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Artistry in video games: Interview with Manuel Berto

How did you get into video games? How did your relationship with video games then develop? And what's the relationship like today? I had the advantage of having a big brother who was much older than me, so, when I was 6, he already had the awareness, the mobility and the financial means to be bringing home various games and game consoles. I remember the very first game I ever tried was a Sonic the Hedgehog game on Sega Megadrive. Then the PlayStation arrived and I got to know Crash Bandicoot as well as games that, at 8 or so, I couldn't possibly understand. I got fascinated by Final Fantasy VII and its world, but it was inaccessible to me until I developed some basic English understanding. And even then I couldn't really get the themes of the game. Nevertheless, it gave me a great push to improve my English. I remember I was playing it with a dictionary by my side, translating word by word every time I couldn't understand some dialogue.

Throughout the years, gaming was for me mostly a means of escapism in an otherwise boring life. I was living in a rural area with hardly any nightlife and I couldn't arrange to go to the city as often as many of my classmates. When I was choosing a high school and therefore a professional path, an idea struck me: how do people work in this sector? What kind of jobs are there? Is there something in Italy as well on this topic? And in my native Verona? I ended up attending the Liceo Artistico U. Boccioni, and then the G. B. Cignaroli Academy of Fine Arts. There was some image and video editing and 3D modelling there, but no course was directly devoted to gaming, so I kept myself informed by reading many print publications on gaming, and then websites and forums after the digital revolution brought most of these things online.

Now, I'm not a video game developer and I probably never will be; at the moment, my life is taking me elsewhere. Still, I never stopped playing games and I've come to view them not just as escapism but as a form of art that, thanks to my studies, I have the tools to fully appreciate. Interestingly enough, during lockdown I was approached by another user of a forum where I post my impressions of video games, and they invited me to join an Italian video game critics crew, Frequenza Critica. So I had to elevate my impressions to the next level: now I regularly write articles about video games.

For now I'm happily here. Of course I have a couple of video game ideas and I would like to be the Art Director of a development team, but let's see what life brings.

In the years you've been playing video games, what have been the biggest changes in the way video games are?

We could talk for days about this. I would say the biggest improvement I've seen over the years is in what I like to call "passive storytelling". Let me explain what I mean by that. The main selling point of a video game is, of course, the gaming part. You're not just witnessing a story, you play an active part in it. Actually, from this angle, I particularly like games with a horror element, because they solve a problem that usually bothers me in horror movies: sometimes, in order for the rest of the movie to happen, characters do things that nobody in their right mind would do, given the circumstances. Entering a dark place with little to no preparation, not trying to escape even when something is clearly off, breaking away from a group that provides safety-in-numbers for no reason, etc. In many horror games, the plot is equally simple, but the fact that you (the player) are sharing the decisions of the protagonist makes them more credible. Somehow you know that there was no better option. But I digress. Passive storytelling: what I mean by this is the unique quality of a video game, as compared to a movie or a theatre play: you decide when to move the situation forward. Unless the game has specific gameplay mechanics that imply limited time, you can indulge in exploration as much as you want, enjoying every small detail of the location, letting the place tell its story. An ancient Temple in Tomb Raider from Core Design and later, Crystal Dynamics. A mysterious planet in Metroid Prime from Retro Studios, a spooky mansion in Capcom’s Resident Evil... You don't need a character to overload you with explanations – good environmental art can tell a story by itself. I don't mean that movies cannot do it as well, of course they can. But video games allow you more time to experience this, and they can even choose to not have any dialogue at all, going all in with this kind of environmental storytelling. A good example of this method is Shadow of the Colossus from Team Ico, in which the lone protagonist has only his horse as a friendly supporting character. No human-to-human conversations at all. Only a knight, his horse and the journey.

Another big development that can be observed is in the depth of the role-play, and I'm not referring here only to the video games that are specifically designed to translate the classic tabletop role-playing games into digital form. I'm talking about – in all sorts of different types of games – the different choices a player can take at any moment, within the gameplay scheme. Choosing a defensive object instead of a medical one due to limited inventory, going low-profile instead of full-action, even choosing a fighting move instead of another. Ideally, whatever your choice, the world of the game reacts coherently, sometimes even by changing the plot, if not the ending. Yes, I think another big step in the maturity of video games is in their ability to make you feel the consequences of an action, whatever that action may be.

Technological progress is part of what's enabled such improvements, of course, but it's also just growing awareness and consideration on the part of video game developers, derived from the learning process they collectively have undergone.

Since my early teens, when I was playing games like Legend of Zelda: Windwaker and Star Fox Adventures, I've felt strongly that there is already some extraordinary artistry in video games, and that video gaming has the potential to be an art form as great as any. You said that you see video gaming as an art form these days... Do you wanna say a bit more about your use of that term?

