Mytholder (mytholder) wrote,
Mytholder
mytholder

Thinking out loud: Why Games Are Not Yet Art

Reading this blog entry from James Wallis sparked an odd line of thought.

A novel is pretty much unquestionably capable of being art. Let's take, say, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man.

Let's take the novel and add hypertext links. Hypertext links are the simplest way I can think of to add a measure of interaction.

If the links are footnotes (say, taking an instance of the word 'Jesuit' and linking that to a factual discussion of the history of the Jesuit order and their significance in Joyce's life), that really doesn't change the book at all.

If the links are to other pages in the novel, then we have a choice. We can index it (so, if you click on Simon Dedalus, you go to a page with a list of links to the other mentions of Simon Dedalus in the book), and this again does not really change the book at all.

Alternatively, we can link back to other pages in the novel directly - click on Simon Dedalus, and you're brought straight to another page of the novel itself. This is a significant change from just indexing it, as the link is now itself offering new information or emotional shading or commentary. The linked page on Simon Dedalus is being highlighted. (Let's assume that it's Joyce himself adding the hyperlinks, by the way.) If he consistently links back to one particular page for each 'Simon Dedalus', then that page is obviously being held up as the most significant, a key page in our understanding of Simon in the narrative of Stephen's growth. Alternatively, each link could go to a different mention of Simon Dedalus, in which case the links would represent Stephen's memories and feelings connected to his father. The instance of 'Simon Dedalus' on page 207 could link back to the one on page 11 (Stephen's earliest childhood memories, with moocows and kindly fathers), while the instance of 'Simon Dedalus' on page 208 could link back to one on page 59 (where Stephen's father staggers in drunk or something). (All page numbers are made up, as I don't have a copy of Portrait to hand.)

We still have a single narrative, though. You still read the book by starting at page 1 and reading until you reach the last page. All we've added is the ability to jump to other sections that the author wishes to inform our reading of the current section. It's the equivalent of Joyce going 'when you read that bit about Stephen meeting his father on page 208, remember that bit on page 59 too'. The hyperlink fulfills the same function as the sentence 'Stephen remembered another meeting with his father...'

I think this is still, unquestionably, art.

Now, let's really turn the text into a hypertext by adding multiple paths through the novel. Each page ends with a number of links. Click on one, and you're brought to another page. Keep clicking, and you'll get to the end of the novel. We'll assume that Joyce is a very clever writer, and that all the valid paths through the hypertext are satisfying novels. If you read 1->5->35->120, that's a novel. If you go 1->3->35->49->120, that's a different but equally well-formed novel.

The interesting thing here is how these links are presented.
If they're just, say, asterisks, then the reader has no actual interaction with the book. The choice of page might as well be random selection from the set of valid next pages from the current page.

If the links are presented as numbers, then the paths through the novel become more distinct from each other. I can say 'I really liked the novel I got from clicking the first link on the first page, then the third link on the second page, then the first link on the third page, but I didn't like the one I got from the second link on the first page, the second link on the second page, and the third link on the third page'.

Now, such information is only available after I've gone down a path once already. The book has to be read before I can make the above statement. When reading the book for the first time, I have no idea how clicking the first link on the second page will make the novel I'm reading different from clicking the second link on the second page.

If the links are presented as text, then the author is passing on more information to the reader. Suddenly, I am navigating my way through the book, and choosing what I am going to read.

An uninformed decision is no decision at all.

If I have to choose between two links that both say 'click to read the next page', then my 'choice' is meaningless, but if my choice is between two links, one of which says 'Stephen went to school... (click to read more)' and 'Stephen did not go to school... (click to read more)', then I am making a definite choice about the path through the novel. We can imagine different ways the links could be presented: the text could be themes, or emotions, or quotes, or section titles. It could even be superficially random. I could be offered a choice between 'chaffinch' and 'the nature of things', even though the next page accessed by either link is a description of Stephen's breakfast. (How does it change things, I wonder, if the reader is unable to understand the criteria by which the author chooses the link text? Hypertext Ulysses: If I don't understand that the links are quotes from the Oddessy, am I really interacting with the hypertext?)

