Make (AAA) Video Games Great Again

Being a business-minded person (ironically majoring in English), it hurts to me to see the state of AAA titles, or titles that have major (designer) studios and massive budgets behind them. I’m not going to try to make this a nostalgic, grass is greener type of post, but there has been an undeniable decay in quality titles. I attribute this to a variety of factors, the foremost being the push of financial interests overwhelming any sense of artistry for designers and storytellers. Many famous studios since the seventh generation of consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) have become “sell-outs” pumping out sequel, after sequel each year, releasing incomplete, glitchy games and selling them for $60 a pop. Why, you might ask, do they have the audacity to release half-baked titles? Because the seventh generation of consoles introduced the ability to PATCH games. Patching means they essentially offer online updates that you download straight to your console. In its best use, it fixes gamebreaking bugs that play testers missed, at worst it allows developers to meet their deadlines on products and just update it later.

From a studio standpoint, tension has grown between “hey, we’ve got this $100 million dollar game brand that’s super valuable, lets leverage that and sell it again, slightly different, for the full price!” and “hey, lets create something new and original, and see where it goes!” The operative term for this phenomena is risk.

Risk has always been an important facet of success in game development, people conceptualize all kinds of unique, wacky ideas, and generally if their team was behind them, they would get to work. Now, most big conglomerate video game companies have acquired these studios and have essentially told them to take far less risk, and to design titles that encourage the customers to spend even more cash on downloadable content. My favorite example of taking a unique idea and injecting old fashioned corporate greed is Evolve. Evolve took a unique concept, one player plays as a massive powerful monster trying to evolve (lol) and destroy the planet or kill the hunters. 4 other players pick hunters, categorized by roles, in order to combat the titanic beasts. Sounds interesting right? Check out this cool screenshot:Image result for evolve

It’s a AAA title that had a lot of unique promise to it. But then, on day 1 (yes, ONE, UNO, EINS) of its release, it launched with approximately $136 in buyable, downloadable content for players in the form of new characters and monsters…

Developers all started out in the same place, getting into game development either out of the interest in the challenge, or true love of creating stories and entertaining the masses. As soon as the sixth generation of consoles, that is, the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube era, each platform had incredible AAA products come out, these games were complete because they had to be, you couldn’t issue software updates to any game-breaking glitches. Releases had multi-year gaps between them, meaningful space to respect their current offerings, and to properly develop their newest titles. Now, we have this:COD.jpg

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You really gotta ask yourself: what’s going on?


A game as art vs art as a game

I’ve created art since I was five years old. I studied seriously with a professional painter for ten years after that. However, I still hesitate to make the statement “I’m an artist.” For one, it’s a loaded term that implies a lot of grandiosity and arrogance. Mostly though, I don’t want to be identified as an artist alone, because I also happen to be a major techie nerd.

I started taking Computer Science classes my sophomore year and have been hooked ever since. But since then I’ve spent many semesters taking both computer science and art classes, anxiously switching back and forth trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, let alone what to major in.

For so long it seemed like there was no choice but to make a choice. Art and Science, I was taught from day one, were on opposite ends of a philosophical, academic, and professional spectrum. You were either one or the other kind of thinker and personality: creative or analytical, emotional or rational, passionate or cool headed. In figuring out what to do with my future, I thought the first thing I needed to do was choose between the technology or creative arts industry.

But then I discovered video games. It was pretty revelatory for me to find this whole growing field of work that was entrenched in both worlds that held possibilities of careers spent engaging with both creative and technological pursuits.

So with a new certainty (as much as you can have as a college senior) in the type of work I wanted to do post-graduation, I took on my computer science and art classes with new perspective and purpose. I tried to look at both fields through the lens of gaming and their impact on each other.

Despite being a terrible “noob” in the gamer world, I jumped in with vigor and tried to learn as much as I could from both a consumer and creator’s perspective. The first thing I started doing was comparing it to media I was much more familiar with like  literature, cinema and obviously visual arts, and I was a little dismayed at how little the video game world cared about or took the time to even think about games as art.

For the most part, the industry has been dominated by huge action, fantasy or sci-fi spectacles of violence and conquest. In most games, something or usually someone must be “killed” for you to beat the level and eventually the game. Whether its the stone walls of castles, the glint of the weapons or the gory spray of blood as you defeat yet another creature of some kind, each new game has tried (at least visually) to deceiving the player more successfully in the reality of the virtual worlds.The name of the game as far as art in video games has been making things as real as possible.

