It started when Entropy contributor Alex Kalamaroff submitted “a request, either for an article(s) that might already exist, or, perhaps, for an article one of you lively people could write: About The Aesthetic Experience / Art Power of Video Games.” Clearly, he did not know who he was dealing with, and he was soon diluted with a flood of suggestions and comments that soon morphed into an electronic panel, of sorts, one that resisted any attempts to leash it to any sort of formal structure and threatened to expand into infinitude or atomize into a lingering nothing.
Parts of the ensuing conversation, which diverted into personal anecdotes and fervent recommendations but never waned in enthusiasm, have been collected and presented here. Most of these words originally appeared on Facebook, a few of them elsewhere, and they have been minimally edited.
Alex Kalamaroff: So the last time I played a video game in seriousness, it had to be Warcraft III, when I was 16 or so (about a decade ago), and I really enjoyed it, as I also enjoyed Everquest, to which I had about a 1.5-year addiction circa age 13, and in both these games, along with the others I played, there was a lot I found compelling, mostly the playing with friends part and doing awesome quests and “pwning n00bs,” as I believe was the parlance back then, but I don’t think, at least at the time, I would consider them “art.”
Or, to avoid the quagmire of having to define “art” for the time being (though I guess that really is the question, isn’t it?), I wouldn’t consider these video games I enjoyed to be on par with the books and movies and music I love. Like Warcraft III was a blast, but it does not hold a candle (or a battle ax, as the case may be) to Kafka or Béla Tarr. Mario Kart was good times, but it is not Virginia Woolf. You get my drift.
So I’d like to read about how video games are art, how they are on par with the best books and movies and music. I think my current perspective is quite limited because I no longer play video games and I don’t think it’s very nuanced, which is why I’d like to read about how Final Fantasy 7 or Super Smash Bros are as a grand as Gaddis or Baldwin. What kind of things make a video game good in a way that surpasses entertainment? What are the aesthetic qualities you look for in video games? Have there been video games that changed your perspective (i.e. after playing Super Smash Bros, you could never look at the world the same way again)?
Anyway, hope you’re all having a fine Friday and I appreciate your insights or recommended readings or general cheerfulness about this topic. I apologize if this post is a bit long; I’m a garrulous person. Best, –Alex K.
Berit Ellingsen: I chewed on this myself while thinking about this week’s top 3 list, which is game centered. I know many people do not regard games as art, or at least not “proper” art, and I can readily see why. Few people call Hollywood blockbusters art, and when it comes to the money invested and number of people involved in making a big game title (of the kind that sells millions worldwide), we’re talking about somewhat similar things. However, I don’t think it’s fair to compare games with top literature or expect the same thing from it as we do from top literature.
For me, many games are instead very operatic and exaggerated, in the same way classical operas and ballets are. It makes me think that maybe a video game production (because it is a big production) is more akin to operas or even Broadway musicals.
On the other hand, there must be something more about games than just the simple reward/pleasure mechanism of player achievements to make games such a pervasive and popular pastime.
Eddy Rathke: I think there are games that aim for artistry and games that aim for fun, and then a very small selection that aim for both. Journey is an example of a game that works as art that’s also very enjoyable to play. Same with Unfinished Swan and several more.
But I’d agree with Berit, especially when it comes to RPGs. Final Fantasy games and RPGs of that type aim for artistry, and I think they generally reach it, whether that be through design or storytelling. But the writing wouldn’t work in a novel or even a film because of that sort of operatic nature to them. But then there are games like Call of Duty, which take artistry to make, but have little to do with art, as we tend to think about it.
Alex Vladi: Now this is great topic, Alex! I suppose this theme deserves a whole collaborative series. I also experience video games as art genre, and have some stories to tell and screenshots to show. The juxtaposition of games and other art forms is also inspiring. And I’m sure were not alone with this point of view.
Byron Campbell: I actually just got through writing/editing a piece (“When Play Isn’t Fun Anymore: Games and Discomfort”) on a related topic. I think the whole “can games be art” debate is, honestly (and no offense) such a huge can of worms and so obvious that I try not to talk about it. When I say “obvious,” I mean that people who are open to the idea of games as art have probably already had the experience of games as art, and people who aren’t open to the idea are just not open to the idea, period (the late Roger Ebert was one of those, fluent as he was in the medium of film).
Alex K: Thanks for these helpful replies. I have little frame of reference for video games today (in this sense, it would be like if I was asking in 1928, “Now what makes these moving picture shows art?” without having seen a movie), so that makes it a challenge. But maybe the question I’m thinking about, to go to your point, Byron, isn’t: “Are video games art?” But, “How are video games art?” The comparison Berit makes, and Eddy continues, to opera makes sense.
Byron: Part of the problem is that mainstream games have gotten so bloated (in terms of budget and people) that they have to be played safe, from a financial risk point of view. They are too expensive to be anything but entertainment. That’s why almost all of the more artistic game experiences come from small, indie game companies. If you think about the fact that William Gaddis created on his own or in collaboration with his editor/publisher, then you think about Hideo Kojima (who I believe does create games that affect me on a similar level) commanding a team of I don’t know how many thousand people, including localizers for each country of release, and a budget in the tens of millions, you’ll see they’re vastly different creative processes. That’s why I got into interactive fiction (see: Blue Lacuna) a few years ago. I love that it can be made by a single person with no production budget, which often brings it closer to the realm of art as it’s traditionally conceived.
And I third the comparison with opera, though the term I’ve always used is “hyperconcept” (like high concept but more so). But opera is a great analogy. I think it was in this Fallout 3 documentary where they discuss, in the context of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as President John Henry Eden, that everything has to be a little bit over-the-top to even register as normal in a video game. The definitely seems an operatic concept–in opera, if you are feeling even the least bit emotional, it becomes a song and a performance.
