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Ars Ludica – The Art of Video Games

This is a translation of the Italian original, first appeared on I Love Videogames on May 6th, 2017. I am both the author of the lengthy original article and the translation itself.

 


When (and if) video games stop being mere entertainment and enlarge their horizons, as part of a debate that – some say – shouldn’t even exist: are video games a form of art?

The topic forced rivers of ink to flow already, and some firmly believe that, even though entire oceans of viscous darkness would exist, every hypothesis and fight and argument in the world could still not be enough. Between those who strongly rage against the positive hypothesis (“Video games will never be Art”; we’ll get to that) and those who feel obliged to defend the medium (just like the Association of Italian Video Game Editors and Developers and, largely, the author of this article), the relationship between Art and video games feeds up fiery debates over the Internet, on Social Media, and, occasionally, even on more prestigious papers and specialised magazines. Undoubtedly, the topic is vast and complex, and has its roots in a cultural and anthropological issue which has bothered the human kind for centuries. What is “Art”, to begin with?
Before we can even tackle the issue, it is mandatory to start from the basics. But get ready, fellow readers: it will be a long, sometimes boring journey, although we believe it to be as difficult as it is necessary.

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Art: The Search for a Definition

The same concept of video games, today, is strongly subjective. Past editorial debates (often resulting in ardent pitchforks, insults to the ancestors and a couple of much less sober solutions) have allowed us to realise an increasingly evident reality: the conception of video games can vary from person to person, a reality that the medium could not show off as strongly at the dawn of its time. Many gamers, today, have an unbelievably subjective vision about video games, and that’s the assumption we need to start from: it is impossible to make everyone happy with a universal concept – a simple truth that is also, partly, proper of Art itself.

When we talk about “Art”, the first thing we can think of is usually a nice painting (for instance, a Botticelli’s), or a gorgeous sculpture of Michelangelo. And yet, the same concept of “Art” is far (although not excessively) from the mere canons of formal beauty and visual creation, enough to be conceived in different ways from culture to culture. Eastern countries have a completely different conception of Art, compared to us Occidentals.

At the same time, it seems as easy to say “what Art is not” as it is difficult to state what actually is. The reason behind this is that Art is continuously changing: it is not simple to find a definition that might be adequate to every era. Just think of Maurizio Cattelan’s “America”, a golden toilet currently exposed at the Guggenheim Museum of New York City (fully functional, by the way), or, going a little farther in time, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. Would you ever put such works next to a Renaissance portrait, and find some common formal features in all of them? And yet, without any doubt, it is Art indeed.

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Detergent “Brillo” boxes, stacked up by Andy Warhol in 1964 to make them a piece of art.

Stepping away from the production processes, some philosophers of aesthetics such as John Dewey tried to find a definition that would focus more on the experiences Art can stimulate, rather than on a feature common to every artistic production. And it is here, at last, that video games step on the field. Dewey exposed himself by suggesting the concept of “Art as Experience”: it is an Aesthetic Experience an occurrence that stands out for strong emotional and cognitive components at the same time. It is, to put it briefly, something that can hit us “in the stomach” and “in the head”, in a potentially different way from person to person, but also, somehow, in a way that most could agree on. For instance: we all agree on how beautiful a sculpture of Canova can be, and yet all of us feel it differently on our skins. And it is not difficult to already think of some video games that allow us to live similar experiences.

Video games, like art, can be sources of extraordinary emotional and thoughtful experiences.

Starting from these long – and, at the same time, far too condensed – premises, this article will move to sustain the idea, the hypothesis, the possibility of conceiving video games as a form of art, with all its consequences. Paying attention not to fall in a trivialisation of the medium, and avoiding naive scholastic errors (such as a classification of “artistic” and “non-artistic” video games, which could perhaps be applied to the early years of the medium, but would certainly be anachronistic today). As our analysis moves on, we will often recall the languages and the history of another young art, one that managed to develop herself in less than a century: Cinema.

A Young Art

The primary issue of video games is that, if we truly are willing to define it as the “Eighth Art” (and some already tried to do that), we cannot ignore the fact that they are placed in an historical period, nor we can ignore all their evolutionary ark. It’s an issue that Cinema itself had to tackle, especially in the first years of its life: officially born on December 28, 1895, thanks to the legendary Lumière Brothers, the Seventh Art is today a little more than a century old, but it already managed to develop its own languages, thanks to an outstanding number of authors who followed its history from scratch. And, in any case, it fought for a long time, before being compared to the other “Fine Arts” like Literature, Sculpture, Theatre and so on.

