The Gaming Arts Art of the Game

The Gaming Arts Art of the Game
As the current-gen rolls into the next, the aging Playstation 2 is the unlikely home to one of gaming’s most visually stunning efforts — an interactive painting on virtual parchment called Okami. As Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, in the form of a white wolf, players navigate a landscape designed to look like traditional Japanese inked drawings and watercolours.

"Our aim was to make the game screen look like a living piece of art, a painting come to life, which is a very difficult thing to do,” explains Clover’s president Atsushi Inaba, who notes that it’s not straight cel-shaded graphics (as seen in Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker) but the details are "a company secret.”

"An important theme of the game is experiencing the beauty of nature. If it was photo-realistic, you could go outside to the mountains or somewhere and experience the real thing. But Okami is the only place you can experience nature as seen through the special lens of our design team.”

Not only does Okami’s design appear hand-drawn, but the latest effort from Capcom’s ever-stylised Clover Studio (Viewtiful Joe) even uses an onscreen paintbrush to cast calligraphic spells that, Inaba explains, "ties the graphics in with the gaming experience itself.”

With its unique visual design and Japanese mythology-soaked storyline, Okami has reignited that long-running debate: can games be art? In the music community, the same argument has become a battle between "rockists” and "popists.” The former believe commercially-driven pop doesn’t meet the standards of art — it makes you dance, they say, but not think — while the latter figure end-use is irrelevant.

But when this conversation enters the videogame world, it’s not about genre bickering between platformers and first-person shooters, but whether any game at all should count.

Last February, an exhibit in Toronto dubbed "Controller: Artists Crack The Game Code” featured Myfanwy Ashmore’s "Mario Trilogy,” which were hacked versions of the original Super Mario. For many people, the mere placing of Nintendo’s pixilated plumber in a gallery suddenly transformed a "toy” into legitimate art.

But that means almost a century after Marcel Duchamp threw a urinal on a wall and called it Fountain — creating what has been declared "the most influential modern art work of all time” — people still don’t get the Dadaist’s point, which was that creative process is what matters and anything can be "art.”

Movies once faced a similar prejudice. With early films like the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at a Station it was enough to simply make a picture move and there was little indication of the sophistication to follow.

Yet last year movie critic Roger Ebert casually derided videogames as "inherently inferior to film and literature.” Ebert’s position was based on the loss of "authorial control” thanks to gaming’s inherent interactivity. "That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, videogames represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilised and empathetic.”

It’s a cloistered view shared by many who associate videogames with childhood playthings because, well, they’re called games. One might think that notion would’ve been put to rest years ago with titles like Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s REZ, an abstract techno music-based shooter inspired by Russian painter Kandinsky, or Fumito Ueda’s Ico, a brilliantly designed and realised platformer famed for its washed-out colours and ability to evoke emotion.

Yet not only is there no consensus in the general population, many game designers themselves are eager to distance themselves from an art label. Metal Gear Solid producer Hideo Kojima has said a videogame "is something of a service, it’s not art” and, surprisingly, Okami producer Inaba agrees.

"Maybe people are just throwing the word ‘art’ around too loosely. It feels like a lot of games that simply break the mould of traditional gameplay are labelled as such, but we do not feel like it is appropriate. We are simply making a game here.”

When asked the difference between art and entertainment — an age-old question that will likely never have a definitive answer — Inaba believes "that is up to the people creating it. As soon as someone labels his or her work as ‘art’ then there is no need for anyone besides the creator to understand it.”

Certainly aping traditional artistic styles does not make something art, but being enjoyed and entertained by something similarly doesn’t preclude it from being considered so. In the end, it’s all semantics because the cultural object remains the same regardless of what box we put it into.

But in answering where Okami’s developers drew inspiration for its creation, Inaba eloquently opined, "I would have to say it is probably our ‘blood’ [soul] as Japanese people.” Inaba may not want games to be seen as art, but he sure doesn’t sound like a programmer.

