Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on the Best Video Games Ever. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, please click here.
In the argument over whether videogames can be art, one of the dynamics that strikes me as irritating is the whole “high art” folks handwaving away the “low art” folks as not really being “art”. This is usually resolved via email bombs (and, today, twitterbombs) abusing the High Art Kinda Guy until he says “I Wish I Had Not Said That” at which point victory is usually declared. This, of course, should not be seen as anything close to resolving the issue…
But what *WOULD* resolve the issue? Defining art? Starting from things that we know are good art and extrapolating? I mean, what do we learn when we compare Michelangelo’s David with The Persistence of Memory? Comparing Citizen Kane (or The Godfather or Vertigo) to Symphony No. 5 in C Minor (or The Four Seasons or Ave Verum Corpus)? How is that even possible? We expect different things from different media and to say that Citizen Kane (or the David, for that matter) doesn’t have a particularly interesting color scheme is to miss the point of what is being communicated. To say that you couldn’t follow the narrative of The Persistence of Memory is… yeah, well, that’s pretty much the point. I think. Anyway. But you have to ask “what is the point of Video Games? We know what we mean when we say ‘this is a good statue’ or ‘this is a good song’; What do we mean when we say ‘this is a good video game’?”
What *I* mean, after the cut.
I’ll start with a list:
- Deep Player Agency
- If if there’s a protagonist, you can relate to him/her.
- Gets stuck in your craw
When it comes to Video Games, one of the main things it offers you, the player, more than any other medium out there is agency… that is, Video Games reflect the will of you, the player. When it comes to Pong, what this means is “where does the paddle go?”. When it comes to StarCraft, this means “do I zerg rush or not?”. When it comes to Tower Defense, it involves “where do I put the most appropriate towers?”, and so on until you get to games where the decision tree is much more obvious, much easier to define, and much more representative of recognizable choices from The Real World. When playing a Bioware game, the choice is between being “Nice” and being “AN IRON HAND IN A VELVET GLOVE YOU KNOW WHAT FORGET THE GLOVE”… but the best choices are those you are given where your choices impact the universe, wherever you happen to be.
Imagine a game in which it feels like if you help the crime bosses, the city becomes more criminal. It feels like if you help the good folks trying to stand up against the crime bosses, the city becomes better for non-criminal types (presumably: “nice” people). Where it feels like the choices you make when it comes to how you solve a particular problem has an impact upon the world itself. Not just a decision tree like the ones provided by the Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 70’s (remember those?) but a decision tree that felt like your choices would impact the society around you? Your choices, if they were the right ones, would leave people feeling safe and happy and, if they were the selfish ones, would leave people feeling poorer and more afraid (but, of course, at the cost of you feeling richer)?
This would be a game that you might feel you had to replay if you happened to leave the universe in an unsatisfactory state. (Personal aside: this has happened to me.)
So, assuming that we’ve hammered out the importance of player agency, let’s talk about the importance of identifying with the protagonist of any given story.
In any given play or movie or book, the first few minutes do as good a job as they possibly can to tell the audience who to cheer and who to boo. The dad who lovingly interacts with his kids at breakfast. The mom who excels at her job but whose efforts go unappreciated by her superiors. The unnamed character who walks past giving a minor speech about the protagonist and what a great guy he is. A bunch of little tricks to tell us who is the guy that we should see as a proxy for any one of us.
Which brings us to what might be provided by the best video games: namely, a sensation that there is a connection between the protagonist of this particular story and the player of this particular controller retelling the particulars of the story through his controller. There are many games that begin by throwing you in the middle of the action and saying “okay… GO!” but the best games give you an idea of how much you can inhabit the character as they do so. Fallout 3, for example, started at the moment of your birth. Mass Effect 2, for example, began with you saving the crew on your disintegrating ship from an overwhelming attack… and each scene gives you an opportunity to demonstrate how you are inclined to react to a situation… either with an open hand or a closed fist…
But the best games would say that a player who prefers to talk his or her way out of trouble should be given the most conversation options… while a player who prefers Action Action! ACTION! would be given the most combat options… and yet another player who prefers a more stealthy approach would be given the options of sneaking about.
And that brings me to the replayability. There are a dozen ways to be replayable, of course. The Tetris/Bejeweled puzzle kinda games challenge you to beat your best score… but when the game relies on something closer to the choices available, the replayability needs to be of the form “what if I play it like a good guy this time? What if I play it like a Machiavellian schemer this time? What if I play it like a patsy? What if I play it like a thug? What if I play it with these powers? What if I play it with these weaknesses? What if…” and each option being available to the player.
And, finally, “gets stuck in your craw”. The absolute best games can inspire you to think about them when you’re out and about. Perhaps, as you fall asleep, their patterns dance on the back of your eyelids (I’m sure that every one of you has played at least one game of Tetris this way). But more than that, a really good game will get you to tell your friends “hey, you should play this”. It might even be possible for a really, really good game to get you to say “I need to change my life…” (as only the best works of art are capable of doing).
Which, Finally!, brings me to Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. The game itself begins not with a story but with a personality test. Who are you? The game asks… and then, when we answer, we are told “then this is the character best fitted to how you are most likely to play.” (When I am in a very good mood, I am Malkavian. When I am in a very bad mood, I am Ventrue. When I am feeling somewhere in the middle, I am Nosferatu.)
Let me repeat that: this is a game that comes out and asks you “how are you most likely to play?” and then suggests to you “this is how you’d most likely like to play the first time.” If you are someone who prefers to play in, for lack of a better term, an introverted style where you interact only with main protagonists who know you… well, that’s an option. If you are someone who prefers to play in something like an aloof style where you interact with everyone but only interact *CLOSELY* with important folks? That’s an option. And if you wish to overcome your personality test and say “No! This time I will be like *THIS*.” then that too is an option.
The universe the game presents to you is a character in its own right to be interacted with as you would a conversation partner and there’s very much an undercurrent that tells you that the world outside is bigger than you are and should be interacted with gently… because you never know what secrets it holds. And it gives and withholds different secrets based on how you choose to interact. As you beat it as a master of seduction, you’ll see how you might also play it as a sneak or a thug… and perhaps even restart the game to see what that would be like.
Oh, and the characters in the game! The politics of the game! The factions fighting and using you, of all protagonists!, as a pawn! Do you ally yourself with the established powers that be? Do you find the two (or three?) different factions that oppose the established powers and ally with one of them? Every choice that opens a door slams another two or three. You can’t do this without foregoing that… and so if you want to see what else might have happened? You’ve got to play it again. You *GET* to play it again. (Yes, I’m deliberately trying to avoid even the mildest of spoilers… perhaps I should point out that there are several really scary and creepy scenes in the game. It’s intense. It deserves that M+ rating.)
I suppose the most glowing thing that I can say about the game is this: After beating it, I called up my friends and said “We should make a Saturday Night Gaming Group”… where we played Vampire: The Masquerade (and we continue to play tabletop games every couple of weeks to this day). Indeed, this is a game that has changed my life for the better.