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How shoot 'em up became high art


This article appeared in the Dominion Post on Saturday April 3rd. As I'm taking aesthetics this year, it interests me, obviously.

Explanatory remarks of mine are in square brackets.

Three decades after Pong ricocheted into popular culture, video games are bouncing into the rarefied world of fine art.  Alex Pham reports.

A vocal clique of academics, curators and critics is asking whether digital muscleman Duke Nukem deserves the same study and reverence as, say, a Degas sculpture.

The movement has given birth to college [tertiary level] classes deconstructing the symbolism in digital doll-houses such as The Sims, academic papers exploring the "aporia and epiphany" in shoot 'em up games such as Doom, and exhibits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Fine Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

"Games are a powerful, artistic medium just now coming to maturity," says Rene de Guzman, visual arts curator for the Yerba Buena Center. Together with Stanford University, the gallery is hosting an exhibit called Bang the Machine: Computer Gaming Art and Artifacts.

"They're a form of interactive storytelling," Mr de Guzman says. "There's performance involved when you play the game. And they obviously have powerful visual elements. I think some games are, frankly, very beautiful."

"Trying to strap meaning onto entertainment sometimes can be ridiculous," says Rand Miller, chief executive of game developer Cyan Worlds and co-creator of Myst, a visually arresting game that set new standards for artistry. "When I see a magic show in Vegas, the last thing I want is a silly attempt to attach deeper meaning."

But scholars say video games are an emerging art form, whether their creators recognise it or not.

"There were lots of early film-makers in the early years who also felt that what they were doing wasn't art, it was just entertainment," says Chris Swain, who teaches game design at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television, which offers a masters of fine arts in game studies.

[Note the connection between games and theatre here - film and TV are pretty much children of theatre, and one way to consider games is as a play with you as an actor. I suppose approaching games from a theatrical aesthetic is one place to start.]

"Over time, film became legitimised as an artistic medium because there were people who wanted to push things forward. The same will happen with games. Until the mid-1990s, video games were relatively crude diversions. Graphics were blocky and clunky. Music was little more than repetitive pings and beeps. Plots were simple: Shoot the aliens, eat the ghosts,. The focus was on high scores, not high art.

"Since then, the proliferation of cheap, powerful microprocessors has permitted movie-quality sounds and visuals on expensive games consoles. Games now have special effects, lengthy scripts with elaborate plot twists, original soundtracks and voice-overs by professional actors. Imagination, not technology, defines a game's limits."

Few games illustrate this evolution better than Return to Castle Wolfenstein, issued in 2002 by John Carmack, a programmer whose Doom franchise of games is among the best-known in the industry.

Mr Carmack's company, Id [sic] Software, has sold millions of copies of Doom since its release in 1994. The original Castle Wolfenstein, created in 1983 by the late Silas Warner, an early innovator in game design, was a simple adventure through an ancient castle crawling with Nazis. The enemy soldiers were two-coloured stick figures with pixellised swastikas on their chests. The biggest technological feat in the game was that the Nazis barked commands in digitised German.

[Note that Quake doesn't even feature, yet RTCW owes much to it!]

Mr Carmack's version — Return to Castle Wolfenstein — borrows more from cinema. The game is what's known as a first-person shooter, meaning players see the action on screen as if they are in the game, standing in the shoes of its hero, Army Ranger BJ Blazkowicz.

Meticulous programming allows the three-dimensional world to pivot as players make Blazkowicz run, dive and duck through a labyrinthine castle. Physics dictate the trajectory of bullets fired from Blazkowicz's gun and how flickering torches cast shadows in dank corridors. Impossibly complicated subroutines manage the artificial intelligence of Nazi goons who decide whether to stand their ground or run.

"My personal work is engineering," Mr Carmack says. "If you squint real hard, you can see some elements of artistry in almost any engineering effort, but styling it as art is usually an excuse to avoid rigor."

But if art is, as novelist Leo Tolstoy once observed, the passing of an experience from one person to another, Return to Castle Wolfenstein cannot so easily be dismissed as simple engineering.

Celia Pearce, an instructor of game design at the University of California, navigated the game's gothic dungeons on her custom-built laptop. Down a flight of stairs, she noticed the gossamer cobwebs tucked in a corner. "From a graphics perspective, I think this is beautiful," she says.

Hearing the murmur of voices, Ms Pearce headed in that direction and found herself outside the lab of a mad scientist with a thick German accent. With a few keystrokes, she unlatched the door, sneaked up behind the scientist and shot him, As the digital madman crumpled to the floor, the lab exploded in a rat-tat-tat of gunfire and screams. Ms Pearce sqaured off tensely against a Nazi soldier. A firefight followed, leaving Ms Pearce's Blazkowicz dying on the stone floor.

Ms Pearce tossed back her long red hair and sighed. "Well, that was kind of exciting."

"I don't see how you can argue that games aren't art," says Jason Rubin, co-president of Naughty Dog, a Californian game studio that created the Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter series of games.

Douglas Blake, chairman of LA county museum's Graphic Arts Council, says that "in the long run, digital art will be inside of the museum's purview, just like the Gutenberg Bible. In the 1890s, Toulouse-Lautrec painted posters, and no one thought that was art. A hundred years later, they are very much a part of the art world."

If games are art, some say they deserve the same intellectual scrutiny as music, theatre or dance. Some of that is already starting to happen. The online journal www.gamestudies.org features articles titled Dialogue Conventions in Final Fantasy, The dungeon and the Ivory Tower: Vive La Difference or Liaison Dangereuse? and I Lose, Therefore I Think: A Search for Contemplation Amid Wars of Push-Button Glare.

Site editor Espen Aarseth says he founded the journal to encourage scholarly scrutiny of games, which he feels is not being taken seriously. "It is vital to foster a field that can integrate the social, artistic and technical aspects of games," Mr Asrseth says. "We have had arts and literature as scholarly fields for more than 2000 years, so now it is time to include the dominant art form of the 21st century." – LA Times


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