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October 13, 2015

Games as art

Naomi Alderman makes a compelling case in The Guardian for looking at video games to find the first examples of digital literature.

Authors of articles don’t get to write their own headlines, and the Guardian’s headline goes too far: Naomi doesn’t claim that games yet have turned out “great works of digital literature.” Her own claim is more modest:

…are there video games experimenting with more interesting storytelling than any “digital literature” project I’ve seen? Yes, certainly. And if you want to think of yourself as well read, or well cultured, you need to engage with them.

I agree. There are many video games I enjoyed but am embarrassed about; these are what we mean by “guilty pleasures.” But the best of them deserve to be taken seriously. “Games are where digital art will emerge. And has emerged.”Games are where digital art will emerge. And has emerged.

I don’t know that we have examples of digital “high art” yet. Perhaps we do and I don’t know about them or don’t appreciate them. Perhaps it’s a silly concept. Or perhaps we won’t think we’re playing a game when we experience it. But it’s likely at least to come out of the rhetorical forms games have already created:

  • It will be a space in which the user dwells, not simply an object or experience unfolding in front of the user.

  • It will be interactive.

  • It will require the user to make choices that affect it in significant ways.

  • It won’t be the same for everyone.

It is a sign of the originality and importance of games that it’s not always clear what to compare them with.

For example, most digital games lend themselves to comparisons with movies. After all, they are composed of sound, flat visuals, and movement. That’s the apt comparison for Portal 2. (Naomi cites Portal, but I think the sequel is a better example.) Portal 2 is loads of fun to play. But it is more than that. The story that unfolds is as clever and well worked out as any movie’s. The characters are broad, yet reveal subtleties. We care about them. Most famously, we care about a particular inanimate cube. The “set design” is stunning. The voice acting is world class, and in fact includes JK Simmons who went on to went a Best Actor Oscar. “…the details are fully imagined, right down to gun turrets that coo.”Perhaps most remarkable is the extent to which the details are fully imagined, right down to gun turrets that coo plaintively. (You can see them rehearsing in this Easter egg.)

Naomi doesn’t mention Bioshock, but I’d count it as a hybrid movie and novella. The premise is original and political. The setting is beautifully done. The science fiction is well-imagined. And the plot contains some meta moments that reflect on its form as a video game. (Those who have played the game will recognize how non-spoilery I’m being :) The third and last in the series, Bioshock Infinite, has a premise, characters, plot, and setting that could make a successful movie, but the movie is unlikely to be as good as the game. For one thing, we get to play the game.

Other games work as reflections on the medium itself, a sign of the forming of an artistic sensibility. Naomi mentions The Stanley Parable and Gone Home. I’d add Spec Ops: The Line and even the Saints Row series. These are all successful, well-known games. All, except the last, can be taken seriously as statements inspired by artistic intentions. (Saints Row is self-aware, bad-taste burlesque.) The ferment in the indie game field is quite spectacular.

If movies can be an art form, then why not digital games? And all this is before virtual reality headsets are common. I have no doubt that digital games as immersive worlds in which users have agency will blow past movies as the locus of popular art. And from this will emerge what we will call serious art as well. We’re already well on our way.

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