The typical response, I think, when someone questions whether games are art, is to say "well, it's got great visuals, good dialogue, excellent use of sound, and it's fun to play!" However, there is something incredibly fundamental that goes overlooked in this sort of argument, and that is that it does not consider the game as a whole. To say that a game has wonderful visuals, well, that is a totally valid point, and the same goes for music and so forth, but in taking those elements in isolation, we lose their context within a particular game which is, primarily, a piece of work which is to be interacted with. We're not looking at the experience of playing, but rather just the bits and pieces of it which can all be enjoyed in isolation.
Thus, I'd like to submit that for a game to be art, it needs to have something in addition to great visuals, audio, gameplay, etc., and that is a singularity of vision with regards to the game's purpose and meaning. That is to say, all elements have to work in tandem with one another, thematically and functionally, in order for a game to ascend to a level where it can be considered a work of art. I don't think that a game needs to have a deep or complex story to be art, nor does not need to be pretentious and "indie" about doing things to fit into this definition; any game is applicable so long as it achieves a certain level of unity and quality of execution.
As an example, I'd like to bring up the game Fallout, which some of the people reading may know is a game I'm more than a little keen on. Fallout has one general theme which permeates every facet, and that is hope of new life in the wake of desolation. The visuals in Fallout are brown and dry, for instance, but also have a certain vibrancy and colour that hint at hope; they're bleak, but not lifeless. Similarly, the soundtrack interweaves haunting, synthetic keyboards with tribal drums and the ambiance of human activity, allowing for a wide range of moods that all fit into a single framework.
Fallout's world may be ugly, but it also has a level of
care and detail which help emphasise humanity's struggle for survival.
Unlike most games, however, this direction also extends to the gameplay. When the player is forced abruptly into the world, an ultimatum is placed upon him or her: survive, and save those who are close to you. This may at first seem like a nearly insurmountable task, with deadly enemies abound, skill and combat mechanics to learn, and little to no direction on how to proceed through the game; however, through gradual mastery of the game's rules, the player is able to overcome and even nullify many challenges. Becoming successful at Fallout is difficult, but not impossible; when the player prevails, the feeling of success against all odds is palpable.
There are two implications of my proposition. The first is that we will have to rethink how many of our favourite games might qualify as art; this could mean taking the mantle off of some and placing it on others. For example, BioShock is one of the most celebrated "art games" in years, and yet its relatively mundane shooter gameplay, no different than Doom 3 save for its philosophical narrative backing, suggests that it lacks the coherent vision I defined earlier. Another such game is Portal; it may have a unique art style and dry, witty humour, but those have little connection to its puzzle-platform gameplay, and while they do make for an entertaining package, there is very little intellectually we can draw from the experience in a way that is unique to the gaming medium.
Conversely, this also means that we are going to have to take a harder, closer look at games that we may have dismissed as not artistic, and reevaluate them. Unreal Tournament may be the last game you think of when it comes to considering games as art, and yet its simple, colourful visuals, upbeat soundtrack and fast, responsive controls all work perfectly in tandem with its lightning-quick kill-or-be-killed deathmatch gameplay; there is a singularity of function to it which is more effective than all the pomp and pretentiousness in the world. Not all art has to have a high meaning or "message"; it can often be enough simply to relate to the human experience, and Unreal Tournament taps into it in a very primal sort of way.
Unreal Tournament may not be an "artistic" game, but its use of
colour, sound, and design all work together to feed into its gameplay.
It is worth noting that, although quality of execution is important, I do not mean to suggest that a well-made and consistent game is automatically art. A game does not have to necessarily be competently designed to be art, nor does it have to have intentions of artistry; what matters is the final product and whether or not it works to achieve a particular artistic goal. Similarly, whether a game or not is fun to play does not matter, insofar as being fun is not part of its fundamental objective as a game. A horror game, for example, may not outright declare to be fun or even enjoyable, but it is most certainly capable of being art, as the Penumbra series of games has demonstrated.
The major problem with this framework for interpreting games, I anticipate, is that it raises a few questions, such as whether a game is still a game if it isn't fun to play, and whether we can reasonably call serious games, i.e. medical training software or military simulators, art. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, this framework has no basis within it for actually quantifying or qualifying the individual elements of a game; it relies perhaps too much on vague language and "feelings" rather than things that can be objectively substantiated. Because of this, we do not yet have a way of determining what games constitute good art, or bad art. I plan to explore these issues in the near future.
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