July 27, 2021

Games as/vs Art – Electric Boogaloo

The industry and its fragmented situation has resulted in some truly amazing games, some of which have even walked off with the moniker of “Art Games”. But I worry that we might be missing the point – games as art isn’t a new debate, but making games solely as art? That’s a troubling situation…


“For something to be art, it can have no purpose other than itself.”

It’s a commonly used expression but it’s perhaps an interesting beginning to a post about gaming versus art. That art in itself has to be primarily art, and have no other means or intention than to be art. This has always been a contentious issue – Robert Ebert would argue not, that games have yet to reach the point where we are emotionally involved with them. Except the same criticism can be leveled at the movie industry – can Transformers: Dark of the Moon be more art than, say, Shock Treatment? Shock Treatment tried to make a point and therefore by the usual guidelines cannot be art, whereas Transformers: DOTM is just what it is, and therefore has more weight to it as an art film than most of the more critically acclaimed movies of the last decade.

When we discuss art, we begin to realise that everything is skewed. We all have different definitions of the subject. We all react differently. There is no right answer.

However, we can of course discuss the potential of there being a WRONG answer in the debate and this is conveniently and ably demonstrated by such recent titles such as The Unfinished Swan. The “Art Game”. Not the DS art tutorials, which are strange and paint-by-numbers versions of traditional techniques, but games designed primarily and solely to be art, or to at least be artistically valid. There’s always something wrong when a person turns around and proclaims themselves “an artist”, because there’s a sort of smugness involved with it. That is the sort of person who tries to say “Darling, I’m CREATIVE. And you’ll never understand how deep I am!”, when they’re usually not that creative and are about as deep and meaningful as the average cheese and onion sandwich. There’s something about a game whose sole intention to be art which for me is deeply disconcerting.

The main reason is that video games, for my money, have to entertain. The ideology of art in the modern era hinges on that first line; “it can have no purpose other than itself”, and this is a problem for video games. Video games – like movies, TV and music – have to entertain. Their purpose isn’t to be above the audience, because at that point the audience can see the pretentiousness of it all and feel offended that such a thing belittles them – it’s to get into the audience, to move them and potentially change them. Paintings and sculptures can perhaps still relate to the original corny rule of art, because you are looking at them. They are, they exist and there’s not much else you can do with them but admire them. Modern entertainment? Well… it can’t follow that rule.

Not least because it has to entertain but that as a business, things have to make money. They have to sate shareholders and help fund the next pretentious mess – they have ulterior motives, despite the front end, and it is once you come to accept this that the whole debate of art becomes skewed quite dramatically. What we see, what we hear in modern entertainment is often faked, often tuned, often dumbed down. Nothing is “real”, of course. Reality TV, many pop stars who rely on auto-tuning, movies like Transformers; all of these things and more show us quite bluntly that entertainment and drama is often tweaked by multiple people in order to I guess make more money, and drum up more attention so perhaps they can make more money. The recent UK X-Factor “Fix” scandal a prime example; it got the show into the news way ahead of its more successful Saturday night rival Strictly Come Dancing (that’s the UK version of Dancing With The Stars for my US readers!) because the camera just managed to catch one of the shows producers talking to one of the judges from behind the desk. It was so obviously staged; but the sad part is, it worked. More people did tune in, and a show that relies on phone votes means they had more potential to make money. It’s cynical, of course it is, but that’s the world we live in. Entertainment is great, but never forget the bottom line – the Almighty Dollar!

The Unfinished Swan is a prime example of this interference of money into art in a modern medium. It’s a beautiful, hauntingly ethereal game that is totally white until you start throwing black paint around, to mark and give shape and form to the invisible world around you. It always looked a bit pretentious but you could never really escape the fact the idea was fantastic and yes, artistic. The game wasn’t really a game to start with – it just was, and the demos and images we got suggested a powerful interpretive piece. And then Sony moved in – and something happened.

They made it a game.

By this I mean the title has puzzles and a curve in it of progression. It was done like this to appeal to more and to ensure that whatever got invested into this ambitious project would see a return, except it defeated the very object of it being such a piece of art. It became business again, it had other motives, and that is something that isn’t compatible with the idea of art – regardless of what the Turner Prize would have us believe. It was always pretentious, but under the guise of Sony and a game, it became MORE pretentious. It tried too hard to have some sort of point, of meaning, something that defines it and it failed on all counts. You can’t insist on being art if you also insist on being a game.

You can, however, insist on being a game and be art at the same time. Because there is a strange point for some games where the end result is a game, but is also art – in a totally accidental way. There is no intention to be art, no other motive than to be a game and to entertain, no pretensions to higher motives. Ico for example is a game; a dark and twisted game, but it is the simplicity of the storytelling – of Ico, a child with horns left to die in a rotting ruin of a castle – escorting the pure-white, ghostly apparition of Yorda to safety that gets people talking about art – the exquisite world design, the uncomplicated story and the focus of this innocent friendship add credibility to its art credentials because it is still a game. It’s a wonderful game, a truly emotional piece of gaming. It’s because of that that the tale manages to get through, and suddenly you see something more. You crack that outer shell and find a jewel inside, one that reaffirms why you play video games in the first place!

However, if someone was to ask me to pick one stand-out game that is art, I’d pick Portal.

Portal was a game done on a budget and with time constraints. Its clean lines, clinical grubbiness peppered with strange liquids and objects, all mashed together as puzzles was all done because it needed to be a part of the Orange Box collection. It was meant to be an addition, a nice addition. But it became and is so much more than that – it’s a fantastic and clever game, that much is never in doubt. It’s the medium of how it tells the story that elevates it, however, way beyond mere pretenders and even the sequel it spawned to be closer to art than anything in the gaming world in recent years.

