Friday, December 20, 2013

Games As Art, the Toughest Standard, and Not Having To Worry About Ebert Anymore.

Art in video games is a boring topic, but it's my blog, so I indulge occasionally. For the rest of you, here's a funny YouTube video.

This week, I'm gonna' get all good and pretentious. I've been playing a lot of terrific games lately, and I want to engage in my tedious, semi-annual rant about the state of video games as art.

I am a lifelong fan of Roget Ebert, and I was greatly saddened when he died. And yet, in nerd circles, every mention of his name must now be marked with anger and bitterness. Not by me, but some.

Near the end of his life, he committed the greatest of crimes, the one thing no geek can ever forgive. He told us a truth we didn't want to hear. Here is the introductory sentence (context can be found here), written in 2005, that started the whole mess:

"To my knowledge, no one in or out of the [video game] field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers."

He said that video games had not yet produced a work of Great Art, and he did not yet see how they could. Which, in 2005, was pretty darn reasonable. We had barely even set out on the path. But nerds, being, as they are, a tense collective of eternally exposed raw nerves, reacted with limitless rage. Which is how we know he really struck that nerve.

(The old aphorism: The truth hurts. That's how you know it's the truth.)

The problem here, I think, is simply one of not yet having defined our terms. He was just using a different vocabulary, a different standard. A tough standard. We video game fans tend to be systematically uncritical of the products we play, which is a key part of the problem.

But I get what he meant. How can I not? The quote above threw down the gauntlet. Only now are we starting to be able to pick it up.

(Disclaimer that you should read: If you only want action and distraction from your video games, Candy Crush Saga and Battlefield 4 style, there is nothing wrong with that. This just might not be a conversation you care about. We're still allowed to have it, though.)

Still with us? Good! Here is a funny YouTube video!

But Why Would You Bring It Up Now, When Everyone Was Sick To Death Of Talking About It

Good question. After all, before he died, Ebert wrote that he was sick of the whole thing and wished he'd never brought it up.

But I think this is a perfect time to start hashing it out again, because games are getting better so quickly. Fantastic, innovative titles are coming out almost every day: Games that approach video game storytelling in fresh ways that really take advantage of the medium. Really good, emotionally involving stories that could only be properly told in video game form. (My examples: Gone Home. Stanley Parable. The Last of Us. Papers, Please.)

Ebert is, sadly, dead, and I won't mention him again in this piece. We don't have to care about impressing him, and we never should have, anyway. He wasn't the final arbitrator of art truth, he never claimed to be, and the way nerds fetishized his opinion bothered him.

Instead, we should set higher standards for ourselves and then meet them. I dream of a video game that is a piece of Great Art.

But what does that mean? And how will we recognize it when it arrives?

What Makes a Work Perfect?

A theatre professor I really respected once lectured a class I was in about the distinction between a Perfect piece of art and a Great one, and, the longer I live, the more truth I see in it.

A Perfect piece of art is, just that, perfect. Without flaw. It has a goal, a story to tell, and it does so in the most efficient and skilled way possible. You look at it, and you can't see a thing you'd fix. It's just really good.

He gave the example of the play Cyrano de Bergerac. I'd suggest Casablanca. Raiders of the Lost Ark. I just played the indie game Gone Home, and it was Perfect. Loved it. Have a lot more to say about it some time.

Being Perfect doesn't mean you have to like it. Tastes differ. It means that the work achieved its goals in the most successful way possible. It's really hard to do.

Perfect video games come out all the time, but they aren't Great, because the goals they achieve perfectly are so terribly low. And that brings us to the place our young art form has never reached: Greatness.

Halfway there. Time for a break. Here's a really cool YouTube video!

Perfection Versus Depth

Perfect doesn't mean Great. Thinking otherwise is a common mistake, but a key one. Here's why. It's a matter of depth.

Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. I've watched that movie a million times. It's terrific. However, whenever I watch it, it's the exact same experience. Indy runs from the rolling boulder, and it's exciting. He kisses Marian, and it's sweet. The Nazi's face melts, and it's awesome. Done. It's immensely enjoyable, but there's nothing else there.

