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Are Game(r)s Art(ists)?

March 12, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

"Interactivity's a very interesting word, because it implies that this is something we didn't do in art before, which is complete nonsense, because the only interesting art experiences are the ones that engage you in that way; in which you are invited to become part of the authorship of something in some way or another. And usually in some more meaningful way than choosing whether to open this door or that door."

- Brian Eno

A Fateful Journey

If you've played ThatGameCompany's Journey and traversed its shimmering sands with your pensive little shroud-person until the bittersweet end, there's a good chance you were online when you did and that you traveled at least some of the distance with another pensive little shroud-person just like yourself.

Or numerous shroud-people, if your experience was anything like mine: ponderous, careful, and inquisitive enough to inspire a few partners to leave me behind and allow a number of others to catch up. Over the course of my first trip to that distant mountaintop I tagged along with a total of nine honking mutes, and each one enhanced or disrupted my trip in his or her own quirky way.

Two moments of my initial playthrough stand out: In the game's melancholy middle act, I was fortunate enough to pair with an experienced player of ample scarfage who was solely dedicated to leading me through a long stretch of darkened catacombs to safety, past the hungry eyes of flying sentries, while expecting nothing in return. I was truly touched by my partner's concern for my well-being -- almost embarrassed, actually -- and yet, sadly, we two parted ways when I paused the game for a temporary break, never a word passing between us.

Later, in the final wintry sections of the game, I met someone with an apparently crippling fear of intimacy or cooperation. Even after the game made it perfectly clear that keeping close company with other players had a tangible benefit -- generating a mutual "heat" that recharged our precious scarves -- I discovered that my accidental partner didn't like snuggling.

Instead, this anonymous prude ducked and dodged each of my attempts to get close, as if I were spewing some nasty contagion. Whenever I'd veer in close for a quick recharge, my partner would break off in a violent trajectory to get as far from me as possible. By the time I reached the game's final stage, I was alone.

Whatever the reason behind this player's skittishness, our dispiriting moment together was actually the highlight of my trip through Journey. It was spontaneous and unscripted, and best of all it belonged to me alone. No other person on earth will have had quite the same experience as I did -- a unique blend of awe, empathy, and indifference wrapped up in one lovely little three-hour package.

This notion of experiencing a "unique playthrough" is the fundamental promise of countless games, of course -- even early video games like Pac-Man and Tetris provide novel experiences with each attempt. But to this fundamental promise Journey adds a sensitively chosen narrative layer, and is all the more emotionally engaging for it. Yet not all games with narrative trappings are capable of inspiring such emergent tingles. So what, exactly, sets this game apart from so many others?

If we examine Journey's written narrative alone, we find a passable story; a familiar, moody parable about Sisyphean perseverance set amid the ruins of a dead civilization, where the sleepless ghosts of ages past pop by every now and again to show you images of their fall, and creep you out with lustful stares. And that beaming beacon winking from the distant mountain? It's boilerplate eschatological symbolism, vague enough to support whatever metaphysical metaphors you fancy. I have no doubt a few a few undergraduate theses starring Joseph Campbell are already well underway.

On the design front, the game offers a few more puzzling features. Most notably, the simple scarf-collecting loop -- one of the game's more obvious mechanics -- is not actually required to complete Journey's journey, a design choice that transforms what might have been a patience-straining exercise in exploration into breezy romp.

Collecting scarf pieces is not without its psychological benefits, obviously: seeing other players rock their sinewy twelve-foot sashes as I limped by with a passable two footer was humbling. But I realized early on that I didn't actually need to collect ANY scarf pieces, save the first, to reach the game's end. At every bottleneck -- no matter my skill level -- there was always a convenient way to slip through the blockade and into the next challenge.

And yet, even with an atrophied set of necessary features, Journey occasionally manages to be something greater than the sum of its parts. Its simple but elegant traversal mechanics -- sand-surfing and air-gliding -- are a joy to engage, and the world's ambience is sublime; beautiful visuals, languid music, with a patient sense of rhythm.

But Journey's most singular innovation -- a feature that no other medium could possibly replicate -- is that delightful multiplayer system. Without prompts or invitations, the game seamlessly ushers other human players into your journey for a wholly unique experience, each and every time. To my mind, this is the cornerstone of Journey's importance: a deceptively simple mechanic that allows an emotionally engaging range of results.

It is this feature, too, that offers us a small but clear example of the unique power of our ultra-modern medium... a power, I must say, that has been present in games for quite some time, but which we have failed to praise with vigorous clarity... even as the purview of video games has grown wider and deeper.

In other words, Journey is the latest entry in a long and respectable line-up of video games that are not simply accommodating old definitions of art, but reshaping them into something new. It is the purpose of this essay to discuss clearer ways of thinking and talking about this important shift, using some old but perhaps dusty ideas.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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