Games with all their (He)art.

When I first played a video game, back in 1986, it opened up a window for me in what wasn’t the most fantastic of childhood experiences. I vividly remember a game called Quartet – and it wasn’t the sci-fi action shooter that left an impression on my childish sensibilities. Oh no, it was the music. The backgrounds. This was a world, a world to escape to and be a part of.

Throughout the past 26 years, games as I know them have changed and become a larger part of the world. Not that it has been an easy route; the video games industry has seen its fair share of tragedies. The market pretty much collapsed in the 80’s, with so many cheap and low-quality games and multiple platforms available – far more than we see on the market today. It has since grown again exponentially – almost to the detriment of the industry, as costs spiral out of control and it struggles between capitalist commercialism and artistic integrity. And we have lost many along the way – the fall of SEGA as a hardware maker, and Atari. SNK are set to make a return, but it is unlikely they will see a commercial return in the way they are hoping.

I have watched as games like Call of Duty become behemoths, where Gears of War is considered an industry standard model. Whilst I watch games like Beyond Good and Evil and Project Zero fade into the background somewhat, unable to ensure the profitability that is so required of many titles in recent years. On the surface, at least, games have lost their artistic edge – a generation ago we had Okami, Shadow of the Colossus and Shenmue. Now we don’t.

However, the unique position that video games inhabit in the world has led to the Smithsonian American Art Museum set up an exhibit entirely dedicated to games as an artform. From Pong to Flower, through Super Mario World and Monkey Island, it charts the road traveled in the last thirty-five years.

It once again raises the question amongst the likes of Roger Ebert as to whether games are art, or can ever be art. When an industry is so driven by commercialism and profiteering, can you ever truly find a balance between capitalist success and artistic integrity?

Roger Ebert, of course, says not. But then, as a film critic, surely he would be the first to condemn the very same nature in the movie industry? Of course, there are arthouse films, low-budget independent films and documentaries to counter the shallow action movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and John Carter, but at the same time the games industry has very much the same kind of setup – we have lower budget titles, smaller games like Limbo and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. These are games that are made on a comparative shoestring to the rest of the industry and yet are more profound and insightful as any game could hope to be.

And when budgets increase, games can – like movies – do something with those budgets if they choose to. Whilst we have examples like Call of Duty and Gears of War – arguably the Transformers and Saw of the gaming world – we also have games that follow the line of thought that Inception followed; that a big budget does not mean you have to make a brainless movie. You see games like Portal and Mario inhabit this corner of the spectrum, smart and intelligent. Witty and insightful. Endearing and enthralling.

We have, of course, had many games along the road traveled which have attempted – with varying degrees of success – to be artistic and intelligent. In the 16-bit era, you had the likes of Chrono Trigger and The Lost Vikings, through to the slapstick stylings of Zombies Ate My Neighbours and the epic Beyond Oasis. From Chakan: The Forever Man to Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals and stopping off at Clock Tower and Comix Zone, the seeds of experimentation and expanding the idea of what games can do have been there for a very long time.

And even the last generation, as I said, saw fit to bless us with games which blurred the boundaries further – Shadow of the Colossus was a game which posed a deeply ethical question to gamers; is doing the right thing sometimes wrong? Does doing the right thing require us to often do the wrong thing? All set out in an open, vivid landscape inhabited by the Colossi, the otherwise peaceful creatures we must slay to revive our lost love from her eternal rest. Can it ever be right to commit genocide on that scale for love?

Then there was Okami; a beautiful, whimsical game based on art – literally painting your way through the lands, changing them and bringing them back to life. Eternal Darkness was an adaption of the Lovecraftian mythos set to Edgar Allen Poe – how destinies can be intertwined, over thousands of years, towards one unified destiny. Ico – the haunting landscape as he and Yorda try to escape the shadows looming in the castle they are trapped in.

If Mr. Ebert is to be believed, the list of people who have to work on a project is too long in video games for them to be considered art – and yet I wonder if he has seen the credits list for most modern movies, where they can go on for up to ten minutes. Hundreds of millions of dollars are invested into some movies, and some only tens of thousands.

Games are no different. Some are indeed made by hundreds of people – others, by only one or two individuals.

What I always try to look for in a game, or a movie for that matter, is heart. Art is heart. I swear that it is often easy to tell when there has been more than ample love put into a project – it is immediate and obvious to the gamer or viewer. When something has been done because it is something they wanted to do, rather than something they were just paid to do.

Throughout the years, we’ve seen games only designed to turn a fast buck. And we’ve seen games made because the producer and development team were completely stoked about doing it, lavishing their time and money in just the right areas. Arguably we are coming to a point where we have Inception as the movie example of this, and Batman: Arkham City as the gaming example – they are in both senses commercially and artistically valid.

As we slide into a next generation, as Nintendo push out their machine, they also demonstrate that sometimes it is not merely the games themselves that can change – the Wii-U controller, if it works properly, will open up brand new doors to games creators. Nintendo are quite good at this, power can only make the current better, whereas change the nature of interaction and how you perceive/play something, and you can change everything.

It will be many years before there can be a serious debate on video games as art. But as a gamer, I cannot take the likes of Roger Ebert seriously; the video games industry is if not modeled on the movie industry then at least has accidentally traveled along an almost parallel path, mirroring it almost in its entirety. The two, on a practical, commercial and artistic level are pretty much on two lanes of a dual carriageway – both headed in the same direction and roughly the same speed, just one is in a Ferrari and them other is in a Porsche. And yet we assume the berk in the Ferrari is the more artistic, no doubt.

If movies can be art, then games can be art. And if games cannot be art, then by that very token – being so intrinsically similar in creation and commercial box-office reliance – movies cannot be art. Both industries have gotten themselves intertwined in so many places, games of movies and movies of games, because they move at such a similar pace and constant speed. It wouldn’t be possible otherwise for the two markets to actually merge or mingle in anywhere near the same way they have done for so many years.

Art isn’t always just art. Movies aren’t always just movies. Games aren’t always just games. That all three dare to mingle in a very modern ménage à trois has profound – and sometimes devastating – consequences. Sometimes we get great things, and sometimes… well… we don’t. Creation isn’t perfect, after all, and with human error and imagination such as it is, can probably never be perfect.

But equally, with both industries seemingly unable and/or unwilling to move away from each other, the future may yet be one where both assimilate into each other; a world where a Star Trek-style holodeck allows us to be both a witness and able to interact with the story.

And at that time, the debate of which is more artistically valid becomes an almost moot issue. They have become one and the same, and neither is of any greater importance than the other.

So let’s enjoy what we have. Let them move us, inspire us, touch us, change us if they are able – surely, at the end of the day, that is the whole point of art?

Surely that’s something to celebrate, rather than fear?

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