If, by the word 'art', we mean any creation that can be enjoyed for its beauty and/or emotional power, then, yes, video games can certainly be art. They can explore any kind of visual style, involve any kind of music, and engage in different types of storytelling while being interactive, allowing the player to actively participate in the experience. Which, again, is not exclusive to video games. Many plays break the fourth wall by having actors interact with the public, and many art installations presume or require an action from the visitor, but in video games the interaction is the norm. We could say that it's the whole point. So yes, it is a form of art that can touch the user with many different types of input and that has unique possibilities.

Would you even make the claim that video gaming has more potential than other art forms? Or, if you wouldn't necessarily make that claim, would you say it's nevertheless the art form that has the most draw for you? And, if it does have the most draw for you, why is that?

Hmmm. I wouldn't know how to rank art forms like that, but, yes, it's for sure the form of art that appeals to me the most. The reason is that I am very sensitive to visual artistry. I can spend hours in art galleries looking at abstract paintings, searching for patterns. I can be easily distracted by a beautiful natural landscape or by complex architecture. I am a traveller as well, I enjoy listening to stories from other places and exploring. Video games create entirely new worlds and let me explore them at my pace.

Where do you think video gaming is at the moment as an art form? I mean, how far do you think it has progressed in realising its potential as an art form?

I think that, in this period, video game technology at least has reached its climax. There are very few bottlenecks in terms of how many characters can be on screen at the same time or how big the map can be, or how nearly-photorealistic the graphics can be. Think about any kind of situation you want in a game, and it probably already exists, at least to an extent. Just like with movies, many productions offer variations of well-established tropes, while others dare to explore uncharted territories. I'm thinking, for example, about Gris by Nomada Studio, which is a watercolour-styled platform game that can be enjoyed as such, or as a symbolic experience taking you through the phases of depression and rebirth. Or Papers, please by Lucas Pope, an unusual thriller with very minimal graphics, which you experience from the perspective of a passport-checking border guard who must take difficult decisions. Or Flower by Thatgamecompany, in which you literally play the wind, creating smooth lines of flowers' petals along the way. Of course, I don't want to imply that it's just a matter of ideas, that anybody can make a successful game with just two clicks. Budget, talent and workforce still matter, but what I want to underline is that now, if you really have an idea, it is, just technologically, far more possible to translate it into a game than it was 10 years ago. So I would say that gaming is in a phase of "accessibility of tools". I don't know where the art will go from here, but I'm optimistic that it will surprise us.

When you say 'video game technology has reached its climax'... That seems a very big claim. What about the possibilities presented by Virtual Reality and AI technology, for instance, or technological enhancement of the human body, and by innovations we haven't even imagined yet?

Well, I can't foresee the future, but from what I've seen in my years of gaming, most players don't really want more than a controller/keyboard and a solid gameplay experience. There was a phase in which the future seemed to be about kinetic controllers: I'm thinking about Nintendo Wii with its movement-based controller or the Kinect from Microsoft, for which you need no controller at all and you interact by moving your hands, arms and body. They had their trending moment and probably the games made for these systems still have some audience, but they didn't really change the essence of gaming. Indeed, most of those games could have been easily adapted for a more conventional method of interaction.

I would say something similar about virtual reality. Yes, it's here to stay, but it hasn't started a revolution. Very few video game developers have projects specifically designed for VR headsets. On the other hand, this technology goes far beyond gaming. I'm thinking for example of the possibility of having a preview of a building by visiting a virtual 3D model. Or of art exhibitions.

AI development is a very precise and huge topic and I think it will be explored a lot in the future, but I also think it doesn't intersect very much with gaming. There's no real need to have super smart and adaptive enemies because ultimately the game might then be unbeatable. Similarly, there's no need for super smart companion characters or the game would play by itself, giving no challenge to the player. Maybe we'll see some specifically designed game that revolves entirely around AI and yes, that would be interesting.

To wrap up my thoughts here, yes, I'm positive that there will be innovations, new niches and new branches of video game art, but I think that the core experiences, the ones that the video game industry is really built on, will still be about a good personal computer and a convincing world to immerse ourselves in.

OK. That's very interesting. So that's technological limitations on what the art form can do that have been largely overcome now, in your view. What about other types of limitations though? I mean, are there things other art forms can do that video gaming, by its nature, can't do, or can't do nearly so well? Or can't do so well now, but could, you think, do well in future, as it continues to mature?

