People insist that video games are or are not art based on the way they experience them. Those who call games art can approach them as art: they play for visuals, music, and atmosphere. Those who don’t call games art might distantly recognize that they contain art, but it’s negligible to their experience; they play for challenge, improvement, and self-expression. These types of gamers share in common that they play to experience emotions, but differ on which emotions: awe or satisfaction.
To put this another way: building a house requires thought, planning, and engineering; clear choice goes into the materials and colors of its walls, roof, and floor to achieve a specific look and feel. To the architect, a house may be art. To the home owner, a house is shelter, safety, and storage space.
Another comparison: a TV viewer might admire an Olympic ice skater’s performance as art, but the ice skater herself, in real time, fixates on execution. Until she’s completed each spin, jump, and twirl, it’s unlikely that she’ll view her own moves as art; she doesn’t have the time or concentration to spare for that. Not every game has the difficulty level of Olympic ice skating, of course, but gamers who don’t play for art and encounter an easy game can still take on the challenge of besting their own past selves.
First-time Super Metroid players might be playing art. Super Metroid speedrunners aren’t.
If anyone asks me whether games are art, I answer that it doesn’t matter. Games are what gamers experience—and those experiences come in all flavors.
Every gamer recognizes the healing room signal: a showdown awaits. No excuses, only battle. What if every room heals the characters? Despite their many differences, Xenoblade and Ys feature automatic health regeneration anywhere in the world, shaping their every enemy. When developers expect that a player will generally be at about 40% HP, they’re more likely to design enemies who can be defeated by characters at about 40% HP. Guess how this works when a player will generally be at 100%!
When heroes always have their full health, villains always use their full strength. Keeping players’ heroes in optimal condition is like throwing down a gauntlet: it announces that everything, everywhere, knows how to kill them and will cut loose trying.
If villains didn’t destroy cities, half the universe’s game heroes would sit on their sorry bums. We’d have no Mario, no Link, and not even Cloud. He helped Tifa and company for the money at first, but even a selfish motive required bad guys to battle; no one would have paid him otherwise.
I had this topic in mind well before Xenoblade, but its leaping cornucopia of sidequests demands that I write about it sooner than later. Xenoblade pushes incentive to thwart an imminent threat and pushes freedom to devote ages to exploring an expansive world—and that means it takes on the catch-22 challenge. The greater the major story events, the tougher the justification of minor events.
If a girl asks the party to collect honeybees and afterward her town is set on fire by dragons and run over by tanks, anyone will have trouble suspending disbelief that she still cares about those honeybees, owns amazing rewards to heap into players’ hands, and holds enough altruism in her heart to dish out those treasures instead of selling them off to help the reconstruction efforts. Permanent missables can have powerful story-based reasons for existing; it requires no suspension of disbelief that this same girl’s quest could only be fulfilled before her town’s untimely demise. Conversely, an experienced player who finds no hint of sidequests in a new town will be immediately alerted that it’s a worthless and doomed location doomed; the solution is not to cut the girl from the game’s final draft.
Many players hate permanent missables and feel cheated by them. Fair enough, but the point of this blog will never be to spread negativity. We should learn from them and the designer’s dilemma: an important NPC fated to die can’t issue a sidequest without introducing permanent missables; if no important NPCs die, the story loses its sense of danger; if only nameless NPCs issue sidequests, the story risks taking on a frivolous feel; if a game has no sidequests, it becomes linear. The only question for game developers, game designers, and even players is which they consider the lesser evil. From my time with Xenoblade so far, it sides with throwing away the danger; no matter how trumped-up the threat level of the villains, there’s always time to find a missing animal or fix a broken watch. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask had a similar feel; because Link could press an in-universe reset button, no one questioned whether he would eventually prevail.
A game without permanent missables isn’t better for being designed that way, nor is it worse; it simply chose its path and left the player to decide whether to follow.
Wit isn’t the only part of communication—just the most important one.
Wittiness means no downtime.
I haven’t played Final Fantasy XIII. I haven’t played Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. If my sources are trustworthy, I’d beat the latter before finding fun in the former.
I have played Dragon Quest VI. Love it! It dominates other DQs, like Dairy Queen and disqualification. Still took longer to ramp up than Mega Man X took to wrap up. (No, I didn’t mistype Dragon Quest VII.)
Repeat: Wittiness means no downtime. It doesn’t mean front-loading your best stuff; it means not-loading your best fluff. Start great; end better. It’s not proposing one-hour game; it’s opposing one-minute lame. No Boredom Ever!
Whether it’s 5’1″ or 6’10”, a witty game drops the waits and hits the weights. A witty game turns into heavy stuff for its length, but it’s all muscle.
Gamers occasionally cry foul on non-interactive cutscenes, saying that developers are emulating movies instead of synthesizing stories with the unique qualities of games. Whether a player likes non-interactivity is a matter of taste. I’m here to question a matter of fact: whether movies are the closest comparison point. I could weigh this out for most game genres—even first-person shooters borrow ideas from cinematography—but I’ll stick to RPGs because they use the same easy-to-reference measure of length that screenplays and novels do: word count.
Movies usually have to fit into two and a half hours, so they need to make the best of every minute. Dialogue stays brief; action moves quickly; camera shots linger long enough but not a moment longer. This is part of the reason that directors typically cut novel content when translating written words onto the big screen. Novels have a certain leeway for wordiness because people have varying reading speeds, but quality movies, like poems, waste no motion. With that in mind, I pasted ten RPG scripts into Microsoft Word for length comparisons and here’s what I found:
The World Ends With You (2008): ~69,000 words (not counting Another Day but counting other optional party dialogue)
Some fairly recent RPGs double or triple the amount of spoken dialogue over the RPGs of yesteryear. The limited amount of space on Super Nintendo cartridges served the same role as run time does for movies, forcing the story to stay snappy, but discs buried that issue so that RPG stories could let it all hang out. This isn’t a guaranteed positive and can allow for the bad kind of fluff and filler to settle in, but it also allows for worlds where not every character is a quick-witted, cut-to-the-chase speaker who delivers lightning-paced lines in high tempo. Less isn’t always more.
Recent RPG stories have longer build, allowing themselves time for more scenes in which “nothing happens” in the sense that characters have subtle emotional shifts but don’t take physical actions to advance the story. Old-school RPGs use swifter action-oriented structures that don’t tolerate delays between plot points. Neither is inherently better nor worse, but the approaches remain different—and as counterintuitive as it may sound, old-school RPGs might have more in common with movies than modern RPGs do.
Just something to think about.