From an artistic perspective, I see it as a shame that such a potentially rich and complex way to produce art has been so visually and creatively un-evolved. So, playing Braid was very much a breath of fresh air. On a superficial level, the first thing you notice is the painterly quality of the aesthetic. There is no intention of hiding the fact that these rocks and that sky were painted with a brush, (a digital one perhaps but a tool of creation nonethless). There is much less  of an effort spent on concealing the process of creation. Which is the the first step towards a complex and challenging engagement of the viewer, the foundational endeavor in high art.

When you start to shake up the viewer’s sense of stable reality and you stop holding their hand, you can begin to engage them on even more conceptually and intellectually challenges. But the qualifications of Braid as art don’t stop there. The elegant prose, as well as the intentionally existential questions posed by the very structure of the puzzles and gameplay all push the boundaries needed to be considered an “art game.”

Released in 2008, it was one of the first to be used as proof that games could be art. Roger Ebert, an acclaimed film critic famously declared, “Video games can never be art” in 2010. The debate has had impassioned proponents on both sides since. Other games like Journey, Limbo and Gone Home have furthered the cause. As a hopeful game artist I am pleased that the case for games being considered as art seems to get stronger.

However, until now the question has been about whether games as art is possible. I can’t help but wonder if art as games is possible?

The current turmoil and revolution has so far taken place strictly in the confines of the gaming world and among the gaming community, but I wonder when the conflict will migrate into art territory and what it will look like.

There has already been a great deal of controversy over curators exhibiting existing games and game art in museums. The Museum of Modern Art has already collected 14 out of a 40 sized wish list of a video game exhibit. But most of this is a curation and categorization of games as art after the fact of creation. While there are up to hundreds of well trained and creatively sophisticated artists working on a single game, there has been very little game creation made the purpose of being solely art from the get go.

Games like Braid, begin to teasingly bend and play with the conventions . Nonetheless, I am excited the inevitable hullaboo raised when artists begin to completely take apart and throw away the expectations of what a video game should look and feel like. Its not a matter of if but when, and I will be eagerly in the front row seats to see how the drama plays out.

 —Diana Zhu

(Movies vs Games)=Art

Movies and games have a lot in common: the genres are largely the same (action, horror, thriller, etc.), the quality varies enormously on a case-by-case basis, and typically the costs to produce the final products are enormous (the time, effort, and number of people involved). A major distinction, however, is that movies have long been considered to be an art form while video games remain controversial, which seems rather unfair. When movies first appeared as a media the films were just things you could see in person but recorded so they could be viewed by anyone: that is not art as we know it, just copying and pasting. It took a long time for directors to develop the tools to engage an audience. In the same way the video game industry up until now has been occupied with making games that perfect mechanics, not with engaging players and leveraging the unique aspects of video games as a media to create a truly enthralling experience. Only recently have games like that begun appearing, and they are still infrequent. Regardless, video games will soon be art just as movies are, and while there will certainly still be bad games designed to make money just as there are bad movies designed to make money, the number of video games that are art is sure to rise.

An important distinction to make is artistic and art: artistic is a style while art is a product. I will elaborate on this with an example. Fable 2 (or even Fable 3) is an artistic game: the designs are varied and just out-of-reality, the story is well crafted, and the whole universe is woven into a grand experience. However, the game is not, as I understand it, art. The experience is riddled with annoyances that take you out of the experience, like an inventory and health bar system. The character interactions are incredibly limited (compared to real life, anyways), and the combat is repetitive. The concept is great and amazing but the execution is only average, and thus it does not feel like art. It just feels artistically done.

Geometry Wars is, by contrast, an impossibly simple game with an incredibly simple idea: stay alive. You play as a shape and shoot at other shapes which chase you. There is no plot, no characters, just mechanics and graphics. However, the controls are fluid, the experience is intense, and the whole game is incredible clean: it just works. It might not be artistic (despite the pretty colors it is still just a bunch of shapes that follow your shape), but the game is art. It is refined, brings a concept to life incredibly well, and is a blast to play.

For a game to be art, like a movie, the experience must be great. Unlike a movie, however, the experience is composed of more factors, including mechanics, graphics, gameplay, etc., and not all of these and the movie factors have to be great for the experience to be incredible: games can be great with just mechanics and graphics, gameplay and plot, or any other combination of factors. This is my conclusion: games can be art, but the industry needs time to understand how to make games that are art. It is similar, but not the same, as movies. The experience is still what matters, but the formation of the experience is so much more complicated when making a game, but the possibilities are, appropriately, much greater.


Are Video Games Ever “High-Class”?

When we think of “art”, the images that come to mind are usually high-class galleries in the city, intricate sculptures displayed in the park, and eclectic painters living in their fancy loft apartments. Art appreciation is thought of as a cultural activity, reserved for those with intelligence and a discerning eye for beauty.

