When video games become art

Today, video games are an integral part of the entertainment industry, and since 2010 more than the entire film and music industry combined – and the trend is upwards. While mobile games make up about half of this revenue, there are now a lot of titles in addition to the “Triple A” (AAA) blockbusters for PCs and consoles, which tread artistic paths instead. Quasi an antipole to the gaming mainstream. Instead of focusing on eye-candy and the speed of reaction of the fingers, these games above all want to address our brain and our emotions.

Basically, the question of what art is and what is not, is generally a bit difficult when Jackson Pollock paintings hung out in museums are annotated with “If I smear a few blots on a canvas, it looks the same”. If, on the other hand, one assumes that artistic works should encourage the viewer to think or generate impressions, numerous video games fall under the generic term “art”.

As an outsider, the term gaming is probably initially thinking of 3D shooters, sports and racing games, Super Mario or party and karaoke games. As a kind of counterculture, a lot of smaller developer studios have emerged in the last two decades that prefer narrative, explorative or nostalgic elements and are referred to as “indies”.


Small studios are getting bigger

The term is derived from “independent” because these studios often consist of just a few people who, regardless of the big publishers on a budget and little classic marketing, turn their ideas into a playable format. With affordable software and the ability to distribute games digitally, this market has nearly exploded in recent years. At this year’s gamescom gamescom in Cologne, the share of indie and retro games stands has already covered a whole hall – not counting the numerous stands at the industry and regional associations.

The number of these developers, who want to create fancier games and experiences, is now so large and important that more titles are taken up in the development phase of large distributors such as Sony Computer Entertainment and then marketed. One example is “Flower”, which is now ten years old and yet timeless. In the game, the player controls the wind to move a petal across meadows – without predefined tasks, mission goals or the like. The experience is accompanied by a gentle sound and color that adapts to the situation. The game designer Jenova Chen was in the development of it to trigger positive emotions in the player and not bring out a “fun game” for pure pastime.

The way is the mission goal

Three years later, his studio Thatgamecompany then released the title “Journey”, which sends the player without dialogue or text on the journey through a desert on a mountain – again, without a clearly recognizable mission goal. Journey is visually very coherent and flowing in the transitions of the game world. The story is accompanied by classical music recorded by the Skopje Radio Symphonic Orchestra after its release on iTunes in more than 20 countries in the top 10 soundtrack charts. Ranked # 116 in the Billboard Charts and the nomination for a Grammy Award.

Despite the short playing time of about three to four hours, Journey manages to trigger a series of emotions that portray curiosity, hope, fear and joy as well as the full spectrum of good, cinematic drama on the big screen. Just more immersive because the player controls the creature in the game through the desert, temples and sunken cities in an infinite desert, instead of just watching the experience. In this sense, such video games are indeed different from traditional art such as paintings, artworks, operas or performances. Including contemporary, modern, audiovisual art or improvisational theater but then again under the generic term art.

Art is always an experience – even in video games

Such games, such as the deliberately pixelated “Proteus” fall into the sub-genre “Exploration Games”, where the path is the goal – and this can be even infinitely long. Instead of working through leveling up, completing tasks, and collecting items to become bosses, it’s about exploring the game world. At the speed and in the way the player wants it, with limits set by the medium, of course.

This credo is also pursued by game designer Jonathan Blow in his games and created in 2008 the hugely successful “Braid”, which has been honored by many critics as one of the best video games of all time. Self-financed and postponed by Blow until he was satisfied with his work, he created a familiar yet new gameplay, full of critical smarts on the gaming industry. This is exactly the kind of social criticism that artists have practiced with poems, songs and paintings for millennia. But Blow does not live out his creativity on a screen, but on a display and uses a keyboard instead of color.

For example, the game designer gave the puzzle a Mario-like and familiar environment to players, but then turned many elements upside down, including the entire story. And built an additional level that serves as an analogy to Julius Robert Oppenheimer’s personal conflict after the atomic bomb was developed, and his inner conflict with the suffering that had brought the technology of humanity (“I am becoming Death, the destroyer of worlds.” ). As with many art forms, this metaphor has escaped most players and continues to exist only as a theory on the Internet – by Uncommented Blow. An artist often shifts the final interpretation of his works to the viewer, and that was no different with Blow’s follow-up project “The Witness”.

