If you were to ask a pretentious indie developer anarcho-communist Bolshevik swine like myself about which recent game I enjoyed the most, what kind of answer would you expect? Given that I’ve made games like The Museum of Broken Memories or The Great Machine: A Fragment, you might think I’d pick games with titles like Your Grandmother Is Depressing or Pointless Anxiety 2: The Return of the Big Sad. Or perhaps I only play mysterious French games developed on digital toilet paper by a nameless one-eyed dwarf living in the Paris underground, with evocative titles like Chien Sans Nez and Mangez Les Chaussures. Or maybe “I prefer not to call them games, it’s such a misleading word, really, I much prefer (inter)active aesthetic narrative spaces.”
The game I’ve enjoyed the most in the last couple of years, the game I’ve played the most with my anarcho-communist (aspiring writer) wife and our good Bolshevik (aspiring poet) friend, is Borderlands. Yes, the action-RPG/FPS about blowing the heads off bandits on an alien planet. The one that sold a lot of copies.
The game I get the most nostalgic about is Gothic II. I’ve played dozens of hours of Civilization IV. I adored the visceral combat of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. The next game I’m going to buy is Two Worlds 2. And if someone made a proper X-Com again, I’d be the first to stand in line. These games share one major trait: They’re all mainstream titles. Not a depressing grandmother or one-eyed dwarf in sight.
Now, I know this is going to sound radical, and I know some people don’t want to hear this … but the mainstream games industry has produced some truly, truly great games.
There. I’ve said it.
I don’t blindly worship the games industry. Quite the opposite – being the kind of insufferable Marxist that I am, I could write down a list of what’s wrong with the industry that would send the word count of this article into outer space. There’s a reason I’m an indie game designer and never tried to get into the games industry.
But we have to give credit where credit is due: There are many mainstream games that are simply fantastic. Not perfect, perhaps, but still absolutely brilliant. Some of them were financially successful, some weren’t – but that’s a different issue. They were all created by the mainstream games industry, and they rock.
So why does this matter?
Fanaticism is a dangerous thing. It limits our view of the world to what fits into its narrow parameters; it prevents us from learning from the past and keeps us from imagining the future. In art it leads to stagnation and repetition; in artists it leads to a lack of mastery of the form and an inability to realize the full potential of their vision. Fanaticism shackles the mind, and what do artists have if not their minds?
Those of us who take games seriously have reason to be concerned. Even as the form itself keeps evolving and revealing more of its potential, self-destructive fanatical tendencies are also on the rise. More than just the rantings of the occasional message board troll, these tendencies and approaches exist in the minds of many gamers and game designers, and they have the potential to cause serious harm to an art form that is, after all, still in its earliest stages.
There is a certain mindset, for example, that sneers at a game like Borderlands. It’s all gameplay, that mindset says, nothing more than hollow entertainment. Running around some desert planet shooting bandits and alien monsters cannot possibly be art. Where is the depth? Where is the meaning?
Well, the depth and the meaning are right there, if one chooses to look. The gameplay may indeed mainly consist of shooting bandits and monsters, and the missions mostly do consist of “go there, kill something, get something, come back” – but does that mean there is no narrative? The player characters may primarily be defined by their statistics and abilities – but does that mean there are no characters?
Borderlands is actually chock-full of story, which it chooses to tell via the tools of world-building, as opposed to cut scenes and dialog. Pandora is a planet whose history is dominated by corporations, a planet stripped of its resources and then left to rot. The unpleasant legacies of that history are everywhere: in giant trash heaps that dot the desert plains, in bandits who were prisoners forced to work on Pandora and then left behind, in half-abandoned settlements struggling to survive on this dry rock.
The more ancient history of the planet is all around you, too. Traces of a fallen, non-human civilization rise out of the sand; gigantic bones chillingly demonstrate that the ecosystem once supported considerably larger life forms; visual hints combine to show you that some of the areas you’re exploring were once deep under water.
There’s also far more to the characters than first meets the eye. Sure, our protagonists don’t learn valuable life lessons or are forced to reconcile themselves to the essential meaninglessness and confusion of the post-modern condition (yawn), but what about the people they encounter? Now, trust me, when I first started playing the game, I also had my doubts about how much character depth a game without a conversation system could provide. And collecting audio logs isn’t exactly the greatest innovation of all time, either.
But it works, and it works well. Collecting the Patricia Tannis audio logs may not be original in terms of gameplay, but listening to a brilliant (if arrogant) woman slowly losing her mind is simultaneously hilarious and deeply sad. That particular character alone, who can make you giggle with her insane comments about music and unexpectedly move you by hallucinating about her dead mother, is enough to make the story of Borderlands a memorable experience. And Patricia Tannis is not the only great character in the game – from the scheming yet oddly likeable Marcus to the strong and intelligent Helena Pierce to the delightfully grumpy and sarcastic General Knoxx, the world of Borderlands is populated by people you may not want to meet, but you definitely want to hear about.
What about all that shooting of bandits and monsters, though? Certainly that’s what you spend most of your time doing in this game, isn’t it? Isn’t that shallow and unartistic?
I’ll have to answer that question with another question: aren’t danger and excitement part of the human condition? And when placed inside a narrative framework that has been thought through, can they not constitute a perfectly valid artistic experience? Yes, it’s fun to play Borderlands. But since when is art no longer allowed to be fun? Shakespeare can be fun, too.
Gameplay, graphics, narrative – all these are aspects of the aesthetic vocabulary of game design; they are the language of the art form. I would never have enjoyed Borderlands quite so much without its narrative, its setting and its satire; but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it without the gameplay, either.
Borderlands is one of many mainstream games I’ve played that used this vocabulary to create an experience that I treasure. You may disagree with my choice of example, but the fact remains that despite the constraints of the system, despite deadlines and managers and silly fears of alienating target audiences through originality, great games have been made. The kind of attitudes that dismiss these games for being “mainstream” or “not real art” are just as destructive as the attitudes that dismiss indie games as being pretentious or inherently inferior. All we accomplish with this kind of thinking is to limit our ability to create and our capacity to enjoy games.
So what should we do? What does it mean, in the end, to take games seriously as a form of art?
My answer is that it means that we have to allow for a plurality of experiences. This is not the same as lowering our standards. We should always demand that our art be good – no, we should demand that it be excellent. We should demand that game designers put a great deal of thought and passion and enthusiasm and vision into their work. We should demand they consider all options in designing a game, from the most common stat system to the most outlandish narrative mechanic. We should demand that they remember that narrative and gameplay are not mutually exclusive. We should demand that designers learn from what has come before and dream of what is to follow.
There is room for so many different experiences, if only we allow them enough space. There is room for the engrossing act of exploring Pandora in Borderlands, with its alien landscapes wrecked by corporations and its hints of a long and fascinating history; and there is room for the engrossing act of exploring the life of a young girl and her imagination, as well as her impact on the world and other people, in Photopia.
And if we understand that both of these experiences are art, are in fact manifestations of the very same medium, then we can begin to understand the massive potential of games and the amazing range of artistic experiences that are possible. And then we can finally stop sneering at games for being mainstream or indie, narrative-heavy or gameplay-driven, and get back to the exhilarating delight of our interactive art form.
Jonas Kyratzes is a wild-haired, raving socialist of the Trotskyist variety. When he’s not hanging around with the spectre of Karl Marx, he makes strange games and writes various incomprehensible things. He also has a website, but it smells of mushrooms.