A few months back, Roger Ebert posted a blog in which he asserted that video games would never be considered art. He freely admitted to not having really played many games and having the inborn bias against them that so many of his generation do, but he was still confident in his contention that there was an inherent inability in the very form of video games that prevented them from achieving an artistic goal. This, of course, didn’t go over well with the legions of video game fans that populate the Internet. His post was reposted, retweeted, dissected, torn apart, derided, and held up as a perfect example of how the video game industry gets no respect, despite the fact that, besides porn, it generates more income than just about any other form of media, including the movie business which Ebert makes his living writing about.
All of this upset was a lot of fun to follow and join in on, but the question still remains. Can video games ever achieve the status of Art? In my mind, and the minds of many gamers, casual or otherwise, the answer is most definitely yes. Here are ten video games that through their story, look, or feel transcend the lowly status of ‘sophisticated time wasters’ and deserve to be considered Art.
Note: As a primarily PC gamer, my list skews mostly to games for that medium. It isn’t to say that console games are any less capable of capital ‘A’ art status than there PC cousins, it’s just that I haven’t played them enough to judge. Console fans feel free to add to this list any examples you think warrant it.
10. Planescape Torment
In 1999, the video game company Interplay released two sequels to its massively popular D&D based game Baldur’s Gate. Baldur’s Gate was a hit not only because of how closely it resembled the tabletop game’s rules, but more importantly for how it captured the high fantasy spirit that fans loved about D&D. For the first sequel, Interplay toned down the character development and amped the action (the still enjoyable Icewind Dale), but the other sequel, Planescape:Torment went in the other direction. Instead of developing the gameplay, it added a layer of steampunk and darkness to the fantasy and eschewed combat for conversation. The central character wasn’t on a journey to amass riches or conquer a hideous enemy, he was just trying to figure out who he was. As he and his companions (a living skull, a succubus, and a walking cube among them) wandered “The City of Doors,” the player spent far more time in philosophical debates than the more typical hacking and slashing that marks other roleplaying games. Most intriguingly, death- instead of just being a momentary penalty to be avoided- was revealed to be the character’s goal. Planescape:Torment looked beautiful, was full of imagination and wonder, and didn’t shy away from deep questions about existence and death. Sounds like art to me.
In 1997, Japanese videogame designer Fumito Ueda came up with a simple idea for a video game. A boy and a girl holding hands and having an adventure. From this sweet, but humble beginning came the classic Playstation game Ico. The story of a young boy who is cast out of his village because he was born with horns, Ico is a short, simple, nearly dialogue free game that serves as great platformer, and a subtle meditation on the nature of companionship. Ico creates a wonderful, otherworldly mood through natural lighting, minimal, yet beautiful settings, and a sparse soundtrack. Ico is also incredibly creative with language. The few words that do appear are in a musical imaginary language invented for the game. The second character Yorba (the young girl that is the player’s partner) speaks in another language that you don’t understand and her dialogue only appears as a series of symbols. Despite the lack of communication, the game forces you to work with her to help the both of you escape a mysterious castle. The puzzles and obstacles are challenging, but simple to understand, the story worthy of a classic children’s book, and it all looks like something out of a particularly imaginative child’s dream. Ico is a game unlike any other, and a perfect example of what a video game can be if its creators are willing to follow their visions.
8. No One Lives Forever
But not all artistic video games need to be so serious. Some, like the The Operative: No One Lives Forever are content to revel in their own sense of playfulness. In the game, you play Cate Archer, a jewel thief turned secret agent who jets around a 1960s world of gadgets and guns unravelling a sinister plot to turn people into living bombs. But the plot itself is mostly beside the point. It drives the gameplay (which is first-rate First Person Shooter stuff) but it isn’t what got the game on this list. Where No One Lives Forever shines is in the details. The clothes, furniture, and backgrounds all evoke not the actual 60s, but the 60s that played across movie screens and spy novels. From secret space stations to jungle lairs to East German discos, the game churns up the spy-fi and presents it in a fresh, irreverent way. If that wasn’t enough to earn it a spot on this list, the game has hours of conversations between the lackeys Archer is meant to mow down in order to reach her goals. You can cut them off any time you like and fill them full of lead, but if you spare them a little while, you’ll hear them discuss their lives, jobs, hobbies, and even their most hidden desires and fears. Any game that actually rewards you for sparing the cannon fodder just to hear about their dissatisfaction with their working conditions or their plans for their jam band is surely something more than just a game.
