A DORMANT COLOSSUS: HOW THE INTERACTIVE MEDIUM CAN EVOLVE HUMANITY — AND ART ITSELF — IF IT CAN LEAVE ITS PAST BEHIND
Adapted from the Melbourne International Games Week presentation
PATTERNS, PODCASTS AND PARABLES EVOLVING HUMANITY THROUGH ART
“In film, interaction with the receiver — with the audience — is passive. In the interactive medium, you can’t just be an observer. You have to be completely absorbed by the possibility of narrative, at all times.
Video games are, I have no doubt, the bridge to the future of genre narrative — artistically challenging, brilliantly done storytelling.
There is a lot you can do in games you couldn’t even dream of doing in any other medium. Maybe not everything coming out right now…but the games we’ll be playing in 10 years time — those will be f*cking masterpieces.
We’re moving very fast towards a transmedia event horizon —
a narrative tsunami. We must be prepared. At some point in the next 10 years, a storyteller in genre will need to be nimble in all mediums.’
Academy Award winner Guillermo del Toro, in conversation with Bioshock creator Ken Levine, 2011.
HOW GAMES CAN BECOME OUR GREATEST ARTFORM
In his keynote at Melbourne International Games Week, Chessa argued that there was a way for games to escape their crass commercialist present to become the artform of the future.
I am not interested in gaming.
That might sound strange coming from someone who has, every day for the past 25 years, devoted endless hours to supporting, celebrating, and being educated/inspired by the artform that happens to be at gaming’s heart — interactive art. Let’s start there.
‘Game’ — The name this medium still goes by today, is an objectively inaccurate description. A word that immediately conjures a child’s toy or pastime, no less.
I believe you would agree that naming an entire artform after a single genre within that artform — one specifically geared towards recreation, distraction and competition — is as absurd as calling The Shining ‘a masterpiece of comedy’, or Blade Runner ‘one of the finest westerns ever made.’
The earliest films kept their nascent, unproven and untested medium afloat by initially pandering to humanity’s basest traits: voluptuous women, musclebound men, exaggerated facial expressions, explosions — all forms of clownish, outlandish, attention-grabbing hijinks. The Fortnites and Fall Guys of the 1920s, if you will. It was low-brow, but at the time, it worked.
But film, eventually, used the platform it built with that era of its lifespan to shoulder its way upward, past ever-revered music and theatre, taking centre stage as the artform of choice for crowds and critics alike. It’s crass, basic, original form became an itchy shell, one which it eventually shed — leading to a surge of nuanced, timeless masterpieces created in the 40s, 50s, and in every decade since.
I believe interactive has now reached a similar threshold.
Just as film was in the 1930s, when vaudeville-style antics began to fade in popularity, film eventually grew up.
It is time for interactive to do the same.
In my 2021 Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW) presentation, I talked about devoting all three of my creative outlets — art, media and story — towards bringing about interactive’s maturation and evolution, from pastime to artform.
I don’t know about you, but I love interactive enough to not want it to settle. The same way you want the best for your partner, encouraging them to challenge themselves to become better, I passionately devote myself to encouraging interactive to step into its as-yet-untapped fullest potential.
I want the ideal timeline from here: The one where this medium’s industry-wide maturation/evolution, from pastime to artform, from dormant to dominant — actually comes true.
But, it’s important to do a reality check. Despite some of today’s titles emerging to both critical and commercial success —
2018’s God of War (an allegory for interactive shedding its base, crass past in order to become something better), 2019’s Death Stranding (a deeply personal, symbolism-rich interactive journal of a director recovering from loss and identity erasure), and 2020’s The Last of Us: Part II (a parable of, and paean to, humanity’s capacity for both love and hate)
— we are starting to fall behind.
For every Horizon Zero Dawn, there are what seem to be thousands upon thousands of Valorants and Valheims, Fortnites and Fall Guys, Apexes and Overwatches. A concerning ratio, for the artform which I genuinely believe is destined to help shape humanity for the better.
Far from shedding our childhood’s pastime cocoon, we’ve snuggled deeper inside. Enshrined it.