I think no form of art can really go everywhere, this is why we have so many. Video games are by definition something you interact with, and this creates a limitation already: we have to give to the player something to do, simple or complex. It can be even a one-button interaction. But it's necessary, it's what defines a game. This rules out, for example, experiences based on stillness. To just stare at a colourful landscape painting, letting the emotions sink in, or to appreciate a song without connecting it to the events on screen, are experiences a video game can hardly provide. It's a powerful melting pot of many other forms of art, but there's a difference between enjoying the individual ingredients and the final recipe. And it's not a qualitative difference, it's just... different.

But it's not just the interaction, is it? As you said, we sometimes have that in theatre plays and exhibitions, for instance. In video games, unless I'm mistaken, there's more particularly this substrate of wracking up points, passing levels, competing... That's limiting, surely? And it's something that really distinguishes video gaming, or all kinds of gaming perhaps, from what would normally be considered the high arts (painting, sculpture, music, literature, etc.). There's the feeling, perhaps, that there is something somehow degrading or immature about this preoccupation with winning, competing, scheming, whatever... and that gaming's preoccupation of this nature lowers it below other types of art. What do you think? It's true, I would say competition is a structural feature of most games. Sometimes it's player vs player, or a group of players against a common menace. Sometimes that menace is physical, like a classic Dungeons and Dragons super evil guy; sometimes it's abstract. For example, if the game has any sort of time limit, aren't we competing against time itself? Certainly, generally, the protagonists in video games must survive something and/or achieve something. I understand the perception that video games are "lower" art because of these dynamics, but ultimately I see this as a sort of common language or basis among most of them. Just like paintings involve a surface that has been painted on, or sculpture implies a 3D material, or a performance implies one or more performers, games imply tasks to be done within rules. I think it is just what they are. I have a very neutral point of view on this topic.

So if there's no competitive element, it's just not a video game, you'd say? And you can't think of anything you've experienced that calls itself a video game but doesn't have a competitive element?

Maybe 'competition' is a strong word that doesn't fit properly in every gaming context. I was thinking of the most common gaming experiences, but there are always experiments and creatives that try to push boundaries. It's more like, "if the player doesn't have to do anything then it is not a game." Sometimes the tasks to be done are very immediate, like in platform games; sometimes they are more soft, like in adventure games that involve talking to different characters and solving a mystery. But there is always a "to do" request. As for the second question, no, if I am going by this mindset, it's quite easy to figure out if I am playing a game: are my inputs necessary in order for the video art piece to give me feedback, to show me more? If the answer is yes, here we are.

I can imagine a self-declared video game, in which the player is just a person in a complex and evolving social situation, and they don't have tasks as such, but they have to decide what to do, and they can do nothing, if they like, but that will also have its consequences. So the game will show you more even if you don't do anything – because the social situation will keep evolving. And, in any case, the entertainment value is in how the situation plays out, and just in the various features of the situation itself - the characters, their behaviour, things they say, etc. As it would be with a novel or a film. Just you're taking part – passively, if you want. So that kind of game would be a lot like real life, right? And as for your criteria for being a video game: It would of course respond to the player's input, but, so long as it was running, it would also respond to a lack of input from the player. It wouldn't be competitive, wouldn't be based on task-completion or points-accumulation of any kind. No more than complex real-life social situations are. Would that be a video game in your view? And does anything like it exist?

Yes, it would be, and there are already some experiments from this angle. In some video games with multiple dialogue options, like the adventure ones made by Telltale Games, there is a choice to not say anything in some conversations, in order to better understand the situation or to make the other person nervous, or just because none of the given options seem OK to the player in that moment. In other games like Pathologic 2 from Ice-Pick Lodge, it is possible to fail or to totally ignore some time-limited task and the game will proceed regardless, towards a new situation. I can't recall a game precisely focused on a "not doing" principle, but sometimes it is a possible course of action. You and I met on the 'Biblioguidance in a confusing world' training course in Slovakia last year, which of course was looking at how works of literature can be used to help with serious personal problems, of emotional and psychological kinds. To what extent do you see that ability in video games too?

Well, this is a delicate topic, and I don't feel qualified to give a definitive answer, so I'll just give you my take. I don't think video games can really help to overcome these problems, or that they can be part of a structured healing therapy. I see a lot of potential in games, but to me they are first and foremost a means of escapism, and only secondarily a way to look further into myself. What they can do, however, is increase awareness about delicate topics, talk about those, offer new perspectives. I'm thinking now about Hellblade by Ninja Theory, a game set in a Celtic region during the Viking invasion. The unique component is that the protagonist suffers from schizophrenia and the developers consulted professional psychiatrists in order to properly portray the condition in the game. We already mentioned Gris and its symbolism of depression and rebirth. I can also think of Psychonauts from Double Fine Production as a satirical take on some typical types of emotional baggage. I can think about many games with emotionally engaging content, but I wouldn't recommend any of those with the specific aim of helping with a healing process. I would be more like, "hey, if you are interested in this topic, you might like x game".

