Saturday, 30 April 2011

Portal 2 and Computer Games as Art

Although I've had a deeper-than-average affection for computer games for many years now, my commitment to poetry still runs deeper. How can I tell? Well, apart from the fact that I gave up designing Duke Nukem 3D levels and Klik n' Play games and started writing poems, there's the debates within each medium's respective communities. I feel compelled to get stuck into the wranglings regarding prize culture, mainstream/non-mainstream poetry, publishing, audience expansion etc. You can see how worked up I get about those things right here on this blog. I feel that stuff is important.

The kind of arguments that crop up around gaming, however, more often than not just leave me baffled and disillusioned, images of petulant, whiny geeks swimming around in my head. Take Portal 2, which, as far as I'm concerned, is the latest surefooted step towards making interactive storytelling the artform of the future, as well as (along with its predecessor) a significant stride away from games as a primarily male-orientated, borderline mysogynistic medium. I'll be fair and say that most of the thick-as-pigshit responses to Joe McNeilly's feminist reading of the original Portal (sample: "And since when the fucking hell have guns been phallus-like?") are far from representative of the gaming community. In fact, I would say that the eagerness, both on a popular and critical level, to embrace both games comes not only from an appreciation of their technical qualities but also from a genuine hunger to move in a socially inclusive direction. Gaming, just like poetry, is at war with a debillitating image of itself. Just as poets are loser musos fortifying university literary departments, gamers are overweight single men trapped in dark boudoirs. Normal people in both groups face the double antagonism of lazy stereotyping from outsiders and mutated forms of macho posturing in their own camp (for poets, it comes in a variety of forms; for gamers, it's usually Mr "Game is too short and easy - I finished it in forty minutes while replaying Half-Life 2 with my other hand".)

Nevertheless, I find myself asking: what do Portal 2 players think they're achieving by complaining that they have to pay extra if they want to unlock virtual comedy hats for the robots? Or by whining that the PC version might have been developed as a port of the console versions? In their droves, by the way - so much so that gaming blog RockPaperShotgun felt compelled to post a careful refutation of the various petty accusations that have been levelled against the game. I've tried, with little success, to understand exactly what the problem is with selling people downloadable extras on top of the original game. Supposedly, it's 'immoral', it's evidence of the developers not working hard enough for their money, it's time they could have spent making the main product more watertight and so on. Really, though, I think it comes down to this: many gamers are rampant completists and their dealer keeps raising the price of their addiction. They don't want to pay $5 for a silly hat but feel bizarrely compelled to.

There is an argument that modern games, which have replaced high score tables with percentage complete bars, lists of achievements to tick off and unlockable extras, encourage a completist attitude. But really they're just giving old schoolers a nicotine patch to help them cope with the transition from games as contests of skill, with empirical or quantitative measures of success, to a medium-cum-artform that seeks to satisfy and enrich emotionally and intellectually, non-quantifiably. Particularly in a country like Britain, where the arts are increasingly asked to come up with figures to prove their cultural value, it's a real positive that mainstream games which sell in their millions are being pushed in this direction.

In Portal 2, none of the suite of pleasures I took from playing through were as a result of my own proficiency and game-playing competence. In fact, one of the reasons I rarely got annoyed with the game is that it's built with the idea of constant learning and progression in mind, rather than forcing you to repeat the same tasks again and again until your fingers learn the right twitch patterns. I enjoyed cracking the puzzles because the results involved devious manipulations of space and physics, as well as defeating lethal turret guns with nothing more harmful than holes in the ground and blue paint. The game tests you intellectually without demanding you develop yet another non-transferable expertise, and rewards a furrowed brow with the kind of entertainment that delights the grown-up child in any of us. It teaches you to think laterally, and to meet force and apparent gross unfairness (as well as misuse of power) with cunning thought and resourcefulness.

I also enjoyed that rarity in interative narration - a story with plenty of twists and turns that never feels like it's trying to tell you to be serious and stop mucking about. Whereas in a game like Halo 3, the most fun I had was at the developers' expense - by bludgeoning soldiers who were supposed to be on my side and watching them consistently react as if it was an unfortunate accident - Portal 2 marries up the player's aims with the protagonist's so successfully that you genuinely want to do what's expected of you: solve the puzzles, upset the gun turrets and break out of the facility. There are parts where I would have wanted to drive a harder bargain with either of the neurotic AIs that partner up with you, but they were never less than useful to have along.

The story is also extremely witty. I'd go so far as to say it borders on Vonnegutian. Portal 2's dialogue and visual black comedy shows up nearly every other future sci-fi dystopia game I've played as the humourless, intellectually arid bag of cliches it really is. It's the kind of game you want to play with other people just so you can share the most beautifully scripted (and voiced) moments.

Talking of playing with other people, I haven't had the chance to start the co-op mode yet, which lets you and a friend solve test chambers together. If games can continue in this direction, it will draw a line under the stereotype of the antisocial bedroom dweller forever. It's not hard (although rather painful) to imagine this sort of technology being used to train employees in basic trust and collaboration skills.

The computer games as art debate is well rehearsed; as sympathetic as I am to the medium, most of the arguments in favour of its acceptance as an artform could be applied to, well, football or gardening, ie. it's immensely inspiring and gratifying to see an intricate thing done spectacularly well. That's all very well, but we still need the kind of high art that provides the fuel for break-out thinking and grass-roots solutions to social problems that politics avoids addressing. Based on the general behaviour of gamers that I've come across, we're not there yet, but there's certainly hope. And that's of interest to poets to because computer games might be our last, best hope of maintaining an awareness of and connection to art within the disenfranchised, systematically betrayed and aggressively consumerfied generations currently growing up.

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