Wed 17 Feb, 2016

SERIES: What Is Art?

Can Video Games Be Art? Pt 2

Four more games that give weight to the argument

Ian J / #art, #fiction, #interactive, #video games

Last week, Ian argued in defence of at least some video games being taken seriously as art. Today, he considers four more games that may add weight to his argument…

The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) / Papers, Please

Walking Dead 1
Copyright TellTale Games 2014

Based on the graphic novel series of the same name, The Walking Dead is a choose-your-own adventure game set in post-zombie-apocolyptic Georgia. You play as Lee, an escaped prisoner tasked with protecting 8-year-old Clementine as you search for her parents. Though the game throws a few simple puzzles your way, the core of the experience is the various difficult choices you are called to make, which often have a permanent impact on the game’s narrative. You are continually forced, under time pressure, to choose between a number of very bad outcomes – with potentially far-reaching consequences. As an example, one scenario sees Lee walking through the forest with little but a rusty axe in his possession. Hearing some nearby screams, he rushes over to find someone with his leg caught in a bear-trap. With walkers (zombies) rapidly approaching, you can struggle with the trap but quickly realise it’s shut tight, and the only way to free the individual is to perform some quick 18th century surgery. Do you swing the axe or leave him to his fate? He probably won’t make it for much longer with one leg anyway…
Playing The Walking Dead is rarely fun – rather it’s a frequently stressful and upsetting experience. To be honest, the player’s degree of control over the story probably isn’t as great as the game will have you believe. Rather, what’s impressive about The Walking Dead is not the player’s ability to shape the narrative, but the emotional investment the degree of choice you do have provides. It may be only a button press, but swinging that axe seals you in as a perpetrator of a course of action, making it difficult to distance yourself from that decision if you later come to regret it.

A less narrative-driven but arguably more ‘pure’ experience of decision and consequence is provided by Papers Please. In this game you play as a immigration inspector who must decide whether to let individuals through border control and into a fictional Eastern Bloc country, based on the accuracy of their paperwork. However, pretty soon the game throws a number of difficult decisions at you. Will you accept bribes? Will you buy someone’s sob story about their visa being printed incorrectly? Will you refuse to let both members of a married couple through if only one has the correct paperwork?

Papers please 1
Copyright Lucas Pope 2013

To make matters worse, you are paid a pittance and must spend your daily income on food, heating and medication to keep your extended family alive and healthy. Each individual you incorrectly process carries with it a financial penalty and it’s you and your family that pay the price, adding a self-sacrificial element to your moral decisions. Depending on how it’s played, Papers, Please may tell a story about institutional inhumanity, moral compromise or corruption. What’s special about this is the way it continually places difficult decisions in your path and subsequently makes you, the player, the principle agent in these processes.

The Stanley Parable

I once had a conversation with someone who rejected the idea of videogames as a serious art-form due to their in-built constraints. Many games now tout choice and freedom as reasons to play, yet his argument was that every important narrative decision the player makes is pre-programmed by the game’s designers, leaving the medium little more than a glorified choose-your-own-adventure book. Unfortunately this was pre-2013 and so I couldn’t recommend the commercial build of The Stanely Parable – a game which examines this very problem as one of its central themes.

Directed by a disembodied narrator, the player controls Stanley, a nondescript office worker in search of his missing colleagues. The narrator guides the player (and Stanley) through a series of corridors, until they reach a room with two doors. The narrator tells the player that Stanley takes the left door. However, the player can choose to enter either. Saying much more would ruin the surprise, however, this choice and the subsequent conflicts between the player and narrator form the core of The Stanley Parable.

The Stanley Parable 1
Copyright Davey Wreden 2015

Most obviously the game is a commentary on videogame narratives, their limitations and the interactions between the game designer and the player. However, The Stanley Parable could also be considered to look at the issue of choice more broadly. Are our actions predetermined? Are some of our most important decisions arbitrary? If we’re constantly choosing between the lesser of two evils in our lives, are the majority of our choices illusory? I’ve probably made the game sound terribly ponderous, but in reality it’s smart, funny and occasionally deeply unsettling. And for an exploration on choice and decision-making, the ability to interact with the game and physically make the choices which are presented is essential to the experience.

Undertale

In traditional RPGs (Role-Playing Games – think Dungeons and Dragons), the player makes their way across an unknown land, slaying all manner of beasts and creatures. Gaining strength and attribute upgrades from their battles allows the player to kill stronger monsters, those victories allowing the conquest of even stronger monsters, etc. etc. Toby Fox, creator of Undertale, revealed a boredom with this familiar narrative and so created a unique RPG – one in which nothing has to die.

As far as I’m aware, this is a first for the genre. Many adventure games or RPGs have sought to include an artificial ‘morality system’ – for example, certain ‘good’/’bad’ actions cause a morality metre to fill up or deplete, affecting how other characters may interact with you or the skills and abilities you may be able to use. Undertale takes a much more naturalistic approach – if you kill a monster or character, you gain experience and strength, but it stays dead. Alternatively, you can interact with the monster during the battle according to a unique command menu – perhaps the monster just needs a hug, or someone to laugh at his terrible puns. Once you understand each other, you have the option to choose ‘Mercy’, at which point the battle ends, both of you going your separate ways. This may not sound like a particularly appealing choice (given the fact that you forfeit an attribute upgrade), but the beauty of Undertale is the way it makes you care about the inhabitants of its world.

For example, an early dungeon consists of a trek through a snowy forest, during which you battle a number of enemies and mid-level bosses (mostly dogs with medieval weaponry). The dungeon ends when you come across a village at the edge of the forest. For the individual playing peacefully, this village contains a number of characters, some which you encountered during the preceding dungeon. Talking with them gives the player a series of charming interactions, brilliantly surreal jokes and clever digs at various video-game tropes. However, if you chose to slaughter everyone during your journey through the forest, you enter the village to find it deserted. The cheery background music has been replaced by an ominous drone. Entering the first building you come to (the village shop), you find that smiling shop-keeper has disappeared and a note left on the counter reads “Please don’t hurt my family”. It doesn’t feel good, but you get the world you deserve.

Undertale 2
Copyright Toby Fox 2015

Undertale has many more tricks up its sleeves (tricks unique to the interactive nature of the medium I hasten to add) but describing them all would only serve to detract from their impact. Really it’s a game which needs to be experienced firsthand. When I first heard the concept I thought it sounded painfully preachy.  And unlike Papers, Please, Undertale does make choosing the moral high-ground feel good, despite the fact that it contradicts the established format of the genre, yet it never forces your hand in a patronising or didactic manner. As videogames are continually lambasted for glorifying violence and aggression, to see one indirectly promoting pacifism, empathy and understanding is a joy. In other words Undertale is a game which reacts to your decisions and rewards you for being a better person. The fact that it’s also exceptionally charming, funny and occasionally genuinely touching is just the icing on the cake.

Ian is unmarried, childless and doesn't own any pets, therefore he struggles to make himself instantly relatable. He lives in Sheffield under duress. By day, he works in the NHS. At night-time, you can find him asleep in his room.

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