an argument for the obvious

By Rayniel Estrella

Another Beautiful Image
Video games might be the art form most sensitive to our experience of the world. Every time we play one, they elicit a sense of wonder. We remember how we moved, jumped and attacked, just as a child can recall a game of tag or kickball to a startling degree of detail. It is a technology about freedom—all of a sudden you have the ability to be anything and do anything you want. Even as I write this though, I move back and forth between calling games art and technology, two words that are often used in opposition to each other. It’s not a simple issue. We tend to have positive experiences around the word art. To call something art is to complement it and so one would think that as video games become more complex and daring, game designers would long to be called artists and not engineers. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the creators of video games shun the word art and will do anything possible to stay within the symbolic realm of play and technology. Even though video games are now regularly reviewed in The New York Times and other traditional news outlets, the tension between how we define this new and growing medium has only become more and more contested.

Most game designers claim that video games provide a service to users and aren’t really works of art. They give people a place to play, much like a park in a city. Game designers make a clear distinction between design and art. What all these distinctions have in common is a belief that art is overbearingly serious and only for the elite. It is as if the definition of art has become toxic to what gamers want to achieve. I’d like to look at a number of video games and statements by prominent designers to try to break down this supposed tension between art and technology, art and design and art and play.

The Stone Tablets of Video Games
Nintendo has created a range of games that are now classics: Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, Kirby’s Adventure and Metroid. Based on their crude 8-bit visual field, Nintendo games feel nostalgic now, to the point that Mario Bros. is considered a piece of art—that’s what time will do for you. However, without the aid of nostalgia, the reception of contemporary games has been much more resistant to the art tag. The Legend of Zelda is a highly complex piece of art, much more so than Mario Bros. Its creators, Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka and Eiji Aonuma, have expressed great admiration for many modern painters, sculptors and photographers and are proud of the many stylistic nods to major artists in their game. At the same time they haven’t embraced the idea of calling a game art. Let's just say they seem reticent.

A recent game in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, visually references the work of post-impressionist painters like Paul C├ęzanne and everything from the characters, landscapes and architecture take on the expressive nature of post-impressionist paintings. In addition to the visuals, the designers also paid close attention to the soundtrack, which was primarily composed by Hajime Wakai with long-standing series musician Koji Kondo providing additional compositions. When the game crew decided that wasn’t enough, they hired Super Mario Galaxy composer, Mahito Yokota, to direct the orchestra. This type of marshaling of forces is just like movie production, which requires the work of multiple artists to present what seems to be one unified vision. For me, it is almost the very definition of art.

If it looks like art...
And it doesn’t stop there: if all we were talking about were visuals and music I guess you could make the claim that these achievements were really about design and presentation, not art. This is hardly the case and the stories in these games are, if anything, the most complex aspect of what we experience. In all Zelda games, we follow the story of an ordinary young boy, Link, who’s chosen to save the world. It is a classic story and is like many novels about growing up and being placed in unusual or difficult circumstances. In other words, it’s a story first and an interactive game second. The game enriches the story. We understand this traditional narrative in deeper, more dynamic ways than we would by reading it. The idea that Zelda and video games like it aren’t art is comical. If anything they are a new, more complex form of art.

In another recent Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Walker HD, part of the story revolves around the relationship between Link and a pirate named Tetra. Even though you are playing a game, it is all about the developing relationship between these two. Link’s enthusiastic and joyful attitude comes into conflict with Tetra’s private and cold personality. As we play this game, which is all about saving the world, what we are really experiencing is the story of a close and complex relationship between people.

An adventure story of great complexity
In this way, Zelda is no different than any adventure story. The heroes need to overcome personal conflict in order to achieve a greater goal. As the story concludes, Tetra is revealed to be Princess Zelda, ruler of the kingdom that Link is trying to save. She was not in disguise; instead, the main villain has stolen her memories and left her on a distant island. In all its improbabilities, Zelda has much of the beauty of a fairy tale and a good deal of that genre’s emotional force. One could also add that the game resembles some of Shakespeare's darker comedies, especially the ones that deal with misapprehension.

Another game that uses fairy tale tropes is the Final Fantasy series. Part of the Japanese role-playing game genre, this series is on its fifteenth version and all of them focus on complex relationships between characters. Final Fantasy XIII is about a young soldier named Lighting who, along with other characters, is chosen by a deity to fulfill the task of saving the world. Like contemporary super hero movies, the stakes of most video games are always high. When playing the game, the way you shift back and forth between characters gives it many of the characteristics of a big, fat Victorian novel. If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would be writing video games instead of wasting his time with the crude mechanics of the novel.

In the middle of a complex story
The creators of Final Fantasy have not answered the art or game question directly and like the Zelda creators seem reticent to do so. Whatever their reticence, fans have praised both the rich characters and the sophisticated art direction. These games are so rich in artistry that whether they are art or not shouldn’t be an issue; yet, the gaming world’s business concerns and philosophical aversion to the art label allows old prejudices and ignorance to flourish. The recently deceased Pulitzer Prize winning film critic, Roger Ebert, issued perhaps the clearest and most influential “games are not art” position. In response to Kellee Santiago’s presentation at the 2009 TED Conference, Ebert tried to get at the essential difference between games and art in “Video Games Can Never Be Art”:
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
Yes that’s a good distinction. But as games become more complex, winning becomes less important and play for its own sake becomes the central experience. In the end, what’s the difference between “art for art’s sake” and “gaming for gaming’s sake?”

Kojima's game destroys his own point
What’s fascinating about the gaming world is that they don’t challenge criticisms like Ebert’s and even agree with him. Well-known game designer Hideo Kojima believes that games may contain great artwork, but he “stressed the intrinsically popular nature of video games in contrast to the niche interests served by art” (Wikipedia). You couldn’t get a clearer expression of the gaming community’s values: business interests will always trump the symbolic associations of art. Kojima seems concerned that games will be tainted by art’s perceived inaccessibility and lack of popularity. Of course, he’s absolutely wrong: a great deal of art is both popular and successful. Nonetheless, Kojima’s argument that “video game creation is more of a service than an artistic endeavor” is what keeps many people from understanding that we are witnessing the birth of an incredible and vibrant art form.

In fact, Kojima’s career is a rebuke to his ill-formed arguments. His successful series, Metal Gear, has more than fifteen different versions, each expanding on the story of its protagonist, Solid Snake. The fourth main entry, Metal Gear Solid 4, works very much like a successful movie franchise. Scratch that, it is a successful movie franchise. In Metal Gear Solid 4, Snake is vividly and realistically portrayed in every scene. We see his personality develop from a cold and reserved man to a respectful and caring soldier. Kojima brings rich visuals and complex storytelling to create a stunning fictional character. Despite his claims of games not being art, in an interview about Metal Gear Solid 4 with the website Video Games Daily, he speaks about the difficulties of his craft in the same way that any artist would:
Storytelling [is] very difficult. But in a cut scene, with a set camera and effects, you can make the [players] feel sorrow, or make them happy or laugh. When there's a concrete storyline, and you kind of go along that rail, you feel the destiny of the story, which at the end, makes you feel more moved.
If this man isn’t an artist, who is?

He looks like an artist
Despite the denial of part of the public, high culture critics and, weirdest of all, game designers themselves, video games have entered into the realm of art and will certainly stand the test of time. What all these comments have in common is a misleading notion about what art is and the nature of its complexity. As such, they fail to realize that this so-called “service” they provide is not the product, but the byproduct, of a striking new art form.

We'll all just sail away

©The CCA Arts Review and Rayniel Estrella

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