As an avid “gamer,” I felt as though it would behoove and best suit me to write about a form of interactive media that greatly piques my interest. I would argue that video games are the mecca of interactive experiences. Short of providing taste and scent – two secondary senses that are wholly irrelevant, in my opinion, to the immersion process – the tactility, visual stimulus, and auditory output of the video game experience puts it head and shoulders above all other forms of interactive media. Lofty and potentially unfounded though this claim is, I will attempt to supplement my wild assertion in what follows.
I use as my primary example, a game just recently released this past year: Dark Souls III: the third installment in a triple A franchise that is notorious for its unrelenting – nearly absurdist – level of difficulty. Though I engage with this particular game on what is known as a “console” gaming system (Playstation 4), Anne Friedberg’s succinct, albeit rudimentary rundown of the logistics of the interactivity between user and technology is instructive in parsing the issue: “Computer ‘users’ are not spectators, not viewers. Immobile with focused attention on a cathode ray screen, the computer ‘user’ interacts directly with the framed image on a small flat screen, ‘using’ a device – keyboard, mouse, or, in the case of touch screens, the finger – to manipulate what is contained within the parameter of the screen” (pp 44).
In the case of console gaming, tactile-based interactivity is processed completely through a controller containing various buttons, triggers, and joysticks that – based on the mechanics and configuration of the particular game in question – initiate a cause and effect relationship between the motions of the user’s fingers and the character/avatar on screen. Press X to jump. Press Circle to crouch. Etcetera and so forth, dependent again on how the game’s controls are “mapped.” The feedback for gaming is essentially instantaneous, granting it a high caliber/quality of interactive value. These attributes play directly into Steuer’s three key characteristics of well-fashioned interactivity: “speed of interaction or response time, the range of attributes that can be manipulated in a mediated environment, and the ability of a system to map its controls to user actions in a natural and predictable manner.” (1995). The former is satiated by the immediacy of the relationship between the user’s physical actions, and the character’s virtual actions. The latter is fulfilled via a mix of the incorporation of intuitive, industry-established standards for controls, and a literal diagram that expounds upon what each button does/controls (In the case of video games, there is a silent but steady understanding between user and system, cultivated via decades of industry-user conditioning.) The middling factor is where video games like Dark Souls III take flight and enact creative liberties, stretching the boundaries of what is traditionally thought to be “manipulatable” and redefining an industry wrought by stunted and stilted mechanics of customization.
A player in Dark Souls III begins his/her journey through the narrative by creating the physical appearance of their character/avatar. Standard default “classes” exist to bypass this customization process, but for those interested, the game offers an impressively extensive and elaborate system for altering your character’s appearance. There are so many options, branches, and subcategories, that, statistically speaking, if full customization is desired, no two characters will ever look exactly alike. As Huhtamo so aptly states: “instead of just being a bystander, the player is also given a sense of being an agent” (pp 1). This sense of interactive agency is legitimized by the notion that your character is of your own creation, and further bolstered by an intriguing artistic decision that more deeply immerses the player into their avatar’s persona: no words are ever spoken by your character. He/she has no voice, no dialogue. They do not speak on your behalf and therein detach you from a sense of agency over your creation, but rather react as directed by you, the user. Your “mastery” over the game, its mechanics, and narrative obstacles deepens, and your experience is enriched.
As Nico Carpentier writes in regards to art installations, “in many cases, members of the audience are interacting with an already produced work of art, are given guidelines on how to perform to generate or complete the artwork, or act in ways that are then incorporated into the artwork” (pp 12) We can break this statement down assertion by assertion and see how Dark Souls III not only meets these standards, but exceeds them. In regards to the first claim, the audience (the player) is indeed interacting with a work of “art.” There is no longer room in the academic world to thumb our noses at the question of whether or not video games are “art.” From the digital visual direction, the breathtaking virtual landscapes/canvases of rich textures and colors, the complex and nuanced story lines, to the logistics necessary to perfecting fluid gameplay mechanics, there is craft and subtlety at work in the video game industry; an industry whose validity as art needn’t be questioned further. Yet the game is paradoxically at once complete and incomplete. It comes with all the data and coding etched onto the disc, but you as the player must interact with a complex digitized system to “complete” the work of art.
In terms of the second assertion made by Carpentier, players’ guidelines on how to “perform” the work of art are at once infinite and finite. Infinite in the sense that no two players will ever look alike, no two “play-throughs” will yield the same visual, tactile, and auditory stimulus, and no two experiences will “feel” the same. Finite because there is a limited amount of space on a disc to store information that translates to digital experience. Finite because all choices, while infinitely branching and complex, ultimately lead to one of four predetermined “endings.” Indeed, there are industry-set standards for game mechanics/dynamics that are both intuitive and firmly established, and these need not be upended in favor of “art for the sake of art.” There is a tacit understanding between user and system that to experience the art of a video game, you must engage and interact. Explore. Discover. Make mistakes. Conquer foes. Learn mechanics. These are all in the pursuit of immersion and a subsequent sense of pleasure, mastery, education, and accomplishment: the essence of the philosophy of mediated interactivity.
Finally, acting in ways that are “incorporated” into the artwork is what sets the Dark Souls franchise apart from other triple A titles. First, furthering the character customization aspect, players are allowed to “upgrade” various attributes of their avatar, essentially altering all game dynamics. Invest your upgrades in “strength” to wield heavier weapons. Invest your upgrades in “attunement” to cast deadly magic spells. Whatever the character’s “build” ends up being, it is distinctly reflective of the player’s desires, and therein another layer of interactivity.
Next, as alluded to above, no two story-lines will look or sound the same. There are entire “side quests” you can miss and still successfully “complete” the game. Entire characters with a plethora of dialogue and rich narrative to offer that can be skipped if the player does not explore extensively enough. Play slow and methodically, thereby interacting more with the digital landscape, and you are rewarded with a denser narrative of interweaving subplots and characters. Play fast and loose, and you can still reach the end and complete the narrative. Dependent on individualized player goals, motivations, and play styles, the final work of “art” – encompassing the tactile interactivity, the visual and auditory stimulation, and the pleasure derived from a closing/satisfying narrative arc – hinges completely on the highest levels of interactivity.
I’ll end by briefly noting the strange, somewhat backwards subculture that develops around games like Dark Souls III in terms of criticism and user feedback. As Groys notes, “when the viewer is involved in the artistic practice, every piece of critique he utters is self-criticism” (pp 22). When a user “complains” about a potential game imbalance or glitch, her/his concern is interestingly not apt to be taken seriously. Instead, like a finished and immutable work of art, the player is told to work around this “defect.” The player is inevitably and colloquially told to “git gud,” which obviously translates to “get good,” which points clearly towards the notion that although video games are bought and paid for products, they are also works of art that, while sometimes are updated and “patched,” leave it to the player to negotiate and interact with the final work. And aren’t the individual negotiations and interpretations of a crafted work the tried and true hallmarks of “art?” I would certainly say so.
(As a total self-plug: I have a YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgb4CUAg1UBwF5VT6jRHdQA dedicated to fun and entertaining Dark Souls gameplay videos. If you like video games, good music, and silly memes, subscribe for content published…whenever I get around to it)
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