Quartertothree regular and EA producer Jim Preston tackled this very question recently in a thoughtful essay on Gamasutra that’s worth reading both for anyone seriously interested in video games and the question of what constitutes art. He claims to have been inspired by two things: freelance game reviewer Tom Chick’s review of Bioshock which answered the question simply by saying, “Games are this” and renowned film critic Roger Ebert’s review of the recent Hitman film (based on the video game series of the same name) in which he boldly claims that video games will never become an art form.
You really do need to read the full essay to appreciate it, but Preston basically argues that it’s pointless for video games to aspire to the status of Great Art as it is popularly conceived through the process of reasoned debate. Instead, he argues that things become art by gradually sublimating into the consciousness of the mainstream and acquiring a revered status in the minds of the people who like it. Eventually, the people who do like it will place it in a context, as in a museum or a concert hall, in which it becomes publicly acknowledged as art.
The importance of context towards interpreting whether or not something is art is reinforced in an intriguing story that Preston references. On the morning of January 12 2007, the Washington Post organized a little experiment. They arranged for Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living violinists in the world, to play six classical pieces representing perhaps the greatest musical achievements in Western culture on his invaluable 1714 Stradivarius violin in the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington for 43 minutes. Hidden cameras and reporters for the Post carefully recorded the reactions of the passersby of the morning rush hour. Out of the 1,097 people who walked by during that time, only two people truly recognized the quality of what they heard and only a handful of others stopped what they were doing for a few moments to listen. Bell earned a total of $32.17 in tips, excluding another $20.00 from the one person who recognized him. The irony of course, as Preston intended to point out, is that Bell is the kind of performer who can earn $1,000 a minute by playing in the right context to the right audience.
Who wouldn’t love a game called Off-Road Velociraptor Safari? Not long ago, I blogged about how sophisticated Flash games were getting and how much gameplay they could offer even when restricted to being 2D. Well, the folks at FlashBang Studios have done one better and created a simple but fun 3D game that runs right on your browser. You do need to install the Unity Web Player application that allows 3D browser-based applications and, being a 3D game, you’ll probably want to run it on a computer with at least an entry-level video card for acceptable performance, but you’ll soon be driving around in your off-road vehicle running down and gathering poor velociraptors for points.
Its graphics are serviceable if not terribly impressive, but there’s a simple physics and vehicle damage modelling system and practically anything that you do, from doing stunts to causing damage to your jeep can earn you bonus points. All in all, a nifty little game to liven up an afternoon at work. Of special note is that the velociraptors in the game are portrayed not as the scaly lizards of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, but as the feathered ancestors of birds that the current scientific consensus thinks they are. Which in the game, means that you end up chasing what looks like spiny thin, colourful chickens more than anything else.
Half-Life 2 is a 4 year old game at this point and already a classic of the genre, so writing a conventional review of it would be pointless. But I’ve just spent the past week playing it for the first time, so I thought it would be interesting to write about my impressions on it as someone who’s played most of the current crop of modern FPS games. Technologically of course, Half-Life 2 can’t hold a candle to its successors. 4 years is after all a long time in the computer industry, and the latest graphics engines put the Source engine to shame (even the Source-engine powered Portal, new and innovative as it is, looks somewhat bland compared to current games). But overall the game still looks good enough that playing through it didn’t feel painful (unlike say, when I tried to replay Aliens vs. Predator 2 a couple of years ago) and the game’s many strengths more than made up for it.
One of my first surprises was how long the game felt compared to more recent shooters. I find that most modern shooters these days can be finished in three or four evenings of dedicated playing, but Half-Life 2 sprawling tale stretched out for the most part of a week for me and took me into a variety of locales and situations that most other shooters can’t match either. Another factor that added to its length are the storytelling sequences. Half-Life 2 has no cutscenes per se since the entire story is told strictly from Gordon Freeman’s perspective without any temporal jumps from the player’s point of view. But the story is advanced in a number of scenes which are only minimally interactive in which other characters hold lengthy dialogues with one another in Freeman’s presence. These are worth hearing alone because they show off one of the strengths of the Source engine that is still valid even today: the facial expressiveness of characters animated in the Source engine but they’re not skippable and do add to the overall length.
