Saturday, August 18, 2007

Art, Games, Blah

The e-book version of Paying For Breakages Redux is now up and available, for a scant £2.50. Buying it will make you pretty and interesting.

Some time ago Tycho said of Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End that he was "not sure every game warrants the gaze of the game criticism apparatus", a notion that planted itself in the back of my untilled mind, pending time and rain. His comment reminded me of something I had thought about a couple of games in recent years: the works in question were both licences, both for the original Xbox and both critically panned, moving from the New Releases shelf to the sub-tenner preowned bucket with a speed that confounded mechanics, Newtonian or quantum.

Alias, the game of the TV series, was not a bad game. It was also not Splinter Cell, which seemed to be most aggravating to reviewers. It was a stealth game only as long as you believed it was: I sneaked around several levels with great care before finding out by accident that you can pretty much run through the whole thing machine-gunning the few dim guards active enough to move from their leaning spots. It was a fair-looking game with a so-so plot, some dull level design and dunderheaded AI.

But it wasn't actually bad, not at all. It was shallow and a bit repetitive but it absorbed a good few hours of my time and - before my run-away-run-away strategic epiphany - it provided moments of stealth tension up there with Splinter Cell and Thief. Better even, in a way, as it wasn't as brutally hard as the latter or ridiculously overcomplicated as the former. It was fun.

The same applied to Aeon Flux. This was a game so oversimplified in terms of control that the auto-aim made actually firing seem like a quaint formality and negotiating platforms and the like little more than a rhythm action game. But it was beautifully presented, had some real stand-out moments, some original ideas, a closer adherence to the spirit of the surrealist TV show than the film upon which it was itself based, passable voice acting (thankyou, Charlize) and really did exhilarate in the sheer prowess of the character, flipping and abseiling and climbing with an elegance Lady Croft would be pushed to match, at least under my hammy fists. In taking precise control away from the player it freed the engine to put on a real show, animating Aeon according to her own whims and habits - limited, in other words, only by the excellent art direction and not by you. Tomb Raider was (and is) famed for the freedom of control available to the player but pays for it by lacking fluidity when you cock up a manoeuvre. That made Tomb Raider good: the opposite approach made Aeon Flux good.

It's hard to say then why critics - or, perhaps more accurately, the hardcore - dislike 'lite' games quite so much, but the matter of review scores perhaps illustrates a problem with our perception of games. We tend to view games as being BAD or GOOD or OK or CRAP or BRILLIANT, on a linear scale, without considering that different people, different moods and different contexts require different kinds of quality. Sometimes I want to play Oblivion because it's involving and immersive and keeps me glued for hours: sometimes I want to play BloodRayne because it isn't, it's not and it doesn't. It's not just time constraints: sometimes you would rather watch The Seventh Seal than xXx, sometimes the other way round, and sometimes you opt for Bridget Jones instead. Which of those films is 'best'? If one is 'best', why should that automatically mean the others are 'crap'?

People still bleat about whether or not games are art, and the perception of measurable value is one reason why many people think they are not. You don't give paintings or books or music marks out of ten, because it's stupid: they are not there to perform a task and do not need to justify their existence by being 20% LONGER LASTING!!! - art is its own reason to exist, and most people understand this on some level. Gamers understand this about games, but seem to be afraid to say so.

Maybe that's all it is. We admit no place in the gaming world for casual or simple or easy or shallow or silly or lightweight or cheap games in case our fellow gamers think us uncool. If it is the consumer who truly represents the state of an industry, it's no wonder people still think of games as a juvenile and immature form of entertainment. We want others to respect games as art when we loudly and persistently tell the world that the art we don't like doesn't count. If I were a non-gamer I'd think that astoundingly hypocritical.

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