Summing Up VGArt Theories

This interview was originally published here. Questions from Gianni Mancini (alias Vita Giocata) are in bold characters.

There is an eternal dilemma that has been plaguing the world of video games since its inception, namely to reconcile narration and gameplay. Unfortunately, even today things have not changed much, storytelling and writing are often relegated to pure non-interactive interludes, the so-called cut scenes, which are unlocked after solving a puzzle, overwhelming myriads of enemies, or overcoming an environmental challenge. In these cases, I could mention blockbusters such as the Uncharted, God of War and Tomb Raider series, the story and the writing are subordinate and detached from the gameplay. Jonathan Blow (Braid and The Witness) is convinced that storytelling and challenges present irreconcilable presuppositions and that the so-called ludo-narrative dissonance is the real problem to overcome. Even David Cage (Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two souls, Detroit: Become Human) has reiterated several times that the narrative structure of most of the products defined as ‘Triple A’ resembles that of porn movies: we proceed alternating remnants of story, usually relying on cutscenes with long action sequences. And to stay on the subject, John Carmak (Doom) himself back in the nineties argued that “the plot in a video game is like the plot in a porn movie. You expect it to be there, but it really doesn’t help.” Today, however, although the playful component is still central in most of the titles that are produced, the term ‘video game’ has returned to represent a variety of genres (from point and click adventures to visual novels, from walking simulators to lost phone games) where tstory is he fulcrum of the interactive experience.

One of the major supporters in Italy, and not only, of the interactive narrative with respect to the gameplay and a profound connoisseur of the evolution of storytelling within the gaming medium is Luca Frangella, Steam curator who tirelessly publishes interesting and in-depth articles on his blog Video Games Art. To him, as if to further extreme Ron Gilbert’s words in the previous article, “the narrative is no longer relegated as comment or as dressing for challenges, but it is the virtual experience itself, it is the gameplay itself . There will no longer be any need of challenges, just of interactive agency in the virtual world! “

Here is his river-like interview, which deserves to be read until the last line because Luca, in addition to having a very precise vision of what video games are today, has the gift of intuiting and hoping what their future will be.

Can you explain how Video Games Art was born and what its purpose is?

First of all thank you for the honor that you grant me, I am flattered by your interest. Mutual interest, since I carefully follow your beautiful blog, very similar to VGArt. VGArt was born in 2016 as an Italian group on Steam, but soon expanded with an international group, a facebook page and a twitter account. The following year I inaugurated the wordpress site; the instagram page dates back to last year thanks to the help of my nephew. I tried to open an account on you tube, but working with videos is very expensive and not compatible with my job; also I don’t think I’m good for video communication. The project is not for profit, but only for cultural purposes; I was literally born and grown with video games and I live the project as a visceral passion. The aim is to promote video games as a form of contemporary art; so said it can mean everything and nothing. The underlying inspiring idea is to introduce a more committed, cultural and intellectual critical approach to the world of video games, along the lines of what is already happening in cinema, literature and comics. In the past I have also written about cinema and comics and the average cultural level that revolves around them is much higher than that of video games. An artistic, cultural, intellectual, committed approach like that of VGArt is the norm in cinema and comics; in the field of video games, on the other hand, VGArt is a sore thumb, it is difficult to find something similar on the world wide web .The idea is not totally peregrine and leverages the new wave of developers who experiments with the language of interactive storytelling to immerse players in meaningful stories and express deep contents. The world of video games is evolving and VGArt wants to propitiate the wave.

Your motto is “Videogames are not only challenges, they are experiences”. Tell us what features a video game must have to enter the restricted “clubhouse” of Video Games Art.