Continue reading A Half-Life 2 Retrospective
The gaming world has been lit abuzz by a fiery editorial piece by conservative writer Kay Hymowitz entitled “Child-Man in the Promised Land” that appeared in City Journal and was featured on National Public Radio in the U.S. You can read a reply to her editorial on Gaming Today here. Hymowitz’s basic point is that men today don’t grow up. Whereas the previous generation used to leave school, get a stable job, marry a wife and raise children in his own house, men today tend to drift through life aimlessly and refuse to commit to marriage, and are often still living with their parents even well into their 30s. To her, the phenomenon of adult men playing video games, the biggest segment of gamers are men between the ages of 18 and 34 she cites, is the perfect symbol of the child-man.
The blatant sexism of the entire article is disgusting. As one commenter to the article in Gaming Today put it, if Hymowitz had been a man and talked about women in the way she talks about men, it would have been impossible for her to keep her job in the United States. For example, she writes, “Single women in their twenties and early thirties are joining an international New Girl Order, hyperachieving in both school and an increasingly female-friendly workplace, while packing leisure hours with shopping, travelling, and dining with friends. Single Young Males, or SYMs, by contrast, often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3, and, in many cases, underachieving.” Why is it that women spending their leisure hours shopping, travelling, and dining with friends is perfectly okay while men spending their leisure hours drinking, socializing and playing video games is a sign of their immaturity?
Continue reading The Child-Man
As you can see, my copy of The Orange Box is finally here. I’d actually ordered it a couple of months back from PCGame.com.my to be delivered to my wife’s house so that she could get it from her parents when they visited Australia. Unfortunately, when I tried activating it, I got an error message about how my license key is only valid for Russia and surrounding territories. I suppose that the Russia part is some mistake by Valve, and in any case, it clearly says on my box that this copy is only valid for Brunei, Cambodia, Indonedia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam and the Solomon Islands is not in this list.
Continue reading My Orange Box
Hollywood action blockbusters like National Treasure hold little appeal for me these days, and games like Call of Duty 4 are a big reason why. After all, why watch a big name actor go through the familiar paces of fighting against impossible odds when you can be the star and do it yourself? The Call of Duty series, or at least the installments that were made by Infinity Ward, have always emphasized the cinematic aspect of the gaming experience, and true to form, their latest effort is probably the most refined example of the video game as interactive action movie on the market today.
Everything in this game from the slick loading screens that double as mission briefings to the constant running commentary of your ever present companions and the relentless linearity of the campaign serves to reinforce the impression that this is gaming Hollywood-style. The great thing about Call of Duty 4 is that it mostly works. When your squad members are screaming at you to get on with your mission objectives while the nearby explosion of a grenade is ringing in your ears and you see wave after wave of turbaned generic Arab terrorists coming at you and there’s shooting and confusion everywhere, you really do feel like living an action movie.
Continue reading A Game: Call of Duty 4
Monsters’ Den is a newish, free to play, flash-based game that replicates an old-fashioned party-based dungeon-crawler. You control a party of four characters out of a total of five different classes and take them through multiple levels of a dungeon, killing monsters and getting loot. Each character has detailed statistics and different skills, which you get to upgrade every time you descend to a lower level of the dungeon.
The thing about Monster’s Den is that despite its simplicity, it has a surprising amount of depth. Do you customize your warrior to be a sword-and-shield tank or give him a huge two-handed warhammer to go to town with? Do you play your mage in the traditional way of staying in the back and flinging spells or have him front and center with protective spells and a magic-enhanced sword? With a loot-colouration scheme that seems lifted straight from World of Warcraft (green, blue and purple items with a decent variety of different bonuses), savable games and plenty of abilities to experiment with and enemies to fight, it can be pretty addictive. My only complaints are that the default difficulty is perhaps a little too easy and there aren’t enough different classes to play around with.
Between this and the flash version of Portal, it’s amazing to see how far flash games have come. They make a good argument that 2D games aren’t dead and that good gameplay can overcome skimpy graphics.