Artistic Merit In Video Games
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when the word “art” is uttered?
For some, it would be a literary work from the Western canon. A work like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). To others, something with an audiovisual bent like Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (1953) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s flick Stalker (1979). And if one’s to broaden the meaning of art even further, it could be something as crude as the doodles one whips up in their scrapbook.
All of the above can technically qualify as valid answers. This includes a medium that has surpassed movies and music in recent years by generating $152.1 billion worldwide in 2019. That’s compared to the “global box office industry being worth $41.7 billion and global music revenues $19.1 billion” 1 around the same period.
That medium being video games.
Video games are no stranger to eliciting the same kinds of feelings and thoughts one could draw from a painting, novel, song, or film. Feelings and thoughts made all the more potent by the interactive part of the gaming equation. Just take a look at text-based romps such as Planetfall (1983) to modern arthouse projects like That Dragon, Cancer (2015).
Games invite participants to be engaged by the experience, for sure. Most importantly, they invite players to engage with the experience through direct controller input. This helps audiences better understand the author’s imagination and ideas in a way not feasible in older mediums.
Like in literature, theatre, and cinema, ideas both basic and heady underline the foundations of a game’s design and message. A message that has something to say about the creator’s worldview and take on the medium they chose to express themselves through. It’s a fact that ought to compel developers to reach out to audiences just like playwrights, filmmakers, and authors.
This is in light of the growing support for the recognition of games as art over the past years. Evidence can be seen in initiatives such as the Game Masters Exhibition and Strong Museum of Play. Ergo, the idea of games being more than playthings has earned a spot in the collective psyche. Chalk it up to the ways in which titles like The Stanley Parable (2011) and To The Moon (2011) can make one laugh, cry, and think differently about life as a whole.
But how can one tell if a game, via its presentation and/or gameplay, does more than just entertain? What are the traits of titles that broaden and challenge one’s thinking about play and the human condition?
Tackling Novel Forms Of Play
The first sign of a game with artistic merit consists of how it introduces and presents gameplay. The game can put a spin on its genre, or craft a new one via innovative audiovisuals and controls. In any case, an artistic game can have its developers think outside the box.
This mindset’s embodied while crafting the mechanics that realize the title’s experience goal and range of feelings to draw out of players. The result can manifest in the likes of the split-screen exploration of spirit and material realms in The Medium (2021). As well as in the “Write Anything, Solve Everything” system of conjuring up random objects for puzzle-solving in Scribblenauts (2009).
How the developer shepherds players through their creation can say a lot about a couple of things. One, about how said developer perceives reality and the laws of nature governing human interaction with the wider world. And two, about the make-up of and means of traversal through the virtual environment. With an understanding of past design innovations and trends, the developers can upend player expectations regarding the artwork’s genre.
An example of mind-bending play can be found in Gorogoa (2017). On the surface, the puzzle game doesn’t seem to push its genre’s envelope. Just slide images on the two-by-two grid that makes up the title’s gameplay screen, right?
But if one were to look closer—and zoom in on said images—they’d see something more. They’d see that they’re not so much wrangling images as they are forming a narrative of 20th-century life. A narrative that sees a boy seek an encounter with an ocular monster. All while traversing an ever-changing landscape that alternates between human destruction and reconstruction along the way.
In the exploration of spiritual themes across the ages, the images’ multiple layers symbolize the boy’s haphazard memories. Ergo, Gorogoa turns the “show don’t tell” principle into an “act don’t just show” one. Players leverage their puzzle-solving chops to initiate a dialog with the author’s style of visual storytelling. In layman’s terms, the player’s helping the boy make sense of and come to terms with his imaged memories.
By engaging with the art, players can dig deeper into the imagination, thematic meaning, and history contained within each picture. They form the game’s tale—”a search for meaning over [a lifetime]” 2—like a puzzle and view it from the right angle. Bit like how the boy, as he grows older, looks at his past from the vantage point of hindsight.
Taking a chunk of the familiar and molding it into something novel can beget authenticity without losing conventionally-inclined audiences. This can be seen in the likes of Florence (2018) within gaming and Boyhood (2014) beyond it. The time-tested conventions of the medium and genre developers work in serve as springboards. Springboards for having their game transcend its trappings on a gameplay level.
