Art & Linear Gaming

The discussion about what constitutes art is never ending as new ways to articulate expression are created with every generation. The old often decries the new, claiming they had defined art for all subsequent generations.

This will eventually migrate into a conversation about Mass Effect 3 again, just to warn you (though without spoilers this time).

Specifically, I speak of Dr. Ray Muzyka comments involving Mass Effect 3, on his recent post “apologizing” about the end of Mass Effect 3 while also defending the artistic decisions his staff had made in ending the game the way they did. Reading that, I’m brought back to the controversy on whether or not video games can be art. Roger Ebert had once declared that video games couldn’t be art because of their nature of user involvement. Artwork is the expression of ideas by one person or a group of people united, and if the idea can be altered or “won”, or if it serves a purpose other than the expression, it no longer becomes art (I’m just stating the argument, not endorsing it). I don’t agree with Ebert because of his reasoning that art cannot be interactive. Art is interactive even without physical involvement by the viewer because of how it affects that viewer (metaphysical). I don’t see any precedent that if art can be “finished,” it no longer becomes art. If a painting no longer affects you, does it cease being art?

Back when Ebert was being all Ebert, Penny Arcade had argued that “If a hundred artists create art for five years, how could the results not be art?” I initially criticized their comments on the PA forum on multiple grounds, mostly because of statements describing Ebert as a “creature,” and his editorial as “reeking ejaculate.” Ebert may be wrong on this topic, but that doesn’t alter my respect for him as a writer. But if a musician, illustrator, and writer create art, is the game they work on considered art? Do the people not assumed to be artists (programmers) because of historical precedent gain a free access to being called artists because they work alongside those that are? My answer to that would be yes but that’s going backward from the end result. If the outcome is art, then are the people working on it artists? I believe the title “artist” comes from the achievement and not the individual. I don’t know if its valid for a painter that never painted to call himself a painter (assuming this fictional individual suffers in front of an empty canvas unable to find expression)…but that’s diving into some philosophical jumbo-mumbo best left for people with books and careers.

In further criticizing Ebert’s old editorial, I wonder if artwork can be defined in its expression of a creator’s idea. If a creator’s message—if his art—can be expressed without distortion or manipulation, it doesn’t matter what format he uses to express that. If someone can change that expression or message, it no longer becomes art because the artist no longer controls his expression. So with games with linear paths, which most games are, players are experiencing a singular vision. Sure, they can jump, shoot, and even talk, but the origin, path, and destination are fixed. No matter how you play Braid, Flower, Limbo, or Journey, each player experiences the same story with the same ending, thus preserving the vision of the artist or artists that created them.

This is why I would never call my role playing games art because all a GM can do is present scenarios that players interact with. Because a player’s voice and personality is being lent to the final product, it no longer represents a unified vision, that is unless you offer a compromise that the artistic expression is shared by both creator and player. Given that opinion, it can be said that games like Fallout 3, Skyrim, and Mass Effect can have artistic merit as long as the contribution of the player is taken into account, as he/she is adjusting how the story is told as well as how and why their character acts.

…I told you this would eventually involve Mass Effect 3. Muzyka, in his recent blog post, defended the artistic vision of his developers.

“I believe passionately that games are an art form, and that the power of our medium flows from our audience, who are deeply involved in how the story unfolds, and who have the uncontested right to provide constructive criticism. At the same time, I also believe in and support the artistic choices made by the development team. The team and I have been thinking hard about how to best address the comments on ME3’s endings from players, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of the game.”

Given my previous thoughts, I believe not only does an audience—which I would correct to mean players—have the right to provide criticism, they have a say in the artistic expression itself. The nature of the game or the art does not bestow the right of its audience to offer criticism; they have that right regardless of what it is, if it’s a song, movie, game, book, vehicle, house, or a single statement shouted from a soapbox. When dealing with a game which hinges on player choice to customize a personalized experience, the player contributes his own voice into that artistic expression. My game is different than your game because of my involvement. So either the game ceases to become art, or it becomes a shared expression, which means the player’s arguments over content have greater validity than that of members of an audience. If arguing artistic integrity, once must ask who’s integrity we’re dealing with, the game developers, those that create their characters, or both.

As a game designer and pen and paper game master, I must acknowledge that the complete package of the game’s experience is heavily based off the input and interaction of my players. If I took the setting and wrote it into a novel (which I have), that would be my singular artistic vision, but during a game, I must acknowledge that my players have a greater voice than that of simple audience members.


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.