Made it our central money-making pillar.
Look, I’m under no delusions — I’m a white, first world cisgender male. By no means am I saying that all of us agreeing to start calling games by a more accurate name, and universally embracing an ‘art-first with commerce as by-product’ philosophy will singlehandedly solve the world’s immeasurably more pressing and real problems (climate change foremost among them). Just hear me out.
I’m a big believer in energy. And not in any hippy-dippy way either. I’m talking about how and where we habitually direct our energetic bandwidth, our rapidly shortening attention-spans — consciously and unconsciously.
And I believe that, presently, there are forces — certain companies, let’s say — subconsciously nudging us, ever so subtly, towards passivity. In thrall to these forces, we are 100% poised for a fall.
With each in-game micro-transaction made to these companies, we’re building our own cage, where — if we’re not careful — we risk remaining forever, perpetually ‘content with our content’. Subscribed to their games-as-a-service, making sure you get your ‘daily log-in bonus’, thrilled whenever a new skin or weapon is added to the in-game store. Happy to just consume and consume. Misusing — or heck, I’ll say it, abusing — the heart of the artform itself.
Like a powerful stallion being used in a petting zoo, interactive art has relegated itself to serving only the basest, safest of money-making bets. Personally, the notion of humanity remaining unchallenged, comatose to their own agency, is nightmarish.
It’s always a struggle, isn’t it? To be taken seriously when you get onto an op-ed soapbox to say:
‘Everyone, listen to me! You might not be able to see it happening in real time around you right now, but I believe that, by all of us collectively assenting to allowing an artform whose very nature encourages free thought, empathy-deepening, and is defined by YOU taking an active role in making your own choices to instead be repurposed into an industry built on keeping us addicted and uninspired — I dunno, I just think it could potentially lead us to, well, a frightening Orwellian nightmarescape!’
Based on this, a victory for ‘gaming’ — specifically, allowing the interactive art at it’s heart to step into the spotlight — would in fact be a victory for a free-thinking humanity, which refuses to become an NPC in their own story.
Choice. Agency. Individualism.
An artform with these elements built into its very foundations deserves better than what it’s getting right now.
We only ever permit ourselves what we deeply believe we are worthy of, and we, and this artform, are both worthy of so much more.
We are worthy of, at the very least, giving the humanity-evolving potential of interactive art a chance.
What the future could look like
A The Last of Us: Part II calibre title releasing every month?
It’s possible, through an overhauled production pipeline that fully avails itself of work from home set-ups, returning to a pre-internet ‘quiet mode’ whilst in development (no over-sharing), and relaxed, staggered, generously extended development cycles and release dates, with no crunch required (that’s what my 2022 MIGW presentation/write-up will be about).
A harmonious multimedia/transmedia approach to media, art and entertainment?
Absolutely! We’re already seeing symptoms of this — Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is using the same 8K resolution CGI assets as the upcoming sequels themselves. Imagine Patty Jenkins’ 2023’s Star Wars: Rogue Squadron releasing in tandem with an open-galaxy interactive title that transcends/sheds the ‘movie tie-in’ curse, as a project developed in tandem with the film, given equal attention?
Critics may disagree, but with Enter The Matrix — just as they were with The Matrix itself — the Wachowskis were ahead of their time.
A cross-media creative revolution, with different artforms interacting and integrating with one another on an unprecedented scale? Absolutely yes. Games based on albums, for instance — who wouldn’t want to play an interactive experience based on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon, or Mastodon’s Blood Mountain, made with the band’s full involvement?
A Planet of the Apes RPG? A Breath of the Dark Crystal? A Jodorowsky or Lynch-directed title? The Last Airbender: Wild Hunt? Jurassic Park: Isolation? No Man’s Galaxy Far, Far Away? A P.T.-like A24 title based on The Lighthouse? A Ghost (the band) title, where you play as Papa Emeritus? An adventure set in Francis Bacon’s paintings? An Aesop Rock ‘Rapper RPG’? A stop-motion, Wes Andersonesque...oh wait, that one actually exists! Harold Halibut — which looks incredible by the way. But that’s just one!
