Let’s cut the crap guys and gals, let’s get this straight. Video games are an art form, whether you like it or not. It seems I am the antithesis of Roger Ebert, but here’s the thing: He’s a film critic, video games aren’t his forté.
This article isn’t directed at Ebert, it isn’t directed at anyone. I’ve always thought that games are art. This isn’t just about getting games more recognition, more ‘respect’ from people as general as a sophisticated way of expressing one’s self, although that’s part of it. I just wanted to write a definitive (for me) post/essay on why I think this.
So let’s break it down, into the different components of a video game, and compare those components to each other and to film, painting, music and so on.
OK, let’s start with the basics. What is most obviously comparable to what everyone automatically thinks of as art. Pictures, drawings. Without them video games would be a blank canvas, there could be a whole coded engine behind it and beautiful sound, but it would just be blackness.*
Obviously, this is similar to a painting (it really is just many paintings). The game’s artist has to draw or model whatever graphical assets he needs. The fact that some of it is animation is unimportant, it’s just then similar to an animated film. Then there are interactive films (yes, like the CD-i…) which blurs lines even further. In a game such as Half Life, the player is basically playing the role of a character in a film, but instead of the director choosing exactly which path Freeman takes, you do. The end result is still largely controlled by the developer. If there was perhaps an interactive version of a ‘Bourne’ film, where the watcher(/player?) uses an analogue stick to control where Mr. Bourne jumps to, where he shoots. It would still be art? right? A version of ‘Spirited Away’ (my favourite film) where the watcher/player chooses whether the family enter the abandoned amusement park (A pivotal plot decision, as you’ll know if you’ve watched it.) with the rest of everything being unchanged. Would that still be art? It would be an insult to call it anything else.
If there were perhaps a moving, controllable version of the Mona Lisa. It would be art, of course. Consider that the game developer draws a beautiful forest for the player to explore, that picture of that forest, although interactive, is art. The fact the player is ‘in it’ doesn’t change that. Surely it enhances the effect of immersion, leaving less to the imagination**.
So really, there’s nothing here that seems to suggest this aspect changes anything at all. A game just seems to give the developer more freedom in this respect. A painter paints what he wants to paint, draws what he wishes to draw. Whether they also happen to be developing a game around it is immaterial.
It’s very important in a game, very important to film. The music in a game could feasibly be as wonderful as music composed by Mozart, by Hans Zimmer. The developer can use music to create an atmosphere, similar to what happens in film. Equally, some are just sound effects, but a film also has sound effects, sound effects also have to be ‘composed’ a lot of the time. They’re often as hard to produce (if not harder than) music and usually require advanced audio engineering. Here is some of my favourite music from games:
I think they’re art, I think the composers must have had some artistic talent. Feel free to disagree, maybe they’re terrible ‘video gamey’ pieces of music.
Film has had some pretty terrible soundtracks in its time, but they were all still art, every film is a work of art however terrible people may think it is. It’s the same with games. So in conclusion here, the audio of games is no different to anywhere else. It’s artistic. Beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure I will repeat that phrase, it’s important.
OK, here’s where it starts to divide. Here’s where people start to point fingers. ‘the game engine, it’s a machine. An engineer is no artist!’ they say, they scream. Well, to an extent, it is a machine. In fact, it is. But… Isn’t everything? Everything created by human minds, human hands? You could say the mind is a machine, a machine of nature. Our bodies, they are machines, really. If I made a an exact human replica, an ‘android’ (yes, like Terminator, well done), that functioned in exactly the same way as one of us, it was just made of different materials like metal. It would be a machine. But here is where lines blur, where religion comes in. I have no wish to offend anyone, but I’m asking you to imagine something. Whatever soul we may possess, whatever deep and meaningful purpose we may have. If I were able to replicate that, to ‘play God’, if it were the same thing for all intents and purposes. Would it be a machine?
My point is, it doesn’t matter whether something is mechanical by nature. A game engine is an incredibly complex, intrinsically, beautifully linked, interacting and interactive feat of design. All a painting is really composed of is many very very small dots of ink. There were all put there by the painter, the drawer, the designer. A film is a culmination of many ‘paintings’ (OK, pictures) put together.
Then there’s the elephant in the room. Prose, poetry. Yes, I am about to insinuate that a programming language is, almost exactly, the same as a standard language. A programming language is used to talk to (OK, control) a computer. A normal language is just a method of communication between humans. When someone writes prose, they mean it to mean something (whether that be metaphorical or not, someone could write nonsense to prove a point. Yes. Don’t try to be clever.). Languages have limits (both types), you can’t say everything, but you can use complex structures and punctuation to convey complex, multi-dimensional views. Language evolves, new ‘features’ are added that people turn their noses up at (Yes, the resemblance really is quite astounding) like smilies ( ;D ) and funny abbreviations (LOL). Well, embrace them, because they’re here to stay. People use slang, and it merges with language. ‘Doh!’ is in the dictionary people. The same things happen when someone decides it would be a good idea to add a feature to a programming language. People get snooty, other people use it, snooty people die out. Silly people.
The key here is, the artist controls the implement of his choice, whether that be paint, picture, sound, language or programming language to convey whatever he or she may want to convey, to whom they want to convey it. Video games are the sum total of pretty much every mainstream creative medium. Glad we’ve got that sorted.
Oh yes, I missed something. Something big, bigger than an elephant, possibly a planet. OK, let’s turn to the veritable black hole of this room.
Video. Games. Have. Aims.
‘You can win. If you can’t, it’s not a game.’
I beg to differ. I beg to differ with so much in life, but here, I really beg to differ. I’m on my knees differing, praying to differ.
1. All games are art.
2. Games sure as hell don’t have to have concrete aims, or any aims, to be art.
Now, this analogy usually come to pass through saying that video games are just glorified board games. They are the same thing in essence.
