Playmatics founder Nicholas Fortungo explains the dangerous art of storytelling in games.
"Games are publicly viewed in a weird way, that leads to conversations that are really dangerous."
Nicholas Fortungo, co-founder of developer Playmatics and former designer at Gamelab, believes that games are art due to their "dangerous" nature. At the Babycastles Summit in New York this weekend, a series of panels and talks by industry designers, Fortungo explained that video games are artistic endeavors both on the part of the developer and the gamer.
Fortungo cited the debate surrounding the release of Jericho, a survival horror first-person shooter released in 2007 from Clive Barker of horror writing fame. The plot revolved around a group of soldiers sent to prevent a horrific ancient from being unleashed upon the world. The being, called the Firstborn, was created by God in his image but so disturbed his creator that he was banished into an endless abyss for eternity.
Jericho was judged harshly and received mostly negative reviews. Renowned critic Roger Ebert said that the game was terrible on the principle that it was, in fact, a game, and that games are incapable of telling good stories.
"You can't have art if there is any amount of malleability in the narrative," Fortungo quoted Ebert. "Art is created by an artist if you can change it you become the artist."
Art is created by an artist if you can change it you become the artist.
According to Ebert, agency in games undermines the ability of a game to tell a powerful narrative because the players are allowed to make decisions. It the player has control, the player is telling the story. Therefore the game is not telling the same story it was before the player began to play—essentially rewriting the game for themselves. And if the players are rewriting the story themselves, how does anyone know if the story is good?
"If you take Gears of War as an example, the story line is pretty fit," Fortungo said. "But there are these moments of play in which you can die, or be extremely successful at killing without taking health damage - you have all these different narrative paths. All those things have different ramifications on the story, and are essentially actions scenes. An action scene is still part of the story."
But what exactly is the relationship of the audience to the art if the audience is changing the art? By assuming agency the audience becomes the artist, and it's difficult to judge an audience on their ability to "tell" art. It's much like how we judge players' opinions on games based on their individual skill levels —if a player is "better" at a certain game than another we may be more likely to accept the "better player's" opinion of it.
Fortungo discussed a case in which a game was considered controversial despite portraying subject matter more readily accepted in other media. Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!, a 2008 computer indie game about high school girls in the Victorian era engaged in social and physical combat, was criticized for featuring girls being aggressive and violent towards each other. The developer, Keith Nemitz, published the game on Big Fish Games, a casual gaming website favored by "casual" gaming middle-aged women.
it's difficult to judge an audience on their ability to "tell" art
A scene in the game featured a text passage that described a girl being attacked by a man. The scene, text only, read: "[Character name] overlooks her unconscious form, trousers dropped to his ankles. Nail marks and bites on his arms seep red." The attack was never shown visually, and begins and ends with a fade to black. Immediately after another protagonist entered the scene and shot the attacker. But while the implication of potential rape is pretty clear, an actual rape never occurs.
Big Fish Games, the largest casual gaming portal at the time, pulled the game from the website when users complained of the scene's existence. Big Fish claimed they weren't "trying to be family friend" or "rated G," but that "implied violent rape of a woman in graphic detail" was something they didn't want their brand to represent.
Nemitz responded there was no explicit sex and the event in question is a crucial plot element in understanding the game's ending.
Fortungo continued, "Many people think that games about controversial or risky topics are off-limits, even when the topics are acceptable to a very dramatic degree in other narrative media such as film."
According to Fortungo, society cannot accept games about these things because games about emotionally charged topics are not considered acceptable. The current popular sentiment seems to be that games are both incapable of and too dangerous for powerful ideas.
Many people think that games about controversial or risky topics are off-limits, even when the topics are acceptable to a very dramatic degree in other narrative media such as film.
But not all games need a narrative to play them. Fortungo cited Tetris, 1970s text-based computer game Colossal Cave Adventure, and Berserk on the Atari as games that function without telling a story. Many games are narrative skins, not stories. Adventure , for example, has a simple premise: players get a key and unlock a chest to obtain a sword and kill a dragon. That's not a story, per say, but it is a narrative.
The rise of arcade games and text-based adventures lead developers down the line to marrying the two into visual representations of storytelling, and games like Origin's massively multiplayer online role-playing Ultima games and Sierra's Quest series for PC were born. Lucasfilms created fetch-quest title Maniac Mansion, one of the first games to use comedy as a plot device. Games became graphically more complicated and could tell larger stories.
But even as game development advanced and pixels evolved into CGI renders, what is and is not acceptable to include in a game's plot has remained fairly stagnant. Fortungo cited the controversy surrounding the first Mass Effect, in which a scene suggested a sexual encounter was blown out of proportion and derided by the media. The scene, between protagonist Commander Shepard and the player's romantic interest of choice, featured no full frontal nudity or aggressive passion, and was in no way pornographic.
Fox News exaggerated the scene, stating, "You'll see full frontal digital nudity and the ability for players to engage in graphic sex."
EA replied, "These scenes are very similar to sex sequences frequently seen on network television in prime time," noting that full nudity and more graphic sexual encounters are unabashedly featured in television programs like daytime soap operas.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG, a game in which you play as the Columbine shooters, was invited to and then pulled from Slamdance Festival in 2006. In the game, players must enter Columbine High School and kill everyone, then kill themselves, go to Hell, and then kill everyone in Hell.
"It's a disturbing game to play," Fortungo said "It evokes bad feelings in you, it's a truly dreadful experience. You have to wire the bomb, the one that didn't go off because they wired it incorrectly, then go outside the school and wait. It's awful."
Developer Danny Ledonne made the game in RPG maker in 2005 and was invited to the Slamdance Festival's game competition by its director Sam Roberts. The festival's organizers, after learning what it was, removed it because the Columbine shooters were still a touchy subject at the time.
Why a double standard?
Other entrants to Slamdance include Neo-Nazi romance game Neo Ned and a game in which Auschwitz survivors sought to forgive their tormentors, Forgiving Dr. Mengele. The movie Elephant, a film drama heavily based on the Columbine shooting, had been shown as the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 and received favorable reviews. The topic, is seems, was unacceptable when used in a player-driven video game but okay to portray on film.
So why a double standard? "It's because of the way games actually work," Fortungo claims. "Games have agency and that leads us to think about games differently. The aesthetic experience is how the art speaks to you. In dance we look at the tightness of the choreography and the way it works with the music and see if it's good based on the effect it has on us."
Fortungo compared Nietzsche's understanding of aesthetics and his distinction between two types of art: Apollonian art and Dionysian art. Apollonian art is doing as we are observing and interpreting, looking for flawlessness. Dionysian art focuses on immersion and actively participating in something, and the one experiencing the art is not meant to think about themselves while doing it.
"Since games are about choice and play, you watch and play, it's a relationship of agency," explained Fortungo. "Games are Dionysian. The expression of the games comes about through play, so why do we think about how other people experience them in a different place? Games are not about telling the best possible story. They're about experiencing a story. What we care about is how we play with it."
"We can't represent rape or violence or anything dangerous in games," he concluded. "Games require choice. We are doing something fundamentally different when we make games. But art is dangerous, and we make art to talk about dangerous things, to make people feel. Games make people feel, and I don't know what art is if not that."