In 2010, famed movie critic Roger Ebert declared that video games could not be art. He did so with little gaming experience and seemingly no provocation; within months he was retracting his statement and apologizing. To read his thoughts on the matter is, in some ways, to see into the thought process of anyone who struggles to admit that video games can be an artform. And it’s easy to see why: until the advent of video games, art was something that was passively experienced. Art was the natural byproduct of the artist, and as an observer you were a participant after the book was written, the painting dried, the movie finished. Video games put you in the driver’s seat, and for some that was enough to classify it as something else entirely. Moreover, when video games first began, they were merely to provide entertainment—as novel and exciting as they were, early graphics were too limited to coax much beauty onto the screen. Frogger had you jump across roads and rivers as a frog; Asteroid had you shooting celestial bodies into smaller pieces. These games had a simple premise and a recognizable task and that was it. Although one can make the argument that every video game is a piece of art, it is hard to recognize those primordial entries as such.
The Beginnings of Story in Video Games
Let us then not try to tackle that esoteric question (“are all video games art”), and instead explore how video games began breeding art within its genus. Because very quickly, even as far back as the original Nintendo, certain video games had actual story. Not text at the beginning and end (if you were lucky enough to get there) that established the premise or the flavor of the shooty-fighty action you’d focus on, but a story with writing throughout, an evolving plot with a beginning-middle-end structure. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Japanese RPGs, but as an easy target and with the stipulation that there were a few progenitors even farther back, Final Fantasy (the first installment of the franchise) came out in 1987. A quick look at the Wikipedia entry for the game’s plot shows a nearly 500-word entry that describes a story. For a reference chosen at random, David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club has a Wikipedia plot that doesn’t quite clock in at 400 words.
If you can accept as an axiom that, all things being equal, Wikipedia tends to be an adequate reflection of what is necessary to convey information, it’s hard to argue that Final Fantasy doesn’t have a legitimate story at its core. With this established it becomes impossible to argue that video games cannot be art, because where in the history of the rest of the world are stories not considered an art form, regardless of their quality? To compare a bad novel with no clear reason as to its publication with Hemmingway or Dickens is to admit from the outset that they are of the same art—so even if you do not think an early RPG is a good story or worthy of your time has no impact on the fact that it is a story and therefore art (a point which should have immediately arrested the very thoughtful Ebert, I think, and illuminating that he had no real video game experience besides perhaps being annoyed at young family members playing them too loudly in his periphery).
Playing a most uncharitable devil’s advocate, one might argue at this point that video games are merely emulating other artforms, containing preexisting artforms (visual imagery, music, story writing) into a limited entertainment package.
Playing a most uncharitable devil’s advocate, one might argue at this point that video games are merely emulating other artforms, containing preexisting artforms (visual imagery, music, story writing) into a limited entertainment package. This is a similar argument that posits rap something less than music because the words spoken are closer to poetry than singing, an argument that holds little water (and no one has ever argued that rap isn’t art). If you take music away from a song, does not that song become poetry? That is to say, may art forms are other art forms added together to create something new. So this position can probably be defended on philosophical grounds successfully, but for the exercise let us ask this question: are their video games that, by the nature of the story they are telling or concept they are conveying, can only work in video game form? That is to say, are there any video games that cannot be removed from their gameplay and put into a book or a movie without being diminished?
A great deal of games can endure this treatment, as many are honestly stories that could work in other mediums draped around combat mechanics. (This is not to say that it means they are not art, just that they do not pass the litmus test of our exercise.) But you don’t have to look far to find examples that cannot be modified without losing something artistic.
Let’s look at a game that predates Ebert’s comments by over a year. (General warning: pretty massive spoilers of a seven-year-old video game to follow, and it’s a game worth playing and being surprised by.) It would be easy to pick a stupendously pretty, three-dimensional and powerfully rendered game with stunning new graphics to make the art argument, but it’s more powerful to stick with the simple Braid. While it is a pretty game in my estimation, Braid’s graphics are reminiscent of an early time in gaming culture, and it as its core an old-school 2D platformer. But if you are familiar with those types of games, you can tell from the outset that something is different about this one: you begin with a city on fire, and your avatar in silhouette, establishing a mood as effectively as a film noir.
You play Tim, who looks like a history professor from Hobbiton, and you are searching for a princess that has been taken by a “horrible and evil monster.” As the game begins no more explanation is really given, as that has been the set up for innumerable video games since the medium’s inception, but nearly immediately you shown that Tim has made a mistake in the past that he hopes to correct. Or perhaps erase; the mechanics of the game involve the rewinding and fast forwarding of time. As you progress you are given entries into a journal or diary that both correspond to a new gameplay mechanic but also further illuminate Tim’s connection with this princess: frustration, desire, longing and forgiveness are paramount themes in these entries.
Being able to rewind time is a fun and challenging game mechanic, but it develops a new meaning at the end of the game. The final level sees everything but Tim moving in reverse. When you play through the first time it looks as though you are helping the princess escape this knight in armor. Tim and the princess appear to work in tandem to get through many obstacles to arrive at her home. But then Tim finds himself locked out of the house…and time begins to move forward. You are still playing the game, but now you are running in forward-time in the same scene, and all at once you realize that it is Tim (you) that the princess is running from, and that the knight is protecting her from. Tim is the monster. You are the monster.
