Note: last term for a writing class of mine, I was tasked with writing a paper on whatever I wanted, in whichever style I wanted. So... I decided to write an entire, 12 page argument on whether games can art, and if so, what makes them “art?” And since I finally have time off again for the first time in months, and I want to get back into writing TAY articles again, well, here is said essay. Long? Yes. Did it get me an A in the class? Well... no (but a B+ is still pretty good with a load of missed work, right?) Anyway, if you want to kill some time...
Today you can take college courses on a variety of artistic subjects and mediums, and you can even major in a few of them. Film, which has been accepted as an artistic medium since Citizen Kane gained recognition as the benchmark of cinematic achievement. Comic books have proven themselves thanks to works such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Even television, once considered a low bar for entertainment, is witnessing what some are calling its “golden age” thanks to content being available more easily than it’s ever been, and creators who see episodic storytelling as a better fit for telling stories than movies, as seen in shows including The Wire, the rebooted Doctor Who series, to even Avatar: The Last Airbender. All of these mediums have been accepted as art forms, and the medium that now faces analysis and criticism of whether it deserves the same recognition is video gaming. While it is vastly different and undeniably younger than the previous forms listed, gaming nonetheless deserves to be seen as a valid form of artistic expression, and games that strive be more than just “products” deserve recognition, not in monetary success (as nice as that is), but by the influence they directly have on players, and perhaps even their own industry as a whole.
Why aren’t they considered art in the first place, though? Oddly enough, like most forms of recognized media, gaming didn’t start out as something that was seen as highbrow. It was originally a showcase for software and electronic achievements in the early 1970s, but it quickly gained a foothold in pop culture as a new form of entertainment that was unlike anything else that existed, right up until the video game market crash of 1983. This was caused by market saturation, currency inflation, and a swath of big budget titles that failed to live up to expectations, the most notable and infamous of which was Atari Inc.’s adaptation of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. When the market came back in North America, it was almost single handedly thanks to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985. When the NES launched it was placed in toy aisles instead of electronic departments like past consoles, and it was specifically in boy-gendered toy aisles. If you’ve ever wondered why Nintendo has the following it does, or why games have been embraced and accepted as “toys for kids” and “only for guys,” it’s (unintentionally) because of the NES.
When you designate the gateway to an entire medium to only a single specialized market, it’s unsurprising when other groups that don’t fall into said market aren’t going to look at it with much interest or thought. Gaming’s creative and viewing audience has thankfully grown and diversified over the decades, but its status as a recognized art form still faces opposition. One of the most notable arguments against gaming being an art form came from Roger Ebert, who in 2010 took the bold stance of saying that games could never be art. He did note that he wasn’t an expert on the subject, but given his position as one of the most influential film critics of all time, he did have a viewpoint that nonetheless gave his opinion credibility. He noted that gaming’s largest issue was the inherent costs that go into it, namely how not only are large swaths of money and resources required to make a game, but also that development costs mean games usually focus on profit margins first and foremost, instead of being a form of expression that says something to an audience. He also noted that games are “supposed to be won,” unlike most other media that are just supposed to be witnessed and experienced.
Later in the same year however, Ebert backed off on a few of his statements, out of consideration (he admitted he wasn’t the right person to cover the subject), and also humility from getting feedback after his article went viral. In his follow up piece, he admitted that as a person who didn’t have a good amount of experience or interest in games, he hadn’t earned the right to dismiss them outright (although he did stick with his view that the medium wasn’t an art form). However, after playing through and reading up on a few examples that are generally accepted as art-house games (including Cosmology of Kyoto, Myst, and Shadow of the Colossus), and giving more thought to what “art” is considered to be, he came to the conclusion that gaming can one day be a true art form, and while some games that are art do already exist, the medium as a whole requires growth and progression. While the industry still needs time, the so called product can right now “[produce works that are] appreciated primarily for their beauty and emotional power.”
Looking through various mediums, one last barrier I’d say contributes to gaming not being an accepted art form is its limited accessibility. When you see a movie, it (as of 2016) costs around $10. A ticket to an art gallery can be as cheap as $12. A song on iTunes costs around $1, a single issue of a comic book costs $4 give or take, and you can now get dozens of TV shows off a streaming service for a $10 a month subscription. A single store shelf game though, at launch, costs $60. This also has to factor in a gaming console or PC in order to run said game, and those often start at $300-500, and can even go the thousands if you want to build a computer that runs games at the highest possible graphical settings. Unlike most other mediums, gaming isn’t one the average viewer can stay up to date with, either out of cost, or out of time if they choose to wait until prices come down. The only other medium I can think of that has this problem are cars; I also say that automobiles can be artistic expressions, but to experience enough of them regularly to develop a critical and credible viewpoint, you need to be in a very special position: an automotive journalist, a mechanic or dealer who can drive them while at work, or a random sultan who has billions to spend. While gaming is not quite that expensive, it does face the same problem if you want to be a connoisseur of it.