Have you ever been reduced to tears by a moment you've experienced in a video game? Or just very deeply moved?

A good bit of storytelling can be very touching in any medium, and, in this respect, video games are no different. Yes, of course I have been moved. Sometimes the art direction is focused on conveying a precise emotion, and sometimes it just happens that a certain character is facing some difficulty that the player is also facing. When a character is flawed, and when we can recognise these flaws in ourselves or in others we care about, the empathy easily starts.

Could you describe one or two moments in video games that have moved you especially?

Ah, I should have expected that you’d want the specifics. OK, spoiler alert for CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077. During the main story, we meet this young woman, Judy, and we can choose whether or not to expand the connection with her. If we choose to solve her questline, she will eventually invite V, the protagonist, to test a new technology that can connect two minds. Similar to what the Na'vi do in James Cameron's film Avatar, but in the typical Cyberpunk style. The test takes place in a sunken town and, as V and Judy dive deep, we can actually "hear" her thoughts, and, doing so, we realise that the setting for this test is not random at all. This is the district she grew up in, and, while diving, we get snippets of her past. Childhood, bullying, joy, sadness, a catastrophic happening. And loneliness. Nostalgia for a past long gone. At the end of the questline, the test is a technological success, but Judy concludes that she'll take her invention away, somewhere else. Because at that point of the story, in Night City there's nothing left for her. The soundtrack is melancholic as well, and as much as I enjoyed many other tracks featured in this game, I precisely remember the name of this one: 'Bells of Laguna Bend'. Now, while I was playing the game, my region was still in lockdown. As you might have heard, northern Italy was not the easiest place to be during Covid times. In that very month, I lost a relationship important to me through ghosting, which I think is the worst kind of breakup ever. And I suddenly lost my position in an organisation I'd been working with for the previous two years and in which I'd invested quite some time and energy. I was like "OK, what now?" Lots of things in life can go south, but I didn't expect this kind of professional and personal trauma in the same month, and not during a moment of global crisis like that. I still have family and some friends there, but the dreams and long-term projects connected to my hometown had been shattered and I was actually thinking about new places to possibly move to as lockdown eased, in order to have an environment that offered a “fresh start”. The character Judy and I had different struggles, but ultimately we were in a similar point in life: a lonely point. It wasn't a sudden emotional punch, it was more like experiencing the pain together.

If someone were to ask me about the strongest moment in Cyberpunk 2077, there are many I might mention. But this is the one I still remember in every detail. The dialogue, the setting, the soundtrack. And it's not even in the main storyline. A distracted and rushed playthrough could easily miss it.

Another, less personal example is 11bit Studios’ Frostpunk. I'm very concerned about climate change and this makes me the target audience for this game. It's basically a climate catastrophe city management game, in an alternative timeline in which, during the 19th century industrial revolution, the planet started freezing. 0 degrees is an OK day. -60 is a bad one. The player is the leader of this post-apocalyptic outpost and has to take uncomfortable decisions on how to manage the city's resources, which job to assign to whom, which technology to prioritise, etc. It's a game that challenges your boundaries, because it's designed on purpose to not allow the player to have a perfect situation. You constantly have these morally impossible decisions to make; you have to determine what the lesser evil is. The general feeling I had was a deep uneasiness. And the question lingers for me: "what would people actually do to survive in a situation of irreversible climate breakdown? Will we prevent it? If not, will we manage to live in it while preserving some form of society?"

Both fantastic examples. And that second one makes me think that maybe video games can be especially powerful tools in moral education, precisely because you, the player, make the decisions in a video game. And you have to live with their consequences. Have you ever felt a game was judging you morally? Or showing you up? Showing you to yourself in ways it was difficult or painful or shaming for you to see yourself? Equally, have you ever come out of playing a video game with a strong feeling you have to be a different/better person, in some way?

I wouldn't use the word 'shame', but yes, some games with moral choices can be subtly judgemental. Like, you have the choice to be the white knight or the prick, but the game seduces you to be the good one by giving more experience points, unlocking gameplay possibilities and so on and so forth. BioShock from Irrational Games, for example, gives you a choice, but it's clear what the game prefers you to do.

Personally I like it a lot when a game doesn't judge and keeps it ambiguous. Here the example is again Pathologic 2, in which you play the role of a medic in an isolated village during a lethal pandemic. Resources are scarce and, more often than not, you have to choose whom to give the precious medicines you have left. The random patient? A friend? ... Yourself? (Yes, the protagonist can be infected as well, and the gameplay mechanics get very nasty if that happens. This game doesn't pull any punches.) I felt a little bit down when I was failing at the primary task of being a good medic, but ultimately the message is to push through, to do the best you can, with the very limited resources you’ve got. It's OK to fail as long as you try, and it’s OK to have chosen some priorities over others, if in that moment you thought it was the right call.

