Games, Art, Rosebud pt. 2 – Immersive

We like to get sucked into a story. Find any review of a film or novel that was seriously gripping, and I guarantee you’ll find a statement about being drawn in within the first two paragraphs, with the word “immersive” used at least twice. It’s a big deal, though; if a story has the ability to transport me to a different world, even as a third-person observer, then really it’s accomplished one of the primary goals of fiction. By dint of the fact that they are interactive, games are in many ways more capable than any other media of taking us out of ourselves and bringing us to fantastic places that excite or terrify.

It’s not surprising, then, that in a given game review you’re likely to find the word “immersive” about fifty times, and when a game is held up as art, often it’s because of this exact trait. But does being immersive alone qualify a game as art? I think not.

In this segment we’ll be looking at two games you’re likely to find on any top ten artistic games list: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Developed by Team Ico, both games were critically acclaimed. Ico in particular is cited by several developers as being a major artistic influence for them. Team Ico is a name to conjure with, if anticipation of their upcoming game The Last Guardian is any indication. They have an eye for intuitive design, and an understanding of the need for mechanics to make sense in the context of the story, and they understand how setting and tone do more to draw the player into a visual story than any trick of narrative. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are absolutely two of the most important games of the last decade.

They’re also not art.


Ico achieves a sense of immersion through clever use of lighting and music. The player is drawn in because the world looks and feels real. When you step out of the deep shadows of the castle, you’re blinded by dazzling sunlight. Shadows play in the torchlight of the cold castle halls. Courtyards and arboretums feel vibrant and alive.

It’s not just the visual presentation, though, that makes draws the player in. Ico presents one of the finest examples of subtle sign-posting ever to grace video games. The game tells you what to do every step of the way, if you only look around, but it never pastes in a big flashing arrow or a giant glowing boss weak-point. Things you can pick up don’t glow green, and yet you know what you can and cannot interact with.

A lot of this is accomplished by a well-developed sense of minimalism. It’s not that every object lying around can be picked up and used, it’s that only things you can work with are available. They don’t have to model everything, just exactly what you need. It’s a subtle thing, but every encounter with an item with which the player cannot interact is a reminder that they are playing a game. Every lever I can’t pull, every tchotchke I can’t pick up takes me out of the game. The system is exposed, the rules of the software are laid bare, and the narrative power is diminished. Ico never misses a beat, and nothing you come across is going to take you out of the experience.

Well, almost.

Despite all the considerable skill that went into crafting Ico, the combat system is appalling. In short, it is clunky, repetitive, and deeply frustrating, and for the first third of the game grinds the experience to a halt. When every foe (and there are many) takes 15 hits to kill, you start noticing again the controller in your hands, the Square button you’re grinding into a fine powder. Realistic? Maybe. But self-defeating. It’s a challenge that feels out of step w/ the rest of the game, and poorly implemented to boot.

The other serious flaw in Ico‘s veneer is in the story itself. It is clever, beautiful, and is fully supported by the mechanics of the game (baring combat). It is also utterly unmoving. Despite the wily trick of requiring that the player hold down a button to clasp Yorda’s hand as you lead her through the castle — fostering a sense of attachment — the attachment never moves beyond a very shallow “must protect damsel in distress” sentiment. The characters barely speak, and Yorda doesn’t speak your language, and while that certainly adds a sense of ethereal beauty to events, it’s also extremely dehumanizing. What we’re left with are archetypes sans personality.

It’s structured like a morality tale, but where’s the moral? Don’t become an evil shadow witch? Kidnap lithe little girls who don’t have enough sense to climb a box to escape danger without some boy in horns yodeling at them?

Ico is a wonderfully realized game, but it is not art. It’s an object lesson for developers hoping to craft an immersive tale, not the standard.

Shadow of the Colossus

Sadly, Shadow of the Colossus takes one step forward and two steps back. Visual aesthetic is improved, the sense of realism and immersion is ten times greater, a direct result of the improved graphics and even more evocative presentation, but bugs and cheap sign-posting blow SotC out of the running in short order.

Shadow of the Colossus, despite the cleverness of its primary mechanic, does not function as advertised. Finicky controls, weird clipping issues, and a rotten mechanic for aiming your bow demolish any sense of immersion as soon as it’s created. When the game works right, it’s brilliant, and you get sucked right in to a degree I’ve not experienced anywhere else. But then the game will freak out or the controls will spaz and you get yanked out of the experience with a speed that’s almost physically painful. I have distinct memories of quite literally snapping a controller in half with my bare hands when, after getting so involved that I nearly believed I was Wander clawing my way up a colossi, the game went ape-shit and I fell to my death. My hands clenched so hard the controller snapped.

