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Batman, Auteurism and Supreme Court Decisions! Oh My!

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July 12th, 2011 at 5:44 am

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Events are brewing in the world of gaming dear readers. Big events. Sure, I suppose that’s pretty common – something’s always happening somewhere.

But one of these events is of a political nature, so it would be remiss of we members of the Reform Committee to let them slip past without comment, as you might with a very attractive call gir- I mean . . . er, there’s no way any upstanding citizen would let anything slip by our ever vigilant gaze! Never!

So let’s take a look at a trend that’s been building, and a little decision made recently by the Supreme Court of these United States shall we?

But first, some old business.

Um, not THAT old.

After the intense scrutiny given to the issue of health regeneration in video games, a faithful reader sent me an email that posed a solid question. Rephrased for time it boiled down to:

“If regeneration is so terrible, what’s the best way to do health recovery in a game then, smart guy?”

Firstly, thank you for recognizing my intelligence.

Secondly, the obvious answer is that there isn’t a best or perfect method that will fit all games. Ideally, every game should use a system that is tailored to the experience, and hopefully newer methods for health systems are currently being devised by the game developers of the world to increase the sheer number of options available in the future.

However, that’s kind of boring, so if I had to pick one, I’d say the absolute best health system currently out there is the one featured in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Why?

What he said.

Though the “Goddamn Batman” he might be, for many years Bruce Wayne’s track record in gaming was . . . less than great, one could say. If they were being generous. If they weren’t, they’d say that almost every Batman game prior to Arkham Asylum contained more suck than Vampire Kirby at a Vacuum convention.

Thankfully though, Arkham Asylum broke the curse of terrible Batman games with its strong narrative, excellent combat, well constructed level design, and thrilling stealth. But one thing it also had going for it, was a beautiful solution to health recovery.

It was incredibly simple actually: you recovered health in equal measure to experience gained. You earned experience for all sorts of things; from beating up bad guys to discovering collectibles or solving the little puzzles left for you by the Riddler. At first this may not seem a big deal, but it solved a lot of problems.

First, it was already tied to something you would gain and want anyway – experience points. Second, if you walked away from a fight injured and low on health it provided an added incentive to explore the game and discover the many hidden items tucked away, as this was also HOW you got health back. Third, if you were in the middle of a fight, it meant that the fastest way to get some HP back was to quickly knock out another opponent, thus promoting swift conflict resolution and aggression. Finally, since the game had a multiplier for experience based off not getting hit, the best way to get the most health back was to actually play the game better!

So . . . it promoted exploration, aggressive actions over cowardly ones, and improvement to your game skill, AND was tied into a system you’d already want to maximize?

Elegantly simple, and brutally effective.

Both accurate descriptors of the game in general, actually.

If there’s a problem with this method, it might be that it really only makes sense FOR Batman. Or at least for brawlers, where the vast amount of damage received is from punches and kicks and the like, so you could just say Batman is “shrugging off the blows” due to his immense willpower. It makes less sense in games where you’re getting shot or stabbed . . . but then health systems rarely worry about this sort of thing, so I dunno.

Anyways, this is not the topic we’re looking for.

Move along. Move along.

One of the major points that’s been made in the whole “games not being a valid form of art” argument is that there are no gaming auteurs, or at least none that go un-neutered.

I’m not going to go completely into what an “Auteur” is other than to say the basic idea for those not in the know, is that in film, despite the fact that movies are usually made by many, many people, one person (most often the director) holds the process together and it is their vision and desires that shape the final work into something that reflects themselves. Or to put it incredibly simply: One dude (or dudette) is in charge, and it’s their movie.

The sentiment that there are none of these talented individuals in the gaming industry is true in part; many games are designed by committee, or publishers used executive control to stifle a personal vision from being fully manifest. Rarely was the moment in the last century where you could just play a game and know who made it before looking at the credits or without being told. Heck, early on, developers had to stick their names in as secrets if they wanted their names on a game at all!

However, if I can get a little Lady Galadriel on y’all: The world is changed. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. The world of gaming is changing, and soon none will be left to remember how it once was.

