A Hand Through the Code

Jonathan Franzen, Deus Ex, and That Tired Old Question.

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Action Art Books Role-playing


That tired old question is, “Are video games art?”

Look, I know.  At this point everybody on earth, including Roger Ebert, is totally sick of this debate.  It’s not that one side of the argument has definitively prevailed, but everyone who once passionately fought on one side or the other has decided that the whole thing is overplayed.  The consensus seems to be: “Are video games art?  Maybe so, maybe not, ask us again in five years.”

I agree that the whole thing’s kind of silly.  After all, art is a personal term.  One person’s Dada sculpture is another person’s waste of a urinal.  And though I feel strongly that video games are an art form, I recognize that I feel this way mostly because of a singular experience that not everyone has – the experience of being spoken to directly by a video game.

Let me explain.

I haven’t seen The History Boys, the film or the play it’s based on.  I hear it’s good. Kind of old news at this point, I guess.  Anyway – I did see the trailer for the movie, and it contained a quote that struck me:

“The best moments in reading,” the titular boys’ professor says, “are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you.  And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe someone long dead.  And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

This line is a keenly observed description of those times when one feels that literature – or some other medium – has illuminated some dark corner of their human existence.  It’s like the author knows you, and has charted an area of your soul that before was familiar and yet undefined.  Like they gave you the words to better know yourself.

The first time I experienced this was while reading Jonathan Franzen’s sophomore novel, Strong Motion.  In describing a character’s unrequited love, the narrator explains that the young man felt “as though even if he wanted to love somebody else now he wouldn’t be able to; as though love, like electricity, flowed in the direction of diminishing potential, and by coming into contact with Lauren’s deep neutrality he’d grounded himself permanently.”

When I first read this passage, I felt the distance close between myself and the rest of the world.  An obscure part of me had been recognized, like an old friend; someone out there knew what it was like, in a small way, to be me at a particular moment in time.

I think this feeling is the primary hallmark of true art.  And I have absolutely experienced it while playing video games.

Yes, there is an equivalent in video games.  It’s that rare, magical moment where the player pushes against the boundaries of a game, tests the limits of the programming, tries to do something they imagine the game wouldn’t expect.  And the game responds – miraculously, shockingly – to the player’s actions.

To be clear – these aren’t Easter Eggs.  I don’t mean just “secrets,” like Wolfenstein’s hidden rooms or complex cheat codes.  Those are things that the player hears about and then searches for, or stumbles upon by accident.  What I’m talking about only happens when a player’s actions, actions normally not allowed within the confines of the game’s world, are foreseen and responded to.

Not every game has these moments, in fact not even every great game has these moments.  But they exist within the medium, pieces of gameplay where a designer somewhere inserts something special into the fabric of a game, something that anticipates a player’s impulse and acknowledges it.

The game that gave me the most of these moments was, without question, the original Deus Ex.  Ion Storm’s tour de force FPS-RPG hybrid was on the forefront of gaming when it was released in 2000.  It did a lot of things right.  It blended level-up mechanics and shooter gameplay perfectly.  Its world was stark and outsized yet never hokey.  It’s still remembered as one of the best games of all time.

But the thing that allowed Deus Ex to stand apart for me, what helped it affect me on a level that only art can, was that it understood what I wanted to do, it let me do it, and then it told me what it thought about the fact that I had done it.

Take, for instance, the ladies’ restroom.

If you’ve played Deus Ex you know exactly what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, suffice it to say that there is a women’s and a men’s restroom in the game’s anti-terrorist HQ.  You don’t need to go into either – there’s no game mechanic for taking a shit.  However the game knows that its players will probably go into each restroom in the name of humor or simply for the sake of exploration.  If you go into the ladies’ room, a co-worker tells you off.  Later, remarkably, your boss tells you to be a professional and to stay out of the women’s bathroom.

It’s a small detail, one that they didn’t need to add.  But more than just a silly joke, it’s an early example of Deus Ex understanding a player’s impulse and saying, “I get that.  You can go ahead.  But going into the women’s bathroom has fucking consequences if you are a big dude in a trench coat and shades.”

The game doesn’t stop there.  At one turning point for the main character, you’ve captured a terrorist leader.  Except what he’s telling you is some pretty convincing stuff about how he’s not the bad guy – your boss is.  Your hard-liner partner wants this guy dead, and it’s pretty clear that she’s trying to shut him up.

Most games in this situation would either railroad you into following a certain course, or allow you a couple options.  Maybe they’d make you leave, or perhaps they’d make it very clear that you need to save the terrorist leader.  If you had a choice, it would be clearly laid out.

Deus Ex lets you make a choice, but it’s not a simple one.  You can:

-        Keep talking to the terrorist leader.  As he reveals more and more information, eventually your partner kills him in cold blood.

-        Leave the terrorist leader, presumably to be killed by your partner.

-        Kill the terrorist leader, as instructed by your partner.

-        Kill your partner.

The game gives you no indication that this last choice is even an option.  And it’s difficult – your partner is a tough cookie, tough enough that some players might initially think it’s impossible to take her down.  But if you take the leap and try it, you can indeed kill her.  The guy on your radio calls you up and freaks out a little bit, but agrees to cover for you.

When I tried this and it actually worked, I was stunned.  Here was a game that was moderately linear, and yet it understood that I had made a decision, and instead of throwing up a wall to stop me, it let me go ahead.

I think gaming culture has confused the terms “open world” and “branching narrative” with this idea.  But this is separate, something that can take place in the biggest sandbox game or a more straightforward, linear one.  It’s a designer creating a universe, and then knowing enough about player instincts, enough about why we play video games in the first place, to allow that universe to respond to the player in new ways.  And when this happens, a gamer staring at an illuminated screen suddenly becomes a person being greeted by another person.  In these special moments a hand reaches through the code toward you, just as a hand can reach through a painting or a book or a film.  And I’d like to see anyone argue that that isn’t the province of real art.


Filed Under: Action Art Books Role-playing

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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