Game Worlds and Installation Art

Way back in the past I was lucky enough to see Ilya Kabakov’s installation work School #6 out at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. It’s pretty much as per its title: a school. Specifically, an abandoned Russian school with bits and pieces of evidence of life remaining. A guitar, displays, pieces of paper, etc. Open to the elements. Wonderfully mysterious and evocative. A place within a place. And I think to myself: games can do this, right?

And in fact games do sometimes. Dear Esther has elements of this, creating a kind of psychological landscape that you exist in rather than win. That said, the narration and the essentially linear walk you take subtract a bit. Fallout 3‘s “optional” Vaults are perhaps the best example. You tend to go in and just wander around reading log entries and so forth, determining what might have taken place there. That said, more often than not you’re fighting gross mutants and also finding something (like a violin, say) that you need to give to someone else. And yes, other games of course too: Myst, perhaps Far Cry 2, _Knytt _and lots more.

In other words, games have certainly played at the boundaries of this kind of installation art, but it tends to fall at the hurdle of either instrumentalising the experience (hardly surprising), or perhaps trying just the little bit too hard to explain or shape the experience instead of leaving lots of room for interpretation. Because interpretation itself is, after all, a wonderful kind of play and we should all be playing at it more often.

Perhaps S.T.A.L.K.E.R. achieves some of this too. I haven’t actually played it quite enough to know, but it does seem to have an indifference to your presence (at least in the early going) that is vital to free interpretation. It’s paired with needing to survive in a hostile environment of course, which can heighten some things but potentially dull others, and potentially provides a way out of interpretation for those who want to instrumentalise. And they/we shouldn’t be let off so easy all the time.

Games are getting more and more amazing at producing worlds that we rush through (the Crysis 3 trailer looks obscenely impressive, but I also picture players seeing most of it only out of the corner of their eyes). Perhaps those of us in the rear guard (technologically, at least) could spend some time in the old, slightly jagged, dated worlds and build some places for being in and poking around.

For going deep instead of through.

16 August 2012
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