Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
James Leach mulls over the nature of other people’s genius
Before everyone outside the gaming community started asking everyone inside the gaming community if games promote violence in the youth of today (they don’t), people asked if games can be art.
Art is often defined as anything intended to provoke a reaction in those experiencing it. I’m not sure whether this is useful, since by that token a flu jab can be art. But what if we said that anything being created as art only earns the right to call itself that if it’s been specifically designed to create a reaction?
Well, what about games? Yes, they’re designed to be fun, beautiful, challenging and often moving. So they don’t rule themselves out on any level. As an example – and there are hundreds – I’d say Braid is art. I mean, just look at it. And play it. It’s a work of art and a work of genius. In fact, it’s the work of a genius. His name is Jonathan Blow, and
Braid was his vision. Yes, he had the videogame artist David Hellman to help him, but what Hellman did was grasp in its entirety the concept that was in Blow’s mind, and commit it to paper. Well, pixels. It’s fair to say, though, that Braid is the product of one man.
When you look at some of the greatest games ever, it’s quite common to see a single designer’s name attached to them. I was going to list a few, but that would mean leaving a load out, and if you’re the sort of person who reads Edge, and you clearly are, you can think of a bunch of them yourself. But this leads to the inevitable conclusion that great art isn’t created by committee. The blueprints need to be created and held, at least initially, in one head. Anything else is a compromise.
But games are created by teams of people. So what our vision-holding genius needs to be able to do is what Blow did: impart the idea in its purest form to a bunch of talented others to realise. That’s an entirely different skill right there, but it’s vital if the whole thing is going to end up being in any way great art.
As a game writer, this fascinates me, because I’m often part of the team being visioned at by a single visionary ( although they’re not all single). I’m in the same boat as the game’s artists and composers here. We’re working from a single, strong idea, so how much latitude do we have? The genius at the head of the table can’t do it all by himself, so he’s entrusting the project to us. Yes, he’s going to micromanage it, and change his mind, and add new ideas too late in the schedule, but he’s getting us to do the work.
We are, though, now in a position to create our own art. The artists might have been told what to draw, but they’re the ones drawing it. One day, there’s nothing but an idea they’ve been told to work on, and the next there’s some incredible beauty on the screen made entirely by them. Is their genius comparable to that of their visionary leader? Is it even possible that they exceed his talent, because they’re the ones who did the creating? After all, anyone could tell Van Gogh what scene to paint. We’re unlikely to be hailed as a master for doing so. He’s also not likely to do it, because he’s only got one ear, so might not have heard. And he’s dead.
Nearly all the creative people I know in the game industry work on their own projects in their own time. Sometimes it’s done as a potential route out of the corporate structure they’re mired in, but mostly it’s simply because they’re driven to use their talents, and they can do so with the overall control and direction that they, and only they, have. It fulfils a basic need to do what they do best and to do what inspires them. Yes, with luck they’re inspired by the games they work on in office hours (and very often late after office hours), but everyone who’s ever had to work on someone else’s dream has had that moment when they know they could do it differently, and better than the brief, but weren’t allowed to. We shall call this the Jar Jar Binks Effect.
So, anyway, yes, games can certainly be art. They meet all the criteria, and every standard you care to throw at them. The only reason this question is ever asked is because games are new and bright and exciting, and the sort of people who wonder whether things qualify as art are usually none of those things. They’re also phenomenal team efforts, and that means that everyone working on them is an artist. Unless the game is utter rubbish, in which case we’re all wasting our time. Someone has to be responsible for every game, and no matter how steep or how broad the pyramid, people will always strain to see who’s at the top. And because that’s a truly dreadful metaphor – so bad, in fact, that it can’t fail to provoke a reaction – I must be something of an artist too.
Anyone could tell Van Gogh what scene to paint. We’re unlikely to be hailed as a master for doing so