One of thousands upon thousands of undeveloped, so-brilliant-they-write-themselves dream-come-true projects — far, far more interesting than (apologies to Blizzard fans out there) yet another Overwatch or Fortnite clone.
Even ‘Breath of The Neverending Story’ — heck, wouldn’t you want to fly across a photoreal Fantasia on a photoreal Luck Dragon? Or even a gorgeously animated Tim Burton-directed, Journeyesque Gothic open world adventure? (Can you tell what my favourite interactive genre is?)
Even ONE of these hypothetical titles (for which I’ve pitches for via the topic-specific podcasts I produce) would have me flipping tables, knowing that any of them were actually happening.
But they never do.
And that is my frustration, readers: whenever I tune into the latest E3 or Game Awards ceremony, I truly do hold out hope that ‘the great change’ — when truly ambitious interactive art finally takes centre stage — I daydream of on a daily basis has finally happened. And yet, 80% of these showcases are still saturated with cartoonish, childish, over-flashy, same-y, safe-bet forgettable stuff.
I can’t help but read that symbolically, almost as though gaming is saying it doesn’t deserve better for itself, when it well and truly does.
Studios are settling for profit-first products (‘the Michael Bay approach’), versus art-first masterpieces (‘the Denis Villeneuve approach’).
They consistently choose back-to-back, quick fix profits versus carefully crafting a long-lasting legacy.
Legacies which, if Star Wars and similar properties are any indication, end up becoming more cherished, creating more grandfathered-in brand loyalty, and subsequently making even more money in the long run than the millionth Battleborn or Borderlands anyway!
It makes. No. Sense.
What I’m proposing wouldn’t separate art and commerce — it would in fact elevate both, as evidenced by the enduring success of God of War, recently awarded IGN’s Best Video Game of All Time, beating out GTA V.
Derrick Acosta of Mega64, an internet media group which often trojan-horses in incredibly insightful commentary on art and entertainment amidst surreal alternative comedy skits and podcasts, said this a few years ago (a bit of a downer, but it needed to be said):
‘I believe the age of art is over. We’re in the post-good art era. The art of the slow-burn is gone. Companies have caught on to the fact that it’s easier to make a rushed, bad game with a good trailer than simply making a polished good game in the first place. They bank on the fact that you’ll just move on to the next thing, distracted by the latest, newest thing on your phone. The instant gratification age is here, and it’s fucking up everything which used to be good.’
In the gaming world, I’m standing at the ‘Let’s evolve humanity and really see the potential of this artform stretch it’s legs’ booth, whilst the vast majority are lining up at the ‘Let’s devolve into mindless consumer-bots’ booth.
To quote Mugatu from Zoolander, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
But then I think to myself, ‘surely there’s no way I’m the only one of my kind...a hair-thin slice of the demographic pie chart, the one labelled ‘not interested in gaming/nerd/geek culture whatsoever, disdains games-as-a-service, is sick-to-death of first-person shooters, and exclusively likes works of art and adventure like The Last of Us: Part II, The Pathless and The Last Guardian?’
Maybe the reason it’s not on the chart is because the name’s too long…but I digress.
Do you, too, dear reader, feel existential dread when you listen to ‘gaming’ podcasts, or visit ‘gaming’ news sites, and feel like a prospector, sifting through mud for weeks, sometimes months or years on end, in the hope that a shiny golden The Order: 1886-shaped glimmer will leap out from the muck?
Does it really have to be this way?
Must the Red Dead IIs and Fallen Orders forever be the rare exception, rather than the standard — or at least being slightly more commonplace?
Couldn’t we direct some of the effort that’s clearly being spent trying to become the next Fortnite towards finding the next Fumito Ueda, Hidetaka Miyazaki, Ken Levine, Ru Weerasuriya, or Hideo Kojima?
No? Well, it really, really feels like this for me, most of the time.
I honestly wouldn’t even bother with the daily mud-sifting slog, bearing with and patiently waiting on an artform that has by far outgrown its baby clothes, if it wasn’t for what I profoundly, with every fibre of me, believe:
That underneath all the leering faces on Gamer/Gaming culture YouTube thumbnails and all the Twitch Streamer Drama BS, the future of art and humanity itself is waiting for its time to emerge.
