Monday 7 June 2010

Are Video Games 'Art'?

This question gets bandied around a lot in the video game industry, and it's a question that many people have attempted to answer. Today, I will chime in my two cents in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, we can be that little bit closer to deciding on the verdict.

See, when video games were in their infancy as a media, one would've been hard-pushed to make the argument that video games were anything more than a hobby, and for the most part an annoying one at that. The graphics weren't amazing, the stories weren't great and the sound was something of an abomination. Now that may sound like hindsight, and frankly it is, but go back and listen to those old 8-bit soundtracks again and evaluate them in the modern-day perspective. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that the old ones just don't have that same magic they used to.


This game has been out around a month and a half, and has the protagonist, Mr Wake, trying to navigate a terrifying world ruled by a dark presence in order to save his wife. In the game, light becomes Wake's weapon, as the flashlight removes the dark presence from the townsfolk allowing him to shoot them with conventional weapons. The game is set out over six chapters, each ending on a cliffhanger and ending as if it were an episode of a television show, with developer Remedy (the people behind Max Payne, another game with a cinematic story - so much so they made a film of it, in fact) keen to emphasise that this is a design choice to allow for future expansion through downloadable content.

What's great about this game, and the reason it stands up so well to artistic scrutiny, is the format itself: Six TV-style episodes, with each episode recapped with "Previously on Alan Wake" preceding a short cinematic re-telling of the events leading up to that chapter. It's incredibly slick and plays out really well. Remedy have obviously taken into account a lot of influences when making this game, but not necessarily from the sources you might think: Rather than looking at game influences, like Resident Evil, they have instead added an element of the surreal through TV shows such as Twin Peaks or the works of Stephen King. There are plenty of homages to that sort of thing in the game, and they've obviously thought very hard about this decision during the few years that this game was in development.

Games like this, with the developers thinking so hard about such details, illustrate the potential for video games as an artistic medium. Games like Alan Wake and Bioshock, with deep and engaging storylines and rich complex characters are certainly capable of standing up on their own as great examples of the medium. Characters like Alan Wake aren't just engaging, they're deep, with their own strengths and weaknesses and character flaws. The level of character development is such that the characters are well-written by literary standards, with characters demonstrating the kind of depth that some of these 'Paranormal Romance' novels would do well to attempt to emulate.


"All bad art is the result of good intentions" - Oscar Wilde.

The logical extension to this argument is simple: If you consider games like Alan Wake to be art, then this conversely means that any and all video games are art, including the aforementioned retro games as well as every derivative action game that has ever been released, because let's face it: not every game is a great game. This means that some of the following games would be considered art:

Ecco The Dolphin - Or as I like to call it 'Ecco the Loner Dolphin tries to save his friends from the Poorly Rendered Tornado of Probable Doom!'

Shaq Fu - a fighting game for SEGA Mega Drive starring basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal as a playable character. Stuff like this was considered marketing genius by someone at some point.

Most damningly of all, this assertion would place the game Infernal: Hell's Vengeance in the category of 'art'.

Regular readers will be familiar with my opinion of the game, but for those who are new to the site I will sum up as best I can: Infernal: Hell's Vengeance was reviewed by myself for the site, and scored a 2/10 on a few key failings, most notably a distinct lack of direction and voice acting talent, as well as the absence of an autosave function. That's right, a game released in this console generation did not allow you the basic ability to save your game automatically as you went along.

This said, one has to consider that this is true of many art forms. Art such as paintings and what's known as 'Modern Art' can be considerably more divisive on its range of opinions than video games can even at their best, mainly because video games seem to be judged far more often on a technical level than art itself. You rarely hear someone exclaim in an art gallery that 'This painting's completely technically broken!'

Music and movies, too, can be a source of great debate. Ask most Guns N' Roses fans what they thought of Chinese Democracy, and they'd probably say that they didn't care for it, or that it didn't feel enough like G N' R to justify carrying the band's name. That's one of those things that's always puzzled me, as an aside. Maybe it's the widespread appeal of things like blogs and social networking sites (and yes, I'm more than aware of the irony), but it seems like quite a few people's opinions seem to be worth a lot more in their own heads since the blog scene really took off. What differentiates me from them, you ask? Well, without meaning to sound arrogant, I like to think that I'm pretty bright, and am pretty damn adept at standing on my own two feet where my opinion's concerned. Plus I can put sentences together: visit Lamebook for examples of why that's a good thing!


Video games are art. There, I said I'd be venturing forth a definitive opinion, and there it is. My reasoning is simple: Much like art, there are games that can inspire you with their brilliance. They have the power to move, the power to annoy and frustrate, and the power to fill people with joy by finishing a complicated boss or section and thus understanding the game better. Yes, there are crap video games, both on an uninspiring level and a technically broken level (Video games on levels! See what I did there? Do ya?). However, this is true of movies, books, music and art. If you don't believe me, there are plenty of examples of crap art in our review archives!

Thus, my message to video gamers goes as follows: Enjoy the games in their entirety. Take in the graphics, enjoy the music and sound, play the game through as much as you concievably can and experience every last bit of gameplay that the game has to offer. Because what they've done is a labour of love. They love you, and they want you to enjoy yourself.

Infernal: So let me see...this means that the company that developed me had love in mind?
Rob: *sighs* I guess it does...I've never had any beef with the people who developed you, it was more you that I had a problem with.
Infernal: Me? What did I do?
Rob: ...Suck.
Infernal: He...he...he...

No comments:

Post a Comment