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Videogames as Art, 2015

In three scenes.

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“We don’t look very indie right now, do we?” Sean Murray is sitting a penthouse loft with high ceilings and large windows overlooking downtown Los Angeles. (Look out the window and you can’t see the horizon: The smog in the west fades the world away somewhere around Century City. Distance fog, but real.) Murray runs Hello Games, a small independent studio that operates out of Guildford, a town outside London. The room doesn’t feel indie—although it is in downtown LA, alias Brooklyn West. And to get here, you have to walk several blocks away from the Vegas-on-a-Friday insanity of the E3 floor.

Murray is the creative force and lead pitchman behind No Man’s Sky, a game which offers you the ability to explore an infinite universe. What does that mean, “explore an infinite universe”? Murray appeared onstage at Sony’s big media presentation. In front of assembled thousands (maybe millions online) he flew through space, landed on a planet, walked around a bit, saw some animals. You could describe the game as abstract. You could say that the game doesn’t really explain itself. “We don’t want to put a big marker over something saying POLICE,” Murray explains. “I actually like that players are a little bit lost when they pick up the controller.”

This is music to my ears. I love artsy, weird games—games that don’t hold your hand with exposition, games that don’t overload on always-terrible dialogue. There have been a lot of these games recently. “It’s been nice to see games like Minecraft come out and be successful,” says Murray. “That scene has come along at a time when I was…not getting jaded, but feeling like games were a little predictable.” He trails off, looking at the screen, where I am currently overlooking what appears to be a pond. “I haven’t seen water like that,” Murray says. “Looks like there’s some kind of underwater caves.”

At the Sony panel, when Murray wandered around a new planet procedurally-generated out of the ether, I heard someone behind me whisper-yell: “But what do you do?” I ask Murray: Does he feel the need to over-explain No Man’s Sky, to describe to people how this videogame is actually a videogame? (Essentially what I’m asking is: Did he really want to give players a gun?) “We want to create adversity,” he explains. “It makes the discovery more meaningful. If you’ve earned the ability to get the hyperdrive, to be able to travel that far, to get to the place you wanted to, to discover the thing…when you tell the story back to people, it has ups and downs. ‘I got killed! I lost everything! I crashed my ship!”

Murray sees No Man’s Sky as a game for the YouTube generation. “People are watching games on Twitch as much as they are playing them,” he explains. “I hope we are making a game that’s good for that. The Order is a cool game, it’s very cinematic, but there’s almost no point in streaming it. It’s the same for everyone.” (ASIDE: This is the kindest thing anyone has ever said about The OrderEND OF ASIDE.)

There is no story in No Man’s Sky. Murray says there is a “lore.” The most precise he gets about the typical player’s experience is: “As they’re making the journey from the outside edge of the galaxy to the center, the game’s going to become a lot more dangerous.” But that journey isn’t the game’s point. “We want something—not to get too abstract—that people can feel is some sort of expression of themselves. And that sounds pretentious, but some games allow that. I like it when, in in just a standard RPG, I’m this cool stealthy guy who avoids every fight. That’s what I want to support. ‘I’m a really boring trader, but I’m very rich, and I’ve made peace with all these factions in the area’: That’s a nice sci-fi story.”

Most open-world games build characters into all-powerful entities: You become the chief criminal in Grand Theft Auto; you become the greatest warrior in the universe in Mass Effect. Elsewhere at E3, I will play Metal Gear Solid V, where you apparently spend the game building up an off-shore base into a floating stateless military nation. But No Man’s Sky works differently. “We don’t want you being a galactic warlord, owning a massive fleet of ships, resource-managing a space station,” says Murray. “We don’t want people to become all-powerful. We still want them to feel quite vulnerable and kind of alone in the universe.”

He laughs, clearly aware that FEEL ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE! is a weird pitch for a videogame.  He starts explaining further. “They can definitely upgrade themselves a little more…”

His attention wanders back to the screen. “That’s quite a cool cave!”

