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This is Patrick Hussey's site where I post about tech + society. You can hire me as a digital consultant, journalist and for talks on crowdfunding, data...that kind of thing.
Human art, I once timidly declared, will reach its zenith in some form of computer game.
The rest of the talk is best forgotten, a disastrous affair given at a small event on writing and technology. It can be difficult to pitch ‘digital’ talks as often you don’t know the level of the audience. In this case it was all experts, all with very strong views.
After much, deserved sneering at my unchallenging slides I decided only a big finish could rescue me. I made the video game assertion and my fate was sealed. A preposterous reach said the unspoken opinion and I slunk away from the projector.
Preposterous it might have been but I stand by it and last night it came to mind, years later, when playing a rather astonishing game.
'Vindication!' I thought as 'The Wolf Among Us' drew me in.
Now…let us not get carried away. My statement is no great act of prophecy but it is a step up from that much blogged debate…can games be art?
Yes of course they can, my point would be and then some.
Think about it for a second and it becomes obvious that the plasticity and potential of games is unique. Games can beat every creative form we’ve known by being able to reproduce all their qualities while creating whole universes to experience.
Video games can encompass sight, sound and increasingly gesture and bodily movement. Games can speak to all our physical awareness whereas before we would have to turn to a several art forms to address the different senses.
What games were not so good at was poking at the deeper needs of our souls. Yes we can fly around our screens, feast our eyes on spaceships and battle fields, we can even dance in front of our screens these days.
What art still had over games was, in essence, storytelling. They desperately needed and still have very rarely achieved emotive and intelligent narrative. If they ever developed that then the traditional art forms might have something to worry about.
Only from narrative can you cook up tragedy and catharsis and all those fancy experiences that hang around ‘real’ art.
Slowly deep narrative has begun to happen. Games like the Last of Us and Heavy Rain displayed genuine narrative sophistication but when playing The Wolf Among Us last night I felt something I had never felt before…real-time emotional engagement with a scene that was both story and gameplay driven.
Games routinely unfold in spectacular ‘cut away’ sequences, telling stories in traditional linear fashion. These can be jaw dropping but are no different from the episodic arcs found in church windows or novels alike.
Of course you also get caught up in raw gameplay. This is the stock in trade of gaming. As lasers whine around your ‘little man’ the excitement of it all grips you.
What I have never experienced is a game that manages to combine the two. In ‘The Wolf Among Us’ your character investigates murders, questioning characters in a New York invaded by refugees from the world of fairy tales.
It is slow and clever, the realistic dinge of the city and the talking pigs, princes and frogs you encounter a delightful and rather brain popping conjunction. All this creative flair gets you onside yet it is the cleverly choreographed questioning scenes that stand out.
You face choices, the dialogue keeps coming, the conversation demands you react and if you choose falsely you miss out. This might not sound like much but trust me…it is.
Non linear narrative is a massive risk and in most forms a boring failure. Take a noted example in literature, Hopsctoch by Cortazar. Lauded as a daring experiment, as a read (an experience) it is tedious.
The Wolf Among Us seemingly pulls off the non linear with impressive grace. In fact there was one encounter with a toad (yep) that astounded me.
While talking to the little green fellow you have to decide, in real time, how to probe your way to the truth. It is compelling, fast and cognitively complex.
You are looking around the room for clues, hearing an onslaught of words, facing choices, having to look down at your pad to mull over an answer.
I faced choices and my actions had consequences. Somehow talking to this toad had the power of those real life heart pounders - moments like asking for a number or even being caught in a lie.
The feeling that each choice of word had ramification was impressive.
It was also an experience packed with aesthetic qualities we traditionally associate with art. The scene, a slum apartment, was beautifully drawn and highly stylised. The characters, especially the garrulous toad, were wonderfully animated and voiced.
There are other clever things aspects to The Wolf Among Us, particularly the way it mimics a television show with ‘episodes’ of gameplay the audience download as the weeks go by. It all deepens the sense of involvement and let’s you know you are knee deep in story.
Then again there are some not so clever things. The male central character, the point and click gameplay are all positively old hat. Even the dystopic combination of dirty reality and fairy tale is neat but hardly original.
Even the questionings are patchy, none as transporting as the scene with the toad. Still though this game deserves some very special recognition.
Honestly I cannot remember an experience that so amazingly sandwiched the feeling of both a living moment and of experiencing art, nor that of being myself and of stepping ‘into’ a protagonist.
It was so original that quite possibly it requires a new word…something in that German mould that smashes nouns together like schadenfreude. So in the ‘harm-joy’ tradition what could we use?
Bio-game? Self-time? Real-play?
Self-play? Well that vaguely works but whatever…I would urge you to check TWAU out. Anything that requires a new word is worth a look.
Still what about my assertion? If anything I have realised that as the remarkable sophistications of games and tech ramp up a bigger assertion is called for…so here goes.
Human experience will reach its zenith in some form of computer game.
There you go, I’ve said it…all without one mention of the Matrix or the fact some people think it has already happened.
For a few days now the dark website 'Assassination Market' has been causing a fuss. It is essentially ‘Killstarter’ - a crowdfunding platform where anonymous Bitcoin donations go towards fees for executing politicians.
That’s right folks, you can now cheerfully donate your digital dollar to end another human’s life. Not surprisingly this has quite a few people up in arms, not least the American politicians who make up ‘The List’ of candidates.
I can imagine it catching on here though…imagine if an iPad with Peter Mandelson’s beaming picture were passed around a Tory conference. Once they got over being handed an ungodly, living etch-a-sketch and called a trader grandchild to ask about Bitcoin I can imagine the kill…sorry…cash-o-meter filling like a bucket under Niagara.
The technology Killstarter (let’s call it that from now on) lives on may be new enough but the real question about it is old. Is Killstarter art?
Sadly (?) the answer has to be yes. There are precedents for it - a similar project was proposed decades ago by so called Crypto-Anarchists. More recently (and less noted in the current flurry of press) Clay Shirky’s university class came up with the prescient 'KickStriker.com' a clever spin on Kickstarter where deadly weapons could be crowdfunded by freedom fighters and fascists alike.
The ambiguous work it really recalls,however, is Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal' - an essay of 1729 that famously called on the poor to sell their own children as food.
Surely Killstarter is the bleeding edge of the satirical tradition. Look at the smiling photos of the nominees, look at the deadpan status next to their names…”Alive”.
It is all too neatly presented and in my head I’m 95% certain that what we have here is an off the cuff piece of digital and political art.
I applaud it actually, it is such a relief from glitch and generative and all the other under emotive genres digital artists serve up. This catches so many waves…the rage of the Tea Party, the push against the 1%, the crowdfunding fad, the cheek of Anonymous and the clicktivism of the Guy Fawkes masqueraders.
The real power though is in the doubt…that five percent that taps you on the shoulder and says hey, this could be real…because it could.
As far as I know it is a working model with perhaps the only problem being verification. How would the paying public know who did the deed? Well just as digital found a way to make this possible, burying it in the faceless folds of the Tor web, there must be ways.
Perhaps the site could link to Thingiverse, where 3D printed bullets with serial numbers could be secretly downloaded. When the slug is pulled from Mandelson’s splattered head, beneath the playful engraving of the victim’s name would lie the ID code, distributed to a single, newly enriched killer.
I have written of crowdfunding as an ‘manifestation engine’ of political and global will. I did not imagine such a dark, ambiguous engine/statement as this. After all as far as I know Swift did not hand out basting trays with his notorious essay.
Killstarter leaves me uncomfortable as good art can…that five percent keeps tapping me on the shoulder saying…hey, this could be real.