Gaming as art: an introduction

Abzu. Photo:
The Witness. Photo:
The Witness.

Two years ago, I went on a journey that fundamentally transformed the way I view art. I had previously been confident in my understanding of the great artistic hierarchy; a concrete, long-established structure that was interminably comforting in its resistance to change. The artistic heavyweights – theatre, music, fine art, literature –  had long sat at the top of the pyramid, gradually shifting and improving over the millennia. With evolution over such an immense expanse of time, what could possibly challenge them? To cut a long story short, I was an intellectual elitist – a snob, you might say. The journey I’m going to attempt to share with you is one that had a great deal of significance for me, and I hope that in a similar way I might open your mind to the incredible artistic possibilities that I had previously failed to comprehend.

The first step in this journey is to set aside your sense of artistic snobbery. It’s the same sense of snobbery that has driven into the mind of the general population the idea that literature or fine art has some sort of implicit monopoly over the phrase ‘Great Works of Art’. Let me ask you a question: were someone to suggest to you that Beethoven’s 5th Symphony has more of a right to be considered great art (with a capital “G”) than Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, purely on the grounds of its medium, what would you say? The specific examples aside, the idea that music has any more right to be considered great art than literature is bonkers. It’s absurd. It’s more than that – it’s downright ignorant. What about films? Would anyone deny The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Vertigo – screw it – the entire works of Alfred Hitchcock, their rightful place in the accepted canon of great works? No.

So now we come to the latest entrant in our grand, artistic competition. Compared to the thousands of years of literature, gaming in its current form has only existed for 40 years. It’s young, it’s still discovering its identity, but with all my heart I believe it has the potential to provide us with genuinely historic works that can compete with any other artistic medium.

If we think about it, at its core, a game simply concerns the manipulation of electronic images by a human player. That’s it. There’s no mandatory requirement for a narrative of any sort, or even, frankly, any characters. Games fundamentally revolve around the idea of interactivity. No other medium has noticeably different content or experiences depending upon how you interact with it.  It’s this interactivity that holds the key to gaming’s potential to transcend conventional narrative forms in a way that no other medium can possibly hope to compete with.

Let me illustrate my point with reference to Spec Ops: The Line. In Spec Ops, you play Walker, a US Marine trapped in war-torn Dubai and cut off from the rest of the world. As the pressures of the situation mount, the atrocities he’s forced to commit become increasingly harder to justify. I imagine if this story were depicted in a film, some of the more thought-provoking moral dilemmas would serve as interesting points – perhaps concerning the nature of war, or the occasional necessity of civilian casualties. Instead, as a game, with the introduction of interactivity, it becomes about something else entirely. Interactivity facilitates player agency, and agency leads to a sense of responsibility – it’s you, after all, that decides whether or not to pull the trigger.

Spec Ops: The Line (c) Yager Development
Spec Ops: The Line (c) Yager Development

As the game continues, and you, acting through Walker, slaughter innocent civilians to enable your escape, that responsibility leads to a sinister sense of culpability. The game deliberately allows you to settle into the thoughtless killing you’re used to from other shooters, laying the foundations for its harrowing moral trap. Have we forgotten, the game asks, that some of the actions we’ve taken so far, if we think about the aspects of real-world warfare they refer to, are chilling and truly horrific, nothing that should be treated with the blasé sense of indifference that we’ve been taught to accept from modern military shooters? It’s a powerful and emotionally draining experience, and one that rests completely on the player’s relationship with his character and the interactivity that is at the very heart of video gaming.

And, of course, it isn’t simply agency that stems from interactivity, it’s also involvement. In a film, were we to see the protagonist’s journey through a modern-day city, we might note its vibrancy or its rich and colourful cityscape. In a game, we live the experience, we explore the ruined landscape of Dark Souls’ Lordran in all its fallen glory, at our own pace, and the beautiful aesthetics of its cathedrals and catacombs, cities and castles, represent not mere graphical eye-candy, but living, real places for you to explore and interact with. In a game, the player drives the story – not necessarily in the conventional, narrative sense but also the subtler, hidden stories in the greater world around you.

In fact, it’s exactly this style of interactive storytelling that drives the game I’d like to discuss in the next part of this article series: Dark Souls. If this has in any way piqued your interest, please join me in the following weeks as I continue upon my quest to convince you that games can indeed be considered legitimate works of art.


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