games as art

Music aside, one of my increasingly embedded passions has been computer gaming. I have had the fortunate knack of off-setting myself some five years behind most gaming trends for some time now and its benefits have always treat me well.

Last year I took to finally digging in and playing Half-life 2 and its subsequent episodic additions. I had played the first installment, 1998’s Half-life some years ago and have replayed the problematic, fledgling journey of Gordon Freeman several times in the years that had passed in between. If you are unfamiliar with the plot (and yes games, especially the ones I favor, have a plot) I will attempt to summarize.

We open with you, Gordon Freeman, theoretical physicist and silent protagonist, on the monorail to work at the underground Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. You set about your job, placing a mysterious ‘specimen’ under an anti-mass spectrometer. This (inevitably) rips a hole in space-time and a slew of bizarre and not wholly pleasant creatures stream into the facility and proceed to kill scientists and security guards alike. In an effort to reach the surface Gordon encounters a regiment of marines who are assumed to be a rescue mission but in fact are more ‘containment’ than emancipation. And so you are confronted on all sides with things attempting to kill you, but as a mentally developed and cunning physicist you alone are charged with plugging up that pesky hole in space-time and saving the earth.

As with most games developed a) by Valve and b) in recent years, the silent protagonist seen from a first person perspective is, in my opinion the most fulfilling way to play a game. You are invested and aware of your environment in a way other gaming techniques miss, add to this the retention of information regarding the ‘character’ you play – note the inverted commas as with the previous statement there is not some second hand revelation rather a sense of discovering oneself – means that not only are you propelled through the grand story arc and new environments to gain knowledge of the underlying plot, it is important for one to understand your players involvement in this world. This delivers both in divulgence of tidbits regarding the silent hero and in providing the obtuse introduction of yet more questions. All we really know is that, given a crowbar, Gordon Freeman is a nerd who can handle himself!
Half-life 2, released in 2004, upped the ante in terms of graphics and in-depth story telling, 
suffice to say that the writing for the series is without doubt on par if not beyond that of the most cerebral cinematic fayre, and as I began, playing it five years after the fact did mean that I was not having to shell out hundreds of pounds on a PC to run the damn thing.
With the boxed episodes of Half-life 2 came the triumphantly successful Portal, a game which I defy the meanest gaming detractor to find lifeless and cursory. Standing in at little over three hours of solid play time it is a revelation in beautifully crafted small packages. Filled with fun and incredible originality (a first person shooter with no gun) Portal delivers a sprawling story, steeped in character while never leaving the confines of a small testing facility and never hearing the protagonist speak.

Sadly the game my laptop would not run was Bioshock, apparently the graphics card was just not up to it and so I stepped up to meet the challenge and got a Playstation 3. You would think this would bring me kicking and screaming into the modern gaming world but bear in mind that Bioshock was released three years ago and you'll find we’re not quite there yet. If Half-life was a trend setter for story oriented gaming, sadly it looks like a Dr Suess book in comparison to the lush and mature prose of Bioshock.
Set in the underwater city of Rapture, created by Andrew Ryan, the objectivist pseudo –antagonist looking to live free of the constraints of religion, politics and governance. Bioshock delivers a gaming experience close to metaphysical in its knowledge of a players expectation.

I played Bioshock while (unintentionally yet providentially) reading Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and quite honestly have never had my free time so steeped in one facet of fiction based philosophy. They are essentially two sides of the objectivism coin, one (in Atlas Shrugged) where the industrialists are justified in their strike on society’s claim to their skills, the other (in Bioshock) where the idealism becomes obsession and destroys the very notion of utopia. The Randian concept of objectivism put forth in Atlas Shrugged helped to seal its fame as one of the great works in allegorical literature, to take this concept on and twist it to a new level of originality within the format of a computer game hasn't just put Bioshock on the mantle of respected gaming but created it own shelf above and beyond what previously came under the banner of a ‘good game’.
Three year old graphics that wouldn’t run on an eighteen month old laptop should give you an idea of what the sumptuous decay and before-their-time visuals Bioshock deliver, while – outside of the Randian influence – the game practically compels you to think with story in mind , having you collect audio diaries from the myriad of characters to tell the full tale of the fall of Rapture from every available political, economic and societal angle then blindsiding you with a glorious twist which could cause David Lynch to soil himself.

Bioshock takes the concept of a computer game, essentially a closed system which players must follow (basically a digital rat maze) and introduced the idea that there may be more to straight line, cause and effect narrative which often hinders the ascent of games into an arena of due respect. Irrational games (the developers of Bioshock and it's sequels) show an omniscient grasp on the concept of choice within gaming, which they bring to a fulfilling head in the conflict with the seemingly omnipotent Andrew Ryan. 
It is a game to be discussed as one would a cleverly scripted independent film, in its meanings and interpretations, political and philosophical takes on the world both inside and outside of the game and the very concept of gaming as a follow the leader construct. 

Other notable mentions in the field of story driven artistry in games can be found in the Prince of Persia: Sands of time saga which although its option on the big screen never really got to grips with is an epic story arc set in the majesty of the middle east in a time of Babylon and the tower of Babel and digs deep into the ethics of one mans choice given powers seemingly beyond his control. 
And American McGee's interpretation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in wonderland and through the looking glass, seeing all of the characters imagined by Alice to be projections of her scarred psyche after the horrific death of her parents. A story steeped in teen-adult dysfunction and slasher-flick gore that, despite its now aging appearance brings forth the underlying knowledge that Carroll's masterpiece is not a place for childish minds.  

After playing it is hard not to think of these games as art – a debate very much in the cultural eye today – they are as crafted and obsessed over as the greatest of movies, they dig deep into character, provide glorious surroundings in which to lose ones self and allow for flourishes of artistic expression that the film industry would veto at the first pitch.
This influx of which pushes them beyond shoot-em-up and platforming, games and gamers have grown up and are being made for and by grown ups. Fully fledged, card carrying, intellectual grown ups who read Nietzsche and Sylvia Plath, who care about socio-political struggles and wish to delve into these ideal allegorically through a media that has served them so well in their youth.
They wish for games to be better, better understood and better respected as a new field in multi-medium art.They are art and philosophy and folk tales all rolled into an interactive model that should not be denied or held as cursory frivolity.
So maybe some day – and its getting closer than I though – I will be on the cusp of gaming and with Bioshock 2 in the post and Portal 2 coming out in April I will not be ashamed to say that I waste my time playing computer games.

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