Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Game as Art

You wake up, no memory of your past, no idea where you are now. Your body is covered in scars of a long life, but you can’t remember where any of them were earned. Before you have a chance to adjust to your new surroundings, you are greeted by a floating skull, who proceeds to talk to you...

Over the next twenty or so hours of gameplay, Planescape: Torment continues the sense of wonder, foreboding, mystery, threat and revelation present in the opening minutes. Along the way you meet colourful characters, explore a world utterly unlike our own, engage in the obligatory battles... but what truly sets the game apart is its exploration of identity.

Your character, you see, is immortal. His body is, anyway. Each time he dies he regenerates, the cost is the loss of his memory. All his actions, his experiences, everyone he’s ever met all fade from his mind and he’s left a blank slate. While the body is immortal, the game posits, is the individual in fact immortal, or just as mortal as anyone else? When the memories are gone, is that individual in fact dead and gone, despite the fact that their body is still walking around?

During the course of the game, you meet the psychological remnants of several of your past selves; each turned out so very different to the others. One is scheming and left enough clues to your identity to try to trick later selves to restoring his mind. Another was driven mad by the revelation and destroyed many of those same clues, seeing the past and any potential future selves as ‘thieves’ who would steal his body from him. One felt terribly guilty at the atrocities of some of his past selves and killed himself after obscuring many of the clues to spare future incarnations the pain of his discovery.

All of these individuals came from the same body, the same neurochemistry, the same physical form as the others. The monsters and angels, the madmen and saints, they were all the same physical person... but their identities were so very different. A question is echoed throughout the game: “What can change the nature of a man?”

No single answer to the question is ever supplied by the authors. Rather, it is left to the player to determine it. Different characters have different ideas; some say that nothing can, others that anything can – one answer is that only the man can change himself. (My apologies for the exclusive language.)

Art is a matter of debate; no matter what the creation, there will be someone who denies that it is art. The one definition that I really like (and tries to be at least a little objective) is that art is whatever illuminates the human condition. Here we have a computer game that is about that aspect of humanity central to our selves: identity. I put Planescape: Torment forward as art. A Game As Art. If one game is art, then games can be art; let the floodgates open. Games can be art.

1 comment:

  1. I... yes. I have nothing to add. Just wanted to let you know I'm reading!