"I've found myself dreaming lately of a day when the New York Times reviews interactive computer art..."In this reprint from the December 1994 issue of Game Developer magazine, digital artist David Sieks forecasts a coming 'paradigm shift' in how developers understand the relationship between art and games.
I had spent the morning climbing counter-clockwise, spiraling up through cloistered rooms and spaces lovingly lit; altars to artistic genius. Past the beautiful, the daring, the exhilarating; past Miro and Picasso, past Kandinsky and Klee. Finally, at the very top of Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum — that corkscrew through the pulpy core of Modern Art — I arrived at Kosuth.
"Clear, Square, Glass, Leaning," an installation piece by Joseph Kosuth, consists of four clear squares of glass, leaning side by side against the wall at a slight angle. As I arrived on the scene, a young art critic in pigtails and pink stockings was attempting to ferret some meaning from this piece as her mother looked on. In the center of each glass square is lettered a word in neat, white type. Pacing studiously the length of the installation and pointing her small finger at each word in turn, she read aloud, proudly, in a clear contralto. "Clee-ur ... Squay-ur ... Glass ...um..."
Mother was there to assist. "Leaning," she offered. "Leaning," repeated the waif, regarding the Kosuth with delicately furrowed brow. "Leaning, Mommy? Is that what makes it Art?"
I relate that 100% Guaranteed Genuine No B.S. anecdote to you here because I think it crystallizes the confusion in our society surrounding the very notion of art. What it is and, conversely, what it isn't. What does any of this have to do with game development? Read on.
Art, as a label, intends to validate both the artist and the work. The attempt is not always successful, because broadbased agreement as to what qualifies as Art is hard-won. Even once the label has been made to stick, the question exists as to what quality content it assures. "I don't know art, but I know what I like" has long been wielded as a sharp pin to deflate such assumptions of worth.
Many people like computer games, though few, if any, would think to define them as Art. Some game developers might contend that the act of creating an entertaining game is an art form, yet even they would hesitate to acclaim the end result a work of art. Games are diversion, fun for fun's sake. In any case, the very word "game" carries with it a connotation of frivolity that effectively serves to prevent more serious consideration.
The visual artist involved in the production of a game fares little better, respectability-wise. Generally, our creations are rarely considered Art, and we are considered more artisans than true artists, probably ranking lower on the totem pole than the more traditional varieties of commercial artist. This is partly because we are associated with a frivolous product and also because of the medium itself, which has, until recently, delivered game graphics that are relatively crude.
A New Medium
Of course, the rapid pace of technology has changed all the familiar rules. The realm of possibility with computer graphics becomes ever more stunning. It is no longer uncommon to find the dazzling products of sophisticated graphics software gracing magazine covers, on television, in major films, and even featured in galleries as, you guessed it, Art.
With the full range of multimedia capabilities now so commonly available, the games of today—or more to the point, those of tomorrow—are not, in a manner of speaking, your father's Oldsmobile. Not only has it become possible to make games that are neater looking, better sounding, and more smoothly interactive, but suddenly (relatively so) we have at hand tools truly fit for the artist and a new medium for meaningful creative expression.
Yes, I'm talking about computer games. Why not? The art world has traditionally met encroaching technology with resistance (ask any airbrush artist). Yet, the computer is too powerful and flexible a tool to be so ostracized. Witness its near ubiquitous presence in the design field.
How's this as a vehicle for creative expression: graphics tools that allow liveaction video, photo-illusion, and emulation of traditional drawing and painting media with a palette of colors vastly greater than that offered by any paint manufacturer; quality stereo sound; an ever-more-responsive array of interface options that allow the audience to become an active participant. With the list of possibilities growing almost daily, the computer game can become not only an art form, but an unprecedentedly interactive, malleable form of art, guided by the artist/game designer and uniquely shaped by the audience/user.
The time is ripe for a paradigm shift, where society acknowledges the computer game as a veritable art form fully as expressive as the novel, film, theater, ballet, opera. Capable of instilling wonder, of exciting the imagination, of provoking thought, of captivating its audience. Capable of beauty. In a word, Art.
Feet Back On the Ground
What, you may be asking yourself, does this have to do with the two-way scrolling shooter I want to make to run on the 386? Maybe not much at all. Using the available technology for meaningful creative expression is a new possibility, not a new mandate. The computer game was born out of far simpler pleasures, and there is doubtless much vigor, joy, and profit left in the familiar arcade genres.
Someone out there is probably clever and creative enough to figure out a way to make arcade action and art coincide in a 16-bit cartridge. The paradigm shift I called for earlier begins within the industry. There are indications that it already has begun.
By now you might easily have heard more than you ever wanted to hear about Broderbund Software's Myst
(especially if you're the jealous type). Broderbund's success is remarkable, though, because they dispensed with elements that seemed nearly indispensable — fluid action, readily identifiable goals, violence — and delivered a hauntingly evocative, beautifully rendered game. In a different way, Infogames' Alone in the Dark
defied convention as well by incorporating a shifting "cinematic" viewpoint that introduced to computer games new possibilities for storytelling power and depth. A fresh use of viewpoint also buoys System Shock
, from Looking Glass Technologies. By combining what they call a "6-D" perspective with highwire tension, they keep the player literally peering around each corner, attaining a level of audience immersion any Hollywood director would envy.
Tremendous talent exists in the field today, and gaming horizons are constantly being stretched — if in mostly familiar directions. But that's what paradigms are all about. They're tough to shake. The creative impulse to make something more than "just a game" will not likely come from a game developer looking to make a better version of something we've already seen, which is in itself a noble effort. All games don't need to aspire to the level of Art, nor should they. I can hardly imagine anything more tedious.
A New Role
At the same time, all games would profit if artists were given a greater role throughout a game's development. People in the industry tend to use "the talent" as tools — tell them only as much as they need to crank out their little segment and make sure they do as they're told — like some sort of AI-Paint program. (I can hear programmers drooling at the very idea of being able to realize their game concepts without relinquishing one iota of control, but no, such software does not yet exist. Just last issue, though, this magazine profiled software that can compose tunes given only thematic guidance by the user. I doubt it's made many friends amongst living, breathing, bill-paying musicians.)
What's lost by such an approach is potentially valuable creative input that could nudge a game in directions unthought of. What sort of game might develop if the renderers and musicians were sitting at the table from the earliest brainstorming sessions? What new ways might be conceived to interweave talent with technology, playability with beauty, strategy with color and sound? Fantastic collaborations are waiting to happen. Vast new horizons await exploration.
I've found myself dreaming lately of a day when the New York Times
reviews interactive computer art with the same highbrow intensity it devotes to cinematic and literary efforts. Maybe, someday, I'll make my way to the very top of the Guggenheim and find there a small child staring rapt into a glowing screen that responds to each whispered command, that whispers back and hums and sings and fills that topmost corner of the museum with gentle swirls and eddies of sound. The parent, smiling quietly in the background, will be visibly pleased that the child shows such appreciation for fine art.
It may be a farfetched conceit, but that's my job — I'm an artist.