The two mediums that appear to have the most trouble convincing the general public of their artistic merit are probably videogames and ironically Fine Art. Show most people The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and they’re more likely to say “A shark in formaldehyde is not Art” than applaud the artist’s creative vision. So I want to write a few posts exploring some links between the two mediums. Not because I’m fighting some sort of “Games are ert” culture war but because I just think it’s an interesting thought experiment. This means I really don’t want to read comments along the lines of “Games are not/are Art” or “A shark in formaldehyde is/ is not Art”. Okay cool we’ve all put our bull horns and pitchforks down and replaced them with thinking caps? Right let’s begin.
A picture says a thousand words and often they tell a story.
In a beautiful essay titled Knifers Elatia Harris describes the above painting like so
Margaret wants to chase a butterfly, Mary wants to restrain her — beguiled as she is by the butterfly herself. It is nothing if not big-sisterly to think how to keep someone barely younger than you safe — even from butterflies. Margaret is young enough to desire and reach in one moment, Mary old enough to desire and pull back.
That perfectly describes how the painting tells a small, simple and definitely poinagnt story. But consider for a moment that the painting does not tell us the story in the way we normally expect. It is basically a story without narrative. We the people who think too much about games often talk about how they lack authorial control because as players we control how we interact with the game. Yet we forget that this is nothing new. Does it matter if when you look at this painting you look at Margaret or Mary first? Do you notice the butterfly before you notice the girls holding hands? Do you take note of the trees behind them? Do you get an inch from the canvas and really stare at the brush work? Everyone’s experience of this painting will be different so how does it manage to convey the author’s intent?
Certainly there are tricks of composition that can draw a viewer’s gaze to particular objects. For example we are naturally compelled to hunt out faces first and if those faces appear to be looking at something we’ll follow their eye line to see what it is. But they are not fool proof and we don’t have to follow them. Much in the same way that canny level design can make us look where the designer intended, it is not mandatory.
The reason this painting is capable of communicating its story is because it gives us time to explore it. You can look at a painting however long you want. Some may only glance, others will stare for hours but all are given the time required to notice the necessary details. Compared with film or literature where the plot continues moving forward, the experience is totally different. Narrative requires strict control to ensure no one has missed anything, paintings do not.
Now think about the opening of Bioshock, it employs a mix of storytelling techniques. To begin with there is a narrative film that explains that you are on a plane that crashes, then the game gives you control as you find yourself swimming amongst the burning wreckage of the plane. You can explore your location, swim around and notice the suitcases floating in the water. You may also note there appear to be no other survivors. When you feel like you’ve seen enough you head to the lighthouse in the distance. There are banners and murals you can read that begin to introduce you to the philosophy of Rapture but you don’t have to notice them. Of course you will because they are huge but that’s beside the point.
Again once you think you’ve seen enough you can head to the bathysphere. There the game goes back to a more traditional narrative mode as Andrew Ryan explains Rapture in a short film. Afterwards the window opens and you can see the underwater city for the first time. You can, to some extent, look where you like but you are not afforded the same freedom as earlier. Then upon arriving you see some kind of deranged lunatic who appears to want you dead. You cannot exit the bathysphere and fight the lunatic, you must sit and wait. Eventually you are permitted to leave but not before you’ve picked up the radio and met the first main character. Once you have your freedom back you can then explore the lobby where you’ll probably see placards scattered about with anti-Ryan slogans written on them. By now you’ve been introduced to Rapture, you understand the basic philosophy that built it, you know that something went hideously wrong and you’ve even made a friend.
Clearly games employ both narrative storytelling and (because I can’t think of a better word for it) painterly storytelling. When to use which kind is something game designers and writers will have to wrestle with but for now both appear to have their merits and uses. Final Fantasy games may use a lot of narrative techniques while Half-Life uses more painterly ones but I’m not really ready to champion either. I imagine most people prefer the painterly style but it’s not always practical. It requires players who are willing to take the time to explore and frankly it can get in the way when replaying a game. I have a friend who can never play Half-Life a second time because sequences like the train opening are boring when played more than once. Sure you’ve got more freedom than in a traditional cut-scene but at least cut-scenes are skippable (if they’re not then something has gone horribly wrong).
This more painterly way of storytelling helps to explain part of why games are unique. Jesper Juul has argued that you “cannot have interaction and narrative at the same time” because narration requires the events to have happened in the past and interaction requires events to happen in the present. I think this thought connects to something Tim Rogers has often said, about games being forever. Books and movies end, they have happened. The film did that. Games never end, they happen. The game does this. I think paintings are the same, the story in a picture does not stop or end it merely sits in an eternal state of the present, something you can come back to again and again to marvel at and stare. Constantly explore-able and always re-liveable.