Wednesday, August 19

Enacting Experience Part 3: Don't Look Back

People debate whether or not video games are art. Honestly, it's a ridiculous question. I define art as anything that evokes emotion or provokes thought from the audience. Whether or not the creation of video games is an art form is equally debated. I believe that an art form is any medium in which artists, through inspiration, subconscious feeling, and a series of decisions, create works which can offer the evoking of emotion or provoking of thought from an audience.

As an aside, I will note that art is definitely not always intended to affect others; many people create things for themselves or at least lack any intent to evoke emotion/provoke thought. Art is also highly subjective. What may not affect one person may, to another, present a paradigm shift in life values. Who's to say? Artists can control the effect of their works only so much. Because of the inherent subjectivity of art, an artists intention with his or her work is difficult to define, excepting specific statement from the him or her. Art will be perceived as it will.

I think I've finally discovered the reason for all of the questioning behind the "are video games art" debate. There is an important distinction between what a medium does achieve and what it can achieve. Just because video games as they are commonly offered often do not evoke emotion does not mean the medium cannot evoke emotion.

The established ultimatum that games need to be fun has blinded us to the other emotions that games can evoke and the other qualities they can possess. So we look at games and ask, "on a scale of 1 to 10, how fun is this here video game?" And this question almost always comes first, before we ever ask "how is this game affecting me emotionally?" or "what is this game teaching me?"

It's a matter of status-quo. Publishers are trying to please the media and to make money, the media is trying to please the gamers, and the gamers are trying to please. . .themselves? What is for sure is that professional developers have a budget and have to please everyone, and if everyone thinks that fun and graphics are what makes a game "good" and what makes a game sell, then really, what choice do they have? With every layer of the video game strata preoccupied with pleasing the norms, not many have the luxury nor time to worry about the other potential emotional qualities of games, that is, save for the independent developers.

Terry Cavanagh of Distractionware brings us a beautiful game called Don't Look Back, a game that I feel is an ideal exemplifier of gameplay as a means of evoking emotion and, for that matter, provoking thought.
Before you read on, I highly recommended you play through the game, which can be played online or downloaded.

Like the brilliant You Have to Burn the Rope before it, or more similarly, Don't Shoot the Puppy!, Don't Look Back gives instruction in its title. If Metal Gear Solid is considered to be the cinema of video games, Don't Look Back must be its poetry. Titles in poetry are often pivotal to the understanding of a poem, even at the most basic level explaining the subject of the poem or cuing in readers on the setting or location. Neversoft's Gun is one example of an effective video game title that comes to mind . The title says it all, giving players a hint of not only the game's subject-matter but also what the gameplay might involve. Gun as a title may additionally imply the player-character's situation in the game world and the necessity of resorting to lethal action.

The title Don't Look Back has multiple meanings, explaining not only the game's rules but also, metaphorically, its messages. In an interview with GameCritics, Cavanagh explains that partial inspiration for Don't Look Back came from the greek mythological story of Orpheus, who traveled to the underworld to rescue and revive his deceased wife, Eurydice, but broke the rule of doing so and caused her to disappear forever by turning to look back at her before he was allowed. Similarly, once players retreive their wife in Don't Look Back, turning back will cause her to disappear. When players return to the grave, they find themselves already standing there, and both the player-character (who we'll call Orpheus for simplicity) and his wife disappear together.

To enact experience is to meld the content of something with the experiencing of it. The concept of "not looking back" functions in two ways: one, as a rule of the game, and two, metaphorically, a message about moving on. To me, the game symbolizes moving forward. Orpheus's descent into the abyss is a journey of mourning. As Cavanagh explains, Orpheus never physically leaves the grave, but has taken a fantastical journey, mentally and emotionally. His return trip to the grave, his wife following along, is a passage of reconcilement, of moving onward. The difficult descent, however, was first necessary to mourn his loss. When the player and the wife return to the grave, Orpheus's journey-self and his wife disappear, leaving the new Orpheus standing, having grieved and moved onward from his wife's passing. In this way, the game is a mourning process for Orpheus, allowing Orpheus to free his wife and to free himself.

What is so beautiful about this game is that its title, rules, and meaning all function as a single whole, each point reinforcing the others. Only in a video game does a person or audience have the opportunity to look back, and not only look back, but have that action support a message and theme of moving onward. The game's message is strong and impactful via the very simple gameplay rule mirroring it.

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