Have you ever known a game to try and seduce a player to be not the good guy, but the bad guy?

Where there is a choice, I would say no. I think that, given equal chances, most people would choose to be a good person. I remember that I replayed some games with divergent moral choices just to see what would have happened on the negative path and the experience was unsettling. It just felt wrong.

I was thinking more that... well, in real life, we often are rewarded for being bad. It can start off with little things, and then start to be larger and larger things, and all the while, the rewards keep adding up. Life can corrupt us like this, right. And it's maybe only a shocking revelation late in the day that could wake us up to what we've become. I wondered whether a video game has, to your knowledge, tried to imitate that kind of dark moral journey? Or, more generally, can you think of a video game that has that kind of structure – it lures you in a certain direction with its reward scheme, and only at the end reveals to you where it has led you, and what your decisions along the way really mean.

Understood. Umm, I'm not aware of many projects with this specific focus. Maybe I would mention Spec Ops: the Line from Yager Development or Silent Hill 2 from Team Silent, and spoiler alert, I’m literally revealing their plots now:

They are not really role-playing games, as they’ll end in some dark places no matter what you choose. But there are some decisions that can be made and, towards the end, we understand the true nature and full extent of what was actually happening. In both cases, the story is told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, and so only when we see things from another perspective late on do we get the proper picture.

You said you prefer it, anyhow, when a game doesn't judge the player and keeps its moral values ambiguous. Why is that?

Because morality is subjective, shaped by personality, education, the society we live in. When a game, or a movie, or a story in general, takes a clear moral line, it will not stick in the player's mind for long. The more the message is univocal, the more the possible reactions will be simply 1) I agree, or 2) I don't agree. Instead, when the choices available to the player are rewarded equally (I mean, the player doesn't necessarily obtain special perks or equipment or points just for being the good guy), our emotional and intellectual response is likely to be more complex and engaged. Did I make the right call? Was it worth it to sacrifice this in exchange for that? Am I even the good guy in all of this? I believe that art works better when it asks questions, rather than provides answers.

Isn't a novel like Orwell's 1984 saying quite clearly: guys, look, this is a bad direction we're heading in? And isn't it a great work of art nonetheless? I'd say there are many kinds of great art, which have many different kinds of aim and many different kinds of method. But one kind of great art – we could call it activist art, maybe – aims to persuade its audience of the truth and urgency of its moral vision. No?

Activist art... Yes and no. I'll stray a little bit away from video games now, to give an example that I came across recently: I was helping to organise a little art exhibition concerning climate change. The exhibits were mostly printed digital artworks. Some were cryptic, some were very straightforward, but I remember one that was weirdly in between. It showed two lovers in tight protective radiation suits, in a soft erotic pose. The landscape was unclear, but there was this yellow/muddy colour all around. Perfect, I was loving it. Minimal, symbolic, allegoric. Then I read the writing at the bottom of the picture, "the future is fetish, but not in the way you like". It was a very big caption, it took up maybe a quarter of the whole picture. And I felt like "...why are you explaining to me what I have just understood?" I'm all for educational messages in art, but I fear the patronising, the redundant. To me it makes the art weaker, and this is a personal preference. But I also think these things might push some of the audience away. And that's sad, because indeed there's a lot of educational work that can be done in these media.

I get it. Yeah, activist art always runs the risk of being patronising, and of over-explaining its points. But I guess then my takeaway is that, if you're gonna do it, you gotta do it well.

OK, moving on though, you touch on the erotic here. This is another angle from which I'm curious about the potential of video games. I wonder, do you think that video games can be, in some ways, particularly powerful erotic art?

Umm, I've never encountered a game that's focused on this angle. We can find all kinds of possible characters, from the everyday person right though to the most hypersexualised ones, but erotic dynamics are hardly translatable into functional gameplay. I think that this angle can be explored only through the visual and narrative style.

You don't think that a video game could tell an erotic story in much the same way a film could, but with the player's agency adding to the erotic power of it? Also, why couldn't certain erotic dynamics translate into functional gameplay? Say, if you're a straight guy, amassing certain kinds of points with the goal of impressing and winning over an extremely hot female character?

There are circumstances like this, yes. Flirting minigames or storylines that end up in romance are absolutely possible. But I hardly see a game that can revolve entirely around those. From what I have seen up until now, they are more a storytelling element or even a relieving alternative activity from an otherwise dramatic main plot. If we're making the comparison with film, I would say that movies are very much ahead from this perspective.

Are there still not really video games where the terrain you move through is principally the terrain of dialogue, and the different options you can take are principally different dialogue options? Also, is there a standardly accepted minimum runtime for things qualifying as video games?

