Arts Machina

Synopsis

Games – on-line, desk-top and live – are rapidly overtaking film as the entertainment of the masses. The artistry involved in creating something as complex as Rome: Total War is breathtaking. But is it art? When you create your own Sims character, is it ‘creation’ or simply an algorithm?

Who plays these immersive games? Is it you and me or just the nerds?

We walk through the development of a new on-line game with production house Creative Assemblies; log into a blog on ‘art form in games’, join a young on-liner and generate a Sims character to take our viewers into this new, virtual world.

Introduction

Tiffany Holmes (School of Art, Chicago) says:

“Games represent a vitally important emerging art form that encourages exploration of new spatial models of interaction.”

We say – “All your bases are belong to us! Bling!”

Outline

This program is a multi-layered look at the recent phenomena of gaming. It follows a number of threads because games are more than just a single commodity – they’re a lifestyle, a web of inter-related industries, an intricate mesh of communities, a language, a multi-billion dollar sector with a bullet and the pointy edge of digital art.

The program is uses melded formats to create a new genre. As the program is about gaming, we’ll be the first to ever create a documentary within games, combining a conventional documentary approach with a journey into the games themselves, the director becoming a virtual character in two of the most popular games.

Our interest lies in the cultural and artistic ripples the explosive growth of gaming has created and the people involved - on both sides of the screen. The impacts gaming has had worldwide – from the use of gaming as therapy to the growing numbers of children left at 24 hour gaming parlours as a form of ‘baby-sitting’.

The themes we’ll explore are many – the concept of creating online worlds to escape the real world, the architecture, the idea of 'power' in an alternative world, a whole new set of social values and principals, different identities, different sense of democracy/social structure, emotioneering and the representation of people, stories and dramatic arcs within this growing otherworld. 

And this ‘otherworld’ is rapidly breaking down the barriers of reality. For example, tools or weapons gained within Everquest can be sold on ebay. Last year, a character (in the real world) died and his Everquest ‘friends' got together to hold a funeral within the online world of EQ.

The ‘artists’ behind all this - the creators - are involved in a near-evangelical pursuit of ‘the perfect game’. In their weird world of play mechanics, hard core scripting, RMDMaX, MMORPG design, fractals and emotioneering, we find an almost pure form of intense creativity – the making of interactive ‘other worlds’ by the manipulation of code.

For players, there is an almost infinite spectrum of involvement and reward – from the bang burn bomb of a combat game to the intricate social interaction of the too-real world of The Sims. In many games, the players themselves create their own character. Players can also become designers and authors – adding their own artwork and ‘mods’ to the programs.

The ‘real life’ side-affects of gaming are enormous. Games are designed to immerse the player or satisfy a physical, cultural, mental or even emotional longing. Their success in this can and does lead to obsession - and addiction.

Groups have formed to address the issues of gaming addiction. ‘Widows of EverQuest and ‘Out of the Dungeon’ are just two of these.

How does serious game addiction impact on people and their families, their work or study? We’ll ask the people involved.

There appears no end to the catch-your-breath graphics that can be created for today’s games – but is it art?

The Program

In a castle suffused with the golden glow of afternoon, we move down a set of stone steps towards a room menacing in it darkness. A quaint and faintly Japanese voice stops us,  Ico, you must find your way from this accursed castle – but you must also help Yorda escape. She is now in your trust as, you can see, she is blind.” 

We move in closer to our two characters, lingering on the beautifully rendered stone walls and staircase, partially crumbled and jagged, oozing a feeling of age and decay.

Kenji Kaido stands before a giant screen. As he speaks, his words appear behind him 

“We created ICO to give players emotional realism. What kind of reality can generate emotional empathy? Our goal was immersion – a reality you can feel inside your dream.”

He disappears as a weblog fills the screen, black and white and not at all attractive. This is the ‘Smudge’ site – a 24 hours a day on-line gaming argument.

The bloggers voice over as their messages scroll past:

“Even sublime games such as ICO, KOTOR & NWN have their problems. While games COULD be an art form, they started out as a singular person's art form (back when games were programmed by one or two people) and now they are collective “

Stench

            “ICO is far, far more than the sum of its parts. There's barely a story, and yet it's    so sweet and sad.”

            ICO Nut

In the beginning there was a blank screen – well, a blank character, anyway. Hunched over a PC, we scroll through the character generation window, putting together the attributes we want for our ‘Sim’.

Age, sex, hair colour, skin tone, attributes (choose from Neat, Outgoing, Active, Playful and Nice), even our star sign (we opt for Sagittarius). And a name, of course. Sarah’s kind of nice.

