Story vs. Choice, and Video Games as Art

Warning: Spoilers for Dragon Age 2 follow

Something like five years ago (has it really been that long?), Roger Ebert posited that video games are not, and possibly can never be, art. I don’t really feel like rehashing that argument (you can view the epic mound of responses here) — suffice it to say that my definition of art is abundantly less draconian than Ebert’s. To me, art is anything man-made and tangible designed to provoke an emotional reaction from the beholder (including lust, which means I consider even pornography a form of art!)

But let’s stop to think about a middle position, somewhere between Ebert’s point-of-view and mine. Maybe video games ARE art — but are they any good at being that? One of the beautiful things about different forms of media are that they each excel in specific ways, while failing at others. Movies can give us a visual form of a story in a way nothing else can; the most wonderfully written description pales in comparison to even the most poorly filmed movie, in terms of giving us an image of what the scene or characters look like. In contrast, a movie will never, ever be able to get inside a character’s thoughts the way a book can. Music, paintings — they all have their strengths. Do video games?

Many people think of video games, at least those that focus on a story, as an interactive movie. If we go down that path, video games seem clearly inferior. It’s just a movie that has removed authorial intent (something I don’t find at all important, but some do) and inserted repetition. If a developer sets out to make a game solely as a piece of art, wouldn’t making it into a movie improve it? And the answer is, yes. If you’re trying to provoke the exact same feelings that a movie does, it would seem the smarter choice would be to just make a movie.

But here’s where I reject that initial premise: video games and movies have a different strength … at least in my opinion. I think I finally came to realize this while playing Dragon Age 2. One of my favorite characters is Bethany, your player character’s sister. She’s actually just kind of a normal, if a bit sheltered, girl, with no real quirk. But I liked her anyway. And then what happened? She died.

I felt sadness, anger, and eventually, acceptance. Upon reflection, I knew why the writers had made that decision. It added to my player character’s, well, character. And I went on with the game, remembering my sister fondly. It was only after I completed it that I browsed the Dragon Age wiki and found out that Bethany’s death was not at all preordained. She could have died in a number of ways, including at the beginning of the game. Or, if I’d made my choices differently, she may not have died at all.

Here’s where people like Ebert would smile and say this is PROOF that games aren’t art. If Bethany could have died in any number of ways, or not at all, than her death means NOTHING. Without intent, there’s no story! Who’s to say what “really” happened?

All true. But that didn’t make it any less sad when I saw her die in my arms. And this is where I think games excel. Bethany’s death provided me with an emotion that I never could have felt in a movie, book, or anything other than interactive fiction: choice. My choices killed Bethany. Not my character’s choices, though that is what they became; that can be felt in any type of media. My choices. The emotion of regret — “if only I had done this” — is incredibly powerful. And it’s one I’ve never ever been made to feel by anything other than a video game.

“But!” the protesting reader screams. “Can’t you just reset and try again?” Well of course you can. Aside from the fact that this may be inconvenient depending on the length of the game, this is entirely possible. And it has to be possible for the issue of regret to come about. If I’d not been given the opportunity to choose this path, I could never regret it — and to truly give me the choice, I’ll have to be able to choose to keep her around too. But even if I replay the game, does that somehow nullify the original emotion I felt? Of course not. People in high towers like to somehow pretend that stories are written in stone, and anything that sullies that vision of ‘canon’ is ruinous. That’s absurd. I can read as much Ginny-Hermione slashfiction as I can fit on my harddrive, and still feel butterflies in my stomach when Ginny kisses Harry in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The same goes for any form of art. Multiple interpretations exist, but they don’t all have to be mutually exclusive.

I think this is the root of the uproar a lot of people had at Ebert’s explanation. His reasoning was not illogical; in fact, it was entirely logical. That was the problem. Art is not a logical proposition. If it was, computers could and would be making terabytes of art without any human interaction. Art is emotional. And when you say “X is not art,” you’re essentially saying “I know you think X has made you feel angry, sad, regretful, happy, and horny. But it really hasn’t, trust me.”

So here’s my challenge to Ebert (as I know he reads this blog religiously), and anyone else who disputes that video games are art. Find me a painting, movie, book, song, play, radio drama or anything else that can make me say “Wow, I really wish I hadn’t done that,” and I’ll give more credit to your train of thought.

Story vs. Demographics — What’s Fair?

Dragon Age II’s Merrill, as drawn by squanderling

Making commercial art, or really, any art that’s designed for an audience, is always a matter of balancing self-expression with enjoyability. Sure, if your 500,000 word stream-of-consciousness epic about sea slugs is just dying to be written, put that baby on paper!

But on some level, writers want to produce something that people will connect with, and sometimes yes, something that will make us a little bit of cash as well. At what point, then, does an artist “owe” something to her target audience?

I started thinking about this as I scrolled through my daily (okay, more often than that) check of Kotaku, and came upon the following article, covering the complaint by one fan about the lack of romance options for straight male players and the writer response from Bioware, the developer.

