Tag Archives: art

Are Videogames Art? (Part Five)

Part Five – Art for All.

‘Heavy Rain’ is easily one of the highest profile games of the last decade to take an experimental approach to game design. The rare hybrid of a cutting edge, visionary director in David Cage, cross-bred with a big money first party development team (Quantic Dream); Heavy Rain divided opinions upon its arrival in February 2010.

Many were reluctant to call Heavy Rain a ‘game’. The player was asked only to move their character around, touch objects to inspect them, and then follow pre-determined on-screen prompts during these interactions. A thug throws a clubbing right-hook your way and an arrow flashes from right to left across the screen. You do the same on the analogue stick? You duck the punch. Don’t manage it in time? You get smacked straight in the jaw. It becomes interesting, though, by the way the game branches off in a new direction because of your actions. The character you’re controlling can actually die, and not be involved any further in the entire rest of the game. Your actions actually matter.

The obvious highlights of Heavy Rain are the absolutely gorgeous graphics and the unusually mature, relationship-driven narrative. But the less obvious achievement, I would argue, is how easy Heavy Rain makes itself for the un-initiated to enjoy.

Approachability is definitely a problem with videogames, and a huge reason people have trouble accepting them as a legitimate canvas for entertainment and art. Mobile games and Facebook-style social games often don’t fall into this trap, but console and PC games can be hugely hard for ‘n00bs’ to get into.

TV doesn’t have this problem. Drawn art doesn’t have this problem. There surely isn’t a person alive who doesn’t ‘understand’ how to watch a television programme. You can’t fail to observe a painting. Yet videogames still too often make themselves unavailable for the masses to enjoy. Heavy Rain has gamers and non-gamers, men and women, adults and children alike all within its reach. It was a huge stepping stone for actually allowing most people to play a mature videogame.

Okami may well be a visual masterpiece, but you no doubt need to understand how to use 16 different buttons and two analogue sticks to appreciate it. Dear Esther has a totally different, yet equally impressive way of telling a tale, but you have to have a grip on the complex nature of PC gaming to even play it. With Heavy Rain, you have you, the game, your Playstation, and a learner-friendly control scheme that allows almost anyone to enjoy the experience. The merits of Heavy Rain in the ‘Videogames vs. Art’ debate have been sung before, but to me its defining achievement is how easily it lets everyone in on the conversation.

At the end of the day, it’s all about that conversation. I’ve just noted a few ways in which videogames can be seen as art, and the games herein are just art in my opinion. And that’s the beauty of it. What is and isn’t art is in the eye of the beholder. What I see as a profound and thought-provoking comment of current affairs, you could see as cliché and pretentious. What to me is an imaginative and unusual world could to you be ugly and abstract. And in no other medium is personal taste more important in distinguishing good from bad, art from entertainment, than in videogames.

Games are not just a new form of art. They are the greatest form of art. A form of art from which you can take everything its creator intended, and then add your own very personal story to.

What is your take on the videogames as art debate? And what did you think of this more lengthy, episodic approach to blogging? Let me know and thanks for reading!

Are Videogames Art? (Part Four)

Part Four – Focused Vision

A defining characteristic of this console generation has been the rise of the smaller (often downloadable) games from diminutive teams. Larger companies are having to sell millions of copies to break even, and are taking less and less risks because of this. Games have simply become too big.

I’m not just talking about massive in-game worlds like in Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto; or lengthy quests such as a Final Fantasy. Some modern videogame teams, like Treyarch (Call of Duty) or Ubisoft Montreal (Assassin’s Creed), employ upwards of 300 people over periods of multiple years to create their technological vision. However, with huge teams comes different visions and approaches to game-making. This means creativity is often watered down in the process. So when a game like ‘Dear Esther’ comes along with a mood and idea so precise, so clearly and exactly what the developers intended, you know it must have come from an intimate and tightly-knit group. The type of group which many of the games profiled in this series, from Journey to The Unfinished Swan, have spawned from. The type of group which understands mood.

Dear Esther creates a wonderful sense of place

Interactivity in Dear Esther is limited. You play in first-person, and often all you have to do as the player is walk around, take in the sights, and soak up the atmosphere. Atmosphere is the key expression to describe Dear Esther’s charm. At times tense, moody, mysterious, but always engaging – the sense of place that the guys at thechineseroom have created is astonishing. I won’t get into too much about what happens in this short, experimental game for fear of spoiling its unique charms; but the important thing to take away is this – Dear Esther is an example of how an interactive experience (even with interactivity so limited) can create some of the greatest narratives available to us today. And all from a team that could comfortably fit in Treyarch’s bathroom.

A similar example is the beautifully simple ‘Slender’. It’s a straightforward horror game available for free download on the PC (or you can pay to pick up the newer ‘Slender: The Arrival’). All you have to do is collect pieces of paper from an almost pitch black environment, torch in hand to light the way, whilst avoiding the ever approaching Slenderman. Playing Slender for my first time was a horrifying experience. I was genuinely terrified at points. But the real fun came at a friend’s house.

