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Pursuing a Video Game Masterpiece
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Pursuing a Video Game Masterpiece

May 10, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

"Interactivity gives games a distinctive artistic potential that lots of games have exploited in interesting ways," Dr. Tavinor continues. "Games like Skyrim, BioShock and Grand Theft Auto IV have employed this interactivity to allow for a type of player-generated content, where the player's own role in the work of fiction is the subject of interpretation. BioShock employs the technique to generate a moral dilemma concerning how one treats the Little Sisters in the game, and this allows the game to make some sophisticated observations about altruism and politics. Grand Theft Auto IV has a pivotal moment where the player must make a decision that seems decisive of Niko's character in that work. Red Dead Redemption, both in its initial ride into Mexico section and in the final scenes, is another case where this interactivity is expertly wielded. In each of these cases, the onus is put on the player to perform the actions that ultimately generate the meaning of the artistic work."

If we are to properly understand how games function as art, it seems that we require a distinctly different mindset to that with which we would normally approach any given work of art. Looking for intrinsic meaning, as we are accustomed to do, is perhaps erroneous in a medium where the audience plays such a direct participatory role. Grefsrud argues that this role makes video games unique in the way they generate meaning.

"[In comparison to other mediums] games enable a different and more sensual form of co-authorship that eschews the authorial control of the author and the voyeuristic control of the spectator in favor of a negotiation that is meaning rather than yields meaning," Grefsrud explains. "The mode of agency that the player exerts, coupled with the way agency modulates systems outside the player's direct control, is the art."

An inevitable question now asks itself: if a video game's "meaning" is negotiated between the game's designer and the player, does this not limit the artistic potential of the medium? In other words, is it really possible to eschew the kind of consistency that complete authorial control offers and still produce a work with maintains artistic value? Dr. Tavinor is quick to acknowledge that the interactive nature of video games provides such a challenge.

"The problem as I see it is that the freedom that is so valued by gamers is somewhat inconsistent with the careful structure and determinate nature that you find in much good art," he says. "In a game such as Red Dead Redemption, if you give the player the freedom to do what they want in the world they may act badly, arbitrarily, or in ways otherwise contrary to the narrative or greater meaning of the game. This is actually the basis of one of film critic Roger Ebert's charges against games. He says that video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. Though Ebert has taken a lot of flack over this, and though he is probably wrong about the artistic status of games, he has something here: interactivity does compromise authorial control and reconciling this is a challenge to game design."

While conceding this challenge exists, Dr. Tavinor sees a unique potential in this tension between authorial control and player freedom. "Ambiguity is often a valuable aspect in traditional art," Dr. Tavinor explains. "Good song lyrics, for example, are often open and vague enough that they can support multiple interpretations. Interactivity compounds this because of the potential for putting the player in an ambiguous position that they must themselves reconcile. I suspect that we are only seeing the beginning of what game artists will eventually make of this potential for interactive involvement."

As a game designer, Blow is unconcerned about the prospect of losing authorial control of his works and would prefer to embrace the potential for ambiguity and divergent experiences. "I don't really conceptualize games as trying to tell a story or send a message," Blow tells me. "At least, not if the kind of message you are talking about is one that can be stated: 'The moral of the story is, always look before you leap,' or whatever. That kind of story is for children, and it's useful in that kind of role, but reasonable adults deserve more."

"The kinds of things I want to do are multidimensional and nonlinear, fields of ideas for the mind to wander through and be drawn toward things to which that particular mind is inclined", Blow continues. "So this nonlinearity and natural divergence of interpretations is just great. Although, clearly, the divergence of interpretations is true for any work of art or actually for any concrete fact about the world!" 

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