Phil Owen has a new book out called WTF Is Wrong With Video Games in which he talks about how video games have failed to reach the artistic level they should have after the Supreme Court ruled them as protected free speech similar to books and movies in 2011. Polygon published a brief excerpt of the first chapter, and just from this small bit, I’m seeing a fundamental misunderstanding about how art is created with a video game in the first place.
Owen’s example is The Last of Us, which is one of my absolute favorite titles as well as being pretty much the artistic acme of the seventh-generation console era. It’s lauded as gaming’s Citizen Kane for its emotional story, engrossing postapocalyptic world and captivating performances from the cast.
Owen, though, points out that much of the game fails artistically in ways that would be unacceptable in a movie. Essentially, he gives the game the Chekhov’s Gun argument. He compares the game to a film with a similar premise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He and the people he was watching the film with commented on a scientist in the film inhaling a dangerous substance and then sneezing, remarking that he was “fucked.” A discussion arose about how a sneeze always means something in a movie. No one sneezes for no reason. In Rise, a sneeze means the simian flu epidemic was beginning. In Dogma, a sneeze means Loki will seek a way to punish even an innocent human for not saying, “Bless you.” In Leprechaun 2, a sneeze means you have to marry an evil fairy (no, really).
In a video game, though, many actions that are necessary to progress do not always have this meaning. By way of an example, Owen uses the ladders and wooden platforms in The Last of Us. At different points in the game, Joel will inevitably come across a ledge too high to reach up to or a gap too wide to jump, and just as inevitably there will be a ladder or a plank of wood nearby for him to use. Whenever there is water, there will be a wooden platform for Joel to ferry Ellie across on because she can’t swim. These actions contribute absolutely nothing narratively or artistically to the game in any way. They are just relatively easy puzzles loosely scattered across Joel and Ellie’s path that don’t enhance the themes or concepts The Last of Us is trying to convey.
Owen also points out that making Joel craft easily breakable shivs from scissor handles as if the concept of the survival knife died when the zombies rose is dumb, and that’s inarguable. Shivs basically exist to expand the crafting mechanic and justify extensive scavenging. Likewise, I understand that the ladder/wooden platform concepts being reused is a typical lazy shortcut. Animating different sets of movements for characters takes a lot of work. Developers can either use the wooden platform puzzle mechanic and assets multiple times to save on that work, or they can just reuse them to the point even Ellie remarks, “I know. Step on the fucking pallet.” In a movie, directors don’t have this problem, but in a game expected to have 20-plus hours of play, this space needs to be filled with activity. Devoting time and resources to activities a player would use only once is rarely a good idea from a business standpoint.
Owen is not the first person to point out that there is often a disconnect between play and story. Many critics railed that Bioshock Infinite’s actual gameplay makes absolutely no sense at all within the game’s world and plot. Cutscenes and exposition still exist largely as oil and water in games outside of a few stand-outs like Telltale titles. It’s an acknowledged problem.
But I can’t help feeling Owen misses something about gaming that is continuously overlooked: play as emotional, improvisational storytelling.
The Last of Us has four basic types of expression. There’s the puzzle and craft bits mentioned earlier; cut scenes and quick time events; stealth and combat; and exploration. When I first played The Last of Us, it was the quick time and the combat/stealth moments that were, for me, the real story. The game is deeply unsettling, and failure often results in gruesome endings. Bloaters rip Joel’s face apart and Clickers tear out his throat. Every moment you enter an area with enemies, those fates await you as a player, and it’s in these times that your gut and your heart begin to tell you your own tale.
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Horror movies can scare you with a monster, but The Last of Us gives you monsters and makes you do something about it. What you do and how you fight perfectly mimic the overall themes of brutal survival that are the core of the story in cutscenes. It’s interactivity as a narrative device.
Or take exploration. As I pointed out in a previous article, some of the most telling examples of The Last of Us’s overall artistic vision are hidden things you stumble across in play. They have little to no connection to Joel’s story. Often they aren’t even things explained with documents. They're just artistic elements that a player experiences by wandering around. They’re completely the opposite of Chekhov’s Gun, but they’re also some of what makes a game its own unique artistic medium.
It’s not that Owen is completely wrong in what he says about The Last of Us’s ladders and shivs or what that says about gaming in general as art. However, I think there is still this erroneous need to compare games to film when they aren’t. Games are an art form meant to be worn and played with and experienced, not simply appreciated. It’s the difference between owning elegant statues of superheroes and opening up action figures to play at how Batman and The Doctor might stop the Decepticons together. There’s art to be found in either act of creation. It’s one of the reasons stories told by players in Eve Online are gathered like folktales. It’s how goofing around in World of Warcraft became a viral short film and cultural artifact called Leeroy Jenkins. It’s how perfectly executed bouts in fighting games can become something akin to watching a complicated ballet routine.
Ideally, yes, every single aspect of a game should serve its artistic vision in some way. The way a character moves and manipulates the game space is as much part of that experience as voice acting and plotlines. Owen is not wrong about this, but he is glossing over a whole lot of examples in the same game that prove gaming is getting a whole lot better at it instead of worse.