Saturday, May 7, 2011

“Why It Matters” Columns – Do They Matter?

Date: May 6, 2011
By: Nate

A lot of gaming sites like to write columns about the different aspects of games and why they're important, be it story, music, visuals or some other concept that might be viewed as superficial. You read their arguments and you think “yeah, that makes sense”. Well, sometimes. But you have to wonder if it's being written a) to kill time; b) to appear sophisticated; or c) both.

So, what's the big deal? Well, there's a faction within the gaming community that believe that games are art – or at the least, can be. Far be it from me to say that they're wrong – especially since I agree that games can indeed be art. But what is it that makes games art?

As an art form, games are fairly unique because they don't just interact with you and elicit a response; you interact with them, too. That isn't to say that there aren't forms of conceptual art outside of the gaming world that you can't interact with. Unfortunately, I'm only drawing up dolls and action figures of meticulous design and detail. But even some automobiles are considered art; think of the aerodynamic forms of supercars. And I would definitely consider many buildings to be art; the CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario is a perfect example of this, as is just about any museum.

And like these items, games can only be interacted with on a limited field – that which is defined by the designers. So, to compare a game with architecture and design is not a far-fetched notion. This is especially true since games often require a working knowledge of functional architecture; levels don't design themselves and the greatest levels are rarely a collection of random structures littered with random objects.

On the flipside of this argument, though, comes another question – and it's a very important one: Does all of this high-falutent BS make the best game? In a simple answer, no. There are games with brilliant design, amazing music, awesome graphics – the whole nine – that just fall flat. Usually because the gameplay – the ways in which you interact with the world – are not enjoyable enough. But it certainly makes a game “cooler”.

Case-in-point: XIII. XIII is a game that is, from an artistic perspective, frickin' awesome. It's based off of a very hard-to-get graphic novel (that's not in English, as far as I remember) about a guy who was framed for the assassination of the president of the United States. The game is presented with cel-shaded graphics and even has scripted panels that come up when you get a cool kill (usually a long-range headshot)


There are even some gameplay elements that I thought were pretty nifty, like the grappling hook. But all of this stuff had already been done, and all of the cool stuff was audio and visual. As much as I love the game, I know that the level design is mediocre and the multi-player does nothing more than any other shooter at that time. The game was received with mixed opinions because of this. However, due to the artistic elements of the game, it feels like you're in a graphic novel, and that definitely counts for something. Unfortunately, it feels more like a graphic novel than a game.

As far as I can tell, the Viewtiful Joe series for the Gamecube and PS2 did this much more effectively; the game was more or less a unanimous critical success with a fairly large cult following, so it was a commercial success, too.  Viewtiful Joe, released by Capcom, was simpler in its execution, and in fact it was more an experiment and training exercise in it's creation - at least it's how it started out.  It's a side-scrolling brawler, but it clearly was better designed and, as a final product was generally more enjoyable.

Another more artsy game that didn't really kick off commercially (at least in North America and Europe) was the Otogi series by From Software and released by Sega.  Like Viewtiful Joe, the games in the Otogi series are brawlers.  Unlike Viewtiful Joe, the Otogi games are 3D brawlers with as much focus on horizontal combat as vertical.  And destroying the environment is part and parcel with the Otogi series.  The Otogi games are not cell-shaded, but their visuals are very unique.  The soundtrack is mostly based off of Japanese classical music, and many of the art and concepts are taken from Japanese mythology.



Unlike XIII, while neither Otogi was a huge commercial success, both titles were very successful from a critical standpoint.

And there are plenty of other examples I could dive into; Capcom's Okami, Sega's No More Heroes series, as well as Capcom's Killer 7; they're all very unique games with unique visuals, design, audio and concepts, but many of them cater to niche audiences - even if the gameplay is stellar, too.

One has to ask, does it matter if a game is a work of art? I can't honestly answer that with a yes and keep a straight face.  Not by a longshot. All it takes is one bad design decision - usually in terms of gameplay - to take a game from "stellar" to "average".  Unless you value art over the whole packag - and I don't truly think that many people do - I honestly think that a game as a work of art is a moot point in terms of being able to actually enjoy it.  That isn't to say that most gamers don't have their pretenses, but I honestly believe that few would know artistic design if it painted an abstract world on their behinds.

So, do the technical arts matter when it comes to making a game?  To a certain extent, yes. While sound is not necessity to make a great game, it certainly enriches it. The visuals don't have to be stellar, either. But it does help that they're clean and colourful. 

Consider iD Software's groundbreaker, Doom.  Even in its time, Doom had good graphics and sound - but not amazing.  However, it had an awesome soundtrack, variable lightly and excellent level design that took advantage of this to, at the time, downright creep you, the player, right out.  Furthermore, the core gameplay is considered by many designers to be very sophisticated because of how well balanced everything is.  Doom has very large bestiary in comparison to other games of its kind - and the bestiary is, for the mostpart, unique.  The weapons are excellently balanced, and the multiplayer is extremely fast and frenetic, even wit h a limitation of only 4 players.  The gameplay has still has never been completely imitated in a modern capacity; the closest another game has ever come to duplicating Doom's gameplay is Raven Software's Heretic, which also uses the same game engine.  There is more, though; Doom does contain a great deal of "relevent" imagery such as gruesome corpses and tortured souls, and it's this art design that shapes an atmosphere that very well could have been non-existent.  But this atmosphere isn't what makes the game; the whole package is.  The sounds (even if the original Doom engine could only loop one sound at a time), the lighting, the weapon and player mechanics, the level design, the creature behaviour - this is what makes the game.  Not just the story, visuals and music and the pretentious past they may or may not be based off of (and in fact, Doom's soundtrack is mostly based off of heavy metal songs written by bands such as Metallica, Black Sabbath and Pantera).
So coming back to the original point, what really matters, then?  You don't need to make the best sound effects to make an awesome game, and you don't need to have the best graphics.  You do need to have an excellent concept of design in a practical sense and you need to make gameplay that people will want to come back to.  So, the high-minded BS doesn't really matter because it's superficial.  Then what really matters? 

I'll tell you what really matters: love of the game.  Playing them for the sake of playing.  Sharing them for the sake of sharing because, let's face it, everyone loves to play something.  It doesn't matter if it's
a shooter, a life sim or Trivial Pursuit (Canadian content, eh!).

At the end of the day, it's not only what matters - it's what keeps gaming culture alive and healthy.

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