Yes, of course. Games based on dialogues (most of the time coupled with environment-based puzzles) were very popular in the 90s. I'm thinking about classics like Return to Monkey Island by Ron Gilbert, Full Throttle by Tim Schafer, Broken Sword by Revolution Software, Syberia by Benoit Sokal or the recent Disco Elysium by ZA/UM or Pentiment by Obsidian Entertainment. Also, as they usually require smaller budgets to be created, they can explore very diverse settings. They can afford to not look for super big audiences in exchange for more of an authorial vision.

Regarding runtime, there are surely discussions about this, but not a codified standard. To me, a piece of art can be as long or short as it needs to be. 1 hour or 80 makes no difference to me as long as this is what the developers wanted. Then, of course, we can argue that X game could have been better with more or less content, but this happens after the playthrough.

You see I was thinking that most of the great erotic films I can think of right now do at least have a strong element of dialogue - violent, crazy, action-packed dialogue, but yeah, dialogue. Now you say there are great dialogue-based games... I wonder what you mean when you say erotic dynamics are hardly translatable into functional gameplay? What are the obstacles here?

Mmhhm, I understand. In terms of storytelling, every topic can be explored, but in terms of gameplay the options are more limited. There are some "macro" genres that have been explored and perfected over the years, with, of course, some room to experiment more. We have adventure games, third-person shooter, first-person shooter, platform, etc. etc. There are many possible "templates" that can communicate and intersect with each other. But if we are talking about erotic content, that's on the narrative and storytelling part. Established categories here would be sci-fi, cyberpunk, horror, cartoon. etc. These are settings. The gameplay is the method of interaction the developers have chosen. Now, is it possible to have an erotic adventure dialogue-based game? Yeah, absolutely, I believe there are many, especially indie games. But we don't really have a "classic" focused entirely on that; we don't have an Eyes Wide Shut in gaming. Most of the time, these are games made by low-budget independent studios, or, if the erotic element is in a high-budget production, it is typically just a component, not the main point of the game. It seems to me that nobody really wants to go fully there.

I'm thinking of two features of video games that could make them especially powerful erotically. One is the agency that the audience member has. The other is that ability you mentioned that video games have to enable a deep experience of a fictional world, a setting, an atmosphere – explored at the audience member's own pace. I would think that, because of all that potential, video games will fully go there in future, especially as VR possibilities are better developed. But what you're saying makes me think that maybe what I'm imagining wouldn't be a video game exactly. It would be something similar to a video game, but, well, less gamey. I suppose there are already points where video gaming blurs into other art forms... I think of the Black Mirror episode 'Bandersnatch', for instance. Do you have any thoughts on what's happening or could happen at the margins there? I mean, do you see only fringe experimentation, or something major happening? Might we soon have mainstream interactive films, for instance?

To be honest, I doubt it. If we are looking at the recent big successes in movies (Top Gun: Maverick, Spiderman: No Way Home, Avatar: the Way of Water) and video games, the most popular ones prefer to play it safe, to explore stable tropes and concepts. There is room for experiments, but it will probably remain... well, experimentation. And therefore a niche. About interactive movies in general, I'm not aware of recent examples similar to 'Bandersnatch'. However, on the other side, games that rely a lot on their cinematic components are thriving. If we look, for example, at what Hideo Kojima did with the Metal Gear Solid saga, it is a love letter to many action movies of the early 90s and it pushed the boundaries of video game narrative at that time. It starts from the typical action-movie-with-secret-agents template, but it goes deeper and deeper. Into philosophical territory, I would dare to say, and even via some hidden critiques of the world of gaming in general. There are also games that have real actors performing in them, either in cutscenes or in gameplay dynamics, like Not for Broadcast from Notgames or the classic Gabriel Knights 2 from Sierra Entertainment.

I see. You've spoken a few times now of these experiments going on in independent gaming. Have you seen Indie Game: The Movie? If so, what did you think of it? Is Indie gaming a big thing? Is it thriving? Are the Indie game developers having some big hits? Also, how easy is it to be a good Indie game developer? In other words, what, practically, do you need if you're gonna make a good video game?

