Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘video games

The Way of Mario

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Super Mario Galaxy

First, a confession: I’m not a gamer. Like most members of my generation, I spent countless hours on the original Nintendo console, and I’ve already expounded at length on my mastery of Tetris. Later, however, my knowledge of new platforms and games diminished, and it’s only recently, with the help of the invaluable Virtual Console on the Wii, that I’ve begin to fill in the gaps in my gaming education. One of these days, I’m finally going to tackle Ocarina of Time, but for now, I’ve been working through most of the landmarks in the Mario series. Other games have come and gone, but Mario is the modern equivalent of the movies that Disney released in the golden age of animation: he represents the collective resources of an entire studio, lavished on a character who will always serve, for better or worse, as the face of the company. As a result, the Mario games tend to be playgrounds for innovation, as channeled through the demands of a flagship franchise that sets the tone for the industry as a whole. And any consideration of video games as art really needs to begin with this humble little plumber.

In some ways, the fact that I’m little more than a gaming dilettante allows me to look more objectively at the question of whether such games can be regarded as an art form. Generally, discussions of the artistic value of gaming have centered on elaborate open world titles like Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption that require enormous patience to fully explore. For an outsider, the prospect of investing hundreds of hours on a game can seem daunting, for much the same reason that many of us hesitate before committing to the full run of a novelistic television series like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, which really needs to be experienced from beginning to end. For the members of any obsessive fanbase, the object of their adoration always seems, by definition, like a form of art that demands attention and respect, to the point where it isn’t worth debating. But just as there are television shows that can delight and surprise a casual viewer without feeling like homework, it’s worth singling out those games that reveal their pleasures at once, while also rewarding an extended period of engagement.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

This is all by way of preface to saying that the two games in the Super Mario Galaxy series have provided me with more sustained joy than just about any work of art I’ve encountered over the last few years. They’ve also given me new insights into storytelling, which might seem strange for a pair of games that consist of little more than a string of fascinating puzzles built around the rescue of a thinly defined princess. I’ve spoken before about the fractal nature of a show like Mad Men, which can be appreciated on the level of an entire series, a single season, or an individual episode. Galaxy has some of the same granular quality: with few exceptions, any stage of any level is a delight to play, and they add up to a universe of dazzling richness and invention. As a review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 in Edge puts it: “It reuses assets, but almost never recycles ideas; you’ll never see another title so thrifty, or so gratuitous.” “Generous” would be the word I’d use: these games change radically at every turn, but also work as unified wholes, thanks to their gorgeous art direction, character design, and music, as well as a relentless focus on the player’s experience. For all their complexity, we’re never lost for long, and the challenges are scaled and introduced with a grace that can only be achieved through endless testing and refinement.

And if this isn’t art, I don’t know what is. At this point, it seems clear that video games are what animation was eighty years ago: the great collaborative art form of a new century, overseen by a handful of geniuses, that innovates in ways that will inevitably trickle down to other media. That said, the hoary predictions that video games would lead to a revolution in interactive storytelling strike me as misguided: a great novel or movie doesn’t gain much from viewer participation, and any attempt to push them in that direction usually ends up feeling gimmicky or worse. But just as the great Disney movies shaped the look, technical effects, and narrative choices of countless other arts—you can see their influence on everyone from Thomas Pynchon to Powell and Pressburger—it would be equally careless of contemporary artists to ignore the contributions of a major creative industry that occupies the bleeding edge of coordinated, large-scale storytelling. Their impact is bound to be indirect and unpredictable, and so transformed in the process that their influence is hard to see. But at their best, they’ve raised the bar for all of us.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

The Legend of Miyamoto

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For reasons known only to itself, The New Yorker has evidently decided that the best way to write about video games is to assign these stories to writers who emphatically have no gaming experience. This approach, which wouldn’t be tolerated for any other art form, high or low, has already resulted in this notorious article by Nicholson Baker—one of my favorite living writers, but clearly unequipped to say anything interesting about Red Dead Redemption. And now we have Nick Paumgarten’s disappointing profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, which is a huge missed opportunity, in more ways than one.

Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario and Zelda franchises and the greatest video game designer of all time, has often been compared to Walt Disney, an accolade he shares with his fellow genius Hayao Miyazaki. (Miyamoto and Miyazaki also share a deep nostalgia for the forests and villages of rural Japan, an abiding affection that shows up throughout their work.) Miyamoto is an artist, a storyteller, an engineer, and a visionary, and he’s exactly the sort of creative force that the readers of The New Yorker ought to know more about. The fact that Paumgarten scored only a brief interview with Miyamoto, which he pads out to feature length with pages of unenlightening digressions, is only the most disappointing thing about the profile. A single glimpse of one of Miyamoto’s sketches for Zelda would be more interesting than anything on display here.

Still, there are a few moments worth mentioning. Here’s Miyamoto on calibrating the difficulty of a game, and how important it is to incorporate quiet moments alongside every challenge:

A lot of the so-called action games are not made that way…All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?…[In Miyamoto’s own games] you are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that can be a joy.

This is especially good advice for writers in genres, such as suspense, that place a premium on intensity. A few strategically timed breaks in the action, which give the reader a moment of breathing room, can make the rest of the novel read much more quickly. The key, as Miyamoto knows, is putting yourself in the position of a person approaching a work of art for the first time:

I always remind myself, when it comes to a game I’m developing, that I’m the perfect, skillful player. I can manipulate all this controller stuff. So sometimes I ask the younger game creators to try playing the games they are making by switching their left and right hands. In that way, they can understand how inexperienced the first-timer is.

Similarly, once a writer has internalized the plot of a novel, it can be hard to see it with fresh eyes. One solution is to set the book aside for a month and read it again once the memory of the story has faded. Another approach, which I’ve done a few times, is to read a sequence of chapters in reverse, or at random, which often reveals problems or repetitions that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Finally, here’s Paumgarten on one of my favorite topics, the importance of constraints as a creative tool:

Mario, [Miyamoto’s] most famous creation, owes his appearance to the technological limitations of the first Donkey Kong game. The primitive graphics—there were hardly enough pixels to approximate a human form—compelled Miyamoto to give Mario white gloves and red overalls (so that you could see his arms swing), a big bushy mustache and a red hat (to hide the fact that engineers couldn’t yet do mouths or hair that moved), and a big head (to exaggerate his collisions). Form has always followed functionality. The problem now, if you want to call it one, is the degree of functionality. [Italics mine.]

This is a nice, crucial point. And it applies to more than video games. The limitations that made Mario so distinctive are the same ones that led to the look of Mickey Mouse, among so many other stars of early animation. One problem with the recent availability of beautifully rendered computer graphics is that character design is becoming a lost art. Even the best recent Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks films have suffered from this: they can render every hair on a character’s head, but can’t make the character itself a memorable one. (Kung Fu Panda may be the last computer-animated movie with really distinctive character designs.)

So are video games art? Paumgarten glances at the subject only briefly, but with all due respect to Roger Ebert, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best video games are indeed art. At least, that’s the only explanation I have for something like Super Mario Galaxy, which is one of the few recent works, in any medium, that has filled me with something like my childhood envy for those who get to spend their lives telling stories. (The J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek is another.) Miyamoto’s great skill, as the article reminds us, is to bring us back to the best moments of our childhood. And while not all art needs to aspire to this, the world definitely needs art that does.

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