Upgraded Thinking: Video Games as Art
Are Video Games Art?
It’s a tricky question that seems to creep up every once and a while, especially after a new triple-a title hits the shelves, or a new popular shooter is released, and draws the question of critical acclaim or censorship of the media to the public’s eye. With the release of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, I’ve seen this question be resurrected once more, though for the first time in a long time in a positive light. I’ve decided then to here place a quick recommendation for 6 great games people
may have overlooked, but without a doubt argue in favour of games being an art form. To this end, I’ve cut them into three categories: Emotional Response, Storytelling, and Artistic License.
It’s hard to start this category off without talking about The Last of Us seeing as it just came out, but it’s hard at the same time to talk about The Last of Us‘ ability to tug at your heart without giving up significant spoilers. I’ll put it bluntly: One time I was struck in the head by a badminton racquet so hard it ended up bent at a 90 degree angle. I was dazed for about 30 seconds, then continued playing to win the set. I played The Last of Us for 15 minutes and ended up bawling my eyes out at the end of the intro.
This is one of the few games that has managed to tug an emotional response from me and I recommend everyone go play it. If you want to play something else though, take a look at these hidden gems:
Journey: An indie game that cycled around on the marketplace before getting a disk release starring a voiceless protagonist who can only shout his name. The game makes use of stunning visuals and blends in online play so you can travel with other people who are doing so. You get attached to this character easily and by the end of the quick play-through you find yourself invested in seeing how far this trip goes. I’m not going to spoil it, so instead I’ll say “go buy it” and leave it at that.
Spec Ops: The Line: However, if you’re more of a manly man who thinks feelings are for things with vaginas in them and you need your testosterone laced pistol-whipping before you can go to bed, I’ll recommend this one for you. Spec Ops. was a shocking diamond in the rough that puts you in what feels like a Call of Duty clone, but the developers decided since Call of Duty already has the franchise on Call of Duty, they’d need to go in an different direction. The game ends up playing out like the standard shooter, but as you go on, get invested in different people while giving you the freedom to make choices you normally couldn’t in a shooter. It fades the line between mindless fun shooting and traumatic experience as certain lines start to hit close, hit home, and make you slowly realize that the real enemy in this game isn’t who you’re after, but you!
If there’s one game I feel I can pick up and use as a meter stick to another game’s ability to tell a story, it’s Assassins’ Creed II. Sequels that were not Assassins’ Creed III withstanding, the game showed an amazing level of commitment and development to characters. Ezio Auditore de Firenze is probably one of my favourite characters of all time because of this as it shows him develop from fun-loving youth into an Italian version of James Bond with all the gadgets, his own love interest, and a revenge plot that kept me captivated and playing for total completion. This kind of slice of life story telling is hard to get across, but when a game goes out of its way to develop characters in such a way and portray them as complicated three dimensional people, we connect with them better, and as such it makes for a better story. Here’s two more games that I feel fall into this category:
The World Ends With You: Make fun of SquareEnix as much as you want, I enjoyed this game, and as I have a tendency to not play JRPGs these days, that says something. The gameplay was dizzying, though I give them credit for trying something new, but it was the cast of characters that drew me in and made me want to see. Yes, I admit some dialogue felt cliche, but none of it was really a game-breaker, and given I kept playing forward to learn what had really led the young protagonist there, I would say the game did a fantastic job of pushing me forward. Heck, I even ended up playing the game’s equivalent of its own fan-fiction to see what they characters would be like in an alternate universe using their pins to battle that felt like it was mimicking Yu-gi-oh… on second thoughts, maybe the bonus story wasn’t that great. Still, play the original, worth it.
Kane & Lynch: NOT DOG DAYS. I’m probably going to still get a lot of flak for admitting this, but I enjoyed the story of the first Kane & Lynch. The gameplay is debatable and their cover system was complete ca-ca, but the story was solid in my mind. Kane was a likable character who admitted there was little to no chance for redemption while on death row and simply accepted his fate. He had a daughter, an ex-wife, and had was a gun for hire prior. Then Lynch shows up and we end up seeing the duality of Kane trying to save his daughter while shooting everyone in the face he can. I honestly didn’t know how the game was going on, it was as if someone had walked in while the script was being worked on every five minutes and asked “how could be make this situation even worse,” and I loved it. I know everyone else has a rather low opinion of this game, and from a gameplay standpoint I agree, but from a storytelling point I say: give it a try, you might like what you find.
Two of Nintendo and perhaps gaming in general’s longest running franchises are Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda, and for good reason. While other companies have tried to make characters that could compete, none have managed to stand the test of time better than these two, and in part this is due to the fact that Nintendo made them so flexible. Mario’s variety of abilities and constant reinventing of gameplay has made him the icon that other characters aspire to be. Sega tried this with Sonic and didn’t do so well later on due to the fact Sonic was a amalgamation of the 90’s. They tried to put Sonic into the limelight much harder, and while it worked for a time, Sonic is now something more of a relic from the previous ages with the same repertoire of moves. Recently they have tried to adapt Sonic to present day a bit more, but Mario didn’t need this make over as he was always the silent poster boy for Nintendo. As a result, Mario’s creativity has evolved from seeing what works and what doesn’t. You can sit down, play any Mario game and know what to expect from the story, but the rules of the game are never the same and will always pose you a new fun challenge. Here’s two more games that have tried to take their creativity in a different direction and are worth playing through:
What Have I Done To Deserve This, My Lord?! 2: I’ll admit, I had never heard of this game until someone handed it to me from the back of the PSP shelf at my local EB Games with a grin, but it surprised me. It’s your standard RPG dungeon crawled with one slight twist: you’re the dungeon, and it’s your job to spawn monsters and build yourself to a amazing size to hide your boss and kill the heroes. Though a complicated game, I found it mesmerizing and myself unable to put it down for a few weeks straight. The concept it so different and fun with a difficulty curve that goes off the scale, I have to recommend this for any puzzle and RPG fans.
Hotline Miami: I still have no clue what this game was about, who caused all this, what your character’s connection to it all was, and what happened in the end, but it was the most fun I have ever had for 10 bucks. Bloody, gory, over-the-top mayhem, and I loved it. The game has this amazing retro feel about it as you stare it down in its glowing pink neon and whack a thug with a baseball bat, and the plot does nothing to explain itself, though I’m certain there’s a story there between missions. A top down shooter like the original GTA, Hotline Miami satisfies and shocks even the most jaded gamers with visuals and action you had never seen before, and leaves you begging for more when it’s all over. Even with the criticisms on violence these days and how damaging it is for kids, this touch of the ol’ ultraviolence really shows how cathartic it can be if delivered in a new and fresh way.
Maybe the idea that games can’t be art stems from how they originated and treated in the past, as a babysitter for kids or the unpopular. It’s hard to deny though that games have changed, and as their original audience has grown up, games have too to adapt and reflect the ideas of the time. If we want to end the idea that games are not art, we must first end the stigma behind them as tools for those who seek an escape fantasy, and as something that can invoke a genuine emotional response, or entertain on par with a movie or book.