Why Video Games are Art.

“What games conspicuously lack is moral consequence. Once you’ve killed someone, stolen something, or blown up a building, that’s usually the end of it – you’ll rarely get to see the emotional impact of your actions on the characters around you.”— Matthew Devereux. “The moral cost of video games”, The Christian Science Monitor January 7, 2008.

“Awaken.” –Kreia, to the Jedi Exile. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. 2004.

I know I have blogged about this game before, but I find I just cannot say enough about it. And whenever I start to despair of video games prospects as an art form, it cheers me up to think about it.

The greatest video game I have ever played is Obsidian Entertainment’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Indeed, I consider it to be one of the finest artworks I have ever seen. It was playing this game which convinced me the medium was truly mature. (There were games made before it that rank as art, but playing it really brought it home to me.)

There are many things to recommend it: Firstly, the gameplay is quite varied and enjoyable in and of itself, and the graphics, while by no means stellar, especially today, convey subtle feelings quite powerfully, and are absolutely perfect for the story they tell. Finally, the music and sound is superb and the voice-acting is uniformly excellent—even “bit” characters perform wonderfully.

But, of course, what really matters to me is the writing; both the story and the dialogue. And KotOR II, you see, has the greatest writing of any video game I have ever played.

The story is brilliant—subtle, moving, suspenseful, funny and intriguing all at once. It effortlessly combines elements of adventure, mystery, comedy, romance, political thriller, horror and psychological drama into one perfectly paced narrative. The dialogue, too, is superbly done, containing layers of meaning and deep, philosophical underpinnings beneath its sharp, witty style.

But what is truly wonderful about KotOR II is its thematic coherence. Every character, every quest, everything in the game relates, in some way, to its overall thematic point. And it is always done cleverly and subtly—so much so that you will not realize it until you are familiar with the game’s theme. Every one of the game’s complex and rich characters serves to explore the key motif.

The obvious question is “what’s it about, then?”. It is hard to say, exactly. It touches on so many ideas about human nature, about politics, about psychology, about economics, about metaphysics that it is hard to answer concisely. The best I can say is that its theme is war, and its physical, political, psychological and spiritual consequences. But even that does not do it justice.

People may complain that its ending feels rushed and incoherent—and indeed it was rushed, but somehow, for me, it has never seemed incoherent. The coherence is what we see in the game; true, there is no total, demystifying explanation at the end, but if you really think about the message of the game, you will see that it has an awesome thematic coherence, the likes of which I have not seen in any other game, even Planescape: Torment. (Made, it must be pointed out, by many of the same people who made KotOR II)

In a recent interview with Iron Tower Studios, KotOR II’s lead designer, Chris Avellone, said the following regarding game design:

“You can pull a character through a story by having events unfold around them, or you can make it clear that events are happening because of what the player did – and *specifically* what the player did. Part of the fun of a world and a story is how your presence is causing changes in it, seeing those changes play out, and being made aware exactly how you caused those changes. Being an agent of change, the spark lighting the fuse, or the butterfly wings that spark the hurricane on the other side of the world is pretty gratifying.”

This seems to me to articulate perfectly what  KotOR II accomplished, and it is a mystery to me why it is not held up as a model of choice and consequences gameplay. Certainly, the story would be robbed considerably of its power were it told in a book or a film. That is perhaps its greatest achievement; that it is not merely a great story, but a great story specific to its medium.As I re-read what I have written here, I feel tempted to explain some part of the game, some character, some scene, shed some further light on its themes—but I cannot bring myself to spoil it any more than I may have already. It must be understood by the player, and to explain more would not convey the same feeling. It defies description.

The game is a masterwork, and in my opinion nothing has come close to it since. Knights of the Old Republic II is truly a superb game, and even if the video game industry never turns out anything close to as good as it again, it alone will have justified the medium’s rank as “Art”.

2 Comments

  1. Personally, the first time I played KotOR II, I definitely liked the original better. But subsequently I started to notice some subtleties in II, and some flaws in the original.However, just to be clear, KotOR I is still one of my favorite games of all time.And you're right, putting personal taste aside, the real point here is that games can be Art.

    Like

What's your stake in this, cowboy?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s