Video games, for what it’s worth, have lived for barely half of that period, in terms of time. It goes without saying that the unbelievable technological development has helped them becoming what they are today, and it’s also indisputable that something has started to move in the last few years. After all, just as Cinema had to wait the Avant-garde to truly stand out, video games themselves found a new form of identity when the Indie market became relevant. But there’s still a lot to do.

And there’s just no point in trying to put them together with the so-called “fine Arts”, the ones with capital “A”, the ones including painting, sculpture and the other artistic practices we mentioned before. This conception of art is way too far from today’s standards (just think of the aforementioned Brillo Boxes or the golden toilet, just to recall a few), and the few “anti-conventional” examples we brought can do nothing but confirming a straightforward truth: “Art” is an open concept, one willing to change and always welcome new standards over time. Provided that the necessary conditions exist, obviously, which are more often than not depending from the context; a context in which academicians and scholars are all but negligible.

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The “Indifference” of Academicians

Whoever states that “a theory of video games does not exist” didn’t clearly spend enough time reading up. Saying that “the theory of video games is not talked about“… That is an entirely different story, and it would be absolutely true. And yet, a theory of video games already exists in academic circles, and it is also flourishing with content: Anglo-Saxon schools are characterised by a certain vision of video games, while American schools showcase another; there’s sometimes a focus on the “structure” of video games, and sometimes on the “user experience”; some are stimulated by the “forms”, others by the “contents”, and so on. But, just as the early audiences in the history of cinema, the video games industry’s final users are usually just youngsters (or former ones), who see them exclusively as pure entertainment and would gladly leave to the “adults” all the thoughts and reflections on video game experiences. Briefly put, the theory of video games exists; but it is not a popular topic, neither among player, nor among the critics.

And, let it be known, this is not a snobby-flavoured critique to the video game users, nor it intends to be: our sons will likely have a different conception of the medium, and our grandsons will have another. Just as it undoubtedly happened for the Seventh Art in its early years, until a professional circle of critics finally grew up to express its opinions. It is just a matter of historical and cultural context, something that, in short, rarely depends on our direct will. Over time, video games couldn’t help but evolve more and more, moving beyond that “indifference of academicians” that still prevents them from reaching the adults. In a few generations, time could literally turn the tables.

The “Video Game Avant-Garde”: The Independent Market

Surely enough, fifteen years ago we wouldn’t even talk about “Ars Ludica”. Back then, the sixth generation of consoles (PS2 / Xbox 360) was just born, and video games rarely moved away from their established “dichotomy” of challenge and narrative (of which we will talk in a minute), which came into being in the late Nineties. With the advent of Steam and the explosion of Digital Delivery, however, things changed dramatically: following just a few years to settle down, the independent market realised it had found a consistent demand in all those users looking for “something different”, something unusually far from the big companies who didn’t like investing their money in excessively risky experiments (does it ring a bell, Hollywood?).

Using a term perhaps premature and easily subject to criticism, we will now advance the concept of “Video Game Avant-Garde“: although we are still missing some precise studies to outline some clear and definite tendencies, it is indisputable that the Indie market brought a pleasant breeze in the international video game landscape. Moreover, our beloved “worldwide web” allowed some “video game artists” from the whole world to try and dive into online distribution platforms, helping them propose their ideas (which are sometimes original and intriguing) and telling their stories. Let it be clear that we absolutely don’t intend to make an apology exclusive to the independent market, and our following analysis (including names like Uncharted and Shadow of the Colossus, to mention a few) will be useful to efficiently outline the issue. Creativity and the so-called “Artistry” (such as we intend it in this article) can be found even in bigger productions, and this truth, especially in today’s scenery, is unquestionable.

Nonetheless, sometimes, independent works can indeed have that “extra kick”: names like Life Is Strange, with such emotional and cognitive impact on the player, or visual masterpieces like Monument ValleyBraid and many more. Even Pony Island‘s weird originality could be defined as “artistic”, perhaps just because it conveys a precise idea (a mash-up of genres, for instance) with all-but random aesthetic choices. As destabilising and disturbing as it can be.


Based on the first part’s premises, it is clearly possible to “pinpoint” some artistic elements in video games. But are they enough to talk about “Art”?

What are tipically artistic features of a contemporary video games, then? So far, we introduced the matter with a few pseudo-academic reflection, willingly choosing not to tackle the issue until everything would be laid out on the table. It is now time to start moving in that direction: what makes a piece of art?

When we talk about art and artistry, it is inevitable to somehow find some intrinsic elements in works of art, something that allows human beings to communicate with each other and convey a message. Whether it be just referencing some already existing works to outline a common style, or be more “technical” about it, art showcases its languages either way (some of which are mainly used by critics and artists themselves), in order to talk about complex topics or communicate precise authorial ideas. It would be pointless to say otherwise: a pan, in cinema, is a camera flow towards a direction; chiaroscuro plays with the relationship between light and shadow, and so on. Video games are not that different.