——————————————————————

I am in a large room with journalists and publicists and game people, and my eyes are on Fumito Ueda, the greatest game designer of all time. I hasten to add that that is just my opinion, impossible to qualify. He has only made two games so far. Shadow of the Colossus is the closest thing I have had to a religious experience since my Catholicism lapsed into adulthood. Ico might actually be more influential—every vaguely artistic interactive experience built on empathy and whimsy and melancholy fantasy tropes is inevitable compared to Ico, like how every action movie made in the ’90s was Die Hard On A Something.

Ueda is showing us The Last Guardian, a game that has finally arrived at E3 after long years of dispiriting rumors. At one point, Ueda left Sony. He then wrote an open letter, where he explained that he was still working on The Last Guardian as “a freelance contributor,” but also explained that he left Sony to pursue his “creative passions.” More recently, rumors held that Sony high-hat Mark Cerny had come in to finish The Last Guardianrumors that Sony vehemently denies, while acknowledging that Cerny is “giving consultation” on the project. In the room, Ueda’s translator will explain that The Last Guardian is a simultaneous product of Japan Studio (which is part of Sony) and GenDesign, a new studio set up by Ueda which includes many of the people who worked on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

All of this is extremely confusing. The videogame industry is excessively secretive in general—full of NDAs and proprietary software and probably retina scans—and the Japanese videogame industry can feel especially opaque. It’s impossible to tell if The Last Guardian is the Apocalypse Now of videogames (auteur-gone-wild goes over-budget on epic existential formless idea) or the Titanic (auteur-gone-wild goes over-budget in an attempt to deliver new heights of spectacle) or the Smile of videogames (auteur-gone-wild goes crazy) or the Winds of Winter of videogames (beloved creator wants next work to be perfect, maybe suffers writer’s block or maybe just starts getting interested in other things) or the Chinese Democracy of videogames (long-delayed project becomes a hot potato property passed between various creative types and financial types, ultimately released as a shadow of whatever it was supposed to be.)

Here is what we do know: The Last Guardian is a game about a boy and a large, intensely lovable beast-monster named Trico. Speaking through a translator, Ueda explains that he wanted to take animals that people were familiar with—dogs, cats, birds—but also give it a sense of wildness, of being unpredictable. “You’re meant to utilize the strength and weaknesses of both of the characters,” we’re told. Technically, your controller controls the little boy—but much of the game focuses on the little boy trying to figure out how to work with Trico.

There’s something a little bit meta in this idea: You are playing a game where you don’t control the thing you need to control. In Ico, you played a boy with a sword leading a generally helpless girl through ruins. The Last Guardian looks to flip that script: You’re playing the generally helpless, physically weaker character. In this and in every way, The Last Guardian has nothing to do with the most popular mainstream titles on the show floor—games that give you an endless supply of weaponry, or let you build up your character to a Level 50 badass, or which generally offer some kind of tangible vaguely monetized incentive to keep playing.

Ueda says something else. The translator explains how, in each of his games, “There’s an appearance of a fictitious character, and that fictitious character is very believable.” What I think he means is that—like the girl in Ico, or the horse in Colossus—Trico in The Last Guardian is a character who exists as a mathematical graphical interface, and the whole purpose of the game rests on the possibility that you will start interacting with Trico as an actual character. This may also be a dying idea in videogames—nearly every game I will see at E3 this year will stress connectivity and co-op campaigns and all the ways you can interact with real people online.

What I mean is: I’m not sure any game company will ever again spend a decade working on a game where you play a powerless little human guiding a lovable beast through ancient ruins via brainteasing puzzles and platform-jumping. Like, ponder this. God created the world in seven days. No Man’s Sky‘s software apparently creates a whole solar system in a few seconds. When I briefly get to play The Last Guardian, I’m inside of a room. That single room took weeks to create. Months. Years?

