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by L.B. Jeffries

2 Jun 2009


As the entire “Are Games Art?” discussion continues to plod onward into infinity and beyond, there’s an interesting thing games are missing besides some random famous critic or cultural milestone. They haven’t got any patrons. In the 15th Century, Florence produced such popular art that it became one of their main exports. An article explains how a commissioned piece of art was originally a way for the wealthy to atone for usury and other sins. As time went by, the art began to change in topic from religion to the personal so that, “Lavish, even ostentatious, public display became more common, even as the fortunes of the city declined. New subjects from mythology found eager audiences impressed by such evidence of learning. And, by the end of the century—for the first time since antiquity—some art was being made simply ‘for art’s sake.’” The wealthy paid the artist to create a piece of work, usually about themselves, and would display it for the entire world to see and experience. Could such a culture find a home with video games?

Image from htmlhelp.com

Image from htmlhelp.com

The first question is what exactly would someone commission to be made if they were talking to a game developer. I asked a few random people and got a lot of interesting answers. One person said they’d want a level that was their favorite rock concert, allowing them to walk around while a bunch of pre-scripted activities took place and the band was on stage. Another said they’d like their house from when they were a kid to be remade so that they could visit it when they got old. Dan Bermegui, an indie developer, has already started a patronage service that lets people choose the topic of his poetry games or just be in the credits. Personally, I’d like it if someone just made a map of my favorite city park at just the right time of year, maybe Fall or Spring, so that I could turn it on whenever I wanted and just walk around. I asked a few level designers and developers in the industry how much it would cost to make such a park. Steve Gaynor, a level designer with 2K, writes, “If a “patron” were going to fund the re-creation of a place they wanted to visit, they could arrange a contract with an established level art outsource company and work with them to produce a level to their specifications. Alternately going the smaller route one might try to solicit the services of kids from a video game college to produce the same thing, which would presumably be cheaper but less reliable.” He estimates that it would only take a handful of people getting paid about $ 4,000 a month to make the bare minimum. Nels Anderson estimated about $50,000 or more if you wanted something on a scale comparable to The Graveyard.

From gettyimages.com

From gettyimages.com

Although some people might have the change to spare for a personalized level about their topic of choice, it’s important for a healthy patron culture to empower both the wealthy and the everyday person. A great example of this necessity can be seen in the Not Just Another Face exhibit in Chicago that was posted in Hyde Park. A huge variety of artists were matched with patrons from everyday walks of life to create a self-portrait. The artists ranged from literal painters to more abstract artists, meaning the artists were matched with what the patron could afford. Paper folding work was cheaper to produce than the oil painting, for example. The curator noted that one of the best parts was how people who had little interest in art were turned on and how artists were able to work with topics they’d never explored. He explains, “Too often artists are viewed as people who have very different sensibilities and attitudes and the patrons are afraid of making some kind of mistake – that they will show that they don’t know much about the art world.” Fortunately, there is already an easy way for a game patron to cut their costs, and it’s by using the art and engines from published games. Mods, a bastion of creativity and independent work, may be the best bet for a Patron who wants to make their favorite park into an interactive world.

From Oblivion, Bethesda

From Oblivion, Bethesda

Could the park be put together by a modder? There are already several amazing examples of modders simply making private homes in-game. This gets into a very tricky legal question because of the way that video games are copyrighted. As a five year veteran of modding Bethesda’s games, Kateri explains that once you convert all the information into the file format that their games can read then it legally becomes the company’s property due to the EULA. All art and textures made before conversion remain yours but if the level is to be playable by a large group of people then you’d want it to work in the game’s engine. Since a game like Oblivion is filled with hundreds of pre-made plants, trees, and landscape textures the cheapest way to have the level made is to just have to someone put all those pieces together. The problem is that you cannot use any of these assets without Bethesda’s approval. Another problem is that since mods for profit have been illegal for so long, many of the people in the community would be hostile to the notion of someone getting paid for their work. A fierce debate in the Bethesda Forums shows the wide range of opinions people have on the issue. Kateri explains, “If you were to enquire within the Bethesda modding forums about ‘hiring a modder,’ you would likely be met with hostility. However, if you were to say “here’s this wonderful park, would anyone be interested in recreating it?,” you might well get a positive response. The quality of work offered will be variable, but you’d have that issue to consider anyways.”

