Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Call Of Duty 2

Roger Ebert thinks that videogames aren't art: "Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control." It's not a new argument, and it neatly encapsulates Auteur theory, whose adherents will probably never be able to accept a gaming as an artform for the exact reasons Ebert outlines. This completely ignores concepts like Reader Response Criticism, but I don't go to Roger Ebert looking for advanced discussions of literary theory as applied to pop culture. There are other places for that. If you believe art is delivered from on high, The Thumbed One may be right. If you believe the reader is an active participant in creating meaning, then there's little doubt that gaming can be art.

There have been a select few moments in my gaming life where I saw something that truly advanced the artform. The first time I popped in the unheralded Grand Theft Auto III, and then again when I played it's sequel Grand Theft Auto III: San Andreas being two of the most memorable. The swearing and hookers and violence caught the eye of reviewer and Senator alike, but that wasn't what made it a real step forward in my eyes. The storytelling was complex, and the wide-open world that forced you through non-linear situations let you think differently. At some point in the game, you run across a simple dilemma: I need money, and can beat people until they give it up. Move past the morality of it, and you find a whole different kind of art here. You are not longer being told the protagonists tthoughts, you are creating them yourself. When Ebert talks about art, he's talking about art that inspires empathy and understanding. In gaming, empathy and understanding isn't necessary because there is no "other": the conflicts encountered and decisions made are yours. Instead of being made to understand someone else's actions, a good game makes you take those same actions on your own.

Through this past year, as the marketing machines of Sony and Microsoft went to war over next-gen mindshare, I felt little but apathy. Part of it was burnout, but there was also a simple feeling that more processing power doesn't make more art. The graphics would be better, but the true art of gaming advances in fits and spurts and is largely subsumed by commercial concerns. It seemed to me that the technology of the next-gen wouldn't necessarily spur a new renaissance in gaming.

And then comes Call of Duty 2, and proves me completely wrong.

In a very real way, it's a quantum leap in the art of gaming, and it's made possible through the technology available. There are so many onscreen characters with such a high degree of detail, such clear and detailed graphics, such informative (and evocative) sound that it's completely immersive, with a control scheme so subtle and effective that the controller disappears. It's a blend of game design and technology that lets you spend long stretches fully immersed in the world of the game, reacting on an emotional level. Lessons on the horrors of war are nothing new in art, but I don't know that the confusion and panic of war has ever been pounded home with such intensity. It's one thing to be told how confusing and chaotic and frightening war is: it's another thing to find yourself in defending Stalingrad, unable to tell where the bullets are coming from and where the burned-out rubble will provide cover. You run from objective to objective by following your squadmates, you keep your head down, you move carefully in the open. You also perform acts of mad bravery ... often because bravery is the only way to survive. It's simply stunning because it's not filtered through someone else's reactions to the setting and events. It's the ultimate in "show, don't tell". It's not only a great and rewarding game, it's an excellent work of art that examines the ordinary heroism that defines World War II.


zilla said...

can we get xbox 360s anywhere yet? i've been tempted to buy it based on cod2 alone (from what i've seen/read).

Mark Fossen said...

I don't think they're easily found yet. They should start to be in regular stock soon, though. I got mine by waiting at a Target before opening one lucky morning when they had a new shipment.