Resultingly, something else shall transcend its own brand of complacency. That something else being the gamer’s approach to play. A unique style of gameplay design can snap them out of autopilot. It compels them to study and understand what’s expected of them, how to take action, and what entails from action. This reinforces the artist-audience dialog that turns an imaginative product into an exercise in creative thinking.
Other Examples: Papers, Please (2013) for its rendition of border control procedures and the dilemmas that come with admitting/rejecting border crossers; A Mortician’s Tale (2017) for relaying death positivity via its body-dissecting and funeral-home-managing mechanics; Her Story (2015) for basing its police procedural gameplay around searching databases for case-solving video clips.
Exploring Topics That Touch On The Human Condition
The developer can bend player expectations as to how a game controls and portrays challenges for gamers to overcome. They can also challenge the player’s notions about the title’s through line. Think of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013) and its depiction of brotherly bond in the face of danger. Or of Kentucky Route Zero (2020) and its magical realist rendition of weltschmerz in rural America.
Via active participation, players are more than just exposed to themes hailing from society’s and/or the author’s underpinnings. They are given a chance to explore the game’s through line via their actions. Such actions, be it for the player’s amusement or their personal edification on the title’s topic, may beget gameplay consequences. Consequences that say something about the player within the overarching theme’s context.
Such an experience is the kind This War of Mine (2014) aims to provide. It does so in tangible quantities that eclipse the amounts of victuals and equipment found in-game.
Taking place in a war-torn city, This War of Mine differs from other war-themed games. Instead of armed combatants, the game focuses on the civilian side of the equation. Players manage pockets of survivors and their resources in a makeshift shelter until everything blows over with a ceasefire.
This War of Mine puts a premium on humanizing those perceived as collateral damage in the theatre of armed conflict. This can be seen in the small roster of playable survivors, who embody unique gameplay traits. An example would be Zlata’s “Bolster Spirits” perk that allows her to play the guitar skillfully and boost the shelter’s morale. All of this is on top of the skill-based growth of child survivors. They can be trained to cook, filter water, and manage crops. It reinforces the importance of preserving individuality and life in the face of bloodshed. Not dissimilar to the likes of Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Joan Didion’s Salvador (1983).
This feeling of vulnerability in the racket of war hovers over the player’s conscience at every turn. Not to mention at every twist of the knob on the shelter’s makeshift radio. With it, players try to handle the barrage of weather warnings and economic updates coming out of the speakers. Such news put the survivors’ resources and lives at further risk via costly shelter upgrades and scavenging missions.
And the closest thing to feeling in control of things? Encountering other survivors in the outside world, and choosing to either save or kill for extra supplies. Such is the tug-of-war between materialistic desperation and humanistic integrity. All in an environment that doesn’t so much catch a break as it does catch folks by surprise with a bullet or several. This War of Mine “won’t let you forget that even when all the choices are bad, some are worse than others.” 3
A game’s heady themes benefit from informing and being fused with the gameplay and level of agency afforded to players. Bit like hiding narrative exposition under and relaying it via character conflict. Think of the side-scrolling escapade that shines a light on the gloomy world and topic of mass control in Inside (2016). Or of the Sub-Saharan romp through Heart of Darkness-like themes in Far Cry 2 (2008).
Commentary may not necessarily be seen or heard, but it can be felt even while the player’s going through the motions. Or at least think they’re going through the motions until they observe closer. By doing so, players may glean from the onscreen action the true meaning of their avatar’s doings and surroundings. A meaning that may have something sweet or cutting to say about how society thinks and operates.
Other Examples: Sea of Solitude (2019) for weaving its themes of human connection into the environment and avatar themselves; The Cat Lady (2012) for its raw exploration of depression and suicide via magical realism; Observer (2017) for having players enter the minds of NPCs, exploring their quirks and the blurred line between privacy and justice.
Challenging Player Agency And Power Fantasies
A commonly understood aspect of gaming is the idea of player agency. That is, to give the participant a direct say in how they shape and traverse the virtual world. Should the genre and developers’ intentions prove conducive, player agency can beget power fantasies. Such fantasies enable players to dominate the game’s obstacles and mold the world, facilitating the player’s virtual conquest.
But what if instead of the environment accommodating the avatar, it’s the avatar that must accommodate the environment? What if player agency was designed to teach one to study their surroundings? Rather than blindly steamrolling through them?