When you play Gone Home to the end, you're done with it. You can spend two hours giving everything in that game full and proper consideration, all the songs, all the secrets, and then you're done. Return to it tomorrow, and the characters probably hit you the same way. Same with five years from now. It might be tinged with a bit of nostalgia, but there will be nothing more to learn. It's a good story, but a simple one.

And that is enough. Not everything has to be Great, but the distinction exists.

What Makes a Work Great?

It's not perfection. Great works are rarely Perfect. They're too complex.

What makes a work Great is a mystery, a depth, an ambiguity of meaning, that is best detected in this concrete way: You can return to it every few years, and it's meaning to you can entirely change.

I am a fiend for Hamlet. I try to see that play at least every five years. Every time I do, it hits me differently. Someone who seemed sensible now seems like a jerk. Parts I never noticed before suddenly slay me. I'll have a better understanding of how someone acts the way he or she does.

This is what a work being Great means. You never truly get all of it. You never will. Every time you're sure you Understand it, give it a few years and that certainty will slip away.

Great work is rare. You can only get so many powerful, enduring pieces of art in any given century. That's why so much of it is so old. It's not the sort of thing that, once you have it, you let go to waste.

It is the most subjective thing there is. I know lots of smart, sensible people who hate Hamlet. Other works affect them that way. Maybe The Godfather. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. The Girl With a Pearl Earring. (The painting, not the book, of course.) Ulysses. Infinite Jest. Leaves Of Grass. 

And It Takes Time To Find the Great Ones

It's completely subjective. I listed several works just above that are commonly hailed as Great, and there's one of them I can't stand. On the other hand, I consider The Stranger by Billy Joel to be a true masterpiece, and believe me, there are plenty of people who would disagree with me vigorously about that.

The process of finding Greatness happens inside all of us, a quiet personal thing, and then we bring our opinions out to the world and see if any trends emerge.

If enough people find a work Great for them, it eventually gets elevated into The Canon and kids are forced to suffer through it in school.

Great works are usually difficult. They take time. It's not all on the surface. It may take those repeat visits over the years to get what they're going for. What makes them Great is the way they, for some many people, reward the effort.

You are not obligated to like any particular work that has been christened Great. In fact, I guarantee there will be many that do nothing for you. However, if you never like ANY Great work of art, it is possible that the problem is you.

That's right! I just put The Stranger on the same level as The Godfather! Nobody can stop me! Here's a disturbing YouTube video.

But Back to Video Games. 

To find a work that has Greatness in it for you, you need to live with it for years. You need to see if it has that lasting effect on you, that it grows up with you. Key point here: Video games are young enough that, even if we have produced a true masterpiece, it's too early to know.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, generations from now, people will still play emulated copies of Journey and Gone Home and go back and forth about what it means to them. I really, super don't think so. There are games I enjoyed very much. They're Perfect. Sometimes, when you're talking about a work enduring for decades or centuries, that's not enough.

God. We Embarrassed Ourselves.

When the challenge was given, we gamers gave our pitiful examples of works to be judged. Flower. Braid. Portal. Shadow of the Colossus. Fun, worthy games, all Perfect. But more than that? Something that can stay with you for a lifetime, constantly offering new emotions and new meaning?

Are you kidding me?

Hey, Flower is ... Well, it's kind of fun. It's pretty. Relaxing. I imagine, after a bong hit or two, it's fantastic. But would you go up to people who cut their teeth on King Lear and La Dolce Vita, offer them that glittery trinket, and expect them to slump away shamed? Embarrassing!

At least, that's what I think. I also might be wrong. It's not up to me.

Almost to the end. If you are fading, here is a controversial YouTube video.

Here's the Great Part

Maybe I'm wrong. I don't know the future. I don't know what's in your head. It is possible that Flower and Gone Home might strike a chord in peoples' heads, and they will still be played in fifty, a hundred, a thousand years.

Video games are young. There is no canon, no room of musty old dudes with tenure saying what you are obligated to love. Are there games that are Great, that have what it takes to keep you engaged through a lifetime? I don't think so, but I only get one vote.

You get one too.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is that I get to use my little voice to push forward things that are worth emulating, and say why. I don't think video games have produced anything truly Great, but I see the potential coming forward more and more every day.

