I want to write more in this thing, but I am lazy/working on other things. So, this post is something of a preliminary to talking about I Wanna Be the Guy: The Movie: The Game. I’m going to write a good, big thing eventually, but this is not it yet, though it keeps growing… without further ado, my thoughts:
When I want to talk about games, the term I keep coming back to is difficulty. (Good) games defer from most mass culture insofar as they do not easily commodify themselves—they require a fair amount of effort on the part of the player. The traditional divide between intellectual or artistic works and mere entertainment has been along this same line. And so my work is often an effort to align the practice of gaming with that of “high” art, like poetry, modern painting, whatever. Moreover, I believe that thinking about games can help us understand this often murky division; games provide an interesting example against which we can measure our experiences with other forms: painting cinema, w/e because the extent to which they are “difficult” is much more obvious than traditional art forms.
Brief Aside: (Of course, this is inextricably bound with what I believe art is, or more specifically, what art should do. In short, I’d say that art is the sport of the mind. Running, swimming, jumping, etc. is physically demanding and when engaged regularly the body strengthens; like so for art, only this growth is ethical, intellectual, aesthetic, whatever, etc. I’m not going to give this issue full treatment here, but even if you disagree I think the distinction is still useful, if in a less profound way. Moving on,)
The prevailing attitude is that all products of the entertainment industry are artless commodities, games included. This attitude is based, primarily, upon a certain image of the movie-goer. The movie-goer sits in the theater, is given popcorn and a comfortable chair, needs to do nothing but watch the movie reveal itself. The movie must be decoded to become meaningful, but decoding movies requires little effort. As the viewer, along with the directors, actors, etc., becomes thoroughly practiced in genre conventions, the ease of interpretation increases. And of course genre conventions include scripts not just for the actors, but the audience as well. This is clearest in the scoring of films, where the music can signal to the viewer when to be compassionate or apathetic to the events on screen, but also, quite paradoxically, when to be surprised.
The game, however, does not reveal itself without reciprocal effort on the part of the player. e.g. Mario does not move unless you push buttons, and thus, as the saying goes “We gotta find the princess… and YOU gotta help us.” The plot of the game can only be revealed through effort by the player: let’s call this interactivity. But interactivity is not necessarily difficult, it does not necessarily challenge the player, and is thus not by itself sufficient grounds for aligning gaming with art.
A good place to begin is with pornography, which blurs the boundary between game and film insofar as it is already interactive: that is, the intended pleasure to be derived from pornography requires effort on the part of the viewer. (This activity I will label as “second order” because it is inessential to the advancement of the movie, while the interactivity visible on the screen and required for the completion of the movie I will label as “first order.”) Likewise, the pornography industry was first to embrace DVD technology by making “interactive” films. Such films allow the viewer to choose between angles, positions, actresses and their clothing, etc., but this interactivity remains minimal, amounting to little more than changing the channel.
On the other hand, there is a growing multitude of Flash “games,” which hardly qualify as such. Games like the “Meet’N’Fuck” series made by VadimGoD and produced by Games of Desire (GoD for short: ironic? Don’t know yet.) are often entirely linear. “Meet’N’Fuck: Intensive Therapy,” for example, begins as the avatar (always male, average, face never seen) wakes up inside a hospital. Looking up through his eyes, the player is immediately approached by two young nurses, their breasts (inexplicably and perpetually bouncing) barely contained by their skimpy nurse uniforms. The player navigates through the game by picking from pre-scripted dialogue; only one of the choices will advance the player to the next screen. If the player chooses incorrectly, the women respond harshly, though the player is free to choose again: this time with the incorrect choice made unavailable. This can repeat until there is only one option left and the player has no choice but the correct dialogue, and no amount of error will affect the narrative, which remains almost entirely linear and predetermined.
The reward for completing dialogue is two short Hentai: one with each nurse. These scenes are advanced toward climax by clicking a “harder!” button which appears once the “pleasure bar” located vertically along the side of the screen reaches predetermined levels (In some games the player may elect to return to an earlier level, the pleasure bar will not rise and climax is not impossible without passing through the final level). Although the interactivity here seems trivial, it can be inferred that this feature is implemented as a way for the first and second orders of interactivity to come in synchrony. (If you know what I mean). Along the same lines, the first order of interactivity must be kept simple so as not to interfere with the second order. Clearly, second order interactivity takes priority over first order interactivity; the player is not challenged (at least not significantly) or resisted by the game itself—any challenge the player has fulfilling the requirements of second order interactivity is (lol) a personal problem. The game, like the girls in it, is there purely for (presumably) his pleasure, resisting only slightly, so as to appear chaste enough to make the player feel a sense of accomplishment and exclusivity. (metaphor/ambiguity intended).
The interactive DVD, in some cases, actually offers as much or more interactivity and allows the viewer more freedom than these games. It would thus be easy to conclude that the distinction between game and movie, like the distinction between flash fiction and prose poetry, appears to be entirely artificial, relating more to publisher than genre. But I’ll not settle so easily. Rather, I will insist that interactivity alone does not make something a game (how, for example, could these be called a “series of interesting choices” when there are effectively no choices being made?), but that something is a game insofar as it challenges its players (and the quality of the game can be measured by the extent to which it challenges), and that the pleasure (call it what you will) one derives from gaming lies in being challenged, and is thus intrinsic to the gameplay itself.
To understand this claim, we’ll need to examine more games representing at least a partial spectrum of possible difficulty… I’ll do this in the next post