Currently in the collective imagination, video games are seen as brisk and disengaged entertainment, such as toys, challenges and electronic sports to pass the time. An unpretentious pastime that sometimes can accidentally be constructive, there are many games that keep our mind in training or that entertain by offering positive and educational values ​and contents; most of time, however, the market is dominated by titles that tickle the players’ lower instincts and focus on violence; not to mention the notorious in-game purchases or loot boxes that prompted the WTO to recognize video games addiction in the same way as gambling. After all, in the past the arcade games were known to be money-eating machines at the expense of unwary children and teens! On closer inspection, the most popular interactive mechanics are still fairly poor and repetitive: shoot, kill, fight, run, jump, solve puzzles, etc. designed to test reflexes, manual and solving puzzle skills. “Midway upon the journey of our life ” (Dante Alighieri quote) I find boring most of the genres I enjoyed when i was child or teen and I don’t think I’m the only one; this is symptomatic of the evolution the medium is going through. Mine is the first generation born and raised with video games that now finds itself adult but does not want to stop playing, and this generation includes also developers, critics, journalists, experts, producers, etc. I believe that video games are following the same artistic, cultural and intellectual evolution of cinema and comics. I wrote an article about . Today, as a freelance player and critic, I would like video games to develop an interactive narrative language capable of immersing the player in deep stories and content, going beyond the idea of game as challenge, toy, brisk entertainment, pastime. The word game doesn’t just mean toy. Playing is not only synonymous with recreational activity. It means taking on a role in an organized context other than the ordinary, often fictitious. In video games this occurs in a virtual context managed by computational processes and represented by optical devices such as screens.

That’s why I say that video games are not just challenges, but interactive virtual experiences. Nothing prevents a video game from plunging me into a sublime interactive story set in a world dripping with wonderful aesthetics and conveying deep emotions and contents; nothing prevents an artist from expressing his creative genius by developing interactive virtual experiences that have nothing to envy to the masterpieces of literature, cinema, theater, comics, etc. This evolution is taking place slowly on several levels at the same time, it is still in its infancy and affects developers, producers, players and critics. VGArt tries to do its part on the critical side and at the same time wants to support those players looking for new and more meaningful experiences.

You rightly speak of VGArt as a small “clubhouse”, but I would not want to be suspicious of snobbism. When I talk about new frontiers, evolution etc. this does not imply disdain or rejection of tradition and past. I simply hope for something new and different that can still coexist with tradition; an expansion of the market and industry towards more cultural, artistic and intellectual shores. A bit like what happened with cinema and comics, in which the different market needs coexist and do not prevent cinema and comics from being perceived as noble forms of art of great cultural importance. To avoid any misunderstanding, I play several traditional titles as pastime, which have no place in the VGArt “clubhouse”; lately I am very busy with VR games and I have to admit that in VR I still manage to enjoy traditional gameplay based on the usual challenges and mechanics; I mention only a few titles like Sairento, Blood & Truth, Saints & Sinners to show you that I’m not lying! Also I do not ideologically disdain mainstream, for example I appreciate games like Red Dead Redemption, Deus Ex Human Revolution, Assassin’s Creed 2 and The Witcher 3.

Having said that, it is true that VGArt applies a very limited selection, precisely because I am particularly interested in those titles that go beyond challenges and traditional playful gameplay. There are many games that sprinkle with intelligence and originality and offer respectable aesthetic solutions as well as positive contents. But in the end they fall into the category of games as toys, challenges or pastime. Gorogoa comes to mind as example. I mention and promote these games, but then I don’t go into that much. My attention is mainly focused on those games that propose and experiment with new languages and techniques of interactive storytelling, in an attempt to overcome the storytelling-gameplay dichotomy. Traditionally, from the 90s onwards, with a few exceptions, in single player games the story is entrusted to cinematic cut scenes or to background elements of the game environment, while gameplay, interactivity, is reduced to mechanics dedicated to challenges , action, puzzles, etc; contents and substance are entrusted to cinematographic language, the easy fun to video games interactivity. Fortunately, some pioneering developers have been experimenting with appreciable results games where the real-time interactive narrative experience is the gameplay itself! Many of these games have been dwarfed by the walking simulator label, I think of Dear Esther, Firewatch, The Unfinished Swan, Edith Finch, etc., others fall into the category of interactive drama, I think of The Walking Dead S1, Life Is Strange S1, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, Detroit: Become Human, etc. I wrote special articles on these genres: Special Walking Simulators and Special Interactive Drama. Personally, I don’t like labels, especially if related to mechanics; I prefer to distinguish the games that I review following genres just like in cinema and literature: drama, thiller, horror, adventure, etc. My hope is that these walking sims and interactive drama will merge to provide players with first-rate interactive narrative experiences. It is a matter of developing a narrative and interactive language supported by specific mechanics and by evolved AI of environment and NPCs (not just enemies AI). I wrote an article about. In general VGArt is interested in games and developers who strive to transcend traditional limits and to build interactive experiences with narrative and expressive purposes. I can also appreciate games like Gris that manage to reach remarkable aesthetic and expressive levels while maintaining platform and puzzle games features, but my research tends not to compromise, I would like to see works of art that have nothing to envy to the great masterpieces of literature, cinema and comics; or at least attempts in that direction.

