But seriously, are games art?

Now this is a one-time-only thing, because although this is an important argument in a sense, it’s one that I’m sick to death of hearing about. Someone says otherwise, gamers variously trumpet the likes of Ico or flame the person in question, and then we repeat the whole thing again a few weeks later. Roger Ebert has done it again, with the prominent movie critic reiterating his stance that games can never be art. Some points I agree with, some I disagree with, and some of his statements are factually wrong; gamers’ responses have ranged from decent to predictably defensive and/or vitriolic.

So, are games art?

Yes.

Any creative product is art, be it a film, a game, a painting, a sculpture, a novel, a poem, a play, or anything else. As far as I’m concerned, this is indisputably true, and if I could quite happily leave the argument there.

The difference comes in artistic merit. The Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David and the doodle on the back of my notebook are all art, but no one’s going to argue that the former two are worth far more, both monetarily and in every other sense. Likewise, Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey are both far more worthy than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but all three are art in some sense. Creating art is one of the primary motivating factors to all but the most commercial of filmmakers, and as a result there are a lot of films with artistic merit.

Artistic merit is where gaming can fall short, because it’s still treated as a commodity, an industry driven by sequels and following the leader. Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy, Okami, BioShock and Grim Fandango are examples of games that I would consider to be artistically important for various reasons, while I couldn’t say the same for FIFA or the latest movie-licensed game. FIFA is art, but I’d never show it to someone to show them what the medium can do beyond be a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

My personal opinion is that part of the problem is that there aren’t enough gaming auteurs. Too many are designed by committee and marketing departments, and while I could reel off dozens of great directors, authors or musicians from the last 30 years who have created true art within their media, there still aren’t that many in gaming. Miyamoto and Kojima are two who can be assured top billing and have the clout to get their pet projects made on their name alone, but beyond them you’re probably going to be struggling already, and knowledge of them outside those who follow the industry is almost nil. There’s also very little opportunity for people with big ideas to get their game through development and then into gamers’ hands through commercial channels, with the indie art project games usually either curiosities on the PC or, at best, a sleeper hit on the iPhone.

I’d almost say that the early arcade games did a better job of being artistic in their own right, because they were gaming in its purest form – interactive art, often made by a handful of people. Things like Electroplankton are their direct descendants.

I’m sorry if this seems like doom and gloom, but we have to remember that gaming is a young medium. It’s only 15 years or so that it’s been able to tackle the bigger issues by presenting us with something beyond bleeps and bloops – although my previous point on the artistic merit of those stands – and those gaming auteurs are starting to emerge, however slowly. Film wasn’t taken seriously as anything more than a technical gimmick at the beginning, and rock music was once the downfall of civilisation that games now are.

When today’s gamers are tomorrow’s art critics and we have more developers whose body of work is big and pretentious enough to be called an oeuvre, and maybe when you can make a go at getting an independent game on the shelf next to the new Call of Duty, then we’ll be the ones complaining that this new-fangled holographic VR nonsense isn’t art. That’ll show ’em.

Splinter Cell: Conviction

It’s rare to find a game that’s gone through as many delays, redesigns and overhauls as Splinter Cell: Conviction has and still turns out to be any good – it’s not called ‘development hell’ for nothing – so imagine my surprise to find out just how good this game is. My main complaint is that it’s not Chaos Theory, which remains one of my favourite games ever – I lost an evening to it just the other day – and while I can forgive that because very few games are that good, the fact that it doesn’t try to be is my problem.

I guess it’s the same thing that has happened to Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six, both once unflinchingly realistic and now barely recognisable near-future Hollywood blockbusters of games. I’m still waiting for a ‘proper’ Splinter Cell in the vein of the Xbox games, because both Double Agent and Conviction have tried to do something new. Sam Fisher has slowly changed from a Solid Snake knock-off to his current form as an amalgam of Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer. Not the most original character, I’m slowly realising as I type this, but regardless, the series has always been a favourite of mine and now it’s barely recognisable.