If you took anything away from this writing, let it be this:
Interactive is only medium that fundamentally requires YOU — your constant and active input as the player — for it to be what it is. A film, series or album will play itself, whether you’re there or not.
This gives interactive art an unrivalled capacity for intimacy with their new breed of audience: the ‘consumer-creator’ — the players, a term also used in theatre to describe those on the stage, contrasted with the audience, who merely looks on.
Suddenly, you’re not on a train, seeing images pass by, powerless to change the events of the world around you. As soon as you pick up the controller, you become the art itself.
You’re no longer on the surface, consuming something in a mere few hours: you’re spending days, weeks, sometimes months or even years directly experiencing the lived stories of these characters.
Not merely watching them, but being them.
If that isn’t definitionally the deepest connection possible between a human being and a work of art, then what is?
Interactive has the capacity for affecting us and teaching us on a level that makes every other medium seem — and this is coming from a hardcore lover of film, music and books as well — primitive by comparison.
Speaking of teaching: in educational contexts, such as Assassin’s Creed: Origin’s Discovery Tour mode, you’re no longer just reading about the ancient world: You’re in it. You are it.
If that isn’t the most engaging and excited way to learn, what is?
Interactive truly shines as a launching platform for wider, deeper inquiry into various different subject matters as well, such as discovering Hindu or Norse Mythology through names like Shiva and Odin in Final Fantasy.
Even spiritual and cultural re-connection is served most effectively and powerfully in the interactive format, with titles such as Never Alone, where world-class game makers collaborated with Alaska Native storytellers and elders to create an experience that delves deeply into the traditional lore of the Iñupiat people.
If that isn’t the most moving way to discover more about one’s heritage, what is?
Interactive’s profound capacity for deepening empathy, for catalysing meaningful and lasting change across all spheres of the human experience — particularly in young minds, where lifelong traits are being shaped at all times —
will continue to inspire me, and devote all of my creative energy to celebrating and highlighting it’s too-often ignored true potential.
As jaded as I find myself becoming with the modern age, whenever I begin an interactive title that truly connects with me, I am transported into another world, with that same child-like, but not childish (there’s a big difference), awe I had when I first watched Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.
That is why it is my dream that Quantumyth, my development studio, will craft and leave behind timeless interactive parables that honour and build upon the legacy of the Abzûs that came before.
With its mere existence, interactive art challenges and revolutionises our long-held conceptions of ‘consumer’ and ‘creator’ as separate entities, paving the way to unimaginable new horizons of truly paradigm-shifting art.
But his hidden potential will remain untapped, a dormant colossus, if the elements of gaming’s infancy (normalised infantilisation in the community, and an over-emphasis on fighting and never delving into any activity beyond amusement-seeking) are allowed to dominate the world’s highest-earning entertainment platform, unchecked and unchallenged.
This writing and presentation is my challenge to the way things are, and if its message resonated with you, we just became fast friends.
Let’s leave behind this world of extremes we live in currently — 80% child’s play, 20% art — and balance it out, at the very least.
Humanity’s premiere creative frontier deserves to be defined by tremendous growth, not stultifying sameness, or outright regression.
But change never happens on its own.
Like the player character, interactive’s future is yours to decide.
If you ask me, the child is finally grown, awoken to their own godhood, and though we may all be in world-rebirth Ragnarök of sorts right now, beyond it a bright, promising and exciting future awaits for humanity’s most powerful — and empowering — artform ever.
The is an edited version of the keynote Patterns, Podcasts and Parables: Evolving Humanity through art.
Albert Chessa is an independent artist, producer and author based in Canberra, Australia.
He spends his time making pattern art under the pseudonym Resonant, creating media with game developers, actors and other artists in the interactive space (mostly podcasts), and working on The Quantumyth, an interactive-focused multimedia studio founded in 2015, creating game pitch storybook hybrids which he’s currently building indie teams for adapting later into Quantumyth titles, all taking place in a shared universe.