What is a graphic adventure for you today and what role does it play in the actual gaming landscape?

Today the term graphic adventure has only a nostalgic value referring to a genre of the past, the technological and linguistic evolution of video games in the last 15 years makes obsolete both the term and the genre. It is a glorious genre of the past that had a great importance in relation to narrative, content and interactivity. In the special articles on walking sims and interactive drama I highlight how point and click graphic adventures had a fundamental influence on the development of such genres. As you have well written in your articles, narrative needs have always been relevant in video games history and have given birth to text adventures before and graphic adventures later. Then, CDs and DVDs introduced a massive load of cut scenes and FMVs. On one hand, the use of cut scenes has benefited the narrative, on the other hand, it has sharpened the gap between storytelling and gameplay. At the same time, we assisted at the integration with 3D engines and action mechanics (see Alone In The Dark) and gradually the classic point & click genre lost ground. In the new millennium, the lesson of graphic adventures has heavily influenced the genres I mentioned, which however go far beyond. I have no nostalgia for the old point-and-click graphic adventures, even though I played a lot of them in my younghood. For example, I could cite an almost unkonown but good title, Woodruff and The Schnibble of Azimuth, in addition to the more famous ones such as Blade Runner, Siberia, Indiana Jones, Monkey Island, Gabriel Knight, Grim Fandango, Sherlock Holmes, etc. In my childhood I even used to play very old stuff stuff like Deja Vu, classic Macintosh graphic adventure!

I prefer more modern reincarnations of graphic adventures, such as Conarium; and if I really have to mention seminal adventures, it’s the case of Myst, forerunner of modern walking sims, and The Last Express, by the same author of Prince of Persia, forerunner of interactive drama. Graphic adventures today exist only as a genre of the past for nostalgic gamers or as an indie niche, often in pixel art, see Kathy Rain; that’s good, but I’m not passionate about it. I prefer to devote myself to the actual genres that inherited the narrative effort from graphic adventures. The Cat Lady is an interesting hybrid title; one would be tempted to label it as graphic adventure, but in fact it escapes such simple labeling and acts as a bridge to pure narrative adventures that can do without puzzles. You have clearly highlighted in your articles the main flaw of graphic adventures: the abstruse puzzles. To young developers I would suggest to completely forget the puzzles, and to develop with any graphic engine adventures totally centered on narrative situations. Such distancing from the usual playful mechanics is the keystone for the narrative, cultural and artistic maturity of video games. I know it may seem heretical, extreme and provocative, but video games should be understood as interactive artifacts immersing players in interactive narrative contexts, in interactive virtual experiences, not necessarily playful.

This is a provocative question; it would need an answer that could not be contained in a book: are videogames art?

And I answer you provocatively: it is the question that is wrong! 🙂 First of all, it is necessary to define what art is, in particular expressive art. I give an answer in this article, quoted to my amazement in some academic papers. Once expressive art has been defined, there are no limits to how it can be created and expressed, even through video games. The question is another: video games intended as media, as industry, as market, are “tools”, “cultural places” and “artifacts” deputed to expressive art like literature, cinema, theater, comics, etc. and universally recognized as such? Not at the moment! Forgive the sharp answer, but I have a scientific approach and my intent is not to defend or overestimate video games by following my passions and my desires. This answer pains me too, but it’s sadly true. We say that cinema is art simply because cinema industry and market give great room to the artistic, intellectual and cultural dimensions. Producers, directors, authors, audience and critics never neglect, on the contrary they continually encourage and reward the cultural, intellectual and artistic aims of the so-called seventh art (in Europe); we know that cinema was born as entertainment and that there are blockbusters coming with dubious quality. Btw producers, even at the cost of economic losses, always leave room for committed authors and their deep stories and contents, as if they want to boast of their art; these works are sometimes financed without necessarily submitting them to the needs of the box office, and often manage to generate high profits and become mainstream because there is a cultured audience ready to appreciate them much more than blockbusters. After all, the popular cinematographic appeal is strictly bound to movies that made generations dream and excite, not to blockbusters devoted to brisk entertainment and low cultural features.

