Press X to Continue (Part 2)

A Roundtable on Games & Art by Juan Barquin, Kambole Campbell, Forrest Cardamenis, Cole Kronman, Esther Rosenfield

JB: I’d like to use this notion of “having fun” as a jumping-off to switch gears a bit. At the start of this roundtable, each of us was asked to select a game to discuss. The choices were Destiny 2 (Kambole), Final Fantasy (Juan), Hitman (Esther), Tower of Druaga (Cole), and Pathologic 2 (Forrest). Forrest, let’s start with yours. While many of us would more than likely find ourselves delighted by its challenge and misery, Pathologic 2 is the antithesis of what we consider a “fun” game. It’s literally designed to force you to figure out how to survive over twelve days, right?

FC: I think both Pathologic games—the second is more an enhanced remake of one of the first’s three playable characters than a sequel—are sometimes fun, but are not designed primarily to be fun. There was actually a controversy around the difficulty of Pathologic 2. Developers said outright that the difficulty is part of the intended experience and to alter it would hurt the game’s ability to express its ideas. It forces you to think about things beyond the level of immediate enjoyment you think you should get from a “game.” The expressivity and the artistry exist in the friction. It takes the most frequently used conventions of games—exploration of a 3D space, resource management, death/failure—and designs very difficult mechanics around them. All you do, really, is run around to deliver messages and goods, except you need to manage a bunch of different bars—health, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and infection—plus the game’s accelerated, unceasing time, and learn to survive in a complex in-game economy, in order to complete those quests. It’s impossible to complete them all, but you don’t necessarily know ahead of time how severe the consequences are for not doing any one thing.

I think what best encapsulates this intensified focus on resource management and subversion of typical game mechanics happens at the beginning. Day 1 is reasonably easy, and you have some money left over after it, but on Day 2 prices skyrocket to the point that your money is worthless. To add insult to injury, you then get a quest that requires you to carry money around on behalf of some of the town’s powerbrokers in order to buy food for children. But the money they give you, while far more than you had, does not even cover all your costs, and you need the food too since you can’t afford it otherwise. So you have to choose between completing the quest and starving or maintaining your body and facing the consequences of your actions. This isn’t a game about buying food to manage your hunger; this is a game about not having any of the money that you need to do that, and having to make tradeoffs that are far more meaningful than most games ever ask of you.

JB: The push-and-pull between action and inaction that defines survival in Pathologic 2 also ties pretty directly into how you can approach a game like Hitman, Esther’s choice. You’re provided a sandbox that gives you every possible option, but what steps you take to approach your goals will vary widely.

ER: I think Hitman is really interesting in relation to how Forrest described Pathologic 2. Every game is made of math and numbers. Mario’s jump is equivalent to a number that may or may not be enough to get over the gap. What’s great about Hitman—and I think is true of any great stealth game—is that it very much wants you to master the math of it all. When you enter a level, you’re Agent 47, you have one or two or three or four people you have to kill, and the game just says “Go!” Every character on the map has a route they follow, and if you just stand there, they’ll be on this route forever. It’s up to you as the player to intercede. The game gets more fun the more that you understand the clockwork way everything intersects. In the Paris level in the first Hitman game of the recently rebooted trilogy, you have two targets. One of them is always on the top floor and one of them is always on the bottom floor. One of the things that you can do is steal a remote that triggers fireworks, and that will make your target on the top floor go out to the balcony to watch and the target on the bottom floor will go out to the patio. You can push the target on the top floor off the balcony, and she’ll fall onto the other target, killing them both.

I love it. It’s a perfect example of understanding how the game will react to your input in a creative way. The game is designed to allow interactions like this to happen, and not always in a purely scripted way. Every level has something called “mission stories,” essentially different ways that the narrative of the level can play out. If you opt into one of them, the game will direct you how to arrange elements to cause certain methods of assassination. As you complete these mission stories, you learn more about your targets and the world they inhabit. But there’s only so many in every level, and eventually you have to come up with new ways, with your new understanding of how the level works, to approach it.

What’s unique about stealth games, though, is that they are so anti-action. Hitman really discourages it. In fact, in that Paris level, which is the first main level of the game, when you walk into the building, your target will walk down a big staircase right in front of you. You can just shoot him in the head, but guards will immediately descend and kill you. That’s a good teaching moment. The game is basically saying, “This isn’t an action game, this isn’t a game where your success is determined by how well you can aim your gun and get to cover.” It tells you, “Don’t even bother.” It’s asking you to approach it more like a logic problem. “How do you get the sheep and the wolf and the bag of grain across the river?”

