Forget ‘Can Games Be Art?’ – Can Art Be Like Games?

This bit’s pretentious, but work with me. I recently attended an installation by the Swiss artist Christoph Buchel in my home town of Glasgow. Buchel’s work involves setting up meticulously detailed scenes for his audience to explore, similar to a film set or theatre stage; in this exhibition, entitled  Last Man Out Turn Off Lights‘ we were able to walk through shabby football pubs, a prison and a hangar where a post-mortem is being carried out on a crashed plane. The installation creates a sense of unease – there’s a sense that you’re in a place where you’re not wanted, and the inhabitants might return any second.

I mention this because it got me thinking about games. I spend a lot of time exploring virtual environments that I’d never want to go in life: Rapture, City 17, Chernobyl, Silent Hill, The Ishimura…this is one of the things that makes the medium unique. Games offer the player the opportunity to live briefly in alien, threatening worlds – to conquer them and come back, unscathed, to reality, in the same way that Buchel’s work takes his audience to dark (though more realistic) places.

I had a similar experience the same weekend while watching Inception at the movies. There’s a scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character discusses the principles of constructing a dream. He explains how the paths the dreamers take can be closed off or looped round to draw them along a particular path, something that’ll be familiar to anyone with experience of first-person games – think of the way Half-Life 2 presents a whole world to the player, even though their path through it is fixed. Both the Buchel installation and Nolan’s (terrific, btw) movie offer unusual cultural experiences, but elements of them will be immediately familiar to gamers.

Gaming is a relatively young medium looking for acceptance and the titles promoted as ‘art’ still tend to ape film and fiction. But rather than creating ‘interactive movies’, developers should focus on creating experiences that immerse us in ways that film and fiction can’t. A BioShock or Dead Space movie could be great (though past experience tells us otherwise) but it would be a very different way of telling that story. Wandering through the empty Rapture Metro, piecing together events by looking at the flickering departures board, the abandoned luggage and protest placards, all the while being stalked by one of its vengeful inhabitants, is an intense experience that a film could only convey a fraction of. If games focus on their own strengths, maybe they’ll win Roger Ebert over, after all.

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