These are the questions that Outer Wilds (2019) answers with its Groundhog Day-flavored take on space exploration and solar systems. This can be seen in the 22-minute loop that resets whenever the sun goes supernova while players are trekking across the final frontier. They must unearth the mysteries behind the universe’s laws of nature and the extinct Nomai race linked to the temporal anomaly.
Through this info-gathering loop, players use past knowledge to more carefully venture across the stars and comb planets for clues. Outer Wilds makes it clear that they—the participant—aren’t in control of things. They are, however, in control of how willing they are to learn from life-ending mistakes. Mistakes such as not properly checking their oxygen supply or letting sand rivers in cave-ins drown the avatar.
Ergo, the title teaches players the virtue of being conscious of one’s limits. Of understanding the unknown’s supremacy in its execution of the laws of nature. This begets “a fatalistic exercise in all those adages about failure, surmised most succinctly by Henry Ford as ‘simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.'” 4
And thanks to the randomized nature of the game obstacles, Outer Wilds keeps the “space tourism” factor at bay. It compels the player to be more engaged in their interactions with their surroundings. This echoes the sublime as defined by Edmund Burke: That we aren’t so much the center of the universe as we are the students of it.
Games can frame player agency and consequentiality in a way that reveals the gamer’s biases and line of thinking when under pressure. They can also highlight the delicacy and interlaced nature of the game world and its goings-on when gameplay consequences arise. This occurs when the participant’s left at the mercy of the virtual elements as in Stranded Deep (2015). And also the other way around like with tribe management simulator From Dust (2012).
By understanding how the game’s through line can be relayed, developers can further immerse the player into their avatar’s role. Success in doing so can lead to the developers’ artistic and thematic message being driven further home and into the gamer’s conscience. This turns the experience of absorbing an artwork’s emotional power into a visceral one unique to every player.
Other Examples: Tyranny (2016) for putting players in the role of the oppressor post-conquest; The Magic Circle (2015) for sporting a space that changes around the player on a whim while they try to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles; The Long Dark (2017) for teaching players survival techniques that help them respect the game’s harsh land.
Presenting Far Out Characters And World-Building
In books and films, the likes of Riddley Walker (1980) and A Field in England (2013) portrayed unorthodox figures and worlds that challenged the collective unconscious. Gaming also demonstrated a knack for immersing audiences into fictional realms and casts. These narrative components provide tangible escapism. Not to mention a novel perspective on play and the human condition itself.
The clay-based edifices and props that make up The Neverhood (1996), the pantheon of virtuous and vicious deities in Hades (2020)… The virtual space and its inhabitants advertise the sort of gameplay and narrative players are to experience. They also serve as an allegorical reflection of the state of affairs—and mind—in the real world.
A feat that I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1995) achieves without no punches pulled, especially those aimed at the player’s conscience.
Based on Harlan Ellison’s 1967 short tale of the same name, the adventure game adaptation has players take control of five tormented figures. They represent humankind’s last remnants in a dystopian world run by the mastermind AI dubbed “AM.” A world made up of metaphorical adventures that exploit each figure’s fatal flaws. Those adventures draw their horror not (just) from grisly imagery, but from “the very decisions that [players] make and the [manifestation of the] sort of person that they’re becoming.” 5
The title turns the concepts of a fever dream and guilt trip into a roller coaster of taboos. This can be seen in Nimdok’s crushing sense of guilt upon learning of his Nazi past and part in the Holocaust. It can also be witnessed in Ellen’s fear of the color yellow and narrow spaces due to a past case of sexual assault. These thorny vignettes don’t so much take a dig at societal woes as they do dig deeply into the collective unconscious. By doing so, the game dredges up damning truths. The sort that the player characters must address so as to make peace with themselves, if not AM’s decades-long torturing.
Like Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Silent Hill (1999), the game points audiences at the horrors making up the theme and parts of humanity. Horrors that may live within and around us, and that we can easily picture and confront with enough bravery and imagination. However psychedelic and disturbing said imagination may be.
Just as one personifies virtue and vice via deities, developers can make their ideas more relatable by baking them into figures and realms. So at first, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream appears unapproachable. But then it morphs into something that one can approach and embrace if they are brave enough: The harsh truth.
