Becoming Art

Monet, Boulevard des Capucines (1873)

In response to the popularization of the daguerreotype in the mid 1800s, Paul Delaroche famously declared: “from today, painting is dead!”  For the past few centuries, paintings had been coming closer and closer to reality, and suddenly here was a new medium—photography—that seemed to render all of those efforts pointless.  Enter Manet and the impressionists, who stopped trying to precisely mimic reality and instead tried to capture the surreal quality of light and the emotion of a landscape.  Of course, painting was far from dead.  Painters just had to discover what set them apart from other art forms, and they had to capitalize on these differences.  The work of Manet, Monet, Van Gogh or Matisse could never have been made with a camera.

Similarly, when photography was invented it struggled to be perceived as art.  Pictorialists like Demachy and Davidson tried to mimic the efforts of the impressionists in their photographs.  They used techniques like gum bichromate to blur the details of a photo to make it look more like a painting.  The Pictorialists were trying to get photography recognized as an art form by showing how it could be like a medium that already attained artistic recognition.

Ansel Adams, Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite (1933)

Along came Ansel Adams and friends, who founded Group f/64.  In their manifesto, they stated that they were “striving to define photography as an art form…through purely photographic methods.”  They defined pure photography as “possessing no qualities…derivative of any other art form.”  Instead of trying to make paintings with their cameras they explored the unique capacity of photography to create sharp and accurate images.

Still with me?  Here’s the connection to games: Mass Effect 2 is Demachy and Demon’s Souls is Ansel Adams.  We all want games to be perceived as a medium capable of creating art, but we’ve been trying to get there in different ways.

Demon’s Souls approaches narrative in the exact opposite way that Bioware does.  In Mass Effect 2, the story is told through conversations and journal logs.  The voice acting is stellar.  The writing is great.  The camera sweeps in cinematic motion and all of the visuals are coated in film grain.  Mass Effect 2 tries to hoist itself onto the pedestal of another medium (and it isn’t alone).  It is certainly a great experience, and it’s tons of fun to play, but it doesn’t embrace its identity as a game in the way that Demon’s Souls does. Demon’s Souls demonstrates the unique storytelling capacity of games better than any other game I can think of.  It plays to the strengths of its medium; it isn’t trying to be a book and it isn’t trying to be a movie.

In Demon’s Souls you discover each place’s history without any help from a datalog.  There is a constant sense of mystery as you explore the rich corridors and caverns.  You are always pressing further into the fog, unsure of what one-hit-killer is waiting just beyond your range of vision.  Your clanking armor echoes on the cave walls and you are surrounded by groans and heavy breathing.  The space around you is crowded with shuffling life, but you still feel so lonely huddled in the womb-like dark.

Crowded with shuffling life

Demon’s Souls forces you to absorb its environment.  You trudge through the same spaces over and over again and become intimately familiar with each tunnel and vista.  The game doesn’t give you a map, but after playing it I could draw one.   In a game like Oblivion or Assassin’s Creed, space is repetitive and disposable.  In Demon’s Souls no space is wasted.  The world is big and it’s filled with variety.  You will visit every corner of it.

Everyone agrees: Demon’s Souls is difficult.  This is offset by the best melee combat mechanics that I’ve ever experienced.  The blocking and dodging are intuitive.  You can hear the thwack of flesh when you chop into an enemy with a sword.  The controls are so right that mastering them is a wonderful experience.  The precise manipulation of my digital body gives me a very physical sense of the game.  Each on-screen movement is a natural extension of my thought.

After I kill the first boss in the Boletarian Palace, I am once again in human-form, complete with shiny body and robust health bar.  I wander into the wind-whipped Shrine of Storms.  Imagine my chagrin when a dual-katana-wielding skeleton rolls over to me and dispatches me in a single hit.  “Damn you, rolling skeleton!” I shout at the screen.  I come back for more.  He kills me again.  And again.  I slowly learn the pattern of his attacks: roll, roll, slash, pause, roll, slash.  I hold my shield up to him in a challenge.  I sway and I dodge and then—BAM!—I get him from behind.  Several blows later he lies in a pile of bones at my feet.  But the next rolling skeleton has an archer friend who thwarts my masterful tactics by staggering me at just the wrong time, and I’m dead again.  Fast-forward to a few hours later when I’ve been killed a long ways into the level.  I dodge and hack my way through what used to be grueling battles with ease.  It isn’t because I have a bigger health bar or a more powerful sword.  The game has taught me how to fight, and that is why I love it.

Some rolling skeletons in the Shrine of Storms

In order to be widely recognized as a means for artistic expression, games need to explore the unique qualities of their gaminess, just like Manet did with paint and Adams did with a camera.

Demon’s Souls tells a story through the way that the player inhabits the gamespace.  The combat isn’t just a way of getting you to the next cutscene.  This is what ‘gamic’ means.  You don’t have to learn excruciatingly difficult fighting techniques in order to read a book or watch a movie.  I’m thirty hours in and Demon’s Souls has told me an amazing and visceral story in a way that a movie or book could not have done.  Surely this is art.

—-

This certainly won’t be the last thing I write about Demon’s Souls.  I haven’t even mentioned the unique multiplayer component of the game, and there are so many more stories to tell.  I’m also planning on putting my fancy HD PVR to use and recording some nice videos for you to watch!

In the meantime, why not check out my two favorite articles on Demon’s Souls, by Michael Abbott on GameSetWatch and Tom Bissell on Crispy Gamer.

Guest Article: Your Social Network Sucks

Morgon Kanter writes about an irritating new trend in game design.

