Here with another thoughtful piece is the ever brilliant virtunaut.

Republished from the original site:

I am so sorry for taking as long as I did to get this entry out; not only did this entry change course fifty times, I have many other personal projects going on at the moment. So, anyway, here it is:

Color is something we take for granted these days; we go clothes shopping, and we can essentially find any color garment we’re looking for. We decide to paint our homes, and we’re given vast color libraries from which to choose from. But, things weren’t always this way; quests that had sent men and women halfway around the globe had been undertaken in search of color, and innumerable lives had been lost defending it. Of course, what I’m talking about are the rare and natural ingredients that had served as pigment to the various dyes of yore, but, regardless of how mindful we are to the suffering that went into creating color before today’s synthetic pigments, we’re all still aware that color undoubtably still plays an important role in our and every other culture on this planet.

For a time, it was thought certain colors possessed magical, metaphysical properties. The native americans would encrust their bodies with ochre colored paint, believing it had the ability to ward off evil spirits. But, in our modern societies, the ‘magical’ effects once attributed to color have simply been reduced to ‘psychological’ effects. The walls of asylums are coated in a pale blue in an attempt to keep the erratic neuronal signals of its patients to a minimum, and hospitals are often painted white or with very light, desaturated colors, giving the sense of stark cleanliness.

Color is everywhere; our eyes cannot escape it. No matter where we look — at our hands or into space — photons of various wavelengths are wiggling their way through our corneas and tapping our retinas (closing your eyes doesn’t help), and, often times, the colors we see in our man made habitat had much planning behind them. A lot of forethought and design go into the colors that plaster all the various products lining the shelves of every boutique and supermarket and the signage that covers nearly every surface we interact with. Most of the time, colors for things like these are used with hopes of catching our attention, like a flower whose brilliant petals attracts the insects so as to spread its pollen, but sometimes these items are designed with colors whose psychic effects (we think) parallel the kind of actions we take and moods we associate with regards to the item or service.

But, what about the colors used in art that’s intended to be savored, not the art that ends up on some packaged, disposable, single serving wrapper? What kind of thought goes into the use of color there? This isn’t an easily answered question; artists use color for a variety of reasons, and it depends on what they hope to achieve with their art. Not to mention, given our limited comprehension of the brain and the inescapable subjectivity of sense experience, the effect achieved with a given color can end up being completely different than what an artist or designer had intended; but that doesn’t stop people from trying. Game worlds are no exception; the digital spaces we explore are replete with colors of various hues, saturations, and values, though how often are the colors chosen to create something more than a believable and enchanting veneer?

As I write this, I begin to notice more and more that the aims I’d had for this entry about color isn’t so much deviating as it is expanding towards something more along the lines of metaphor and symbolism. I was concerned with trying to discover a reason behind the various colors we see in games; I wanted to know if they meant something or if they were just designed to be visually alluring. But, as I continue to think about the subject matter, I realize I want to know how metaphor is presented in games and how we can go about locating it.

Metaphor is something so powerful, yet so ephemeral. If our eyes aren’t cutting through the words of a novel with the utmost attentiveness or both our ears and eyes aren’t as open as we think while seated in a movie theatre, there’s a good chance we’ll miss any of the metaphor that’s present. Metaphor is what makes the high brow critics of art deliberate if a work is even worthy of being considered ‘art,’ but does the fact that few critics consider video games an art — ahem! Ebert — really mean they lack any metaphor and substance? Do they truly fail at commenting on our curious condition out here in space or in demonstrating a high level of skill in the purposeful crafting of a world and its inhabitants?

Most of us are aware of what metaphors are: a form of figurative language that portrays one object as being equal to an other in some way. Essentially, they compare two things without using ‘like’ or ‘as,’ and the comparison is often between two very different subjects. For example: her apple eyes. (Things can be contrasted, too. For example: time is not a thief.) But, there are many times when novelists don’t make these relationships so apparent. Instead of making an obvious connection through the words of a single sentence, a writer could construct a metaphor more slowly, more meticulously, and more subtly; some metaphors could even take half the book to finally materialize. Most of the time, these delicate mechanisms hinge on description, with the descriptive words — adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions — creating correlations between multiple characters, multiple objects, or both characters and objects. For example: within the words of a scene, an author may describe in detail the beautiful redwood finish of an old grandfather clock and, within the same scene, describe the ruddy complexion of a man. To a close reader, this would establish the first fine thread of a link between the two subjects, the man and the clock (a ruddy, old man would be an even more apparent connection). From now on, any information the author decides to reveal about the clock — its finish or its interior or its history — could suggest that it somehow parallels what’s going on with the inner workings of either the man’s physical body or mind or his own history.

Asking if we see things like this in games is a good question, but we need to keep in mind that games are a very different medium from novels, and, even though things like symbolism, metaphor, and subtext can be created in the same way for games and movies as they can for novels, noticing them requires skills we haven’t necessarily been trained to develop, whether naturally or through education. (Considering how games come in all different shapes and sizes, I think it best for me to clarify what kind of games I have in mind. Even though the simplest of two-dimensional game spaces can be rich enough to be considered art by the less pompous critics, the kind of game world I’m referring to is a fully navigable, three-dimensional, virtual space — the spaces that have had thousands of man hours go into constructing them — the universes with multi-million dollar budgets.)

