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Maturity, Challenge, Art and Games
by Derek Yu on 05/22/13 09:05:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(This was originally posted on my game-making blog, Make Games.)

Some recent online discussions have prompted me to write something short on the above ideas. The first discussion erupted when a Kotaku writer
called George Kamitani a “14-year-old boy” for including hypersexualized women in the character line-up for Dragon’s Crown. The second discussion had to do with a video I did with Anthony Carboni and Doug Wilsson where we played Spelunky and talked about games a little bit in general. Perhaps “discussion” is too strong a word for a few YouTube comments about maturity and challenging games, but nonetheless, it made me want to develop and clarify my feelings on the topic further.

First of all, I personally separate theme from craft to a degree when evaluating art - one has to do that in order to understand how a “children’s movie” like The Incredibles is also a sophisticated piece of storytelling and cartooning. There's a reason why Pixar attracts some of the most talented animators in the world. There’s a reason why, at least in Asia and Europe, even 2d cartoons are treated with seriousness when it comes to the continuing evolution of cinema. Whereas a gritty, realistic drama about race, sexuality, and politics can easily be a hackneyed piece of trash unfit for either adults or children because it is poorly made.

It seems many people have trouble separating theme from craft in the game industry. One of the most obvious examples of this is the internet’s ongoing debate with Roger Ebert about games and art. Time and time again, I notice a few specific games are brought up as an example of games “as art”: Braid, Journey, and Shadow of the Colossus. Don’t get me wrong - I think these are all wonderful and artistic games. But I would feel better if alongside these examples there were more shouts of, say, Metal Slug or Doom 2 - immersive and ground-breaking games of terrific craftsmanship ostensibly left out of the discussion because of their cartoony, masculine themes and gun-violence. The tendency of the games as art argument to veer toward certain types of games highlights our prejudice toward theme over craft when evaluating artistic merit and maturity. And not just theme, but certain kinds of themes. In the end, there was never really any hope of convincing Ebert, who once said "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it" [1]. When it comes to art, today's video game community seems to care entirely too much about the "what" and not the "how".

What I was trying to touch on in the video with Doug and Anthony is that many games that try to tackle more mature themes and storytelling are nevertheless extremely immature video games that condescend players by constantly nagging them and directing them about like overprotective parents. It’s not that these titles aren’t challenging enough, it’s that they are just challenging enough to be recognized as a game - an FPS or something - and that’s it; the playing of them often feels like a distraction as opposed to the vehicle for immersion. These games are like Easter egg hunts themed after a great novel - they lack both the sophistication of the novel and the wild, abandoned fun of a simple Easter egg hunt. It’d be better if they dropped one pretense or the other, in my opinion, whether that meant creating better challenges or removing them altogether.

Peruse Roger Ebert's reviews and you will find that he loved many different kinds of movies: Spirited Away and Superman and Pulp Fiction are rated as highly as Metropolis or Fitzcarraldo. That one was an animated cartoon and another starred a superhero in spandex tights did nothing to embarrass him or otherwise diminish his understanding (through watching a great many movies) that all of them were exceptional films that did what they set out to do well and treated their audiences with respect. He challenged us on our understanding of our own hobby and by and large we failed. It was probably the best thing he could have done for us.

[1] Full quote, from his review of Freeway: "Occasionally an unsuspecting innocent will stumble into a movie like this and send me an anguished postcard, asking how I could possibly give a favorable review to such trash. My stock response is Ebert's Law, which reads: A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it."

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Christian Nutt
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I really, really liked the comments on craft (as relates to Japanese culture and game-dev culture) some Sony devs made at a panel last year:

Jenn Frank
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As a quick aside, what I think Derek Yu is talking about here is actually the concept of 'techne' (

You can skim the Wikipedia link for a quick overview, but it's basically just this: 'techne' translates from the Greek to mean both craftsmanship AND art. Which is funny, because right now we, just as culture critics did in their own ancient day, disparage 'techne' - technical acuity, "technique," this idea of meticulously handmaking something - in exactly the same gnarly, intellectual, and classist way those fogeys did. Even now contemporary critics draw a distinction between "fine arts" and, say, woodworking.

Sure, we've made significant gains: we can admire functional objects in an artful way; we've constructed entire design vocabularies so we can talk holistically about architectures; we insist on a degree of "formalism" even when we purport we don't. In some ways we admire 'techne' now more than ever: we will pay a doctor far more money than we'd ever pay a poet laureate.

In other ways, though, we still malign craftsmanship: an auto mechanic is just a mechanic, a genius codemonkey seldom moves up the corporate ranks, and Doom is just Doom. Is Doom a perfectly-paced first-person shooter that, in a darkened room, can still capably scare the shit out of the player? Absolutely. But you'll nonetheless be hard-pressed to "wow" Videogame Socrates over there. (Check out Christian's link, up top.)