But taken on its own merits, I had a brilliant time with Conviction. It was a short time, admittedly – seven hours or so by my estimation, without starting on the co-op campaign – but I stand by my conviction (sorry) that I’d prefer a great 6-7 hours to the same thing stretched out to fill 12 or more. I was satisfied by the end of it.

So it’s not bad; it’s just different. There’s no non-lethal option here beyond avoiding encounters entirely, so it’s far more of an action game, and indeed some sequences, whether a foot chase through Washington DC in broad daylight or a straight shooting sequence in Iraq, simply would not work within the framework of the original trilogy. As long as you can forgive the fact that this is not your usual Splinter Cell, but rather a new take on the same story that’s a good game in its own right, you’ll find an interesting experience. Really there’s nothing, least of all the official Bourne or 24 games, that makes you feel like such a hard bastard.

Regardless of your opinion of Splinter Cell old or new, I guarantee that you will crack a smile when you get the drop on a room of five enemies, mark four of them, and then quickly follow a headshot on the fifth with a tap of the ‘execute’ button to take down the others before they can react. It’s incredibly satisfying when it works like that, and even without the impetus to push for perfection in your playthrough that always pushed me through the previous games and the best in the genre, it’s good to finally have Fisher back.

Now let’s just have a proper new one, okay, Ubisoft?

Game Room

It occurred to me recently how hard it is to legally obtain old games. Whereas almost any film from any year is probably readily available on DVD within a few clicks, and the same goes for music, the way that a previous generation of games is almost discarded every few years means that the only way to play, say, an old favourite from the Amiga is either to get lucky on eBay or a car boot, or to just go the illegal route and download the ROM. For all the bad that piracy does in this industry – and it does, no matter how overblown the claims may sometimes be – it’s doing an infinitely superior job of preserving gaming history than anyone with the publishers’ blessing.

Microsoft’s new Game Room is far from exhaustive, of course, but the plan is to grow it rapidly with games that are often otherwise unavailable elsewhere. To be honest, the vast majority simply serve to remind you of how far we’ve come and that it wasn’t any better back in the day, but they’re all available for a free play and there are some classics to be (re)discovered. Personally I’m a fan of Tempest and Crystal Castles, and I think that a quid or two is a reasonable price for them in this context.

It’s certainly a cool implementation of retro gaming with modern technology, and I think that if we can get some other big names like Capcom, Sega, Midway and Konami in there – somehow I don’t think even the biggest optimist expects to see Donkey Kong – and expand the selection up to the 16-bit era, it could be a big hit. I already enjoy visiting my friends’ arcades, but let me do it with games that I actually remember playing with them – the likes of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Golden Axe, etc – and the nostalgia factor is broadened beyond that 40-year-old creepy guy who hangs around in Gamestation. Although I can appreciate the historical value of Adventure and Asteroids, I would argue that I’m not the typical under-30 gamer.

But even so, I love how clearly Game Room is designed for fans. It’s so cool to wander into your friend’s arcade and see 80s gaming decor and a Bentley Bear sprite walking around in three dimensions, Paper Mario-style, and then to have a crack at their high scores. Everything from the way that rival high scores attack your pride with red neon to how the rewind function maintains the retro theme with a VHS rewinding effect is made to provoke a smile, and it usually does.

A good start, then, to a promising new system. I really hope that Microsoft can expand it and resist the urge to nickel and dime us too much on ultimately pointless tat like the decorations, but hey, I want to be an astronaut too. Let’s just hope that it can do the former.

Busy Times…

Just a quick post, really, to say that I’m still around and this site isn’t dead, and with any luck I should be back to business as usual before too long. A mixture of moving house and having to get Internet access sorted, deadlines at work, and not actually playing that many games for a combination of the aforementioned reasons has conspired to keep me away, and the relative dearth of news hasn’t helped. But with a return for a series that I have an affinity for next week – I’ve already been through the demo several times, and I’m chomping at the bit to get my hands on the full thing – as well as some potentially interesting developments, I foresee plenty to talk about.

In other words, reports of my disappearance were an exaggeration. More soon.