Or: Xzianna is Wrong and Too Busy Being Stubborn and Abrasive About It to Realize Why (and Convinced People to Hate Her).
Good work if you read that in the correct announcer voice! Before we get started, there are vague spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus and Journey in here, in their respective sections, and those are two games I wouldn't want to diminish for anyone. Now, here we go...
We generally understand that video games are interactive entertainment. At their core, they're toys we play with. They can be dressed up with interesting characters and stories, pretty pictures and sounds to draw us into the environment they create, making them more exciting, but the goal is always the same. We collect all the McGuffins and shoot all the guys. Why? Who cares? Doing it is fun and we win when we do it. There's nothing wrong with this. In fact, I think it's a sort of video game purity. There will, presumably, have been no focus on anything but making the mechanics solid and deep and the game balanced and fun to play. It is the origin of games as we know them.
The "art game" doesn't necessarily have any difference, mechanically, from a "normal game". There is no reason for them to be different at all mechanically. In short, art games can work well and the idea that they are inferior gameplay experiences, justified by other elements is ridiculous. The real difference is in the presentation. An art game isn't about collecting all the stuff, but why the stuff must be collected or the ramifications of collecting it. For all blockbuster games want to talk about a "cinematic experience", they fail to capture what that really is and end up being video games with flashy camera work. Art games, seldom advertising the same, really do. They are about the story, characters, and journey instead of doling out teh cheevos for shootin' all the mans or gettin' the lvls.
NMH vs. SotC
It was suggested that No More Heroes and Shadow of the Colossus were the same, on the criteria that they both feature an "over world", and that the over world was barren. The claim was made that because they are the same, they must be evaluated in the same way; both must be good or both must be bad. I'll get this out of the way: this is a really stupid thing to say. It's both shallow and myopic. It's comparing things at their most vague descriptions; intentional ignorance, in her case, to fulfill some agenda scolding everyone for hating Wii games just because they irrationally hate Nintendo.
No More Heroes has an overworld. It's barren and lifeless as a message that Travis Touchdown doesn't care about anything but games and what he must do to get them. It represents us as gamers, working menial jobs so we can pay exorbitant prices for violent entertainment, then toiling away again for our next fix. That, however, is as far as the message goes. After the thirty or so seconds of interest that message provides, you still have to trek through this boring, poorly-rendered maze on a motorcycle with shitty controls to get upgrades and new moves. It doesn't evolve in any way and it's message does not continue to be relevant past that first "ah ha" moment. That's why it didn't review well. It is momentarily clever and perpetually annoying.
Shadow of the Colossus, technically, has no overworld. There is no area you traverse to enter into level-like instances of anything. It has an open world, a subtle difference. That aside, the barren, seemingly lifeless Forbidden Land changes as it is navigated; while always empty save for lizards and a few birds, the landscape varies from plains to mountains and forests to deserts, which is a great deal more than can be said for No More Heroes' convoluted hub world. You aren't meant to suspect the voice leading you may be evil, and if the countryside was littered with vicious monsters it would be obvious why it is forbidden to go there. It is wide open and empty to help you form a bond with Agro, your only companion. The feeling of isolation is not a momentary, self-referential quip, it's a lasting part of the experience. The expanse of land that was exciting to ride across before becomes more and more daunting as your health fails, only enhancing that feeling.
Some may complain about the way Agro is handled, but the subject of their complaints is what makes Agro a character and not simply a conveyance. A much more lifeless example is your horse in Skyrim. If you want to charge off a cliff, the horse will do it. Gigantic, fire-breathing monster shows up? The horse will fight it with approximately the same AI as villagers, town guards and, occasionally, feral wolves. One of my favorite moments in SotC is the first time I whistled for Agro when leaving the Shrine of Worship and he just lifted his nose from the grass and looked at me as if to say "Look, dude, I am like ten feet away from you." For that moment, my equine bro was having none of my shit. We rode off, after I walked over to him, and occasionally he swerved to avoid something or maybe just because that rare tree was pretty. Or maybe he stepped on a lizard, which happens now and again. He didn't throw himself off cliffs just because I held the go-button. When we faced the next colossus, he would charge underfoot to pick me up when I needed him. When I thought him lost, I was hurt. He isn't a flashy motorcycle with twitchy controls, he's a NPC you can sit on. He's, literally, your only friend in the world, and would give up his life for you.
