I grew up with the video games of the eighties, the ones Ernest Cline memorializes in Ready Player One, the kinds of games that the kids in Stranger Things might play. Centipede, Moon Patrol, Road Blasters, and Punch-Out!! were my favorites. There were two arcades in my hometown, Mount Vernon, Washington, one in each mall. I was keenly interested in the laser disc-based animated game Dragon’s Lair, which was gorgeous to look at but impossible to play. I measured the quality of restaurants by whether they had good arcade games to play. I dumped a lot of lawn mowing money at Aladdin’s Castle, turning grass clippings into pixels.
My parents didn’t allow video games in the house, urging me instead to explore the acres of forest bordering our back yard. I read science fiction novels, listened to music, played guitar, checked out a comic book occasionally. Sometimes I’d go to an arcade, but video games were never my top choice of entertainment. In high school I had a friend who had a Nintendo. I played Super Mario on it maybe half a dozen times.
When I got to college, I wrote papers on a typewriter. It wasn’t until my junior year that I got a computer, an Apple LC520, one of the company’s ugliest designs. It featured a CD-ROM drive. For a summer I got hooked on Myst. That was the same summer I was determined to finish writing a novel. Once I finished Myst, I considered the amount of time I’d invested in it and decided that I couldn’t afford to play video games any more if I also wanted to write books. It freaked me out a bit how much the game had absorbed me. So I turned my back on video games pretty definitively. I briefly played Sim City and The Sims, but for the most part twenty years or so passed without playing a video game.
Of course video games evolved while I wasn’t paying attention. I read and wrote and whenever I glanced at video games, I quickly dismissed them as beneath my intelligence, a waste of time. The World Wide Web rose up and seized my attention. I worked for Amazon, Microsoft, Expedia and learned how to use production tools to create and track the performance of content. I spent hours in conference rooms with developers to discuss the architecture of an online learning platform. I managed a customer relationship management database. All around me, at these various jobs, were colleagues who spent much of their free time playing video games. They just belonged to a different artistic subculture that I didn’t bother to understand. My subculture was the weird or fabulist side of literary fiction and film. I spent my time parsing the prose of Gary Lutz, Aimee Bender, and George Saunders. Working at Amazon as a DVD editor, I took a side trip into the world of art house and international cinema, educating myself on the works of the great auteurs–Fellini, Bergman, Maddin, Jodorowsky–and sought out early films by Chaplin, Weine, Melies, Keaton.
Video games, as far as I could tell, were about running around and shooting bad guys. They seemed beneath me. There was one writer, Tom Bissell, who broke ranks from our tribe to suggest that maybe we should start considering video games as an art form. I admired Bissell’s writing, but I read his appreciation for Grand Theft Auto with a half smirk. I could get on board with the argument that video games were an art form, but I considered the medium inferior to literature, film, and certain genres of music. As far as I could tell, there was no video game that approached the artistry of, say, Kubrick or Bjork.
Meanwhile, over the years, starting in the late nineties, I’d gotten to know the minds behind Fantagraphics Books, the Seattle-based comic book publisher. I first met Gary Groth and Eric Reynolds before the turn of the millennium, when I proposed that they publish an anthology of illustrated stories by some of my favorite literary fiction writers. This didn’t pan out, but I came back into their orbit a few years ago, and in 2015 Fantagraphics published a collection of my short stories called The Octopus Rises.
After having published three books with traditional, New York publishing houses, my experience with Fantagraphics was eye-opening, to say the least. Here was a publisher known for its exquisite design and production, where the art department wasn’t treated as an afterthought. I had so much fun working on my book with Eric Reynolds and Art Director Jacob Covey, and was proud of how bizarre looking the book turned out to be. I found it refreshing to work with a publisher orientated to books as art objects.
The story of Fantagraphics is that of a couple comic book geeks who decided that the medium could achieve more ambitious artistry. Founders Groth and the late Kim Thompson were instrumental in ushering in the graphic novel as an art form distinct from the cheaply produced comic books we all perused on racks at the neighborhood drug store. Nobody who reads Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, or Julia Gfrörer doubts that they are experiencing art. In addition to bringing these new visions to print, Fantagraphics also preserves the twentieth century’s cartoonist masters, like Charles Schulz, in lovingly designed archive-worthy editions. They imbued comics with adult themes and formal experimentation, published works in translation, and didn’t skimp on the presentation. Fantagraphics settled the question of whether comics are an art form.