Gaming—like other art forms—may hold a mirror to society and depict in it said society’s virtues and foibles. That mirror can be as bendable as the developers want it to be so as to bolster the quirkiness of the characters and world that convey the game’s themes.
Other Examples: The Wolf Among Us (2013) for its film noir take on fabled figures such as Snow White and the Magic Mirror; Doki Doki Literature Club! (2017) for its satire of the visual novel and dating game genres via its fourth-wall-breaking characters and hidden horrors; Killer7 (2005) for sporting a cast of elite assassins physically manifesting from a man’s eclectic personality.
Depicting A Unique Presentation That Can Inform Mechanics And Narrative
How a game depicts itself to the participant can set the tone for the brand of escapism and author-audience dialog said game promises. The journey that participants embark on while immersed in the experience can be shaped by the game’s framing and aesthetics. It can also be shaped by the player’s personal grasp of the gameplay and storytelling. Just like negotiating a painting’s foreground and background details.
Does the title portray itself as a puppet show like in Puppeteer (2013)? A blend of text-based and first-person exploration as in Stories Untold (2017)? Or as a note-taking simulator in the same vein as Elegy for a Dead World (2014)?
A game’s presentation can engender and modulate the range of emotions and actions that the player embodies and takes. When done well, the artwork’s presentation can wrap itself around the participant and immerse them into the title’s virtual fabric.
This attention-to-detail can be seen in the adventure title Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (2019). And heard as well, with players venturing across Great Depression-era America and lending an ear to oral stories from fellow wanderers. Stories that players pass along to others on their quest for meaning in a land stuck in hard times.
The folkloric factor doesn’t just apply to the sense of journey players experience while exploring the States and individual tales they gather. It also applies to the artistic flourishes. Flourishes that take cues from mid-20th century fruit crate labels and the works of Robert Fawcett. These flourishes also apply to the tarot card-style setup that categorizes the stories and underlines their respective through line.
The game spares no expenses contrasting rural American ennui with fantastical and surreal cues in the audiovisuals. As if the title’s rendering the imagination and escapism NPCs leverage to cope with hardships. This storytelling and artistic approach’s only fitting given the kinds of tall and/or innermost tales players encounter. A farmer holes herself up in her basement after the cows storm her home and take up residence. A lighthouse harbors a lamp that’ll only burn in genuine love’s presence, shining as brightly as the couple’s mood.
Beauty, eeriness, and melancholy abound in the narrative tapestry that makes up the game’s rendition of America and its denizens. That tapestry doesn’t just make for pretty artworks on the developers’ part. It also makes for a canvas the participant can fill out through the coloring and shaping of the stories they collect. The title lays bare its eclectic tone and theme across all gameplay and audiovisual facets without mincing words or details. Bit like how the NPCs open up to tale-swapping players by sharing unvarnished tales of their own.
The result? A play experience that puts as much a spin on interactive storytelling as it does on the title’s sundry yarns. The game has one think differently about how they approach, witness, and handle storytelling. Proof that “telling or retelling a story is itself a playful and participatory act, whether you do so over a campfire or in a game.” 6
As books like House of Leaves (2000) and films such as Memento (2000) attest to, a game can be idiosyncratically arranged to relay its theme. This can yield a depiction of story events and/or gameplay obstacles that challenge how players see their goals and gameplay input.
Care must be taken, however, to ensure presentational novelties don’t obscure the player’s understanding of the experience. The successful game can strike audiences as indelible, the impact never ceasing to ripple within gamers’ minds.
Other Examples: Emily is Away (2015) for using an early-to-mid-2000s chat client as its gameplay screen; The Unfinished Swan (2012) for depicting a blank world that becomes more tangible and visible with the player’s spraying of paint; Unravel (2016) for having the avatar explore environments based on its owners’ framed pictures and memories.
Drawing Emotions And Feelings Out Of Players Besides Fun
So what do all the above traits of an artistic game amount to, especially when combined to become more than the sum of their parts?
Through the presentational and gameplay, a game with artistic merit doesn’t just express the developer’s imagination and worldview. Nor does it just make gamers express their glee with laughter or sadness with tears. An artistic game leaves audiences internally moved and changed. It entrusts them with food for thought that makes them think differently about how they perceive games, art, and human existence.
This case for emotional resonance on an eclectic scale is one that the survival horror title Deadly Premonition (2010) makes while the title’s lead—Agent Morgan—cracks a Twin Peaks-style case of murder.
