The most important game of 2010
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The action is in the margins


This post gets around to video games a few paragraphs in. I hope you'll stick with me while I try to set the table.

Earlier this week a stunt double named Christopher Tierney was injured when he fell 30-feet to the stage floor in a preview performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a $65 million musical (the most expensive in Broadway history) beset with problems.

Tierney's fall was the fourth accident to occur during the show's pre-opening run. The female lead who plays villainess Arachne suffered a concussion after being hit by a rope, a dancer broke both wrists in a flying sequence, and another injured his foot on the same stunt.[1]

Given Spider-Man's many production woes, the inevitable impulse is to question its creators' intentions. As one critic asks, "Is Broadway trying too hard to be like Hollywood?"[2] Theater, the thinking goes, should stick to what it does best and leave the epic visuals and high-tech stunts to the experts in Hollywood. Theater is a live, flesh-and-blood event. Its primitive nature is its biggest strength. An actor on the boards before a live audience - it was enough for Shakespeare. Everything else is window dressing.

That is, unless you get it right. When that actor playing Spiderman defies gravity and flies across the stage, casts his web and sticks his landing to the amazement of a live audience, suddenly the Hollywood comparison gets turned around. Why would I want to watch a CG-enabled Tobey Maguire pretend to execute acrobatic stunts on a screen when I just saw a real guy fly 30-feet over my head, somersault in midair, and attach himself to that wall?!

We routinely overvalue originality and undervalue boring stuff like precision and shrewd execution. Anyone who glances at a list of lifted-from-Hollywood productions that pass for Broadway fare these days: Elf, Billy Elliott, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, among others, could be forgiven for thinking the Old White Way ought to be relabeled Tinseltown East. Whatever happened to originality in the American theater?

But cursory glances can lead to misinformed assumptions, and that's precisely the case with two of the shows I mentioned above. Yes, Elf and Mary Poppins might best be described as showy cash-ins aimed at the tourist crowd, but that cynical description hardly suits The Lion King or Billy Elliott, two outstanding musicals that transcend the Hollywood material which inspired them. Billy Elliott is a grittier depiction of its title character and his dire circumstances than the movie version, and the sensational dancing flows from a palpable sense of desperation in Billy. The Lion King (directed by Julie Taymor) remains one of the most exhilarating re-imaginings of original source material ever staged.

So what does all this have to do with video games?

In recent years we've seen plenty of criticism (including mine) leveled at video games that rehash old ideas; games that rely on genre formulas; games that ape the language of film. Games, we're often told, need new ideas. Games need to grow up. Games should leverage their defining interactivity. Cutscenes are lazy. Let movies be movies. Players want to write their own stories. Games don't need authored narratives. Games don't need linear stories. Games don't need stories. All games should be fun. No they shouldn't.

The problem with these reductive arguments is they fail to account for how art rails against boundaries; how artists inevitably seek to situate their work in the margins no one can own. Artists instinctively push back against "don't," "shouldn't," and "must." This is why we give them genius grants. It's also why we put them in prison. The real action is in the margins.

Julie Taymor's Spider-Man won't succeed or fail based on its recipe of ingredients or fidelity to the language of stage or cinema. Its success will ride on the production's ability to entertain and communicate its core vision to an audience. In Taymor's gifted hands, that vision is likely to include a blend of theatrical and filmic elements that define her sensibilities as a director of both media.

This is why we should stop worrying about games that try to be like movies, comic books, or anything else for that matter. The mechanical syntax and visual language of existing media and genres inevitably inform each another, and we should celebrate these confluences when they work. When they don't, the problems are likely to be less about modes of expression than about execution. In other words, a good idea is an idea that works, regardless of its origins or the format used to communicate it. 

Uncharted 2 is a great game, in part because its cinematic elements frame the player's experience and successfully convey its formal narrative. Minecraft is a terrific game too, partly because its primitive blocky visuals align with its player-focused building-block DNA. Interestingly, we tend to haggle over the merits of the first, but see the genius of the second as self-evident. Retro graphics suggest an artsy choice, but verisimilitude means somebody sold out. Neither preconception is reliable.

Good designers make formal choices that help express their creative goals. It's the critic's job to examine the meaning and impact of those choices. Why did Ian Bogost purposely constrain himself to chunky graphics and 4 kilobytes of memory for A Slow Year? Why did Krystian Majewski rely on high-res still photography for TRAUMA? Why did Daniel Benmergui choose text as a primary visual stimulus for Today I Die? Why does Monobanda offer the player no instructions for creating a tree in Bohm?

If we critics can meet games at the places they come to us; if we can examine their materials and try to understand why they were chosen and how they function; if we can allow every game to stand in our consideration untethered to other games or preconceptions, we will better comprehend how they work and why they succeed or fail. In the process, we will more ably fulfill our role as servants of the art form.

Here's hoping Spider-Man the musical overcomes its difficulties; but if it flops, sign me up for the autopsy. This one has a lot of moving parts.