There’s typically not a lot of artfulness that goes into the process of making a videogame, is there? Think about it: how often does the medium incite a feeling aside from enjoyment or an emotion likened to it? How often are you, as the player, asked to do something other than shoot a man, or defeat some freshly-reincarnated evil, or become the very best, like no one ever was? How often do you see a game as an interesting experience, rather than a set of obstacles to overcome, a series of inputs to master, a mass of attributes that need optimizing?
To me, these are some super interesting questions, because no one asks them of other mediums – no one needs to. Like, of course a painting is art. Of course films can elicit emotional resonance. Of course literature has subtext. Of course people listen to music for reasons other than “it sounds good.” You would be laughed out of academia if you suggested otherwise. And obviously you can point to mainstream media and go “There! Look at the new Expendables movie! Or that Kanye West song! And have you read the Maze Runner? See? It’s not just videogames! Mainstream street trash is everywhere!” And your finger would be right. But this willfully ignores the “art house” components of these mediums, which always existed and continue to fill their niches, but have also pushed the mainstream forward because of what creators learned from making these more experimental works.
Games don’t really have these analogues. Not nearly to the same extent, at least.
For me, two recent events have spurred this musing: 1.) I played Ico over the summer, and 2.) the current controversy surrounding videogame culture. By controversy, I am of course referring to “Gamergate” (yuck). This movement, despite desperately trying to be about ethics in games journalism, summons fourth (along with harassment and a number of other eldritch horrors) this idea that “real gamers” want videogames to focus on and be judged only by enjoyment value, lack of bugs, frame rate, etcetera. Essentially, it’s a mindset that rejects messages, experimental ideas, mechanics as metaphors, and any other potential tools used to explore videogames as art. See why this is a problem?
Anyway, there are a lot of other people on the internet (read: the intelligent ones) weighing in against this collective, and I’d rather not even give the time of day to a movement that’s causing as much damage as it is. So for now, let’s talk about event 1: how Ico relates to videogames as art, and what sort of things the medium should and shouldn’t be pushing towards in order to combat this freshly-bannered, recessive mindset.
For those unaware, Ico was a game developed by Team Ico (hah) back in the early days of the PS2, but you more than likely know it by its colloquial name: “that one game the Shadow of the Colossus guys made where you lead a ghost girl around a windmill or something.” And you know what? That’s pretty accurate. After a rather enigmatic opening scene, the game puts you in control of a young boy (Ico) tasked with safeguarding a hapless spirit girl (Yorda) as the pair escape from the remains of what resembles a castle. Ico has some puzzles, exploration elements, backtracking, and a bit of rudimentary combat, but at heart Ico is – if we’re to boil it down to mechanics – what you would call a glorified escort mission.
Understand though, that when I say “escort mission,” I don’t mean this in the derogatory sense. Not in this case. Most people groan when they hear the term because it usually denotes padding or ill-conceived alterations to the gameplay that are more annoying than engaging. But Ico was designed with this concept in mind from the very beginning, and all of the game’s elements were created around it. Nonetheless, here we have a novel premise already; you’re not trying to defeat some grand malevolence, per say. You’ll fight some opposition, sure, but in the end you’re just two people (kinda) trying to get out of a bad situation mostly though teamwork and making discoveries about your surroundings. The game’s a rather quiet experience, and there’s a sneaking undercurrent of subtlety wired throughout it. It’s really not like most games.
Honestly, most of my time spent with Ico involved one of two things: either maneuvering to the next area or figuring out how to do so. And both of these elements were equally engaging. Puzzles, while strangely difficult at times, were hardly as esoteric as they are in most games. Usually a game asks the player to solve puzzles that only really make sense within the internal logic of the game itself, whether it be lighting all the candles in a room, or rubbing whatever contrived item on whatever contrived surface the game deems important. And while that’s not to say that these are bad ways of going about things, it just certainly makes thinking about the puzzles in Ico a bit different because they involve objects acting in ways you would realistically expect them to. For example, when a seasoned game-player comes to an impasse in a standard game, they tend to think “okay, what power-up do I need to get?” or “did I miss a key?” But in Ico, one usually has to ask “based on the actions my characters are able to perform, what in the environment can be manipulated?” Often this amounts to cutting a rope, or jumping on an old chandelier, or just helping Yorda up a gutter. Even though these seem like simple solutions, I feel I ran into trouble where I did because, historically, videogames have always taught me I needed to fulfill some arbitrary condition before being able to move on rather than intuitively discover how to move on myself (and yeah, there’s like one torch puzzle, but we’re going to ignore that so I can push my little narrative here).