7. Silent Hill
There’s a lot of junky horror. More than any other genre, horror seems to attract hacks of all stripes who believe that all you need to do to make a horror movie is string together a few clever kills and you’re on your way. But in the right hands, loving, talented ones, horror can be just as moving and evocative as high drama. Horror video games are the same. A large number of them (well, nearly all) are blood-soaked splatterfests and nothing more. But in a very few rare cases, horror games can be so much more. A great example is Konami’s 1999 horror survival classic Silent Hill. A masterpiece of atmosphere, it creates a disturbing mix of shadow, fog, and horrible things in the dark. Rejecting the standard gore and shock that fuels the genre, Silent Hill generates its chills and thrills through sketchy images and a truly frightening soundtrack and score. The story, which involves a man searching for his missing daughter in the creepiest town in America, gains much of its power from its main character’s utter ordinariness. He gets tired easily, is a terrible shot, and knows just as much as you do about what’s going on. Added to the eerie atmosphere, it all adds up to a great, truly disturbing experience. And a game that deserves to be called art.
6. Grim Fandango
Good games are fun to play and help you kill a couple of hours. Great games create immersive worlds that draw players in and make them forget about anything else but reaching the next level. There’s a lot of tricks designers use to hook gamers. Cool items, special powers, other kinds of exciting game play are the most common. But some games go beyond simple mechanics. Take the 1998 classic Grim Fandango. It isn’t that riveting to play (as a graphical adventure game, it mostly involves pointing and clicking) but it creates such a unique, imaginative world that players want to beat the puzzles just to see what will come next in the story or what the next level is going to look like. A fantastic mix of Aztec folklore and film noir (two things you’d never imagine working so well together until you see them), Grim Fandago is a masterwork of production design. From its calaca-inspired character design and the Mexican infused afterlife, every virtual inch of the game breathes with life. Well, ‘breathes’ may npot be the best way to describe a game that takes place in the afterlife, but you get the idea. Grim Fandango gives players a wonderful sense that they’re a character in a movie, rather than just a bunch of pixels moving across the screen. The dialogue crackles with Spanglish and noir rhythms, the gameplay is addictive without being intrusive, and it all feels unlike just about any other game before or since. Grim Fandango is a great game, and a great piece of art.
5. Black and White
The pet raising genre is a perennial favourite in the video game world. Usually aimed at kids and non-traditional gamers, these kinds of games allow players to raise a cute little animal or monster. They feed it, care for it, but it stuff, and maybe teach it a trick or two. They’re cute, harmless games with no other aim than to be fun. Lionhead Studios’ 2001 game Black and White took the basic tropes of the pet raising game and added a thick layer of ethics and morality. In the game you play a god who is responsible for an island full of people. To help you in your duties, the game gives you an animal. Players raise the animal (called the ‘Creature’) but they do so using a very real system of punishment and reward. If the Creature does something you want it to do, you stroke it. If it does something you don’t want it to do, you slap it. What makes this part of the game unique is that as God, you are in complete control of what right and wrong is. If you want the animal to be a savage engine of destruction and fury, you can train it to be one. If you’d rather it was a force for good, you can train it to be nice and helpful. The moral choice is left entirely up to you. Most interestingly (or disturbingly, if you decided to raise an evil Creature) is that your tutelage starts to be reflected in the Creature’s appearance. As it grows, it changes according to the path you set it on. If you taught it to be virtuous, it gains an angelic, regal appearance. If you set it down the nasty road, it becomes a twisted, hideous beast. Suddenly, the choices you make are staring back at you, asking you to take responsibility for the terrible (or beautiful) thing you’ve created. The Creature is just one part of the game and whether the average 14 year old kid who proudly creates a monstrous giant wolf will stop to think about the consequences is debatable, but it’s the designers attempt that counts. And makes Black and White a work of art.
In video games, as in all art, creators and artist can sometimes take just a few basic elements and be incredibly effective in creating tone and emotion. Take Valve’s 2006 hit Portal. Although rightly lauded and remembered as a game changing breakthrough in physics and gameplay, Portal also contains one of the most complex and interesting characters in video game history. The unfailingly polite and unfailingly psychotic Artificial Intelligence GLaDOS. In the game, GLaDOS starts out as a cheery, helpful voice that guides you and teaches you how to use your equipment. It even promises you cake if you achieve your goals. But as the game progresses, GlaDOS gradually reveals its true nature through repeated lies, strange requests, and finally a complete mental breakdown. It’s a brave and interesting choice on the designers’ part. The only voice of authority and the players’ only connection to the larger game world is lying, insane, and homicidal. Computers gone mad are a sci-fi staple as old as sexy aliens who want to be taught the Earth custom of ‘kissing,’ but GlaDOS rises above the pack with sharp writing and an amazing voice performance by Ellen McLain. Instead of the stock megalomaniac that most video games are satisfied with trotting out time and time again, Portal has a completely realized character as an antagonist. The game and GLaDOS are so menacing that players can’t help but become attached to an inert box that is used to complete certain tasks. Called the ‘Weighted Companion Cube,’ it’s your only friend as you try to survive the terrors GLaDOS has in store for you. So harrowing is Portal that real life players have told of feeling genuine sadness when they are forced partway through the game to destroy their cubes. Pretty powerful stuff for a video game.
