In case you’re wondering where this is going, my answer is going to be the “unnamed medium” that I’ve referred to in the previous post. Just so I have my cards on the table, as a friend would say.
This post is part of a series: “unfinished posts I wrote a year ago that are collecting dust on my hard drive.” Most of them are about videogames and/or storytelling from an artistic perspective. I’ve been waiting for certain points where I’d be inspired enough to dig them up, and a recent article by Ian Bogost about Heavy Rain and how it relates to cinema inspired me to dig this one up. You should check out his article. Also, I realized something new while writing this, so I’m happy to have made some progress.
In my dusty post, I was writing about storytelling, and I tried to think of artistic mediums. I realized that in the context of making art or telling a story, it would be very helpful to define them by what made them distinct. I’m probably not doing any of this incomplete list the justice it deserves, but hopefully this will make the point.
- Oral tradition – dynamic, three-dimensional, using language spoken orally
- Music – dynamic, three-dimensional, using the sound generated from the structured series of contacts of objects
- Live-action role-playing – dynamic, three-dimensional, using live actors playing roles in a defined space
- Token-based role-playing – dynamic, three-dimensional, using tokens playing roles in a defined space
- Light painting – static, two-dimensional, using a single image represented by the placement of light on a surface
- Painting – static, two-dimensional, using a single image represented by the placement of colored pigments on a surface
- Literature – static, two-dimensional, using written or printed language arranged on sheets of a semi-permanent surface
- Photography – static, two-dimensional, using a single image of a real-life scene captured by a camera obscura and transferred to light-sensitive paper
- Film – dynamic, two-dimensional, using a sequence of images and audio of a real-life scene captured by a camera obscura, cut into a linear series of arranged segments, and presented on a screen
- Animation – dynamic, two-dimensional, using a sequence of images represented by the placement of colored pigments on surfaces, cut into a linear series of arranged segments, and presented on a screen
- Software art?? – dynamic, two-dimensional, using a sequence of images and audio stored on a computer, programmed into an interactive system, presented on a screen
As you can see, artistic mediums are technological in nature in the sense that the technology being used (or not used) makes one medium distinct from another. For each of these, you will want to artistically use one of those properties in order to create an artistic experience through that medium. With literature, you’ll want to use language, arrange the language, or use the surface in some artistic way. With film, you’ll want the scene, the capturing of the scene, the arrangement of the segments, or the presenting of the images on a screen to be artistic.
None of these mediums have any mention of storytelling or games because both of these things are completely abstract structures for meaning. They don’t rely on technology at all; they’re basically systems created by thought. Therefore, in order to be expressed in a way that can be artistic, a story or a game must be presented through a medium. Storytelling presented through live-action role-playing gives you theatre. Storytelling presented through light painting gives you shadow puppeteering. Games presented through token-based role-playing gives you board games. Storytelling presented through painting gives you graphic novels.
That means videogames are games that are presented through the last medium. And what makes them distinct is that medium. It’s based on an interactive system that is virtual (computer-based) and fictional (artistic, not functional). EA probably put it most concisely in the manifesto promoting their indie game collective, calling it “software art.”
To bring it back around to Ian’s article, he was suggesting that in the same way film has editing at its core, videogames might have extension or prolonging at its core, which is basically the opposite of film. And after looking at what makes videogames unique, I can see how that could be true in part. Because videogames have at their core a computer, and computers are good at simulating, so they could be more about continuity than the breaking up of continuity.
However, I think a better way to put it might be that the use of editing is at the core of film, as opposed to the use of fast editing. In the same way, the use of simulations would be at the core of videogames, as opposed to the use of continuous simulations.
That means good artists in film would use editing (among other things) to provide meaning, whether it was fast or slow. In videogames, good artists would use simulation (among other things) to provide meaning. In the case of Heavy Rain, that simulation was used for everyday actions, which gave the experience a distinct feel.