If there’s one trend among gaming journalists that’s been bothering me lately, it’s their obsession with video games “growing up”. It’s not that I think that no video game should ever that tackle more mature subject matter in a thought-provoking way, but then, that’s not usually the entire story when it comes to the common narrative with the ideal way for video games to grow as a medium. Usually, according to most mainstream game journalists: in order for the medium to achieve its true potential, gamers have to be willing to put away childish things. Things like focusing on quality gameplay and interesting mechanics over more important elements, chiefly the game’s storyline. After all, since when are video games about gameplay, right?
Perhaps the best hope for maturing video games as a medium in the eyes of our journalists is the “art game”, scare quotes intended. If you’ll recall, when I was discussing my opinion of independent games awhile back, it was art games that led me to blindly hate indie games in general. Considering how much my opinion of indie games has turned around (especially ones commonly referred to by more cynical critics as “played-out retro wankfests”), it’s only intensified my hatred towards art games, because of the effects they had on my opinion of indie games in general.
At this point, you’re probably wondering: what is an art game? Of course, definitions tend to subjective, so I’ll just define it from my own perspective. For me, art games tend to rely on style over substance. The most common focal point for most art games I’ve seen is the game’s storyline. but placing emphasis on the game’s graphical artstyle (or how many polygons/emotions the system can produce) is fairly common as well. Of course, sometimes even games with solid gameplay can be art games, depending on how pretentious they are with regards to other elements of the games.
Then again, maybe the best way to summarize my thoughts on what makes something an “art game” would be to rattle off some examples. Perhaps the biggest example of an art game by my definition would have to be Gone Home, a game that’s been called a “walking simulator” and is generally considered deep due to the game’s subject matter, as opposed to how well the game itself was crafted. It’s kind of a shame how bland this game turned out, considering the creators of the game keep harping on about how they worked on the Bioshock series. In the same vein, you’ve also got Dear Esther, which was probably the Gone Home of its…year, actually. Just to show that art games don’t have to be low-budget indie titles, I’d also count the works of David Cage, specifically Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Same basic deal there: shallow gameplay coupled with a storyline so shallow, it would be considered abhorrent in any other form of medium. Of course, as I said before, even games with solid gameplay can be considered art. Jonathan Blow’s Braid and Phil Fish’s FEZ are two such games, games that would be fine otherwise, but marred by the self-absorbed nature of their respective creators.
My first general problem with these games is that gameplay generally takes a backseat to everything else. As I stated earlier, the typical culprit is the game’s storyline, which is typically weak in general, but considering the low standards for stories in video games compared to other mediums, the bar is set pretty low. This isn’t to say that video games shouldn’t have good stories, but rather the storyline should collaborate with the gameplay, as opposed to impeding it. Most stories told in video games are typically fairly linear and rely on specific events. Considering the most common method for imparting story in video games is in-game cutscenes, there’s usually the feeling that the game itself and its story are two separate entities. Some games try to avoid this and attempt to tell stories through interactive elements within the game itself, but this is fairly rare by comparison.
The biggest problem I have with the stories typically seen in art games is that they generally would be better suited for other, less interactive mediums. Usually, most art games I’ve seen have barely been able to exploit the interactivity that is inherent to video games as a medium. Beyond: Two Souls was mostly cutscenes and the majority of the game’s interactive elements were merely choices, choices that didn’t have any major effect on the story of the game itself. So then what’s the point of making it a video game if the interactivity is so shallow and superficial? It’d be like making a motion picture without video, a song without sound. If you’re not going to utilize the main strength of a medium when crafting your art work, why not use a medium that’s better suited for it? It baffles me.
Of course, this likely ties into the reason why I find art games more despicable than any other attempts at experimental forms of media, like arthouse films, modern art and the like. At the very least, these attempts at artistic expression utilize the strengths of the medium they inhabit in order to grow and further develop it. After all, the art films of the past have led to the development of many cinematic techniques we see used, even today. If video games’ main draw are their interactivity, then why are the games generally considered attempts at art so lacking in this element? If game enthusiasts, art game creators and video game journalists have become obsessed with the idea of video games finally being accepted as a legitimate art form, then why do they simply intend to emulate other art forms in a shoddier fashion to achieve their goal? The whole idea of creating the “Citizen Kane of video games” is a silly idea to begin with, mainly because when it was originally released, Citizen Kane was not considered a significant work of media. Its reputation and esteem from the film community came with time, to attempt to recreate such an event, except with an instantaneous outcome would be impossible. Then again, SNESMasterKI believes the original Super Mario Bros. is the Citizen Kane of gaming, though I’d probably liken it to an earlier keystone in film history, like maybe the first “talkie” film that actually used the new technology to deliver a more engaging story.