Other Distractions

Prey (2K/Human Head/Venom) PC/Xbox 360
During the mid-’90s, when Quake and Duke Nukem ruled the gaming world, a first-person shooter was announced called Prey. A mere 11 years later, Prey has been caught. The storyline is typical FPS — abducted by aliens, trapped on a ship filled with aliens, must kill aliens — but the Cherokee Indian protagonist adds a nice twist, since a little native culture is incorporated into the game play. Not only is there a falcon spirit guide to scout ahead but instead of being shunted to an old save point when you die, you can "spirit walk” and play a small ancestor-based mini-game en route back to your body. Prey might not feel like the revolutionary game FPS fans waited for, but it’s icky, surreal and fun, which is enough.

Lord of the Rings: Battle For Middle Earth II (Electronic Arts) Xbox 360
As enjoyable as the Lord of the Rings games were, those hack’n’slash titles hewed too closely to the film’s familiar narrative. Not only does a Real-Time Strategy version get you off the Fellowship’s beaten path, but EA bought the license to Tolkien’s books, incorporating previously unseen locations and characters. Thanks to the 360’s extra oomph and smart use of the controller, this marks not only the first successful RTS on any console but an improvement on the months-old PC version’s online multiplayer. The genre can still seem like a chore to more action-oriented gamers, but running an entire war campaign turns you into Peter Jackson.

Steambot Chronicles (Irem/Atlus) Playstation 2
It begins with an amnesiac hero named Vanilla washed up on a beach, but from this clichéd beginning a unique experience rolls out. Or rather trots. Though you can also travel by foot, Steambot replaces cars or horses with Trotmobiles, two-legged, eminently pimp-able mech suits that use Katamari-style dual-analogue controls and can both march about and do battle. Though there’s a branching storyline, depending on whether you play nice or not, it’s sandbox-style game play is open-ended enough to keep players plenty busy with side-quests. You can just as easily join a band of bandits (Killer Elephants) as join a rock band (Garland Globetrotters) and when it comes to making money, you can trade stocks, farm food or bust out your harmonica to busk on street corners. This quaint and quirky Japanese role-playing game is essentially a kindler, gentler Grand Theft Auto for the anime set. In fact, they’ve even included a hilarious "hot cocoa” reference when you’re out on a date.

Dead Rising (Capcom) Xbox 360
A disclaimer on the box may disingenuously declare no connection between Dead Rising and George Romero’s 1978 low-budget horror classic Dawn of the Dead, but you’ll be way too busy mowing your way through Willamette’s zombie-infested shopping mall to bother drawing lines between dots. Besides, the much-loved Resident Evil series gives Capcom considerable undead cred. As intrepid photojournalist Frank West, you’ve been airlifted into a quarantined town filled with struggling survivors and the zombies who love them (or at least love to eat them). The temptation is to simply wander the mall, explore the stores and kill at will considering every fathomable object—from pistols to pans to parasols—can be used to slice, dice, bludgeon and otherwise gorily dispatch the hundreds of slow-moving corpses that fill the screen thanks to the 360’s next-gen tech. But DR is a sandbox title with a time-limit—that helicopter is returning in 72 hours and if you haven’t solved the mystery of the zombie epidemic by then it’s still game over. Making matters worse is a frustratingly stingy save function that threatens to turn you yourself into a mindless monster because messing up a mission can force you to re-start from the beginning (albeit as a more powerful player). Capcom’s defense is that it makes the game more challenging, which is true, but considering how much incredibly detail went into constructing this massive mall is, a true free-roaming option would have been nice. Still, a minor complaint for a game that otherwise way exceeded expectations, gave the 360 a much-needed boost and provided horror fans with so much beautifully rendered bloodletting. Since a sequel is inevitable, hopefully they’ll, uh, not borrow from 28 Days Later so we can try tangling with some zippy zombies.