When the average joe thinks of video games, art probably isn’t what initially comes to mind. Perhaps it is mindless button mashing, Repetitive Strain Injury and a spotty teen diving in and out of a seemingly endless bowl of cheese covered crisps. Although I must admit that a bowl of crisps goes rather well with hours of ‘playstationing’ I like to think what I’m participating in is an art form.
Not an art form in the sense a renaissance oil painting, brimming with class, or a Picasso print brimming with… whatever words you can use to describe a piece of Picasso’s work. I like to think of games as something of a progression of literature, a narrative art form that challenges and interacts all in one beautiful concoction. After all, if Tracey Emin’s unmade bed is art – art being sold for around £1 million! – then gaming is an art form of the people, cheap in the grand scheme of things and something which I could never dream of creating. An unmade bed on the other hand… easy!
If the best art is there to challenge and evoke emotion, then consider the following:
The Last of Us - a post apocalyptic game from publisher Naughty Dog – is, in my opinion, art in its most glorious form. Joel, a battle hardened survivor, is given the task of taking a young girl, Ellie, across the desolate bandit and zombie ridden country in the hope that she is the cure for the disease which destroyed civilisation; and it is beautiful! Not only is it beautiful in the sense of what is on screen, the jaw-dropping graphics grab you by the hand pulling you into this world as if it were real, but the real artistry is in the story.
Reviews and blogs alike all compared the narrative in The Last of Us to that of bestselling novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy’s . Full of intrigue and awe I ventured to the nearest Waterstones and purchased my copy. The two are indeed very similar, like The Last of Us, The Road is a post apocalyptic tale which sees a father and young son journey through burnt America on the quest for one thing… Survival. Not an easy topic to portray either visually or through prose, but why should it be, whether it’s McCarthy’s description of cannibalism or The Last of Us’ graphic scenes of murder, it’s enough to make you wince.
What I particularly liked was the emotion driven from the relationship between adult and child. Both Ellie and the unnamed son in The Road know nothing about the world before its destruction, and their innocence changes the pace, breaking up the fear and anxiety into more intrigue and wonder. There is something beautiful in The Last of Us when after quietly creeping behind and killing bandits for health; you reach a moment of peace where Ellie, inside an abandoned record shop flicks through old vinyl with no better words to describe the destruction of civilization than, ‘its such a shame’.
The Last of Us is surely one of the greatest stories ever told and yet it is in presented in video game form. Never before have I felt, on completing a game, the same emotion as turning the final page of a book. That anticipation that you may never know what happens to those characters again, and that is why The Last of Us is a fantastic piece of art.
In a less glorious vein is the story behind a more recent game Wolfenstein: The New Order. An alternative history narrative asking the question ‘what if the Nazis won the war?’ Again the narrative evokes emotion and challenges the way you think; everything snotty art correspondents consider as they stroll around The Louvre.
In only the first act of the game, the player is thrown into a concentration camp, forced to shape and bend metal as the Nazis overlook, gun in hand before being discarded into an incinerator and forced to escape. In terms of the narrative Wolfenstein: The New Order bears a striking resemblance to the setting of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a masterpiece dealing with exactly the same; Nazi ruling.
In my opinion similarities arise in the naivety of the Nazi’s and the controlling forces. Despite their superiority the Nazi’s undermine everybody and everything around them, oblivious to the uprisings and ploys of the socially inferior. This makes for fantastic conflict and resolutions and a sense of looking over your shoulder, you never know what the Nazi’s hold up their sleeve. This very topic is certainly not easy to digest, and that is what makes it so artistic, the player is forced to feel uncomfortable in a comfortable environment, something which the best pieces of art could not even dream of achieving.
But it is not all distressing tales and beautiful graphics that define video games as art. Pong, Pac Man or Space Invaders may not be intellectually challenging (in the way a piece of art can be), but they do evoke emotion, and for me and many like me, it is the feeling of nostalgia.
Nothing screams nostalgia like staring at 8-bit aliens crawling down the screen getting progressively faster, or a yellow circle being chased by ghosts in a labyrinth of white dots and the odd bit of fruit. Even though these are not the games of my childhood, they are the games that break up the heavy and distressing narratives of The Last of Us and Wolfenstein; like a quirky pop-art painting nestled amongst the beautiful renaissance pieces of the 16th Century.
What more, 8-bit styles are being to appear more often in downloadable games, consider Super Meat Boy or Mercenary Kings, both of which have injected a bit of an 80’s renaissance into a 21st century made of uncomfortable, unnerving narratives.
As gamers have grown up, so have topics and the challenges they have bought forward. Like a teenager going through puberty, games have become more mature and more reflective as art. Different styles evoke different emotions, a different effect from person to person. Regardless of the player, its hard to deny that games are art; narratively, visually and emotionally involving. What more could you ask of a masterpiece?