Legendary film critic Roger Ebert once provoked the wide community of gamers by asking the question: Are video games art? One of his key arguments stated that video games aren’t an art because the audience had too much control over the outcome of the protagonist.
A long time ago this argument was brought up about movies, and before that about theatrical production. The key argument then was: Is it art when it’s created through collaboration? Often the directors get sole credit for a film’s artistic style, but many key positions include: writers, producers, editors, production designers, cinematographers, all the way down to the makeup artists and set decorators. Some more minimal than others, all have an artistic input to the production of a film.
Much like films, video games are a collaborative art form. Some games have reportedly taken over 5 years to fully develop.
In November 2012, the Museum of Modern Art acquired 14 video games that were put on display. “I really do believe that design is the highest form of creative expression,” curator Paola Antonelli said “I want people to understand that design is so much more than cute chairs, that it is, first and foremost, everything that is around us in our life.”
Another key argument against video games being an art form accused the medium of being nothing else but code. Yes, coding is a key element to making a video game, but that doesn’t mean that the creative process is absent.
Like film, video games are a collaborative art. People argue the design and structure being an art, but a new key element has been brought into the mix (more so in the last couple of years) – the story. Earlier this year Naughty Dog released “The Last of Us,” a story-driven narrative where our two lead protagonists, Joel and Ellie, work together to travel across the U.S. amidst an apocalypse. Also, “Mass Effect” a trilogy that ended recently that followed Commander Shepard’s war against the Reapers that featured many three-dimensional side characters with equally interesting back stories.
Last year Telltale released fives episodes of a game titled “The Walking Dead,” based off the world created by Robert Kirkman. The game went onto win the top “Game of the Year” prize with various publications. You played as Lee Everett, who plays guardian to an abandoned little girl named Clementine during the zombie apocalypse. In this game the player is required to make quick decisions that ripple throughout the rest of the narrative, each with their own consequence.
Many story-based games like these aren’t often played for long. They are beaten and then shelved like most films. If a movie is really good it stays with you even after years of not seeing it. A great video game can do the same thing. Even games renowned for their multiplayer still offer a campaign story, even if they often don’t have the same level of quality as others.
Writing is one of the oldest recorded art forms. We went from drawing, painting, sculpting to storytelling. Would people be less reluctant to call a game art if the storyline was transcribed into a novel?
Not only should video games be considered collaborative art alongside movies and music, it holds an advantage over those mediums by having the audience control the outcome of the protagonist. This allows for a whole other level of connectivity. There is one straight story arch for video game characters, but it comes with the risk of defeat and in some games death; raising the narrative stakes, especially with games that implement choices and the consequences that follow.
When you go back to the dawn of video games: “Pac-Man,” “Asteroids,” and “Pong;” there wasn’t a strong narrative in those games, just a goal. Avoid certain objects and collect other objects. This was a time that people didn’t fully understand what video games could become. The characters: more complex, the goals: more tricky, the narrative: more engaging.
So if design doesn’t hold a strong enough argument to represent video games as an art form, then look at the story; one of the oldest forms of art and how it has been integrated into video games which has allowed the medium to evolve. See the potential in the medium and its ability to put the audience literally in the head of its protagonist. You don’t just control the fate of the protagonist, you stay with them through an entire narrative.