Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Playing with Art

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

We at Press Pause to Reflect take as an assumption that video games, like any other form of media, can be artistic works. This has been debated on many blogs, and by notables like Clive Barker and Roger Ebert, but I don’t really think that video games’ potential for art remains debatable: they certainly can be. The question is how video games can best show their artistic value.

Often, when the argument for artistic merit in games is made, examples are given of the craftsmanship shown in some particular aspect of a game. The visual style of Okami, for example, evokes traditional Japanese art and calligraphy. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer for the much-lauded Final Fantasy soundtracks, can be cited as a musical talent creating artistic works for games. Or a particularly well-told story with compelling characters, such as those present in Beyond Good and Evil or Silent Hill 2, can make a compelling case for comparing games to works of art in film and literature.

Ultimately, that is where the argument breaks down: the most enduring works of art are only possible within their chosen mediums. When we compare a game’s story to that of a book or a movie, its visuals to a painting, or its music to a song or an overture, we are merely exploring the way in which games imitate other forms of art. Story, graphics and sound are important aspects of any game, but they are not the most important element, nor do they distinguish video games from other artistic mediums.

Instead, the question of what makes a profound artistic accomplishment in a game should revolve around the thing that makes the video game a unique art form: while one observes paintings, listens to music, reads a book and watches a movie, the unique quality of a video game is that you play it. Beyond bringing your own perspective to a game, you can shape the path of the story itself, control the pace and the situations, and choose what to assign importance and what to ignore to a degree that is impossible in other mediums.

For a video game to achieve artistic greatness, it is this interactivity that must be explored. Art in gaming should toy with the expectations of how to play a game, and create circumstances and scenarios that would be impossible without the input of the player. Just as Citizen Kane could not have been made into an equally excellent book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being failed to convey itself as a movie, and the Mona Lisa lacks any potential for greatness as a song, great artistic achievements will not come to the world of video games without wrestling with the idea of user input and interactivity. Gaming has yet to reach the lofty heights of any of the works I mentioned, largely because most game developers are attempting merely to imitate the qualities of other works of art, instead of innovating and exploring the possibilities unique to video games.

Let’s look at a few examples of games that explore those possibilities to artistic effect. From the world of role-playing games comes one of the first major innovations in story-telling to reach the world of video games: the ability to make choices that shape the outcome of the game itself. From the multiple endings in Chrono Trigger to the dramatic shifts in narrative possible in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, video games offer the ultimate fulfillment of the idea first presented in “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. While the dialogue and options are still prepared for the player, games have been written to accommodate more and more choice, so that the player determines the outcome of the plot and the attitudes of the characters in the game. If your character becomes a paragon of virtue, it is because you guided them down that path. If your choices result in the genocide of a people, the sadness and horror of that moment is mixed with your own guilt. When the choice is yours, the emotional impact of a well-told story is that much more profound. This is expanded further by sandbox games like Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto 4, which have “main” storylines but so much else to do that one could begin the game, play thirty hours in and have created a compelling story for yourself without really dealing with the supposedly primary story arc.

Another way that a game can achieve artistic greatness is by playing with our expectations of the game itself. Braid, for example, takes one of the oldest archetypes of gaming controls, Mario, with his running, jumping and landing on enemies to kill them, and uses that as the jumping-off point to explore a number of mind-bending situations and variations on basic gameplay. Because the controls are so simple, the game instantly feels familiar, which allows for every change in the basic rules of the game to take the player by surprise. When the character dies for the first time, for example, instead of losing a life, they are prompted to press a button which rewinds time to before the death. In a later level, as the character walks right, time moves forward. As he stands still, it pauses. As he walks left, it moves backwards. The story, too, is a familiar one: we seek a princess, who is always in another castle. Our expectations fall into line naturally, only to be confused and swept aside as the game proceeds. Rez also does fascinating things with an established gameplay idea: you are moving forward and shooting at enemies, like in so many other games, but the levels, the visuals, and the music evolve as you progress, with every shot you fire contributing a drumbeat or a click to the electronic score.

Video games can achieve artistic greatness, but we must first learn to evaluate them by different standards. It is not in its similarities to works in other media but in its differences that an artistic movement ultimately achieves its greatest works. The difference here is an exciting one: with video games, you are encouraged to touch, you are compelled to be involved, and it is perfectly acceptable to play with your art.


  1. Another oft quoted reason for video games not being considered art is, like comic books and cartoons, they are almost permanently linked in the public's mind to being a children's medium.

    My main point though is that video games don't have the raw simplicity that a picture, a song or even a movie have. Video games require an investment from the player. People need to have time, manual dexterity, mental acuteness and often some prior knowledge or experience with the medium to even be vaguely interested in playing. One game that I believe perfectly approaches video game as art is Flower. Its combination of basic but striking visuals,lyrically interactive music, an incredibly easy and intuitive control scheme (with the six-axis no less!), and just the barest hint of a story make for a compelling argument for games as approachable art. My girlfriend, who rarely games, was entranced by Flower and made her friends try it, all of whom were dazzled by it. What makes games such a good candidate for artistic interpretations is not only its level of interactivity, which as Daniel points out is the genre's unique talent. I believe its also about video game's ability to combine all of the elements of other forms of art into one big, beautiful masterpiece.


    check out this guy's work. a great example of entertaining, interactive art.

    free to download and beautiful.

  3. Thanks for the link, Bobby. I've played Passage, and it's pretty fantastic. I'd highly recommend it to anyone with about ten minutes to spare. It's a short, fascinating game.

  4. Wow, I just tried Gravitation (from the same website Bobby posted) and it is also pretty incredible. I don't know how Jason Rohrer manages to fit so much emotion and so many ideas into an eight minute game, but he sure does.


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