Remy Karns

Forever Beta

In the second chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward finishes the portrait he had been working on:

After about a quarter of an hour Hallward stopped painting, looked for a long time at Dorian Gray, and then for a long time at the picture, biting the end of one of his huge brushes and frowning. "It is quite finished," he cried at last, and stooping down he wrote his name in long vermilion letters on the left-hand corner of the canvas.

Although it took him until that point to finish the painting, it was obvious to Lord Henry even before its completion that the work was undoubtedly Basil’s best.  Even so, the painting’s powers, both as a reminder to Dorian that he will someday lose his beauty and as a phylactery, do not emerge until the painting is deemed completed by its painter.  This instance in the novel brings attention to this fact: that the finished work of art obtains a quality that is absent from the incomplete entity. For example, Mr and Mrs Andrews, though one of the masterpieces of its time, is unfinished, and much of the critical analysis of the painting revolves around what is missing rather than what is present.  It seems that the artist’s approval of the works completion is itself a quality of the work of art.

However, just as the process for mechanical reproduction destroyed the aura of the art work’s distinction, the advent of video games and digitally distributed downloads is destroying this quality of ‘finished’ art.  Team Fortress 2, released by Valve in 2007, has received over 170 patches over four years, which include technical changes such as new weapons, maps, mechanics, graphics and sounds, as well as updates to the thematics of the game, such as new visual designs and lore.  To compare the newest iteration with the ‘finished’ released version would be to compare two vastly different entities, and with more patches adding new content continually being implemented, its obvious that the product is yet at- nor will it likely be considered- a ‘finished’ state.  These instances are not rarities, but are now common practice amongst the majority of games.  Video games were not always known to be in a constant state of fluctuation: before the ease of digitally distributing updates to games, games were quantified as ‘finished’ entities when they were released.  It is because of their ability and practice of being constantly updated that video games are destroying the concept of the ‘finished’ game, and the ‘finished’ work of art.

Games continually update to improve gameplay experience: these updates are called patches, and they come about for a number of reasons.  Often, games will have bugs, unintended errors that can hinder the computer program.  The original Gothic is known for having been released with a myriad of bugs, including the ‘infinite ladder fall’: climbing off a ladder would sometimes release you in midair, but being so close to the ladder would stop you from moving; your character would simply fall without moving, forever stuck midair.  Patches are employed to fix these flaws in coding.  Patches are also used in order to balance games: when World of Warcraft was first released, there were massive power differences between each of the classes.  Lastly, there are patches that add new content: as stated above, Team Fortress 2 is famous for the amount of free content added into the game.

These patches are created from developers gathering information about how players play the game, and using this data to make changes to the game.  Often times, games will be given an early, limited release, called a beta, in order to gather this information before the game is fully released in order to make changes based on this information.  This is to ensure that the game is being played in a way that the developers wish it to be played.

These two concepts- changing existing material based on audience reaction and a limited release- are not new to existing art forms.  In literature, cannon lore has often been retroactively changed due to audience reaction: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle revived Sherlock Holmes after plunging to his death with his arch nemesis after the demand for new material from his fans.  Likewise, Charles Dickens was a serial writer, publishing portions of a story chapter by chapter in magazines: he would write the next portions of the story based on the reaction of his readers.  However, the difference between these forms of media and video games is that the entity itself is changed, rather than just subsequent material: Sherlock Holmes will always fall to his death in The Adventure of The Final Problem, and the information gathered from readers during the chapter-by-chapter release of The Old Curiosity Shop only changes the upcoming chapter.  Unlike their literary counterparts, video games as entities can be changed in any way.  They are not fixed into states of completion- they are constantly being retooled, reworked and redesigned.  Certain games have undergone radical changes: Dawn of War 2 played far differently than it did after the There Is Only War patch, which changed nearly every unit in the game, adding and tweaking abilities and mechanics, in order to emphasize a certain style of play that the developers wished to foster.  This concept, if transferred over to traditional art mediums, can radically change the way we see art.

An example of how the idea of patching a video game can translate over to traditional mediums is thus:  An artist has an idea.  The artist attempts to create a work of art to portray this idea through a medium, called an art form.  The idea is altered based on the medium’s formal qualities- that is, the way the medium itself dictates how the form will be seen.  The work of art is presented to the public, who all have various responses and different ideas of what the idea behind the art form is.  By removing the concept of the finished work of art, the artist can take this information, make changes based on the reaction of the public and resubmit his work of art.  

Since the concept of the ‘finished’ work has been destroyed, the art entity itself is seen in a new way: one does not consider any specific point of the art entity its own entity- neither the past entities or future entities are their own separate entities, nor even the entity which occupies the present.  Instead, the underlying idea of the entity itself becomes the object of art.  This is true for video games: because Minecraft is updated so often, the game is not considered based on its version number, but as the idea itself.  Because of their constantly shifting nature, the video game and art entity become distinguishable, both from other entities and its own past and future iterations, by what adaptation theorist Brian McFarlane’s defines as their “cardinal functions”: because McFarlane is quantifying what happens when a story is translated from one medium to another (in his case, novel into film), he uses the term cardinal functions to describe the most important points in the story- that is, the points within the story that are necessary for it to remain uniquely that story.  This term can be used for games and art entities, constantly translating from one iteration to the next; they are not known for their specifics, but for what makes them uniquely that game.

I call this phenomenon, wherein the importance to the ‘finished’ product is diminished, the Forever Beta: the art entity is in a constant state of redesigning based on the response from the audience, trying to induce the response the creator strives for; entities are no longer affixed a historical end date; they are in a constant state of modification and reinterpretation; and, the grand design properties are what defines the video game entity.  It may be possible that this trend can be emulated in other mediums of art, ending the notion of a final product in all artforms.