Above all, there is a specialized criticism that rewards films d’auteur, the most daring and profound productions, which goes in search of art, culture and social commitment, which recognizes the research and originality of the narrative language based on directing and editing cinematic images. I could say the same about comics and the profitable market sector of graphic novels, but I won’t go on. In the gaming world, unfortunately, things don’t work the same way. There are still very few developers recognizing to video games the possibility of being expressive, narrative, committed, intellectual, cultural artworks. Even fewer developers are looking for a narrative and interactive language aimed at expression of deep contents. I can think of very few names such as Ian Dallas, Dan Pinchbeck, Tale of Tales and few others; their works receive limited attention despite of their highest artistic and cultural quality and innovation. The producers willing to stimulate and invest in such artworks are just as few; Annapurna Interactive comes to mind, which recently subsidizes many alternative video games of a certain cultural and artistic value; but we are talking of very low budgets far from those of mainstream productions. The audience interested in the artistic, intellectual and cultural evolution of video games has low percentages. Video game criticism is still not enough equipped and interested in recognizing narrative, intellectual and artistic value; with some rare exceptions, critics do not detach themselves from the paradigm of entertainment as an end in itself, and continues to reward video games such as Doom Eternal or Mortal Kombat 11; if they were movies they would spark contempt from critics and gain little attention at the box office because of their trash. I will not go further, it is clear that we are far from the idea of video games as art; usually some developers and fans try to ennoble their favorite games by emphasizing some artistic dressing, for example beautiful aesthetics, an interesting background storyline, etc. but basically most of the productions are still meant as electronic toys for passing the time. That’s appreciable, but not what VGArt is searching for. This does not mean that there are no signs of an ongoing artistic and cultural evolution. Probably the gaming world is maturing, it is gradually emerging from its adolescence, it is gradually addressing a more adult and cultured audience, just as cinema and comics did time ago; VGArt tries to anticipate the wave! 🙂

Can you recommend three titles that well represent the future of videogame storytelling?

Difficult to make such a narrow selection, I’ll try. For sure What Remains of Edith Finch, a milestone in the search for interactive narrative language far from the ludic paradigm; it proposes memorable and very original gameplay sequences, a unique and rare event in a moment of creative stagnation of the medium especially concerning interactive mechanics; in particular, Lewis Finch’s sequence is an example of brilliant and profound existential expressiveness through meta-gaming. If I had to indicate a title that can rival the great artworks of art of cinema, literature and comics, I would certainly quote Edith Finch! At this point you put me in difficulty, I could mention Firewatch, Life Is Strange S1, The Walking Dead S1, but I prefer to recommend The Vanishing of Ethan Carter which has greater affinity with graphic adventures, the topic of this article, and at the same time it is a very original and profound narrative work. Finally I would like to mention a lesser known title, I am undecided between The Invisible Hours and State of Mind; the first is an ingenious and innovative title that introduces a new genre, immersive and interactive theater, and should be consumed in VR, so I favor the second. State of Mind is perhaps not on the same level as the titles I have mentioned so far, but it is a real cyberpunk gem that deserves attention; an interactive narrative experience that dares without compromises, except the low budget. Obviously I have overlooked a lot of seminal titles, but you can take a look at my reviews page.

I must thank Luca infinitely for his splendid and in-depth contribution. And if you allow me, he’s doing a brave job. With intellectual recklessness, he fights so that the medium can get out of that immature phase, where it is still relegated to simple entertainment for children or teens, often with the pleasure of video game criticism. A bit like Umberto Eco did with comics: “When I want to relax I read an essay by Engels, if instead I want to commit myself I read Corto Maltese”

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