As I’ve been immersing myself in virtual reality, I’ve noted how this industry is growing out of the video game industry. Many of the people working in VR in Seattle who I’ve met in the past few months came from a gaming background, either as game designers or simply as enthusiasts. I’ve felt a bit like an interloper around these members of the indie gaming community. When I met Tom Doyle, the lead artist for Halo, he asked me what my favorite game was, and I sheepishly said Myst. This is sort of like being someone who stopped paying attention to rock music when Limp Bizkit topped the charts.
I decided I needed to better educate myself on the world of video games if I was going to be able to have an intelligent conversation with the designers and engineers who are inventing VR applications. Last week I put out a call on Facebook that I’d be interested in borrowing a console game. Two generous individuals promptly set me up with Xboxes and games.
For the past few days I’ve been tip-toeing into the world of video games. So far I’ve tried Dark Souls III, Star Wars Battlefront, and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. If you’re a long-time gamer, the observations I’m about to make will probably sound charmingly oblivious. I was aware that video games have gotten more cinematic, but I imagined this meant that the increasingly realistic looking characters acted out little scenes. Which they do. But what’s more interesting to me is how gamers control camera angles. As you move your character through 3D rendered space with your left joystick, you can swoop around your character with the right one. I’ve found that sometimes I like to simply put my avatar in a scenic spot then fly around his head. As I’m doing this, I sense the avatar’s presence and imagine what he might be feeling as he’s perched above a town square, on a mission to assassinate a Victorian London industrialist. I’m simultaneously actor and director.
When Amazon bought Twitch.tv in 2014 for close to a billion dollars, I thought Jeff Bezos had lost his mind. I learned that Twitch was a website where people watched videos of other people playing video games, and that just sounded like a bunch of losers in rec rooms to me, frankly. What was actually going on was that I didn’t understand what video games actually were anymore. While I was ignoring games, they were beginning to appropriate the artistic features of literature and film–the ability to create emotional states, world-building, beauty for its own sake. Twitch came along to accommodate gamers’ increasingly sophisticated orientation to the medium.
Right now video games seem to be culturally positioned where comic books were in the late eighties. They’re considered frivolous by most people, not worth mentioning in the same breath as books or movies, which make far less money. Judging the quality of a medium by the quality of its content is a mistake, especially when the medium is at such an early stage of its development.
We tend to think of an entire medium as trivial or subpar when it is in the early days of developing its grammar. Television, considered a “vast wasteland” years ago has matured into our culture’s primary vehicle for narrative art. The comic artists that Fantagraphics championed in the pre-Internet era now regularly appear in the New Yorker. A similar phenomenon is about to happen to video games.
It’s incredible that at the very moment when games have reached a level of sophistication that makes it increasingly harder to deny they’re art, VR comes along to offer a whole new vessel for the kinds of immersive worlds gamers have been enjoying for years. Video games these days tend to be built using either Unity or Unreal Engine, coding languages that work equally well for flat-screen or VR experiences. It’s an easy leap into VR.
The problems that cinematic thinkers are encountering as they explore VR are problems that game designers solved a long time ago. The concept of agency, empowering the viewer to perform actions in an environment, is alien to filmmakers accustomed to dictating the movements and dialogue of actors. Agency is a given for a game designer. That’s what makes it a game. In a game like Assassin’s Creed, the agency is two-fold–you can both control your avatar’s movements and the angle of observation. This means that you have simultaneous control over first-person and omniscient points of view, something that you’re simply incapable of in other narrative art forms.
There’s value, for a fledgling art form, in being underestimated. Late eighties bands living in rat-infested punk houses in the neighborhood from which I’m now blogging forged a new sound outside the scrutiny of corporate hit-making factories. The mainstream dismissal of comics as an art form allowed a handful of brilliant weirdos to carve out a space in the underground. Freed from the pressure of having to bend to the taste of a mainstream public, grunge rockers and underground cartoonists could simply cater to their small group of weirdo friends. Over time, some of them got really good.
With persistence, sharing, and the caretaking of a few committed individuals, media that once seemed low-brow can evolve to provide us with great art, especially when only a devoted few are paying attention. I think that’s where video games are heading. VR as we know it owes its existence to the pioneers of video games. I’m just beginning to learn how much we owe to this activity that many still consider a waste of time.