Published on December 7th, 2012 |
by Christopher Hughes
Portals to Colossi: 4 Examples of Video Games as Art
Can video games really be considered works of art? It’s a seemingly endless debate, dividing many, and one that simply refuses to subside. Even cinematic heavyweight Roger Ebert has offered his unyielding opinion on the matter.
It’s not implausible, however, to suggest that video games are now establishing themselves as a genuine art form. Video games are, comparatively, still in their infancy and have come a long way since the days of Pong and Tetris. Ultimately they’re not all that different from conventional forms of entertainment; they’re merely an expansion of the traditional narrative, and drama. Just like other comparable creative mediums – films and their visual imagery, literature and its linguistic beauty – video games provide a unique approach to creative expressionism.
As the technology driving the medium continues to develop exponentially, so too does the level of freedom and expression afforded to the developers, providing a platform for video game visionaries to fully realise their creative and artistic visions.
Listed below are a few games that righteously deserve acclaim and recognition for their artistic achievements; games that have broken the mold and furthered the medium as a whole – games that everyone should at least try once.
Portal – Abstract Illusionism / Post-Futurism
Portal is one of those rare gems that comes along every so often to completely redefine its respective creative medium. Although set within the dystopian universe of Half-Life, which itself consciously evokes the idioms of futurism concerning glorified war and repudiation of fascism, Portal occurs exclusively within the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre; a clinical, futuristic laboratory, impressive in its austere simplicity.
The game further flirts with the basic extrapolations of futurism, exploring the contemporary concepts of technology, malevolent artificial intelligence, and the power of the machine age. These concepts are expertly examined through the delightful, yet ultimately insidious GLaDOS. Valve dismisses a traditional narrative, expertly utilising the omnipresent AI to drive the plot through her narcissism and deadpan delivery of some of gaming’s most memorable, and humorous, one-liners.
The game is a master class in ‘instructional scaffolding’, gradually introducing the logical tools required to solve each puzzle and proceeding to challenge the player’s spatial awareness through the various test chambers of the ‘Enrichment Center’. The game engages the participant both intellectually and emotionally, perhaps not to the same depth as a cinematic masterpiece or literary tour de force, but it’s an engagement worthy of artistic merit.
It’s more than just a game; it’s an experience and one that cannot be replicated in any other medium. The developers at Valve deserve full commendation for what they have created in Portal: an aberrant, compelling work of art – a masterpiece. Simply put, Portal is the reason that I play video games.
God of War – Neoclassicism
At a time when the Playstation 2 was undergoing its midlife transition to old age (that’s video game years) and many developers were already looking ahead to the possibilities of the next generation, one developer had the audacity to introduce a new I.P. to the video game industry. In 2005, SCE Santa Monica Studio unleashed God of War upon the gaming world – and we’ve been thanking them ever since.
Since its inception, the God of War saga has stood as a titan amongst the ranks of the Playstation exclusives, standing atop the pantheon of gaming achievements, resolute and defiant, much like its titular anti-hero Kratos.
Weaving a tale of vengeance and tragedy, akin to many of the bloody ancient Greek narratives, to use the word epic would perhaps be an understatement. Combining the gaming staples of platforming, puzzle-solving and combo-based combat, together with colossal ‘boss fights’ never before seen in gaming, God of War offered, and continues to offer, a visceral beauty complimented by its outstanding graphics and driven by its remarkable art direction. The game itself is the art and as all of these elements combine they provide the digital canvas for the player, via Kratos, to complete the artwork; a paradigm unique to video games.
Although astonishingly violent, there’s an elegance to Kratos’ crusade, an artistry of death, executed with a ferocious flair that only a man like him can provide. Relentlessly screaming with vengeance in his veins, not even the Gods of Olympus could prevent Kratos completing his sanguineous masterpiece!
Heavy Rain – Realism
Quantic Dream has always been a studio that has defied convention, gradually bridging the gap between cinema and the video game while pioneering the interactive drama genre. 2010 witnessed their release of Heavy Rain, a psychological film noir-esque thriller emphasising narrative, emotion and innovation. And when I say innovation, I’m not referring to its ‘compatibility’ with Playstation Move.
Led by auteur director David Cage, Heavy Rain sought to introduce a realism that, until this point, was sorely missing from the video game medium. Photorealistic graphics are currently far from reality but there is a realism to be found that transcends the mere aesthetics of the game. It focuses on characterisation and the exploration of the dynamic human relationships through a commonality that we all share: emotion.
The player is encouraged to explore their immediate in-game environment, interacting through context-sensitive icons and quick time events; the latter usually occurring during fast-paced action sequences. All of this culminates in, what is essentially, an interactive movie. It is precisely this daring approach to video game design that allows Heavy Rain’s idiosyncratic beauty to flourish.
