State of the Art
(a critique of the western gaming industry)
by josh hsieh and brandon sheffield

Part the first: josh hsieh


Do we now live off the savings of innovation from a bygone era, and the goodwill it fostered? How long do we have until the videogame is up? Some recall shades of Nietzsche with their claim that videogames are dead. The following editorial analyzes some basic philosophical dynamics that underpin the state of the art of videogames...

Fellow Western gamers as we enter into a new year, let us be aware that we can only realize our visions of tomorrow with a clear understanding of our past. In the wake of the 2002’s annual videogame sales, the highest yet per unit and per dollar, there can be no doubt that the American public has given the industry a mandate to entertain it. After a brief dip in sales in 2000, there is no sign of recession. Even the slight decline in hardware sales per dollar resulted from price reductions that increased hardware unit sales and subsequently the software market.

Although we embrace consoles of all shapes and colors, the American public has chosen the PS2 as its console of choice. Therefore it is no surprise the PS2 is home to 7 of the top 10 selling software titles, including the top 3 best sellers. With such a wide user-base and comprehensive library, the top 10 list has much to tell us about the state of the videogame industry and the lay gaming community.

All is not well at the moment. Despite some exemplary presentations of mechanics and narrative, the integrity of games suffers from the attrition of a general cultural malaise. Let us first consider the magnum opus of creative decadence, the Grand Theft Auto 3 series.

The most apparent objection to this game will be that it is a self-contained universe in which haphazard maiming and murder of nearly everyone is unavoidable and encouraged. After all the spectacle of gore is unabashedly one of the main attractions of the game. It is not without its creativity, however. The series allows you to create your own adventure through a branching storyline that takes places in sophisticated environments in which take place missions of outlandish action. All this to the tune of star-studded voiceovers and soundtracks. Yet there is such a thing as creative destruction, and GTA3’s innovation could not achieve its success on its own merits. No, it is clear that its success owes much to its new angle of an old theme, namely creative interaction with extreme sex and violence, more so the latter than the former to be sure. This formula has reached its ceiling, and can only change superficially and intensify its violence and sex appeal. Such is the way of those forms of entertainment that pander to the public’s crudest sensibilities, even while catering to its capacity for sophistication. Suffice it to say there is a basis for Senator Lieberman’s criticism of the game.

Regardless of its record-breaking sales and public popularity, we should not be content to let games of this caliber stand behind the helm of the industry. It may be creative, but it is not a creativity that we can or should thrive upon. Historically, decadence is a precursor to decay.

As for simulation games, the Madden series and Grand Turismo 3 are emblematic of the best that their respective genres have to offer. Madden is a perennial contender that neither reinvents the wheel, nor intends to do so. Instead, it consistently draws its simulation of the sport closer to the reality of the sport as is possible within the state of the art. Like its real-life counterpart, the names change, but the game remains the same. The same holds true for the GT racing franchise, a simulation that closely depicts reality, every edition adding more polish, options, models and tracks. It’s not just good, but great for what it is.

Nonetheless, the creative core of videogaming lies not in simulation but in fiction. To say otherwise is analogous to the statement that documentaries are the essence of cinema. To be fair, these are not pure simulations, but somewhere in between that genre and games proper. Furthermore, sports and racing simulation are worthwhile pursuits, but to say this is the core of gaming would be to sell the medium short. Yet as videogames are increasingly capable as an artistic medium of high culture, they require interactive fiction with complex themes that occur in self-contained realities. Their resemblance to reality will vary, but it will always be a fiction, a fantastically depicted subset of reality.

From honesty come innovation and creativity, but today we see that too little creativity is honestly expressed. Surely, Madden Football, Grand Turismo 3, and Medal of Honor are well polished, sophisticated and deep, but they do not offer an innovative approach to gaming, but rather confine themselves to a familiar and formulaic paradigm. Spiderman was just decent, and rode on the popularity of the most successful movie of 2002. The main innovation of Kingdom Hearts, an excellent game, is the merger of two fantasy universes. The problem is not in the games themselves, but that they exist in a vacuum of creativity. In a greater spectrum of creative gaming, these games would have their place. Instead these are the spectrum to the majority of the gaming populace.

What else can explain Super Mario World earning the fourth highest annual sales more than a decade after its release? It is an indication that the people are desperate for innovation, even if they must revisit it via outdated technology. Just as its innovation stands the test of time, so does its innovator, Shigeru Miyamoto. His latest creation, Super Mario Sunshine sold well enough in the last 4 months of the year to round out the top 10 list. Though its success rests in its brand name, it is innovative in its own right, adding another dimension to the gameplay pioneered in Mario 64. Halo and Super Mario Sunshine exemplify the innovation that is possible when one leaves the complacent comfort of a tried and true formula. They represent some of the best of their genres. The violence in the Halo universe is distinct from that of the GTA series because it submits the violence to principle and rule, namely the survival of the human race, and commits it against non-human enemies. The GTA3 series place you in the role of a criminal who kills for greed and “just because”. It goes to great lengths to depict violence and death in a crude manner.

The gratitude and adoration one feels after completion of a game well worth playing is something that only love can elicit. A certain shade of love is the only thing that would motivate someone to create a truly innovative game, as Miyamoto’s garden inspired him to create Pikmin. Love of the concept commits oneself to the painstaking attention to detail necessary to create something that hasn’t been done before.

[Next: The Problem ]


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