For GLADoS is a storytelling device. And she runs parallel with the game for a long time, coaxing and guiding whilst also mercilessly taunting and teasing. This is an AI with an attitude problem; a symptom of our need to be guided, to be led, and yet holds us in absolute contempt at the same time until the need comes to dispose of us for the next wave, at which point the previous lot either crash and burn or rebel and try to topple the very thing that guided them for so long. It’s the most incredibly clever mirror to society; by accident or by intention doesn’t really matter, it’s how it does it. And the game is great with it; as this contemptuous AI guides us, we have fun. There are risks and dangers along the way, but we overcome and wait for the next instruction until we are disposed of, at which point we seek vengeance against this higher power for wronging us. The last part of Portal is frantic, structured like a backstage area, a bit dirty and rusty. We’re seeing the true underbelly of a constructed, easily-led society. We are only meant to see the white walls and the crisp, sharp corners. And suddenly we’re seeing how it is held together. It’s quite something, powerful and wry with a biting wit and a real sense of purpose.

But for all the subtext, Portal manages to be art because it is primarily a game. It makes such a point – again, by design or accident is a different discussion – without hitting you over the head with it. It’s there, it’s subtle and it’s kind of all-encompassing, when you see it it blows you away, but it’s never trying to say “I am art! Look at my art credentials!” It’s artistic validity is affirmed because you can miss it, you can just enjoy it as a game. It has no other intention than to be a game, and that is ironically why it is so artistic. It puts the game first and foremost in the frame; the details come from further play and perusal, and you want to play and peruse and to get into its finer details. You fall into it, rather than it falling into you.

Which is an important thing when it comes to the games vs art debate because I do believe games can be art, even if the processes behind them are not. I genuinely believe that all entertainment can be art, but not all art is entertainment. If you try to be something, you generally don’t achieve it. You can try to be a brilliant game and tell everyone how brilliant your game is like Peter Molyneux, but the end results are never brilliant. If you believe your own hype and your own sense of self-importance, your end product can be neither good nor important. Quality speaks for itself; it doesn’t need someone like me to point you towards it. Likely as gamers you already know of Ico and Portal, and similarly Okami and Shadow of the Colossus. You don’t need me to tell you these games have some validity as art, because that comes from playing them. And yes, they are also subjective and not everyone will agree, but that so many of us can be moved and enthralled by them tells you that they have at least some weight as art, but mostly more weight as games because that is what they do best of all. They are games that enthrall and intrigue and entertain and move us emotionally. That is what makes them art. They know what they are. It’s what makes them art – by not trying to BE art, they are.

Braid, Flower and The Unfinished Swan try too hard to be something they are not. It’s the desperation to be seen as art that draws us to the fact that as games, they are lacking something. They try to distract us from their lack of something solid by jumping and waving around, and yet it’s this jumping and waving around that effectively attracts our attention to the very things it is trying to hide. “We’re ART!” They cry. “We don’t need that because we are ART!”

Except you’re so not. You’re a game. A good game can be art because it is a good game which has something important in there to say, do and for us to interpret. An art game only ever comes across as vapid, self-important and vague; it makes no point, because it expects us to impose one onto it. But then what is the point? We may as well have a canvas of our own to throw paint onto, why would or should we throw it onto yours? By trying to tell us you don’t need something because you are “art”, you effectively just tell us what is wrong with it without us even trying to investigate. You push us away – even if you have an alright game in there somewhere, a game that is trying to be art always makes people feel you’re not quite right.

Not all art games are bad, of course, but they all share the same problem; they want to be art. They crave that definition, they desire it above all else and it is that very shallow aim that exposes the shallowness of the game and the designers themselves. A game that has an intention to be art can only ever attempt to be art and never attain it; because a game has to entertain. Art just is. The two can co-exist, but not if art is the primary motivation behind it. Art is something we all want and enjoy, in its various forms of course, but we like to also see purpose. We like to think “I could put that here…”, or “I would use that!”  – again, it’s likely an odd primal hoarding thing but it is how we work. When we buy a game, we want to be entertained. That is the primary motivation a game needs to have. A game that isn’t fun is an entirely pointless object and no, not art; just bin material. A good game can have elements of art, or make a more valid artistic point than a game trying to be art, and failing.

To hit the nail on the head after nearly 2,400 words – games like Okami, Ico, Deadly Premonition, Journey and Portal are fantastic games first and we call them games. We admire their artistry but they are actually games first and foremost in our minds, that’s why we love them so dearly. Art Games are a derisory, almost ironic term that we have started applying; for a game that wants to be like the aforementioned titles, but is far too interested in being art. So self-interested and pretentious that it forgets to be a game in large parts, and therefore is neither a good game nor art.

Art Games cannot be art. Good games can be art. And that’s something we should all be aware of; and be wary of any game that has ambitions to be “art”, because it’s the wrong medium to put that aspect ahead of everything else. Entertainment has to entertain first; educating and informing and intriguing come in after they’ve managed to make you enjoy yourself first. Games are no different to music and movies and books in this regard. Getting your primary motives done first means you can always come in with the artistry and heavy hitting points later.

“For something to be art, it can have no purpose other than itself.”

That means be yourself and do what you are intended for first. A game is a game first and foremost. If it is art, it will be art at the end of it because it is art – not because you’ve convinced yourself it is…


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