Video games are art, no question. Whether it’s fair to compare the likes of Romeo and Juliet to Tetris, though, that’s like asking if it’s fair to compare the steak sandwich I’m eating right now to Fiddler on the Roof. I would consider both to be magnificent works – masterpieces, even – crafted to near perfection, but their construction, what they offer the audience, and how they present themselves to that audience is entirely different. Games are works of design, not of aestheticism or performativity; they, like my sandwich, more closely mimic the immersive works of architecture than of TV, works that require interaction more so than reaction. That said, I would classify very, very little of what is churned out from the video game industry to be art.
Appreciating video games as art is not merely a matter of blending form and function, it’s about creating an experience through the medium, something sorely lacking in modern releases. Video games offer an entirely new way to express and explore some component of the human condition through interaction. Unfortunately, most current games do not provide interaction so much as guidance; I’m meant to follow instructions instead of engaging and experimenting with this new reality. It’s like I’m allowed to eat my steak sandwich but only in a very particular way. It’s an experience, but I’d hardly call it art if it doesn’t utilise its constructed space. So, now, let’s talk the hell about art.
Now, let us all don our “Sophisticated Nicolas Cage” faces
Yup. Art. We all know what it is, but not really, and it’s cool, but it’s not, and it’s weird and postmodern and kitsch and dada and merz and camp and a whole bunch of other things. Trying to describe what art 100% objectively is, it’s like attempting to explain the responses I feel from my steak sandwich (which I’m almost done eating, I promise). Sure, I can fluffily describe the resistance of the meat, the soft texture of the bread, the hint of onion delicately complimenting the juices soaked into the rye, but it’s so much more. It’s a sandwich, a work of human creativity and agency, manifested into a meal, a thing, an elegant experience that you can eat and feel something. Eating is pretty exclusive to food (debatable), but the ideas of vision, creation, and expression are fundamental to what makes good art.
When you make art, it’s about creating something that you have in your head, whether it’s a story, an image, a melody, or a full-fledged universe. Bringing that vision to reality, creating something from that vision through some medium of expression, that’s where art is born. How seamlessly that vision is translated and expressed is integral to effectively convey the message or experience that was intended. While you might say, “Oh, but how can we say what the author’s intent was if we’re only exposed to the work of art?” I watched Cloud Atlas. I got the idea they were going for. I didn’t go for it because NO, A MULTITUDE OF DROPS IS A PUDDLE YOU RENAISSANCE PRICK. The intent stems from that original vision and is implied by all the atrocious dialogue, terrible acting, and 2deep4u moments. Thankfully, video games tend to opt for interaction over reaction to elicit an emotional response.
You see these? Yeah, they’re rather important
While a film’s intended message can fall on deaf ears (see also: Nanar), a video game’s message is less rigid in its approach. Themes are not just presented, they are offered to be explored at the player’s choosing, and because of this lovely little feature, the narrative is driven by interaction. If you don’t move in Fallout, nothing will happen, but when curiosity finally makes you shudder forward, the story can unfold. After those first few steps, the world opens up, new pathways emerge, and you begin to create stories from those experiences. The expression of the original vision takes the form of encountering circumstances first-hand, and its seamless translation from concept to a game is dictated by the design of the system the player interacts with. So, what that all means is, games aren’t art because of their ability to present a message, but rather in the way they create the capacity to explore ideas through their design. This, unfortunately, is the exact reason I’d call so few games art.
A lot of modern games tend to focus less on creating an experience and provide something more like a satisfying walkthrough. Let’s take a look at, say, an entirely random choice, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. Believe it or not, the first CoD: MW wasn’t as corridor heavy as it’s subsequent clones, sporting vast areas for players to move about in and far less reliance on Rodriguez’s door kicking to progress forward. As the games iterated, instructions became stricter, the focus was given to cool sequences instead of interesting gameplay, you’d have to wait for AI to catch up to keep going, and the corridors grew ever narrower. Tasks went from, “Blow up the tank,” to, “Destroy the tank with the RPG-7 provided from atop the balcony at the south end of the camp by going through the sewage tunnel and wait for evac there for precisely 3 minutes”. It felt less like an experience and more resembled an endless series of lures.