Papers, Please, for example, is a work of art. It's a fantastic window into a different world, a foreign way of thinking. It's even fun.

I bet a lot of people who bother to read this will come away from it feeling angry and cranky. "How dare Jeff Vogel say Bioshock: Infinite isn't a game for the ages. What a dick! And his games suck anyway!"

So fight. There's a comments section below, and a lot of industry people, actual game makers, read this blog. I hear from them in private all the time. As I never tire of saying, the art form is new.

If something in a game really affected you, shook you, moved you, and you keep going back to it, say it below. If you see a little glimmer of Greatness somewhere, make your case. It doesn't have to be a whole game, just one section, one moment. If you want to join the argument, you can do it in a constructive way. Try not to be an asshole.

We don't have a grown-up art form yet, but we're getting there. And it's pretty fun to watch.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Katawa Shoujo, Sex Stuff in Games, and Choosing What You Are Allowed To See

What I expected: Weirdo smut. What I got: A little box full of therapy.

This is one of those blog posts it's really hard to hit the Publish button. Basically, what I’m going to do is publicly throw my support behind a sexually explicit dating sim that takes place in a school for the disabled. (Yes. You read that right.) It's kind of hard to do without coming off as a perv or a weirdo.

But I'm old and cranky enough to think that good, sincere work should get its due. If nothing else, the amazingly off the wall circumstances of its creation make it worth a look. So here we go.

I've been spending the last few weeks playing through my backlog of dozens and dozens of indie games, enough to help me realize I have played enough 2-D platformers for my next ten lifetimes. And, while I was poking around online, a very odd title came on my radar.

Pictured: The Feels.
Katawa Shoujo

I love looking at new trends and apps and memes online. I've been on the Interwebs since 1988. (Yes, they existed then, and yes, I am comically old.) The weird electronic culture that sprung to life in front of me provides ceaseless fascination.

And that's why I started to hear about an odd little indie game called Katawa Shoujo. (Literal translation: "Cripple Girls." Katawa is generally considered a slur in Japanese.) It came out in early 2012. While it got some press, it didn't get as much as its quality and the fascinating story of its creation deserved. You can download it for free for Windows or Mac here.

Yes, I know I'm late to this party, and that Katawa Shoujo is a huge underground hit, but mainstream coverage of the game has been really lacking (with some exceptions), for reasons I want to dig into. So bear with me.

This game is the indiest thing that ever indied. It was made by a group of a few dozen volunteers recruited from the hugely popular anonymous image board 4chan (a source of so much reprehensible behavior and remarkable creativity). It took over five years to write. It is a dating sim set in a high school for the disabled. There is already no way this thing should exist, let alone have any chance of being good.

Katawa Shoujo is a Visual Novel, basically a romantic choose your own adventure, a genre of game I know almost nothing about. And, apparently, young people were playing it in droves and losing their minds with, as they say, The Feels.

(Some people actually argue whether Visual Novels are games or not. I could not care less about this argument. If calling Katawa Shoujo a game makes you angry, shout your rage at your love pillow.)

The amount of fan art for this game is mind-boggling. Not quite at My Little Pony levels, but ...

In An Infinite Universe, Anything Is Possible

This game is kind of marvelous.

The gameplay is pretty simple. You play a boy with life-threatening arrhythmia, who enrolls at a school for the disabled and meets five female students there. As the story unfolds (via text over graphics), you are occasionally given choices. If you choose correctly, you might end up dating one of them. Then, depending on later decisions, this relationship can end very well or very badly.

It takes about eight hours to play, with around 10-20 choices based on the path you follow. And it sounds, from any casual description, like a playground for pervs and fetishests.

It's not. It's a quiet, deliberately paced story about young love, growing up, and discovering sexuality, one of the best I've seen since Judy Blume. And yeah, there's sex, of the endlessly awkward young person variety. If it was a movie, it'd be an easy NC-17. (By the way, it is made explicit everyone having sex is over 18. The developers wisely decided to avoid that minefield.)

Yet it's not porn. It's basically a story about figuring out the things about yourself and those you love that can't be changed, accepting them, and how really difficult that is. It's heady stuff, and yes, I sound like a crazy person. But I've learned to accept that.

