Eve of A New Artform
The birth of video games: a humble green dot moving around an oscilloscope1 screen. So humble, and yet, so curiously entertaining. Video games allow players to steal away from reality and pour themselves into other worlds, inheriting abilities not readily accessible or fun. Who, can enjoy piloting a lone spacecraft through a maddening asteroid field, or cheerfully defend one’s cities against invaders’ missiles, if it happened in reality? We can see such virtual worlds today have grown in detail, realism, freedom. And behind the instant gratification video games possess lie plot and character development, elements to a video game’s ultimate success.
Some of history’s video game developers did not let the technological restrictions stop memorable plot development or interesting characters. The first video games’ unimpressive pixelated visuals and unimpressive sound effects captivated many but kept many others at bay. Now we approach a point in time where video game developers can choose much more freely to make their video game’s experience as engaging as other less disputed artforms, such as music, the visual arts, and especially cinematography.
I propose an expansion of focus from large explosions, thoughtless emotional stimulation, and intuitive avatar control – towards visually, musically stunning work; intellectual discussions and explorations into ideas and questions. Great potential exists in a video game’s intimacy with the audience. In all other mediums, an audience enjoys an art form vicariously or passively; these other artforms’ masters built their works based on this fact – there is no current way to watch a symphonic piece from a conductor’s mind’s point of view. However, video games allow an audience to interact literally with the piece – arguably a superior, but definitely different approach. With the fusion of arts video games require – cinematography, the visual arts, music, literature – alongside this unique perspective, you can imagine the potential for powerful episodes of expression. At the same time, self-interpretation persists – thoughts and beliefs painted onto the audience do not paint decisively. Individual interpretations of the fear and excitement one experiences through one’s avatar, the surrounding characters coloring the game’s world, the escape from reality itself – one can still leave the game with notably different interpretations than another.
I dream of a time where many video games make audiences think and dream. Waking up today, the handful that exist made huge impacts on the gaming industry. The Metal Gear Series began as a side-scrolling stealth action game, and then creator Hideo Kojima took the rather simple storyline and began storytelling. This series persisted through many console upgrades, something Mr. Koijima reflects on latest masterpiece. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (for the Playstation 3) breaks visual and thought-provoking ground, exploring raw, eternal topics of humanity. Through its protagonist, Old Snake, an old and aging warrior, players experience firsthand the despairs of modern technology, the mirage of world peace, the varied ideas of a paradise on Earth, and the useful becoming obsolete. MGS4 has also rendered realities sharper, clearer, and arguably more beautiful any other video game. The war violence hits closer to home with improved control over one’s character, meticulously constructed eye candy settings and battlefields for total immersion. The industry has grown to expect such works of art from Hideo Koijima – critics unanimously hail his entrance into the Playstation 2 market Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty as the advent of the “postmodern video game” and “a primary example of artistic expression in video games.” But to shoot my foot, I’ve never played any of the Metal Gear games, ever. So now I will gush about a game I’ve actually played, Homeworld 2.
