I love me some Soren Johnson. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, he’s the brilliant mind behind much of the gaming goodness that was Civilization III and Civilization IV. As such, whenever he speaks at a conference or updates his personal blog, he’s always worth listening to. What I wasn’t expecting was Johnson’s July 16th entry (called “So this is what Twitter is for…”) regarding a fascinating twitter exchange he had with some of the leading lights in game design regarding the relative importance of narrative versus actual gameplay.
According to Johnson, the conversation began in response to a somewhat controversial talk given by Too Human designer Denis Dyack at the Design 2009 conference. In the Gamasutra story covering the event, Dyack is quoted as saying the following:
“Gameplay is not everything,” said Silicon Knights (Eternal Darkness) founder and president Denis Dyack. “If you look at the most popular games today, they are far more narrative-focused.”
“If games are to follow the trajectory of films, then the dominance of gameplay will diminish in place of an increased focus and importance on gaming’s stories and the ways in which they are told,” he added.
One doesn’t have to be a gamer very long to see the kind of controversy such a statement would create. Sure enough, Johnson Tweeted the following to Dyack after the talk:
SorenJohnson: Hey Denis, if you put the narrative in front of the gameplay, you are no longer making a game. You’re making a movie.
This was responded to by Harvey Smith. Then Clint Hocking Rob Fermier. Brenda Brathwaite and a host of other leading game designers that included Ian Bogost, David Jaffe, Damion Schubert and even John Romero started a long, complex conversation about the boundaries and importance of gameplay vs. narrative. It went on for a while and due to the nature of Twitter, is somewhat difficult to follow now that the conversation’s done (if you’d like to try, the text of the Twitter-fest can be found here) but is totally worth the effort for anyone interested in the development of games in the short term as a business and in the long term as an art form. It also hits close to home for me as I’ve long been an advocate of serious study of the artistic potential of gaming and the development of a critical language that can be used to forward the game as an art form. So at the risk of stepping on the toes of all these game designers whose work I’ve long admired, I’m going to say that while I understand where Denis is coming from, he’s drawn absolutely the wrong conclusion from his study.
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Dyack’s contention is that videogames represent “The Eighth Art.” This is an extension of the designation as cinema as “The Seventh Art,” by famed Italian film theoretician Ricciotto Canudo. Canudo divides art into six spheres — the so called “plastic arts” (architecture, sculpture and painting) that he calls “The rhythms of space,” and the performance arts (music, poetry and dance) that he calls “The rhythms of time.” Cinema is called “The Seventh Art” because it synthesizes the original six arts into a unique blend that become an artistic whole greater than the sum of it’s parts. In simpler terms, it’s the basic rationale behind handing out Oscars that celebrate the artistic acheivement of individual elements of a film (art, editing, directing, screenplay, makeup, special effects and the like…) but reserving the Best Picture Oscar for the film that combines them into something that can’t be considered as deriving from the mere technical quality of any individual element.
It should be noted that this was hardly a non-controversial point of view. It’s easy enough to throw a little Roger Ebert-style analysis at film and claim that the movies aren’t “true” art (or high art to use Ebert’s phraseology) because they aren’t singular visions that can stand alone like the first six. They are dependent upon the sterling qualities of the first six art forms for their artistic power so while one may admire the technical acumen of the filmmaker, they are ultimately not true artists because they merely combine together the work of the true artists like the writers, set creators and performers.
This, however, is not a view I subscribe to because I happen to agree with Canudo that film creates something completely unique that is equal to but very different than the other art forms that make it up. That’s the ability of the filmmaker to manipulate time, space and the audience experience in ways impossible to replicate in reality. It’s the difference between watching the spectacular boxing matches in “Rocky” or “Raging Bull” and then comparing them to a real-world match or reading an account of a fight in a news report. In the film, every blow is particularly choreographed, the timing, camera angles, music, sound and the reactions of the actors convey meaning and story and carry symbolic frieght in ways that would be impossible for a painting or a sculpture of a boxer to match.
Dyack went on with his analysis by stating the following:
“In a similar way video games synthesize architecture, sculpture and painting with music, dancing and painting, utilizing elements of each but adding interactivity to move art on to its eighth form.”
“That video games are art is quite obvious to me,” he continued. “The new synthesis is interactivity and gameplay. Instead of moving pictures, that which movies brought to art, we now have interactivity as the glue that brings together all the previous artistic elements.”
This strikes me as exactly right. I have argued in the past that what makes videogames unique is the fact that they have as their core raison d’être the transmission of tactile pleasure to the gamer. It’s this very interactivity that Roger Ebert actually uses as the reason to claim that videogames are not high art as he understands it. In fact he states that that “…player control of the outcome… have more in common with sports.” Putting aside the question of whether a sport can be art (there are certainly commentators who think so), the difference between a videogame and a sport is whether the interactivity is done in service to a narrative. That means that the key element is making videogames truly “The Eight Art” is whether that narrative is primarily transmitted through interactivity.