For those of us trained to close read texts, we’re taught to look for things like repetitions, strands, and binaries, where the repetitions are — quite obviously — words that repeat, strands being groups of words all sharing certain qualities or characteristics, like natural, organic, and earthen, and binaries being words that oppose one another, like light and dark. These words act as the signposts that point us in the right direction; they allow us to more clearly see and understand the various and complex relationships being built by the author, whether intentional or not.

Let’s take a look at how games are currently designed and how they lend themselves (or don’t) to being studied with the methods we’re used to:

When we assume control of an avatar capable of moving through a 3D environment, we maneuver them as if we inhabited the space ourselves. Some of us who appreciate the work that goes into to the assembly of such digital locales might spend a little time admiring the textures or the complexity of the models and lighting, especially if it’s a new space we’ve never encountered before, but, more often than not, the focus of our attention is on something else, whether it be the guys who seem to have limitless amounts of ammo and who have nothing better to do than to fire it off in our direction, or the minimap in the corner of the screen that allows us to navigate via a two-dimensional representation of the world; or maybe it’s the unopened chests littering the floor, or the arrow that continually points in the direction we need to head, or the timer counting down to our demise. Whatever it is, there is usually a driving force that pushes us to progress and move through the world. Much like our lives outside of virtuality, we’re usually driven to get up and move by some objective; maybe we’re hungry, so we take a hike to the kitchen or drive to the local deli, and we wake up in the morning and head off to work, because we’re still biological organisms that need food and shelter. It’s the same in our simulated lives; take The Elder Scrolls for example, a game known for its non linear story lines and its open world design; even when we’ve journeyed far beyond the outskirts of the game’s civilizations, considerably removed from any major narrative, we’re usually jumping and bounding around with hopes of finding some long forgotten ruins replete with magical artifacts and relics, and, because they have smart designers over at Bethesda, they reward our aimless journeys by populating the world with exactly what we’re looking for — little hidden doors and sunken cities.

These goals and objectives certainly help to infuse reason and purpose into our existence in the game world, but if we want to approach games from a critical perspective, we need to learn to free ourselves from the narrative roller coaster many games are designed to be.

We don’t normally stop to scrutinize every environment we walk through in a day; we don’t walk into a friend’s living room and pause to examine the items strewn about on their coffee table, thinking about why those particular objects happen to be there at that very moment, and what their combination might mean or say about our friend or their home or about ourselves; we don’t look at the items as if an author had chosen to put those very objects there with reason — with intent; we simply assume the table was a more convenient resting place for the objects than the floor. (Perhaps, if we were afflicted with paranoia, we might think our friend had arranged the objects before our arrival so as to tell us something). But, it’s something like this we’ll need to start doing if we want to begin accepting games as an art and approaching them more seriously. What this draws a parallel with is something known as puritan hermeneutics. The religious puritans would look at their lives as if they were texts — close reading the story of themselves, if you would. They could be picnicking, cooled by the shade of a tree, and, should an apple fall and spill a bowl of milk, they would look at the event as if it were written in words. They would attribute some kind of meaning to the fallen apple, as if it were an omen — a message — a subtext. They believed God was speaking to them through even the most mundane interactions and happenings, and they felt if they were adept enough at reading the story of their lives, they’d be able to determine their fate — if they were to be saved or damned, essentially a subtext of their lives. Of course, this kind of practice isn’t as prevalent today, especially when a large portion of us have begun to accept that our world is the precipitate of countless cosmic chemical reactions with no proof that an intelligent hand exists anywhere in the equation. So, we may not go around reading our lives like the puritans, but we can certainly do so when we’re exploring our virtual worlds, because, with them, we can be sure there’s been an intelligent authorial force behind the arrangement of the world’s objects and denizens.

Okay, so what? We know if we want to approach games from a more critical point of view we need to train ourselves to exist within and move through the game world with different intent then how we’ve been doing so in our non-virtual world. We need to slow down, to set aside our objectives (if we can) and take a minute to examine the space and its arrangement. But there’s problem we’d run into: the necessity of the world. There’s a major difference between the incorporation of objects and environments in games compared to that of novels, and it’s due to the exigency of everything a world contains. Let me explain. Take a scene from a novel; the author deliberately chooses to describe a bookshelf, detailing its construction and a set of curious book ends parenthesizing an even more curious collection of volumes. The author goes on to describe the characters — where they’re seated and what they’re doing and saying. The rest of the space is nebulous. The carpeting is left out; the lighting is omitted; the wallpaper is ignored; it’s up to our imagination to fill in. Game developers don’t have this kind of luxury. (Although approaching a world’s design in such a way could lead to some very interesting and innovative gameplay experiences. It would be like moving from point of interest to point of interest, where each locale is as sparse and isolated as where Morpheus introduced Neo to the desert of the real). Game developers need to have all those details present if they have any desire to keep their players entranced within their illusory world, but doing so isn’t easy, let alone making all of it meaningful.