Like the TV show that inspired it, there’s more to the game’s sense of mystery and rural eeriness than meets the eye. Chiefly in how disparate and seemingly incongruous elements combine into a surreal presentation. One with “its own weird logic full of zombies, otherworldly horrors, and completely inappropriate discussions of gruesome murders at a dinner table.” 7
On one end of the tonal spectrum, a gas mask-wearing multimillionaire prods Agent Morgan into trying out a turkey, jam, and cereal sandwich at a diner. On the other end, a curator tries to give a tour of her museum. Despite her tongue being cut out and shortly before getting herself crushed by a tree sculpture.
As if mirroring its polarized critical reception, Deadly Premonition‘s tone wildly varies from one scenario to another. The game invites players to look forward to their next dose of the Kafkaesque. A dose that may arise from a mundane conversation or a random sighting in the open world. It also helps contrasts the title’s quiet and upbeat moments with the damning and grisly ones.
This makes their onscreen appearances all the more potent in their intended emotional effect. Not to mention all the more unpredictable. They upend players’ expectations and the way they approach and experience mystery and small-town narratives. And when it comes to art, challenging the usual emotional takeaway from a genre work can pay dividends for the maverick artist.
When looking at how a title makes one feel and think, one shouldn’t limit themselves to the question, “Was it fun?” Rather, the weightiness of a game’s impact on the player can be measured in how it engages them on an innermost level. The feelings and thoughts elicited by the experience can be varied and/or potent enough to make a cobweb that entangles the participant’s attention. This gives the developer a chance to cast their artistic spell on the player before releasing them from the screen and controls.
Other Examples: Spiritfarer (2020) for weaving solemnity and heart into a journey about the afterlife; Thirty Flights of Loving (2012) for its rapid-fire dishing out of scenarios that vary wildly in tone and pacing from one another; Jazzpunk (2014) for its tongue-in-cheek tackling of 1950s espionage and urban tomfoolery.
In Steven E. Jones’s words, “video games are meaningful – not just as sociological or economic or cultural evidence, but in their own right, as cultural expressions worthy of scholarly attention.” Games, then, can be seen as virtual canvases onto which audiences not only admire the art, but also dive into. This creates a unique artist-audience dialog that changes how players think about their place in existence. Both virtual and fleshy.
- Stewart, Samuel. “Video Game Industry Silently Taking over Entertainment World EJINSIGHT – Ejinsight.Com.” EJINSIGHT, Hong Kong Economic Journal Company Limited, 22 Oct. 2019, www.ejinsight.com/eji/article/id/2280405/20191022-video-game-industry-silently-taking-over-entertainment-world. ↩
- Kohler, Chris. “The Puzzle Of A Lifetime.” Kotaku, G/O Media Inc., 6 Apr. 2018, kotaku.com/the-puzzle-of-a-lifetime-1821235999. ↩
- Sheehan, Jason. “Reading The Game: This War Of Mine.” NPR, NPR, 16 Dec. 2017, www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2017/12/16/569948674/reading-the-game-this-war-of-mine. ↩
- Avard, Alex. “How the Search for Truth and Meaning in Outer Wilds Turns a Simple Space Adventure into a Religious Experience.” Gamesradar, Future US, Inc., 15 Oct. 2019, www.gamesradar.com/how-the-search-for-truth-and-meaning-in-outer-wilds-turns-a-simple-space-adventure-into-a-religious-experience. ↩
- Kurland, Daniel. “‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’: The Most Disturbing, Nihilistic Video Game of All Time?” Bloody Disgusting!, Bloody Disgusting, LLC, 20 Apr. 2018, bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3494603/remember-harlan-ellison-made-nihilistic-horror-game-time. ↩
- Evans-Thirlwell, Edwin. “Where The Water Tastes Like Wine Review – the Joy of Sharing Stories.” Eurogamer.Net, Gamer Network Limited, 1 Mar. 2018, www.eurogamer.net/articles/2018-02-26-where-the-water-tastes-like-wine-review-the-joy-of-sharing-a-story. ↩
- Chancey, Tyler. “Deadly Premonition: Understanding Swery’s Insanity.” TechRaptor, TechRaptor LLC, 14 May 2020, techraptor.net/gaming/features/deadly-premonition-understanding-swery-insanity. ↩
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