The Video Game As Art

The Video Game As Art

A screenshot from Playdead’s INSIDE, where the game follows a boy journey into a facility that’s conducting darkly fascinating experiments.

Growing up, I was obsessed with video games. My family had a Super Nintendo and then an N64, and those were both revelations to me. Countless hours were spent on Donkey Kong Country, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Smash Bros. But they were simple in design and objective, being limited to graphics processors and sound cards.

Now, environments in games rival those of reality. Characters’ reflections appear in rain puddles, clothes ripple in the wind and facial expression technology now requires actual live acting to be imported into characters. It’s like they’ve evolved from cave paintings to impressionism in little more than a decade.

Video games, for decades, were not considered to be art and were considered no more expressive than a pinball machine. Only recent as 2011, when the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that video games should be considered an art form, were games deserving of First Amendment safeguards as “the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them.”

What strikes me the most about video games now is the current trend for games intended as art, rather than entertainment like Call of Duty or Madden NFL.

I had the pleasure of playing through the new indie game INSIDE the other day, which is one of those games. The sci-fi/horror game is the second release by developer Playdead, the first being Limbo — which was also a widely popular side-scrolling, eerie game. Essentially, you play as a boy who tries to get inside a facility and appears to be on the run.

In short, the game inspired this column. Every frame of the game looks like a visual masterpiece in its minimalist quasi-graphic novel aesthetic. A dull red is one of the few colors in addition to shades of black, gray and white. There’s no backstory to the game, and as you progress through it, the questions that are raised get more and more disturbing and complicated. You simply move the boy along the path, and avoid the dangers that (you) he encounters.

Philosophical themes of control, (corporate) slavery, Orwellian surveillance, environmental issues, the perils of science and well — it’s completely up to interpretation, but that’s what I got from it — were presented throughout the play-through.

I’ve also had the pleasure of playing through Journey, which is highly lauded as the art game. Essentially, you take the role of a traveler who is compelled to reach the shining summit of a staggering mountain in the very far distance. The journey takes you through derelict cities, dark caverns and hazardous temples. Every stage of the game feels metaphorically like the cycles of trials one faces through life, from childhood to old age and then death.

The way these two video games present themselves put you in an emotional state that’s completely unique.

Courtesy Photo In Journey, the object of the game is to climb to the top of the mountain pictured in the distance and overcome and learn from the obstacles and the world along the way.

Courtesy Photo
In Journey, the object of the game is to climb to the top of the mountain pictured in the distance and overcome and learn from the obstacles and the world along the way.

For the sake of space and time (you could write a whole damn book on this) I’m just going to focus on INSIDE and Journey and the effects they have that I believe deserves the title “work of art.”

The Avatar

In books, movies, and visual art, the experience is aimed at you but oftentimes is very limited by the medium they’re presented in. Interaction is often impossible for most mediums, with the exception of interactive art.

Video games offer a vehicle for experiencing the game and its world: the avatar. It can be anything from a dot to a fully-formed protagonist with a complicated history and cool hair. This allows the gamer to gain control of the situation. All actions forthwith are consequence of the person controlling the avatar, whether guided or not.

In Journey and INSIDE you’re a faceless, nameless traveler who can only move forward toward their goal, which is somewhere at the end of the trail you follow. Their silence is enthralling, keeping you hungry for explanations for the world they inhabit. Only small suggestions of what’s happening or happened are implied in both, with just enough to equip you with your own theories.

The element of the avatar, namely the control, is essential to empathy in video games in the same way that a likable protagonist is essential to a good screenplay. Only in video games, you have to live with the consequences in the game’s universe, but you also get to feel as if you earned or caused them.

As the boy in INSIDE runs away from body snatchers, rabid dogs and various life-threatening situations, his pace increases as you shove the joystick to the right his terrified panting becomes audible. These moments in the game, I felt like I was outrunning these threats, and it was because of my skill or decision making that I survived.

Lessons, and The Payoff

Of course, every video game has a goal in mind so it can qualify as a “game.” The entire goal of both Journey andINSIDE are simply to move forward and take in and learn from your surroundings.

By time you complete a game, you the player have learned the ins and outs of its difficulty and developed a skill of sorts in addition to your character’s skills gained.

The feelings that welled up inside of me at the ending of both of these games are no different than the kind I felt at the end of movies like “The Shining,” “Bladerunner” or even “Inception.” Those kinds of complicated endings seek to challenge us and enrich the story.

I won’t go into spoilers, but I will say the last chapter of INSIDE floored me. After the credits rolled, I had to immediately find an internet forum and see what other “insiders” were discussing about what they’d witnessed, just so I could attempt to better wrap my head around it. Amazingly, most people were just as bewildered and the few who attempted theories to the game’s meaning were all viable and no less wrong than the other. While Journey was considerably less insane, it still left me feeling like I had accomplished a feat reaching that summit, and the reflection that came afterwards in the epilogue I found to be profound.

My rudimentary self-definition of art is more or less anything created that seeks to affect a person intellectually or emotionally and delivers them an urge to discuss what they’ve experienced. Video games, as ridiculous or shallow as they can be at times, should be taken seriously. Or at least the good ones like INSIDE and Journey. Both are 10/10 experiences.

Thanks for reading.

Categories: Commentary