Video Games: The New Art Form
Video games are a surprisingly dividing topic. Some may scoff at them as nothing more than a mindless, juvenile time-waster (I’ll try not to be too offended). Others may view them as an entertaining but inconsequential pastime, something to divert us momentarily during a free hour here or there. To them, I’d deliver a simple, frustrated message: “You’re missing the point!” Far fewer of us would recognize video games as what they are swiftly becoming: art.
The idea of video games as art may surprise even the most digitally fluent, and it’s no wonder why. One needs only to look at how video games are presented in popular media to recognize the stigma associated with them.
Games are often accused of encouraging violence and negatively affecting children who play them. In movies and television, characters will often be shown playing video games if the writers want to portray them as lazy, socially awkward, or depressed. Ultimately, games get a pretty bad rap, but so has every other artistic medium in its early stages (novels were once frowned upon as cheap entertainment, too).
What often goes unseen is that video games have an extraordinary amount of potential for storytelling. The medium offers an utterly unique, unprecedented sense of identity with the protagonist. The audience does not just read about the character on a page or even watch the character on a screen. Instead, a video game thrusts the audience right into the head and heart of the protagonist, allowing players to mold and shape the character as they make choices and determine events. The gamer exists not outside of the experience, but within it, engaging the story with such immediacy as yet unseen in storytelling.
Games from developer BioWare, such as the “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” franchises, realize this concept by producing massive, branching storylines with dynamic worlds and characters. Standalone games like “Heavy Rain” and “Beyond: Two Souls,” both from developer Quantic Dream, engage this effect to create extraordinary, unparalleled levels of empathy with the trials and hardships of their characters.
Of course, for some people, this immersive experience can sometimes be interrupted by technological shortcomings. Current gaming technology may still have some difficulty simulating hyper-realistic eye movements and affectionate physical contact between characters, but these elements are not necessary to fully engage with the experience.
However, even these drawbacks are beginning to erode. Graphically-enhanced games like “Until Dawn,” from developer Supermassive Games, prominently star well-known Hollywood actors through motion capture technology. These character models bear an uncanny resemblance to the actors who portray them and feature convincing facial movement and reactions that blur the lines between game and cinema and further immerse the player into the heart of the experience.
Okay, you might concede, perhaps video games offer a unique perspective, and maybe they're looking better than ever, but does that make them “art”?
Art presents timeless themes and fundamental human truths, eliciting emotional responses that speak to audiences on a primal, sublime level. We have already examined such emotionally visceral content in Quantic Dream’s games, and that emotional connection is present throughout the platform. Games like “The Last of Us,” from developer Naughty Dog, present extremely compelling narrative threads that examine the themes of family, loss, and the human capacity for darkness – all hallmarks of other great art. Even developer Rocksteady’s “Batman: Arkham” franchise, a gritty realization of the traditional superhero genre, poses ethical questions about identity, heroism, and the murkiness of crossing one’s own moral boundaries. These and other games prove the inherent storytelling potential of the medium, the capability to accomplish what every artistic expression has achieved throughout history.
Good literature always draws from other good literature, and this new medium is no exception. Video games are certainly not the future of all storytelling – books will always be written, poetry will always be composed, and cinema will always be filmed – but they definitely deserve a place in the canon.