Strangely, no, I haven't watched that documentary. Immediately on the watchlist. So, yes, indie games are a big thing, especially from an artistic perspective. You see, the bigger the budget is, the more you'll prefer to play it safe. It's not like the early days of gaming, when four people in a garage could have made a hit game out of pure passion, just the game they themselves wanted to play in the first place. In high-budget game development, the process might well involve hundreds of people, and every detail determined by every department must fit together in the end product. In the Indie gaming world, there's less budget, obviously, and so in some ways fewer limitations, and certainly fewer people needing to harmonise their efforts. So it's easier to go nuts and experiment with crazy concepts. So yes, I would say that, from an artistic point of view, Indie developers are making the biggest contribution. That said, it's not easy. Year after year, technology is getting more and more accessible, but, needless to say, it's easy to have an idea; it's harder to make it real. It's even more hard when the commitment requires time, study, money. The hardware is only a relative problem. With a good PC and the proper software, it's fairly easy to create something playable. The challenge is to translate the idea into functional gameplay, and to finish the game from A to B. For example, I have a little draft of a novel that I think might translate into a playable game, but, in my case, as I don't have an IT background, I lack the technical skills. And even if I managed to craft a demo, it would probably be full of compromises, again, because of my lack of knowhow.

So, from least to most difficult to get hold of, what I think is needed to craft a good video game is: hardware, an idea, motivation, commitment, persistence.

Then we can talk, of course, about Kickstarter and other crowdfunding options, but that comes after, when the game has already taken its general shape. I believe the real challenge is before.

So, are you saying that Indie game developers are normally just isolated individuals? Just like one guy in his bedroom kinda thing? Because you don't mention the challenge of finding the necessary collaborators; you seem to assume an absence of collaborators. No?

There are some one-man-jobs, like Cave Story by Daisuke Amaya, Fear and Hunger by Miro Averinen and Horace by Paul Helman and Sean Scaplehorn, but no, I wasn't implying that most Indie developers are basically lone wolves. But they are not a-hundred-employee studios either. Usually it's just a bunch of friends/colleagues that have an idea and start from there. Then the project can stay small, or maybe escalate into something bigger, gaining more and more resources and workforce. For example, We Happy Few, a game set in an uchronic dystopic past, started as a humble Kickstarter project, but ultimately it grew to the point of getting the attention of Microsoft Game Studios, and now Compulsion Games, the developers, work within the Xbox family. Other projects like Braid by Jonathan Blow started as small, atypical 2D adventures and stayed that way. To have a team is helpful and, depending on the project demands, it might be necessary. But it's not an absolute rule.

If someone, like you, or even like me, has an idea for a video game, but not the time or skills or hardware or pre-established connections to get that game made, are there established channels for him to pitch that idea to an organisation that could get it made?

Well, the most obvious option for me would be to look into art schools, especially the technology-oriented ones. Alternatively, there are these events called Game Jams, which have exactly this purpose. There are small-scale versions of it, right up to a global one. I would definitely start with one of these.

Your first suggestion there, looking into art schools... You mean in order to then study video game development at one of them?

Well, if they have a course on it, why not? It would be the best place to obtain both the necessary technological skills and other artistic inputs. But not necessarily. I was thinking art schools are another ideal place for getting in touch with passionate possible collaborators. As we said, gaming is an intersection of a multitude of arts, so let's go where multiple arts are studied. :D

Gotcha. Where in the world are the great games being made?

Nowadays, possibly everywhere. If we search "video games made in X country", we will find some. In terms of what's popular though, I would mention above all Japan, especially during the Nintendo 64/Sega Dreamcast/PlayStation era.

After that, I struggle to say one place that's made bigger contributions than others. Even in Europe, we have a lot of studios. My favourites are in Poland, like 11bit Studios and Projekt Red, but again, we can probably find talented authors everywhere.

Have there, to your knowledge, been some great videos games made in developing countries, even very poor countries?

Um, you caught me unprepared on this. But there is no way to sugar-coat one thing: budget matters. I have no doubt brilliant people and ideas can be everywhere, but not everybody in the world starts with the same cards. To give the most basic example, technology-based entertainment depends these days on having a good and stable internet connection. Which I don't think is a given all around the globe. To answer directly, no, I think I've never played a game that originated in central Africa, or in southeast Asia. But I'll double-check. I would be curious to see their gaming art.

If I think about games developed in remote places, at least from my Italian perspective, Tchia from Awaceb comes to mind, which is a proud representation of New Caledonia. The game is still in development, but it really seems a love letter to that country, portraying the way of life and local folklore.

Do you think there's a general problem of the kinds of people making video games, and the kinds of backgrounds they come from, not being particularly diverse, so that video games are a lot less diverse in nature than they could be? We've given a geographical example there, but are there other such examples? (I'm thinking like: women, minorities, people with lower education levels, outdoorsy people...)