This game scared the crap out of me

After a long night of Mario Party with my old pal Alex, his 13 year old brother and his cousin of the same age, Alex went off to bed. I was going to crash on his sofa, but as it was a weekend, Alex’s brother and cousin were still up around midnight playing Call of Duty, as 13 year olds do. I started to tell them about this great game called Slender, and shamelessly tried to scare the two youngsters by claiming the creaks and groans from the otherwise silent house were the Slenderman’s footsteps. They weren’t having it, and said no videogame could scare them. 10 minutes later, Slender was downloaded and installed on Alex’s PC. Another 20 minutes later, and one was hidden underneath a blanket whilst the other refused to play anymore. That really says more than I ever could.

Slender won’t keep you occupied for months and months, but it’s not meant to. It’s all about that first experience. The fear of the unknown. The tension as you find your second, third and fourth piece of paper and Slenderman tracks you more fiercely than ever. It’s Munch’s ‘The Scream’ come to life. It’s all in the atmosphere.

That’s not to say bigger companies can’t do atmosphere. One of my personal favourite games of the generation is ‘Deus Ex: Human Revolution’. In terms of gameplay, it’s an average third-person stealth shooter. But the characters, dialogue and most importantly the world this game creates is absolutely second to none.

The wonderful dystopia of Deus Ex

During my time with Deus Ex, I felt like I was playing the sci-fi classic Blade Runner. The characters have real flaws and real motivations. Their interactions are realistic. The near future setting, something so contrived in many of Deus Ex’s contemporaries, is fantastically believable. It feels like an organic evolution from our current surroundings, yet it’s just different and crazy enough to be absolutely compelling. Every time I got bored of skulking through another straight corridor, I hacked a computer to spy on the workplace gossip of ‘just what was in that secured container last Tuesday?’ Once the cookie-cutter cover shooting became tiresome, I just walked the city streets talking to police, pedestrians and even persuasive ladies of the night. I seriously wanted to live in this world, civil war warts-and-all.

One might say the creation of place was simply artful (sorry).

So there it is, the games that artfully construct place and mood better than even most films can manage. Part Five, the finale, coming soon!

Are Videogames Art? (Part Three)

Part Three – More than just a pretty face.

Videogames can be artistic in more ways than just pretty visuals. Whereas Saving Private Ryan may be a standout in the field of cinematography, the Godfather tells the greatest story of this generation (or so many would say). Similarly, if wonderful HD graphics aren’t your thing, the captivating and frankly insane yarn from ‘Catherine’ may be more to your liking.

Don’t get me wrong, Catherine has a wonderful anime art style. But it’s the utterly unique and medium-defining maturity of the games’ narrative that sticks with you.

A common scene, chatting at the bar

You play as Vincent, a 30-something bar-crawler with a dead end office job he hates. Basically, he’s us. We aren’t all in our 30’s and we don’t all hate our jobs (unbelievably), but we can all relate to his slightly slacker lifestyle and desire to just hang out with his friends in the pub on a Friday night. His one saving grace is his girlfriend, Katherine, whom he is too commitment-shy to marry. The monotony of his life changes, though when he has a drunken one-night-stand with the beautiful young Catherine. He adores her playful and carefree nature, perhaps wishing to go back to a time when he could live and act more like her.

I know right? I couldn’t believe it either. THIS IS A VIDEOGAME. Videogames never have anything mature or profound to say about relationships!

But that’s the thing. They do. You just have to know where to look. Stop ending your search for a new fix at the first-person shooter section. Stop laughing at the ‘geeky’ anime art styles of Japanese games. Pick up Catherine and enjoy the breadth of artful experiences videogames have to offer. Chat to your surprisingly judgemental friend over a cup of sake. Attempt to balance the needs of two very different women; or don’t, just pick your preferred lifestyle and the girl who best suits it.

The puzzle-play can frustrate

The greatest compliment I could give this game is that it made me turn around and look at my own life. In a time where I myself was unsure what I wanted from my relationship (you would NEVER guess what my girlfriends name was), and even life, Catherine spoke to me. It’s not often you can say a work of art from ANY medium does that, so for an obscure videogame from Japan to do it is profound. It’s a special achievement, and the sort of experience everyone should give a chance.

Just make sure you bring a guide.

The downfall of Catherine rears its head when you play it. If you like insanely difficult puzzle games, all the better. But sandwiched in between all the great story sections comes the actual ‘game’ portion on Catherine. Set in Vincent’s nightmares, you have to escape from his greatest commitment-driven fears. It is a clever way of manifesting Vincent’s thoughts at first, but over the course of the game gets way too hard, and simply gets in the way of Catherine’s best attribute, its wonderful story.

It’s a great example of a wonderful idea getting bogged down in an attempt to turn the tale into a ‘game’, and Catherine turns out worse for it.