This guy remembers. But the chances of him passing the histories of gaming to his kids are the same as what he isn’t: slim.

As I mentioned in my review of Shadows of the Damned, we’ve hit a turning point, and officially entered a different era in gaming; where the auteur is going to be come more and more important. Shadows of the Damned just feels like an official “coming out party” to me. And it’s about ‘damned’ time.

Eh? Eh? Get it? “Damned” is . . . in the title? Ah forget it.

I’m not going to get into a big spiel as to why this happened, or go through the hidden history of the “secret” auteurs in gaming, or even debate whether or not it’s a good thing (and there is a very valid argument for why auteurs could be detrimental to games). I could easily spend entirely too much time on this subject and I still want to talk about other stuff today. Suffice to say I earnestly believe that an epochal shift has occurred over the last decade.

For one thing, thanks to the internet it’s now much easier to know exactly who is leading our games. Many (though certainly not all) of these folks have imparted signature styles of their own into their works, and since we can now track them more easily, we can see how they grow (or don’t) as auteurs. Heck, that’s not to mention the slowly (and I do mean slowly) rising importance of the indie games scene, which pretty much depend on individuals trying their best to bring their unique visions to life.

The major studios are just starting to catch on to this, so soon we’re going to be awash in gaming auteurs. With the next wave of game developers coming from schools now offering degrees in the game design, the surplus of ambitious kids wanting to be the next big thing will all but guarantee this becoming a permanent addition to the industry.

Tighten up those graphics

Behold the future geniuses of the next great art movement folks! They might not look like much yet, but give them time.

If you still don’t think we’ve reached this point then I simply ask: why not?

I’d also ask you to consider a few designers and their works. People like Fumito Ueda, a painter of pastoral tragedy; Ken Levine, a playwright who prefers the plot to engulf you; Warren Spector, who espouses a philosophy of designing problems instead of puzzles; consider these men and try to deny that more and more, we’re in an age of the auteur.

Mind you, even if you want to drink from my kool-aid supply, it doesn’t necessarily make identifying a gaming auteur any easier. If two games have similar art styles, it doesn’t necessarily mean a damn thing about the design of the game. Then there’s the fact that so many games actually are designed by committee, yet resemble another work that originally was an expression of personality and stylistic choice. How do you tell them apart?

Thankfully, benevolent Mayor Mike Haggar is here to give us some pointers!

Mike Haggar by Crowbrandon

  1. Since games are fundamentally rule sets, the main signature of a gaming auteur is how they craft the rules of the game, not if a game shares a similar art style with another.
  2. Since a genre could easily necessitate a specific rule set, a distinctive implementation or philosophy of the same rule set over multiple permutations of the same game aids in identifying a style of design.
  3. Since the mark of a great auteur is that they can be distinctive in multiple genres, themes are just as important as rules in identifying them (especially if rule sets must necessarily change due to genre shift).

Therefore: In order to best identify a gaming auteur they have to have led multiple games, possibly overseen at least one sequel or similar kind of game, and ideally, a few more games from different genres (which is quite rare).

Thanks Mr. Mayor!

Of course these are just some preliminary ideas on how to go about this, if you’d even want to. An in-depth investigation will need to be held if we want to really figure out the best ways to identify gaming auteurs at all, and debate the merits of the concept. For now, I’m going to tentatively file this under the {FUTURE TOPIC} folder.

Still, if we could, one day all the gaming connoisseurs and aficionados will have a nice clear method for looking at a developer’s string of games and being able to know their best works from their least, when they were constrained by publisher mandate and when they weren’t, and of course the time honored tradition of acting snooty around those that aren’t as well versed in the subject matter.

Art Critique of Sonic the Hedgehog

Personally, I prefer the early works of Yuji Naka, and anyone who doesn’t is obviously an unwashed heathen!

Unfortunately, even if gaming has and is going to promote more individual creative control more and more often, it still doesn’t settle that nagging question: are games art? After all, you can have a personal creative vision on building different types of sex toys for women over 60, that doesn’t mean that you’re making art, it just means you have a good sense of craftsmanship.