I love this game, but it’s not art. It’s just too broken.

The bugs are egregious, but they aren’t the game’s only failing. Clever, subtle sign-posting was one of Ico’s greatest strengths, and it worked so well that Team Ico must have felt intimidated by its perfection, because the sign-posting in SotC is painfully cheap. Your great glowing sword points you in the direction of your objective, and when you arrive, your peaceful, enormous prey has a giant glowing weakpoint. In terms of design, this is about as subtle as porno. It accomplishes the goal, but it’s not elegant. In many ways, I was more disappointed in this than I was with the buggy implementation.

Immersion is an important, though not necessarily mandatory, technique which can increase the artistic merit of a game, and these two games are some of the finest examples ever made, but they still fall short. However, they show that the technology is at the point where, with a reasonable suspension of disbelieve, the cooperative player can be transported to real and valid worlds. It’s just a matter of smart implementation.

Honorable Mention: Silent Hill 2. Brilliant (and terrifying) introduction, and a highly effective use of stillness seat the player firmly in the shoes of protagonist James, however the abundance of ammo and the far-too effective melee attacks diminish the fear of exploration quickly, as the player realizes that nothing poses a particularly serious threat to them.


~ by Matt Altieri on August 13, 2009.

6 Responses to “Games, Art, Rosebud pt. 2 – Immersive”

  1. Technical flaws in a game don’t affect whether or not it’s art. I agree completely that immersion helps make it enjoyable, but I don’t think that results in the conclusion that game without immersion is not art. If an amazing film by an amateur filmmaker sometimes takes you out of the moment because the dirt on the lens reminds you you’re watching a movie, its technical limitations don’t detract from the fact that it can have an artistic message. A play onstage, even at its most engrossing, is still people acting on a raised platform. Judging an ephemeral quantity like “immersion” is sort of a red herring, and saying an artistic work has apparent technical flaws, so it’s not art is outlandish.

    You go further off-topic by bringing in game design decisions, like the method in which the boss’ weak points are outlined. A “constraint” of the gaming medium as an artistic form is that the player has to complete objectives to advance, just as the movie requires the viewer watch it on a screen, and the play must be performed in a single location, and all the other structural constraints that those media have. You think the way in which that aspect of the game was handled by the producer was less than subtle, which is a perfectly valid complaint. It’s a pretty far leap to go from this to “therefore, this is not art.” That’s like saying, “The stage director closed the curtains far too often for scene changes. Therefore, Hamlet is not art.”

    You make a fair point that being immersive alone does not make a game art. You cannot immediately assume that means a game that is not immersive is automatically not art. Those two statements are not logically equivalent. If you’re making the argument that immersion is not a free pass to give a game artistic merit, your argument would be a lot better made without using two games (Shadow of the Colossus, Silent Hill 2) that clearly have artistic messages and deliver them to the player very effectively, glaring technical flaws notwithstanding. You make statements in the direction of one argument, then jump the rails and claim to have used the “immersion” issue (which itself is a problem, since the experience is highly subjective) to slam the “Not Art” label down on them. You can’t possibly be suggesting that only works without any flaws whatsoever are deemed worthy enough to enter into the discourse as “art.” It doesn’t work that way.

    Citizen Kane would still have been art if it had a few flubbed lines and hadn’t been shot on 35mm. It just might not have been Citizen Kane.

  2. I disagree. A work must be masterful to be artistic. I’m not really sure how to argue this point because to me it seems like a basic requirement. Find me an appreciable flaw in the Mona Lisa, for example. Also, it’s disingenuous to compare a “few flubbed lines” w/ the starkly broken gameplay in SotC.

    Regardless of which, you seem to be drawing conclusions that I didn’t intend. What I’m trying to describe in these pieces are tools in the toolkit. Design techniques which, on a technical level, can raise the artistic merit of a work. Citizen Kane, for example, would be less well-regarded as a work of art if the cinematography were not so cutting-edge (at the time). I don’t see how it’s off-topic to discuss design decisions.

    So here we talk about immersion, an incredibly effective tool which, with a high degree of technical execution, can help elevate a game to a more artistic level. We look at two games which are often described as being art for this specific reason. They are case-studies, and so I’m trying to examine the ways in which they succeed and fail as users of the tool in question.

