Games are unquestionably an art form, says EA Los Angeles' Randy Smith, but to make the most of that, they must exploit the elements unique to the medium.
Smith, who was most recently identified as working on the Spielberg-led LMNO
at EALA, touched on the artistry of games -- as well as principles that connect art of all mediums -- in a wide-ranging talk at the Montreal International Game Summit.
Interactivity, The Defining Quality"
"When it come to something others can't do, [games are] its own art form," said Smith. "For games, it's interactivity. We are the only art form where the medium changes."
He pointed to cinema, whose distinct qualities were techniques like editing, cuts, and camera movement.
Different films fall on different ends of the spectrum -- slow, documentary-like shots on the end that do not explicitly use many of those techniques, and on the other end there are MTV music videos. A director like Stanley Kubrick would fall in between in terms of technique.
In video games, there is an analagous spectrum with interactivity. Smith placed a game like Indigo Prophecy
-- where choices are discrete -- towards the far end where interactivity is downplayed, and Tony Hawk
-- a more explicit "game system" -- on the other end.
is stepwise, meaning you only get to make decisions sometimes," he said, "whereas in Tony Hawk it's continuous." Furthermore, Indigo Prophecy's decisions are discrete choices, whereas Tony Hawk's are analog. And Indigo Prophecy's decisions are designer-authored, while Tony Hawk is more player-authored.
He compared games like Indigo Prophecy to "Choose Your Own Adventure" books -- which he said are more accurately described as "choose between several of someone else's adventures books."
Some tasks, like dialogue, consistently end up on one end of the spectrum, while other elements like combat or skateboarding end up on the other end. Smith noted that designers often don't try to break out of those conceptions, but "because we never try, we convince ourselves we can't do it."
"If you have a game that peaks at a low level of interactivity, that's something to watch out for," said Smith, noting that some games are essentially intirely branching paths.
The Role of Art in Entertainment
Smith brought up Robert McKee, a Hollywood screenwriter who authored the book "Story," which in part describes the functions of stories, a topic earlier raised by Joseph Campbell.
"Any screenplay that's worth a damn is always going to contain relevance and honesty," Smith paraphrased of McKee. Things like religion, science, and stories have been created by humans to help them make sense of their lives.
"Any great entertainment product also contains great art," Smith said. You're never going to sell a ton of copies unless you're able to reach them and resonate with them."
He compared the best selling games of all time -- including Super Mario Bros, Tetris, The Sims, and World of Warcraft -- to the highest-grossing movies of all time, noting that Titanic dwarfs the reach of any game to date.
How It Works vs. How It Feels
Smith pointed to several examples of using a "mechanic" to evoke a feeling in various mediums. For example, the film Children of Men contains a long, unbroken, starkly-shot scene in which protagonist Clive Owen attempts to get into a building to rescue a baby. That mechnical choice serves to inform how Owen's character feels at the time -- keeping a single-minded focus on the task ahead, tuning out interfering events that might otherwise be called attention to with techniques like camera cuts.
Smith pointed to the oft-cited game Passage for a parallel. The game features a character who lives his life as he walks from the left side of the world to the right side of the world, aging and eventually dying. It uses an unusual visual technique that compresses pixels towards the right side of the screen at the beginning, and as the game continues it compresses them to the left -- representing initially the vagaries of foresight, and later the passing of memories.
Like Children of Men, Passage uses a system of rules and mechanics to evoke a feeling in a manner unique to its medium that is not effectively expressed in words.
That same property can be seen in wildly successful commercial games as well -- with its "wanted level" mechanic, Grand Theft Auto effectively creates the feeling of a tense police chase in a way other mediums cannot.
"The Loneliness of Leadership"
Smith referred to the canceled game Tiberium, in development at EALA, which was played from a first-person perspective but allowed players to use jump jets to rise high above the battlefield and command troops with a more traditional real-time strategy direction.
"It reminded me of the loneliness of leadership," Smith said. He made some suggestions to the team, such as adjusting the audiovisual experience when in jump jet mode to reduce sounds down to evocative wind noises, with the sound of the battle heavily muted, with depth of field effects applied to drive home the distance between the player and his troops.
Conversely, when orders were givn to troops face to face, Smith suggested giving those troops facial expressions that reflected the implications of those orders -- troops given obviously suicidal tasks would still carry those tasks out, but their faces would betray their internal emotions, a reality of war generally left unaddressed by strategy game.
"The Dogma of Fun"
"As game designers, we have these various dogmas about what games are supposed to be, and one of the biggest things is that games have to be fun," Smith observed. "Schindler's List isn't fun, but I want it to exist."