Written by: Aaron Wong Jielun (21-I4) and Leia Ong Rui En (20-U1)
Designed by: Leanne Soh Li En (21-E6)
Many works of art are admired for qualities like their visual and auditory appeal, meaningful storytelling, and refreshing creativity. That leaves the rather large elephant in the room: why are video games, a medium that oftentimes combines all of those qualities, not counted as an art form? Do video games not deserve a spot in our art culture? To unpack those questions, let us delve into what art is, as well as the artistic merit that can be found in video games (while showcasing some really neat games!).
Forms of art are incredibly diverse, comprising mediums as far-ranging as architecture, painting, poetry, theatre, music, and dance. Even cooking is an art! The Oxford dictionary nicely sums up art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”.
It is also useful to understand what exactly “artistic merit” connotes. It is a term that is used to judge the perceived quality or value of a piece of art. While its usage is most common in the critique of visual art, artistic merit lies in all pieces of art—and, as we are about to show you, in video games too.
The Visual Spectacle in Games
A crucial component of any video game is its visual interface—specifically, its art, be it in creating a unique mood of the game, or in complementing storytelling.
Perhaps the most commonly associated visuals with many modern video games is the hyperrealistic, state-of-the-art (heh) animation that falls just short of visuals in reality. Gritty, plot-driven and open-world games like The Last Of Us (2013) and Red Dead Redemption II (2018) employ this to great effect, using the sweeping natural vistas of Midwestern, Southern and Western America to immerse players fully in the harrowing stories of a zombie apocalypse survivor (the former) or a cowboy in 1899 (the latter).
Why, you may then ask, don’t all video games look like this? Herein lies the beauty of diversity; where there are different games, there are different art styles. Different art styles evoke different atmospheres needed to fit the plot of a game—many games hence feature distinctive art styles that have been lauded for their creativity and aestheticity. Popular horror game Little Nightmares (2017), while also a survival game of sorts, focuses instead on puzzle-solving and in evoking an atmosphere of mystery and menace. Its unique art, an incongruous blend of gothic realism and claymation1-esque animation, achieves just that.
On the other end of the spectrum, equally-lauded adventure game Night In The Woods (2017) features vibrantly cartoonish art, with bright colours and whimsical character designs and environments. This art, however, effectively conveys the game’s intricate and colourful plot of a community of animals in a small town, reminiscent of a folktale. The art even seems to bear similarities with European folk art (whether intentionally or not), albeit in a modernised and minimalist style.
As players traverse the digital terrain of a video game, its visual beauty not only complements the overall experience of playing a game, but is a testament to the artists who conceptualised and created its extraordinary art.
Making Meaning (and Games)
Games have always been lauded as a powerful storytelling medium. Many games tell engaging narratives, emotionally connecting gamers to fictional characters and the stakes of the in-game plot. Just like any good play, film, or novel, many great video games have equally good scripts. Games are an excellent vehicle for crafting believable, immersive worlds through the high degree that the player can personally interact with the in-game world, creating unprecedented agency and interactivity that most other mediums lack.
Halo (2001), a science-fiction first-person shooter set in the 26th century, is renowned for its gripping plot that is essentially a grand space opera. In its story, the complex relationships between Humanity and alien civilisations cause ramifications—and drama—of galactic proportions. At the same time, it manages to develop great characters (of the human, AI and alien variety) and explore themes on military and scientific ethics.
Going further from that, games can also elicit deep emotion and convey meaningful, thought-provoking messages. By unifying the different elements of a game’s design—like music, gameplay, and aesthetics—cohesive meaning can be crafted, just like how a painter uses the different visual elements of a painting to convey meaning, for example.
Life is Strange (2015) is an episodic adventure game featuring a time travel mechanic and branching choices. However, the game’s focus is ultimately on its story, which is about interpersonal relationships and coming of age, and at the same time also tackles taboo social issues. Every part of the game, like its poignant voice acting and detailed character development, achieves all of this and more, creating an intensely emotional experience.
The Longing (2019), a point-and-click adventure game, creates a depressing and lonely atmosphere through its slow-paced gameplay and gloomy aesthetic, driving home the theme of solitude as well as existential themes. Chief among its design features is an unorthodox mechanic of a countdown of four hundred days that passes in real-time.
