I edge myself over to the cover of the low concrete wall that borders the skyscraper I'm standing on. I peer over the obstruction and see five Shai Gen gang members on the next tower, lower down, that, through the joys of implanted Agency technology, I knew were there before I saw them. (Maybe the joy is implanted, too?) I raise my weapon, aiming at the first head I can get a bead on, waiting until my hands steady, and . . . .
This is not what I'm thinking when I'm playing Crackdown. And I am not the Lester Bangs of video games. Far from both. I'm uncertain what the blow-by-blow of what's going through my head, but I am not creating a full-on narrative of events that the hardcore proponents of videogames-are-art would probably like me to say that I am. The radar and health bar floating omnipresent in the air, the paper-doll icons that let me target my preferred extremity, the artifice of it all keeps me from treating the game as completely immersive. As "high art" as the videogames-are-not-art end of the spectrum would term it.
Is it necessary for Crackdown to be any more than a toy for adults for me to enjoy it? Or, to navel-gaze, do all videogames need to be art for any to be considered such? My go-to guy for movie reviews, Roger Ebert, seems to think so. His early volley in his video games vs art fight with the entire internet a while back cited a study that concluded, after an initial burst of activity, the brain becomes essentially inactive during play.
I'm uncertain of the pedigree of that particular research, but, at least in the way Ebert uses it, he is treating videogames as a monolith. That the existence of a controller and a console as inputs defines the software itself. There are enough paycheck movies and behind-the-sofa paintings out there to never allow us the error of equating a single piece of media with the medium, although large swaths of over-40 people (i.e., those that did not grow up with Mario and Zelda and Cloud) probably do make that generalization about video games. If the researchers used a single game, especially an older game like Pac-Man, for their study, I would say that their objectivity was tainted and their conclusion foregone.
Why do I love Crackdown, then, if it isn't art? Why not stick with Ico and Planescape: Torment, those games which are always thrown back into the face of anyone who says videogames aren't art? For the same reason that I watched Prison Break last season, cackling loudly from my couch at every ridiculous, implausible, bloody turn of events. Because it's popcorn.
And, just as there is a qualitative difference between Con Air and Casino Royale, there's good popcorn and bad. And Crackdown is the type of popcorn that lets me jump vertiginously from rooftop to rooftop and throw cars at my enemies, so bring it.
Videogames have the potential to be real art, to create a flow of narratives that the player is a participant in; all art is participatory in some way or another. Open to interpretation and the application of our own experiences, to the point of complete deconstruction. Even more so, as representational art falls by the wayside a bit, at least in the paint-and-canvas medium. But videogames are the first medium that came at the whole thing ass-first.
By definition, they got "participatory" from the day that Pong's paddles and square ball flickered on a TV screen. But they lacked the ability to create real artistry; the combination of technological limitations and focus on pure entertainment kept them in that realm.
Which isn't to say that the advent of the Cell processor was a necessary component for the maturity of the medium. Realistic graphics aren't the keys that open the door to the museum. I'm sure people more familiar with the history of games than I can provide a generation by generation breakdown of "art games" that I should know. Grim Fandango, Rez, The Longest Journey would feature prominently, I'm sure, along with a lot of older games (like Sam & Max and the other SCUMM games) that I either don't remember or never played. The common thread through many of those games is that they were not big sellers, as beloved as they were by their proponents.
With great CPU power comes great investment, and we don't need to look farther than the upcoming summer of movie sequels and adaptations to get a sense of how risk-adverse publishers are when it comes to their millions of dollars. And unfortunately, it sounds as if we've lost one of the potentially very interesting entries in the realm of truly political games in the cancellation of David Jaffe's Heartland.
All of which is to say that I'm dead middle of this particular argument. I think videogames can be art but aren't yet. I'd almost say that I'm not sure how much I want them to be art, at all, except for the fact all of the games I mentioned above are ones I love.
Rez was meant to be a Kandinsky painting put into a game, so let's bring on the Fargo of video games, please. And, eventually, let's hope we can figure out who the Miyamoto of painting is.
. . . I pull the right trigger on my controller after the reticle zeroes in on the Shai-Gen's head. I hear the shot pop out of my speakers and almost immediately a fountain of green icons burst out of the gang member's head, translucent guns that bounce once or twice on the ground beneath the body before floating across the open space between us. I watch my firearms proficiency meter increase as the icons reach my character and are absorbed. I hit A and jump between the buildings and the camera shifts upward, looking down, giving me a view of the cel-shaded city below.