One thing is clear, anyway: so far, we implicitly referred to arts with autonomous languages, one that they developed over a long time. Many think this is not the case of video games, but it is truly a void and meaningless argument nowadays: video games have already developed some of their own aesthetics, most of which are based on the player’s involvement and interaction, and nothing excludes that such languages might evolve, increasing in number and complexity in the next future. That said, this second part will examine, in a way as complete as possible, some of the so-called “artistic” elements currently present in video games.

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The Narrative Turn

If Cinema and Literature have taught us one thing about art, is that it can exist and gain value even when stories are involved. And, after all, what are certain sculptures and paintings if not implicit stories, captured in their defining moment? As Jonathan Gottschall said in his excellent book, men are “Storytelling animals“, and always have been, ever since they first carved their rural paintings. Men can’t help but tell stories, in video games and in every other art. We should not be amazed, then, if video games are just the last step of a long narrative path: everywhere it’s possible, for every new form of expression created by humanity, there will always be someone trying to tell a story with it. Ars Ludica is no different.

Even at the dawn of its times, our beloved medium wasn’t immune from the first small attempts to tell a story: the first arcade video games (outside arcade rooms, but not necessarily) were often accompanied by a slight narrative background, which was useful to justify the characters or the gameplay elements. Simple stories, for sure, and simply articulated without any doubt, but stories nonetheless. Things changed dramatically in the Nineties, when, with the advent of the Fifth Generation of consoles (PlayStation / Nintendo 64), there was an explosion of “video game screenplays”. Slowly but steadily, more complex stories started to show up, and they could also be told in a way that wouldn’t have been possible earlier on, thanks to the means the new hardware could provide. The characters we saw on screen weren’t just simple, undefined pixels anymore: they started having voices, and well-defined identities. That was the era of Metal Gear Solid, to say one; and that is a big name to mention.

Ever since, stories in video games started evolving drastically, until they finally got to the outstanding dramatic strength of games like The Last Of Us or the Uncharted series (especially the fourth chapter). Just like every other art (and cinema above all of them), video games started to employ visual elements to tell their structured and weighty stories. And it was exactly the Seventh Art, one of video games’ siblings, to be of great inspiration to the medium.

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One of the most emotional scenes of Final Fantasy VII, one of the first games trying to tell a complex and structured story: Aerith’s death.

The Aesthetics of Cinema

It’s enough to take a look at the numerous and abovementioned The Last Of Us, Uncharted, Life Is Strange and many more to realise that video games often build their narrative discourse by constantly communicating with the Cinema, the art of moving pictures par-excellence, that we are forced to mention once again. It is not difficult to find some splendid examples of photography in any of the titles we just mentioned, and we all know very well that some cases required the Game Designer to take the role of a true “director” in his game’s cutscenes (isn’t that true, Kojima?).

We just need a few examples, nothing more: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain constantly uses the “handheld camera technique” to support Venom Snake in his missions, with wobbly shots throughout the cutscenes and a sense of dynamism taken directly from cinema (but also a lot of POVs, as outlined by the video below); Shadow of the Colossus uses majestic long shots, without which we couldn’t possibly enjoy all the incredible beauty of the surrounding territory; any first-person-shooter took the first person point-of-view shots as their distinctive mark, whereas cinematographers had experimented such technique many years before the video games were even born; Bayonetta employs marvelous travelling shots and an action-movie-style découpage, and so on. Our list of examples could potentially go on until the end of time.

But it would be a mistake to stop and focus on direction alone: video games have built many of their genres with the cinema as a starting point, successfully managing to adapt them in increasingly effective and original ways. And there we have, for instance, L.A. Noir and Blues & Bullets, two great interpretations of the Noir genre (also with a wonderful black-and-white filter in the latter); and there we have the numerous Battlefield and Call Of Duty, nothing else but video games “adaptations” of the war-movie genre; and there we have the endless horror games, western games, mystery games, action-adventure games, psychological thriller games (Heavy Rain), you name it. Even LIMBO, with his astonishing game of lights and shadows, seems suggesting a clear reference to the German Expressionism, an unforgettable parenthesis of european mute cinema in the Twenties.

Not to mention those that could be some immediately future tendencies: Death Stranding already counts at least two famous actors who lent their faces to the game, leading us to think that Kojima might have in mind some kind of fusion between Cinema and video games – and nothing makes us think he might not succeed. Despite what Roger Ebert might think (who, anyway, wrote his video game critique in 2010), video games have successfully approached the art of film, by now; and we firmly believe that the gap could only reduce, over time.

