thoughts on interactive art

so it's half 11, i went to bed, and then thoughts happened and i couldn't sleep so i'm going to bash this out, see if it makes sense linearly, and then maybe try to rearrange some paragraphs and de-obfuscate anything that's too... obfuscated.

so all art is interactive. yes? any artwork is interpreted by the viewer automatically and they form thoughts on it. two people can experience the same piece and 'see' entirely different works based on their own culture, personality, experiences, whatever. what the intention was is important, and perhaps the only working definition of the quality of a piece of art is that the artists' inention is communicated to the audience. we don't need any more essays on interactive, artist-audience collaborations, accompanied by mediocre illustrative artworks, like a jigsaw puzzle where the audience can rearrange the artwork as they see fit, to drive the point home. that's fine if that's what you want to do, but making an artwork that 'explores' the relationship between the artist and the audience is liking making an artwork that eplores the relationship between a canvas and some paint, i.e. it's so bloody obvious that it doesn't need saying anymore, ok?

while we are on subject of 'good' art, a definition of art i like to play with is 'knowing when to break the rules'. craft, on the other hand, is easily appraised - a good table is one that doesn't tip your dinner onto your lap. anything beyond this - a table with an inscription, a painting, or even a table that deliberately spills your dinner into your lap, is art.

contrast this:

with this:
and i think you'll see what i mean.

so. as i said, all art is interactive, in that you have to interact with it to do anything with it.

so what's different about computer games, since being interactive is nothing new to art? they are different and i think what occurred to me as i lay me down to rest just now is i can think of one other medium of art that is interactive in a similar way: sheet music.

for years, sheet music was the dominant form of transmission for music before recordings became widely available. you could see live, community music just about anywhere, but most places had some form of instrument and scenes like this were commonplace:

(admittedly, it's less likely to have been a baby grand in a newyork penthouse)

sheet music isn't like a recording of music, that you put on and it plays through and entertains you, or helps you dodge the void for another half hour or so. sheet music doesn't do anything on it's own. you need to pick it up and play with it for it to come to life. it tells you what to do - it tells you how to use your hardware in a unique way to experience a particular work of art (or maybe the sheet music is the art itself? like a said above, if the sheet music is a good work of art, you should be able to experience the music as intended. now, whether that is a good work of art is another matter). if you want to practise the piece to get good at it, make mistakes at it, improvise on the piece, skip a bit out, do one bit over and over again because you like it - you're free to do that. and you have the same freedom with computer games.

linear games, like rail-shooter operation wolf or click-fest monkey island, have a set number of things that need to be done in a set order for them to be done 'right'. sandbox games give you the freedom to improvise - the much-discussed deus ex (10 years old this month), meaning you can play it your way if you want to. games tell you how to play the game right, but then give you the freedom to mess around if that's what you want to do. the freedom to express yourself. no one would claim that a dixie-land jazz musician, improvising on 'when the saints go marching in' is not expressing himself, just because s/he started with a set tune. so why not with computer games?

so the game itself is like the sheet music, and the console is like the instrument. of course, it is much, much harder to separate the game from the console, as one simply does not work without the other. but there is a strong analogy here.

where the analogy breaks down is that computer games not only let you play your own way; they respond to you, artificially intelligently. the game that made this notion jump out at me was street fighter 2; the game gives you opponents that try to avoid your attacks. it becomes recursive and reflective. this is in someways merely a simulation of a multi-player match, like this one (shit gets real 4 mins in):

or competitive dancing:

but in other ways, it represents an entirely new direction and innovation. not just a static puzzle like the towers of hanoi, or solitaire; not just the rules for a randomised card game you can play yourself, something that takes what you're doing, and feeds it back to you. or at least, appears to, or has the potential to. think i'm loosing the thread here.

and what i love about computer games is that dying (when you can die) is just as valid an ending as completing the game - no game illustrates this more perfectly than planescape: torment, for reasons that it is famous for. this game also illustrates the other potential perfection of computer games, which is the overlap they have with interactive fiction; multiple potential storylines, all perfectly justifiable, just like the potential interpretations of a tune. of course, the rare times we have been offered environments with truly emergent gameplay are much closer to musical freedom, but we're only just starting out here. the question is whether games will continue to give us that opportunity.

however, my worry with games is that while the call of dutys and the halos of this world fulfil the role of action-packed-blockbuster films, we get works of subtle quality too; the game equivalent of 'tilsammens', that gives you the depth and charm of a film like that. or maybe some works of art are suited to different media?

i think that's a train of thought for another night. and so is 'computer games are more like tv shows than films, and should be structured accordingly'.
so yes, in conclusion or something, i reckon computer games are more like sheet music than traditional works of 'linear' art. do i need a conclusion?
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