The simplistic controls permit the game to explore the human condition and examine our own morality, paving the way for the plot to shine through the in-game’s bleak torrential downpour, and take centre stage. Yes, you’ll spend the initial stages tediously re-enacting Ethan Mars’ morning routine, right down to brushing his pixel-perfect teeth, but, as anyone who has played the game knows, persist and you’ll be wondrously rewarded with the game’s strongest asset: its story. Heavy Rain’s multiple narrative strands, experienced through four different characters, culminate into an overarching plot that explores the darker side of human emotion, creating an experience unique to each gamer. It presents a nightmare scenario filled with anxiety and fear, posing the question no one ever wants to hear: how far would you go to save a loved one?
The game isn’t perfect (insert plot-hole joke here), and at times its extensive scope unwittingly causes the game to drown in its own ambition. But it’s this same ambition that the game, and its developers, should be commended for. Sure Heavy Rain has its flaws, but it more than makes up these shortcomings and imparts an overall enthralling and unforgettable experience.
Shadow of the Colossus – Minimalism
Oscar Wilde pithily stated that “a work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament,” a principle gracefully woven throughout Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus. The game is a paragon of beauty and artistic expression, simple in its vision, yet possessing layers of complexity that permeate the desolate atmosphere and mysticism of the in-game world.
It is a simple story of a lone wanderer journeying to the ends of the earth in the hope of resurrecting his lost love. Bargaining with the disembodied entity “Dormin”, he embarks on an arduous quest to slay the sixteen Colossi that roam the forbidden lands.
With little dialogue and only these Colossi to overcome in a largely uninhabited world, it’s a wonder that it even works as a game at all, but this is where this high concept game excels. Throughout, the player has the freedom to project their own imagination to the cryptic narrative and interpret the game how they wish.
Each encounter with a Colossus is equal parts boss fight and puzzle platforming, demanding lateral thought and evoking a sense of wonderment at the sheer size of each titanic beast. Travelling to each encounter can at times be a puzzle in itself, but it’s also an integral part of the profound journey. You’ll find yourself questioning your motives, even feeling compassion for each behemoth you’ve slain, contemplating the mythology and lore of your surroundings.
Now, my fondness for solid-hoofed herbivores is minimal at best, but I found myself growing ever closer to my only companion: an endearing horse named Agro. It’s minimalist art at its finest: utilising the simplest elements to create the maximum emotional affect. It’s a heartfelt relationship that develops over the course of the game and a bond that I now look upon with a fond gaming nostalgia.
I’ve yet to even mention the musical grandeur imbued within the game; an orchestral beauty I’ve not heard since Spinal Tap’s melodious Lick my Love Pump in D minor. The soundtrack is one of gaming’s finest, enhancing the thematic richness and driving emotive power, whilst reinforcing the self-reflection of the player. It’s a game that defies genre and dared to be different, whilst challenging traditional gaming paradigms and pushing the boundaries of video game design.
Video games are now ingrained within popular culture, but many still dismiss them, thanks in part to media sensationalism, as mere forms of entertainment reserved solely for the sweaty, acne-ridden teen suffering from a severe vitamin D deficiency. I accept that the annual Call of Duty’s and FIFA’s have their rightful place within the industry and are fully entertaining in their own right, but some games gracefully transcend the stereotype, deserving the distinction of the label of ‘art’. They deserve recognition as such.
For every astonishing, profound Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind there’s a directionless Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; shallow and loud, with Michael Bay famously ‘fucking each frame’. For every drug-fuelled experiment into gonzo journalism via Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, society is inflicted with a clunky, asinine 50 Shades of Grey. For every breathtaking Shadow of the Colossus, there exists a muddled, incoherent Medal of Honor. But you know, there is nothing wrong with that.
Art is a term that is completely subjective, difficult to quantify, evoking opinion and encouraging debate. Some games, films or novels aren’t considered art, but they often neither try nor claim to be. This doesn’t devalue them in any way or make them any less entertaining, but every Ico and Metal Gear Solid is an inspiring breath of fresh air that reminds us of the heights of story-telling and artistic beauty that video games, as a creative medium, can achieve.
Flower: A sublime experience of serenity and tranquillity; abstract, charming and simply beautiful.
Okami: A sumi-e-inspired, cel-shaded visual style infused with Japanese mythology and folklore. The game excels as a marvellous artistic endeavour, embodying the intrepid spirit of the finest Zelda title.
Metal Gear Solid Saga: Do I really need to justify this one? Hideo Kojima – we thank you!
Ico: A classic tale of horned boy meets non-horned girl. Team Ico can seemingly do no wrong, although they’ seem to be taking their sweet time with The Last Guardian.
Mirror’s Edge: Set in a dystopian future where couriers traverse the cityscape using parkour as a means to transmit messages whilst evading the surveillance of a totalitarian government with a bizarre affinity for primary colours. A unique first-person experience with moments of brilliance.