Frank Lloyd Wright\'s Falling Water, from freewebs.com

Frank Lloyd Wright\‘s Falling Water, from freewebs.com

Considering Bethesda’s interest in selling their games and supporting the mod community, it’s possible that they and other developers would consider becoming patrons themselves. Since they own everything in the game, they could support artists by commissioning works that would appeal to fans and newcomers alike. Many modders would jump on the chance to be distributed with the latest batch of DLC on a game because thousands of people would see their work. With so many games continuing to rely on their DLC for profits, they are going to have to get creative about what they’re offering. So why not just have a level for its own sake? Maybe something the company spent minimal money on except some touching up that’s just a beautiful space to be explored a few times? The possibilities for this kind of work can already be seen in video games today. You may not be able to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, but you can go there in a Half-Life 2 mod. Ever wanted to visit the island that Shakespeare’s The Tempest takes place on? A student project has created just that. There are even websites that let patrons and artists find one another on the internet. As artist Ron Jones explains about the Chicago art community, “If a city has a good patron community and good critical writing, you don’t have to worry about the artists. They will take care of themselves.” Perhaps what video games really need to be accepted is not an audience, but just someone willing to pay for games to be art for the sake of being art.

by Nick Dinicola

29 May 2009


The Call of Duty series has never been known for subtlety or for story but more for its large scale battles and action sequences. The 4th entry stays true this formula but also uses the modern setting to set a pace that builds up our perception of the game as a “power fantasy” until that fantasy is violently undermined.

The basic flow of combat in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is meant to make us feel powerful. We rush into the fight surrounded by allies, and the respawning enemies ensure we always have someone to shoot or that’s shooting at us. We’re always in danger and it’s always exciting. In order to stop the flood of terrorists, the player must charge ahead past an invisible line that shuts off the respawning enemies. By forcing us to advance farther ahead than the other soldiers, it feels as if we’re clearing a path for them. Even though we’re in the middle of a crowded battlefield, we’re encouraged to act like the lone, bold hero of a typical action movie. We are clearly the hero here regardless of however many allies are with us.

by Mike Schiller

28 May 2009


My blog about how Wolverine's racist imagery was overlookedin the wake of Resident Evil 5 fatigue will have to wait.

These are days when I wish everyone followed the Google-popularized mantra of “Don’t Be Evil.” The concept of the pre-order bonus is not a new one: buy the game early, get a little something extra for being so darn sure of your purchase.  It’s not a difficult concept to grasp, and despite the after-the-fact howling of the terminally wronged, it makes sense from a business standpoint to throw in an incentive to get people to buy a given product at a specific place.  Time was, you’d pre-order a game, or a CD, or a DVD, and maybe you’d get a poster, maybe you’d get an action figure, maybe you’d even get a little bonus CD with some exclusive (or, at least, timed exclusive tracks).  The huge fans pre-order it to make sure they get the prize; everyone else just gets the product when and where they feel like it. This has recently become something of a phenomenon in gaming arenas—Atlus has the pre-order business down to a science, what with soundtracks, plushies, posters, and all manner of other bonuses awaiting the Atlus Faithful, and the just-announced Guitar Hero: Smash Hits pre-order bonus extravaganza features everything from drumsticks to discounts, depending on where you order it from.

