Well, it was only a matter of time before I did something high-brow to look like a smarty art type who knows what she’s talking about, so let’s get on to it. I’ve a lot to say, and a lot of ground to cover. To start with, go watch this (Or scroll to the bottom). And if you don’t normally watch Extra Credits, check it out sometime. They cover a great number of topics and go over the state of the industry. Always a joy to watch an episode. Now, after that episode went up, there was another post were the writer of EC, James Portnow, had a friendly argument with Thomas Grip of Frictional Games, who you might know for the game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. You can read the entire conversation here, but I’ll be talking about my main views with quotes here, so don’t worry about having to read the whole thing before this.

NOTE: While I intensely disagree with Thomas Grip, I respect his own philosophies. Do not try to twist this into me going off on someone, or I will hit you with a frozen tuna. Maybe and old mail box. You get a cookie if you can name the game that reference is from. Now, without further ado, let’s begin.

“Now players can of course add extra depth to their experience, like dressing the back-story with more details, giving personalities of the various players and so on. But I cannot see how this is different from when reading a book or watching a movie. You can make up all kinds of extra story to vague characters, imagine all actions during cuts, etc. Sure it is a creative act (and video games can be creative for its audience in a way that no other media can) but it is not the same kind of activity that was used to create the work.”

Now, this is the first thing I’d like to touch on, as it can be the least oriented on actual gaming. There is a word for writing in additional story to games, movies, books, everything. This is what we call fan fiction, and it is massive. Some people ‘fix’ elements of a story that don’t gel, or flesh out the stories of other characters. Some create new ones to thrive in the world created by the author and interact within its rules and setting. There is a lot of fan fiction out there. I mean a lot. Some of it is okay, some of it is terrible, some of it is good. Hell, there is even fan fiction written so well it inspired fan fiction within that setting. Now, as far as I am concerned, every one of those people who write fan fiction is an author of variable skill and has a story they would like to tell. I would even be willing to call the vast amount of it art, but not all of it is good art. Yes folks, there is such a thing as bad art. This is because all art is subjective, you can not quantify emotions of any single person. I could write something and think it’s the best thing ever (With my self-esteem? Ha!), while someone else sees it as terrible, and another as run-of-the-mill. It’s not possible to have objective view on art. Now, why does this all matter? Let’s return to the original statement, that these gamers are, in fact, artists who tried their own way to enhance a story. So, that just covers the gamers who go out of their way to write about something in the game right, and that is a tiny sub-section of gamers. I’ve never seen Call of Duty fanfic, and even though I don’t doubt it exists, I do know that not everyone wrote their own epic showdown of Nobokov vs. Soap. So what about the rest of us?

“Creating a piece of art is often struggle, and, more often than not, it is quite boring and monotonous. It means doing something that you are not quite sure is possible, whether it is due to your skills or just technical or physical limitations. It is quite common that your imagined goal is not possible to attain.”

While I mean no disrespect to Mr. Grip or anyone at Frictional Games, I have never played a game that I enjoyed entirely start to finish. Ever. Why? For this very reason, of course, I am creating in the world. I will go out of my way to try things, push against the limits in the game, and when I hit those barriers, I will actively attempt to break them to see my work come to fruition. This is the exact same in any virtual world as it is in the physical. Wasn’t the first air plane a work of art, a combination of ingenuity and desire to soar in the sky? And look at how far we have come since then. Yet humans are, by design, unable to fly. We have no place in the sky above, by the laws of nature herself, and yet humanity manged to push against those rules and see their dream come to fruition. How is it any different in a video game? Now, you might say, “But Kana, the air plane was a finished product!” and indeed it was, but it was also work. That first machine was not created on a whim, it was the result of a very long journey. We gamers are the same with our toils and tribulations, only our result isn’t a machine, it is a personal story. Our story, that we create for ourselves. Speaking of stories…

“Sure, the player also has responsibility, more than in most other media, to try and immerse him-/herself as much as possible in the experience. But doing so, they can only get as much out of the experience as put in by author.”

This is one of the few things I will flat up say is not true, in any form. The only limitation to what the player receives is what the player takes from a game, not the designer. Yes, your actions are limited to what the designer intended, but the experience from those actions are limited by your mind alone. No one at Irrational Games (Then 2k Boston) put any thoughts in my mind as I walked away from the city of Rapture in Bioshock. In fact, hearing other fans speak of the game, I can say that my ideals and experiences were very much different from some of my friends. I found nearly all of my forms and thoughts coming from Rapture, and not from the characters themselves. The narrative of the city provided a basis for my ideas to form, and once they began to coalesce, I launched off, taking what I knew and experienced from Bioshock and combining it, fusing thoughts from other games, integrating life experiences, and those followed me through the game, through the city, on a journey through my own psyche at the same time. Yes, the designers all knew what my actions would be, I only had so many to choose from, but none of them knew how I would receive the game on a personal level, how I would see the world, how I would experience it. If I could get say, Ken Levine, the writer of Bioshock, to tell the story of the game, and then compare it to my own, it would very different. Does that make my own story invalid, if the Irrational team created the world? If it does, what about our own world? We can say the phrase “Standard Fantasy Setting” totally seriously, but does that make every story to ever have a grounding in Tolkien fantasy to be invalid because of the inspiration?

“The way I see it, the only way the players can be the artist in this sense is if they have a character creation menu for all major characters of the game, or if they write the algorithms that control the random generation.”

This is something I extremely disagree with. Just because the designer came up with the character creator does not mean the player has no right to their own character. I’ve played more than a couple tabletop roleplaying games, and each one has its own character creator. In nearly everything with this function, it gives only the most bare-bones approach to characters. Think about Fallout: New Vegas for a moment. This is the full extent of what the generator tells you:

  • Your face from a given list, which on PC version can be massively expanded far beyond the default.
  • Your name.
  • Your stats. Baseline 5, max 10 minimum 1.
  • Your three skills you picked. For example: Guns, Repair, and Sneak. Those have a slight bonus compared to everything else.
  • Two perks, such as 15% critical damage bonus with 15% durability damage, or +1 perception if you have glasses on, -1 if not.

And that is it. Everything outside of the name has been mechanical so far. Who are you? Why are you here? What kind of history did you have? The game says you were a courier, but that is dropped about the moment you hit ‘New Game’, and you can be whatever you want. Don’t want to ferry packages? Don’t. And your history covers nothing but that one job, was that all? Nothing before? Nothing on the side? There is a massive amount of space inside a video game to breathe life into a living, breathing, persona, a new person who was born to experience this adventure. You, the player, hold the keys to your characters story, and no one else. Some of the best games I’ve ever had on tabletop games were multi-character story moments. One just trying to live day-to-day with a haunting past, another character desperately trying to recover her past and wondering about the present, both of them ‘created’ in the strict creation guide of the TRPG handbook, but both unique, individual, created by the player’s minds and actions.
There is a staggering potential in video gaming for the player to become an artist, and to weave their own tale throughout the story. Yes, it is a story created by the designer, and while I mean no disrespect, I have always seen video games as a canvas, a place for me to create and tell my own story. These canvases are by no means blank, each has it’s own work already inscribed, setting the stage up. Sometimes, I add very little, such as in a game like Amnesia, and sometimes, I paint broad strokes, altering massive sections of the canvas by my actions, such as in games like Fallout. In the end, I feel like I am both artist and audience, stepping back to admire the story created twice; one story created by the developers of the game, and the other story created by me as I explore a new world. Virtual or not, it is that exploration, the growth and development of my characters and ideals that render my own story unique to me as it does for every gamer. That is why I feel the gamer is every bit the artist as they are the audience.