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Nic Kelman on games’ higher aspirations

Wednesday, Mar 8 2006
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William Henry Fox Talbot launched modern photography when he developed his negative-positive process, which he called “the art of fixing a shadow.” That was 1839, and the optical curiosity of the “sun picture” was on its way to becoming the dominant visual medium, joining the realm of fine arts along the way as photographers moved beyond pure documentation to capturing and communicating ideas and feeling. Film followed, and the 20th century fell under the spell of moving images and a roving camera. Then came video games. Newcomers still, the game industry has already eclipsed movies as an economic force. But culturally, their mark remains elusive. Many artists have investigated the medium — the Whitney, the SF MOMA, and the Mass MOCA have all mounted exhibitions about interactive digital art — but video games rarely aspire to art. Nic Kelman says that’s changing. His book, Video Game Art, argues, through images and short essays, that games are making the transition from technological novelty to meaningful art form.

L.A. WEEKLY: The focus of your book is more about the art in the games than the games as art.

NIC KELMAN: That’s true of the images, but the text goes deeper. I tried to situate games in context with the other arts — how they’re similar, and deserve to be treated as such, as well as how they’re unique because of the interactivity.

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At E3 last year, there was a show called “Into the Pixel,” where large photographic stills of concept art from games were produced, framed and presented gallery-style. Alone on the wall, however, the images were boring. Derivative, comic-book stuff. The art outside of the gaming experience itself didn’t seem to stand up.

Yes, but you could say the same thing about film, 99 percent of which is derivative imagery and wouldn’t make sense in a gallery either. Look at some of the best design in video games — the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, or the character design in Psychonauts — that you’re not seeing anywhere else. One of the points of the book is that we’re on the verge of games coming into their own as a medium. Breakthroughs are happening. It’s one game in 50, yes, but that ratio exists in any art form.

How does technology fit in? Because when I was a kid, the advances were obvious and immediately apparent. Now, there’s so much capacity, developers don’t know what to do with it. A new platform comes out, and games aren’t necessarily better.

Since 64-bit technology, games could be truly three-dimensional. And so now you can do anything visually. What’s interesting is that it means the burden shifts to narrative. Visuals are easy; it’s execution that’s hard.

Halo is a good example. The design of that game — the consistent visual realm, the feeling, even the physics — was better than most sci-fi movies in recent memory.

Absolutely. What non-gamers don’t understand is that if you play an action game these days, it’s 10 times better than seeing any action film.

Although Halo’s story was its weakest part, it is hugely popular because it’s such a superior game, and fun —

I don’t agree on that one. The story in Halo was pretty good from a sci-fi perspective. The Halo itself, the Flood — these were interesting story points. It’s genre, it’s sci-fi — it’s not Faulkner — and it was pretty good in that context.

I just couldn’t get into it, I guess. And maybe that’s part of a larger point, which is that I don’t think I’ve ever been emotionally convinced by a video game.

I’m not sure that watching Halo’s narrative, as you would a movie, would be so great. But when you add in the interactive elements and immersion, you then get that emotional effect that games have on people. The best example is probably horror games. I know so many people, myself included, who are completely unaffected by horror movies but can’t get through a Silent Hill game because it’s too scary. Horror is showing that games have the potential to exploit that fundamental connection. And that hints at the emotional potential for what you might consider art. It’s just a matter of getting around to it.

I remember being really into the first Alone in the Dark game. That was genuinely scary. The story was borrowed from H.P. Lovecraft. We stayed up all night playing. Intensely focused, but kind of terrified. In the same way you’d stay up all night reading Lovecraft.

Genre stuff works best now because of game structure. All games are basically The Odyssey. A protagonist overcomes a series of increasingly difficult obstacles. There’s a creature at the end. So the medium sort of lends itself to genre narratives as opposed to dramatic narratives.

Driven by character development and plot and ?relationships.

Right — but the artificial intelligence isn’t there yet to do that in a game.

That may be why massively multiplayer games are so popular, because in a sense, they’re character-driven.

And in MMOs the gameplay itself is often boring. But people are addicted. It’s this constantly unfolding drama with a giant cast of complex characters. They’re complex because they’re real people. And that’s the tip of the iceberg for real emotional connection. I mean, people are dying from dehydration playing these games. When was the last time anyone died from being so engrossed with Proust? Never.

Except for Proust himself, I guess.

Perhaps.

I suppose the difference between games and the other arts is that those narratives, when they’re good, are challenging. You never emerge from a great book or film unscathed. Whereas video games are mostly cultural soma. I never thought about the psychological geography of Mario Brothers until Cory Arcangel stripped out the coins and characters and made a loop of an empty Nintendo clouded sky. That’s the first time you might wonder what Mario was really after up there in the clouds.

Well, that’s true of games like Mario, which is very simplistic. There are other games where what unfolds in the game itself is meaningful. And the gameplay, again, really is an advantage. Books and films don’t change over time.

And the problem with most video games is that they shortchange themselves by trying to mimic the other arts. They fall into the trap of making second-rate movies where you walk down hallways or push crates around every so often.

Absolutely. And every so often something great comes along. Every so often a game synthesizes into art. It’s not an individual element. It’s the entire experience of the game — the story, or design, or gameplay, or characters — being unlike anything before it. Katamari Damacy is one of those. That was a student project to start. Psychonauts is really interesting too. It’s a more traditional game, but the story takes place in different characters’ heads. Depending on the character, that space varies. There’s an Austin Powers Brazilian bombshell, and everything inside her head is like a ’70s roller disco. And then there’s a conspiracy theorist, and his mind is filled with a 1950s landscape with Men in Black–type guys walking around. It’s very funny, actually. Really well written. Details well drawn. The space is treated differently too, with physics different on each level, reflecting a dreamlike psychic interior. The game also does get a bit into ideas about psyche and identity.

So do you think that games have reached maturity? Or are we still waiting?

Few games do it all. Many good games do seven out of 10 things well, but fall short on the other three points. But some, like Katamari, have in fact reached an artistic synthesis. And it’s important to remember: That makes it a piece of work that couldn’t be done in any other medium. Frankly, I’m bored by film. I barely see movies anymore, because I find them so uninteresting. But there’s a lot going in games. You just have to know where to look.?

VIDEO GAME ART | By NIC KELMAN | Assouline | 300 pages | $30 paperback

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