Now I will make an earth shattering statement. Yes:
Board games, are art.
‘OMG’, ‘ZOMG’, ‘YOU DID NOT JUST SAY THAT!’, ‘He’s mad’, ‘This is insanity’, ‘get this man away from me’.OK, bear with me here. It sounds crazy, even to me, but I believe it. They are.
Why? Well, all video games are just board games with higher fidelity. Fidelity of control, of vision, of sound. Yes, less to the imagination. Let’s take an example, and develop it.
Imagine, a ‘Call Of Duty’ game (not the most ‘arty’ I know, but hey, ‘Saw’ was art, just… errr… beauty is in the eye of the beholder OK?), but instead of a screen, you are looking at a board. Instead of a controller, you have dice. Instead of imaginary objects, you have (real 3D!) pawns. It’s turn based instead of real time, you have to move your character each turn through a hexagonal grid that depicts a cityscape, some hexagons have text in them that describes the position by, well, prose. When you come into what you think is a good enough position, you can attempt to attack one or some of the opposition by rolling some dice. Depending on the different ‘points’ relating to the hexagon you’re on, and those of the opposition, different things might happen. If you get lucky, maybe you get a head shot, maybe they do, maybe you miss, maybe they do, maybe you hit their leg and they can move one less space each turn (than it says on the die). You get the picture I think. A ‘Call Of Duty’ board game. Now let’s take this analogy a step further.
Imagine a ‘Legend of Zelda’ board game this time. You have to navigate a dangerous land on a beautifully drawn hexagonal grid of a ‘forest’. You roll three dice, if you get an even number, you are able to progress half of whatever number you got, along the board. If you get an odd number, a ‘Moblin’ (a common enemy in ‘The Legend of Zelda series of games, similar, in frequency, to the Goomba in Mario) appears, you take a chance on either rolling again and hoping for an even number to run, or try to fight the ‘Moblin’. The lower your odd number, the more chance to have (perhaps it denotes the number of ‘Moblins’, they often fight in packs). Now imagine another ‘Legend of Zelda’ board game. This time, the emphasis is on exploration. As you move across the board, you have chances of coming across treasure chests, where you receive more health, a new improved weapon, or ‘stat’ improvements such as being able to walk further etc. Or, a dungeon. Now, this is where it begins to get interesting. Every time you come across a dungeon, you switch out to another (from a painstakingly number coded compendium) board which plays similar to the ‘Moblin’ game above. Wait, isn’t this getting remarkably similar to that game called ‘The Legend of Zelda’. I think so, the resemblance is so striking you might mistake one for the other, if your imagination is powerful enough. I think you see my point.
After a little thinking, a complex board game can become remarkably similar to a simple video game. Add sound, moving image, and higher degrees of control to this ‘Legend of Zelda’ board game compendium. You have your fidelity. You have your beauty. You have your art.
The line between board games and video games are blurry. I can’t even really see it in fact. Maybe I need glasses. It boils down to the fact that a video game is just a board game with a little more pizazz.
So we can put board games and video games into the same category then. That destroys the aim argument, but do video games need to have aims? No, no they don’t. Onward to point two then.
I take issue with the ‘games need an aim to be games’ argument because I know games that don’t have aims, that are fun. Surely all a game has to be is fun right? I think so. Is Mincraft a game? Yes it has aims, avoid the zombies, but elements of it are very ‘sandboxy’. Building whatever you can imagine comes to mind, that part is released alone would also be a game, correct? Now, Garry’s Mod, that’s a game, is it not? It has no predefined aims, it allows you to create and do whatever you please. Here’s where the fatal flaw is made, ‘So then it’s just a creation tool, game making tool’. No, it can be used as a tool, but it can be used as a game. There is a game here, a game of experimentation, trying different things. There is no aim, you simply do what you wish to do. It’s liberating, fun.***
Finally we come to the denouement, my definition of ‘art’. Needless to say, it is simple and attempts to encapsulate what I have attempted to convince you of here:
“Anything that was designed to express oneself”
Now think about what that means. If I make a speech to express myself, that is art. If I move to express myself (yes, dance!), that is art. If I write a book to express myself, the outcome is art. If I design a board game to express myself, to give people my sense of fun, the outcome, is art.
Ladies and gentlemen, if I design a video game in order to express myself in. Any. Way.
The outcome, will invariably, unequivocally, always be art.
If you think this is all very wrong, I’ve missed the point completely, I’ve been way too one sided, I know nothing and that I am an idiot. Please contact me, comment on this blog, shoot me an e-mail, hit me up on Twitter, burn down my house. Whatever. Express yourself, become an artist. We’re all one really. I’m going to close with a few video game trailers which I think really stand out as art, beautiful art.
http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/541124 ‘Coma’, there isn’t a trailer, but it is one of the most beautiful games you will ever see.
*Incidentally, a game like this exists. Finally my open source/Linux ‘street cred’ has given me a useful very niche example!
It’s just a black window, with sound. You have to navigate the game’s world using just that. It’s an intriguing concept, and one that works to an extent. Be warned: There is bad language.
**Therefore allowing your imagination to stretch further, not handicapping it as most people seem to think. Similar logic can be applied to film. Yes it depicts things for you, but because you have a concrete image, your mind can easily comprehend further.
***If you want to look at more sandbox games, try the following:
http://golemgame.com/ (Fun 3D physics simulation)
http://www.algodoo.com/ (Similar to Golems, in 2D and more colourful. Free demo and legacy version available, previously ‘Phun’)
http://powdertoy.co.uk/ (Fun 2D physics simulation, with an emphasis on blowing things up. Also see both http://dan-ball.jp/en/javagame/dust/ and http://fallingsandgame.com/ where clear inspiration was drawn!)