Part of the reason technical acumen fails to impress is, Videogame Socrates is making the mistake of thinking of "a game," and really the entire medium of videogames, as "simulation."

Facsimile is (seldom) "art," and any time an original work is "cloned" it loses some of its value. The new work, meanwhile, is like a simulation of a simulation, a copy of a copy. So Doom kind of has two things working against it: it's a "simulation" of a run-and-gun experience, and it's been repeatedly duplicated by other artisans. Now, I don't believe a word of anything I just typed, of course. And anyway you have all sorts of artists who've inverted the idea of "value" by deliberately duplicating their own work. But even those artists - from Andy Warhol to Frank Kozik - are usually designated as "pop" and "lowbrow" artists, and we admire them more for their 'techne', or for furthering the form, than we do for whatever transcendent message.

However unfairly, we do in fact separate "theme" from "craft" as critics. We might nod and agree that something is very well made and executed, but as arbiters (artbiters?) we bar a work from "high art" until we're convinced it transcends the sum of its parts. Is Doom greater than the sum of its parts? Is it an experience that transcends its own time? I agree that it does, but I absolutely appreciate why a newcomer to the form - whether some young kid or the late great Roger Ebert - would disagree. And here we arrive at the role of the media critic: you could say "down with criticism entirely, it holds the form back" but I'd skew in the opposite direction and assert we *need* the critic to assign value where others would not.

Do video games, on the whole, need to "mature"? Many critics say yes. I'd agree, but with some caveats. The verb "perfect" - as in "I am perfecting my fighting technique" - literally means "to mature," "to bring to full development." So let's, as Derek Yu sagely indicates, get clear on what maturation really means. Doom? Doom II? These are pretty much perfect games. As FPSes they're basically Athena emerging already fully-formed from Zeus's head.

It's too easy to diminish Doom's value - there are sequels and clones, and the game itself serves as a historical document of machismo - but it's a transcendent genre-mashup of FPS and sci-fi survival horror, and it remains the first in its class. The work speaks for itself. That's great, that's absolutely what art should do. So the onus falls on the critic, whoever that is, to recognize that and defend it. It's real presumptuous hipster crap, yeah, but we're the ones writing the histories, here. Uh, so basically I'm agreeing with most of what Derek Yu has said, but with the hopeful intent of expressing everything we're up against.

P.S. I think this is probably the most psychotic thing I've ever typed out. Thanks!

Jenn Frank
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P.P.S. Yes it is weird that all I want to talk about is specifically Doom

Christian Nutt
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It's not that weird! I have theories and examples like this, though I was never into Doom. I have a pet theory that Nintendo's continuous craftsmanship on Mario controls means more for the medium than any overt attempts at "creating art" and Super Mario World is like my favorite game ever so whatever.

Mike Griffin
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I get the same way with a game like Treasure's original Gunstar Heroes on Genesis.
It's so remarkably well-crafted, from controls, to pacing and aesthetics.

A few years ago when it was re-released digitally on one of the higher-profile Sega collection packs, some sites elected to "review" it, complete with "how does it hold up today?" observations.

Those types of reviews make me vomit. Yes, it holds up. No, it wasn't really obliged to hold up to whatever arbitrary neo-standards you've transposed over top it.

It already passed the proverbial test. A long time ago. The work speaks for itself.

*part of that magnificent craftsmanship in Gunstar controls, or Mario controls, often comes down to the platform's controller at the time and our memory of gameplay optimized for that interface. That's probably an element that doesn't hold up over time.

For example, if an individual played Gunstar Heroes for the first time ever on a phone using a touch d-pad, as opposed to playing on a lovely Genesis controller, or using a competent modern console d-pad, would they feel the same way about the controls that I do? Negative. Robbed of 2D + excellent d-pad harmony.

Alas, you wouldn't know any better! And your perception of that classic's controls and gameplay would come from a different place.

I cheered when I saw Treasure's Saturn gem Guardian Heroes go to XBLA, but cringed at the thought of people using Xbox 360 controllers to play it for the first time. Not that it's a game-crippling upset, but the Saturn's Japanese d-pad made sweet love to 2D games that no controller has ever rivaled. Playing the game with that controller is embedded in my memory of Guardian Heroes, and informs my opinion of its controls.

Michael Pianta
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I completely agree with what you are saying about the controller. If you aren't playing a game on the original controller it was designed for, you aren't playing it right. You playing a functional version, even a very functional version, and it may give you a more than adequate idea of what the game was like, but still the experience is fundamentally altered.

I have a similar issue with film. I've only ever seen Lawrence of Arabia on my TV. Even on my widescreen HDTV it's still letter boxed because the original print was a super wide 75mm. I have heard that seeing the original film projected on a super huge screen is something else, but it is not easily done.