Even if you can’t play a game however, just talking about its story, characters, themes, and other attributes that it shares with other art forms isn’t impossible. Today, gaming is diversifying to appeal to a wider audience, getting cheaper thanks to easier access and a market willing to lower prices at various occasions, and it’s starting to develop its own field of critics who hold wildly differing opinions on what “quality” is. As a part time game critic myself, and someone who has studied a slew of film and literary theories, I have developed my own view on the subject of gaming as an art form, and to demonstrate said viewpoint in tangible detail I’ve chosen to use specific examples to show how the medium is capable of artistic expression. Not all games are works of art, but art can be found in any game. Games that strive to be something unique should be recognized and praised appropriately for their efforts, and when artists and their art are rightfully recognized, gaming as a whole, from the product, to the audience, to the criticism, to the overall experience, all greatly benefit.
I’ll start with a title that falls into one of the most prolific genres in mainstream gaming today: the military shooter. Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, Gears of War: all of these are games that exhibit great game design (such as enemies that are a challenge to fight, and environments that are visually dazzling and implore exploration) along with fun storytelling, but they always have to contend with the fact that you are shooting and killing people and/or aliens for fun. Morality in the majority of these titles is usually a dichotomy: good or bad, black or white, few to no grays. The title I’ll be taking a look at though is a game that made a name for itself by addressing this specific issue, and diving headfirst into morally gray territory: Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line. Released in 2012, The Line was supposed to be a reboot of the then defunct Spec Ops series, with the previous game coming out back in 2002. When Take Two Interactive wanted to bring the series back, they got Yager Development to reinvent it, promising the studio an unusually large amount of creative freedom in producing the game. The only requirement that ended up being enforced was the inclusion of online multiplayer, which Yager fought against to the point that while it’s in the finished game, the online component is so tacked on that it actually feels unwelcome. This isn’t surprising, since the core and sole purpose of the game is its story.
Every design choice, from making it a third person shooter to better connect with the characters, to having actual cinematic shorts to better tell the story, to even hiring veteran, widely recognized voice actors such as Nolan North to voice the characters, is to make the game’s narrative and overall story land with the force of an atomic bomb. While no nuclear weapons are used in The Line, you do end up dropping white phosphorous mortar onto enemies (and, unbeknownst to you, actual civilians), and the game forces you to walk through the result of the war crime you’ve committed. It gets worse from there, with you and your squad fighting soldiers on both sides while committing actions that aren’t just morally gray, but are better described as shades of black. The game goes out of its way to make nothing you do feel good, and that’s the point. The loading screen at time flashes the text “do you feel like a hero?” and the game’s overall theme is to make the average player question their supposed enjoyment in their actions. It’s a game that blatantly questions the morality of its own genre by challenging the notions of its audience. For a market as saturated and mainstream as the shooter genre, it’s a question that needs to at least be asked, even if it can’t be definitively answered. Spec Ops: The Line may have been a commercial failure, but it now enjoys its status as a cult classic that challenges players with whether or not they should feel remorse in their supposed “entertainment.”
A subject that’s often discussed in film courses is Auteur Theory, which theorizes that a film is a specific creative vision of its director. This means that a film can be connected directly to a single director (or directive team), be it in recognizable cinematography, writing, characters, to even a director using the same actors, composers, and even inane details such as Easter eggs, from movie to movie. While auteurs aren’t as prevalent as they once were in the 1970s and 1980s, they are still here today, from Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, to even low brow directors such as Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich. I bring this up because while it’s difficult for a single person to be completely responsible for enough of a game’s development to have it be their own, I do say that game studios and creative teams often achieve something similar: a stylized product that has traits that can be directly linked to the group that created it. Case in point, Playdead ApS’s Limbo and Inside (2010 and 2016) and Thatgamecompany LLC’s Flower and Journey (2009 and 2012). These are all indie games that are much shorter (and much cheaper) than the usual “AAA titles” you often find on store shelves, but while they’re all smaller in many respects, all four of these titles manage to outshine their competition just on emotional scale and presentation.
