Friday, October 9, 2009

Citizen Game

Michael Thomsen has sparked a lot of community controversy this week with his IGN article and ABC News segment attempting to answer the oft-repeated question, "When will gaming have its Citizen Kane?" Thomsen asserts that it has already arrived in the form of 2002's Metroid Prime.

To give a little background, Thomsen does not even work as a reviewer for IGN, perhaps due to his aberrant views--he has previously praised Haze and Red Steel, two first-person shooters that were almost universally panned. I haven't personally played Metroid Prime, so I can't fairly agree with nor refute Thomsen's opinion, but I do disagree with his approach to the loaded question.

The games that I might consider art--ICO, Ikaruga, Resident Evil--even as they may draw on cinematic techniques, really strike me as closer to painting or music than to film in the ways that they engage players' emotions. Rather than attempt to tell profound and thought-provoking stories, these games use directed interactivity to construct moments that affect us as powerful images or phrases. Of course, I enjoy a good story as well, but I don't know if there are any in gaming that I would consider close to the best in film and literature. Rather, the closer games get to art, the more impossible it becomes to draw direct comparisons to those other narrative art forms. So the question, "When will gaming have its Citizen Kane?" seems to me poorly conceived in a way. I would agree with the implication of the question, however, that gaming is still an immature form that has yet to produce a work of high art comparable to Citizen Kane. So the real question is how long we will have to wait before gaming matures the way film did, or if it even can grow up and break out of its current narrow spectrum.

To me, what holds back gaming as an art form is, not so much the limits of the interactive medium, but rather the practical constraints of the industry. It is simply not feasible for a single artist to produce a major video game work without the backing of a large publisher, and that severely limits the variety of input. Not only are games very expensive to make, but it is exceptionally rare for one person to have the artistic vision as well as the arcane technical expertise--computer programming and art--to even get off the ground with an idea. Working under a publisher, art becomes subservient to business bottom lines, and escapism, most often taking violent forms, is what seems to sell. I think that is truly what is holding back gaming compared to all recognized art forms. While the movie industry may also be largely profit-driven, there are still independent films that can reach a significant audience.

Take Paranormal Activity, for example. An independent "mockumentary" horror film in the model of The Blair Witch Project, it now stands a chance also of duplicating that movie's unprecedented success. Directed by Oren Peli with a hand-held camera and an $11,000 budget, it has received favorable reviews across the board, even earning the praise of Steven Spielberg, while a quasi-guerrilla marketing campaign has generated a lot of buzz. In limited release, it has already grossed several times its production costs, and now Peli has secured a much larger budget for his next film. I have not seen Paranormal Activity, but the story behind it is what blows my mind. It blows my mind because I used to work next door to this guy.

At Sony Computer Entertainment America, Oren was the senior online programmer on MLB 06: The Show, while I was working in quality assurance as a tester principally assigned to the online component. Online was typically the most unstable part of any game, so Oren's name was quite familiar to those of us who had submitted many reports to the defect database; as senior online programmer, he was often listed as the guy assigned to the bugs I found. The relationship between programmers and testers was a delicate one--they often mistook our work as criticism of theirs--so I only once met him in person, when my thumbs were needed to demonstrate a difficult-to-reproduce crash bug that I had written up.

I had heard stories about this guy from the more veteran testers, but he was seemingly better known for his Israeli accent and tacky sweaters than for any of the work he did. During my brief meeting with him, he was relatively professional, but I also noticed that he seemed rather detached and dispassionate about what was to him just a job. That was not unusual among the programmers that I met, and I guessed that it was the crazy hours spent working on a yearly sports title that left these men hollow at the office. Now I know better that his heart was focused elsewhere on something real.

Oren was not really a young man then, and, although I never felt his inferior, his income must have been already several times my own. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel inadequate considering where we have each gone since that encounter. But I digress.

The point is that, while money helps, vision and ambition can more than make up for limits of funding and equipment, and a small, independent team can put together a successful film. I just do not think the same is possible with video games, and I think Oren's case exemplifies that too. Because they are so technical, not just anybody with an idea can realize it as a game. And because they are so costly to produce, it is difficult for profit-driven publishers to justify taking chances. Yet that is really the only way for any art form to grow. Unfortunately, I really don't know how gaming can overcome this impasse toward art. Then again, I still have yet to play Metroid Prime, so perhaps I should get on that.


Sam Kahn said...

The problem with the "Citizen Kane" question is that we won't know when it happens. We most likely won't know until many years after the game is released, when a critic digs it up and decides to re-examine it in context. Or maybe it's already happened in games like Tetris or Super Mario Bros.

Czardoz said...

You start with Citizen Kane, and wonder if gaming can mature to that level, but then you end up talking about Paranormal Activity as an example of the diversity of film, so I'm a little confused. Forgive the ramblings that will surely follow.

I suppose you're saying that small-timers can make it big in other art forms, but in gaming, the small games are never the popular ones? So does gaming need to mature and "produce a work of high art comparable to Citizen Kane," or does it need to find a way to embrace the diversity of game creators, so that a small team making a downloadable Playstation Network game can have success that's similar to that enjoyed by the Grand Theft Auto conglomerate?

Because small games, though rarer than small movies, do exist, and I think the PSN and Xbox Live and WiiWare stuff is meant to encourage them, no? They will rarely get the attention of a Halo sequel, but then, a micro-budget movie only rarely becomes a Blair Witch Project. If the assertion is that Paranormal Activity will make back a whole lot more than the most successful WiiWare game, then I agree. But does the fact that the movie universe allows for such things make it more “mature” than gaming, or simply more diverse and unpredictable, or are these two separate questions? I can see how movies can be considered more “mature” because they are more diverse, but I don’t think that’s the kind of maturity we’re talking about when we bring up Citizen Kane, right?