This endurance is the (or at least a) difference between "art" and "normal" games. It's not as simple as finding a single, vague way they are the same and demanding people feel the same way about them.
Flower & Journey
Before Flower has even started, soft music plays and the screen changes to be bright and colorful. You're given simple instructions that end with "relax, enjoy." If you are trying to do more than sit back and chill out with Flower, you're just doing it wrong. Areas of dead grass are revitalized, the sun sets and the grass sparkles with dew--more or less, a bunch of pretty stuff happens. The game itself is little more than Snake or Pac-Man, with the goal of guiding the representation of yourself through the dots to collect them. In Flower, this plays a little tone and adds a petal or two to the stream trailing behind you. It is just a nice thing to experience, and I'm not sure I've ever ended a session of Flower-ing without a yawn, which I consider evidence of it's relaxing nature. To call it pretentious is to miss the point, or to try too hard to find one. There are some levels which evoke an emotional response, but you can just roll on through and play as you like. There's a daydream quality to it, as the level select is choosing a sad-looking houseplant and then flying through some imaginary origin for it. You're free to call that pretentious if you want, but it isn't the story of Flower. In fact, I just made it up, and you're just as free to interpret the game as you please. Being pretty and vague don't make something pretentious by nature though, and I don't think I've ever heard someone quantify exactly why they find it pretentious, just say it is. I guess I'm sorry they can't just sit back and enjoy something without guffawing at dick jokes or the like.
Undirected jabs aside, I am actually curious about it, since I never saw Flower as more that the relaxing diversion it appears to be.
Journey is very different, and the spark that started this whole thing. It was dismissed as a boring, walking-around simulator by someone who hadn't played it, is sure she wouldn't like it, and had formed this entire opinion by looking at a picture or two. I'm sure there's some dope out there that bought Journey, raced through it without looking for or scarcely at anything, and got mad he paid fifteen dollars for it. Well, he did it wrong. You could also get a movie from Netflix, play it, mute it, and watch YouTube videos until you spot the credits in the corner of your eye and complain about wasting the rental, and there would be no question of why people are telling you you're an idiot when you rant on for hour upon hour, day after day, about how everyone who liked said movie was wrong (and also a pretentious hypocrite who was attacking special-snowflake you because they wanted to oppress you and rob you of your right to an opinion. Then you can spend the next few days doing the same thing, but on the topic of how nobody likes you and everyone is mean, only annoying them further by ignoring what they say, making asinine strawman arguments, and demanding people say things the way you want them said.)
Journey is something you need to go into without the intention of just holding the stick forward. You need to be willing to go look at that thing over there, turn the camera around and look, and most of all to be friends with the people you meet. I can't think of another time I've gotten fan mail in my PSN inbox. I went through the entirety of Journey with one person, and they sent me a message thanking me for sticking with them, and to do that they had to type my PSN name in, not just pick me from their list of recently met players. To go into it with the mentality of "I'll finish it but I'm sure I won't blah blah blah" only ensures you won't enjoy it at all. You won't explore, you won't find all the story glyphs, you won't play with the porpoise-like cloth creatures swimming over the dunes. You will probably realize you can't actually die or fail, and so plow through threats, however menacing, with abandon. When the going gets tough, you'll probably just whine about walking more slowly. You won't look or listen, and you'll miss all of why Journey is good. That is what makes Journey an art game. It's not about completing it, it's about the journey itself.
So get to the fucking point, Trev
To call something an art game is to label it as an experience and not a challenge. You don't go watch a movie, however brilliant or terrible, as a challenge of your watching skills. (Ok, I take that back, some people that are generally unbearable to be around do this after they have half a semester of a film class in college. I'm not counting them.) You'll never win at movies.
The label of "art game" is not pretentious, it is simply aware of video games' origin as digital challenges. It is the opposite of film and photography, which are labeled as educational or instructional when they deviate from being art. It says that the composition isn't the point, teaching you how to do something is. Art games, likewise, are identified as being about playing instead of winning, and about bringing story and emotion together with gameplay, rather than hiding the former elements away in cutscenes. I don't think there's anything pretentious about that.
And you can't act like a goddamned psycho for four or five days and expect people not to get sick of you.