Experiences on an island

The player starts here on a very vividly and aesthetically varied island and learns in the first few minutes without instructions simple puzzle on boards in the game world know. For years, Blow sought a way to build a game from painting a line. He realized his plan after years of work and the entire proceeds of Braid, his private assets and numerous loans in 2016.

What sounds like a simple game mechanic, evolves over time and makes the player observe and experience the world around them. He then learns to break inseparable jigsaw puzzles and does them again here without predetermined paths. All parts of the island are reachable from the beginning, which is not included behind still door and access doors. Blow wanted to translate the innate learning and experience process into a video game as naturally as possible.

No tutorials, arrows, signposts or other means. Finally, you will not find them in a gallery of surreal or impressionist artists. And also not in life, because the conscious perception of our inner and outer environment and a dose of mindfulness is often lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday working life. In that sense, The Witness is a counterbalance to fast and full of micromanagement and performance-driven games. Just as conscious life contrasts with the slowly evolving trend in the world of work, returning to personal values, true sustainability, corporate consciousness and purpose, rather than the growth of the number in the bank account.

Storytelling becomes immersive

The awesome moments of solving the puzzles in harmony with a carefully designed and varied environment show a stark contrast to the often very rigid and “tube-like” levels of many mainstream titles. Instead of fast food, The Witness is more of a multi-faceted gourmet menu from a molecular gastronomy, where sometimes you do not even know if maybe even your plate is edible. You have to find out for yourself. And with several different finishes, a lot of room for interpretation, and a second, hidden puzzle level, The Witness draws a clear parallel to traditional art forms. It’s just about discovering the world around you, finding new perspectives and just seeing things through different eyes.

Another very popular subgenre that can be called “art” is “playable visual novels” or “interactive drama”. Naming these games put the focus on telling a story dramaturgically constructed. Just as books, movies, comics or their “adult” cousins, visual novels do. Their most famous representative is likely to be “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, listed on the TIME list of the best novels of all time in the top 100. Freedom of action is deliberately severely limited in this type of game, and in contrast to classic video games, there are only minor and very simple tasks. So you can imagine it as an interactive movie, where the player leads the character through the story and can influence the progress with certain actions and dialogues.

The player as an externally directed director

Studio Quantic Dream is among the developers that have become some sort of industry standard for the interactive drama genre. “Heavy Rain”, for example, tells a relatively dark detective story from the point of view of several protagonists and can compete with the thriller “Seven” in terms of story and mood. For “Beyond: Two Souls”, the developer has then committed the actress Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe and then further softened the boundaries between film and video game.

Page read completely digitized for the game and borrowed the main protagonist in addition to her voice, and the appearance – and for several even, separate years of life. Beyond: Two Souls, as well as Quantic Dream’s latest title “Detroit: Become Human,” managed to deliver very adult, high-immersion content. So how, above all, do films as a long-established art form.

The once-closed studio and revived in August Studio Telltale Games also developed such playable stories, but used for it licenses of existing comics, movies and series. For example, those of Batman, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us or Back to the Future and extended their actions to a playable component that even works if you sit next to it only as an observer without gamepad in hand.

Art is always a matter of opinion

The list of titles and sub-genres could be expanded here, for example, the meta-game “The Stanley Parable”, which is a single, multiple-nested and snappy-humorous side blow on the gaming industry and office life. Or “Fez”, which is peppered with homage to old video games and in between supposedly smears the PC. Similarly meta is the mega success “Undertale”, which even allows to change game elements and dialogues by editing the files of the game with an editor. Also a change of perspective that artists like to use to convey to the viewers: “Think outside the box!”

This list is therefore far from complete or representatively covers all genres that could be described as artistic. But you do not have to. Because just as the question of what art actually is can never be answered, it ultimately does not matter to the artistically creating and “consuming” one. The only thing that matters is just putting off this idea, having to put something in a drawer, only to be able to experience it then. A photo of the shadow play of a forest can be just as artistic as a menu by star chef-rebel Massimo Bottura. And a video game can be just as much art.

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