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Video games have come a long way, and for the past ten years, the Tokyo Game Show has showcased its stylistic and industrial change. But has that journey seen growth or stasis? Bryan Hartzheim reports.
2006 marked the 10th anniversary of the Tokyo Game Show, a massive video gaming convention in Chiba, the prefecture just south of Tokyo, held annually in the halls of the Makuhari Messe Center. Hundreds of thousands of gamers packed the center for three days indulging in demos and trailers of the newest games available.
Before the even bigger trade-exclusive Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, or e3 as it has become more popularly known, the TGS was the video gamer's premier extravaganza. This year, e3 announced that there will no longer be an actual event space rented for their convention next year, the coordinators and financers opting instead for private, invitation-only screenings for new games and demos, effectively making TGS once again the largest video gaming event in the world, and open to the public to boot.
For decades now in Japan, playing video games -- before it was dubbed "gaming" -- was the sort of social phenomenon that publishers have been vying to reproduce in the States since Super Mario Bros., and have only started succeeding in the last few years. Here, graying salarymen line up alongside schoolchildren playing hooky to purchase the latest installment of "Dragon Quest," the oldest role-playing game for the now-ancient Nintendo Famicom system. You can take a ride on the train at any time of the day and see women of all shades and stripes collecting Pocket Monsters on a Nintendo DS.
The gaming boom has subsided here slightly in comparison to its surging popularity in the States. Still, popular games can regularly sell copies in the millions, and old franchises and gaming stalwarts are continuing strong. The first generation of young gamers is now well into their thirties, and playable reinventions of older manga and anime series like Fist of the Northstar or Saint Seiya are being released alongside their pachinko slot-machine complements. Akihabara, while also a mecca for strange anime-fetishes and coffee shops staffed by petite maids who speak in high-pitched squeals, is also routinely packed on the weekends with gamers trolling about, hunting for discontinued systems, discount used software, and the occasional rare paraphernalia.
But is it art?
To regular readers of us here at APA, video games might be an entirely foreign concept, the sort of adolescent symptom that one outgrows much like acne or Eminem. An amusing diversion, and to even adopt Roger Ebert's observation, an inferior form of art, one that certainly does not belong in our hallowed webpages.
There's some merit in that, to be sure, if one stops to think about it. To consider some of the more salient objections, video games, while pretty and fun, have contributed remarkably little to art and its discourse in terms of storytelling ingenuity or aesthetic beauty since their advent. One seriously doubts subsequent critical analysis of the themes of "The Legend of Zelda" or "Metal Gear Solid" in the future classrooms of our youngest children (and those listed above are a couple of the more stellar offerings). In this respect, video games tend to mimic other art forms, namely film, rather than create exclusively original work.
They are entirely limited in narrative ability. Developers such as Will Wright, creator of the innovative "Sims" series, have argued that games enable people to explore a "possibility space" that other art forms are not capable of. But the reality is that games offer nothing that writing doesn't, with the disclaimer that now any lazy hack with a controller can make a story if he's so inclined. Most games don't play like "open possibility spaces" anyway, preferring the linear storyline and controlled gameplay which is usually designed by professional game programmers. To look objectively at this method of storytelling is to stare slack-jawed at all the weaknesses of video games as they are: there is absolutely no successful comedy when good games require Action; character development is rarely natural as it must occur within the progression of constant, successive missions; the sort of themes open to other, more patient realms of art can only be served a cursory service with games, which revel in the Moment.
One might say this same sort of stuffy response came from respected critics when cinema first made its appearance and started spreading among the populace. Cinema has obvious trouble handling literary devices; pages upon pages of characters, or stream-of-consciousness narrative to cite a couple. Adaptations of Anna Karenina are largely unsuccessful. The best portions of Austen's least accessible works are nearly impossible to transmute to the silver screen. But while cinema was inferior to the novel in certain respects, there was a palpable evolution in narrative with visual storytelling. Just as Ulysses doesn't make a good film (indeed, it has made very bad ones), it would be tough to see an improvement with Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love: A Novella.
Not the case with video games, which borrow their crude occasional comedic effect straight from previous forms of media. Games are not only unable to do much of what the novel or film can, but they can do little more. You must play them, and if you play them well, you'll possibly have gained less insight into the nature of man, politics, or the world at large than a children's book. You will instead have saved the princess. The intellectual poverty of video games knows no bounds, and this cannot even be blamed on the newness of the medium either, which has existed for over 20 years now. To paraphrase humorist P.J. O'Rourke, it's always best to read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it, and to be found dead while playing "Halo" comes close to dying on the John in terms of pathetic value.
Games, I would argue, are more like a new form of sport than a burgeoning form of narrative. They are more constructively admired from afar for their occasional breathtaking spots of radiance rather than dissected minutely for their contribution to the artistic dialogue. If played well, like a twisting reverse layup or successfully turned double play, the performance deserves applause, but you will have personally gained nothing from observing it, and only slightly more from playing it.
Date Posted: 10/25/2006