I would look back to the early days of gaming to see a time when the biggest games in the world were relatively small compared to today’s behemoths. I guess everything is relative only to its own time, so even if Super Mario Bros. were made by a small staff compared to today’s games, it was probably a big staff compared to its contemporaries. Even so, I would wager that the production environment in 1985 was more accessible to small teams without a lot of money than the environment today, where the only games I ever see are sequels to Madden, Halo, and Grand Theft Auto.

If “taking chances” is “the only way for any art form to grow,” then I guess I don’t know enough about Citizen Kane’s history. Was it the small movie that Hollywood took a chance on, that ended up making it big and pushing the art forward? I still think it looms much larger in the critical sphere than the popular sphere. How many people do you know who have even seen it? But then, are we talking art or popularity now? I’m still a little confused.

Czardoz said...

Your post reminded me of an article I read about genius:

Coincidentally, Orson Welles is a central theme of this article. I guess it's hard to talk about genius in art without Welles coming up.

In the article, the author writes about another article that claimed that George Orwell was not a genius, and yet look at what he accomplished. The idea is that geniuses discourage the rest of us by showing us what we can’t do, but someone like Orwell should encourage us by showing what we could do, if only we were willing to work that hard and think that well. Like you said, it’s about “heart” and “focus,” and when you have those, it doesn’t much matter what they’re directed at. Everyone has heard of Animal Farm and 1984, but Orwell wrote a whole lot of other stuff that people have never heard of, and I bet he didn’t write it for status or stature, but because he needed to express his art.

The article also briefly mentions Shigeru Miyamoto as a potential example of genius. And here is where I might bring together my disparate ideas. I’ve played Metroid Prime, and I don’t know the extent of Miyamoto’s involvement in it, though I suspect it’s minimal. It might be the best game I’ve ever played. It borrows little from other art forms, and instead relentlessly, and somewhat subconsciously, engages you in the game as game, as an art form of its own with its own rules and standards.

Its genius is actually pretty much the same as the genius of the classic Miyamoto titles, especially Super Mario Bros. By analogy, you may be able to compare it to a particular movie or book, but in substance, it is nothing like any example from another art form.

To me, the relevant question is, do art forms have an optimal maturation age, or can they get better and better, or do they eventually decline? Citizen Kane is pushing 70 years old, and if we consider the 130 years or so of cinematic history, it belongs to the first half of cinema’s lifespan. And yet it is still proclaimed the “greatest movie of all time.” What does that say about the last 70 years? That film has stagnated as an art form?

I think it is possible for even an “immature” art form to include examples of transcendent genius. I would mention just the two above, Super Mario Bros. and Metroid Prime. Are they “comparable to Citizen Kane”? Well, what I really think is that we should go with your comparison of games to paintings or music, and not movies.

Do art forms mature, or do they experience a series of revolutions? From Giotto to the Renaissance to Modern art, does one replace or discredit the last? Is this called maturation, and is Giotto somehow primitive or immature compared to Picasso? Is the art of Ancient Greece somehow immature because it’s 2,400 years old?

In music, does classical music represent an immature state compared to rock? Or is rock a regression compared to its forebears?

It is certainly possible that all our various types of music and the stages of Western art represent already mature art forms, and that gaming truly is immature, at the same level as cave paintings and a hairy troglodyte thumping two gourds together to make sounds. But I don’t think that’s the case. Maybe it took millennia for painting and music to reach maturity, but cinema somehow does it in 50 or 60 years? If so, why can’t video games do it in ten years?

I don’t know if the next stage of gaming will see the current game types becoming deeper or more “mature.” I think it’s more likely that gaming will change by kind, maybe one or two revolutions that make us think of games in different ways.

Henry said...

I was admittedly stretching to combine two separate, fleeting thoughts into one because I did not think I had the time to write two posts while both stories were still current.

You make a convincing argument, and I think you're right that art forms "experience a series of revolutions." I suppose I was looking at the current state of gaming from the perspective that we were still stuck at the "cave painting" stage.

Even without having seen it, I don't seriously believe that Paranormal Activity could be a work of high art, or even equal to the best in gaming (especially since the director was a reputed douche bag back at Sony).

I suppose what I was trying to get at was that films can come from many different places, and you don't have to depend on Hollywood to take a chance, because you can do it (almost) on your own. Games mostly come from one place, but it is not necessarily the lack of diversity that holds the form back, but rather that the specific source in gaming's case must prioritize business over art. I think other art forms enjoy a more even balance, and maybe that was the state of "maturity" that I sought.

There are independent games, I know, but I don't think they are able to have the same sort of impact as The Blair Witch Project. In fact, I think what really bothered me about the ABC News video was that the unexpected appearance of Metroid Prime footage on a mainstream outlet somehow only reminded me how marginalized even successful games are. Even if there are games that are finer works of art than The Blair Witch Project, or even equal to Citizen Kane, I haven't seen evidence of their impact on culture. Maybe I am talking now about popularity rather than art, but I do personally believe that artistic expression requires an audience in order to be.

Czardoz said...

Yeah, I often like to say that people are stupid, but there have been notable instances of artists who were not only the best at what they did, but also the most popular.

Shakespeare? The Beatles? Mozart?

So people are stupid . . . but they aren't? I don't know. But I agree that I hope to see the day when games have the same impact on culture that the aforementioned have had.

Up to this point, the impact on culture seems to be minimal (Super Mario Bros.), relegated to the pocketbook (Halo), or negative/controversial (Grand Theft Auto).

Gaming as an idea can be more than that, but as a business model? We'll see.