Culture Bytes: Are Video Games Art?

As a veritable child in terms of the age of mediums; dwarfed by television and film, let alone literature, theatre, music, sculpture and painting; it is perhaps understandable that video games are overlooked by mainstream culture and not generally considered art. But is this evaluation fair? The internet defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination… producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. If we use this as a formula, it should be easy to consider, or perhaps reconsider, the video game as art.

Producing a work of beauty is not an easy feat, but it has been done constantly throughout the ages of human creation with sculptures such as Michael Angelo’s David, paintings like the Mona Lisa, songs like Lou Reed’s Perfect Day and even films like Persepolis and House of Flying Daggers. But have these been equalled in video games? People often speak of the advancement of graphics in video games as all the medium has to offer in terms of visual beauty, but there is far more to it than just that. Ico (2001) had relatively poor graphics by today’s standards, but it is still a visually arresting game. The cel-shaded visuals give the game a stylised feel, falling somewhere between classic art and a cartoon or comic book. The sense of atmosphere given to the game by its aesthetic beauty is astounding. The cold white light and long shadows give the player the sense of isolation and loneliness (not to mention despair) the characters of Ico and Yorda would surely feel being trapped in the castle. Not only the depressing light, but the impenetrable dark it so often cuts; the player can almost see dust mites undulating in the air. The cel-shaded technique also adds depth and solidity to the walls of the castle that encase the protagonists, leading us to realise just how formidable the castle is and how impossible a task escaping it may prove to be. The visual beauty of Ico is undeniable and creates an overwhelming emotional response from the player and not just the fact that we cannot help but be stunned at its aesthetic quality. The fact we take control of Ico puts us inside the haunting walls with him, the game’s bleached colours and sense of isolation create a melancholic experience for the player, not unlike what Ico would surely feel; the only difference is that, should this prove too much for the player, they can escape by turning their console off, a relief that eludes Ico himself. Ico is most definitely a work of art.

Imagination has always proven key in art too, from Picasso’s Cubism to Escher’s distortion of reality and visual trickery. Music has seen great innovators from the classical composers to the starters of entirely new genres and people who revolutionised the use of their instruments, such as Jimi Hendrix. Imagination has proven key in video games from the early days. Take Pacman (1980). While the gameplay is relatively simple, the idea of the plot, though minimal, is quite bizarre. Imagine approaching a book publisher. “I’ve got a plot idea about this yellow thing running around a maze eating white pills while he’s being chased by ghosts. Every so often the yellow thing comes across some even bigger white pills which, if he eats, the ghosts become vulnerable to him and he can eat them. Essentially, it’s a metaphor for how the yellow thing (let’s call him Pacman) is haunted by his drug addiction and explores society’s demonization of the drug addict as a criminal.” It just wouldn’t get published (though I am certain that is what the game is about). But, with the rich imagination of the game developers, Pacman proves to be a masterpiece of the medium. Even later games such as Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) and Rayman (1995) have all the off-the-wall madness of Lewis Carroll.

But, without a doubt, one of the most imaginative games I’ve ever played is Okami (2006). Essentially Okami is an action-adventure game in which the player must complete tasks and battle enemies using skills they accrue as the story progresses. Its also much more than that. Okami is the story of the Shinto sun-goddess Amaterasu who comes to Nippon in the form of a white wolf. The game starts off as a rather simple story with the goal to rid a small town of the demon Orochi, however this causes the evil of Orochi to spread all through Nippon, creating an ever greater quest for Amaterasu to overcome. The game is innovative on a number of levels, the first of which I have already touched upon. Okami completely (and joyfully) flouts Todorov’s three-act structure (the theory that all fiction can be divided into three acts; equilibrium, disruption and restored equilibrium). In Okami, we start in the disruption, Orochi is already plaguing the town and our actions in the game merely lead to several further disruptions. I’d argue there are at least five acts in Okami, maybe more. Another way in which Okami displays great imagination is its blend of old and new. Mixing Japanese legend with the newest medium of all is innovative in itself, but combine this with the then-still-experimental cel-shaded design and amine style humour and we have something very different indeed. But its gameplay is where Okami is truly original. The idea of the Celestial Brush (the brush Amaterasu uses to bring trees back to life, change day to night/night to day and create all number of things to help her in her quest) was revolutionary. It made the gamer the artist, putting in their hand the art of creation, the enjoyment of nature. If we add to the idea of art that it can explore social and political issues, then Okami could be considered art simply through its clear environmentalism. If we add to this its rich imagination that went into making it (not to mention the beautiful cel-shaded design) then Okami is definitely a work of art.

Art should also provoke an emotional response from its audience. One criticism thrown the way of video games is that they don’t make you cry. I’m sorry? Who are these cold hearted individuals who aren’t crying at video games? I’ve cried over video games more than once, often at the same scene even when I’m not even playing that game. Take Final Fantasy VII (I know it’s been analysed before, but the reason we’re still talking about it twenty years later is because there’s so much to say), I cried when Aerith died and, honestly, cannot understand the people who didn’t (I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. When I have my yearly replay of the game I’m not seen for days after the Aerith death scene. Some serious humanity going on here). The thing is that Aerith is a really well-crafted character, she could so easily have just been the love-interest, but, through some great characterisation, she’s a full person with hopes and dreams! The story of the game forces you to get emotionally invested in Aerith which deepens with time. That we also see the emotional impact of her death on the rest of the group, especially Cloud, makes the whole thing pretty harrowing. That the characters feel the same way as the player puts us in the centre of the group. I’m not embarrassed to say there are other games I’ve cried at, in truth I’m struggling to think of games I haven’t cried at, but instead of listing them all (I didn’t come here to be judged) let’s turn this on its head.

Some would argue that first-person shooters don’t evoke an emotional reaction. I’m not sure that’s true. While not a fan of these games personally, I have no wish to completely devalue them, mainly because they’re indicative of one of the oldest uses for art; catharsis. In Ancient Greek Theatre, especially Tragedy, we saw characters meet often very bloody deaths through their own character flaws. Aristotle argued that the reason these were so popular was due to their ability to ‘purge’ emotions. Audiences could go and watch these plays and experience negative emotions (such as fear, anger and aggression) so they didn’t need to carry these with them in everyday life. It’s an interesting concept and one that is echoed by anger management therapists who might suggest punch-bags to release unwanted aggression. There is an argument that first-person shooters could be used in the same way, thusly, through catharsis, evoking an emotional response.

Arguably, even the concept of video games themselves could be considered artistic. It is the only medium that measures the audience’s skill. When you read a book, you’re not asked the major themes so far before moving onto the next chapter and halted in your progression if you answer incorrectly. When you watch a film you aren’t asked what the cinematography tells you about the emotions of the characters and forced back to the first scene if your understanding isn’t comprehensive enough. But in a video game, if you cannot defeat a boss or complete a certain puzzle, you are denied the rest of the story. It is completely innovative to expect the audience not just to have an understanding of character and plot, but to expect them to be able to convey that understanding with continued (and often growing) skill. Some would argue that particular literary books may have a similar effect, but a gap in one’s vocabulary can be overcome with the help of a dictionary. It is not tantamount to showing an ability to live the lives of the characters in the world therein. Perhaps this singularity could classify games as a post-modern art-form; a work of art to be completed by the audience.

In short, video games are art, or at least can be. They are beautiful on a number of levels, exploring a variety of themes and characters while provoking an emotional response from their audiences. But, of course, with something as subjective as art, the majority of that reaction (such as the reaction to consider it art) depends on the audience experiencing it.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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