Recently, there was a lot of talk about the art games, the “nongames”, mostly because of the release of two highly different “art games”: Dear Esther and Journey. I heard lots of different opinion about this “type” of game and wondered about them myself. Interesting arguments brought up by Jim Sterling in his last week Jimquisition, or this post also added to my views on the subject. And while i don’t usually think that assigning labels to games is a very helpful thing (as it is with music), i understand the necessity. Games like this, while hardly “experimental” today (as they were 5 years ago), are still a novelty. And given the fact that they differ so much, yet get labeled in a similar manner, it’s not surprising people simply don’t know what to expect.
And speaking of expectations – Jim (and lots of other people) seemed to expect Dear Esther to be something else. Jim even goes as far as to say, that we don’t need games like DE at all, as they represent the earlier stage of evolution of “art games” and more recent ones (like Journey or The Stanley Parable) are the way to go. Thing is – i don’t agree with that at all. In a Jimquisition video Jim likens DE like game with being in a museum. And… i think it’s a fair and a very good comparison. And not a bad one at all.
I know that comparing is not always a good thing, but since the medium, and especially “art games” are still developing, it’s easier to compare them to an established medium or… thing. So, let’s say, that games like DE are art galleries. And i don’t think any of the developers of such games will feel offended by the comparison. So, let’s see: in an art gallery the artist may want the audience to see the paintings in a specific order, so they, in a manner, tell a story. So, there you have it: a linear experience. It may be partially non-linear, if you look at paintings in a different order than “intended”. But the paintings and the story they tell stay the same. You can’t touch the paintings, you can’t talk to paintings. But you can walk the gallery at your own pace, look at paintings from any angle and, probably, in any order.
What’s my point? My point is: art galleries or analogues has been there for a long time. And there are still people, who love that sort of thing. They didn’t become obsolete with cinemas, they don’t compete with theaters. Now, i personally don’t like them – i never felt truly moved by paintings or pictures, and i doubt that i ever will. I just perceive things differently from the people who like that. But i know that there are people who like that, who pay money, to do that. And i’m completely fine with that.
So yeah, as a more “hardcore”-ish gamer i love game mechanics. Deus Ex: HR was my favorite game of the last year and i’ve completed it three times in a row, just because it was too damn fun. So much gameplay-only fun, i’ve not had for a long time. Yet, still i liked Dear Esther a lot. Like people loved Myst, despite the amount of the retarded “guess what it does and wander aimlessly” puzzles – for the feelings it evoked. In some. And for some it was just a waste of time. So, of course i’d love to play Journey, of course i loved Stanley Parable. But i don’t think they are “better” than Dear Esther. They are different, despite being labeled as “art” or “experimental” games. They are quite ordinary most of the time, yes. Just like “next-gen” is 5 years like “current gen”.
There are other things to consider in the… “genre”, however. For example, some might think that some amount of interaction (in any form), might make a game like DE “better”. And i think it may, in fact, make the game a lot worse. The Path being a good example. A very cool concept and style, very clever (for it’s time) message. But the desire to frustrate the “usual” gamer (or a simple lack of game design skills) make the game really annoying. As such, the message instead of “it’s easy and fun to turn from the “good” path and get into trouble” (to oversimplify it) becomes “it’s frustrating and boring to wander aimlessly in the forest and is actually less frustrating to just get to the grandmother’s house”.
Another example might be wrong, because i’ve not played the game, but… Jim also likens the games to the Homefront criticisms. Again, i haven’t actually played Homefront, but from what I’ve gathered it played like all the bad things in modern shooters multiplied by ten. That the player felt almost redundant in the game that wanted to play itself. Is it surprising that the game was criticized for that? Of course not. It was made around and promoted as an FPS, and action game. Of course all these things are bad for a full priced FPS. Games like that are called “action games” for a reason. However, i can’t help but wonder if the game was received similarly if it was instead made as a story driven… i don’t know, “experience”. If it costed less. If it didn’t force itself into the FPS mechanics but rather was built around the thing it was trying to be. Like Metro 2033 did. Or Cryostasis. Or Amnesia and Penumbra games. Like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Discarded or downplayed a “fail-state”, focused on the good storytelling. Something, which, i might add, Dear Esther did when it was made into the commercial release from a free mod – discarded the things that went in the way (ability to die), upgraded the things that mattered (audio and visual).
I’m very happy, that all games mentioned in this post exist. Happy, that there’s talk about them. That some people are happy with them. Some are not. I think that’s where the medium truly develops. The variety (or diversity?). Niche games and genres. I’m really happy about it all.