This isn’t the only way in which a game’s greatest assets can become muddled. Some games are simply too huge. Luckily, this generation has ushered in a new era of smaller, denser, but equally as artful titles…

Part Four soon…

Are Videogames Art? (Part Two)

Part Two – The Modern Masterpieces.

Modern games offer such a breadth of experiences. Yes, many are bombastic shooters aimed squarely at the testosterone of teenage males, but think of these as the ‘summer blockbuster’ equivalent of the videogame world. There are also casual puzzlers, engrossing role-playing games and spectacular science fiction sandboxes. But sometimes, just sometimes, a ‘game’ comes along so original, so innovative and so breathtakingly beautiful that you simply cannot deny that it is a modern work of art.

Take ‘The Unfinished Swan’, for example. A Playstation 3 exclusive game, you play as a boy transferred by his imagination into the canvas of one of his late mothers incomplete paintings. You are thrown into a totally blank world, tasked with using thrown paint to reveal the world around you and try to come to terms with the space left in your life by the loss of your protector. Simply looking at this game you can see that it’s a moving, living painting.

Understated beauty

But screenshots can only tell you so much – you need to see it in action. You need to throw the paint yourself, see it splash and colour the world around you. See it create the world around you. You need to explore this world that has been manufactured for you, but unravel it at your own personal pace. Find as much or as little as you want. Colour just your path and move your story forward, or take your time to fully realize this realm and let its intricacies slowly sink in.

Its unlike anything else you can feel with any other form of expression, and that alone is worthy of calling it a piece of art.

The world slowly grows in complexity

Then there’s ‘Journey’, the third in a trilogy of non-sequential but spiritually connected games for the Playstation. Like Swan, it’s a short and very simple game that really has no noticeable difficulty barriers for the un-initiated (a rare thing in game design). You’re a nomad, thrust into a gorgeous desert setting with one unexplained aim – reach the summit of the mountain towering in front of you.

A Journey awaits, what’s up there?

It’s hard to say much about Journey without spoiling the ride. However, what I can tell you about is the serene, peaceful feeling you have whilst traversing its nearly barren world. You gently slide down the slopes of sand dunes, float on the currents of desert gusts and are driven forward by a human inquisitiveness to know – just what is on top of that gleaming mountain?

On top of the sense of solitary adventure, it’s utterly beautiful. The pictures could tell you more than I ever could. If Monet was alive and creating today, this would be his masterpiece.

And whilst on the topic of visually beautiful games, may I point you in the direction of ‘Okami’?

Unique, traditional Japanese style

In terms of visual spectacle, Okami mixes the best of both Swan and Journey. First and foremost Okami is an ‘action-adventure’ game, but truly it’s a Japanese watercolour come to life. But how much life is up to you. Environments start out glum and grey, and as you vanquish the fairy-tale evils of the game you can restore life to these once and future picturesque lands. There’s nothing quite like – after wondering for 20 minutes in a diminished, lifeless world – seeing a flourishing cherry blossom bloom by fields of green grass, azure lakes and joyful wildlife.

Play this game.

It’s absolutely breath-taking, and the images of its watercolour world will stay with you long after the credits and rolled. And what’s better, it has been re-released on the Playstation Store in HD, so there’s no better time to give it a go than now.

These games are all, of course, art in the visual sense. That is absolutely fine, but the beauty of videogames is that they can also be so much more than that…

So it’s clear to see how videogames can be art in the most obvious, visual sense. But it’s time to delve much deeper, so come back over the weekend for more!

Are Videogames Art?

Part One – Changing the Way You Think.

Humans and their ancestors have been painting or drawing since before recorded history. From simple symbols to intricate real-life recreations, this form of expression has slowly become known in the public consciousness as a form of ‘art’.

In the early 20th Century, Hollywood began to capture the imagination of millions. Throughout the century, film and cinema grew exponentially in terms of sheer size, maturity and the technology that allows these movies to be made. In less than 100 years, cinema has gone from a fresh new form of entertainment to a legitimate medium for ‘art’.

Then there’s videogames. Videogames’ roots are vague yet complex. Games as we see them today are generally believed to have been ‘invented’ in the 1980’s (it’s up for debate exactly when), and have since gone on to become one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. They have also ushered in beautiful, thoughtful and meaningful experiences in a variety of genres for a plethora of different audiences. Yet ask a member of the general public what videogames are and who they are for, and the answer would be anything but “artful experiences for intelligent adults”. Instead, the overwhelming majority would tell you that games are about shooting people, killing people, and they are for children – or adult recluses still squatting in their mother’s basements.

I’m not here to ask why that is or berate misguided people for saying it, but to change those people’s minds about what videogames can be. I’m also going to skip right ahead and answer my own titular question right now.

Yes.

Videogame ARE art.

Let me show you why…

My Are Videogames Art series will be going up in five parts over the next two weeks, so please tell me what you think and enjoy! Part 2 coming soon…