If author’s were to comment on every visible object and surface within a space, not only would every book need to be thousands and thousands of pages, but readers would probably get bored given how long it’d take the story to progress; they’d be on the fiftieth page still reading about how dark and stormy the night actually was. Understanding this, how are we to ever know what’s important? How could we ever possibly tell what aspects of a game space the designers had decided to spend time adding ‘figurative language’ to? Should game designers only bother imbuing metaphor into game elements that exist along the main narrative plot line and in environments the players need to enter to progress the story? There isn’t a clear answer, but let’s think about what can be done.

There are two kinds of metaphor which I like to consider global and local. Global metaphor is figuration that spans the entire work. It could be a specific character who comes to represent a demonic and devil-like entity, or it could be how the string of major events comments on something that’s happened or is happening in our world. Essentially, global metaphor would be anything that stays present and relevant throughout the majority of the work. Local metaphor is more of a demonstration of the writer’s skill in the craft, as the local metaphor only ever adds to the current scene and has no relevance to the story in its entirety. Such an example could be a scene where two friends are discussing their differences and mutually coming to the realization that  their friendship is coming to an end, while, in the background, a bus boy is closing up a restaurant — pulling away the place settings, and placing the chairs on the tables.

I feel as if games (some, at least) already try to include global metaphor, like the mall in Dead Rising, with its mindless zombies that ceaselessly pour out of every store and aisle, but, often times, it’s done through the names of characters or spaceships or missions or planets — things that exist along the main story arc. If developers want their work to be considered art as opposed to simply entertainment, then the incorporation of local metaphor is something nearly every game can benefit from.

But, this still doesn’t inform us where to look, and I don’t think there’s anything that could be done that doesn’t break the believability of the game world. Of course, developers could add a luster or a glow to objects that happen to be speaking figuratively, but that would a little narcissistic, and it might feel like an insult to the intelligence of the players. I think the only believable option would be to include metaphor and figuration wherever possible and hope it doesn’t go unnoticed. But, developers would most likely deem that pointless and in vain, unless, of course, they could arm us with the tools to explore their world from a scholarly standpoint.

Why aren’t there video game scholars, and why only now are game programs just beginning to creep their way into academic institutions? Is it simply because games are still an incunabulum of the digital medium? Probably, but I think there’s something else continuing to hold games back from being as studied a form as novels and movies, and I feel it’s due to the level of access users/players have to the world. In games, major events usually only happen once, unless you’ve died and are forced to replay a scene. Things are continually moving and changing, but when we are engaged with a novel, the world is static. Like a hand cranked universe, the world only comes to life when our eyes skate across the words on the page. With a book, it’s as if we have in our hands something like what modern physicists would consider a fifth-dimensional object; we’re presented with something where all the events in time are present simultaneously; we’re able to flip to any point in the story like time travelers and even freeze time should we decide to stop reading. Movies offer a similar level of control with the scene selection feature and the option to rewind, fast forward, and slow forward. Most games don’t have options like this, although Bungie did provide movie-like controls with their ‘Theatre’ feature in Halo 3. The feature allows players to record their gameplay and scrub through it, as well as enabling them to disconnect themselves from their first-person point of view and fly around and examine scenes from any angle. Of course, I can’t say for sure, but such functionality seems aimed at the machinima community, the people who use the Halo 3 engine to create their own stories and cinematic featurettes. It’s also designed for hardcore players who want to save clips of their virtual violence to show how ‘pro’ they are, as well as the players who just like to save hilarious instances that have happened to them during their gameplay. I doubt it was designed as a means of giving the students and professors of the new art form a higher level of command over the narrative.

Functionality like Halo 3’s Theatre certainly helps prepare people to engage games more academically, but it isn’t enough. With books, we have the options to underline, highlight, and take notes within the margins, and fold down the corners of pages or place a sticky note on them to demarcate an important part of the narrative or some key language used. To fully and adequately be able to engage games academically, they’re going to need some kind of interface that enables the players to save their thoughts and observations — to essentially allow us to ‘underline’ key moments and areas of a 3D space. How else are we to form meaningful opinions if we cant map where our minds have been? Such tools should become standardized, whether they be universal for all platforms or indigenous to the system. We should be able to construct and organize notes and superimpose them over people or places of the game world, just like augmented reality, except it would be augmented virtual reality; we should have an interface that outlines all of our markings and enables us to save snapshots of the virtual space; we should be allowed to enter ’scholar mode’ and fly around a la Halo 3’s Theatre to examine the spaces from all angles, trying to infer what the environment’s shape and color may represent, and we should be able to travel instantaneously to the 3D location of a note we’ve made. Cut scenes should be saved and replay-able, and they should furnish us with the same level of camera control  during such scenes (but maybe only after we’ve seen it once so that the work of the cinematographer doesn’t get overlooked.) If games want to grow out of the classification of ‘toys’ and be taken seriously in the world of arrogant critics, then the players should be equipped with the ability to engage the world through more than the barrel of a rifle or the edge of a blade.

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that games will become the most beautiful art form imaginable, and I think we’ll all be around long enough to see it happen.

- the virtunaut