by L.B. Jeffries

25 May 2009


From Rez, SEGA

From Rez, SEGA

Last year’s release ofRez HD on the Xbox Live marked a return for what was one of the best cult classics for Dreamcast and PS2. Inspired by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s synesthesia style, it attempts to make literal Kandinsky’s declaration that “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” This statement refers to his belief that when he observed colors he could hear literal sounds in his mind, that a painting could produce music the same way an instrument can. The game is an exercise in abstractions contrasted with technology, a mixture of ambiguous art and an electronic style of music that creates the experience of playing a musical instrument as a game. It is just as much ahead of its time today as it was in 2001 when it was first released.

by Nick Dinicola

22 May 2009


Dom’s wife, Maria, represents a unique kind of storytelling for games. She represents a story in which we don’t play as the main character, in which we’re just an observer even though we still get to participate in all the major events of the story.

But let me back up a bit.

A player’s relationship with his avatar presents us with an interesting paradox. When I play Gears of War 2, I’m Marcus Fenix and yet I’m not Marcus Fenix. I’m also myself playing as Marcus Fenix. Unlike an actor in a movie, a player doesn’t become the character when starting a game but rather the character becomes an extension of the player. We’re both at the same time; it feels just as natural to say “I fought the Locust” as it is to say “Marcus fought the Locust.” This ever-present dichotomy is a major obstacle for any game that wants to connect with the player on an emotional level.

There will always be a disconnect between us and the characters, making certain kinds of emotional involvement difficult. We have an instant affection with our avatar because this character is us; we care about ourselves, so we care about him or her as well. But this favoritism doesn’t necessarily translate into an emotional connection. Since we’re essentially the same person we should have the same reaction to events in the game, but this rarely happens. How many times in how many games has some dramatic twist left the main character devastated and you shrugging your shoulders? The event doesn’t hold the same emotional impact for players because they don’t always see it as happening to them directly. It’s happening to the character not to me, and I know we’re not the same person…even though we are.

Gear of War 2 took a unique approach to this dilemma by not making the main character the emotional center of the game. Marcus is a stereotypical buff, gruff, badass. He’s a cliché, but he’s the very cliché that we want to play. He’s the perfect avatar, but as a character he’s very bland and uninteresting. If we didn’t play as him chances are we wouldn’t care about him. That’s fine though, because we’re not meant to care about Marcus, we’re meant to care about Dom.

Dom is by far the more interesting character of the two because he’s personally involved in the conflict. His wife is missing, and as we travel deeper into Locust territory, he hopes to find her and rescue her. Unlike Marcus, this character is not a shell that we can easily project ourselves into, from the outset he’s motivated by emotions the player could never be expected to share. Gears of War 2 realizes this, so when playing a single-player game we don\‘t play as Dom. Instead we watch him though the eyes of another, and watching his increasingly desperate attempts to find his wife is like watching a character in a movie. Since we’re not being asked to feel the same emotions, it’s easier to empathize with him, or not care at all, without breaking the fourth wall of the game.

Unfortunately, Gears of War 2 completely backtracks on this idea by making Dom a playable character in co-op. When the second player is suddenly asked to care about some woman not even mentioned in the first game, we’re immediately distanced from the character and any emotional resonance he might bring to the story. When Dom finally does find Maria, it is a powerful scene, but more so because of its shock value than as the emotional climax of the story. Gears of War 2 had a good idea, but ultimately failed to follow though on it.

If the story of Gears of War 2 was told in any other medium, Dom would be the main character because he’s the only one with an emotional arc, and arc driven by his lost wife. We only think of Marcus as the main character because he’s our avatar, but he’s a static character with no development over the course of the game. By putting us in the shoes of a supporting character, Gears of War 2 gives us a unique perspective on the story: We’re able to watch a Dom go though a dramatic arc, thereby experiencing that drama vicariously through him instead of our own avatar. I realize that this is not exactly the best use of the medium since it relies on us watching a character instead of being a character, turning the game into a literal interactive movie, but it’s still a unique idea and one I think is worth attempting again. Preferably without the co-op.

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