Oscar Wilde

ALEX: The State of Games in 2010

[You have selected: Alex Spencer] Are Games Art (for Art’s Sake)? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened but here, at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, the reactionary hot issue of games for reactionary moral-panickers has changed. The ‘violent games are turning our kids into killers’ panic that accompanied the Grand Theft Autos of the last ten years has been dethroned.But now it’s the World of Warcrafts that are pushing to the fore of the public consciousness re: gaming. Parents, politicians and Daily Mail readers are more likely to rally around the rather more mundane ‘game addiction is turning our kids into malnourished couch potatoes’. Which we’ve all heard, right? It’s a simple, common observation. Tie it to the terrible stories of Korean kids dying while they play MMOs, and you’ve got a controversy.And, so the year’s previous hot topic for people who actually play games is starting to shift: from ‘Why Aren’t Games Art?’ (they are, get over it, we’re here now) to ‘Can Games Be Immoral?’. Because, really, it’s quite obvious to anyone who’s touched one that a videogame couldn’t be an addictive substance, but who hasn’t experienced someone shutting off to everything but this one game. Look at Farmville and its host of cheap tricks, or download pretty much any ‘casual’ iPhone game. There are some pretty dirty tactics going on.And, then, on the other hand: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” That’s Oscar Wilde, there. (Yes, this is going to be one of those posts. Sorry.) He’s a guy who knew a little something about controversy and moral panic. And I’ve always tended to agree: when the ‘games are too violent’ arguments surfaced, I shrugged and held that quotation close. The content of any artform cannot be immoral, really. Because that’s life, right? Things can be nasty, in a good way or a bad way. But the value judgement there isn’t that they are wrong, just handled well (to a good end, perhaps, or used cathartically) or handled badly. The infamous ‘No Russian’ level in Modern Warfare 2, where you played a terrorist shooting up an airport? That’s not evil, it’s just a bit of a clumsy attempt to deal with something out of that game’s depth. (Unless you think that level was handled well/sensitively/entirely in keeping with the rest of Call of Duty, in which case, good on you. It’s all just opinions.)But the thing with games is that it isn’t just about the content. It’s how about games play, what is built into their rules and mechanics. The addictive slow uptick of numbers that has helped along consumerist society for centuries, for example. Or a (potentially false) sense of reward and achievement.The classic question is always: why is it okay for paintings/films/books to depict horrible atrocities/the Taliban/rape but not for games? And the answer that tends to be trotted out by the people who think that’s the case is because games are interactive. You’re directly involved in these horrors and, in their favourite examples, the one perpetrating them.But it’s not about interactivity, as such. It’s about what interactivity means. Because interactivity can take anything and lay an addictive method of play over it. Because that’s what you have to do, in a game. Where other artforms have carefully built a monument to beauty or elegance or the artist’s skill, ours is a towering Ozymandias-like colossus hailing the one true virtue: Fun. People will spend a difficult two hours with Schindler’s List or Irreversible. They’ll pick up The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or a Jodi Picoult about child abuse, and wince, and safely put it down. But why would anyone in their right mind want to play with something that isn’t fun?Want to make a game about the Holocaust? Better add some Achievements. Maybe ‘YOU’RE ON FIRE (100G) – take the most efficient route to the ovens’. This is the power games have – to reduce anything to set of rules, and make them compelling – and their duty – to keep people playing. But to quote another great writer: with great power, comes etc etc. This isn’t true across the board. It’s the reason people like me champion every ‘pretentious’ indie game that comes along doing something brave or intelligent or plain over-ambitious. What’s more, you can use those mechanics and the traditions of competition and fun to communicate big ideas. Of which there is no better example than Brenda Brathwaite’s aptly-named ‘The Mechanic is The Message‘ series. Okay, they’re boardgames rather than our electronic friends, but Brathwaite ditched videogame development to make games like Train. Train actually subverts the need-to-win that is trained into gamers. It encourages you to get as many small yellow pieces, which represent people, across the board to win. Except, when you do win, it’s revealed that those pieces stands for Jews, who you’ve been trotting towards the concentration camp that lies on the other side of the board. It sounds inconsequential, maybe even implausible that people cried whilst playing Train. But that’s exactly the power that simple rules and game mechanics have.So, are games immoral? Of course not. They are merely well designed, or badly designed. It’s just that a large fraction of blockbuster game developers want to be Michael Bay rather than Alan Pakula, and that few people seemed to have realised what the stakes are. But, hey, that’ll probably be the hot topic of 2011. About the author: Alex Spencer likes games. Andisn’t that just so damn complicated?