However, gone are the times when only paintings and sculptures were considered true art forms. These days, our society has come to accept a wide variety of media as works of art, from cinematic masterpieces to breathtaking works of literature. We have no trouble seeing the artistry in a beautifully written sentence or an artfully crafted scene in a movie, any more than we would in a Renoir painting or a Rivera mural. How then do we continue to turn a blind eye to the artistry of games?

Of course, video games have not always been prime candidates for the “art” category. One could hardly argue that the pixelated graphics of the first Space Invaders game are worthy of the same awe and respect as Beethoven’s 5th, yet the rapid development of graphics and technology as a whole has suddenly brought this question into the forefront of gamers’ minds. Can society ever accept video games as a valid art form? And, perhaps more importantly, should they?

As far as I’m concerned, yes, they should. WE should. While not all video games qualify as works of art, there are a choice few that may have reached the level of passion that art evokes in its viewers. To use one of my favorite games as an example, a player traversing the world of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess cannot help but wonder at the beauty of the digitally rendered landscapes, filled with carefully created characters and a compelling storyline. Just like a film, the game uses a mixed tale of adventure, love, and pain to draw the player into the artists’ intricate world.

The designers, exactly like dedicated painters, spent months creating every single detail, from towering castles to a single ray of sunlight glinting off the surface of a lake. If a painting of a rural scene can be called a work of art, why then can the same respect not be given to a digital rendering of the same type of landscape? The game did not take less effort, nor less creativity. The tools may have been computer keys instead of paintbrushes, but the result is not less refined simply because it is displayed on a screen.

Perhaps the obstacle blocking us from recognizing video games as art is not a lack of beauty, nor a lack of passion, but society’s simple unwillingness to call mere games “high-class”. Something about the word “game” makes the art community cringe. Society doesn’t want to give video games the title of art because then we’d have to stop blaming them for everything that has gone wrong in our world (violence, crime, rebellious teenagers, etc, etc, etc….)

Honestly, though, the time has come to stop tossing video games to the side in disgust. Their creators may not be as well-known as Michelangelo and Matisse, but the beauty of their creations should not be labeled as childish decoration for an immature pastime. Video games are here to stay, and the sooner we recognize their artistry for what it is, the sooner we can give their talented, dedicated designers the credit and respect they deserve.


–The Humblebug

And to see your Love Set Free…

“You will need the witch’s cabin key!” Now, I’m not normally much of a fan of diving deeply into the story of a game. You get caught up in what is going on in the background and you forget to have fun playing with different styles. Recently, though, I had the pleasure of test-driving Remedy Entertainment’s critically acclaimed Alan Wake, which is a step in a different direction from their Max Payne series. I have to say that the gameplay itself was interesting at first, but gradually become extremely monotonous: point the flashlight at the bad guys, pop ’em thrice with a revolver. On my original agenda, I planned on playing the game to see what kind of new gameplay style this so-called psychological thriller would bring the board. That was scratched rather early on as I had done everything possible in the game just by completing the tutorial mission. As I drug myself through the game in a half zombie like manner, I noticed a really shiny white object on a rock to my left. The ambiguous voice in the sky who was directing me told me that it was a page of the manuscript for a book that Alan had written. I read through the first page, intrigued by what it had to say, although finding it difficult to understand. I realized that it was telling me what had happened, was happening, and would happen in the near future through the game. I found more, and so I read each one of them as I picked them up, hoping to catch the description of the author in the manuscript which seemed to be missing from the game itself. Now, since I was a kid, I have loved reading; specifically fantasy and Sci-Fi . As this game boasted both concepts, I was instantly captivated by its story. I read more and more until finally, finding the pages became my only goal. I forgot the creepy shadow covered monsters and the dark landscape (which was always a damn forest…) and finally settled on completing the manuscript. After a while, I started listening the music between chapters. I found out that the soundtrack for the game was written by the band Poets of the Fall and I looked up their music. After the first chapter, the game plays out like a movie or TV show, even saying “Previously, on Alan Wake,” to transition into the next chapter. There is a part later in the game where you watch a faked, but realistic talk show conference that Alan Wake has in which he discusses his final book to a series. Now, maybe saying that this game is work of art is a stretch. It has horrible graphics and design, the gameplay is awful, and you feel like you are a freaking lumberjack half of the time, but the story behind the story and all of the clever media techniques that are used help it to be portrayed as something more than just a gimmick to make money. In all honesty, if they were to actually write a book for Alan Wake, I would probably read it; as it has a great story and portrays everything that I love in psychological stories.