(By the way, no matter what you do, it takes several hours of play before anyone will even kiss you. If you are looking for smut, you may wish to keep shopping.)

I played through two of the five paths and am slowly going through a third. I'm approaching it like ... I feel like a magician who is picking over someone else's trick to figure out how they did it.

While the art and writing can be uneven, this game is beautifully made and keenly observed. (And it has a storyline around a character named Rin which, if it came in the form of a book or movie instead of an obscure indie game, would receive massive acclaim.)

Happiness not guaranteed.
"But Will I Like It?"

Beats me. Maybe? It's certainly not for everyone, but that's how art works. If you picked a book at random in a bookstore or wandered into a random theater in the local multiplex, you probably wouldn't like what you got.

It has a fanatical following among the young and socially awkward (God, I would have loved it when I was 16), but I have no idea how much Regular People (tm) would like it. I'm sure some would. I asked my wife to play it, just to make sure I'm not insane, and she really liked it, so that gives me hope.

It's hard to tell how big this game's audience is, because a casual inspection of the forums on the game's official site reveals that most people who like it keep it a secret. In a Reddit AMA, one of the game's writers said that nobody who worked on it can use it on a resume.

For people like me who want gaming options for grownups that don't involve shooting fifty people in the face, this is really, REALLY depressing. We've created a system where games that deal with relationships in a daring way like books and movies just can't exist.

An actual YouTube video, that actually exists.
Murder Is Good and Sex Is Bad.

Look. Sexuality is one of the fundamental facts of human existence, and thus is has a place in art. If video games are ever to be taken seriously in art, sex has a place in them. And yet.

It's the old conundrum in our society. Make a game like Grand Theft Auto V where you murder policemen by the hundreds and engage in excruciatingly detailed torture? Walmart welcomes you with open arms and you make billions. Make a game which depicts adults being intimate in a consensual, loving way? Welcome to business oblivion!

Sure, there's plenty of sex in video games. Grand Theft Auto V had a minigame where you grope strippers, and, if you do this efficiently enough, they will prostitute themselves to you. The Witcher invites you to sleep with as many women as possible to earn "romance cards." So basically, you can have sex in video games, as long as it is adolescent, fake, and gross.

Meanwhile, Bioware, which has at least tried to put real, emotional relationships in its games, earns a public freakout whenever they try to depict actual sex. At this point, even the extravagantly mild scenes of Dragon Age and Mass Effect are gone, replaced by Mass Effect 3's clothed hugging.

I don't want porn. I just want it possible for love to be depicted with as much care and attention as murder. The Grand Theft Auto thing can exist, fine, I just don't want it to be the only thing. Is this not reasonable?

Katawa Shoujo is an underground sensation, but I've spent the last few weeks polling my nerd-savvy friends, many of them fans of Manga and visual novels, trying to find a single one who had heard of it. No luck, because we've built a system where mainstream awareness of a title like this is impossible.

Happy endings not guaranteed. (But where is that wind coming from?)
If It's Not For Children, It Can't Be For You

I am not exaggerating. If you tried to make a game like Katawa Shoujo for money, the odds are so against you. Placement on XBox or Playstation? Forget it. This game would be perfect for the iPhone, but Apple categorically refuses to accept any program with non-murder-related adult content. (A movie? Of course. A video game? Absolutely not.)

Do I like this? No, I do not. But we decided, as a culture, that these three corporations can have near-total veto power over this whole chunk of our culture. Now we get to enjoy the consequences of this decision.

This depresses me. After weeks of slogging through insanely gruesome AAA games, it was such a relief to play a title that was, basically, about decent people trying to be nice to each other.

A Final Bit Of Crass Consumerism

One last little thing, since I know a lot of young, aspiring indie developers read this. I think one of the biggest, most unexploited markets now is for short, sincere storytelling games. Think Gone Home. Stanley Parable. This is a great, growing genre for good writers.

In the money arena, you still kind of have to avoid sex, which is stupid, but you can't fight City Hall. There's still so much room to explore. Consider this.

