I hope you tuned in to the Kill Your Darlings Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Round 2 debate a few weeks ago. Yours truly defended lowbrow games, and faced off against notable Melbourne-based games industry critic, researcher, and highbrow defender Daniel Golding. Although there was no clear winner between us (or so I hope), my preparation for the debate certainly left me thinking about definitions for the two terms for a good while afterwards.
What makes a game ‘highbrow’? Both Dan and I, in our talks, spent some time defining what we felt each brow actually meant – which is indicative, I think, of the confusion video game players feel in regards to the subject. We don’t have solid criteria for deciding conclusively which games are masterpieces, and which are just dumb, explosive fun.
Way back in 2006, Ernest W. Adams, founder of the International Game Developers Association, made an attempt to define what might make a game ‘highbrow’. He noted that suggestions from other game developers fell into four distinct categories: realistic, historical simulations such as the Civilization series; visually and/or thematically innovative games, such as American McGee’s Alice or Escher-esque puzzler Monument Valley; adventure games in general, with the curious exception of those seen as more humorous or comical; and games with ‘better stories than most,’ such as classic adventure The Longest Journey or the oft-cited narrative darling Dear Esther.
All of these categories, in some way, are based around a game’s narrative. Adams concluded that we were ‘getting somewhere’ with the above categories, and while I agree it’s a good starting point, that was nearly 10 years ago. Not much headway as been made since.
To me, basing a video game’s artistic and intellectual potential purely on story or narrative feels like a cop-out. It’s a painful reminder that as a cultural medium, gaming is still not perceived to be on the same intellectual par as its peers. Game critics are looking at features generally associated with other mediums, such as film or literature, to validate a game’s artistic merit.
There’s a lot more to a game than its story. Anyone can cram a few thousand words of text into a game, and many studios do – usually in the script of extended cinematic cutscenes that have players twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the exposition to end so that they can get back to, you know, actually playing the game. It’s a lazy approach to storytelling, and game developers know it (Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer of games such as Child of Light and Far Cry 3, last year criticised fan favourite studio BioWare for its boring storytelling techniques, referring to it as ‘watching from the sidelines’).
When I was studying a games degree (yes, that’s a thing) at university, a first-year subject required us to analyse video games – not by the stories they told or the emotions they elicited, but from a mechanical standpoint. How did users interact with the game? What actions were players required to perform in order to advance? Core games subjects focused much more on this technical side; essays on game narrative were the territory of media electives.
This, I feel, is how we should determine the artistic value of a game. Not by its story, but the way that interactivity – gaming’s most unique feature – is used to tell that story.
By this measure, no games better demonstrate the definition of ‘highbrow’ than those created by Keith Nemitz, also known as one-man indie development studio Mousechief.
One of Nemitz’s earlier games is the stunningly-named Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. The title alone is certainly unusual enough in a world of games with names like Bulletstorm and Battlefield – but more unusual still is its card game-inspired gameplay, and the way this interface is used to determine the choices and actions of a group of confident, clever, and flirty young women in the 1920s. While visually rough – its hand-drawn illustrations and board game aesthetic might be confronting to the average gamer – Dangerous High School Girls tackles its subject matter in an amusing and intelligent way. You couldn’t simply extract the in-game text and retain a cohesive story; you need to play its minigames in order for your girls’ adventures to take form.
Similar arguments could be made with regard to Nemitz’s most recent game, 7 Grand Steps (above), which follows a family line through seven generations as players move their tokens along a constantly-spinning wheel of life. 7GS elegantly combines the mechanics of a board game with the tactility of a slot machine or a pinball game. This family’s path through life, from their technological discoveries through to their personal tragedies, is decided via these mechanisms. As I noted in my own review of 7GS, the story resulting from token-based gameplay is one of great strife and privilege; should you lose your family’s heir to starvation, it’s the unapologetically mechanical gameplay that truly delivers the blow.
Nemitz’s games aren’t like Dear Esther or Monument Valley, in which a screenshot taken at any given moment can become a wall-worthy piece of art (as Connor Tomas O’Brien noted on Killings last year) – nor are they like The Longest Journey, from which a linear and complete story could be told even if stripped of its gameplay. And that’s okay. 7 Grand Steps is not a painting or a book. It’s a game. It excels in marrying artistry with the interactive mechanics that define gameplay – and this, I feel, is how we should define the most truly highbrow achievements in the gaming industry.