The True Art of Video Games

Last of Us

Clip from "The Last of Us";
image courtesy of Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment

The True Art of Video Games

By Isaac Fink | published July 12, 2014 |
Thursday Review contributor

Video games are not typically referred to as art. They are often criticized for their lack of imagination, their absence of powerful narrative, and for failing to teach a meaningful lesson. They are sometimes written off as “murder simulators” or as simply toys for children—technology that will “rot your brain.”

But they are also an art form, one that in many ways surpasses others. In this piece, I will go in depth on the artistic value of video games.

The first point to address is the lack of imagination. Games are frequently criticized for not being original or for rarely thinking outside of the box. In fact, these forms of entertainment probably do this better than any other medium. Just look at Super Mario Brothers, a series that's been around since 1985. It features an Italian plumber who travels to a magical land where he fights turtles, mushrooms, and dinosaurs to save a princess from a turtle-dragon king. Or consider Crash Bandicoot, an anthropomorphic fox who collects apples and battles a masked scientist with the help of a floating mask. These are just some classic examples of bizarre, unique stories you would not find in any film or novel.

But these are only examples of one kind of creativity. Many games are based around core concepts, and players must think in fluid and imaginative ways to move through each step of the experience. Minecraft, for instance, requires that players gather materials from a procedurally-generated environment and build their own structures. Some players use Minecraft to build scale models of real world landmarks, such as The Statue of Liberty or the Eifel Tower.

Another example of this kind of out-of-the-box experience would be the fantasy role-playing game, Skyrim. In Skyrim players can customize every aspect of their character. The gender, skin color, body type, and facial structure are entirely up to the player. The player is then free to interact in a 16 square-mile world. Now keep in mind, the game’s developers had to design every inch of this 16 square-mile environment—from the grassy plains to the imposing mountains, from the labyrinthine caves to the individual rocks and leaves. Players can interact with other characters and form relationships with them. Players can also form their own non-linear narrative based upon their own actions. Human beings had to create this entire virtual world. The sprawling cities and the dense environment waiting to be explored—not to mention their inhabitants—were all created from the ground up, and yet some people feel that these games are not art.

The lack of a powerful narrative is the next thing that many people jump to in their effort to dismiss video games. But games are no different than films and novels in this regard. Obviously, the aforementioned Mario Brothers is not a game with an emotional and gripping story, but neither are the American Pie movies or Fifty Shades of Grey. Games are a young artistic medium. The earliest known paintings are 40,800 years old, music has been around possibly even longer in the form of whistles and humming. Film has been around since the 1890's.

TV-based games, on the other hand, have only been around since 1947, in their simplest form, and included rudimentary games like Tennis for Two and OXO, a tic-tac-toe type game which used a TV screen. The first video game console was not invented until 1966, and the first commercially successful arcade game did not exist until 1971 when Pong was released by Atari. By the late 1970s, a flood of new video games were developed—mostly designed to engage participants in hand-and-eye coordination and rapid-thinking. These mostly two-dimensional games included Asteroids, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Galaga and scores of others. Then, with the arrival of the personal computer (and along with it thousands of imaginative software and code developers with a passion for games), video games began to foster narratives that rival and surpass the stories found in most films and novels.

The Last of Us is a recent and famous example. It's the story of a man, Joel, who lives through a horrific viral outbreak, in which he loses his daughter, not to the outbreak, but to another human being. Years go by and the player is shown the new post-apocalyptic world where Joel is now jaded to life. People live in encampments with strict government rule, food and supplies are low everywhere. Traveling outside is dangerous because of the infected remnants of the human race, as well as fact that people who now populate the Earth will kill anyone they see just to take their food and supplies. The world is a mess, monsters roam abandoned schools and hotels, some people have resorted to cannibalism. And despite all of this, Joel is willing to travel through this world because he meets a young girl who may have the cure. Friends are made and loved ones are lost. Joel does things that many might consider wrong, but he does all these things out of love. He does not want to feel like he's lost another daughter. I have not in recent memory read any book or watched any film that came anywhere close to The Last of Us on a narrative level. And The Last of Us is only one of many titles of this caliber. Bioshock Infinite, Metal Gear Solid, and Heavy Rain are just a few more examples of the thought provoking writing that games can bring to the table.

Other criticisms often levelled at video games include that these forms of entertainment do not teach meaningful lessons, and that they sometimes serve as little more than murder simulators, all while being mere toys for children. The last point can be very easily dismissed since it is obvious—to use the example of the previously noted games The Last of Us and Heavy Rain—not all these game are for children. And not just because of their dark and violent subject matter, but because of their complexity. Children would not understand a parent driving into oncoming traffic to save his son, or a man shooting a woman at point blank as she begs for life in order to ensure the safety of his adopted daughter.

Games can appeal to all different demographics just as any other art form can. There are video games designed for children, like Mario and Little Big Planet, there are games that target teenagers (Halo and Call of Duty), and there are games that appeal to adults, as in The Last of Us and Metal Gear Solid.

Metal Gear Solid is a great example because it has everything that constitutes being a work of art. In additional to its creativity in multiple aspects, it has a very powerful narrative. It also contemplates mature themes and engages in a discussion with the player about them, and it teaches valuable lessons in every entry in the series. It even addresses the status of games as “murder simulators.” The best example of this can be found in Metal Gear Solid 2. In it, the player is on a mission to rescue the president from a rogue group of former U.S. Special Forces. The player must avoid combat at all times, hiding in lockers or even cardboard boxes. The player has lethal weapons, but also a tranquilizer gun. As a result, the player does not technically have to kill everyone, and participants are rewarded for not using lethal weapons. Early in the game we learn that the main character, Jack, has no combat experience whatsoever. He instead received “Extensive Virtual Reality training” in other words, he was trained into a soldier by video games.

The entire game itself is a meta commentary on video games. The game breaks the fourth wall regularly, especially during the final chapter. The player and Jack are both made to feel guilty about killing, and the game poises a question to both of them: what if everyone you know is a computer? In the same conversation where we hear about Jack's VR training, he says, “There’s a pain sensation in VR, and even a sense of reality and urgency. The only difference is that it isn't actually happening.” To which another character responds that's what they want you to think, to remove you from the fear that comes with battle situations. War as a video game. What better way to raise the ultimate soldier.

This is one of the many ways the game interacts with the player in a way that only games can. Because the one thing that sets games apart from all other mediums is that you are the one in control. You are responsible for the actions you take. And in a world where most players are disconnected from the murder and mayhem, as in Grand Theft Auto, this game holds you accountable. It makes you consider what you're doing. War as a video game? The desensitization to the virtual violence you are complacent in? That's happening right then, in that moment in the game. And there's a lesson to be learned here. All the Metal Gear Solid games have a theme. The theme of the first one was “genes”—your genetics and what they dictate about you. In MGS2 the theme was “memes,” what has your culture influenced about your life? What do you believe in? What will you pass on to your children? The game was released 13 years ago and is still considered a masterpiece.

As I've said before, video games are a young art form. As is the case in any medium, some are shallow, and some are for fun and laughs. But as people and technology continue to advance, as the virtual worlds get bigger and denser, as the narratives continue to evolve into something more meaningful and complex, and as the player begins to play a larger and larger role, you will see that video games are more than just another art form. They may be the most amazing art form we have created yet.

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