 

Deviating from Cinema: Immersiveness, Interaction, Design and Game Design

However, just as it would be a mistake to focus only on a few aspects of the aestethics of films in video games, it would be a tremendous mistake to think that the video games industry isn’t mature enough to showcase its own, autonomous aesthetics, basically “deviating” from the legacy of Cinema, which was nonetheless a good starting point. There’s still a long way to go, we won’t deny it, but the independent market was strong enough to “kickstart” (pun intended) a further development of video games, and allowed new ideas and experiments to rise from a way-too-stagnant standardisation.

First of all, graphics and visuals: if the indie market has taught us anything, it is that photorealism isn’t all that matters, and video games can be masterpieces even without extremely detailed polygons and textures. To The Moon, in that sense, is enough to speak for its own: a game with relevant narrative components, strong with clear dramatic force and entirely built with RPG-Maker, using a delightful kind of colourful and simple pixel-art. Its story is engaging to say the least, constantly involving the player/viewer in its twists, and apparently efficient because of its interactive nature, capable of effectively emphasising the contrast between innocent graphics and the story’s mature topics. An indisputable masterpiece of video game art, if you will, as well as one of the most narratively intense stories of the last twenty years; and, sure enough, not the only title in pixel-art worth playing, for such graphical style has seen many games of clear and priceless value (just think of metaphysical sci-fi game VVVVVV).

Beyond Eyes, for its part, was able to bend game design rules to benefit an incredibly fascinating style, some time ago. By playing in a little blind girl’s shoes, the players can gradually discover her surroundings with her, walking and touching and letting things come to life and color as they are approached by the player. A slow, all-but-excellent video game, at least gameplay-wise; but one that needs to be lived, from beginning till end, as an experience that involves all our senses, immersing the player into the game world and in a moving story of poetic friendship. Thanks to this perfect dialogue between interaction and immersiveness, Beyond Eyes finds its own dignity just as it is, and we hardly could imagine it otherwise.

This War Of Mine was also an emblematic case to study: by adopting a “2.5D” angle of vision, the game manages to tell the tragic realities of war via such an effective strength that it has very few equals in the history of video games. And, if we wish to move on action games and AAA productions, Bayonetta and DmC – Devil May Cry can be two perfect examples of what a high developer could end up conceiving: frenetic fights, crazy level-design and a gigantic amount of artistic “trash” at its best, a melting pot definitely hard to find outside of video games. And our list could endlessly go on, but it’s not necessary to recall once again the numerous The Last Of Us, Uncharted and such to prove our point: video games exist thanks to a perfect dialogue between interaction and immersiveness logics, between design and game-design, between narrative and gameplay stimuli. One that allows even incredibly complex universes (like in The Elder Scrolls or The Witcher-style fantasy games) to have their own coherence, their strength, and a certain charm in the eyes of players / explorers.

In other words, video games have already started moving away from Cinema, by developing their own aesthetics and languages.

Despite starting from the Seventh Art’s languages to formulate their discourses, video games are perfectly aware that interaction, immersion and empathy will let them become more and more autonomous from any other art, by significantly reducing the distance between “players” and “screens” (today even more relevant, thanks to Virtual Reality). More often than not, video games are experiences, and as such they are to be lived and understood by us, the players. It’s enough to think of marvelous productions like Journey, Okami, and the splendid Transistor to realise how strong, inspiring and artistic video games can be. In other words, there’s no limit to the expressive power that our favourite medium can achieve: any video game product can, potentially, have enough features to grant an artistic experience. Even Pac-Man, given the right conditions.

 

The Quest

With the advent of the so-called “auteurs of video games” (be it Kamiya, Kojima, or many inside the independent market), the ideas of game-designers became more and more complex, and the video game medium started to acquire its own languages, identities, and a series of aesthetics that have nothing on any other “proper” art. A giant evolution, one that, if you like, was inside the medium ever since its first appearances – one that is reaching such heights, in the last few years, that not even the fathers of video games would have imagined. The expressive power of video games, growing more and more complex and intense year by year when telling its stories, is every day more relevant in the academic field, and we are certain that it will be just a matter of time, before all prejudices on our favourite medium can start crumbling under the weight of progress. But this, along with a more “analytical” reflection on video games, is a matter we will delay to the next time.

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Okami, a splendid attempt to put together visual art and video games in a unique experience.

Suffice to say, for now, that video games have yet too many obstacles to overcome, in their quest for artistic dignity, and solutions will not be easy to find. But something has started to change, already: the themes and the topics that video games tackle are growing more mature than ever (did anybody mention “Life Is Strange”?), and more and more productions enter the list of “artistic video games”, one that actually exists (seriously, you can find it on Wikipedia).

That should make us think. After all, perhaps, it’s not entirely true that, as Roger Ebert used to say, “video games can never be Art“. At least, not anymore.

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