    It is not by virtue of their flawed implementation of immersion alone that they fall short of being art, but given that it’s their greatest strength their failings in this regard are not unimportant.

    Here are my points of confusion:

    – I don’t understand how you can compare “a few flubbed lines” to the glitches in Colossus. They are both errors, yes, but at totally different orders of magnitude. I won’t know that they botched some lines, but I do know when a game does not perform as expected.

    – Define an artistic message. I’m pretty sure any message can be artistic, it’s the method of delivery that defines the art, not the message itself.

    – How is a glitch a technical limitation?

    – Furthermore, you can display a boss’s weakpoint without making it glowing and ethereal. There’s no subtlety here, from a team that showed such subtle sign-posting in its previous game. Imagine if all the levers in Ico had glowed blue?

    – I also fail to understand how talking about sign-posting is off-topic for a discussion of immersion, when bad sign-posting exposes the system, and thus kills the immersion.

    – Where do I say that a non-immersive game is not art? I’m pretty sure I never said that. For example: “Immersion is an important, though not necessarily mandatory, technique which can increase the artistic merit of a game”.

    Final note (with all apologies to the starving artists of the world who believe that their crappy stick has something important to say that we should all listen to): It is not art if it is not a masterpiece. To say otherwise isn’t opinion, it’s an error of fact.

  3. I really need to stay the hell out of “but is it art?” discussions.

    A work must be masterful to be artistic.

    Here is the problem. Look up a definition of art and it will apply both to masterworks of technical skill (Like, let’s say, the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David), and also to works that are intended primarily to communicate ideas, messages and themes. You use the Mona Lisa as an example of the former because it is a work of technical excellence. A book, film, or video game is a better example of the latter. I would indeed be hard-pressed to find a flaw in the Mona Lisa, and thus it is art in the sense that it demonstrates the mastery of the artist (painter). This technical standard does not hold true when you apply it to other definitions of art; can you name a work of Shakespeare, or Joyce, or Hitchcock, that does not have SOME flaw? There is an apples and oranges comparison going on.

    Citizen Kane, for example, would be less well-regarded as a work of art if the…

    Here’s my only real issue. How something is regarded or reviewed does not change its status as art. It either is, or it isn’t. Again, this depends if you’re using art to mean an amazing technical achievement, or a work intended to convey a message. It seemed like you were switching back and forth between the two.

    It is not art if it is not a masterpiece.

    Again, you’re arbitrarily choosing a specific definition of art to make your case. Which is fine, but it’s not at all clear what you’re doing, since art is a far broader term than you admit (i.e. that’s not my opinion, check the definition). For example, you’re saying that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not art. Why? Because it’s not Hamlet or Macbeth. Second, the subjective nature of artistic evaluation makes classifying only things that are “good” as art really problematic. So the works of Franz Schubert weren’t art, until decades after his death, when people started liking his work, and then it suddenly became art?

    If you think modern artists, or Dadaists, or 99% of art is shitty and stupid, that’s fine, and I agree with you, but it does not change their status. If you’re saying gaming has no David, or Mona Lisa, that’s an arguable point, and you should clarify it. But art is a loaded and broad term, so to put on the blinders and redefine art for the purposes of your argument is arbitrary, and not factual. I would disagree wholeheartedly if you said that gaming does not have its Moby Dick, or Scarlet Letter, the artistic work that shows the immaturity and flaws of its nascent medium, but still an achievement in its own right. (Yes, I realize Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter weren’t the first books, but as the first steps towards establishing American Literature, I think the comparison is apt; they have glaring, obvious flaws, but still deserve their place in the canon on their own merits).

  4. Basically, the argument for classifying something as art or not is far, far, larger than the margins of a blog, but I think choosing a definition of art that discounts what games have so far achieved will by necessity also exclude what the vast majority of literature and film that most people, critics, and academics consider to be art.

  5. Congratulations. You get an entirely new post dedicated to this subject. I’ll run it Saturday afternoon (in lieu of the post I had prepared for today).

  6. Cool! I think narrowing the discussion will probably help the point you’re making, which seems pretty valid. It’s also important to differentiate what you’re saying from the “games as art” discussion, which is sort of what Ebert and that judge was saying, that games “cannot convey artistic messages or have thematically complex/engaging narratives.”

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