The game ends ambiguously, and there are a lot of interpretations to mine upon completion if one is willing. The first and most obvious meaning is a statement about how easy it is for obsession and a lack of perspective to make you a villain when you think you are being a hero. For a few hours as the player you are convinced you are trying to rescue a great love of your life, and at the end you find you have been lost in a haze of your own mania while terrorizing a poor woman. To arrive at this realization, and to have the full impact of its story, you must experience it via gameplay. Oh, it’s possible to tell a similar story in some other format, but not this one: an entire game of training you to think forward and backward in time as you control the character is necessary for the emotional impact of the reversal at the end. You feel responsible for this princess’s terror. Moreover, the game inherently trades upon a trope really only found in video games: rescuing a princess with no clear motivation. In order for this subversive story to be told, it has to be a video game.
But a few levels deeper is where the argument really sets in (the spoiler warning reaches its zenith for this paragraph). There are other hidden texts sprinkled throughout the gameplay that are not necessary for you to discover in order to proceed, but if all are found and some thought is put into the ending, Braid’s premise changes: Tim is one of the inventors of the atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War, and the game is a fever dream representing the scientist’s guilt over inventing such a terrible weapon. The princess represents the technology but the metaphor remains the same: having spent the entire game trying to be the hero, Tim invents the nuclear bomb and realizes that he is a monster. It’s a powerful, moving idea expressed in gameplay. But most crucially to our argument: this metaphor isn’t just hidden within the story that you experience in a sincere but cursory play-through. The Salem witch trials being a substitute for the McCarthy-era Black List in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible can be found within the text presented on its surface, but in Braid you can only find this information if you explore thoroughly: this hidden meaning is only discoverable through the act of playing a video game, and can be entirely missed (and if it is missed, the princess/hero/monster metaphor can still be ingested). To me this is the final argument for Braid not only being art, but art that only works if Braid is a video game.
Hidden entries and Side Meanings
Hidden entries and side meanings are a common theme within the best video games: take the three Mass Effect games, for example. Mass Effect is a brilliant hard science-fiction franchise where you play Commander Shepard (as either a man or a woman, your choice at the outset, and it doesn’t affect gameplay at all). It is one of the most well-developed scifi universes in any medium. Much of its vibrancy and amazing world-building happens in front of your eyes as you explore the galaxy and interact with a multitude of characters, but some of the keenest insights into the races and cultures presented happen in supplementary information that you don’t have to read at all. I would pit Mass Effect’s universe against Star Trek’s any day. And atop that wealth of information that the unobservant can completely miss is a brilliant and dynamic game about choices—yes, you shoot aliens and robots and try to save the galaxy, but the game’s strong roleplaying component demands that you make hard choices and moral decisions, the results of which effect and color your landscape moving forward in the story (in fact, choices can have ripples throughout all three games, which allow you to bring over your exact character and set of choices into each new installment). This is also a type of art that is necessarily video-game-centric: with the exception of a few “choose your own adventure books,” the very concept of branching storytelling with different outcomes (and different insights into the established world) can only occur within an art where you control the central focus.
Without spoiling anything, it should also be noted that the ending of the third Mass Effect game is so smart, and such a commentary on the nature of video games and how we perceive them, that most people who have played it missed the point entirely and complained that the ending was too generic and betrayed the premise of the games that lead up to it. This sort of controversy born from a meta position is inherent to art, I think, meaning that the Mass Effect franchise stands near the top in terms of prime examples of video games as art.
Finally, both BioShock and a delightful game called The Stanley Parable are metacontextual narratives about the nature of video games. It is important to spoil The Stanley Parable as little as possible (seriously, if you’re a video game fan, stop what you’re doing and go play it, because it’s amazing), it is a game that from its outset acknowledge it is a video game and that you are playing a video game. It says some delightful things about the nature of control and experience (as well as being hilarious and strange). These types of games indicate that we have moved into an era of post-modernism in video games: I would consider this post-modernism status to be unassailable, and further argue that if you’re using that term, you’re talking about art.
A game makes you the star, not just the participant.
It is also worth noting that a good enough video game can transcend most other forms of storytelling or art, at least for people with certain dispositions, because while engaging in the same types of moral dilemmas and emotional pallets as the best film or TV show, a game makes you the star, not just the participant. This can’t be overstated enough. I am rarely scared in a horror film, because while it’s a frightening situation I am not there—but a specific part of the imagination is engaged with a good enough game where, because I control the movements and the voice of my avatar, I can forget it isn’t me. Scary games can terrify me in a way that the best horror movies really can’t, and similarly a tough choice or a failure in a game I’ve grokked to can hit me as if it has occurred in real life. There are countless other arguments to be made for video games as art, but this might be the most powerful. The simplest definition of art is the expression of human creative skill and imagination, and that is always on display with a video game, but with the right kind of game it is the expression of human imagination that I become so fully immersed in I feel the consequences of the story as fully as if they were my own. An ending or a point in a game has followed me away from my computer screen and haunted my steps as effectively as my favorite movies or the best books I’ve read. And because I feel like they were my choices, my decisions, and not just those of others that I’m watching (an illusion, to be sure, but an effective one), I think it is not only necessary to consider video games as an art form, but one of equal worth as painting or music or literature. Critics of early film used to ask if movies were really art, and I predict with video games those critics too will fade until the question becomes too ridiculous to mention.