I only get to play Last Guardian for about a minute. In that minute, I climb up Trico—the mechanic is identical to climbing the Colossi in Shadow, except cuter and furrier. At the top of the climb, I jump off into a little nook. Inside of that nook are a few wooden barrels. The man helping us all play instructs me to pick up that barrel, turn around, and throw it at Trico. When I do, he happily eats it. This makes me so happy that I pick up another barrel and throw it—not realizing that Trico is still eating. The barrel slams right into Trico’s cute doggy-face. It makes a loud SLAP sound, and Trico lets out a noise, and turns his back on me.

I have been feeling bad about this for over 24 hours.

——————————————————————

Sherida Halatoe is telling me about Beyond Eyes, an independent videogame about a young blind girl very carefully walking through a frustratingly empty landscape. The game visualizes her other four senses in intriguing ways. She hears water in the distance, and imagines a beautiful fountain appearing out of the white emptiness. But then she gets closer…and maybe it’s the smell, but suddenly the fountain becomes a disgusting sewer drain.

Blind Girl Goes For Walk: This is not a normal idea for a videogame. Or maybe it is. In the last few years, the success of indie-level games like Braid and Limbo, alongside the rise of unusual experiences like Minecraft, have led to a bumper crop in small-scale development. If you’re the kind of person who gets annoyed with games like this, you probably feel like there are too many of them.

And I would imagine that anyone who works on an AAA game feels a bit miffed by all the attention, say, The Unfinished Swan will get from the press. Like, the smallest Call of Duty requires untold thousands of man-hours by an army of producers. I think I met half the people working on No Man’s Sky in an elevator.

Halatoe (who hails from the Netherlands) talks about how she hopes Beyond Eyes can create an emotional response, in ways that go beyond story. She explains that the game has no text, no interface, no spoken dialogue. (No Man’s Sky has an interface, but no explanation; I didn’t see any interface in The Last Guardian, and I’m not even sure the game has a pause screen.) She is very aware that this is the kind of game that might’ve been dismissed a few years ago as, quote, “weird art s—.” She acknowledges the people who worked to make games like this noticed by the mainstream. (She counts Ico and Shadow of the Colossus as key influences; she also mentions a game I’ve never heard of, The Graveyard, where you play an elderly woman gradually walking through a cemetery.)

“I’m in a very fortunate position that people are ready for it,” she says. Precisely what “it” is will be seen soon: The game is slated to arrive this year. It’s always been hard to describe games as a personal expression—the way a painting is the work of a painter, or a novel the work of a writer, or even the hazy way that culture likes to agree that a movie is “by” a director. Halatoe made the game as a college graduation project; she admits that “everything I made has been remade” by the team that worked on this new version of Beyond Eyes.

Truly, I have no idea if Beyond Eyes will be good or boring. Maybe it will be good and boring. There are enough games like this now—let’s call them “weird art games,” for lack of a better term—that it’s become possible to do more than just praise them for being different. These games tend to be single-player experiences, even if there is some connectivity: Journey let you walk alongside people, but refused to let you communicate in any recognizable language beyond ambient sight and sound. They trend towards minimalism, and a slow pace, and low-key graphics: A bug of small budgets, but also a feature of being small enough that nobody from corporate is forcing you to come up with a Second Screen Experience.

There is no one future for games as an industry. This year, the future was Virtual Reality, and massive multiplayer experiences, and all the Star Wars you could hope for. But these three games feel like the future of videogames as an act of expression: For the creators, and for the players. We’ve moved on a bit from the days when people were constantly debating the question of Videogames As Art. Roger Ebert kickstarted that debate on a large scale almost ten years ago. Ebert himself later relented—his stance was never as vitriolic as people made it out to be—and in one of the last posts he ever wrote, he teased some sort of videogame initiative.

It’s still not entirely clear, I think, what kind of art videogames will be. Somewhere between No Man’s SkyThe Last Guardian, and Beyond Eyes, a picture is forming. Creators and players together exploring the outer reaches of interactivity, discovering new levels of empathy with monster-dogs and blind girls, all of us alone in the infinite universe. That really is quite a cool cave.