In a conversation with my best friend the other day, we somehow briefly touched on the subject on art games. In doing so, we both obvious believed that the classic Shadow of the Colossus is indeed a work of art, but in saying that she also pointed out that games can be art, but not every game is. I counterpointed by saying that every game is not, but every game can. She said that she thinks some games are art, but not really many. I think this upset me in some way, despite the fact that this is just opinion. I actually believe that MANY games are art, but each for different reasons. I tried to explain my rationale for this, but at the moment couldn't elaborate. But even once we moved on, the thought lingered in my mind-- how do we define "art" when we're talking games? I already knew the games that are art to me; Shadow of the Colossus, Wind Waker, the Bit.Trip games, Ikaruga, Wario Ware, etc. Many different games are "art" for many different reasons, but I still had no grasp on the concept.
I hate limiting it with the "only cinematic games are art" argument, because then what happens is a shift towards games that are developed more like films rather than taking advantage of the medium. Shadow of the Colossus kinda falls prey to this in that, though the game is beautiful in many ways, much of it's visual beauty could be emulated in film or painting. The only place where the game does something no book or film could is when you travel from Colossus to Colossus across long barren stretches of land. In a movie, this would be extremely dull, but in a game it's where we get to put ourselves into Wander, reflect on each Colossus death, learn about the architecture of the Forbidden Lands, and, of course, grow attached to Agro. But as soon as you reach the Colossus or return to the temple, the music swells, a cutscene starts, and suddenly the game is doing something that a movie could do too, just in a way that's better than it could typically express.
This isn't to say cinematic games can't be art, but I think the best examples of "art games" are the games that are least like movies and more like games. Shadow of the Colossus may be the most accessible example of an art game today, but is no where near the best. So what else could be "art?" What about games that may not bring anything new to the table, per se, but does what it does really REALLY well? Something like the Metal Slug games, Super Puzzle Fighter, Yoshi's Island, Street Fighter III, Mega Man 9, The Red Star, etc. Perhaps these games are pretty, perhaps not. Perhaps they are moving or maybe they're just plain fun. Whatever. The do what they do and they try to do it well. I would say that's more progressive for video games than trying to make the world's more realistic or movie-like game. In fact, to people who WANT to make the "movie" game, I say, go make a movie. Go make a movie, and see your dream unfurl. But if you're gonna make a game, go play good games first. Alot of good games. Not just pretty ones. In fact, play some of the ugliest games that are also some of the best. Because game design is as much an art of video games in the same way typography is important to a graphic designer; Something that most common folk take for granted, but those with an eye for it know just how truly important it is. It's depressing how most of gaming's front celebrities are people who have the amazing idea, but it's rarely the people who actually execute it.
But there's many other things that get games labeled as art! (Whew!) What about games intentionally made to express a message or meaning... or feeling? Suda 51 has mastered the art of creating the sought after cinematic game, while at the same time implementing it. However, he is not particularly good at implementation, but he is a hell of a lot more interesting than most people who do and succeed. Killer7 and Flower, Sun, and Rain are possibly two of the worst games you will ever play... but also the best. This is extremely hard to explain unless you have played these games, but Johnathan Holmes described it best-- these are punk games. Games that do what they want without fear of how they will be received. They aren't tooled to appeal to anyone and when they are, it's to a subset crowd. Suda's masterpiece No More Heroes managed to appeal to the young otaku crowd thanks to Travis Touchdown, a literal mirror on gamers as a whole and the crazy world he lived in that was literally a manga, anime, western, mystery, grindhouse, and underground arthouse show-- all at once.
Suda 51 isn't the only master of the punk game. Many endeavor's are punk and for the most part, many people miss them. The recent Bit.Trip series are incredibly punk. Upon playing it and reading up on its development, it becomes clear that this is the game is made for the undergound Chiptune crowd. The music (the most integral part of the game) is developed by first rate chiptune artists, the graphics have more in common with a futureworld Atari game, and the gameplay is more of a means to an end, not necessarily the most fun experience (though it is pretty damn fun). If games could be hung on walls like paintings, the Bit.Trip games would more than be a special exhibition. Another game just like this are two of the most artistic games Nintendo ever put out-- Wario Ware, Inc. and Rhythm Tengoku. In this case, both only the originals. The newer versions of both these games are extremely retooled to appeal to wider crowds, but the first are unforgivingly strange. Both are made up out of smaller games, each a window into its own world with its own feeling, playstyle, music, and even controls. The game barely plays by its own rules! It's the textbook video game example of postmodernism. The best way I can describe it is it's like picking up an Andy Warhol book and flipping through the pages rapidly; you get alot of different types of art and styles, but it all feels like it came from the same place. Some of it is familiar and other parts make you extremely uncomfortable. In the case of Rhythm Tengoku, you're flipping through the book while listening to music. It goes without saying that punk games are near indescribable.
So am I any closer to the answer? What is an art game? I don't know. I certainly see it a bit differently now. I acknowledge that some games, like Beyond Good & Evil and Shadow of the Colossus, will be alot more artistic by being alot like a movie. And sometimes, something in the development of the game comes along and makes it alot more interactive and inherently immersive-- your Bioshocks and Half-Lifes. It can also be a game that makes video games as a whole medium stronger by putting forward a well made product, proving that it can just be about the medium and not about the fame or recognition, with games like Viewtiful Joe and World of Goo. Other times, it might just be the game doing whatever the hell it likes, like Noby Noby Boy and the Bit.Trip games. It could be a game that's just really pretty like Flower or Gitaroo-man. And sometimes, honestly, sometimes it a little bit of everything. Something like Wind Waker or Far Cry 2, that does more for the game industry than we may ever know... sometimes, accidentally. And sometimes, art happens.
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