Monday, December 10, 2012

Can Spoilers Spoil Art?

Spoiled Art
There seems to be a somewhat recent trend in complaining about spoilers in popular media. I've never had anything spoiled for me, but it probably helps that I'm willing to give up on something that's wasting my time quicker than most people. I've always viewed the spoiler problem as a negative side effect of our throw away culture. A work of art cannot be "spoiled". If your movie or game or book was spoiled, it's because the only thing the ephemeral garbage you were consuming brings to the table is novelty. And novelty doesn't last.

Video Games are unique in the world of art. They are the composite of other forms of art plus an interactive element. They have imagery, a score (music), story, and gameplay. There's often debate about games as art. I find that they can be, but it doesn't happen often enough. What is art? One could write a dissertation on this subject, but at the very least, art is something that takes you on an emotional journey and stimulates the mind. So, why is it that art can’t be spoiled? Let’s take a look.

First off, and probably the biggest artistic contribution to games, is the story. If the only thing a story has going for it is a plot twist then it's not a good story; it will never be retold and it will be forgotten. A good story gives new meaning/understanding every time you read it. A good story has multiple levels: what happened, why it happened, character motivations, lessons to be learned, and new lessons to be learned as the reader gains more life experience. A good story isn't about the ending; it's about the journey to get there. For illustration, the literary concept of dramatic irony is based on the audience knowing the ending but the characters don't. Above and beyond that a well-crafted story can teach others how to craft stories by example.

A work of art can be experienced over and over. The visual arts are the easiest to experience requiring as little as a glance. The more art is looked at the more it reveals, both about the image and about ourselves. Small details in a painting can inspire the viewer into imagining the back story. "Why are the people here?"; "Why is that object so prominent"; "What is about to happen?"; "What are their motivations?" All these things pique curiosity that draws us into the work of art more.

In the visual department, something that's little discussed is simulations as art. Watching the Yule Log DVD is as captivating as a real fireplace. An aquarium screen saver is as good as a real aquarium until the realism breaks. Sitting in a field and watching the environment in Shadow of the Colossus evokes some of the same feelings as doing the same in nature. Whether or not they are art on their own, they are at the very least tools that can be used in a work of art to cue an emotion.

Music is another major contributor to games and movies. Most people don't understand how music moves them the way it does but that doesn't mean they can't appreciate it. Music can be art on its own but, more so than any other art form, it pairs with everything; enhancing or distracting from what's at hand. While there are great video game scores (Congrats on the Grammy nomination, Mr. Wintory), one big sore spot is dynamic composition. While modern games more often have dynamic scores, the music in open ended games can best be described as background music. With games that are more linear and more controlled the music can closer match the mood of the scene. The closest I've seen to dynamic scoring in a free form environment was the iMuse system used in the Star Wars flight sim Tie Fighter. It wasn't perfect though. This lack in the music world isn't the composers fault. Getting it right requires understanding player intent which requires the game to have meta-AI watching the player watch the game. This is what programmers call a hard problem.

It should be noted that there are some exceptions that can be spoiled. Take Braid for example, Braid is the only game I can think of that truly can be spoiled. Real Puzzles, not the find the key situations that most games pass off as puzzles, but true puzzles requiring logical or lateral thinking where the solution cannot be unlearned are spoilable. Braid is a collection of puzzles and if you use a walkthrough you've cheated yourself out of most of the game. Nonetheless, I'm not sure puzzles can be art or what make a game art, though Zen koans may qualify. I've always considered Braid to be a work of art along with some puzzles. Tim's (the protagonist) abilities are symbolic and part of the story, but the actions to solve the puzzles are not. Comparatively, in World of Goo, your actions are both as a gamer advancing the game and as an actor manipulating the world of goo.

On a conversation about things getting spoiled it's important to talk about Imagination. Unfortunately an imagination can be spoiled, but this isn't contradictory to my thesis. It's not so much that art creates imagination but that a lack of art destroys it. Art inspires. It makes you think. Art does not club you with morality or hold your hands through the complicated parts. Modern movies/books/games need to give people more credit. Their spoilable plots do nothing to inspire.

On a personal note, this post started out with a thought I had to myself, "if Jonathan Bow invited me to beta test the witness would I accept?" Would I want to spoil the game for myself by seeing it with its cloths off? Can it be spoiled? I wonder if Kellee Santiago enjoys Journey less because she knows its secrets. What's your experience?