What seems an age-old debate about video games and art has been on my mind quite a bit this past week. As I get lost in Mass Effect 3, I'm stunned by the complexity of the cinematic action sequences, the gorgeous musical score, and the intense, emotional story. I'm also conflicted with regard to my feelings about the artistic expression within video games. Usually I'm one of those people who states, rather firmly, that video games are not art, at least not yet. However, with video games shifting into a direction that places as much emphasis on a film-like experience as a game, the gap may be closing.
The past few years have presented us with many games that present themselves as video games, and cinematic experiences. There are games that might as well be films; they just require some audience participation. The Mass Effect series, the Modern Warfare games, Killzone, and especially the three games in the Uncharted franchise, are all interactive movies on top of being video games.
The Uncharted series is built around massive action sequences that would not be out of place in the most impressive of Hollywood blockbusters. Modern Warfare satisfies any would-be military recruit, and is not out of place for fans of war films. Killzone and Mass Effect offer intense sequences of science fiction inspired drama and action. These four series of games are examples of where video games might be going, trying to bridge the gap between interactive entertainment and film experience.
Developers and studios are diving headfirst into the pool of epic filmmaking and turning out video games that mirror those same successes. There might be a problem with this line of action, though, because for all the shifts in game storytelling, presentation, and action, video games might as well be expensive toys.
The film critic Roger Ebert has rubbed gamers the wrong way on many an occasion by loudly, and sometimes quite condescendingly, stating that video games are not art. Despite my respect for him as a film critic, I feel that Ebert misjudges video games, and also their target audience. Though, I do admit, if a part of my job required me to sit through two hour films based upon video games, films that offered no challenge to my thought processes, my sense of curiosity, or my emotions, then I might view video games as a low brow form of entertainment too.
Film, however, is considered an art form. There are types of films that are lauded as outstanding representations of the medium, as the pinnacle of grand storytelling, writing, acting, and presentation. Video games are toeing the cinematic line, too, with emphasis on narrative, strong vocal performances, and graphic overhauls that show off just what the hardware can do. There are a lot of elements within video games that parallel great films, and plenty of great film nods can be seen throughout video games.
With the cinematic experience becoming more and more necessary to keep gamers rooted in the game, I wonder if perhaps it's time to reconsider the 'games are art' argument from a different perspective. Perhaps it's time to look at the elements that make a game, and perhaps draw our conclusions about the artistic nature of those individual elements, rather than judging art from the game as a whole.
The question of whether or not video games are art is a tricky one, one that I don't think I'm qualified to argue one way for or against. That being said, the past week has forced me to mull the question over repeatedly. For those of you who are not playing, or perhaps don't intend to play, Mass Effect 3, I will offer no spoilers, and very little details. I like going into a game fresh, and I'd rather that others get the same chance. That being said, the events of the game have made me rethink my perspective on art, in and outside of games.
Ebert is a film critic. He doesn't play video games; he's a critic of film, he has no reason to plug himself into a controller. In a way, I pity him that his only experience with games is through awful film adaptations, so perhaps he can't see what we gamers see. As I said, though, Ebert is a film critic. He looks at video games as garbage, but thinks that certain films are brilliant works of art. I look at a particular film that he adores as an overblown disappointment. However, I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call him out just because I disagree with him.
Guys like Ebert have more years experience in criticism than I have years on this planet. My opinion doesn't really matter when it comes to film. I like movies, and there are a few that I can discuss for long periods of time. That doesn't make me qualified to argue a critical stance on those movies, but I'm willing to try and defend or explain why I feel as I do about certain films, just as I do the same thing with video games.
I can talk at length about what I see as social and cultural issues being presented in video games, just as I can see the same thing in movies. So what makes a film presenting the idea of a political battle between ideologies more important and interesting than a video game offering a storyline that also involves heavy political arguing? While films like The Ides of March ask the audience to accept that politics is a filthy game, there are a few games, like the Mass Effect series, that force the player to be a part of the political experience. It's not a clean feeling, no, but there's a difference between choosing to make a political call as an in-game character, as opposed to watching an actor make the decision.
It's this kind of situation where interactivity might trump simple viewership on the artistic or emotional scale. There is an intense feeling of stress and self loathing as you find yourself pressing the button to make a choice after you have weighed all of the outcomes, none of them particularly beneficial to you or anyone else. When I see a character in a film like The Ides of March choosing to destroy someone else for power, and then feeling no guilt over his action despite the horrific consequences, I find little sympathy for him or anyone else around him.
This is what makes something toe the line between art and not-art, because a video game can make a player emotionally invested. The Gears of War series taught me that, and it pulled no punches as it drew me closer and closer to its end. When it hit me full on with its narrative hard right, the fan of brilliant writing in me, the fan of artistic writing, applauded. The Gears of War trilogy presented a complete narrative arc, and it succeeded were some films do not.
So, in saying that a trilogy of games presented a complete beginning, middle, and end, with characters that we gamers came to know and care about, presenting their struggles, their feelings, their fears, can we settle the argument about video games as art, once and for all? No, no we cannot. Several months ago I said that the use of music in video games was pulling us closer to games as art, but I'm still not sure that we've reached the point where we can say a definitive 'yea' or 'nay'.
If video games are not art, themselves, then there are elements within them that are. One of those things is conceptual art for the games. Some of this video game art is among the finest painting work I've ever seen, and I've stood in the Prado Museum and gawked over Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. There is something truly artistic and beautiful being done in video game art.
Luckily, there are a few people who realize that. The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., has its 'The Art of Video Games' exhibition opening next Friday, March 16th, and it runs through September 30th. Its defining promotional image is this:
I don't know about you, but I consider that a piece of fine art.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays. You can follow Alexandra on Twitter @Al3xandra_G.