DS fans unsurprised at French view of games as art

Alisha Karabinus
A. Karabinus|11.13.06

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DS fans unsurprised at French view of games as art
Earlier this month, the French minister of culture declared that video games should be included in the industries that are considered for tax breaks in that country -- something limited to artistic endeavors. Yes, that's right ... in France, someone is moving for games to be declared bastions of art. That's quite different from what we've more often heard over the years, but it's not too new for France, a nation that offered up Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (awards for cultural achievement) to game designers, including our own Shigeru Miyamoto.

But are we surprised by the move? DS fans know all about the art of video games; after all, it's our handheld that's leading the rebirth of games that are only there to tell a story -- games like Phoenix Wright and Contact, games that aren't so much about the gameplay as they are about what happens during gameplay. Sure, Halo has an intriguing story (albeit one ripped from the dozens of sci-fi franchises that came before), but in the end, Halo isn't about the story. It's about shooting things with weapons. And that's all well and good, but a compelling story adds a lot to a game. People aren't hoping for Final Fantasy VI redux (ala the update on FFIII) because of the gameplay, though as an RPG, it is hailed at the forefront of the genre. Still, fans want it for the game itself -- the rich world and compelling characters. It's that quality that we crave in a game and that so many products of the industry lack.

France's move will, we hope, spur that further. When it comes to the question of art, games are often spurned as not serious, as brain-rotting fluff. Hey, sometimes, that's what makes a game fun. Mario Kart isn't, after all, an epic quest for the golden cup. It's about watching your best good friends shake their fist in the wake of your exhaust fumes. But there have been great examples of storytelling in games, and what's more, there have been ideas, kernels of stories that have been lost because hey, who cares about the story?
While everyone has been so busy with churning out another GTA clone, how many great games could have been made, but weren't? We'll never know. But the notion of subsidizing game production in France opens up a world of possibilities for would-be storytellers. While there is some controversy over the move -- the Interactive Software Federation of Europe is concerned that allowing France to include gaming under their cultural umbrella of industries that qualify for tax breaks will lead to government interference in the production of games -- we feel it's safe to say that community outcry would potentially topple anything that was censored. The gaming community is strident in its opinions and we will not be silenced. So that seems, to us, to be an argument for argument's sake.

Instead, let's look ahead at what could come from this. Will we see the Amelie of video games? Subsidization can open doors in an industry that might otherwise remain firmly closed. According to the plan proposed by French cultural minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, only those games that have "artistic merit" (something that will need to be strictly defined) and that enjoy input from French designers during development would qualify. With three large companies -- Ubisoft (big supporters of the Nintendo Wii), Infogrames, and Vivendi -- all centered in France, that's the easier requirement to meet.

The question is, if this comes about, will we benefit? It seems likely. With the lines of demarcation being drawn by gamers themselves between what is good for "hardcore gamers" and the rest of the gaming world, too often games with a compelling story get pushed aside. Though to be fair, story-heavy games often suffer when it comes to gameplay. Let's use Konami's Lost in Blue as an example. What an intriguing idea: castaways forced to figure out how to survive. That's a tried-and-true formula brought to the platform of gaming. But many considered the gameplay repetitive and boring. There are a lot of factors that could account for that opinion. First (and perhaps foremost), it could be a simple difference in cultures. What appeals to Japanese gamers does not always appeal to the rest of the world, and this game, like many, was first designed for a Japanese audience. And that's alright, as the French move for subsidization takes that into account. French games for a French audience designed by the French would provide something we rarely see in an industry plagued at times by issues with localizing foreign titles. Second -- and this is a hard truth -- games with a good story often suffer on the gameplay side, and vice versa. It's rare to see those games that truly shine on all fronts, and those are the games, like Halo and Final Fantasy VI and even Phoenix Wright (certainly the best of the adventure games we've seen on the DS), that become legendary. A game needs all elements, and story is often the thing that suffers.

So why is that? Is it, perhaps, because games are looked down upon when it comes to discussing culture? If the French can say that games are a product of culture, that they are, in fact, art, then how can we ignore the story elements? Even if the French gaming industry never sees those tax breaks, something will come of this. We stand at a cusp in the industry. Gaming companies cannot continue to release legions of subpar knockoffs and clones. More and more, games will need to stand out to sell, and to do that, they'll need good writing, good voice acting ... all things that are considered artistic elements. All cultural aspects. And if an artistic element is required to obtain those tax breaks, how can those things be ignored?

And we DS fans, we love a good story. Those are the games we crave. Sure, it's great to take the DS along while traveling for a few runs through Meteos or a quick race in Mario Kart. But we ache for the next Phoenix Wright and for the release of Final Fantasy III. We long for more RPGs that can take us on an epic journey to save the world, or perhaps just our friends -- we're not picky. If France can recognize that games have cultural significance, so can the rest of the world, and we (and our handheld) can only reap the benefits of that change in opinion.
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