5 min read

Are Games Unique?

"The artist deals with what cannot be said in words." What can video games communicate that can not be said in words?

Are video games capable of communicating anything that other forms of art are not?  Or are they just lesser versions of "real" art forms?

I know that's a bit of a vague question.  What I'm trying to get at, is that other forms of art are able to communicate particular things in particular ways that could not be communicated in a different art form.  Still too vague?  This is actually a bit difficult to define.

Take a great record, for example.  I'll say OK Computer by Radiohead, since it's one of my favourites and it's also reasonably well known.  If you look at a song like "Karma Police", which was the big single from the album, that song is able through its construction to communicate something very particular.  Yes, it has lyrics, and yes, those lyrics are part of the communication, but they're actually a pretty small part.  The song communicates its emotions, even its themes and ideas, through its melodies.  I don't get a feeling of existential dread from the song because of the lyrics, but because of the music, and they evoke that sense of dread in a particular way which could not be done with words or images.  That is to say that the music itself communicates something which could only be communicated in musical form.  The ideas just can't be expressed any other way.

Let's look at one of my favourite books, as another example: Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. [Spoiler alert, if you haven't read the book and intend to.]  Throughout the book there is essentially a meta-narrative (I hate that term), where Vonnegut comments on the writing that he is doing.  At the end of the book, he inserts himself as the author into the story to communicate with his main character, and he comments on that as well.  That really isn't possible in a song.  The way that language is used in a book is completely unique to prose writing.

I'm going to take a quote from Ursula Leguin here, because I think it gets to the heart of what I've been clumsily trying to explain.  "The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.  The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words."  So my question is what, if anything are video games able to say that cannot be said in words?

Part of the difficulty in answering that question, I think, is that video games are much more mechanistic than other forms of art.  While there is obviously a great deal of theory to music, it is entirely possible to play great music without any idea what that theory is.  And even if you know every last bit of the theory, at the end of the day great music comes from strange, indescribable places of inspiration.  The same can be said of great fiction.  No matter how deeply an author has analysed language, at the end of the day a great author really just has to intuit their phrasing.

It's much more difficult to do this when creating a video game.  Video games are clearly defined sets of operations, generally mathematical operations.  Those operations need to be thoughtfully put together before the game is programmed (or maybe I'm just a horrendous programmer and I need to learn to intuit it).  So video games don't have the advantage of being able to just flow out of a creator (or creators, as is the case with movies).

So at the end of the day, I'm left wondering how I can use the particular qualities of gameplay to communicate things that I could not communicate using other art forms.  The reason I've gotten into game design/production is precisely so that I could expand the set of tools available to me to communicate.  To find new ways to express meaning.

The one thing I do think that games have going for them is that they are more able than any other medium to show things to players.  One of the greatest strength of Dostoevski's novels, I think, is that he doesn't just tell the reader his argument, he shows it through the events and the characters.  Because video games are inherently interactive, they should be able to do that kind of demonstration far better than novels, right?

I can think of two reasons why that hasn't happenned yet.  One is that video games are simply not used as a didactic medium. Name me a major studio game with a clear message.  OK, now name me one that isn't Metal Gear Solid.  It's pretty hard to do, isn't it?

The other reason is somewhat related.  Because games are inherently an interactive medium, they're often created with a focus on player control.  And games that take away that control from players are often criticised harshly.  But maybe in order for our games to have meaning we do need to take some of that control away from players.  Or, alternately, and I think this could be even more powerful, what if we used the player's control as a way to demonstrate something to them?  Games like Rod Humble's The Marriage do this.  The message of that game is communicated through the gameplay, and it really could not be communicated to the same degree any other way.  But how can we scale that up?  Or do we even need to?

But perhaps games are capable of something else which I have not yet thought of.  Maybe games can communicate to players emotionally in a way that other art forms can't.  But if they are, I'm not really sure what it is.  Are they?  What other ways are games able to communicate things that could not be communicated otherwise?

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