In the same way it is not feasible to play every game on the original hardware. The rom can generally be run on on different machines without too many issues (some exceptions exist of course), but the controller is another matter. The interface between man and machine is crucial to the medium and preserving that should be taken seriously, just as preserving the games is.

Jenn Frank
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Christian! Nice! I love this! I didn't elaborate nearly enough on "theme" for my comment to really qualify as a real comment *on* Derek's blarticle; I did, however, use the word "holistic" once. So okay. It isn't accidental that, as the controls on Mario games have been refined and/or complicated, certain themes have also deepened. Like, I love all the GB/GBC Wario games, and those games add a lot more "destructive" actions in terms of, like, brick-breaking and thrashing around. And those additional actions or gameplay mechanics support the story - you're Wario, a villain, you're an anti-hero, an inversion of the Mario archetype - and the story also supports the actions. Wario wouldn't exist without Mario, though, so for me, he's totally an example of maturation, whether "thematically" or in terms of "techne," either one. Wario isn't a knight rescuing a princess; he's just a jerk. I love him. And I love getting to run through Mario's world the way a sociopath would. (I don't know if any of that just now made sense. It's just a half-baked thought that I typed as I went.)

Christian Nutt
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That's a totally interesting point that's actually different than the one I was trying to make, so I'm very glad you raised it.

My thought is that Nintendo is continuously refining what Mario's actions are (Mario himself). They're refining not just his set of actions, but also how they look and feel.

Tangentially, they actually have multiple development lines doing this all the time, as well as doing it in multiple dimensions, since the Mario games are generally developed by different teams. Even NSMB2 and NSMBU, which came out the same year, actually feel quite different, if you can perceive the nuances of Mario controls, which I can because my brain has been programmed to do so since 1986.

Anyway, to back up a bit, let's just take the 3D Mario controls, because I think that much better illustrates my point. Leaving aside FLUDD (the water-powered jetpack in Super Mario Sunshine) as an anomalous side-track the 3D Mario teams have clearly been working on refining the original Mario 64 controls since 1996.

(I'd also probably include Super Mario 3D Land in the efforts here, even if it's kind of a weird/brilliant 2D/3D hybrid so sort of in its own space in the entire series' controls. Which I guess then sends me spinning off into a rumination about how visual perspective affects game control despite not being intrinsically tied to it in a technical sense...)

Back on track: I think the fact that the team is continuously trying to refine the controls, from 64 -> Sunshine -> Galaxy 1/2, let's say, means that they are contributing a very important and highly SPECIFIC craftsmanship that could actually be studied (by developers or critics).

And that's my premise.

PS. you weren't kidding, it is Friday.

Zack Wood
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Derek, thanks for the great article! Very good point and well made. I'm always kind of wary of when some game (or anything) is considered "high art" because it "tackles mature themes." Usually high quality craft excites me a lot more. I think that's especially true for games more than movies, which are naturally more of a storytelling medium. I don't think games are a storytelling medium on par with books or movies at all... but they're awesome in their own way of creating worlds and stimulating the imagination!

Michael Pianta
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Excellent points, although I have to say this is not just a game problem. All media have this problem to some degree. In the world of literary criticism there is very much a sense that only certain kinds of books are to be taken seriously. The author Michael Chabon wrote a whole book ("Maps and Legends" - basically a collection of essays) defending genre fiction against this idea. When did it become necessary to point out that a detective story could also be good literature? And yet, so called "literary fiction" is basically it's own sub genre now, so delineated is the idea between the types of story that are considered serious/artistic and the ones that art.

In film too this idea is prevalent. Roger Ebert was often criticized by a more snobbish class of critic for his willingness to praise popular entertainment. And even with Ebert himself it is unclear whether he thought of every movie he praised as equally artistic or just good at doing different things. Ebert often described his critical style as basically an assessment of how well the movie was succeeding at what it seemed to be trying to do. Thus a cartoon, a family-friendly adventure, a horror film, an action film, an independent foreign film about adultery or a documentary about Antarctica could all be equally deserving of four stars. But because they were rated the same did he think of them all as equally valid examples of films as art? I think it is doubtful. I believe his exact words on this question were "Hardly any films are art." He clearly drew a distinction between a film as a good film and a film as a good artwork in the larger sense.

That quibble aside though I completely agree with Derek Yu here. The new thing that games bring to the table is gameplay. While it would be possible to strictly discuss games in the context of storytelling, I think it would be useless. Games are not as good at telling a traditional story as other media are, so what is the point? Surely the gameplay is what separates games into a new medium - therefore the games with the best gameplay will also be the best examples of the new artform. So why do we (myself included) only talk about the handful of games Derek mentioned? Someone should write an essay describing the artistic merits of Tetris.

Maybe I'll do it later today.