The shallowness of the gameplay typically found in your traditional art game typically stems from the idea that only by aping already legitimate art forms will video games also be accepted into the fold. Again, with games like Beyond: Two Souls and Gone Home, the player’s experience is reduced significantly, when compared to coarsely, more “mainstream” entries of games. It almost turns the player into a second-person observer, limiting their actions and interactivity with the world significantly, reducing their impact on the game’s narrative to a few random choices. I suppose I can understand that some of these art games, especially Gone Home, were likely made in response to the idea that violence in video games is an inherent part of the medium. I think that got disproven way back in the 1980s, during the medium’s infancy. Granted, it’s an obscure little game, you’ve probably never heard of it: Tetris. I guess one could argue that the destruction of the pieces upon completing a line could be considered some form of abstract violence, or even that players preferring certain pieces over others could be considered some abstract form of racism, but if you’re looking for that kind of deconstruction of a product of simpler times, you should probably go to some other site.
Even good gameplay, however, isn’t enough of a guard against being classified as an art game. Sometimes, if the game itself delivers a sufficiently pretentious narrative, the game can be considered art. Perhaps the biggest example I can think of this phenomenon is Braid. A “clever” deconstruction of the Super Mario Bros. games of old, where the roles are reversed and you are playing as the damsel in distress’s kidnapper, a plot point so telegraphed from the get-go, the game might as well have been called something like “Super Stockholm Syndrome Bros.”. Granted, what little I know about Braid is from second-hand information, I’ve seen gameplay and even I have to admit that looks solid. On that note, when a friend of mine who suggests Braid to me says that I should just enjoy the gameplay and ignore the storyline as he did, well, if that’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is. Perhaps it’s hypocritical of me: after all, why should a game with a bad story bother me, when I typically tend to prefer games with little to no story whatsoever? In all honesty, my disgust towards Braid may also have spawned due to my vulnerability to the concept of “hype backlash”: the idea that the more positive responses to, well, anything before I am able to experience it myself, generally sours my overall opinion of it. When Braid was first released, I was exposed to so many reviews of Braid, praising its brilliant story and original gameplay that it put me off buying the game forever. I’ve gone on the record, saying I’d only play Braid if someone else fronted the bill, and even then, it would be under duress.
Worse still, is when a perfectly good game is tainted by the actions of their creators. My first experience seeing Jonathan Blow, the main creative force behind the aforementioned Braid, was in the trailer for Indie Game: The Movie, an independent film that chronicled the development process of a few high-profile indie games. From my perspective, Blow came off exactly the way I would have expected him to, just based on what I could gleam from Braid: he came off as a stereotypical “artiste”, a pretentious sort who clearly thought he was the smartest person in the room. If Braid didn’t turn me completely against him, his segments in that trailer most certainly did. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you’ve got Phil Fish, creator of FEZ. I’ll be honest, at one point, I was actually interested in FEZ (I even played the demo on Xbox 360 and thought it had potential), but Fish’s antics have put me off the game entirely. First, he bashed the modern Japanese video games industry by proclaiming that their games suck, and then he ended up cancelling the anticipated sequel to FEZ over a spat on Twitter, despite claiming otherwise. Then came the coup de grâce to Fish’s reputation, at least in my opinion: he uncancelled FEZ II…on April Fools’ Day. What a scumbag.
Maybe one day, video games will be viewed as works of art, on the same scale that many people hold film, literature and music, as opposed to simply fine art and nothing more. I’d like to see video games reach a niche that resembles that of film the most, existing a spectrum ranging from mindless fun shooters/action blockbusters to thoughtful experiences/independent films, with some works falling in between those two extremes. I feel, however, that video games can only achieve these lofty goals if they do so on their own terms, as opposed to simply mimicking the artforms that came before it. If telling a deep and engaging story is paramount to video games becoming acceptable within the realm of art, then they must exploit their own strengths, to deliver a narrative that is interactive. To attempt anything else would be like if literature were expected to achieve its lofty position without the use of the written word, it’s futile from my perspective. If video games need to ditch their roots entirely in order to achieve their supposed “full potential”, then what is the point in the long run? If you need to neuter interactivity and remove gameplay wholesale in order to achieve your vision, you’re better off making a movie of some kind. That’s my opinion.