People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that…

It’s amazing how quickly a game of Spelunky can go wrong. One minute you’re looking at your dollars and health tick up as you rescue another dame and liberate another golden statue, modestly proud, and then a single mispressed key sends you falling onto those insta-death spikes. Sigh, press x, start again. And again. And again. Generally speaking, when I tell people why I want to do this journalism thing as a life, I say its because I want to let people know about things that are important to me, and why. Oscar Wilde spoke about the Critic as Artist, which is what I aspire to, but also Critic as Your Mate With A Mix CD Of Stuff You Need To Hear. This is something of an exception- Spelunky is not a game I necessarily want to recommend- its addictive and, like any addictive substance, its damaging to your health. But what you’ve got to remember about addictions, to quote Renton from Trainspotting, “is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fudging stupid. At least, we’re not that fudging stupid.” (Thanks, family-friendly-blog-censorship!)And the pleasure of Spelunky is its unpredictability. You’ll curse it as regularly as you praise it, but there’s a real joy to its randomly generated …everything. Even the opening story, told in three terse, pulpy lines, reveals new variations every time I play. And this saves the game. Because Spelunky is unrelentingly difficult, something you’ll discover in the first few minutes of play. Every level is packed with enemies and traps, which can be overcome easily – once you’ve learnt the patterns – but their sheer quantity leaves your tiny avatar outnumbered and outgunned. And you’ll die, over and over. My current count, according to the Scores screen, is approaching 300 deaths. Below this there is a box announcing your total “wins”. This is of course 0. A lot of the stress is taken off by the fact that many of your deaths, especially early on, are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The first time your bouncing corpse kills three or four enemies, or is batted endlessly between two spike traps is as satisfying as any success you’ve had. And then you begin to discover, and that’s what makes Spelunky so playable and, more importantly, joyfully replayable. And death is necessary to your discovery- the first thing is realising how you can work the traps, even turn them against your enemies. Then you’ll meet a new enemy, or pick up a new item, and it’ll go wrong and you’ll die, until you figure out just how they work. Even though its a world rendered in pixellated sprites, there’s a amazingly genuine sense of discovery- the kind I haven’t felt in a game since GTA: San Andreas (and the lack of which is GTA4‘s major failing). It’s a game of accidents, glorious accidents. The most beautiful of which, so far for me, involved setting off an Indiana-Jones-style rolling-boulder trap, dodging it and watching the boulder roll into the nearby shop, trapping the shopkeeper in. “Vandal!” he shouts, as I slowly pick up all of his goods. “Thief!” I’m laughing evilly to myself as I bounce through the level, omnipotent, with spring shoes, climbing gloves and a cape. I’m still chuckling as I reach the end of the next level, where he’s waiting, with a shotgun. BLAM. And all that gold just becomes another high score, listed above the ever-increasing number of kills.(Confession: I wanted to make this a faux-feminist analysis of the game, wherein women are quite literally objects, listed alongside “loot” or “kills”, depending. They’re entirely helpless without you and need to be carried around, lest they run headlong, crying, into a trap. But I just couldn’t help talking about how fun the game is- and also the power of their kisses heals you and they’re near invincible. So that’s the end of that argument.)