Gamervision/Sony Computer Entertainment

Gamervision/Sony Computer Entertainment

One thing holds back games from achieving “art” status. What could that possibly be?

This industry is struggling to find its artistic value to the world. If its even art at all — a transformative subversion of what entails the highly subjective term — or a nuanced form of technology that could not resist branching out and invading other forms of media. People are, maybe too passionately, on both sides of the discourse. Roger Ebert famously denounced games as not qualifying under the banner, while a good chunk of fans and game designers take umbrage with the recently passed movie critic’s dismissive words.

Ebert did, of course, cultivate a new breed of film reviewing that earned him a saintly status in the film world. He had a style of emotional sustenance carrying his work, adverse to the dissective formula used in game reviewing currently. In other words, he translated the feeling of view rather than deconstructing a film piece-by-piece. Rarely did he ever mention a film’s soundtrack, unless it added to the viewing experience. A film to him was a complete package.

But that is the silver lining of criticism. Like art, it’s interpretative. Some disliked Ebert because he, on TV at least, dumbed down film criticism to a thumbs up, thumbs down rule. Writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, he used the traditional five-star scale. Can a film’s quality, though, be subjugated to two thumbs up? Can a video game simply be rated on a ten-point scale?

After declaring “video games could never be art,” Ebert became a cretinous villain. The Bowser to our Mario. His lengthy career gave him validation, at least to some in the gaming media, who forthrightly defended games as a budding art form. The array of opinion, for a week, forced the industry to reevaluate the question at hand. Then most just stuck to their guns, called Ebert an out-of-touch dinosaur, and continued dreaming that one day the art gods will recognize games.

Did Ebert have a point, though? Not the interpretative stuff as stated millions of times before. Art is enjoyed as a collective. Pollock or Picasso fans can appreciate their favourite artist’s work, explain what makes it a masterpiece artistically, even to the dullest of us that only see random splotches on a canvas. And they, too, have arguments over which pieces are better, the magnum opus of that artist, etc. Video games don’t share that sense of community. Critical arguments don’t surmise if a cell-shaded style would work better over a grittier graphical style. It just doesn’t happen.

What critics, and by extension the rest of us, see is the visual quality of a game. If a title has the console or PC running in overdrive. Should a review refuse to mention that, angry hoards flood the comment section to demand the critic’s head. No proper, intelligent discourse. Even worse is when one version looks better, and out springs the moronic “console war” banter. That sort of idiocy nullifies any debate over a game’s artistic style. “Oh yeah, well, your mother likes the PS4!” is hardly constructive.

Our closest depiction of artistry in games that grab the public’s attention (sadly, indie projects don’t make the cut) is how realistic a game can look. How lifelike that NPC is, the humanlike interaction between characters in a cut scene. Notably, the Crysis series is constantly praised as portraying digital reality. But is that a definition of art? If so, then live action films will always surpass any game.

Is “art” more than simply a visual thing then? Does the gaming industry’s art argument include emotional impact? Or the moments we’re most proud of as game enthusiasts? I would argue that function is as applicable to the definition of interactive art as a gripping storyline or jaw-dropping visuals. That’s a trait of interactive media — people can stare all they want at paintings or films, but staring into a game world is half of the perception of what a game is. The other half is realizing the fluidity of gameplay, and that as much adds to artfulness.

That said, if function has a greater role, then an epic 20-40 hour campaign, the standard set for most console releases, makes a game somewhat inaccessible. A film, song, or TV episode has a limited running time, and in the case for TV, episodes have designed breaks between them. Whereas a game is one continuous stream of frames, saying it’s “30 hours long” will throw people off. They’ll think it takes more dedication than needed, and since most of us live busy lives, longer than a day to remain engaged is too long.

Knowing that, the games trying to honour the “games as art” debate either don’t get promoted by the fans demanding respectability, or by gaming media who instead review and dismiss a creative title. A great example of the latter is Spec Ops: The Line, which game writers took notice of only after Brendan Keogh wrote a 50,000 word analysis called Killing is Harmless. Around the e-book’s release, the same group pushing the “games as art” talking point were absorbed by Black Ops II and Assassin’s Creed 3.

Recognizing artfulness in games, though, has been a trending subject as of late. Critics galore praised thatgamecompany’s Journey, which also received a Grammy nomination for its soundtrack. Just a month before, experimental title Dear Esther won hearts, awarded for the way it mixed an overarching story and delightful “game play”. (Quotations around because some debate if Dear Esther is actually a game.) Dominating the conversation, however, is a little game from 2005: Shadow of the Colossus.

From Team Ico, fans consistently lionize SotC as propagating the “games as art” mantra. Its basic premise and emotional draw are referred to as benchmarks of the seventh console generation, and paramount to gaming’s growing history. Subtlety met simplicity in such a way that puts most modern games with manly men, insane carnage and explosions to shame. Conquering the colossi took an astute mind and some rigourous plotting, befitting of a game so divinely simple that it felt complicated, which is hard to accomplish. Most games don’t come close in comparison.

But a great game isn’t always artful. Shadow of the Colossus had beautiful landscapes and an elegance for execution, presented through a minimalist prism games today wouldn’t dare encroach on. Its graphical distinctiveness, too, in the PS2 era is cited as furthering the argument. Then do those qualities represent artfulness in a game? It’s hard to say — no guidelines firmly state a definition, and players could be overtaken by SotC‘s emotional undercarriage.

Roger Ebert might have been right; he just posed the wrong question. Games could be art in the interpretative sense, eliciting emotion that other art forms can’t. Those art forms, though, possess one thing games don’t: the community to validate games as art. A short list of names (with some credentials) illustrate games as art: Kellee Santiago, a thatgamecompany co-founder, quoted in Ebert’s original piece; and Ian Bogost, Georgia Tech professor of video game design and writer for The Atlantic and other publications.

Besides them, scholarly appetite for games remains low. That could be due to the short history (only forty or so years; less-than-half of film, and laughable when compared to books or music), the lack of news coverage, or the incorrect childish reputation most of the public still holds.

Before the games industry comes to terms with its recognition as an art form, it should focus on building a community around the best games have to offer. And that goes for everyone: fans too have the responsibility to admonish digital greatness to those quick to dismiss the idea.

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