My loony sage English teacher Ms. Canepa says, “Science fiction isn’t new – no genre is new; where did you think the authors got their inspirations, their muses from? Where did the Greeks get theirs?” Homeworld 2: a space opera2 real time strategy3 (RTS) game. You take role of the military commander of the Hiigarans – a space-faring race recently reunited with their homeworld, Hiigara. You and the Hiigaran leader, Karen S’jet, worriedly watch the Vaygr warlord Makaan take over system after system, cutting a large slice of the galaxy. Makaan believes his destiny lies with galactic conquest, with a strange wild goose chase for the legendary god-like Sajuuk, called He Whose Hand Shapes What Is. In actuality, Sajuuk belongs to something much greater than the Hiigarans’ religion, it is real. It is a ship, and its creators have within Sajuuk a purpose of their own. You and S’jet and the mothership Pride of Hiigara stand between Makaan’s galactic domination and your continued freedom. He will not halt until Hiigara burns, and neither will you. Aside from the storyline, Homeworld 2‘s strength lies in its magnificent aesthetics. Spacecraft, from haze-squadrons of one man-fighter Interceptors, to the steady behemoth battlecruiser Dreadnaught, all carry an atmosphere of fear and wonder. The camera can also follow your vessels, giving the impression of riding with them. I’ve drank excitement and terror, watching sky-blue ion cannon lines dissecting battlespaces, a company of Battlecruisers frantically attacking while absorbing three, then five, then eleven, then twenty-three torpedo impacts, and armadas float towards each other – forward into eventual violent, sudden, merciless doom. The plot takes you through twinkling pitch-black deep space; a watercolor portrait’s nebula; in an immense and ancient spacecraft graveyard; in the blinding, burning, bellowing chaos of the supermassive black hole-infested Galactic Center to fight foes and rescue comrades. The amount of visual detail placed into this game convinced me to confidently describe its visual aspect as a work of art. I think the experience of playing Homeworld 2 alone will cause gamers, casual and dedicated, to up their expectations for future games.
People who play games to escape from and excite themselves will always exist, just like readers who read for the shallow emotional rollercoasters. The same goes for the visual arts, music, and movies (especially movies). A successful piece of work appeals to both intellectual and hedonist. Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Franz Liszt, Kurt Kobain, Stanley Kubrick, and other great milestone makers realized this, as did Hideo Kojima. And why can’t an intellectual enjoy the carnal delights of murder and mayhem, or superficial beauty? Why can’t an adrenaline junkie have the choice to explore higher levels of existence? Why can’t one enjoy all walks of life? What’s so beautiful in an intellectual piece that would render animal excitement obsolete? What’s so pleasurable in endless, base violence that voids the temptation to analyze layered metaphors? Video games, like all other forms of art- no, of human expression – have exactly the same potential for exploration into anything. The problem and solution is choice!
We must recognize that humankind strives to express itself continuously with each passing work of art. We must leave the artist to prioritize expression over action, if at all. We must recognize video games as a medium. We must not blanket all video games under a single label. We must not think one medium superior to another, for they have all persisted since birth. And above all, we must not shut our eyes and minds to the beating drums, and the eve of a new artform.
- Oscilloscope: A device that displays and alters waves. Usually, a device that makes such waves through electrical pulses, called a wave generator, is connected to the oscilloscope. In 1958, William Higinbotham used the oscilloscope’s display to recreate a sideview of a tennis court, and a tennis ball traveling from each side of the court. Most view this invention as the first video game invented, but others have invented games before Mr. Higinbotham.
- Space Opera: a science fiction epic taking place (mostly) in space and in space-faring vessels.
- Real time strategy (RTS) game: An RTS game involves commanding units with variable strengths and weaknesses in real time, or without turns, against another player or a computer. In most PC RTS games, and especially in Homeworld 2, you will feel overwhelmed with the various amount of keyboard shortcuts for different commands – a portion of RTS gaming involves speed, and this becomes more apparent when playing against other humans.
- Chris Zimbaldi’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty as a Post-Modern Tragedy
- Wikipedia’s MGS2 article
- Kieron Gillen’s The Girl Who Wanted to be God, a review on the antiquated cyberpunk game System Shock 2
- Jennifer Miller’s light-hearted review on the exclusively puzzle-visual powerhouse Riven: the sequel to Myst
- Myst’s storyline
- Yahtzee’s sarcastic thoughtful spin on the recent epic (I bet he would call it Bioshlock) Bioshock
- Fallout 3′s storyline (mentioned in Yahtzee’s Bioshock review)
- Charles Onyett’s Bioshock contrasting review
- A nice showcasing of the Vagyr and Hiigaran armadas, the musical score, battle chatter, and the ion cannon lines – 10m, 14s
- First depiction of Dreadnought‘s “Phased Cannon Array” (it misfires) in HW2 – 1m, 12s
- The HD trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots – approx 15m