Since graduating from college I have long tried to reconcile my two passions: games and art. I’m not trying to use one to justify the other, I love what I love and it is as simple as that. More than simple consolidation, I have long used the debate about video games as art more as a mental exercise than anything else. I have mused on this subject before, after being spurred on by Ebert’s bold statement and subsequent article regarding the matter. I would recommend reading both my first article as well as Roger Ebert’s to see both where I am coming from as well as the criteria Ebert used to respond to the concept of games as art.
I very recently found a game that left me feeling emotionally sensitive, pensive, but overwhelmingly inspired. The game I’m talking about is Dear Esther, currently part of the Humble Indie Bundle. This game could arguably be considered an interactive book, or boiled down even further to simply an interactive experience. The player traverses a strange island while having letters to an unknown “Esther” narrated to them at various intervals. Unlike most games, the player has very little control over the world they’re in. The only means players have to interact is by controlling their pace through the environment. There are no items to collect or checkpoints to pass and it is devastatingly beautiful.
For the sake of considering the wider whole and emphasizing the evolution of the games medium, I will also be looking at two other titles: Thomas Was Alone and Proteus. I was inspired by art critic Lucy Lippard, who used a three-prong analysis in considering Andres Serrano’s work “Piss Christ” in an article written for Art In America in early 1990. The criteria Lippard used were 1.) A work’s formal and material properties, 2.) Its content ( the thought or meaning it expresses) and 3.) Its context, or place in the western art tradition. I felt these criteria would allow me to narrow down the factors which I felt contribute to primarily Dear Esther’s role as art in video game but can also be applied to my other two titles as well. For the sake of transparency, I will also refer to these game titles as “works” for sake of brevity.
Formal and material properties
All three works are of the digital medium and consist of some type of environment created by artists and programmers. Dear Esther is an immersive 3-D environment that allows the player to traverse the environment in set paths but has full range of visual motion. Thomas Was Alone is a side scrolling, platforming game where players only see the environment in profile and traversing the environment is part of the puzzle to be tackled. Proteus is a 3-D world that is randomly generated when a player starts a new game. Unlike Dear Esther, players in Proteus can go anywhere they choose as the environment folds out before them.
All three works heavily emphasize line, color, light and sound to realize the environments. In the case of Dear Esther, the island environment almost leans towards the surreal, bringing to mind Salvador Dali in its meshing of the real and unreal. Thomas Was Alone is simplistic in that its environments and protagonists are all shapes varying in size and color. This game also features rudimentary light sources to create a sense of drama and emphasize movement over the terrain. Proteus is equally simple in terms of shape and color. This world is realized by highly pixelated shapes that hearken back to the earliest beginnings of video games, but instead of a top down, or side scrolling perspective the player traverses the world in full 3-D. Proteus also has very little in the way of shading, relying on simple “cardboard cutout” style rendering.
It is in the content of these works that the argument of whether they are art or not gets interesting. Dear Esther’s content is a story told through disjointed narration of letters written to an “Esther”. Depending on the playthrough, some of these letters change in various fashion and form and the collection of them creates its own narrative for the player to extrapolate from and come to their own conclusion. Thomas Was Alone is told via narration that occurs in the process of playing through the game levels. Each shape is given its own personality complete with biases that elevate this game from being a simple platformer to a game that causes players to think about aspects of their own personalities. I also found myself relating to these characters, which was initially confusing due to the fact that these are shapes I’m looking at. Humanizing shapes, which we learned while in kindergarten, is quite a feat. Proteus has no story to speak of and, like Dear Esther, it has no goals. The player is simply traversing a dynamic environment where the feel of the game changes based on the time of day and the environmental effects that trigger associated sound effects to create a unique soundtrack that makes exploring enjoyable.
Placing these works into Western art as a whole can be somewhat tricky. Video games are just gaining notice by fine art institutions such as MoMa and critics are still developing the language needed to properly critique the work. Just as visual, musical or architectural works can be done for commercial reasons, so too can video games. You won’t find anyone who would claim that the latest entry in the Call Of Duty series should be considered as art. This game is artful and requires substantial skill to create, it tells a (sometimes) interesting story and follows all the same basic guidelines I highlighted above. So how do these games make the grade when so many others do not?
First I would consider what the creators of these games were trying to do. In the case of most triple A titles the games are meant to generate sales and entertain a mass public. At any one time there can be millions of active players engaged in digital make-believe warfare, but that isn’t often the case with small grassroots games such as Dear Esther. Dear Esther can certainly garner critical and commercial success but that typically isn’t the driving force in the creation of such games. The biggest aspect one needs to consider is how the game makes you feel. In its most boiled-down form, art can be described at a conversation between the artist and the viewer. Just as what is considered “art” is highly subjective, but in the end it is either embraced or it is not.
Roger Ebert structured his article as a rebuttal to a presentation someone else was making. In it he dissected and countered the games the presenter used for her point and ultimately took her argument apart brick by brick. The main thing to consider with this is that the games used to promote the argument were terrible. I don’t mean to say that the games themselves were specifically bad, although one left me feeling particularly dubious, but more that they were bad examples of games as art. I chose these three games because they more closely resembled an art installation than a game. I choose to call them games due to them fitting the basic structures that we as a global culture have accepted as criteria. These are both games and art; the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive and we see more of this as games as a medium mature. All games don’t have to necessarily be fun in order to be entertaining. It is no different than film, literature, music or really any art form we as humans choose to take up. Sure, there are games that are incredibly fun, and that was the aim, but, just as artists of the Dada art movement were prompted to create a response to all the work that came before, the games medium has reached that age where newer designers will have played early titles and are now crafting their responses to it. Most tend to say, “This game was fun, I want to make a game that is fun like this!”, but every so often we get a designer who uses the medium to tell a compelling, abstract story that could not be told in any other medium. I liken it to comparing films and literature: just as some themes, ideas or stories are better told in one medium or the other, this can also apply to games. Games occupy a unique niche in our culture, they have the ability to show visual images, sounds, music and dialogue just as a film would but also have the flexibility to allow the player to consume the story at their own pace, or in their own way, as literature can.
Dear Esther would not have nearly the same impact had I only been able to read the disjointed letters, nor would it have been the same if I had been simply a passenger on the journey across the island. It was in the act of controlling the pace, exploring the world with no guides or objectives the created a very deep and thoughtful resonance within me. I strongly believe that games can be art, but not all games are art. The most important conclusion I reached while considering these games and art in general is that I don’t need the games I play to be considered art because I get enjoyment from consuming them. I love video games, they alight in me a passion that for better or worse I have never been able to replicate anywhere else. I simply want the games medium to grow and mature as the film industry has, and the literature world before it. If games like Dear Esther are just as applauded and accepted as the latest entry in the Call of Duty series, we will see that growth in spades. If we want our pastime to grow into something more, it is up to us to foster and encourage that growth. Can games be art? Absolutely. Does it matter if they’re not? Not at all.