In Moderate Support of Jack Kroll (and What We Can Do About It)

by Gary King

First, since I know I am opening myself to a world of flames, let me say that Mr. Kroll makes many assertions with which I fundamentally disagree. I firmly believe that there are some games that truly reach the pedestal of fine art - many of Square's offerings (Final Fantasy, Xenogears, Chrono Trigger, etc.), the Lunar series, the newer Dragon Quests, Starcraft, and many more; however, video games as a whole are still not fine art.

Also let me say that I make a distinction between fine art and art. Video games are most definitely art, since artistic creativity is involved in their creation. I would have to believe that Mr. Kroll would agree with this - his arguments were against placing Uematsu-san, Sakaguchi-san, and Miyamoto-san on the same plane as Bach, Beethoven, and Tolstoy. Similarly, while I (regretfully) classify boy bands as art, they are definitely not fine art by even the most generous scale.

Now, taking a look at some of Mr. Kroll's comments, there are indeed gems of wisdom hidden in his ignorance1. For the most part, the common game is a by-the-book, completely derivative work of something previously created. As much as I would love to use the argument that "only 4 original stories ever existed" (and all novels are derivative works), major differences can easily be distinguished between War and Peace and Gravity's Rainbow. However, short of artistic style (anime vs. realism), very little is different between Tekken Tag Tournament, Dead or Alive 2, and Street Fighter EX3. As much as the gentlemen at Namco, Tecmo, and Capcom would love to be called artists, Mr. Kroll's comment that "behind such techno-magic lies a banality of vision and style [full of] of manipulative mechanics, without the catharsis and revelation of real art," really does ring true. Taken as a whole, the grand majority of video games are merely entertainment. What distinguishes video games from other media, though, is that the vast majority of video games fail to reach a plateau where you have any connection at all to what is happening in front of you - for every one Final Fantasy, there are 3 dozen button-mashers. Popular music also has fallen to this level of banality (witness the boy bands); however, our goal as the video gaming's evangelists should be to improve our medium, rather than ruining others'.

So what can we do to make Mr. Kroll completely wrong? The first step would be to demand creativity from the game designers. Granted, it will probably be nigh-impossible to make a fighting, racing, or sports game that has a deeply-entrenched message (and I doubt anyone wants to play a Tekken where the ending sequence tells you that fighting is wrong). However, with these genre, developers should allow their aesthetic sides to flow freely. I don't think Picasso had any particular message in mind when he painted The Three Musicians, but he is still by all metrics a fine artist - so request that the Namcos and Capcoms of the world give us something more interesting than simple button-mashers. Demand that instead of focusing on attaching yet another bezier surface to Nina that the artists and programmers focus on creating images with such complex interplay of light and dark, and such a manegerie of color that Dali would be impressed. Demand that every composer that hacks out "Racing Level #4F3E" instead take pride in his work, and make every composition worthwhile, not just simple pop music. Fighting, racing, and sports games, due to their relatively simple dynamics, make ideal candidates for amazing visual stimulation. Sure, Tekken Tag Tournament, with all it's weighted clothing and flowing hair, looks extremely nice, but it isn't experimental. To truly join the ranks of the masters, Namco and Capcom must constantly discover new ways to stimulate our synaptic clefts. By telling them things that we'd like to see (imagine a totally surrealistic racing game, where even the physics have been warped), now that hardware is no longer limiting what is possible, even the most base of video games can be fine art (I happen to love fighting games; however, they do tend to suffer from a bit of banality).

On the other hand, when a video game is capable of conveying a message, or creating an emotional bond between the player and the characters, we need to demand that it does. We've already seen some of this in games like Metal Gear Solid; however, what has been done so far should be seen more as a first step than as a shining example. Metal Gear's story was so banal and overly melodramatic that while it worked great in the game, it wouldn't have worked in any other medium. Sure, we can hear that David is hurt when Meryl is shot; however, his reaction is unrealistic. MGS's theme is also a bit on the hackneyed side - I can count on one hand the number of people Ihave ve heard make pro-nuclear weapons remarks. Perhaps requesting that the Hideo Kojima's of the world take a look at some of Hiyao Miyazaki's films or Thomas Pynchon's novels to learn how to actually express various emotions, or to subtley convey deep messages would remove some of the sappy soap-opera-esque melodrama and 20/20 depth that plagues the first generation of interactive stories. Final Fantasy VIII is the best example of a game reaching the first plateau (emotional bonding); however, the conflict of the game (fighting Altimecia and saving the world) was totally unrelated to the reason we played the game (seeing Squall and Rinoa together). Final Fantasy VII, while skimping on the romance, handled this better because the conflict was a direct result of the romance. Honestly, had I not been told that Altimecia was possessing people and trying to compress time, I wouldn't really have cared about her - on the other hand, after the end of Disc 1 in Final Fantasy VII, I was going to kill Sephiroth, regardless of what happened to the world. Providing a better balance between the conflict and the romance of the story will result in much more engrossing games - imagine a game where you have as deep a connection to the characters as you did in FF8, and the same desire to stop the villain/save the world as you do in FF7, or an action game that you actually feel enriched after finishing. The prospect is incredible, and could create emotional and cerebral experiences far greater than nearly every movie, opera, play, or novel ever written.

There is no reason why what I suggest can not be done - video games are indeed the penultimate artform if used properly. The interplay of character interaction and body language, coupled with beautiful surrealistic worlds and ethereal soundtracks, plus the depth of a novel is something that can only be provided by a video game. Movies do most of these; however, much more can be developed in a 40 hour video game than in a 2 hour movie - Final Fantasy Tactics, with all of its plot changes and double-crossings, could not coherently be told in less than 15-20 hours. Books, on the other hand, must delineate everything in words - what can not be said can not be easily expressed on paper. Describing how Squall reaches for Rinoa in the Witch Research Center is something that can only be expressed in images. Paintings and other traditional media can express quite a bit; however, they fail to express more than one instant of time. You would be hard- pressed to show Cloud's progression from self-centered jerk to romantic idealist in one picture. Well-composed music can suggest images in your mind and emotions in your gut; however, without words or images to reinforce it, you become lost in a pretty landscape. When I played the Mystic Forest piano arrangement for my mother (off of the Final Fantasy VI Piano Collections CD), she immediately thought of a strange, magical forest; however, all she had was an image of a train - those of us who played Final Fantasy VI have an entire story associated with that image. Games can indeed be fine art, and there are a growing number of examples that reach that plateau. The best perhaps, though, is Square's Xenogears - by combining beautiful imagery with believable characters, exquisite music, and a deep story with a meaning much more pertinent and powerful than Metal Gear Solid's "nuclear weapons are bad" proclomation2, Square truly displayed the pinnacle of the gaming art form. Here's to hoping that the next generation will allow more developers to explore their creativity enough to make video games the first mass-market fine art. It can be done, it should be done, and unless we're content to allow Mr. Kroll to be correct, it is our duty as the game players of the world to ensure that it is done.

1. Yes, I am well aware of the irony of Mr. Kroll selecting an image from Final Fantasy VII for his comment on the failure of games to portray emotion. However, since this image is obviously from the first disc, my guess is he has never played the game (or at least not much of it), and is therefore ignorant, rather than just plain dumb.
2. There was an excellent synopsis of Xenogears' true meaning on RPGamer recently; however, the editorial archives haven't been updated since December, so I can't provide a link.

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