The ‘can video games be art?‘ debate is a long and tedious one. The question first appeared to hit mainstream video game blogs and magazines in the mid-2000s, when influential film critic Roger Ebert argued in the negative. What followed was a series of back-and-forths which essentially devolved into an issue of semantics. In order to answer the question, the terms ‘art’ and ‘video games’ both have to be defined, opening up two monotonous cans of worms in the process. The debate seems to have more-or-less fizzled out by now – the question which initially prompted vitriolic defensiveness from many video game fans is now more likely to inspire self-effacing irony or disinterested exasperation.
Though few individuals will have considered the artistic nature of video games as carefully as Ebert, video games arguably have a status of being a ‘lower’ form of entertainment amongst the general public. It would be easy to suggest that the reason for such assumptions is down to ignorance and inexperience. However, the fact that a large majority of games are childish, gratuitously violent, sexist, derivative and/or emotionally shallow suggests that the answer may not be this simple. Granted, there are many games which have been praised for their aesthetic style or mature storytelling (such as Okami, and The Last of Us). However, these artistic qualities could be experienced simply by passively watching the games play out and could be theoretically replicated via constructing a movie version of the in-game events. What separates the video-game from other media is its interactive element, which must play a key role in the artistic experience if it is to be taken seriously as an art form.
Look closely enough and there are video games which do provide a unique intellectually, aesthetically and/or emotionally provocative experience which cannot be provided by any other medium. In other words, the interactive nature of the form is essential in the execution of the game’s ideas. I have listed six games below (two to get you started in today’s post and the rest in my next one) which I believe fulfil this criteria, though it is by no means an exhaustive list. Whether these offerings count as ‘art’ or not remains debatable, in fact for some their status as a ‘videogame’ at all has been called into question. However, what I do believe is that they’re at least worth talking about and a exception to Ebert’s claim that “for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
Gone Home/Her Story
Gone Home and Her Story both present the player with a mystery. In Gone Home, you assume the role of Kaitlin, who returns to her family home after a year abroad, presumably expecting a welcome from her parents and younger sister, Samantha. You begin on the porch, where you find a note from Samantha informing you that she isn’t home and asking you not to ‘go digging around’ trying to find out where she is. Upon entering the hallway, all the lights are off and no one seems to be in. The player then continues by roaming the house, searching through rooms and examining objects. Not only does this give a certain kind of voyeuristic thrill, which only snooping through strangers’ belongings can provide, but it also starts to paint a picture for the player. By exploring the house and picking through its many objects, you begin to build up an understanding of the history of the house, as well as what Kaitlin’s family are like as people, what their secrets are and, ultimately, where Samantha is and why.
Her Story finds you accessing a police computer database containing a series of short interview clips with an unnamed woman. Initially you are prevented with four videos, which reveal that the police are interviewing her in connection with a murder. To progress, you must enter search terms into the database, which provides you with further interview clips and more information. For example, in the initial video clips she is interviewed in connection with an unspecified event occurring last February, the murder victim is named as ‘Simon’ and the lack of a murder weapon is established. All of these provide potential key terms which can be searched in the database. The catch is that each search will only reveal the first five clips associated with each term. This means that the player is constantly being drip-fed information via short video clips and must keep track of potential clues or interesting topics in order to keep mining the database.
Interactive fiction is by no means an new genre, yet Gone Home and Her Story represent contemporary examples of what it can achieve at its most accomplished. Although they differ in their mechanics, both require the player to play an active role in slowly piecing together an understanding of what’s taken place. This active engagement, in which effort on the part of the player is rewarded growing elucidation of the mystery before them, is arguably a much more involving and personal experience than passively watching an Agatha Christie production unfold whilst slumped on the sofa.