Tom Sutcliffe: The fine art of Grand Theft Auto

The Week In Culture
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Here's a bold statement: "It seems clear to me that by the time my children are adults, video gaming will be a medium whose importance and cultural ubiquity are at least as great as that of film or television." Of course, it's possible that far from appearing bold, this simply looks like a statement of the obvious to you. After all, video games have already overtaken music and film combined in terms of earning power and barely a week passes without an executive excitedly confirming the almost unstoppable ascent of gaming as a form of entertainment. Boldness, though, isn't a quality that can be judged independently of context – and what framed that remark in imaginary yellow highlighter for me was the place I read it: the London Review of Books, not an organ exactly famous for its coverage of the games industry.

The latest issue features a very thoughtful piece by the novelist John Lanchester, in which he introduced the LRB's readers to a world which, he took it as read, wouldn't even register on their cultural radar. Writing approvingly about the game BioShock, for example – a title which will be known to virtually any gamer – he says this: "The game was a huge hit, and I have yet to encounter anyone who has ever heard of it."

That was part of the point of his piece; that, in a 21st-century variation of CP Snow's "two cultures" paradigm, a hugely successful (and intermittently creative) medium remains effectively invisible to people who would usually pride themselves on their broad cultural literacy. And since his piece was headlined "Is It Art?", Lanchester was effectively asking how long this invisibility could be sustained.

That was the boldness. Everything you erudite, informed readers now take for granted about the hierarchy of the cultural landscape, he was suggesting, is going to change. A new form of human expression has crept up behind you, and though it is currently amoeboid and rudimentary in form, it is evolving at a startling speed, putting out feelers towards high art here, wrapping an exploratory tendril around the qualities of the novel there. How it will evolve – and how it will achieve what the novel and film did before it, which was to make the leap from vulgar entertainment to consequential art – isn't clear. But it will. And, again, while countless teenagers already think they know this, contributing editors to literary journals who share the view are a bit thin on the ground.

Lanchester's piece advances some interesting ideas about this latter conundrum, one I've considered myself before in these pages. And I think he correctly identifies that the most promising route to a distinctive identity for video games lies not through conventional narrative (as is often assumed even by those who make them) but in open spaces – what video gamers call sandbox worlds. The clues to this truth lie in the way that enthusiastic gamers themselves judge and discuss games. Linearity – the great central power source for both novels and films – is actually a bugbear and a failing in the more evolved video games. Players complain when they are made too aware that they are in fact running on tramlines through a world that only superficially responds to their free will.

This isn't even really conceivable as a complaint against the novel, except in the wilder fringes of avant-garde publishing. "I really hate the way Thomas Hardy gets to choose which page comes next," isn't a legitimate response to Jude the Obscure, but its equivalent is a frequently expressed grievance against a disappointing video-game. Curiously, the easiest way to get sceptics to recognise that something interesting might be going on here is not to get them to play one of the games that has been designed as a film by other means, but simply to let them explore a virtual world like that in Grand Theft Auto IV – which is more fine-grained and extensive and weirdly responsive than you can quite believe is possible.

Such worlds can only get more detailed and – far more significantly – more responsive to their individual visitors. If video games are to become an art, it won't be novels or films that provide the template – it may well be the gallery installation.

Czeched out in Brussels

I'm pretty sure that the new installation by the Czech artist David Cerny at the European Council building in Brussels has greatly added to the gaiety of nations, whatever the spluttered protests from individual national representatives. After all, however touchy people are about their own patriotic sensitivities, they can usually absorb insults to other countries' amour-propre with a broad-minded stoicism. The declension runs thus: I have a proper regard for national dignity; you need to get a sense of humour, Fritz. It seems particularly choice that this assault on bland Eurovision inoffensiveness has been pinned to the front of what may be one of the most cautiously humourless institutions in Europe.

I am sad, though, that the assault on Britain is so abstract (we feature simply as a gap, a missing component in the Airfix kit of European togetherness). Surely we deserve worse than that?

I'm looking forward to two great tests of the writer's craft next week. The first is Obama's inauguration speech, just four days away. Any inauguration has to confront public expectation, but this one, from a President with a reputation for literary and rhetorical flair, and whose presidency counts as historic before a day has been served in office, involves expectation cubed. How many drafts has it been through already, one wonders, and what kind of palimpsest will emerge on Tuesday?

The challenge I'm really intrigued by, though, is that faced by the writers on the Jonathan Ross show – having somehow to finesse the return of an entertainer richly prized and then fiercely despised for his impertinence. Po-faced contrition is hardly going to work, but how do you make a cheeky joke about your long sabbatical that doesn't provoke frothing headlines in the Daily Mail about lack of remorse? And if you don't make cheeky jokes, what's the point of that giant salary? I can't even begin to imagine what might follow "Hello," so I'll watch the reinstatement next Friday with almost as much eagerness as the inauguration on Tuesday.