I’m debating with myself about this baffling curiosity called the video game. Is it a computerized novelty, a hyperactive board-game? Is it art? Some think games should never join that ever sacred hierarchy of the humanities. To them…
…this is not art.
Which would make these three white canvases um… well.
Art is a commentary of life itself, an exaggeration of the human condition that appeals to the five senses. Do games achieve this, or are they a collection of boxy pixels with beeps and screeches to accompany them?
The above game is the cinematic opening to a remake of Final Fantasy IV played on the Nintendo DS.
A picture of the battle sequence from the new DS version.
And the old.
So games have come a long way it seems.
But can they move us in the same way that the Beatles song All the Lonely People?
The song plays well with a mixture of stings and voices. My heart moves with it. The complex tonalities of sound touch me deeply, yet while sitting here, basking in the glory of sound, I cannot see or touch any of it back.
Video games allow for this.
Unless I am an artist playing an instrument within the string symphony, I cannot effect how the music is produced. There is no choosing or composing to be done. As a member of the audience, I simply observe and hear what is already composed and finished.
A jazz trio follows a melody when playing together. During certain times a soloist steps up and composes his own tune on the fly.
In the video game Rock Band, my friends and I can join a “band” of sorts, effecting and touching the direction of the music with every plastic button I grind or beat.
But this is only an imitation of music and has no bearing on the real thing… until recently that is.
Video games work the same way as playing an instrument, though on much simpler terms. You are given a world to waltz around in, an instrument (the controller) to affect it, and an avatar (the character) to symbolizes that effect. The story, or series of events, unfolds before you and you touch it back with a jump or the shot of a gun. You are the player, conductor, and composer, creating your own garish melody within the programed movement of pixels.
So gamers, like jazz musicians, compose their own way. But jazz is considered art of which games are not. And in the jazz club well, it is only the trio that makes the music. The audience can only listen on with eager ears. Games are different in that they are simulations to be explored and experienced.
Can this compare to the cinema?
Movies are a collection of music, cinematography, actors, and set pieces which all come together in an artistic way to tell a story. The audience sits there, physically passive behind the fourth wall, and watches the movie unfold.
In the video game Half-life 2, non-player characters speak their lines to you like actors in a play. The music and set pieces work around your every move, pointing and urging you on to the next chapter. You are the cameraman, the protagonist, and the main actor in a save-the-world type of story, which is viewed only from your perspective.
The movie Kill Bill entertains the audience with violence and brutality, artistically expressed before them.
In the game Grand Theft Auto IV the viewer actively creates his/her own form of mayhem inside an artificial world. How that virtual world responds to your touch is a large part of the experience.
If I were to argue that video games are art, why then are its concepts so vastly different from every art medium that came before? Does the audience’s ability to choose make it something less or something more?
Could they have been a feeble beginning to a new emergent type of art that has a very different set of rules for artist and audience to entertain? Comparing such a thing to other art forms is almost laughable. It’s apples and oranges.
In January 2010 a similar, yet vastly more evolved choice-driven format emerged in the game Mass Effect 2.
The game was a critical and commercial success with many famous actors hired to voice the cinematic story it told.
So now we have television and movie actors, voice-acting in games. But these actors are only using their voices. There bodies are absent. Pixels coming together to form a “person” with a human voice attached, can hardly be something of cinema quality right?
And what of the concept art used to help bring the game to life?
Just like in movies, there are many concept and storyboard artists used to make a game. Is their talent being wasted away? Must artists only work for the cinema before they can be considered with the title of their trade?
Perhaps it’s during the game’s conception that it has the potential to be art, but then those wacky, non-artistic, game designers come in and commit the great taboo! They break out of the sacred fourth wall with gusto saying to the audience, “Here are the world, plot, and story. What are you going to do about it?”
Most triple A games take about two years to complete, much like triple A movies. Similar techniques are used in forming both works of art, hundreds of people on both ends share the load in creating a product out of an idea.
The only way that these games are vastly different than movies is with the little addition of touch.
Games are more palpable to the audience because the audience is an actually character within the game. It is an artistic collaboration between the game designer who creates the simulation, and the game player who triggers it to life with his thumbs. Through an avatar you touch what is made in response to how it touches you.
Paintings are the art of visual appeal. Music is the art of sounds layered across a period of time. Books are the art of pure story and how it plays inside your head. The cinema shares aspects of all three.
High-budget video games share everything that movies do and more. It is a half-baked, half-hazard medium, with you at the other end of the easel asked by the developer to finish what he started. Video games are the art of choice and of touch.
Would this then make the game player an artist?
Perhaps the day will come when games bring to life what we imagine, a sort of Star Trek holodeck or lucid dream experience. Until that day, games like LittleBig Planet 2 will have to do.
The movie critic Roger Ebert challenged us to, “cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”
Perhaps the question should be reversed: how are the great poets, filmmakers, and novelists like video game designers?
The answer is very simple: they aren’t.
Games are not like anything we have seen before. They share many aspects with other art mediums, yet it is experienced differently. This does not make it artless. It makes them as artistic as the audience who plays them.
Some rather intriguing “half-baked” works of art: