The value of art is something that has been discussed and analyzed time and time again throughout centuries. The newer art forms that rise up often are intensely scrutinized by those that have a fondness for more classical approaches to the medium. A work of art is often judged against other works and while at times this can be needlessly reductive it can also be helpful. Learning from the best examples of a particular art form is how one forges a new path to creative discovery. The medium of Gaming is in an interesting moment. The massively successful, Last of Us 2 is causing a divide among certain fans while also attempting to bring new concepts and unexpected developments to the Art of gaming. The medium is at an interesting point where new developments and ideas will have to flourish and change things up to continue proving how versatile and meaningful Gaming is as an art form. There are many ways in which this medium can differentiate itself and improve so this is a perfect moment to look at what elements make for an artistic achievement in Gaming.
Unique Game Design
The core element to any Game is the way in which the game controls and the design of said experience. There are so many talented people who put their hardest into delivering experiences that please the audience. They work on every front from the writing to the game engine and are often overworked to create these experiences on tight timelines. This crunch experience delivers some of the largest and sometimes most impressive games, but not always. The Technology behind these modern games is often incredibly impressive, but some of the most innovative games find ways to use their technology in ways that break the mold so that they aren’t derivative of past experiences or cause unnecessary harm to their employee’s well-being.
Some of the most influential and interesting games from a game Design perspective over the last decade have come directly from small time, indie studios. Their tireless passion and unique perspective stand out against the larger studios. While larger studios can make brilliant experiences it seems as if trends and the ways in which the Gaming medium is expanded is through the work of individual people who use their passion and talent to design the technology to put certain gimmicks and gameplay mechanics at the forefront. When looking back at the success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent there weren’t many games that delivered a horror experience quite like that. Most horror games give you the ability to fight against whatever monster is chasing you, but in this game you have to hide and hopefully avoid detection. It blends an element of stealth with the eternal dread of an enemy that cannot be defeated taking the controls away from you. I’ve seen this one game not only influence most other horror games since then, but it also gave YouTube personalities the ability to become celebrities just from reacting to it. This small example has made some massive waves and it came from an underdog studio trying to make the best game that they could.
The way in which gameplay mechanics and technology plays into every aspect of the creative process is daunting to any developer and the ways in which they take on these obstacles to create something new is utterly impressive. This is why some of the best artistic choices come from looking what came before it and what is the current trend and finding a way to tell something new that still pays respect to everything else. Amnesia filled the hole that the horror community was missing at the time and it took a lot of risks by taking a lot of control away from the player. That was a brilliant move because it made the horror in that game so incredibly effective. The best innovations and changes come from people who just wanted to make the best thing they could make. True art comes from the heart and you can tell when a game is built around love and inherent talent when you see a willingness to explore new ideas. This exploration of something new is what sets apart the truly excellent pieces of art from art that tries to fall in line with what is expected. There is nothing wrong with making something that is similar to past work, but great art innovates and challenges the limitations even if that limitation is the current technology or people’s perception of what gaming is.
When discussing the narrative elements of a video game there seems to be a disconnect from those that want a narrative experience and those that want a gameplay experience, when both options are entirely possible and there are ways to make both sides of this discussion happy. The art of storytelling in a game is surprisingly deep and complicated. With as much work to fill out the narrative a game can be more compared to a novel in its denseness and rich storytelling, while having all of the visual flair of a television series or film. A narrative in a game can be something that can make or break the entire experience, but when done correctly it can transcend what is expected from gaming as a whole.
As much as some people hate to admit it the story of a game is often the driving motivation in most single player experiences. It is what draws the gamer in to wanting to be a part of that world. It asks the players from the start to join in the adventure and more often than not it does so through escapism. This expectation of fun escapism is so often important and the most common form of entertainment in the medium, but what about stories that strive to be different? What about those games that ask the player to empathize with people dealing with real emotions and feelings? With those I would argue are often the closest to contributing to the artistic expansion of Gaming. Any great medium that tells a story needs to at some point also tell stories of true humanity. The game What Remains of Edith Finch is a narrative driven game often referred to as a “walking simulator”. Despite the negative name given to these types of games it is an example of a game based entirely on following a story. There is not a lot of enemies or encounters to face. It is mostly learning about the life of a family dealing with some heavy and real issues in a similar way to the game Gone Home did. These two games intentionally break away from story as escapism and center the narrative as the most important element. They both intentionally get to you emotionally and deeply, while doing so in an interactive experience that asks the players to reflect on the experience. While others may disagree, this feels closest to moving forward as an art form.
Nuance in storytelling is important and while it may be fun to have a hero save the day it can often get repetitive if not handled well. If you give your player a reason to understand the perspective of both the antagonist and the protagonist than that could potentially be an even richer experience. There have been games that have done so and continue to do so, but they aren’t nearly as prevalent. The storytelling present in games is something that needs to continue pushing boundaries as to what is expected. What makes a game story an achievement is if it makes you feel deeply and challenge the ways in which you observe the characters and the World they inhabit. This is the path to making something unique, but it is just part of the narrative conversation.
The most crucial thing to discovering the depth of art is how the narrative and the game design simultaneously feed into the overall deeper themes and meaning that the Game Developers are trying to get across. Art has often used the respective medium to tell the audience something whether it be a political, social, or personal perspective. The artists that made that work put their own stamp and intentions on the product regardless of any intention.
The depth of an artistic piece is such a crucial component for any medium to be able to broaden its perceived value. The works of the most famous artists always have something to say or something to be interpreted from. There is not art that lives in a vacuum and making art is inherently a sociopolitical action. This goes just as much for games which are often tools for profit from corporations while simultaneously showcasing talent. The deeper meaning of a work comes from those that present this story or game. There have been games that have attempted to push further and speak to even larger issues present in the world. Hideo Kojima specifically is notorious for using his art to tell what he perceives to be truths about the world. In 2018 I spent several months playing and reviewing Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid games. Those reviews highlighted the ways in which those games have heavy themes and meaning from nearly every moment. The games push the medium of Game Storytelling forward by making a point of having depth. They want the player to think and examine the text of the game, which is why they are so well regarded.
There are many games that attempt to use the confines of the game world to tell the story whether it be in the supposed gimmick of breaking the fourth wall to the game Spec Ops: The Line intentionally making you do things so that you feel just as responsible for the damage caused. That game in particular uses the confines of the fictional World to explore the truth behind the horrors of war and the evil of American imperialist ideology run rampant. It intentionally gives other war shooters the metaphorical finger by turning you into the game’s villain. You are causing pain, harm, and death without giving that as much thought, which is in and of itself a critique of Game design. It’s a game worthy of several discussions on its own, but it does exemplify that Gaming needs to make more strides like this. Games shouldn’t simply be tools to escape they should also force you to think and examine the ways in which the world works. This is how Gaming evolves and becomes an even greater medium with something more to say and we should be asking for this instead of the immediate knee jerk reaction as something to be concerned about.
I have always loved Gaming. I have always thought it was a worthy medium deserving of so much more respect and analysis, but often times the limitations that Gamers force upon developers in addition to fan entitlement ruins bold choices. They want to Gatekeep and dictate what can and can’t be said in games. Marginalized people are punished for existing by these types of fans, while getting irrationally angry about “forced diversity” whenever developers take the leap to add more diverse representation. The toxic nature of certain subsets of this fandom make things worse, but the only way for Gaming to grow and be better is for allowing creative people to take the risks they need and to allow for broader representation of ideas and people within these game worlds. There shouldn’t be one type of game like there shouldn’t be one type of Gamer. With a better understanding and openness to change we can see some incredible things happen from this medium we all enjoy so that it can stand on its own. I hope to be able to see more games break the mold and take bold new steps towards shaping the future whether it be in technology, gameplay, or storytelling. If allowed to grow we could see Gaming gain broader respect among people and be recognized for its artistic endeavors and merits. I hope that this day can become a reality soon.