I think the fact of the matter here is that video games have been, for many years, and they especially were at the beginning of their existence, a thing "for boys". In a similar way to tabletop role-playing games, which were again about playing the part of someone else in an alternative world. While there was for sure some gatekeeping and some social stigma back in those early days, things are slowly getting more equal and it's not that unusual to find women as game directors now. But I don't think we'll ever reach a gender balance, just like we haven't in many other activities of a competitive nature. Boys gonna be boys, I guess. Regarding minorities, from the educational point of view there's the problem that game developing is not as accessible as, for example, painting, or sculpting, or manual, individual forms of art in general. Even in order to develop the most basic gaming experience a specific skillset is needed, so lack of education might really be a barrier. People with illness or disability... this might be interesting because there have been some experiments in gaming devoted to properly portraying a disability. Forbidden Siren 2, from Siren Studio, features a visually impaired protagonist in a horror context, and he needs to find his way with help from his dog. As mentioned, Hellblade, from Ninja Theory, features a young woman that suffers from severe schizophrenia, and the developers asked psychiatrists to help them give a proper portrayal. Deus Ex: Human Revolutionand its sequel Mankind Divided have a recurring subplot focused on cybernetic prosthetics built to overcome human body limitations.

You mentioned that your first gaming experiences were those platform games from franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot. Have you tried playing them more recently – I mean, in the years since you started thinking about gaming more as an art form? If yes, what do you think of them now? And what about more recent iterations of those classic platform game franchises? Are they as good?

To be honest my tastes have changed a lot over the years, and almost none of my childhood icons are still in my heart. That said, from what I've seen and heard in conversations online, those franchises still seem to be thriving, although they are not unique anymore. Like, Sonic was the proud mascot of Sega, and Mario was the one for Nintendo, and for a time Crash Bandicoot was immediately associated with PlayStation, but it didn't last. I think that's because, very simply, there are a lot more games to choose from these days, and it's harder now to become a "classic", that production that sticks immediately in pop culture. Are they as good? I think yes, they can be. They've had good ideas since the beginning – most of the time it's just about making a graphic update and developing new levels with the same concepts and minimal adjustments. Are they as popular? I’m not sure.

For someone who's passionate about art in many different forms but never really played video games, and who's perhaps a little sceptical about the idea of video games as an art form, what games would you recommend they try playing?

Wow, that's challenging. I'll not even try to make a proper top 10; I'll instead answer by naming the ones that quickly come to my mind. Disco Elysium for its writing. Pathologic 2 and The Void for their capacity to question the usual structure of a story-driven video game. Gris for the simplicity and at the same time the deepness of the message. Flower for its ability to make the player just feel good and relaxed. The Shenmue saga for its storytelling and its ability to make the player feel they're inside and taking part in a martial arts movie/novel. Frostpunk for its take on the very contemporary issue of climate change. Or, from the same developer, This War of Mine, a serious take on war, from the perspective of a normal, starving citizen. Papers, Please for the dilemmas that the player constantly has to deal with. Hellblade for the feeling of inhabiting the perspective of a person suffering from schizophrenia.

What are your own all-time favourite games? Could say a little about what the experience of them was for you? What made it special?

As said, my personal taste in art and gaming has changed a lot over the years, but there is one saga that is, and always has been, close to my soul. Oddworld, from Oddworld Inhabitants. It was among the games I was playing as a kid, without understanding all the narrative implications. What’s the idea? Well, it is a gigantic allegory about the clash between a rural, spiritual, “old school” way of life and the industrial corporate greed that stops at nothing in order to achieve its goals. It does this in a satirical, black-humorous way, and all set in a gorgeous alien world – the universe of Oddworld is visually very unique and easy to recognise. But as often happens, the more the visual art of a world is distinct from our world, the more it can be a sharp critique of our world. I remember playing it as a kid just because “I liked it” and fully understanding it only years after, when I learnt about the pollution in big cities and the never-ending industrialisation, and when I’d lived the difference between a metropolitan and an ecofarm lifestyle.

How many of the great games being released these days still require an expensive games console to be played? And generally, how much does one pay for a video game – and a great one, if that makes any difference – these days? Are there some great games that you can play for free? And what about ones that showcase the latest in gaming possibilities?

Well, you're talking to a PC gamer :D Nowadays gaming is not necessarily an expensive hobby. By sticking to console gaming, yes, it still can be. A hard copy of a newly released game might even cost €70. But in the PC gaming environment there are many online stores like GOG and Steam that offer periodic discount deals for Christmas, Summer, Halloween, etc., and you can easily find very convenient deals, sometimes even some free giveaways. You just click and bam, the new game is in your digital library. There are even Netflix-style services like Gamepass, through which you don't own any games, but via a monthly subscription you can play anything in a constantly updated catalogue. Some can even be played via cloud services like Nvidia's GeForce Now, so not even the PC's performance is a limit anymore (in this case, a good internet connection might be though). Even so, I have never spent more than €1000 for a gaming laptop, and I usually update it every 5 years. Compared to other hobbies, I would say gaming is pretty affordable.



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