Which brings us to our final topic folks. . . the big ‘un.

Take it away, judge from Phoenix Wright!

Phoenix Wright Judge Supreme court Video Game ruling

Yes, by a 7-2 ruling, gaming is now protected under the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution. Legally, the medium is now the same as sculpture, painting or film. It is OFFICIALLY ART.

Again . . . it’s about damned time.

But what does this mean, really?

Well first off, hopefully gaming can no longer be used to further the political agendas of politicians pandering to generational fear and lawyers with about as much credibility as Cassandra trying to make a name for themselves and failing harder than Snooki at a spelling bee.

It also means that without a legal Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, developers are better able to defend their works on the grounds of artistic integrity. With such a precedent debacles such as the one over Six Days in Fallujah may never need to occur again.

This also sets a precedent with further connotations. Namely, if games are now legally art, can the artists apply for existing grants for the arts? A small enclave of game makers with better resources than current indie developers and no obligation to marketing teams or meeting sales figures is bound to generate some truly wild results.

EDIT: Apparently, this isn’t as theoretical as I thought, it’s already begun.

Most importantly though, it means that publishers and developers are now beholden to no one but themselves. They can no longer cowardly pretend that a controversial choice could set a precedent that would harm the medium. There is no longer a refuge in adolescent claims that “The Man” will stop you if you try to do anything new and groundbreaking. “The Man” is on your side!

Heck. He even wants to go out for burgers!

But with this new found protection and officially recognized legitimacy there also comes a responsibility: game makers must prove themselves worthy of having earned these rights.

With this protection, there will be no long feared backlash. No unjust banning. No fascistic enforcers ruining a programmer’s magnum opus. What happened to the comic book industry in the 50′s, won’t happen to this medium. If a decade from now, gaming remains in the cultural ghetto it’s arguably stuck in with comic books, there is now no one left to blame but game makers themselves!

If the United States recognizes the medium as an art, there’s no reason NOT to elevate the medium to compensate! Prove the Eberts of the world wrong, and encourage games like Heavy Rain, Peacemaker and Echo Bazaar to appear in greater numbers! We need more of THESE types of games!

Not because our current “Murder-Death-Kill simulators” are bad, or that we’re ashamed of them. But the audience for gaming is both growing AND getting older, and we need to give gamers more intellectual and emotional engagement opportunities along with the machine gun fire. To prove to our critics that we, both the players and developers, enjoy cracking open our skulls with insight as much as with bullets! To have a more balanced cultural diet, if you will.

Video Game Meathead Team

We’ve got MORE than enough protein, thank you.

But . . . these are just my hopes I suppose. Just a pretty good idea of where to take the medium now that there’s a moment of respectability to build upon. There’s just as much a chance that the industry could fall off this precipice by giving into sensationalist, detestable drivel now that there’s no way to stop it.

This doesn’t seem too likely. But then, who would have thought that gaming could have crashed once a different court decision allowed 3rd party development (and thus a flood of crap) to be introduced back in the early eighties? Atari couldn’t stop it then, and look what happened to them.

Gravestone of Atari

To be fair, they’ve risen from the grave and roam the earth once more. But then, this industry has always loved its zombies.

All I know for sure (and as I said earlier) is that the world of gaming IS changing. The shift to supporting the auteur, along with the legal protection to further guarantee their creative vision all but guarantees that this is the case.

What will it change into? I have no idea.

Should we be concerned? Only if nothing is done to change the status quo for the better.

Will this change be a good thing? Again, I really haven’t a clue.

Oh wait! I still have a “phone a friend” left. Maybe we can answer that last one. But seeing as Haggar already chimed in; who to pick? I know! I’ll pick . . . M. Bison!

Hey Bison! Is it a good thing that the gaming industry is changing?

YouTube Preview Image

There you have it folks!

If even an evil Dictator bent on world domination; for whom no day is more important than any average Tuesday can see that . . . who are we to disagree?

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