Let me start by saying that it annoys me when people with a strong love of heternormality include other people in their argument, as if we all agree with them. The original poster, Bastal, complains that:

BioWare neglected The Straight Male Gamer

And this is offensive on its face. I am a Straight Male Gamer (such an important concept, apparently, that it needs to be capitalized!), but I did not feel neglected. I did not feel neglected when I played, as I generally do in Bioware games, as a bisexual female character, and I did not feel neglected when I replayed, as again is customary, as a bisexual (and kind of an asshole) male character. Go ahead and complain that you feel neglected, but please don’t lump me in to your anti-gay, anti-woman tantrum.

Even worse is the assertion that the two romance options for a heterosexual male character, Merrill and Isabela, are somehow not normal, not sufficient:

Unfortunately, those choices are what one would call “exotic” choices.

Exotic? I doubt the poster could have chosen a more offensive word if he tried. For the uninitiated, Merrill, as seen at the top of this post, is a quirky Elven woman, so I suppose I can understand that. Maybe some people just really can’t get past the pointy ears. But the other option is Isabela. Who is Isabela? A sharp-witted pirate, one who is, shall we say, experienced in the ways of love. So did Bastal label Isabela “exotic,” and thus undesirable, because of her sexuality? It’s a possibility, and that’s incredibly misogynistic. But the more likely scenario is because she looks like this:

For the vision-impaired: she’s not white.

So yeah, there’s also a creepy racial undertone to this whole argument. Bastal is not even simply complaining that there aren’t enough wimmin for his taste; he’s complaining that there aren’t enough chaste white wimmin for his taste, and Bastal don’t approve of no miscegenation. The argument is gross and offensive from the beginning, but Bastal brings up a fair topic for discussion. Bioware has made games where, say, a homosexual male character has no romance options, and this is generally acceptable, because it’s not necessary to shoehorn every sexual option into every game. But imagine there were no options for a heterosexual male character. Is this somehow less acceptable because the Straight Male Player is the target audience?

Privilege, or Demographics?

Those who fail to recognize their own privilege tend to get understandably angry about being accused of bigotry. I don’t hate “the others,” they insist. It’s the others who are demanding unfair benefits that outweigh their representation — it’s all about the demographics. I represent x% of the population, so I should get exactly x% of the consideration.

Hopefully, most of you are shaking your head about how lame that reasoning is. For those of you that aren’t, it may be because you’re thinking of this in the setting of a video game, and not a book or a movie. The main character in Dragon Age 2 is supposed to be a representation of the player, right?. But that’s not the case. Bioware long ago dispensed with the idea that the player character is a simple avatar. Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard and DA2’s Hawke are voiced characters with opinions, fully formed backgrounds and agency. Yes, your choices influence their personality (more on this next week), but the age of the silent, blank canvas protagonist is over.

The other problem with this reasoning, of course, is that the writers never once removed choice from the player. Even in earlier Bioware games, your player can be a homosexual, or asexual, or whatever — there just may not be a character in your party with whom you can consummate your love. What Bastal is demanding is that Bioware cave to his expectations and actually design the OTHER characters in the game based on demographics.

When you look at this demand from the perspective of any other type of art, it clearly falls apart. The focus should be on the story, and on the characters. They should grow from conception to creation. Their sexuality should be something that is a part of them, the same way as hair color; it shouldn’t be thrown in because 80% of our players are blond, and therefore 80% of characters need to be towheaded as well.

Kaidan Alenko is bland, but at least he’s not randomly gay

Bioware has actually gotten better at this over the years. The romance options in their early games were very formulaic, but even then, they didn’t force sexuality on a character when it clearly didn’t fit. Dragon Age 2 is some of their best work. It’s a lesson in what happens when the romances are not designed by committee, but by natural character growth. The sexuality and romance just fits. Stoking love in this game never felt like I was just checking a box in my character’s profile, and that’s an achievement of which the developers should be proud.

But should they be worried? Target audience is always a part of marketing. For good or bad, if I write a literary novel from the point of view of a gay character, it’s likely to be labeled as ‘LGBT Fiction’ and ignored by the mainstream public. There’s nothing anyone can do about that. A reader who doesn’t want to read about, or play, a homosexual character doesn’t have to. If Bioware’s sales drop off sharply because of this (I seriously doubt it), they’ll have no one but themselves to blame for not addressing the correct market.

Where Bastal crosses the line, however, is in the insinuation that an artist OWES her target audience something. How entitled of him! If a fan of Fantasy novels picks up a book marketed as Fantasy, and it has no magic, he has every right to say “I don’t like this book, and I’m not going to read it because it doesn’t have magic.” He does NOT have a right to say “How DARE you for not putting magic in here! Your target audience enjoys reading about magic! You OWE us!”

This, I believe, is the answer. Bastal has every right in the world to say “Unless you include a white heterosexual woman for me to romance, I won’t buy your game.” But Bioware has the right to say “This is the story we’re telling. Deal with it.”

Writers do not owe an audience anything other than the best story they can produce. They do not owe you any elements you think to be required. They do not owe you a sense of heteronomality because most of the population is heterosexual. They do not owe you a release date. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: Bioware is not your bitch.

I don’t normally comment on video games here. While video games are one of my life’s passions, nearly half the internet is devoted to them (the other half, of course, is porn). But when gaming and writing merge (as they do in the best games, in my opinion), I think it’s a valid topic for discussion here. The newly released Dragon Age 2 exemplifies great video game writing in a couple of ways, so I’m going to talk about that in a couple of different posts. More to come.