CK: Hitman has been described as an “immersive sim,” because its world reacts to your actions in a very tactile, logical way. But would you agree that, to truly master it, you may have to put yourself at a distance? Memorizing the character paths and level design exposes the numbers, in a sense, and you can tackle it more as an observer than as a participant.

ER: I think “mastery” of any game, particularly one as open-ended as Hitman, will mean different things to different people. But it’s true that the confluence of stealth and immersive sim inevitably means that the more you understand the world the less you have to prod at it to get your desired outcome—or maybe, more accurately, “the more precise your prodding is.” A lot of people I know tell me that they struggle to get Hitman and games like it because you spend a lot of time in them waiting around. You slip poison in your target’s drink, but then you have to wait for him to come back and drink it. And to some people, that’s just totally antithetical to what they enjoy about video games. To me, though, it’s a great example of what makes them so beautiful.

JB: If Hitman is about deciphering the game’s fixed figures and paths, Kambole's choice, the action MMO Destiny 2, emphasizes the interactions that exist both inside and outside the game with other players. What benefits are there to games that are not limited to a single-player experience, where the actions of others impact your own experience and where everything is not created with the intent of your input being the be-all, end-all?

KC: I purposefully went with a choice that is harder to justify in the conversation of art. Naturally, it's the one that I'm playing all the time: Destiny 2, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. I picked multiplayer as I had been thinking a lot about games as a unique space to tell stories and create your own stories, not just through gameplay, but also through community. I'd also been thinking about it as a game which has aspirations in several different mediums. Destiny 2 has “cinematic” aspirations in the construction of its cutscenes, televisual ones in its long-running, seasonal story, and then there’s also vast literature detailing lore and stories and character studies that exist separately from the game space itself. A lot of the time you’ll go to external sites like Ishtar Collective to read them in full. We already talked a little bit about compartmentalization and how there’s no real uniform way to talk about games, and to me Destiny 2 feels representative of that in how many different pieces and mediums and modes of engagement are Frankensteined together.

Like in other MMOs or more regular RPGs there are people who enjoy creating fashion through their characters. There are people who enjoy it purely for multiplayer, people who enjoy just the single player, people who just like the lore. But my first thought when I picked it was that multiplayer made it significant in my rotation of games—I don’t regularly play any other multiplayer games, or engage with gameplay in a group with anything else. To get the community I needed, I started using Discord, and that began to shape my experience of playing Destiny 2. So while there’s this ongoing narrative told by the writers, the story of Destiny 2 is just as much about the ones you create with other people. A lot of art you view in community anyway, but not a lot of art forces you into it as a means of access, and the way this game’s end-game content is structured is meant to provoke that—there are levels that you simply cannot complete by yourself, or complete without communicating.

It’s also interesting because it’s one of the biggest examples I can think of that expresses the friction between business and art in video games. It’s funny because the story is often about the agony of existing forever, but also it’s a game that you practically subscribe to through yearly expansions and quarterly “seasonal” stories. Destiny itself exists into perpetuity (it’s the final boss of video games, because you never win). While I’ve sung the merits of engaging with video games as a community, the constant interaction between the developers and that player base is a transactional exchange rather than an artistic one. Developers make tweaks to make players happy. On top of that, there are the usual pitfalls of the “free-to-play” model, like microtransactions. Competitive multiplayer could be said to exist in the realm of sport instead of art. There’s a lot to filter out to get to an actual artistic experience.

But then again, the same could be said with comic books. And if we’re using film as a baseline comparison, that’s also one where we have to wrestle with blatantly commercial impulses—with blockbusters in particular.

JB: So are games entirely unique in how multiplayer would impact the experience of “ingesting” this kind of art, or is there an analogue to this when comparing it to how we engage with films?

KC: It’s like if you walked up to a ticket office and asked someone standing in line with you to talk about it afterwards. Films are made to watch in community with people, but unless you're going with someone specifically, it can still be solitary. I suppose if someone yells something at the screen that becomes a story. Someone (Emile Mosseri) mentioned the episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza yells “that’s gotta hurt!” and said that in doing so, he became a part of the film for the people who were there. Maybe multiplayer is that, but writ large.

