Don’t get me wrong, I love multiplayer. Lurve it, in fact. A memory that still brands itself in my mind is acquiring three copies of the first Diablo and playing it alongside my father (the warrior) and mother (sorcerer) with my rogue (due to friendly fire issues, my mother was often left cursing when another arrow brought a death cry from her sorcerer). When we bought our copies of the sequel, my brother joined in and we had fun terrorizing demons on our LAN. Same happened with Warcraft II, Goldeneye 007, Duke Nukem 3D, and a plethora of other titles.
There remain some games I have no particular desire to play to this day, however. For years I was content watching others play the Resident Evil series. My last roommate loved the Metal Gear Solid series and I had to have seen him play the third one for an obscene amount of hours. This was fairly common practice in my household–watching each other play various adventure games or the Final Fantasy series.
I feel this phenomenon creates an interesting angle into the discussion of games as art.
Not only does one have the artist, art, and interacting agent, but one suddenly has the entrance of a spectator of the interacting agent. Try as I might, I cannot think of this as common in any other artistic practice (I do not commonly watch other people experiencing theater, music, or a piece of art while being one step removed in my experience of the same). The question then becomes whether or not the interacting agent and spectator have different experiences with the medium, and therefore the artists?
While the narrative elements, including the bag of character, plot, setting, point of view, et cetera, exist for anyone who on any level experiences the game, there exists the design of the game itself. It feels very different playing a Resident Evil game than watching it (I finally picked up the series this past year). This particular example probably speaks so loudly due to its survivalist horror elements: as a person playing the game, my ammo is much more in the forefront of my brain than it ever was while I was watching my brother or any of numerous friends do the same. While my anxiety would perhaps rise while watching someone else struggle, falling into the same trap produces a new level of anxiousness and palm-sweatiness.
We should remember that there are usually many different types of people working on a game (exceptions apply). The spectator may well get the exact same intent from the writer as the interacting agent. However, like any piece of art or entertainment, it does seem that the primary purpose is to experience the entire production–different elements should feed into themselves or a purpose. Some games do this brilliantly, others less so. When I don’t feel as if I’m wrestling between myself and the controls of a game, I do not spend time overly concerned over the design choices and focus more on the narrative or ludic elements at hand. When things aren’t intuitive (or something to which I can easily acclimate), I feel less satisfied about the experience as a whole, and my concentration breaks.
Satisfaction does affect my view of the entire package. Beyond any cues the interacting agent may give any spectators, the controls may very well not be an issue (unless we’re dealing with the pesky camera). So, does this truly create a new agent which has any relevance in the interaction with this medium, or is this just an interesting addendum to a relatively new media that is rising in prominence? The authorial intent does not include this person (it may, but I doubt it is a concern), but it does create an interesting sense of community.
Especially with games where the spectator may shift into the role of interacting agent briefly. Here I think of games such as Zack & Wiki, whereby having friends in the room can aid the experience. Super Mario Galaxy also has the interesting element of providing a lesser interacting agent who bridges the gaps among those who experience the game in different fashions. It seems an avenue of games that can be more fully explored, and one which may provide an interesting lens through which to view how we interact and experience games as a society, rather than just as individual gamers.
The topic behind games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band is probably a whole other post much in this same vein.
Speaking of, I may have to find someone to play Metal Gear Solid 4 while I watch.