“The Art of Gaming, pshhh ABSURD!”-Lots of people, probably with top-hats and monocles…
Video Games, when asked about them, most people would say that they’re nothing more than games for kids or for childish adults, but with The Last of Us releasing to wide critical acclaim for both its gameplay and story, Beyond: Two Souls with its star-studded cast as well as being featured at the Tribeca film festival, and the increase in story and artistically driven visuals across the spectrum, one is finding it increasingly difficult to write off video games as simple toys for children. From last year’s “L.A. Noire” by Rockstar Games and this year’s s “The Walking Dead” by Telltale Games, story and art has become an increasingly important part of gaming, but why is that?
The targeted audience for gamers has increased, most of us who are now in the workforce and are the main consumers in the economy, grew up playing video games. We’re gamers and we have gotten used to an interactive story experience, but we have grown up. The same simple stories won’t cut it anymore, we need a little more depth than “the princess got kidnapped” or “this bad guy is going to blow up my home.
This trailer plays more like a movie trailer than a game trailer:
As a result of this demand, we have gotten increasingly more mature games, games that at the advent of gaming would have been untouchable subjects: gang violence, the moral consequences of being a good cop versus a bad cop, saving the galaxy in the most selfless, or selfish, way possible while trying to balance a freaky relationship with an alien. These are just a few examples of the situations today’s gamers find themselves in. Games have come a long way in the past 15 years, just look at Braid, a fun game that turns the classic dynamic of saving the princess into something much darker.
It’s not just the stories, but the presentation of them that has really matured.
One of my favorite games in the past few years was Bastion, an action RPG from Supergiant Games. The mechanics of the game were great, but visually, it was gorgeous. How did they make the game looks so good? Every single object and animation in the game was drawn by hand. Every SINGLE OBJECT. Was it a lot of work? I’m sure, but doing this gave the game its own life, its own soul. Now should every game be hand-painted? Absolutely not, it doesn’t lend itself to every story, but Bastion is a story about a young boy trying to restore the world after it is destroyed by a surreal catastrophe known only as the calamity, so the style fits. Another interesting thing that they did was with the narration.
A silky smooth, jazz radio DJ-esque, voice provides the narration for nearly every event that occurs in the game. EVERY EVENT. You break a box, “the kid just rages for a bit”. It may sound like an annoyance, but it helps draw you into the game, make you feel like you’re a part of it, and for me, that is what makes a good game. The ability to draw you in, while simultaneously trying something new is what most people look for in a good game these days.
As a philosopher, the “definition” of Art tends to pop up a lot, as everybody has a different idea of what Art is. The way I see it, if one person can see something as “Art” then it is. Nobody has the right to say otherwise, and if they do, they are foolish. Art, as I have come to know it, can be defined as anything which evokes some level of emotional response, meaning that whomever is observing said art is putting something of themselves into it and getting something back. Again, this definition is certainly up to interpretation, and others may have a different definition, but this is how I define Art, and I have found it to be an acceptable definition.
So do games stack up?
People devote weeks of their lives, cast off friends and family, and forsake their personal hygiene to see a game to completion. While I don’t recommend doing any of these things, it happens, and it’s because games are able to capture an audience like no other medium.
Games REQUIRE involvement from the observer, or player in this case.
Without the player, there is no game, there’s just a collection of objects in a world that is doing nothing. The player breathes life into the game, gives the characters validation, while bringing themselves into another world, just like literature or film.
Unlike books and movies, however, a game allows you to shape the world.
Many games these days force you to make choices, ala The Walking Dead & Mass Effect, and make those choice have a direct and lasting impact on the game universe. As a player, you make the story yours, and as developers, it is their job to draw you in and make you care about the world. If you have to make a decision about which crew member to bring, or who to save, it is often a difficult decision, but why? It’s a decision that has no bearing in the rest of your life, literally, it makes no difference if this digital character makes it… but it DOES.
Gamers form connections with these characters, they grow to empathize with these characters, and at the end of the day, they care about the characters. That’s because the people making the games have done their job, if you don’t believe me, play “The Walking Dead” and try not to feel sad, or overjoyed, in reaction to the characters. And if you’re looking for a game with some REALLY deep characters, check out The Cave, I haven’t finished it yet, but its been great so far.
Film is widely considered a perfectly valid art form, but it wasn’t always so. At the first advent of the motion picture, it was critiqued by fine art critics as a useless diversion for school children that will never be taken seriously as an artistic medium. If anybody tried to say that today they would get laughed out of the room.
Video games have had a similar history of being disregarded as having the cultural value of a slinky, Roger Ebert even saying that Video Games will never be Art. I promise you that statement will be taken back. Ebert said that until he sees something comparable to the great works of literature and film, I.E. on the same level of “The Great Gatsby” or “Citizen Kane”, video games can never be considered Art.(Personally, I consider Ocarina of Time to be on this level, both because of its industry changing impact, and its effective and breathtaking story.) To this request I have only one question, is a game meant to compare to these great works in terms of being validated by a general population as significant, or is it simply meant to be culturally significant?
Is it something that influences the way people think and approach the world, or is a game supposed to be on par with the level of thought and contemplation it evokes? While I can agree that it is difficult to say which games and which works are the most significant, I know that personally, games have shaped who I am and how I approach problems, and they have inspired me in my own artistic endeavors. I would also like to point out that often times, more often than not, greatness is recognized only years after it has appeared. How many writers went unappreciated in their time, only to be wildly successful post-mortem, how many painters, how many sculptors?
It appears that the recognition is starting, as I mentioned before, The Last of Us has been widely received, by both gaming and non-gaming outlets, as one of the greatest games of all time due mostly to its involved story and superb writing. Bioshock: Infinite received recognition for having a character that we were really able to empathize with, Elizabeth, and for having a fantastic story and being beautifully rendered. As I mentioned earlier, A-list stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe are headlining the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls, a game being touted as the ultimate bridge between gaming and cinema. These are trends that one would not have seen even five years ago, and speak volumes of the evolution of gaming.
As a story-telling medium, gaming has been around for a fraction of the time as most, so to the naysayers when it comes to games as art, I say hold your horses, there are some fantastic stories to be a part of out there and you just may find that they can make a difference. Until then, you can’t Press Start without Art.