Playdead’s titles are both 2.5-D style puzzle platformers (similar to classic Mario titles in terms of gameplay), while Thatgamecompany’s (TGC) are fully three dimensional, third-person adventure titles. While both companies utilize the same gameplay styles across their respective games, their true connection comes through their moods and overall aesthetics. Limbo and Inside are both titles where a young boy goes through a shadowy, dark, and often aggressively lethal world, dodging countless traps in order to escape the momentary horror they face. Flower and Journey however are both on the opposite end of the scale, being both literally and metaphorically brighter. The TGC games often take place in fully lit environments, from a field full of (you guessed it) flowers and grass, to a desert that gives way to a snowcapped mountain. Playdead’s games feature toned down, almost nonexistent musical scores, while TGC’s feature soundtracks so well produced, that Journey’s became the first game soundtrack to ever be nominated for a Grammy award. The Playdead titles heavily utilize death as a game mechanic and overarching theme, while TGC’s games celebrate life itself, from simply existing to living and persevering long enough to have a life worth living. Oddly enough, all four games do share one trait: they each accomplish all of this with no spoken dialogue, or any language at all throughout the games. Without a word, they tell stories on par with Hayao Miyazaki at his best.
These separate series of games are (for the most part) radically different from one another, but they all have traits that are so distinctive, that it’s easy to spot and point out which studio was responsible for making them. Auteur Theory today is usually used to denote directors instead of creative teams, but while gaming does have developers who are distinctive enough on their own (Hideo Kojima and Tim Schaffer are two well-known examples), they’re too few and far for the theory to reliably apply to a singular person. The concept of the “auteur studio” on the other hand is much more plausible, and not just with teams like TGC and Playdead. Criterion Games with its visions of open-world car based mayhem, Naughty Dog Inc with its signature (if imperfect) blend of action and melodrama worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, and Bioware Corp with its uncanny ability to create universes that not only have world-building on par with classical science fiction and fantasy sagas, but also populates them with characters so fleshed out and distinctive that they give you a reason to stay and spend countless hours playing. It might be a stretch at times, but game studios being a respective fit for auteur theory in this medium makes sense when you consider readily apparent examples.
Looking at the five examples I’ve listed, it’d be easy to think that only small or independent studios can create games that have artistic merit. After all, the larger a studio gets, it becomes tougher and tougher to keep a singular vision intact throughout a game’s development. I will admit that while it is rare for full on AAA titles to be something emotionally affecting and powerful, it isn’t outright impossible for them to do so. Case in point, 2012’s Halo 4. A franchise that’s become a household name over the course of a decade, Halo is a series that revolutionized the first-person-shooter genre, established Microsoft’s Xbox brand the moment it launched in 2001, and spawned a series of games that’ve each received critical and financial success. All those accomplishments aside, the Halo series is far from perfect: each game has its own pros and cons, so much so that each one of them is distinct form the other. This not only includes aspects that are expected to change and evolve such as gameplay and graphics, but even each game’s story, characters, and overall tones change from title to title. 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved with its quest of exploring an alien structure, 2009’s Halo 3: ODST’s semi-open world environment that was moody, solitary, and set to a unique jazz inspired soundtrack, to 2012’s Halo 4, the first game in the series that was notably character driven.
Halo 4 was the first game in the series that wasn’t developed by the franchise’s original creator, Bungie Inc. Instead, it was handed over to the then newly formed 343 Industries, a developer that was founded by Microsoft to continue making Halo games after Bungie left when its contract with Microsoft expired. It not only employed Bungie veterans, but also had staff from Bioware Corp, EA DICE, Id Software, Monolith Productions, Pandemic Studios, and Rockstar Games just to name a few. The intention was to build a dream-team of industry pros to continue the series, and while all of these are studios that’ve each made wildly successful games that can fit into the vision of Halo through its gameplay and sci-fi universe, tasking a brand new studio with creating a AAA game on their first try was a herculean feat to ask for. Despite an uneasy development and fans who were overly cautious of a new team handling their beloved franchise, Halo 4 released to critical and financial success, although it wasn’t quite as groundbreaking as previous games in terms of gameplay. However, its storytelling, character development, and presentation were almost revolutionary.
