Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Artistic Vision vs. Gameplay

After playing No More Heroes recently, I thought long and hard about many of the decisions that were made by the developer. Mainly, the over-the-top violence, the weak open-city gameplay, and the breaking of many gaming conventions to openly mock the player. To think there were all just design decisions is rather shortsighted, in my opinion. I feel every single one of these decisions was made to push an artistic message, at the sacrifice of gameplay at times.

Is this okay? Yahtzee doesn't think so. Gameplay is king, right? That's the point of the game? When would having a less fun game be the right thing to do?

I think it's actually ok to have an artistic message or idea to convey that hinders gameplay, as long as that message/idea is supported by gameplay in some way. If we want to be a mature medium, sometimes it's ok to say "gameplay isn't the most important thing". This won't fly with the establishment, however. It's going to be tough to do this, especially in the mainstream market of gaming. It's almost like Suda51 sneaked the art in, and was then criticized by everyone for it, since it hurt the gameplay.

The problem is when we market our games as pure entertainment. If every game is marketed and treated the same, we expect the same. If you were told the game you were thinking about buying was an "art game", and you didn't want to play that, at least you were given the information up front. We need to start doing a better job as developers and a community at saying, "There is something behind the scenes of this game that is bigger than the game itself". We need to start taking chances and allowing the customers to tell us if they believe that art is important to the future of gaming. There are risks, but it's imperative for the maturation of this industry.

What do you think? Is it ok for artistic vision to hinder gameplay? Or should gameplay always be the most important thing?


  1. Calling it "art" can be stultifying, but I agree there's a point to the slower parts of the game. The hero is deromanticized at every turn. He's a schmuck. This is clear not only from the cutscenes and his low-rent, high-fanboy apartment, but from the action itself - the lower class chores you have to perform to make it to the next match, the wide open city that has practically nothing to offer you.

    To take a counterexample: Bully's world was almost too fun and magical, and while the first five minutes made you feel abandoned and alone, the rest of the game felt like Harry Potter - you were a special character who could play hooky and run rampant in a fascinating and ultimately safe environment. Exploring Bully's world was more fun, but No More Heroes' was more authentic.

  2. Didn't play the game, but just wanted to offer my opinion about the last questions.

    IMO, gameplay is the most important thing about a game. If you want to present your artistic vision, make a painting and put it in an art gallery. Games exist to offer gameplay. It's what they have to offer that books, movies, and paintings don't. If a boardgame sucks but has pretty artwork, do you really want to play it? Then why should a video game be held to any lesser standards?

    The Bro in ManBro

  3. Being a designer myself, I agree with the view that gameplay should take precedence. Movies, anime, and digital art are perfect places to get your artistic vision across, and people expect to see art for the sake of art in those cases. It is very hard to keep people's attention and involvement in a game when the action or drive is slowed down to show off some artistic message and/or object. That is not to say that there is no place for some mix of art and gameplay that goes beyond the typical fair of today, but it would be an immense challenge I think since most people buy a game for gameplay, odd as that may seem :)
    Personally, I have been a huge Japanese RPG fan over the years so the long cutscenes that do nothing more than push a little story and a huge amount of artistic talent are the norm. for me. I have to admit though, that even I was a little miffed at how far games like Xenosaga pushed the CS thing. I love the amazing CS tech. and art like any other graphics geek, but it gets hard to stay involved in a game when you get kicked out of the actual gameplay for long periods of time to watch the eqivalent of a short anime.
    In conclusion, I think one of the worst things, when it comes to an action title, is to be pulled out of gameplay involvement for some small piece of story or some artistic effect. Halting gameplay to inform or direct the player really annoys me and makes me feel as if the game will not let me figure things out on my own. When the game is halted to show off some crazy art or "gameplay effect" I usually feel that it is unecessary and could have been implemented in a way that did not take away from the actual gameplay elements. It is kind of like listening to your favorite song on some flipping scratched CD and trying not to shoot yourself as you wade through painful skipping sessions.

  4. So, if the art you are putting into your game is a cinematic (i.e. you copy the film industry), or art that exists already in some other medium, then yes I agree.

    What if your game has a message that can only be conveyed through simulation? Ian Bogost coins the term "procedural rhetoric" in his book Persuasive Games, and defines it as "the practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively." I think that's one way that games can be more about a message (which could be art, but not all art has a message) than gameplay.

    So, if a game's artistic vision (message in this case) is to teach the player about the atrocities that happen during civil war in Africa and show them, and the game uses its own GAMEPLAY to support that, then isn't it ok for the vision of the designer to teach the player about the atrocities be more important than the actual gameplay? As long as the gameplay itself is being used to support this message. This may be hard to understand, but if the game involves you walking around an african village, and watching your villagers be slaughtered and either run away or help them and die in the process, I think it would be a powerful message. The game itself wouldn't be FUN per-se, but the fun/gameplay is sacrificed for artistic vision.

    Part of the problem is that I am probably interchangeably using the words fun and gameplay and I shouldn't.

    I think our problem is right now that we treat art as something that only exists in other mediums and that we don't have a unique type. I fully agree cinematics aren't particularly artistic, or at least, not in a way I couldn't get elsewhere. The strength of our medium is gameplay, so if we can tie our artistic vision to the gameplay itself, I think it's ok.

  5. i tend to think that artistic vision should be central to every game - this includes presentation, pace, mechanics, control, theme, and message.

    these attributes must be symbiotic - they must support and leverage each other. games are experiences defined not strictly by gameplay, but rather by the composite of many sensory and intellectual qualities.

    games combine few or many of these aspects - Tetris, WoW, Quake, Forza, Passage... hindrances can work in service of the overall gaming experience.

    conceptual limits imposed by market forces do not represent the bounds of the medium.