New Ways To Game
Occasionally, games will break the status quo, utilising unconventional methods of gameplay to construct a novel, powerful experience that profoundly impacts players. This is reminiscent of bold breakthroughs in the arts scene when new styles are innovated.
One of the most famous examples of this is Super Mario Bros. (1985), one of (if not the) most iconic platform games2 in history. Though it seems a simple game now, at the time of its release, its reception was unprecedented—it contributed in helping the industry recover from the recession that was the 1983 Video Game Crash, and remains a cultural icon to this day.
Undertale (2015), another wildly popular game, innovatively realised its turn-based gameplay—reminiscent of retro 8-bit role-playing games (RPGs)—and combined it with meta game mechanics to create an unprecedented emotional experience.
Late Shift (2017) similarly remixes the familiar film genre to make it a playable game, in which you play as the main character to determine the course of the “film’s” plot.
Surely we have now more than sufficiently illustrated the artistic merit of video games, and you now scramble to deliver video game copies over to your nearest art gallery. Hold your horses, however, as we will now evaluate a couple of the common arguments against video games being considered art.
Games: Entertainment Or Art?
Contention arises because of this question: are video games really art? After all, it’s in the name: games. They seem to be designed and created solely for entertaining players. Furthermore, many games fundamentally revolve around some form of competition or strategy one must partake in, appearing to render them completely different from all conventional art forms.
While that may have been the case for the earliest and most primitive video games—think Blockade (1976) or Pong (1972)—consisting of little more than a few movable pixels, it is certainly not the case today.
Over time, video games have evolved to incorporate more elaborate and diverse aspects to gameplay as covered above, becoming more than a simple piece of entertainment, though that is indeed one of their functions.
Video games have become a medium of artistic expression, through which creators can convey profound experiences to audiences. Plus—if you think about it—many of the games highlighted above bear similarities to perhaps a good film, or piece of literature. Ultimately, what distinguishes video games from these other mediums is their interactivity—your role in shaping your experience.
Party Limit Reached!
Another opposing argument is that since video games are mostly made by large groups of people and cannot be attributed to single authors or small groups of authors, they cannot be seen as pieces of art. This statement certainly contains some truth. Nowadays, triple-A games (big-budget games produced by large companies) can reach team sizes of hundreds of people all working on different parts of the same game, whether they be programmers, level designers, or concept artists. For many employees, they are simply working on specific portions of the game assigned to them without being fully cognizant of what the final overall product is supposed to be.
However, all of that does not necessarily mean that games cannot be seen as artistic projects. In the development of games, there exists the design team and the art team, comprising people who are specially concerned with the game’s creative and artistic direction. They ensure that all work done on the game follows the same design ethos, such that the gameplay and aesthetic are crafted with the intent to execute the overall creative and artistic concept of the game.
Furthermore, this is not even considering the existence of indie (independent) games—games created without the support or oversight of a large publisher—that commonly have small, tight-knit development teams. In fact, some indie games are even created entirely solo! Stardew Valley (2016), the popular simulation farming RPG, comes to mind, as its sole creator worked on every aspect of development alone—from the game’s music and art to its programming and sound design. If anything, these indie developers can be directly compared to artists, as they toil away and create creative products to show the world.
At the end of the day, video games do no not need to be officially seen as an art form to prove their inherent artistic merit. As we have demonstrated, it is an irrefutable fact that there are certainly aspects of video games that are artistic. If you’re ever bored, do pick up and play (or watch a gameplay video of) one of the games that we have mentioned and relax. As you do so, don’t just feel entertained, but also appreciate and be emotionally invested in a fine creative work!
Claymation1: stop-motion animation made with clay figurines
Platform game2: a game where the player moves their character between platforms, typically jumping and climbing to achieve this.
- YonkYonk is a geek who is fortunate enough to have an equally geeky Star Wars fan for a wife. (2019, March 25). Creating The Horrifying Atmosphere of Little Nightmares: Hands On + Interview. Geek Culture. https://geekculture.co/preview-little-nightmares-hands-on-interview/.
- Super Mario Bros. Developer Interview – NES Classic Edition – Official Site. Nintendo. (n.d.). https://www.nintendo.com/nes-classic/super-mario-bros-and-super-mario-bros-3-developer-interview/.
- Mirasol, M. (n.d.). Why video games are indeed Art: Far Flungers: Roger Ebert. Far Flungers | Roger Ebert. https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/why-video-games-are-indeed-art.