At this point, we're very close to crossing the threshold between 'novel' and 'game'. We can turn this into 'A Portrait of the Warlock of Firetop Mountain' very easily.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is about Stephen's youth, and the choices he makes which bring him to eventually reject religion, leave Ireland and forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race' etc. That's not the only story Joyce could have written. In the book, Stephen has other identities, other choices. He nearly became a priest, for instance. Joyce could have written a different version of 'Portrait' where that happened - and in our hypothetical hypertextual, multi-threaded hypernovel, both versions co-exist. At the end of chapter 3, click on Stephen is convinced by the lecture on Hell or Stephen is not convinced by the lecture on Hell.

(Digression: There is, bizarrely, a d20 version of Hamlet. There's a Interactive Fiction one too.

Are they art? Actually, bugger that question, it's irrelevant. The real question is, does either of them provide as rich an experience as seeing a good production of Hamlet?)

When I choose one of those two options, I am not deciding if Stephen becomes a priest or not. I am deciding whether I will read about Stephen becoming a priest, or Stephen not becoming a priest. Effectively, I'm choosing which novel I'll read. That's still not a game.

If, on the other hand, Joyce tells me at the start, 'Stephen's not supposed to become a priest', then the novel becomes a game. I have a goal, which is 'do not pick options that will lead to Stephen becoming a priest'.

It becomes a game if I can make informed decisions that I believe will bring me closer to achieving my goal.

Can you have a game without a goal? You can have one without a stated goal, I supposed, or one where the goals change regularly (most RPGs, for instance), or one where the player can choose their own goal from a list of choices (Sim games are effectively like that). Without a goal, I have no reason to make decisions other than 'to see what happens next', and I may as well click randomly in that case.

I think goals are compatible with a 'rich experience'. They may even be necessary. If I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then I become emotionally invested in Stephen Dedalus, and I obtain pleasure from reading the book. If we translate the novel into a game, then what is my goal? I'm trying to articulate it, and I can't. Maybe 'to maximise my pleasure in observing Stephen Dedalus' response to challenges', but that sounds ludicrous. The goal of a game can't be 'to have fun'. That's not a goal.

Setting that one aside for the moment, let's go back to the other component of a game, 'informed choices'. Informed choices can be broken into 'the information needed to make the choice a meaningful one' and 'the choice itself'.

My suspicion - based on nothing more than intuition - is that adding the context and information necessary to make a choice into an informed one is such a burden on the narrative that it brings it down, making it less effective. That's why games keep returning to the same cliches and tropes over and over - the context is there already, and the player's choices are informed ones. I know that choosing 'dungeon' will mean danger for my character. To make a really informed choice for Stephen, then Joyce may have to tell me far more about the character and his world than the narrative can comfortably bear.

I also suspect that putting any choice at all subconsciously devalues a work, and makes it less affecting. Giving the audience control can remove tension; it removes inevitability, the sense that events unfold as they must, but it also blurs the distinction between author and audience, and it is very, very hard to think of your own work as true art unless you've got a tremendous ego. You don't sit in the audience of a play and think 'wow, this is absolutely brilliant partially because because I am observing it!', but you are asked to sit and think 'wow, this game is absolutely brilliant partially because I am playing it'. The game does not exist without the player. (Ish.)

The former is a technical challenge, and can be overcome with sufficient skill on the part of the author.
The latter is a cultural hangup, I think.

Right. Half three, I've been rambling for more than an hour. To summarise:
  • A Portrait of the Artist is art.
  • A hypertext of that book is also art.
  • A hypothetical superset of all possible narratives of which A Portrait of the Artist is but one path is also, probably, art.
  • A Portrait of the Warlock of Firetop Mountain is somewhat less likely to be art.
  • That's because it's a game, and for a game, you need a goal, and you need to make informed choices to get to that goal.
  • Goals are weird. Most art doesn't present the reader with a goal. Games do.
  • We're not good at presenting the information needed to make informed choices to the player.
  • We're not good at handling choices in a work of art, either.
  • It's very late, and this is not helping write Hawkmoon adventures.


More on informed choices and goals later.
Tags: gaming, rambling
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