ER: This is interesting in how it goes back to the Roger Ebert argument. He infamously made the case that games can’t be art because art is something that is made by a person and received by an audience, and that relationship goes one way. Because games are participatory, he said, that is anti-art. What you’re talking about is something that we probably all agree with, which is that what makes games art is that people bring themselves to it. People are able to create narratives and find emotional investment and these things that come from them, are inspired by the game more than just a reaction to it. The act of interpretation in a movie is the closest you get to how you interact with a video game. Sure, a movie can be one thing, but people can have conflicting interpretations because of what they’re bringing to it. Something unique about games is that they are, by their nature, saying something different—in little nuanced ways—to every single person who plays them.

FC: There are also films that hardly fit Ebert’s paradigm, like Line Describing a Cone. But, for argument’s sake, it’s way easier to fit Pathologic 2 into that framework than Destiny 2. It’s interactive, sure, and you can’t just remove those interactive aspects from the game’s story, but Destiny 2 is on the opposite end of the spectrum. You’re posing, I think, an alternative framework that looks at how a designed space encourages particular social patterns or responses rather than how it provokes the emotional or intellectual response (as we tend to more conventionally use those terms when discussing art) that is actually a component of architectural art.

KC: Destiny 2 is definitely more of a “game” in the traditional sense than Pathologic 2, in the way you’ve described it. I understated the extent to which the game is trying to tell you a story through the environments it creates and through the level design itself. But a lot of the time you're figuring out things together, which is the primary experience of the game for me.

JB: I’ll use this as an opportunity to jump to Cole’s game, Tower of Druaga, because so much of what we have already discussed in depth here with new games is actually present in this arcade game from the early 1980s.

CK: A brief explanation of Druaga is probably necessary. It was first released as an arcade cabinet in 1984. You play as a knight, and the goal is to get through mazes by unlocking doors. Each maze has a unique “secret item.” Some are required to complete the game, others just make your character more powerful. The requirements for these items are fairly straightforward at first: defeat two enemies, block three spells with your shield. The further you go, the more opaque they become: defeat only one type of enemy, touch a particular part of the wall. Later mazes have you entering precise button combinations and defeating enemies in very specific orders.

Crucially, the game never tells you any of this. The idea is that you’d be playing it in an arcade, and you’d get stuck, and then someone with prior Druaga knowledge would tell you how to proceed. Then you’d absorb that knowledge and would be able to do the same for other people. It was both a game and a social experience, and the social experience wasn’t actually bound to the game itself. Druaga was technically single-player, and it never explicitly suggested cooperation. But completing it alone was practically impossible, and it could only be accessed in an environment where players would always be surrounded by other people.

I don’t believe he’s ever said anything quite to this effect, but I imagine the game’s designer, Masanobu Endo, approached it much like an art installation: something that you can admire conceptually in any context, but which can only be fully appreciated and understood in a very particular, curated context. And that context doesn’t exist anymore. Druaga came out in 1984, when arcades were still thriving and looking up answers online was impossible. We’ve discussed how, because of the medium’s interactive nature, everyone’s experience with a game will be wholly unique. Druaga is designed around this notion, and encourages its players to work toward a shared understanding of it through mutual exchange of those experiences.

KC: What you’re saying about this game’s opacity in forcing player collaboration is pretty much my experience of Destiny 2, and why I thought to include it, for all its flaws. The raids have these opaque mechanics with very esoteric solutions, and that leads to the creation of groups that have “sherpas” who shepherd new players. A lot of the most gratifying parts of Destiny 2 are designed to actively discourage isolation. It forces you to communicate through esoteric puzzle solutions; it creates roles of teacher and student, and through that you learn the mechanics, the language of the game. You have someone teaching you how to interact with the game, and the idea is that you learn it enough to then pay it forward in the exact same way that you're describing. So it's really cool to hear about that same interaction in a pre-internet context.

CK: That actually echoes a phenomenon that sprang up around Druaga. Notebooks that players could write tips in were placed next to the cabinets in Japanese arcades. The original strategy guides. This love of discovery and information sharing still drives so much of our interest in games. There’s this intrinsic satisfaction in uncovering parts of games you didn’t know existed. It’s what made Myst and the original Legend of Zelda so compelling. It’s why there was a huge community-driven push to find new secrets in Shadow of the Colossus years after its release. I remember Fez sparking a mass collaborative code-breaking effort online when it was released in 2013. Just last month, all of us were gleefully sharing our Tears of the Kingdom discoveries with one another in a group chat.