We’re almost ready to enter a continuous, immersive 3D world. And what a choice we have, with literally thousands of on-line sites offering houses, interior design schemes, furniture and even fashion – all created by dedicated Sims players/artists.

In a spectacularly untidy office, Michael De Plater walks through the ‘stellar simplicity’ of the early platform games. The clumsy programming code used by designers who had more interest in an elegant sub-routine than the inherent playability of a game. Early game makers were limited by slow machines and a lack of powerful graphical engines. Strangely, retro-gaming is enjoying a renaissance. “A lust for pixels of the past.” Michael explains.

Compare those early efforts with the powerful realism of their current project: Rome: Total War. This is a 3Dcinematic role playing strategy action game and, yes, Michael goes into some pretty heavy tech-speak to explain how it all works. But we’ll let that fade out as we create an elephant mounted battalion and join the House of Scpicii to defeat the marauding Huns.

The realism is daunting and Michael can’t help himself – he brings up the composing program to show the physics behind the frighteningly lifelike elephants.

Jason is 22, a good-looking undergraduate finishing off a degree in media. We find him on his specially modified lounge, juggling his joystick rapidly and moaning as he looses yet another credit. Cushions, a pull out tray for food and snakes of cables surround him. He’s settled in for a session. EverQuest is his game of the moment. He’s been playing for over a year and he’s happy to admit it takes up 15-20 hours of his week. Now he’s hoping to break the habit – not tonight, but soon.

He started out as most do – an hour here and an hour there. It took him a week to create his character - Otala – a Shadowknight of the Primary Melee Class, of the Vah Shir Race, of the Zek or half human fighter Guild. And a ferocious-looking character he is, though Jason assures us he’s a ‘good guy’

Once his character was ready, he had to make friends – Jason opens a window and proudly shows us his current list of ‘friends’. He types in a quick command to see how many of his friends are on-line at the moment. It’s a quiet night so Jason takes us out for a little solo dragon hunting. He finds his target and types in a query – “/consider” - explains that this will give him the level of difficulty of his chosen adversary. The response comes back in a flash – “What would you like your tombstone to say?” It’s difficult to continue our interview as Jason is now immersed in EQ. At this stage, the director makes the decision to move into the game itself to interact with our preoccupied subject.

‘Our’ Sarah is joining an online household of Sims. She’s been honest with them – she’s making a documentary about on-line gaming and wants some first-hand research. As one might expect, the characters in the share-house respond differently to this.

We meet the household – Ron, Jakey, Sue and Hitop – each a well-rounded character with faults, desires, skills and weaknesses.

Sarah is introduced to Simlish – after Klingon, the fastest growing new language on earth.

 

Michael de Plater sits with his team of designers, pushing through a snag they’ve encountered with their latest ‘Total War’ game. Two snags, in fact. The first concerns their sound generation logic database. When certain characters fire their military issue handgun, it sounds like ‘phting!’, when it should sound more like ‘keoroooo’. It has something to do with the AI skills interface and the ranking system of their character engine…but we’re sure they’ll fix it. More interestingly, Michael introduces us to ‘emotioneering’ – techniques used to give players a breadth and depth of emotions in a game - or which can immerse game players or interactive participants in a world or a role.  Sound is an important factor in this – he brings up his audio palette to give examples of ‘satisfying’ and ‘unsatisfying’ sounds.

The second problem they’re facing is more serious. Beta testing of their latest Total War game has shown something strange - the more realistic they make the faces of the characters, the less players like them. “It’s called the Uncanny Valley.” Mike tells us,  “The more realistic we become, the more the small flaws stand out. Neuroscientists say that our brains have evolved specific mechanisms for face recognition, because being able to recognize something "wrong" in someone else's face has long been crucial to survival. So, that miniscule flaw is going to set alarm bells ringing….”

The team bring the ‘too real’ character up and begin to play with his human features.

Animator John Wang toys cheerfully with his favourite game – Doom. He gives a colourful run-down on the influence anime and manga have had on games and the role of animation art in their creation.

Our Sarah is settling in fabulously. Two of the house-sharers – Sue and Hitop – have agreed to take part in the documentary.  Sarah’s ready to start – but finds she has forgotten to give herself a camera when she was in ‘build’ mode. She’ll have to leave the online ‘live’ mode and get one.

Jason’s left his games area to talk to us. Slowly, we’re able to tease out his great absorption in gaming. “I can win. And even if I don’t win and, say, get killed, I can respawn and come back again. I think games have actually made me a better person.”

