The article Games Minus Stories = ? over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun struck a chord with me. I felt that my comment on it, with some rewording, was an important enough point that it merited a blog post, so here it is:
The article is itself a response to yet another writer’s claim that “If games want to be taken seriously as art or a worthwhile storytelling medium, there will have to be more games that aren’t simple diversions.” In Games MInus Stories, Jim Rossignol challenges the basic assumption here, namely that the artfulness of games lies in their capacity as a storytelling medium. I’d go even further, though, and say that games need to move away from the idea of narrative in order to mature as an art form.
Today’s games seem to have an inferiority complex and try to emulate movies, as the latter are already accepted as legitimate art. When I see people pointing to the most movie-like games as evidence for games-as-art, I feel like they don’t believe themselves that games are art, because they’re choosing examples that remind us of another medium more than they remind us of games.
What makes a game a game is the way it plays, and any game designer can tell you that making a fun game requires creativity, cultivated instincts, flashes of inspiration and lots of hard work and experience, just like painting, or writing a screenplay. Limiting our discussion of games as art to the narratives is like going to the art gallery and describing only the subjects of the paintings and sculptures, rather than the pieces themselves.
“Yeah, it was totally art. One painting was of some sunflowers, and there was another of a man and a woman in front of a farmhouse, with the man holding a pitchfork. And then there was this sculpture of a guy sitting with his chin on his fist. There wasn’t an orc or a space marine anywhere.”
Visual art outgrew its obsession with representation a long time ago. Then it outgrew its obsession with being non-representational, and now it’s in a relatively mature state where artists can be representational or non-representational as they see fit, and the subject of a piece, when there is one, is only one detail out of many aspects of the piece to be discussed and appreciated. The fact that the mainstream games industry is still struggling for more and more movie-like plots indicates its immaturity. At least the indie scene is starting to dabble in abstraction and symbolism, albeit heavy-handedly.
When you’re trying to create “art,” then inevitably you’re trying to imitate some other thing that you consider art… but imitation is not art, so these efforts will always fail. Just create the best game you can, and it will be art, regardless of whether it’s at the Tetris or Heavy Rain end of the scale.