And when it came to walking around or exploring (which there’s a lot of), Ico was interesting because of how, well, uninteresting it was. At least comparatively. The game has little music to speak of, and the two characters don’t talk to each other; they just silently walk hand-in-hand as the camera moves in such a way as to highlight various cinematic angles. It would be relaxing, if not for the constantly unsettling threat of running into an unspectacular yet stressful enemy encounter. I’d like to draw some comparisons to its spiritual successor here, Shadow of the Colossus (SotC), because it always seemed like an “art game” that existed well before they gained the meagre popularity they have today. See, SotC is divided pretty evenly into a series of thrilling boss battles and long stretches of exploration where you track them down. The travel components lack music, tend to play around with interesting camera angles, and give the player ample time to consider what the game’s trying to say. Even if we’re to detach the fact that the high-octane battles and the rhythmic horse-riding provide such a stark contrast, these sections create an interesting feeling in their own right because it’s so different from what we see in other games, or anything else for that matter. Think of titles like Dear Ester, or Proteus, or Gone Home. These are smaller indie titles that eschew the usual videogame action in attempt to push a specific message, or construct a certain atmosphere. And at the end of the day, like Ico, there’s a lot of walking, and a lot of contemplating. The fact that Ico and Shadow of the Colossus – two decently well-known titles – have elements in common with these twee indie darlings is wonderful to see, but also highlights the fact that you really need to go out of your way to draw parallels between modern console games and “art games.” And that stinks, because there’s a lot of love for the games Team Ico has made, and in some circles, a growing contempt for indie titles.
Seriously, where else do we see this sort of thing? Horror games, I suppose, but that’s more or less so that they can build tension – except for, say, the Silent Hill games.
Just to make it clear, I don’t think every “art game” should require doing nothing other than walking around a scenic area, occasionally caressing some flower petals and thinking “life is pain, no?” Games could be anything, really. But they’re usually about fighting things, and they don’t have to be. You fight things in Ico, yeah, but even then the feeling you get from doing so is pretty novel. However, I’ll be the first to admit: the combat is kind of ****awful, and sometimes, it seems like the enemy encounters can go on for too long or appear too frequently. But in a way, I feel like this is a good thing, or at the very least, is not the deal breaker it is in a lot of other titles.
I mean, there’s something to be said for disempowering the player, because most games aim to empower you. That’s why reversing this dynamic on the player has such a disorienting effect, and why horror games utilize it to such a large degree. In Resident Evil games, you often find yourself begging the game not to throw an enemy around the next corner, because fights are stressful ordeals that eat up much-needed resources. In Silent Hill, it’s usually better to skip encounters altogether, because the game intentionally puts you in control of a normal human being who doesn’t know the first thing about fending off demented horrors freshly-pulled from their subconscious – hence the clunky feel of the combat. I’d argue that Ico chases a similar feeling. Despite only losing Yorda once or twice to the horde of shadow creatures that periodically materialize to capture her, fending them off with a stick begins to feel progressively more hopeless as they grow in number and tenacity. It really conveys a feeling of haplessness that, to me at least, adds more than the often-frustrating nature of it detracts.
It’s a shame that for some people, in attempt to take an entirely objective view of the game, issues like repetitive combat and wonky physics might cloud what is otherwise a really thought-provoking experience. Ico may not necessarily have much in the way of an overall message, or “point” so to speak, but it goes a long way in making you feel for and care about the characters, despite them not having much character to begin with. And it does so entirely via the situations it puts you through as a player; something that culminates in the most pleasant post-credits gameplay sequence I’ve ever witnessed. In a way, the roughness of the game feels at odds with how high-minded the package is as a whole.
So yeah, I urge people to play it. Ico is one of those rare games where the quality that makes it amazing is intangible; something greater than the sum of its individual mechanics or story beats. And yet, it’s a quality wholly unique to the medium of videogames. Which brings us back to Gamergate and its suggestion that reviews need to be objective, and that games should provide an apolitical or otherwise “traditional” experience. This should NOT be the case: some people view Ico as a touching little experience alternating between moments of quiet solitude and restless anxiety. Others view it as sort of sexist. And some see it both ways. The beauty of discussing games in a broader critical context is the nuance that comes with cultural critique, because what makes games like these worthwhile isn’t how infrequently bugs appear, how many hours you’ll clock into it, or how fluid the controls are.
Unfortunately, it seems like some people are asking for games to be judged this way, even if they don’t see it. When gamers chase people out of the industry and try to raze sites they disagree with to the ground, it harms the medium at large. If you want games to be considered art, then games need to start acting like it. Consequently, that encourages and requires people to discuss things other than how a game operates on a mechanical level.
And here’s the thing: it makes the whole medium look reaaally bad when you continually flip off the ghost of Roger Ebert because he said games aren’t art that one time, while simultaneously forming lynch mobs because some people want to examine games in terms of a larger social context. That’s not how we need to go about things, and frankly, it does nothing other than muddy the message we should be trying to send. Why has the media as a whole painted Gamergate as a lot of craven, back-assed bullies, they ask? Well, why is it that games like Shadow of the Colossus and Ico are considered cult classics, while gamers moan about Gone Home not being a real game, or Depression Quest having the sheer gall to even exist? Is it because developers have to smuggle “artsy” elements into what looks like a grand, console gaming adventure for them to be recognized? Then maybe it’s also because there actually are a lot of craven, back-assed bullies who play videogames, and want them to be a noninclusive, unchallenged club of military shooters and ultra-violence fests.