In the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion about the place of games in the world of art. This isn’t just a case of watching the latest graphical adventures on our next-gen consoles and swooning over the artwork in the game. Video game graphics are (surprisingly) ignored in the “games as art” debate. Game graphics fall into the classical definition of artisan; a game’s rendered graphics are a craft to be used by the consumer. Rather, it is the content of the game and its interaction with the player that has brought this discussion about.
Game designers have been fighting to define their game’s interaction with the player as an art form. This claim makes sense when comparing video games to books. Literature pulls the reader into the story, allowing one to form emotional connections to the characters and scenarios. Video games force the player to move through the story, creating emotional connections between the avatar and the game world, and displaying these connections to the player.
The source of the debate is that games seem to dictate too closely what the player must feel – so much that the player doesn’t form much of a connection to the game at all. Still, as with video games, most literature fails to form emotional connections with its readers. Teen magazines are not considered artistic, yet literature is a primary form of art. No wonder the debate is still raging on! We are too focused on the bad examples of “games as art” to consider the actual scope of the claim.
Braid, a recent release to the XBox Live service, is considered by most to be a true art game. Though the painterly graphics may seem like the main reason, these graphics only set the stage for the player’s interaction with the beautiful game mechanics. Each stage spotlights an entirely different game mechanic that the player must find and solve. These game mechanics revolve around the concept of time and memory, intrecatly weaving into the game’s moving story of loss and rememberance. YouTube has several videos of the last stage (probably the most moving part of the game). Don’t watch it unless you have no intent to play the game.
Is Braid a work of art? Yes. The storyline has been carefully hidden away – your avatar’s missions do not directly reveal anything about the plot. Instead, the game mechanics reveal philosophical concepts, and the game’s setting and graphics provide the underlying foundation for those concepts.
Don’t take away the lesson that the game is artistic because it is vague. Many “art games” try to be artsy by hinting at deep meaning that doesn’t exist. Braid is not one of those games; its hints have substance behind them.
The Majesty of Colors is an intriguing game…at first. It’s created in the same vein as I Wish I Were the Moon, but from a different developer. In both games, there are a series of “game endings” you must achieve to earn your Kongregate badge.
Granted, the game will impress you on your first go. The strained movement of your tentacles reaching for balloons runs opposite to your seemingly powerful body. Possibilities seem endless, and the game seems to have a lot to offer. After your third ending, you’ll realize that your actions (and thus the game’s message) is extremely limited. As a hulking sea monster, you can either harm or assist the people you are forced to interact with. “Forced” is the key word there, as the freedom that you thought you had is quickly ripped away during gameplay. Each stage forces the player to make one of two choices, similar to Bioshock’s “save or extract” choice for Little Sisters. Though Bioshock was supported by terrific dialog and an exciting plot, Colors doesn’t offer anything outside this choice system.
Meaning is hinted at through vague poetry and pixelated avatars, but other than a more complex rehashing of the Moon game, The Majesty of Colors has no artistic message to offer.
Any possible art in Majesty of Colors was lost due to gameplay. Passage, on the other hand, has pretty much no gameplay…but is all art. This is a truly moving game, and will leave you thinking long after you play through it. (Passage is available on the App Store for the iPhone if you want a quick way to donate to the game designer, and is available for free on Sourceforge).
Your avatar starts at the beginning of what seems to be a long hallway. Travelling vertically will push you into a convoluted maze, though you will be rewarded with many more treasure chests. However, the game world looks the same (and rather drab) if you continue vertically. Traveling horizontally will lead you through harsh landscapes but will end in a beautiful field.
Did I mention you can bring a girl along? At the start of Passage is a lady, who will stay by your side as your wife throughout the maze. You will find it difficult to pick up treasure chests if you don’t go alone, but picking up treasure to increment your score seems meaningless without your companion there. Reaching the lush green of the “end stage” feels emotionally rewarding. Watching your avatar (and your avatar’s wife) die feels shocking and sudden.
The game’s designer lets us know the point of the game is up to us, though the message of Passage seems very clear. Here is a game that tells you no objective (and has no dialog), yet the careful placement of the game’s objects (and characters) tell a very moving story. Like Braid’s painterly graphics, the narrow/blurry passage that your pixel man moves through adds depth and layers to the gameplay’s art.
So are games art? Yes and no. This debate runs parallel to “all 3D movies vs manual special effects in film”. 3D movies are easier to make, but quickly devolve into something repetitive (and thus non-artistic). Manual special effects take time and effort, allowing filmmakers to focus time on the actual film. 3D is new and exciting, but it seems to enforce quick/sloppy schedules. Game development is also new and exciting, but games are always on a quick schedule. Artistic aspects cannot be properly implemented on a tight schedule, thus only the long-term games get the artistic treatment they deserve. Braid took years to properly polish (and it shows). Passage cut down game development time due to its simplicity in design, yet that saved time went into fine-tuning the game’s message.
Painting takes time, writing takes time, composing takes time. If games are to be considered a true art form, then developers need to take time as well.