Notably—sorry, putting a quarter in the Dark Souls jar here—it’s one of the reasons so many people love Dark Souls. In fact, Dark Souls, with its asynchronous online messaging, probably comes closest to approximating what Druaga would look like in a modern context. Souls games purposely obfuscate so much information, and then include a built-in hint system that’s only usable via communication with other players. Again, a collective understanding of the game takes shape. I think there’s resonance here with what Esther said earlier about people bringing themselves to games, treating them as a mode of expression. When that expression is shared with others, it can further enrich the experience.

JB: So much of this discussion has been about how the games of the past are still relevant, how these traditions have survived, and how, even when they evolve, they retain many of the charms of past works. And I think Final Fantasy will, ultimately, always be my ideal way to track the ever-shifting history of games. Each new entry fits neatly into its place in history, in how contemporaneous influences mold their aesthetics and in how they build upon the mechanics of past installments. Final Fantasy XVI is as much a product of a landscape in which Game of Thrones has (rather unfortunately) defined what “fantasy” in fiction should look like as it is a game that continues to follow the traditions of its predecessors (right down to one of the core characters being named Cid, a trademark NPC of Final Fantasy games).

With each new installment comes an ever-expanding lore of what a Final Fantasy game looks like, something that continues to be built on, challenged, or subverted from one game to the next. Something like Final Fantasy X isn’t just riveting because of its ambitious narrative but also because of the updates in graphics (the leap from PS1 to PS2 was breathtaking) and gameplay (introducing the Conditional Turn-Based Battle system that felt like a fresh spin on the turn-based battles and active time battles of the past). Decades later, the creative teams at Square Enix are actively rewriting their very histories, down to Tetsuya Nomura’s Final Fantasy VII Remake literally forcing its characters to kill the arbiters of fate that seek to contain them within the narrative of the original game.

These self-referential games are some of the most interesting to me when it comes to the contemporary landscape of gaming because, even though this medium is still in its infancy, there are already auteurs in the field (beyond Hideo Kojima and his Metal Gear games) that are participating in conversations with both their own work and that of others. Yoko Taro does this to great effect with Nier, which surprises the player by shifting gears throughout—at one point morphing into a text-based adventure game, at another a Resident Evil–style fixed-camera-angle mystery game, and at another a Final Fantasy VII dungeon—and even forces the player to replay it to discover new (and true) endings.

Another example can be found in a series people often deride: Kingdom Hearts. Not only does the series precede the “multiverse” trend in the way it takes Final Fantasy characters and Disney characters and shoves them together into an ever-expanding universe, but it has created its own metaseries in sequels and spin-offs that are consistently toying with both the elaborate narrative of the series as well as adapting and shifting the gameplay from console to console.

That every one of these auteurs is also deeply committed to turning what are ostensibly games for children and teenagers into “melancholy studies of identity and existence with no easy answers” is part of why the games appeal to me; it’s what I’m drawn to in art and why I’ll never cease to be entertained by video games, even when they feature Donald Duck. That said: it does not escape me that this meta/multiverse only exists because of Disney and Square’s combined greed, their desperation to exploit every single original idea for profit. But I think it’s a testament to the creators that they manage to create art in the face of commercialism.

CK: It’s easy, and maybe necessary, to regard Kingdom Hearts with some cynicism, but I think what makes it interesting is the fact that—at least in the first few games— there’s an obvious reverence for what those classic Disney films were doing narratively, and that’s reflected in the work. Final Fantasy pulls from other mediums, too—you mentioned fixed camera angles, and that’s a great example. The original Final Fantasy VII’s designers had a keen eye for artful composition in a 4:3 frame, and every single screen of that game visually communicates something about its world or characters to the player. So it can be rewarding to play through these games and see how all of those influences from other art forms translate. Even when it doesn’t work, there’s almost always thought behind it.

KC: I think this loops nicely back to what we were saying about video games being almost unquantifiable, even within the same series—Final Fantasy being a series that is so mutable. Not to mention how it uses those new gameplay styles to communicate things. I saw a really nice point in the Eurogamer review of Final Fantasy XVI about the conceit of the lone hero, that being the primary agent of change is isolating as much as it's empowering. And it expresses that through the less party-focused gameplay.

It’s nice when gameplay is taken seriously as a mode of expression, something onto which you can project a reading, because it can often feel like something “video gamey” comes with a negative connotation. It doesn’t help that the term is used pejoratively in film criticism. So striving to be “cinematic” or “realistic” becomes the goal instead, and that sidelines those idiosyncrasies that make games artistically valuable.