Katawa Shoujo was made by volunteers, covers some really edgy ground, got near-zero publicity, and still has a large and passionate following.

If you're looking for a way to make money writing indie games, your nose might be itching now. The thing you're smelling? Money, waiting to be earned.


Edit: The "Romance Cards" were from The Witcher, not The Witcher 2.

And, as always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

More Arguing About Women In Video Games. But This Time the Women Can Beat You Up.

Frankly, I want my avatar to look more like this ...

The argument about how women should be portrayed in video games rages inexplicably on. Speaking as someone who writes these things for money, not systematically alienating half the human population and almost half of actual gamers is just good business.

Happily, progress is being made. There have been quite a few games out this year, indie and AAA, that prominently feature interesting women as main characters and supporting cast. (e.g. Gone Home. Last of Us. Tomb Raider. Bioshock: Infinite, sorta.)

We're getting there. Fossilized designs like Grand Theft Auto V are increasingly out of place. But angry young men on forums make it seem like there's an actual controversy, so on we go.

It's all kind of a waste, because, as far as I'm concerned, the interview that should settle the argument decisively came out in September, and it didn't get nearly as much attention as it should have.

It's an interview with two female soldiers, one who served in Afghanistan and one who served in Iraq, about how women are portrayed in gunshooters.

It's full of great quotes, but here's a nice one, talking about Call of Duty (which only finally put in playable female soldiers in the newest title) ...

It's because you have men who are designing these games in the first place. Put me, or any of the women who have served in charge of a shooter that includes women as the main protagonists. You can bet that you'll get a character who is far more concerned about her kill streak than she is her makeup or how she looks. And you can believe she wouldn't be running around in a bikini either. Save that for Dead or Alive where the women don't do any real combat, and flounce around with their tits bouncing like they are in a rodeo.

I think that this should be the beginning of the end of the conversation. Here's why.

... than this.

Soldiers and Video Games, The Basics

Bear in mind here that video games are insanely popular among soldiers overseas, as they provide a reliable distraction during the inevitable seemingly infinite hours of boredom and inactivity.

I have received so many e-mails from soldiers who wanted to get my games up and running before they leave on a long deployment. Of course, I find it impossible to reject requests like that.

The Last Stand of Principle

Of course, in our society, pretty much any moral principle can instantly be abandoned if the money is right. In the video game industry, it's gotten to the point where anyone’s appeal to basic ethics is generally treated with open mockery. (How many huge games in the last year or two shipped in a basically non-functional state?)

There is one principle, however, that is almost never questioned by the sane: The people who chose to sacrifice years of their lives (and perhaps their entire life) to defend their countries deserve respect.

The people willing to die for us should be honored for that. Must it be said that this is still true when they are women?

From the upcoming game, Warface. This is a PR image. Everything about it was carefully planned. What does it want to say, and what does it want to teach? (Answer below.)

So Here Is The Absolute Minimum That Is Required

One. If it's a game about soldiers, female avatars should be available whenever possible. With a AAA budget, there is NO excuse to not have this in the multiplayer. You can afford it.

Two. Women soldiers should look like soldiers. When someone goes overseas and gives up years of her life in public service, she should not see that her culture regards woman warriors as a bunch of mindless sex dolls.

I mean, right?

And let's be clear. I know game devs. I've been around them for decades. They are mostly doughy, deskbound guys who never came within a thousand miles of serving in the military. That these guys are insulting the women doing the tough job so few of them signed up for is truly galling.
Answer: Thank you for your service.

And It Matters

Culture matters. I mean there's not a question, right? The images we surround ourselves with affect us. Why are such massive fortunes spent on advertising? You think they don't affect people? Corporations like wasting money?

(And don't kid yourself. There is a wealth of research that says that ads do affect you, even when you don't realize it.)

We absorb the media around us, and it shapes us. Nobody plays these games more than kids, and kids learn.

So ask yourself the question. What do you want young people to learn? Not what it is easiest or most profitable to teach them. Ask what we want. What is best for the country. What is just. What is right.

I'm no white knight. The women in the interview don't need my help or my pity. They do, however, deserve respect. Depicting soldiers as soldiers, man or woman, seems like a tiny, reasonable way to start.


As always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.