art?” discussions, and my opponent will ask me to name an example of a game with artistic merit.  Yet, upon entering this stage of the conversation, I will sound like an idiot as soon as my opponent asks me to describe the game:

Metal Gear Solid:

“What is it about?”

“You play as a supersoldier who has to kill a group of supersoldiers who were part of the unit you came from, including your clone brother, and uhhh, they went rogue and took over a nuclear missile base… umm… it is anti-nuclear and anti-war and there is some stuff about genetics in there.  It is good though!  Really!”


“What is it about”

“You are a boy with horns who was interned in a castle by villagers who like to sacrifice boys with horns.  You discover a princess who is also locked up and have to save the princess from evil shadow demons who control the castle.  But it is good though!  It is really emotionally evocative and stuff!  I am not even joking!”

It may simply be that I am incredibly bad at describing games to people, but there is a tendency for my attempts to come out sounding like descriptions of comic books (as distinct from “graphic novels”, for the sake of avoiding argument by allowing the distinction) and children’s bedtime stories.  However, it is also generally understood by those who study storytelling that the difference between a good work and a bad one is not so much what ideas it uses (and every idea has been done before anyways), so much as the execution of those ideas.  In terms of a novel, that might include the quality of the prose.  In terms of a movie it might include the cleverness of the cinematography.  What does it mean in terms of a game, though?  Clearly something, and I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that this very same something marks the bulk of the difference between a gamer’s appreciation of a work and the bland and facile descriptions they tend to give to non-gamers when focusing entirely on the content of the narratives themselves.

Metal Gear Solid was in a certain sense just a story about a clone ubermensch soldier, but how it was about this was significant.  The fact that you play as a more or less remorseless and conscienceless killer is reflected back to you by your interactions with other characters in the game, and in a way which simultaneously reinforces and problematizes this aspect of your character.  Solid Snake in MGS1 is an incredibly dynamic character (in a way which MGS2 and especially 4 actually undermine, but nevermind), and so the factor of personal growth that is present in the story buffers the otherwise trivial nature of the material.  The game also creates scope and depth, going to tremendous efforts in order to try and ground the tropes it utilizes within the context of a semi-realistic world political economy.  Ico gives scope and depth to its material through the creation of a fictional language and, counterintuitively, through a minimalist approach to storytelling which leaves the bulk of the game (including very notably the ending) to the player’s interpretation.  It also has a dynamic character; the princess.

One could sum up Ico very succinctly, albeit inadequately, simply by noting that the player sets out to rescue the princess and in the end the princess rescues the player.  This is certainly true, but it doesn’t carry the same gravity in text as it does in its execution within the game.  There is a moment in Ico where the player must take a leap of faith.  It is an incredible thing that, without receiving any sort of overt prompt from the game, every player intuitively knows it is obligated of them.  It is also an incredible thing to see it rewarded.  I would argue that this one example suffices to establish games as a medium capable of evoking deep and significant feelings, as without these feelings, the leap of faith required by the game would never be taken.  But these feelings are not evoked through narrative, but through aesthetic.  Ico could easily be argued to embody Japanese notions of Wabi-Sabi, but the true joy of it is that what very little it is “about” it expresses through the interactions between two characters.  The minimalism of the gameplay and story bring focus to the game, and this focus enables the communication of deep feelings and truths which would be lost in the noise of something more complex; even if that complexity was in the form of “stronger” narrative.

– Jessica Evans


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