The first time I ever played an MMORPG online was in 1996. It was called Medievia, and it was back in the days when “MMOs” were really just called “MUDs”, short for Multi-User Dungeons (anyone remember those?). The first time I ever played a video game online was in 1999. I was 11 years old, and I had just gotten my hands on a shiny new copy of Unreal Tournament. For those of you not old enough to remember, Unreal Tournament was, at that point, considered to be the greatest multiplayer shooter ever made. It even managed to accomplish this when most of the world was still playing it on dial-up.

Unreal Tournament, in all its account-free glory

Medievia was the first and last time I ever felt it necessary to make an account for a game. It was natural, really: it’s a persistent world where you’re expected to log in and continue where you last left off. Medievia was even a little unusual about that when compared to other MUDs, because you didn’t lose your equipment when you logged off. Unreal Tournament did not require me to sign up for account. I don’t even think the developers had conceived of the notion of requiring dial-up users to log in to their weak, easily-DDoSed servers in West Nowhereville before playing the greatest multiplayer game ever made. If one of them did, I have this little fantasy in my head wherein said person walked into CliffyB’s office and brought it up to him: “So, CliffyB, do you think we should make everybody sign up for an account and log in to play multiplayer?” To this, CliffyB would dutifully reply: “That’s the most fucking retarded thing I’ve ever heard.”

Fast forward a bit under a decade, and the most fucking retarded thing that my fantasy CliffyB has ever heard has gained some traction. I don’t really know where this idea started, though I have a few ideas: Xbox Live for the original Xbox, and Steam. On both places it makes sense: the former because you had to pay for it so of course you had to log in to play, and the latter because all the games you bought ended up tied to the account so of course you had to log in to play. But wait! Now the concept has expanded…to individual games? Now I need to log in somewhere to play multiplayer on a PC game, where I don’t have to pay for the privilege? This isn’t like Steam, where you log in when your computer boots up to access your games — all your games. Now I’m expected to launch an individual game, then fill in a username and password in order to get online and shoot people.

UT3, on the other hand, demands you make an account.

My first brush with this terrible idea came, rather ironically, with Unreal Tournament 3, where after booting the game up I was expected to do these foreign actions like “create an account” and “log in” in order to play with other people online. I don’t see why this is necessary — it wasn’t necessary in Unreal Tournament, or Unreal Tournament 2004. (The realistic answer is probably “it’s not necessary, but they want to see and control who is playing their game” or in industry-speak “preventing piracy.”) Part of me is glad that that game did so terribly for that reason; I absolutely cannot stand having to sign up for an account to play a game I already paid for. It’s even worse now that the game is on Steam, where first you download it to your Steam account and then once you launch the game you have to make another separate account. WTF, man? Could you imagine if you had to do that for every game you own? But wait, you say, that’s just for multiplayer. UT3 is a multiplayer game, so making an account is okay, right? What about single player? Funny you should mention that…

Turns out that requiring accounts for single-player games is also gaining traction. Dragon Age: Origins with its “social network” is a well-known example (required for the DLC), and anything made by Ubisoft now gets a special mention for the doubly asinine requirement of remaining online while you are playing even though it’s a single player game! Now, Ubisoft is absolutely terrible, and there is absolutely no redeeming feature in that model. But the thing with Dragon Age: Origins, that doesn’t have to be so bad. But there is just one thing…and it’s the same thing that bugged me so much about UT3. How many people bought Dragon Age over Steam? Given how it was in the best-sellers list for a while, I’m willing to bet the answer to that question is “a lot”. Now, with Steam, I am already signed up for an account. I signed up for this account the first time I bought games with Steam. This account is used for multiplayer in a number of Steam-based games (not just games published by Valve). Does it seem a little annoying to anyone else to have to sign up for *another* account, solely for Dragon Age, just for the DLC? Couldn’t they have just used my damn Steam settings?!

All things considered, Dragon Age is pretty tame. I don’t care about their stupid “social network”, but at least it doesn’t require me to run the Games for Windows Live client to play the game, which some games on Steam do require. That makes even less sense to me — I bought the game on Steam. STEAM. Why do I have to download and run ANOTHER stupid client just to play the fucking game?

Really, Bioware? You want me to blog about my DA experiences on your social network?

This deal with creating new accounts to play games (multiplayer or otherwise) is getting out of hand. I recently bought a pack of indie games on Steam. I generally expect indie games to be free of the nonsense and general stupidity over these meta-gaming issues that plague larger development and publishing houses. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that I had to sign up for accounts — separately — for two of these games. I see no reason to not name and shame, so let’s do that: Altitude, and Galcon Fusion. Seriously guys, what were you thinking? I have over eighty games in my Steam account. Just think of what that would be like if I had to sign up for a separate account for every one of these. Think about that for a minute, developers. Can you start to see the problem?

I’m not entirely uncharitable here. I can understand why even small game studios would want people to have accounts for stat tracking or other sorts of persistent information (or “fighting piracy”). But making me sign up for another account when I bought your game over Steam is inexcusable. If you want to handle your own accounts, you need to come up with a way to make the Steam account details automatically transfer over. I actually brought this up to the developers of Altitude, to which they replied that they couldn’t because of privacy issues. That’s a good joke, guys. Privacy issues. As if I’m not going to go sign up for an account so I can play the game I just bought. Make it transfer! Bother Valve until they make some API calls to support it, if Steam doesn’t already! It’s not impossible. It’s not even that hard. So do it already. Stop dodging the issue or issuing these weak mea culpas, because I don’t want to have to make and remember separate accounts for all 83 of my Steam games.

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