[link] If the job of an artist is to lure people away from the easy thrills (entertainment) towards more substantial and challenging experiences (art), then what separates things on this continuum? Is it the same across medium? Like, what makes the difference between an artful video game and an entertaining video game?
Let’s just think about what makes a game entertaining. For starters, it’s probably incredibly formulaic - in plot and in mechanics (point in case: Call of Duty). There are probably lots of little things that trigger the more primeval parts of your brain: the accumulation of points, the triggering of explosions, the building of suspense and anticipation, etc. and soon you’re sitting, with dilated pupils and sweaty palms, completely immersed. That’s OK.
Those are easy buttons to press. They’re the entertainment buttons, and games are getting as good as Hollywood in pushing them.
But if formula and animal drives are what entertainment is founded on, what’s on the other side? Let’s consider Braid, which is a sort of classic example of a game that deliberately breaks with traditional games. It has its own unique features and conventions - after all, it is a game, and games are, at their most basic, sets of rules. To play a game, you explore the rules. But what happens as you and Braid enter into this relationship is a different experience, a different feeling. It’s not a visceral thrill - it’s actually profoundly frustrating at times. Its difficulty has very little to do with the number or variety of bad guys in your way. And what bits of convention it does borrow - the Mario world, complete with man-eating plants, jumping attacks, and sidescrolling - are subverted, subtly.
Playing Braid sets you loose in an uncanny valley of gaming, where things are just different enough to be unsettling. The music is probably the most obvious example of what’s different: instead of the major-key happiness of 8-bit Super Mario, the soundtrack is a complex and very gently sad cello composition. When you rewind time - another of Braid’s unique conventions - it becomes that much more haunting and evocative and truly unusual.
The difference between Braid and Modern Warfare 3 has very little to do with content or rules or storyline. Modern Warfare 3 definitely has a much longer script than Braid. Both games respect the fact that every action, every scene, every character and interaction with that character, can be imbued with a feeling.
The feeling that Infinity Ward sought out, though, can start to feel a little thin after a while. Like, very thin. It can feel “how did I spend 7 hours playing that?” thin. And that’s OK. It really is. But it’s not all there is, in the same way - to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, again - that you can’t just eat candy forever and expect yourself to feel truly satiated and not expect to be scurvy-ridden and anemic.
No matter what clever, viscerally pleasing substitutes that get offered up in a game that lacks emotional and intellectual substance, those are still just sugary distractions from the harder and more trying things that every human life inevitably comes back to. Sometimes we need a dose, but we have so much of that in every corner of our culture that now it’s time that we focus on making something real - something unsolved and conflicting, something that’s still about feeling, but not about reaction. Something to hold and weigh and roll back and forth for a while after we encounter it. Something that doesn’t burn out quick, but which starts new fires.