Roger Ebert’s recent reply to the game community on the topic of games as art has had me thinking of an interesting art experiment. Ebert essentially argues against classifying video games as a form of high art. Much of the basis of his argument relies on the difference between artistic (narrative) control over player control. Ebert obviously considers cinema to be a form of high art, so what if we started there as the basis for a game? I’m not referring to the countless movie-based games and movie tie-ins that clutter the market. I’m referring specifically to a movie – in a game engine. The characters, the camera, the scenes – all programmed to form a movie – a machinima of sorts. Surely media of this form can be classified under Ebert’s definition of “high art”, as it is just a movie. All narrative (and cinematic) control has been put into the hands of an artist with a particular vision. The viewer has no control. The plot carries out from start to finish before the viewer’s eyes.
Here’s where it gets interesting. What if we started by adding a tiny bit of user control. Let’s say… the camera can move through limited angles. Or the viewer-turned-player is now viewing the “movie” from the controllable eyes of a third party – a person at the scene but not at the center of the plot or story. Does this make the “interactive movie” any less artistic? After all, while some cinematic control has been put into the hands of the viewer, the movie still plays out the same way. The plot goes from start to finish as the author intended. Maybe the viewpoint changes, but the content – the message of the artist – is still there, if not viewed slightly askew.
If you’ve consented to the above modifications as retaining the artistic quality of the original work, then as we continue to add user control, it becomes hard to establish a solid line at which the work ceases to be artistic. What if the user, a third party in the scene, in addition to having freedom to look around, is given freedom to move without interaction (like a cameraman)? What if you then added small interactions to that freedom, like being able to open doors and pick up objects? What about talking? Talking with the main character? At which discrete point does the further addition of freedoms become “major” enough to bring the work down from its status as “high art”? Does it stop being high art as soon as the player can affect the story? What comprises a “change” in the story? If the main character, through dialog with this third party controlled by the user, ends up saying one word differently at the end of the movie than he would have otherwise, does that mean the story has changed and that the work has ceased to be high art?
The point here is that by making a movie more and more interactive, it becomes very hard to argue against its artistic nature. The idea for the game I had in mind is drawn from this discussion of artistic control. Imagine a brilliant movie done as machinima, the only difference being that you, the third party player, are present within the world of the movie, watching the plot play out, following the main character on his or her journey. Leaving the controller on the floor and grabbing a bowl of popcorn, you can watch the movie go its course, presenting an Oscar-worthy cinematic and narrative experience. However, you as the player, are also, in fact, allowed to move, speak, and interact as any in-game character would. Do you use this opportunity to more fully immerse yourself in the setting? Do you read the local papers? Do you depart from your protagonist friend for a bit to check out the sights of the city? Do you talk to the people on the streets? Do you go out and try to reason with the antagonist? Once you let go of the controller, though, the plot continues to play out. Your character programmatically finds a way to reunite with the main protagonist and continue on their journey.
Have you ever watched a tragedy and wondered whether it was possible to change the course of events? This kind of game would allow you to explore that option as you can later rewatch the tragedy with controller in hand. It is a matter of artistic expression whether the player’s actions can, in fact, change anything at all. Is it really that far fetched that the player may not have any control over the outcome of the story? Isn’t that how nearly all games are today? Branching storylines and multiple endings in narrative games are not very common. Players often do not have as much control as they think they do.
This experimental game I’ve presented is very much a revisitation and expansion of the ideas in the “interactive drama” game Facade. In Facade, the player is a third party that is intervening between a husband and wife in an attempt to change their attitudes toward each other. The player is allowed to speak to the main characters, possibly changing the course of their conversation with each other. My experiment would simply expand the set of possible interactions (as well as the scope of the story). I suppose the question in the end, then, is when such an interactive movie becomes qualified to be called a “game”.