Also check out... Beames on Film

Twitter / BeamesOnFilm

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The ol' games as art debate...

It's a subject that often appears in the games press: are video games art? Certainly there are artists involved in the making of video games, literally in the case of graphic artists or story boarders to give just two examples. But can a game “say” anything about the human spirit? Can it make you question something or make you cry? Games have been overtly attempting to ape another art form (the movies) since their inception. But cinema has had its own troubled history in terms of gaining serious critical recognition and the story of cinema, of course, mirrors the story of games. Both mediums started out as science and became a novelty entertainment, eventually both adopted ideas of narrative and have both undergone similarly epochal technological changes: sound and colour in film and the move to polygons in games. Both began life outside the home, in theatres and arcades, before being consumed in the average living room and both face similar challenges when it comes to digital distribution in the future. In terms of content games like last year’s splendid Uncharted 2 have already equalled Hollywood’s best in delivering set pieces and action movie style plotlines, even if they haven’t yet resonated on any deeper level. Now, as graphics become more sophisticated so the potential to tell recognisably human stories increases: one of this year’s biggest releases, another Playstation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain (pictured), is promising to be one of the most cinematic yet and is aiming to come closer than any game has yet to telling a story that will resonate with gamers on an emotional level. Whether the game achieves that aim is something I will surely come back to once it is released in late February. But are games that successfully mimic films a laudable achievement? Can’t video games find some way to stand alone as a form of artistic expression?

You could argue that a game like Tetris or Space Invaders is already art. They certainly feature iconic design, often referenced in popular culture or even in fashion (I have seen a fair few retro Atari clothes in Brighton clothes shop windows), but they are also perfectly designed, superior examples of their medium. Likewise, Mario 64 or Jet Set Radio may not be telling a heart-rending tale, but both are arguably succeeding in every way in which they set out to succeed: both master the art of game design.

In a really odd twist it has been game which isn’t “filmic” that has resonated with me the strongest in terms of emotional reaction in the last year. The Playstation Network download title, Flower, is not only painfully beautiful to look at and perfectly simple in terms of its gameplay (you control a gust of wind and collect petals off flowers. Once each area is cleared of petals you move onto another and repeat until the level is completed) but it made me joyously happy and, at one key moment, it creates a very real sense of melancholy and tangible dread. What is impressive is that it did this without trying too hard or pushing any obvious buttons. In an age where more and more games will be shouting “look at me I’m a serious game for grownups: I’m about a cop with a crack addiction who has lost his kid” or whatever, Flower (refreshingly) isn’t edgy. It exists as a marvellous piece game design where a combination of music and lighting create a really compelling and thought provoking atmosphere. For me Flower is a real work of art.


  1. I like how you've expanded this idea into a well written piece. I cry for more! If you want an already well established game in term of emotional, adult story-telling, try Silent Hill 2. Yes, I know it's about killing monsters in scary locations but it's story is much, much more than that.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, man. Yeah, you, Jen and Zero Punctuation all seem to rate those games really highly. I need to play them somehow.

  3. OK I'm the first to admit that it's been a long time since I read a games magazine, having dropped out of playing games an even longer time ago. But I think this is without doubt the best article about the concept of games as serious or art that I've read.

    Back when I was reading games magazines, when Mario dazzled with a 64 bit processor and the Dreamcast was king, games were still largely for fun and considered as kids stuff. But the people who'd been turned on by the earliest video games were growing up and yet still wanted a gaming fix. The play station found a 30 something audience with ready cash and exploited it fully. Suddenly games magazine were over concerned with whether or not a game was adult, even though most of their audience were still kids. And as is often the case “Adult” simply meant more violent or risqué. Simply having fun or guiding a clumsy plumber over a series of obstacles was not enough no matter how tricky the gameplay or sophisticated the puzzles – because they betrayed all too obviously the kiddie origins of the medium. The greater the number of polygons the processors could shift the greater the need for realistic graphics and louder the claim that things were becoming adult.

    Against that backdrop games articles used to wax lyrical about how realistic the noise of bones shattering or the colours of blood splattering were. Teenage journalists intoning about the adult content of the games they were playing were simply hoping to leave kids behind. Just like the top shelf magazines and their adult content here adult just meant not necessarily for children and that was enough.

    Now the question has matured along with its audience and it’s no longer “are games more adult” but rather “do they represent an art form.” For me the answer is: yes they always did. It’s also: no they most often don’t and particularly not when mimicking another art form. Simply becoming an interactive movie, for me, is not taking gaming to a new level of artistry. If movies were simply recordings of stage plays they wouldn’t be a distinctive art form either.

    Storylines in games have become more sophisticated but has the gameplay suffered? In many games the story and enhanced graphics are supported by running the gameplay on rails or glimpsed as interactive set pieces in between the cinematics. The actual gameplay is sidelined and that’s not the art of game development; to showcase graphics at the expense of gaming.

    When games succeed at delivering a unique interactive visual and audio experience where gameplay is central and involving then it is at the pinnacle of its own art form.