the state of art

We are fast approaching a tipping point in the realm of video games. I like to think of it more as a singularity point, because in the near future many people will have to come to terms with the evolution of games as a whole. In the past (and present), many have defined art as purely noninteractive–you look at a painting, and you interpret it, but you don’t add or subtract paint from it. Video games, on the other hand, are frequently defined as “interactive art“, a term that is itself controversial. But it’s this label of “art” that is will have the most effect on their future.

The recent release of Wolfenstein: The New Order invariably fell afoul of censorship laws in several countries. As such, the German version of the game is devoid of Nazi symbols such as swastikas, and it faced heavy resistance from the Australian Classification Board, known for its long list of banned games. This is nothing new: from their inception, games have faced higher standards than other forms of media due to their perception as toys and the likelihood of exposure to children. In the case of Germany, the ban stems from a much wider cultural mindset: all Nazi symbols are banned in media, except in cases of educational or artistic depictions. Portrayals of violence are similarly prohibited, with some interesting workarounds being the result.

Therein lies the rub: If Wolfenstein is not art, what is it? Game developer art departments are now as large as those of big Hollywood movie studios. Millions are spent on AAA games such as this, with a not-insignificant fraction going to the people designing clothing, billboards, vehicles and buildings, all to create a living world that the player can immerse themselves in. We have games that range from hyper-realistic to highly stylized and everything between. There are even games that feature quadrilaterals as main characters, and abstract stories based entirely on wandering through the desert. Games have made us question our morals, and have turned our worlds upside down.

But is it really “interactive media”? You press buttons to make the protagonist move, shoot and operate objects, but in the vast majority of games, there is a very explicit path with a fixed beginning and end. The developers clearly have a defined story they want to tell, and there is only one way to experience it. Some games go as far as to be little more than playable movies (not naming names here). These are the most forced form of the medium, in which players experience only exactly what the developers want them to experience. Even games like Fallout, which appear to present the player with limitless possibilities, have an ending that doesn’t change (or changes very little) regardless of the player’s decisions and actions. The player may influence the movement of the brush, but in the end the painting still more or less looks the same.

To me, there is no doubt that games are art. But the debate likely won’t end anytime soon, particularly when considering the age gap between the average gamer and the average legislator. Just as their parents didn’t see television as an artistic medium, they often don’t see video games that way. Will it take another 30 years before our generation enters politics to see the issue in the same light? I hope not, but it definitely feels that way.


Storage is cheap these days. It’s not rare to find terabyte drives in low end desktops, and many people have several multi-terabyte drives to store oodles of data. In particular, many games have large drives to store games downloaded from Steam, GOG, Origin, Uplay, or any of many services out there. There’s no doubt about it–games are getting bigger. But is it better?

Recently Bethesda announced that the upcoming Wolfenstein: The New Order will require 47GB of hard drive space to store the game. It’s already spilling over into dual layer blu-rays, and the Xbox 360 version will span four discs. This brings back some old memories, not all of them good ones.

It’s one thing if there is actually enough content to justify such a large download size, but is there? Titanfall on PC is a 48GB download–of that, 35GB comprises every single language of the game, in uncompressed audio. That’s not “lossless compressed audio”, or even “high bitrate audio”. Uncompressed. Respawn claimed this was to accomodate lower spec machines, but this reasoning is (to use a technical term) bullshit. We’re in the days of six- and eight-core computers, when even low end duals and quads have cores sitting on their laurels with nothing to do, when processing and decompressing such files is a trivial matter even for a cheap entry-level cell phone. This isn’t even excusable, it’s just laziness.

Rather than an isolated incident, this is on its way to becoming the norm. Max Payne 3 will cost you 29GB if you want it on PC. Battlefield 4 demands 24GB even before DLC is added in. For comparison, World of Warcraft was roughly 25GB at its worst, before Blizzard rolled out a patch that hugely optimized the game and pared it down to size. Skyrim is a diminutive 6GB in size, and still looked good (but that’s not to say it can’t get better). Meanwhile, Rocksteady recently commented that the Batmobile alone in Arkham Knight would take up half the available memory of an Xbox 360. I’m left wondering how much space a game like Grand Theft Auto V would will consume. I have a 1.5TB hard drive that is mostly taken up by games, and I’m not keen on shoving another in there.

Storage limits aren’t the only concern, either. Most internet providers impose limits on users’ activity, namely through download caps. In some cases, downloading even a few games like Max Payne 3 or The New Order will put someone over their limit, resulting in their speed being throttled or huge overages on their bill. I had to download and install Titanfall three times before I could launch, meaning I burned through nearly 150GB of data. While I (no longer) have a cap to worry about hitting, many users aren’t so lucky. And what about patches? Machinegames recently decided that 47GB isn’t enough space, and will be applying a 5GB day-one patch to the monstrosity of a game.

Other than optimization of files, where is the future? My money is on procedural generation. While its engine is simplistic, Minecraft can generate vast worlds using a binary that is a mere 100MB. At 148MB, the binary for Daggerfall makes use of procedural generation to create a world that would cover most of England. Going off the deep end, you find .kkreiger, which is contained entirely within an executable 95 kilobytes in size.

Even ignoring hard drive space, games are beginning to hog memory. Watch Dogs, The New Order, Titanfall, and Call of Duty: Ghosts all require at least 4GB of memory to run, to store their enormous textures. There is a dire need for a new, more efficient engine to run games at higher qualities like these; hopefully one will be here soon.

It seems that procedural generation is the buzzword of the gaming industry’s future. It cuts down on file sizes, allows for streamlining and makes every experience unique. I know I wouldn’t mind my second playthrough of a game being a little different than the first; it certainly seems to have worked well (albeit through limited implementation) in Left 4 Dead.

It’s either that, or we’re looking at multi-blu-ray titles hitting the Xbox One and Playstation 4 before long. Time to start checking prices on hard drives.