Morality is a funny thing in video games. Given the nature of the medium, most of the protagonists are little more than relentless killing machines who have more in common with Jason from Friday the 13th than any hero. A lot of games try to compensate for this by having a built in morality mechanic that supposedly takes into account your actions over the course of the game and adjusts the experience accordingly. In practice, this usually adds up to little more than a change of clothes and a different cutscene or two. But in 2K Games’ first person shooter Bioshock, the moral choices you are forced to make have a real effect on the games difficulty. Making the “right” choices (not killing innocents) makes the game harder. If you do things the nasty way (and even the most jaded gamer will have second thoughts about killing his first Little Sister), things are a lot easier. It doesn’t affect the overall story arc of the game until the ending, but the three distinct finales make it clear which choice was the right one. To add even more philosophical spice to the stew, the game tackles the utopian ideas of Ayn Rand and presents a detailed political and ethical world to make your choices in. It’s challenging and a welcome exploration of morality in video games and in general. And as an added bonus, it’s absolutely amazing to look at and explore.
2. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
The Grand Theft Auto series is well known for its innovations in gaming. From Grand Theft Auto 3 on it pioneered the ‘sandbox’ style of gaming and created a rich, funny, and decided violent playground for players to fulfill their every criminal whim. The omnipresent violence and complete lack of morality of GTA 3’s main character created a lot of controversy and made the game infamous, but the outstanding gameplay is what made it a hit. The inevitable sequel Grand Theft Auto: Vice City introduced a more realized central protagonist (he actually spoke this time), but it wasn’t until the massive Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that we had a character with a heart and soul. The story follows a young man who returns to his home in the projects after the death of his mother and quickly finds himself drawn back into the gang lifestyle he tried to flee. As the game progresses, he moves through a pretty standard video game arc of creating and expanding his criminal empire until he’s the undisputed boss of the entire state. But what isn’t so typical is the way the game creates a living breathing main character and dozens of supporting players who reach beyond the standard video game roles of villains and helpers. Besides Young Malay’s star turn as the hero C. J., the voice cast boasts amazing actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Penn, James Woods, and Peter Fonda. GTA:SA also creates an indelible portrait and satire of early 90s American culture. The music, characters, and hundreds of background details create a real, living world that is just close enough to ours to raise questions of morality in even the most jaded button masher. The infamous violence is there, but only because its there in reality as well. GTA:SA belongs in the great satirical tradition of works like Gulliver’s Travels and Dr. Strangelove. It’s fun and widely imaginative, but there is a lot of cultural savvy buried under all the dick jokes and shoot outs. What else can you ask of in a piece of art?
1. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda series of games have been around for almost as long as Nintendo. Mario and his gang may be the face of the franchise, but dedicated gamers know that the Zelda games are the ones with meat on their bones. There are a lot of great games featuring the hero Link, but the high water mark for the game (and possibly video games in general) was the 1998 stone classic The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Besides basically inventing the vocabulary and grammar of the modern roleplaying game, Ocarina of Time is an immersive, beautifully rendered (despite being released on a cartridge) and still holds up years after its initial release. The graphics and music are generations behind the games of today, but they aren’t the reason The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time still shows up on Best Games lists year after year. What keeps the game fresh in people’s minds is the heart and soul that power the story. Sure, it has all the fantasy clichés- young hero, princess in distress, epic quest to recover hidden stones of power- but it presents them with grace and real feeling. Players guide Link (who is a child at the game’s beginning) through a magical world of danger and adventure. He uses a sword, but he also needs to learn to play a musical instrument to complete certain tasks. The supporting characters are great, the story is hokey, but moving, and the ending is as sweet as any video game has a right to be. The Legend Of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is a touching, wonderful story that just happens to come in the form of a game. There’s a reason it holds a special place in the hearts of everyone who ever played it.