James Wallis levels with you

Why Games Are Not Art Yet

A while back this blog started getting hits from a blog author called Lin Swimmer, or someone who’s called their blog Lin Swimmer, and I was mystified because, though I’m even more clueless than the average bear when it comes to the name/face remembering thing, ‘Lin Swimmer’ is the kind of name that sticks in the mind. I didn’t recognise the writing style either and those also stick in the mind, or at least they do in my mind.

For a while I considered whether Lin Swimmer was my official stalker, but he’s too busy on other projects. Now I am beginning to wonder if perhaps I am Lin Swimmer. The overlaps are too great to be ignored. The Jenny Agutter thing is one thing, but any young fellow who watched An American Werewolf In London at an impressionable age and wasn’t neutered at birth has had the same reaction. But now there’s YKK. Lin loves YKK and I, as some of my more weary friends will tell you, have been pushing YKK to my friends for years.

YKK—Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, or ‘Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip’—is perhaps my favourite piece of graphic narrative of all time, and when I say that you should remember I spent a chunk of the late 80s and early 90s as a professional comics journalist (on my desk right now I have the tapes of the interviews I did with Jim Woodring and Matt Groening in 1989—not at the same time, alas, because that would have been awesome—and if anyone has an easy way to get 18-year-old C90 tapes into MP3 format then I’d be happy to post ‘em) so I know graphic narrative.

I’m burbling. Trust me, the coolness of YKK is not the point here, but it is incredibly cool. It’s a ‘quiet future’ story. Something happened. The sea levels are slowly rising. Humanity stopped reaching for the stars. Technology’s still around, but nobody really cares much. There’s a sense that the world has shrugged, turned round and is going back to nature. Absolutely nothing is explained. The heroine is a female robot whose master has left her in charge of a small rural coffee-shop. And that, for more than two thousand pages, is pretty much it. She runs the coffee shop. I don’t use the word ‘ineffable’ very much, but YKK is ineffable. You’ll either read the first couple of chapters and think, “Eh,” or dawn will greet your red eyes as you wonder if you can get through the last six hundred pages before you need to go to work.

The closest thing in game terms are the Animal Crossings (small community, long passage of time, routine occasionally interrupted) but AC and AC:WW are self-consciously quirky, have no narrative other than what the player imposes on the game themselves, and are essentially Dr Miyamoto’s Repetitive Task Training. Few people have greater admiration for AC:WW than me, I think it’s extraordinarily good on many levels and its success proves many things about the games market that the makers of biffy-bangy games probably don’t want to hear. But compared to YKK it’s a child’s scribblings. It has immersion and depth of gameplay… but actual depth? Emotional involvement? Intellectual involvement? That weird zone where the two overlap and we call it ‘art’?

I know, I know; it’s an old discussion, and that way madness lies. Just because something’s on a gallery wall or published in hardcover doesn’t make it art; just because it’s available from Game doesn’t mean it’s not. And of course we’re back to the argument about how interactivity fundamentally changes the nature of experience and how we can’t judge games on the same terms as any other mediums of expression. Except two: quality and ‘art’.

It’s late. I’m tired and I don’t know where I’m going with this. I have a half-finished post about games based on IP from other media and why they suck, and I don’t know where I’m going with that either but I suspect the two intersect somewhere. I also suspect I need another thousand words at least to finish this off, and you’d get bored after about three hundred of them. What it all boils down to: read YKK, then try to think of a single experience you’ve had with interactive media that matches the richness of those two thousand pages of nothing happening. Or just read YKK.

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  1. Stephane says:

    Thanks for the tip.
    I’ve read good reviews about this tape to mp3 deck:

  2. Brian Duguid says:

    James, I can convert your tapes to MP3 if you like (I have a Plusdeck, it’s just a matter of pushing a button), just drop me a private email. – Brian

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