If these are the only things guiding your play, that’s a sad state of affairs
This approach to creating a pre-planned ‘experience’ isn’t just confined to the FPS genre. Watch_Dogs and Beyond: Two Souls (games you would imagine having freedom of choice) seemed less interested in letting events unfold so much as making particular events come to pass, regardless of player intervention. If my choices are irrelevant, or if I have no choice at all, then what’s the point of interacting with the game? It feels like you’re being strung along instead of actively engaging, which is the whole point of a video game. The experience mimics that of the five-year-old kid sitting on the couch who wants a turn in making the choices for once, older brother, but he isn’t giving you that controller. At the end of the day, this is a system that is to be engaged with, and only telling the player to do X in the system is a dull and inartistic approach to game design.
Video games work via experience, not instruction. It’s a medium that requires a wholly different methodology to film or theatre, but we still see games primarily designed for presentation instead of interaction. Let’s look at something with a bit more artistic merit: Until Dawn, a game so preoccupied with the butterfly effect, it has Lorenz’ ‘Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow’ (1962) paper in the instruction manual. The game offers binary choices at every opportunity so that the plot can change drastically, but it’s essentially a B-movie with different endings. On top of this, the choices are set-ups designed to offer control over the story in a pre-planned and constrained fashion, which undermines a lot of the interactivity of the game. It’s cool, sure, but it’s far from an artistic masterpiece if it doesn’t utilise the strength of the medium it’s presenting in.
Look at all that CHOICE! AW! So tasty!
It’s easy (in theory) to offer an enormous number of choices to the player, but artistry in design isn’t just about player agency; it’s about the system itself. Developing a game that is technically fluent, with elements that come together harmoniously, that’s where the artistry of games lie. Appreciating a solid game is like admiring a house from Grand Designs. It’s well thought out on so many levels to ensure that each component feeds into other components without interference. It’s not just about the input and output, it’s also about how the system adapts and evolves through interaction, and THIS is at the core of why games are art.
The unique thing about games is that they are experienced, not presented, and part of that experience is watching the world around you change as a result of your actions. For instance, when you complete a line in Tetris, the system evolves and shifts everything down. In SimCity, you can build a hospital to make sure everyone stays healthy but placing that hospital there will cause traffic increases, change land values and force the system to evolve as a result of your action. Hell, even Counter-Strike does this to an extent, since the money you have at any given stage is dependent on which team wins, who killed who and what you bought in previous rounds. With all this said, a game doesn’t need to be complex to be an artistic triumph.
Myst is a prime example of a simple game (yes, it was, shut up) that was so artistically visionary and well-made that it’s practically unrivaled to this day
Sometimes the simplest systems are the ones that create the most harmonious and memorable experiences. Journey is (in my plebeian opinion) one of the finest artistic masterpieces in gaming of the last decade, but it only allows the player to move, jump or ping. Of course, the elegance of the game comes from how you communicate with other players without any real tools, and it feeds into the themes of loneliness and desperation present the game. Likewise, Shadow of the Colossus is essentially 16 boss battles, and you never gain any new abilities or weapons throughout the whole game. Still, each encounter is unique, utilising the environment in interesting ways, and the main mechanic (latching onto graspable surfaces) is a pretty clear motif for the main character gripping to hope and seizing the moment. It’s simple, but it works, and that’s the most important thing.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what games I cite or how hard I tell you that my definition of artistic design is right, it’s about the experience that a game gives you. It’s a bit rich for me to sit here and tell you how to interpret art, and hey, if you think something’s art, good for you, it’s art. I’m cool with that. Will, our Editor-In-Chief, strongly feels that games are inherently art because they’re constructed from artistic components, and I can get behind that (more or less). I think we can all agree, though, that we cannot analyse the medium of video games as we would novels or films. These are interactive pieces, and neglecting how that interactivity influences the constructed space on offer would be like walking out of the cinema before the movie starts.
I’m not saying you should never do that, though
There is no question in my mind that video games can be art, but when we’re surrounded by games that treat interactivity as a secondary priority, we don’t see the potential of what the medium can offer. We have the capability to make games that create worlds that morph with our actions (like Dark Souls or Fallout), but we’re more often treated to games that drive us down corridors to cultivate THE experience. It requires a paradigm shift to plan and appreciate a game as a game because the idea that anyone’s experience will be the same is immediately shattered when they do something radical. These are immersive works, and we should treat them as such. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make myself another steak sandwich worthy of Screen Australia funding.