- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

Are video games art? Or are they preordained to be little more than mindless entertainment?

While a few almost certainly will achieve the former and many more will be the latter, a handful of recent games suggest that the best answer is somewhere in between.

From the 1970s onward, the world of video games has produced an increasing number of cultural touchstones. “Tetris,” “Pong” and “Super Mario Bros.” blossomed from primitive pixelated animations into celebrated pop icons, as widely recognized as the biggest movie stars. More recently, games such as “Myst,” “Halo” and the “Grand Theft Auto” series became lodged in the public consciousness.

For years, game sales have topped Hollywood’s box-office haul, and these days, according to a report on entertainment trends in America by the NPD Group, more people report spending their entertainment hours playing games than going out to the movies.

That electronic games have staked out a position atop the entertainment landscape is clear. What’s still uncertain is whether games are inevitably nothing more than throwaway entertainment or if they might legitimately aspire to be called art.

Typically, games are compared unfavorably to the giants of cinema, but though many games have a cinematic streak, movies might not make the best comparison. Instead, the medium that games most resemble is comic books.

Comics took years to rise from unsophisticated four-color time-wasters to take the unique and generally respected place they hold in the pop canon. However, that required a series of innovations to the form — not a wholesale reinvention so much as an expansion of its boundaries and a deeper understanding of how the form works.

What comics creators learned was not only that they could tell stories with novellike complexity, but also that their chosen medium excelled at creating sprawling, lived-in alternate universes — worlds full of heroes and villains, friends and enemies, governments and corporations and everything in between. In other words, they decided not only to be tellers of tales, but also creators of worlds.

Similarly, gaming typically, and probably rightly, has been discounted as little more than twitchy digital escapism. However, by exploiting what’s unique about the game form and the possibilities it offers, games including “BioShock,” “Grand Theft Auto IV” and “Fallout 3,” like the most inventive comics, have begun to approach a sophisticated pop-art excellence.

All of the games share a commitment to top-notch production values and fluid game play. More than that, each of these games is informed by a sense of free play. The story isn’t simply told to the player; rather, the player’s decisions determine not just the mechanics of the game-play but how, and even what, story gets told.

The best way to encourage free play is to build a complete, functional world — and then let players do as they will within it.

“BioShock” is the oldest of these games and the most linear in design. It’s a “Halo”-like first-person shooter that borrows heavily from role-playing games that allow a player to advance in power throughout the game. The story it tells is one of gaming’s best, and its cast of characters is surprisingly nuanced.

However, its real accomplishment is the world in which it takes place — the dilapidated underwater city of Rapture, a mostly abandoned art-deco sea stead. It’s not just nice scenery, either: The city’s purpose — it was built as a haven from the meddling influence of government so that its residents might be free to modify their minds and bodies as they please — figures heavily into both the story and game play.

The world of “Grand Theft Auto IV” is even more impressive — a miniaturized replica of New York City (here called Liberty City) complete with compact digital replicas of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. The game’s developers obsessively researched the city, figuring out, for example, which cars are most prevalent in which parts of the city. Not every street or building has been re-created, but every landmark and neighborhood has a recognizable digital counterpart. There’s even a working subway system.

The Capital Wasteland, “Fallout 3’s” post-apocalyptic re-creation of the District, may be slightly less convincing than “GTA IV’s” New York — neighborhoods, landmarks and subway stops don’t match up nearly as well to their real-world counterparts — but the level of in-world interaction it provides is unparalleled. Find an object on the ground, or a shelf? You probably can pick it up and use it, or sell it, later.

The Capital Wasteland is a complete vision of an aftermath society: It has a working economy and barter system, warring governmental bodies and small towns and villages built out of scrap that have their own unique customs and habits.

Like the best pop art, these games provide entertainment that’s both accessible and endlessly malleable. They work because they don’t try to be playable movies but instead encourage exploration and discovery, telling overlapping, nonlinear stories through careful search and excavation. They’re scavenger hunts in imaginary worlds. There are stories out there — you just have to find them.

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