Alex V: Good point, Byron. After all, the definition of art is also pretty huge discourse, which complexity can be shown on the perceiving of games as art (or not).
One of the things that continues to fascinate me about games is the thought that everything you see inside a game, from the landscape to the buildings and characters and their actions, everything has been created by a human being and has once been part of someone’s idea of what the game world should look like, stylistically, and for the players to navigate easily in it.
For example, in the game Star Wars the Old Republic, you can play as an intelligence officer in a long storyline. In the spaceship the game rewards you with, is a desk with a computer screen and what looks like a large thermos can (of coffee?). That was such a fascinating touch, among all the laser guns and lightsabers, there was something as common as a coffee can, which made sense for a character who does a lot of reading of files and data.
Byron: Berit, I love that as well! On some level, games are more like architecture than books or movies, except that they are not constrained by budget or materials and don’t have to follow the basic laws of the universe. The game that personally gave me that “aha!” moment in this regard was Shadow of the Colossus. I have never been much of a nature boy, but I could and did explore Shadow of the Colossus‘ vast, empty natural landscape for hours at a time. I used to pick a landmark in the distance, ride toward it, drink in the view, and then pick the next landscape, all the way until I reached the cliffs by the sea. And then it occurred to me that all this “natural beauty” was manmade, and I was floored. Being manmade, I think, makes it idealized or impressionistic in a way that allowed me to appreciate it more deeply than actually going on a hike or driving out to the desert, like Van Gogh painting sunflower leaves a deeper impression than watching actual sunflowers grow out of the ground.
Alex V: Yes, this demiurgic character of game designers always fascinated me too (I recall Myst, where every nail was logically, which fact overwhelmed me at that time). Another demiurgic character is players themselves, who make their own story. Like in Daggerfall, where you can ignore the main plot and follow your own. Players as writers?
Byron, the same experience with Shadow of Colossus I had, too. The loneliness of single player is beautiful and inspiring. Just to sit on your true horse Argo and to stare into misty mountains far on horizon….
Byron: On a related subject, while it isn’t generally something I did myself, outside of Shadow of the Colossus, sequence breaking is something that fascinates me. When players spend hours or days searching for ways they can force the narrative off its tracks, skips this boss fight or that cutscene. The urge to do it, as well as the fact that pretty much only games allow it. In a book, you could skip through chapters, but I don’t think it gives the same feeling of “besting” a narrative imposed by the game designer.
Kyle Muntz: I’ve tried to move away from the question of whether video games are art or not (which is something Eddy and I have talked about a lot), but there are quite a few that make strong moves in that direction. Big-budget games are sort of a different thing (since there really is that blockbuster element to them, though there are exceptions), but when it comes to independent projects, I’ve been hunting lots of them down ever since I started making a game (The Pale City). Though it’s also important to distinguish between more abstract art and just very good storytelling. I’ve been able to find both, though (just out of personal interest) I’ve been more interested in games that attempt sophisticated narratives than ones that are trying to be “art” in the sense I think you’re indicating.
Gingiva is a good example of a game that attempts to be art on an aesthetic basis. It’s a very flawed game, but it’s intensely beautiful and strange; and as a personal project (all made by one person, who did the art, sound, writing, and sound design, etc.) I think there’s an element to these kind of personal projects that almost approaches Wagner’s idea of “total art”. [Editor’s note: more opera.]
Eddy: I actually don’t even think the question of art is a very important or interesting one anymore, though I talk about the nature of art quite often.
Kyle: When it comes to aesthetics, there’s also a French game called OFF that’s sort of like a nightmare from a Beckett or Kafka (though it also has a few very serious flaws from a design standpoint). There’s obviously more to the question than aesthetics, but these are two games that I think attempt some of the elements you’re talking about in a very immediate and visible sense.
In general, I agree almost exactly with what Eddy said, but that’s more indicative of some of my own beliefs and how they’ve changed over the last few years. (As someone who spent the last decade before that very concerned with the avant-garde and self-consciously thinking of myself as making “art”, and trying to move away from that for quite a while now.)
I’m very interested in independent games these days (I guess by necessity) and not very fond of most big budget games, though there are a few I really love. My main interest is how games can approach storytelling and transform it. I think art is a part of that but probably not the core element.
END PART 1.
Alex Vladi aka Merzmensch is blogger, writer, filmmaker, transmedial storyteller, writing in his 19 blogs in German, Russian, English, and Japanese about avant-garde, viral marketing, dadaism, alternate realities, curiosities, art and everything else. His texts and experimental writings can be found in LIES/ISLE, Di Mezzo Il Mare, Very Bad Poetry, and also periodically in German online portals “Frankfurter Gemeine Zeitung,” CULTurMAG and Austrian avant-garde magazine “Perspektive.”
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Birkensnake, and other places. Her short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was published by firthFORTH Books in 2012. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the British Science Fiction Award.
Byron Alexander Campbell is an aspiring human living in Southern California. He is interested in games, story, and the surprising ways they intersect.
edward j rathke wrote Ash Cinema [KUBOA, 2012], Twilight of the Wolves[Perfect Edge Books, 2014], and Noir: A Love Story [Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2014]. He edits at The Lit Pub and Monkeybicycle.
Kyle Muntz is the author of three novels and two forthcoming novellas:Green Lights (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and The Crippled Giant (Mixer Publishing). Recently, he’s also the writer and designer of The Pale City, an independently produced role playing game for PC.