In the majority of Halo games you play primarily as the Master Chief, a cybernetic super-soldier who was trained from childhood to be the vanguard against an alien force that was wiping out humanity. In the first three Halo games, Chief is heavily assisted by an artificial intelligence named Cortana, who not only acts as your advanced tech support, but also moral support, bringing some needed levity to the dire war against the alien Covenant. In Halo 4 however, Cortana is dying, having lived beyond her natural service-life of seven years, as is deteriorating due to her computational processes digressing. While this and previous games have the same overall goal (save the world, stop the aliens, etc.), this game has a new, more personal objective: save your friend from dying. This is compounded by Chief’s own personal history: being the last known SPARTAN-II supersoldier who isn’t MIA, and having next to no real family, Cortana is the only person left he has a connection to. Halo 4 marks the first time in the series the usually silent, order-following protagonist fights for himself, and actively goes against orders to save someone close to him.
What follows is a single player campaign that plays like Halo games with their usual strengths and weaknesses in game design, but the story’s cinematic sequences are a definite cut above the previous games. Halo 4 not only incorporates motion capture technology to perfectly recreate facial expressions and body language (the latter being essential to Master Chief’s portrayal, given how he’s never seen without his helmet or armor in the games), but also has some of the best voice direction and acting in the series. All of this is perfected by what was then the franchise’s best sound design, both in sound effects, and the musical score that was masterfully produced by Neil Davidge of Massive Attack, and Kazuma Jinnouchi of Metal Gear Solid fame. Both of these men took over from Halo’s previous two composers, Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori. Davidge and Jinnouchi not only created a score specifically for Halo 4, but also brilliantly worked in original pieces from O’Donnell and Salvatori where it worked brilliantly, but best of all they also knew when to have the game just be silent, for emotional moments (such as Chief failing to save a group of scientists) to have more impact.
Halo 4 is seen by some as the black sheep of the franchise, but to others it’s seen as the game that succeeded in helping the series achieve a level of storytelling that was previously unattained. Halo made its reputation on being an action focused sci-fi military shooter, with a rich universe full of characters who you can root for. But for the protagonist to be something more than just a standard bad-ass who spouts the occasional one-liner, solely focused on saving the world: that was new. Halo 4 isn’t just the first game in the series with a successful tone shift, it’s the first one that has you win and lose, with Master Chief saving Earth (yet again) in the end, but also ultimately losing Cortana as well in a genuinely tear jerking scene. Halo 4 isn’t a game that directly questions the viewer on how they feel about what they’re playing; instead, it challenges them to feel like something besides an invincible hero. To have empathy, and then to feel true loss. Perhaps this is where Halo 4 progresses the series: not by revolutionizing the genre it created, but by showing it still has places to go.
When you consume media, be it a film, a show, music, or a game, do you do it as only something to pass the time? I get seeing movies and watching television as a form of escapism (especially considering recent events), but most of the time when I consume media I want it to matter. When I see a movie, I want to get something out of it, be it a new concept that can change the way I see the world I live in, or even a visual feast for the eyes that encourages me to think, even if just momentarily. When I watch television, be it a hard hitting drama series to an anime, I want to find characters that I want to know more about, and watch develop so that they end up as different people than they were before. When I play a game, as nice as it is to have something I can engage with and simply treat as a competitive sport to best other people in, the ones that always stick out to me and keep me coming back are ones that in some way strive to be something more than just a software program that tasks you with setting a high score.
When games don’t strive to be better than they can be, we end up with a swath of releases that are forgettable to the point where they can shutter anything from just studios, to even entire industries as seen in the aforementioned market crash from 1983. This still happens, and while it may not be on as grand a scale, it’s still noticeable. The Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed series have suffered in recent years thanks to yearly releases, with Call of Duty releasing thirteen separate games since 2003, and Assassin’s Creed releasing nine titles since 2007. With little room for development and improvement, the most recent entries in both series (Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate) have faced declining sales and stagnating critical reception. As an art form, gaming is still figuring itself out. Critics and fans debate on how much gameplay and storytelling really “matter” to the overall experience, with some games getting all of it nearly perfect (Mass Effect 1-3), while others focus on one of those aspects, at the cost of the other (Overwatch, the Telltale series). We still have to figure out what counts as “great” gaming works of art, but in regards as a medium, gaming has more than proven itself as a respectable art form, even just based on merits that multiple other mediums have faced ever since humanity first invented them. Here’s to seeing it find and earn its own true golden age.
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TGRIP is a film student studying in Portland, OR. TAY’s resident Xbox and racing game fan, he also (part time) reviews and does opinion pieces on games, movies, television, comics, and anime. He also runs his kinja sub blog Work(ing Title) In Progress. You can follow this third person narrating weirdo on Twitter @Dennis_wglasses, and his Gamertag on Xbox Live is “Aventador SV”.