Games Are Not Art, Are They?
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; 12:19 AM
Games are not art -- they're better. It just depends on whom you ask.
There's this on-again, off-again argument within the intelligentsia as to whether games should be placed on the same pedestal as books, movies, music, and paintings. But even the newest of the accepted fine arts, movies, have had at least a century to develop.
Conventional videogames--and I'm taking Pong, the equivalent of cave drawings, as my starting point here--commenced less than 40 years ago. In that time, games have mimicked movies, electronically emulated books, and tried their hand at playing on some emotional heartstrings. The big difference is that most conventional art forms are passive and two-dimensional experiences: You sit in front of and soak in whatever the artist presents you with. Videogames attempt to create an interactive experience that puts the viewer/player in control of the palette.
Enter Shanghai-born Xinghan "Jenova" Chen, creative director of ThatGameCompany. Since earning his graduate degree from the University of Southern California Film School's Interactive Media program, he has helped craft several simple-but-surreal game projects that do more than cater to a twitch response. His thesis project, Cloud, floated along, accumulating a following on the indie gaming scene. Flow cast players as an ever-evolving single-celled organism--and that, no doubt, inspired the first stage in Spore. The best way to describe Chen's latest game, Flower: It's a first-person gardener. And it's well-worth the $10 asking price at Sony's PlayStation Store.
The levels, if you choose to call them that, are the dreams of flowers. You are the wind, fulfilling flower fantasies--yeah, it sounds kind of strange. But just try it. This is a Zen exercise with an occasional trophy for completing a task. A meditation pool with an endpoint. More important, it passes my all-important "wife test": She was entranced as she watched me play, until finally she yanked the controller out of my hand to try her luck with it. The last time I got that kind of response out of her was when BioShock came out.
But back to the old "games-versus-art" argument (I'm looking at you, Ebert). I spent some time chatting with Chen recently about the state of gaming and how (if at all) it's maturing. Here's what we came up with:
A Boy and His Flower
How would you try describing Flower to someone? Is it a game, art, or something else entirely?
Flower is made with a different mentality. It's a safe, warm experience. It's like a poem or dance that uses symbolism and scenery to give the player a comforting backdrop.
And I guess that this would make you the choreographer?
[laughs] Yeah, we're not level designers. We provide all these moves, and because players are different, they will perform the moves differently. It's a game that is meant not only to play, but to watch.
A game that you watch--technically, that'd make it art. As for the person who grabs the controls, let's talk a little more about the game itself.