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Games as an art form

Saw an interesting article on Gamasutra where Silicon Knights (Eternal Darkness) founder and president Denis Dyack was quoted talking about the issue of how much games should be considered art, and how narrative can be as important if not more important than game-play.

Firstly before going into my thoughts a little I wanted to make one distinction up front. Regardless of what you think about games as 'art' or otherwise, many of the people making them are very much talented artists, be it with words, images, animations, meshes, mechanics or code. For me one of the best parts of my job is the people I get to work with. The talent in the industry is fantastic and they very much deserve to credited in the same way as those who make movies or create comics, or write books.

...but back to the point at hand.

I think, to me at least, that trying to categorize something as potentially broad as gaming as 'art' or not is a trying to paint things with too much of a generalization.

Can a game be art? Yes, a gaming platform can be used as a medium for artistic expression for sure (as indeed we have already started to see with titles like The Path), but does it have to be art? I'd say no, it doesn't, it can just as easily be purely for entertainment or escapism (if you want to argue that is also art then sure, I think the discussion here is if games should be seen as real art, you know, in the way intellectuals like to classify art.)

Can a commercial game be art? Yes, again, you can successfully combine commercial ambitions with artistic ones.

Can a game just be a game? Yes, it can be that too! A game doesn't have to aspire to be art if it doesn't want to, and often that is the right approach.

You see to me, a game should be what you intend it to be, if you want to try and make a game that has only artistic goals, or you want to use it to spark creative or artistic thought that is what you should try and design your project to achieve. If you want it to be purely entertaining and not tax the deep thinkers too much, then that is what you should try and design your project around. If you want to try and make a mainstream title, but have some artistic ideas and concepts in there then you should design your games around that.

The budgets will come accordingly.

Just as indie cinema exists alongside Hollywood cinema, art-house style gaming could very well exist alongside AAA mass market titles, they just won't have the same budgets! Likewise there is the potential for cross-over hits, particularly in a critical sense if not always in sales (Braid and House of Goo would be perfect recent examples of this). I think there is just as much space in gaming for something aspiring to be story and character driven like a good piece of independent cinema as there is the explosions and gfx of a summer blockbuster. Furthermore there is also room for those games that manage to combine narrative, gameplay and story together that when successfully executed become the classics we honour in all of our top games of all time lists.

I think that if you study most 'best of' lists the titles at the top of such lists usually share one of three distinctive traits.

  • They are either a systems driven game (like a puzzle game or a simulation, say Tetris, Civilization, Sim City or even The Sims) where there isn't a narrative but the games are great because of their system.
  • Or they have a very strong narrative in an established game style (Half Life series, Deus Ex, the Lucasarts adventures). The story is what you actually remember about these games and are compelled by.
  • Or they do what they are designed to do better than their peers, defining moments in genre or platform gaming (Quake, Halo, Mario, Warcraft / Starcraft)

Those titles that resonate the most are usually ones that even manage to combine two of the above. It is no surprise to me that the Half Life titles are invariably close to the winners podium, or on it in such lists. Tetris though is every bit as great a game as Half-Life 2, just for very different reasons.

All of the games that appear on such lists though do share one common trait regardless of format, platform or genre.

They have good polished and fun gameplay. I think it is important to never loose sight of that fact. A fantastic narrative won't survive shoddy implementation. A great writer or artist may see their work not fully appreciated if the user is frustrated, struggling with a control system or even worse, outright bored. With the addition of interactivity (as mentioned in the article linked at the start of this post) we are indeed adding another tool to the artistic mediums available, and the cool part is that the ways in which we apply it are only really limited by our imaginations! It is though also our greatest challenge, because if the interactivity is poor then the other elements will suffer. Just like a well written script may be ruined by poor camera work, cinematography or bad acting in a movie, a game with the best story in the world and a powerful narrative or spectacular technology pushing art will struggle to overcome poor gameplay and / or non-intuitive interactivity.

So to me we shouldn't try and categorize games or gaming as one thing in our search for some kind of yearned for legitimization of what we do for a living. Games are most certainly capable of being works of art. Games as a medium though is a multi-faceted one capable of being pushed, pulled, poked and prodded in any number of directions, and that is the beauty of the medium.

Providing twenty minutes of fun packed puzzle entertainment for a busy adult during their lunch break or boring air flight is every bit as worthwhile as entertaining their children with a platformer or racing game or connecting teenagers and young adults through social networking games or indeed trying to inject some pathos and thought provoking moments into your AAA title...can a game be art? Sure it can, but it doesn't have to be.
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