He created Otala with a very particular mix of personality traits – in real life he finds he’s actually trying to emulate these! He knows he’s addicted and he should be weaning himself from EverQuest, but…

Television scriptwriter *** sits at his PC – MS Word, not a game, in the screen. He talks about the narrative value of games and their envious ability to draw people in and keep them in a state of suspended believe.

Our director is putting the finishing touches to her EverQuest character. She’s opted for a Half Orc of the Melee Class and the Vah Shir race. Strangely, the game gives newcomers no assistance in choosing a name. She decides ‘Cazic’ sounds suitably warlike.

Mike and his team are happy – the gun sounds as it should and they’ve added more asymetrics to their hero’s face – he’s not quite so realistic but he’s certainly not so spooky.

Sarah returns to the household and begins her interviews with Sue and Hitop. Through these ‘virtual interviews’, we will learn much about the way the Sim world is organised and how very real the characters can become. Sue tells us how emotionally attached she is to her Sim character – it’s as though she was given a blank canvas on which to create a real person. Our Sarah notes the blurring of the line between Sue and the person who created her. We assume the person behind Sue is a woman.

A lecturer in linguistics gives an analysis of the Simlish language – although it’s meaningless gobble-speak, it’s strangely understandable. While on the topic of languages, she points out a little discussed fact – people with learning problems – even people who have trouble with English – have no problems at all in picking up the patois of their chosen game. She takes an example at random –

            “Roll 3D2 and have total protonic reversal. Gonna reclone with a six-by-fly patch from the PvP realm.”

Our director  – sorry – Cazic, takes her first tentative steps in the world of Nothanner. She tests out her sword – pretty impressive! She’s just congratulated herself on her swordsmanship when she’s killed by a Shadowknight riding a giant cockroach.

The ‘are games an artform?’ blog is heating up.

“I agree with it being a work of art - but largely due to the storytelling .Look at something like Legend of Mana - the whole thing blows me away. It's like playing a water colour painting.”

Mona

-

You KNOW an industry that supposedly builds itself upon creativity is dead when the only thing that is keeping it together is rival developers trying to one-up the other guy on the violence scale. It's all about violence now, it's all about "realism" now, it's all about spreading your opponent's guts across the multiplayer map as you jump around typing 1337-speak, pissing off the other players on the same server. Masterpieces indeed. What artistic merit?”

Duke.

We track down ‘Mona’ and find out what lies behind her almost obsessive blogging and her emotional attachment to certain games.

Michael takes us one step further in emotioneering – hang on to your hat – game designers are now using ‘character arcs’ to give players depth and resonance with their character.

Cazic and Otala have teamed up to fight the Schanoga. We intersperse the battle with an interview of our directopr – did he find a new world within EverQuest or simply the equivalent of a good film?

Jason has pulled the plug. Gone off-line. His ‘just an hour’ game-play stretched to four and he’s determined to give up obsessive gaming – for tonight, anyway.

The time has come for Sarah to leave Simworld. But will her real-life creator (our Director) let go?

The ‘are games an art-form?’ blog has the final word –

            “This thread was originally about video games as an emerging art form. I think       they are. Vice City may not be great art, but it is so damn fun. Besides, I wanted it       to entertain me, not cure cancer and lower oil prices. And entertain me it did.”

            Tonto

 

            “As for Vice City, it’s actually more than I expected. I wanted more when GTA 3             ended, and that is what I got. A new but similar story, similar but expanded      gameplay, a new and bigger environment, more weapons, a main character who             speaks, more vehicles (including the awesome Faggio), and a kick-ass 80's    soundtrack.”

            GTA 34Me

 

Postscript

Australian Robert Laus (aka Vabtoo) has become the world’s top EverQuest player, with a ranking that would mean nothing to a non-EQ person but a reputation that’s shot round the world. Unfortunately, his elevation to top shadow knight has sparked a raging controversy round the EQ blogs

For the record, Vabtoo the monk has 6 Quarm loots. around 7150hp unbuffed, and you can see his AC up top.

Why would they nerf it furor. It makes other classes tank almost as well as warriors. What they will do is just make it paladin shadow knight all. Then they can send absor here to say screw you we never had any thoughts of helping you go start another class.

Guys, leave Vabtoo alone. Like someone says, the guy plays EQ an average of 14 hours a day. The poor thing has dedicated his life to EQ - I mean, most sane people think playing 8 hours/day is too much, and only pull 8-hour stretches 2-3 times a week, right? Vabtoo has elected to forgo any life he might have had outside of the game for this, I think he deserves his 15 minutes of fame.

No, we don’t really understand it either, but we’re trying to track down Robert and get his side of the story.