A feature exploring video games as art, first published in the New Statesman, April 2009
Cultural realities tend to lag behind economic ones. How else to explain that the UK’s biggest (worth £4.5bn-plus in annual sales) and fastest-growing (at close to 20 per cent annually) entertainment medium still barely registers on the nation’s more rarefied intellectual radar? I am talking, of course, about video games – as the field of interactive entertainment still rather quaintly tends to be known. And the reason for its neglect is not so much snobbery as a gaping absence in our critical vocabulary and sensibilities.
When, today, we ask a question such as “Is it art?” we are no longer looking for a yes or no answer. The 20th century decided that urinals, cans of soup, recorded silence, heaps of bricks and fake human excrement could all be art, of a certain kind. Under these circumstances, it would be more than a little perverse to deny the idea of art to objects as lovingly crafted, as considered and as creative as video games. The question that’s really at stake is something more specific. If video games are art, what kind of art are they? What are their particular attributes and potential? And, perhaps most importantly, just how good are they?
I recently posed similar questions to someone who is very definitely both an artist and a gamer: the writer Naomi Alderman. Alderman’s first novel, Disobedience, appeared in 2006 and won her the Orange Award for New Writers. In parallel to her work as a literary writer, however, she also spent three years pursuing a very different kind of career: that of lead writer on the experimental “alternate reality” game Perplex City. To many authors, such a venture might have felt like a period of time away from “real” writing. Yet, Alderman explained, for her it was more a discovery that these two modes of writing were not only compatible, but symbiotic. I asked her whether she had preferred working on her novel or on the game. “I couldn’t choose,” she said. “I feel that if I were to give up either the novel or the game, I wouldn’t be able to do the other.”
It’s a creative interconnection Alderman traces back to her childhood. “My first memory of playing a game was around 1981, when my mum took me to the Puffin Club exhibition, a kind of roadshow for kids who read books published by Puffin. I remember they had a bank of computers at this one where you could queue up to get ten minutes playing a text-based adventure game. And I thought, ‘This is absolutely brilliant.’ I was fascinated.” These games were some of the first things it was possible to play on a computer in which plot and character meant more than a handful of pixels dashing across the screen. For Alderman, as for many others, the experience was closely associated “with stories and with the idea of being able to walk into a story”. And the dizzying kind of thought experiment that the best fiction can undertake – its gleeful defiance of the rules of time and nature – lies close to the heart of what video games do best.
As a modern example, Alderman describes a game called Katamari. In it, for want of a better description, you roll stuff up. You control, she tells me, “a little ball, which is effectively sticky, and you’re rolling it around a landscape picking stuff up. As you do so, your ball gets bigger and bigger. It’s almost impossible to explain how much fun this is, the pleasure of growing your little ball, which starts off just big enough to pick up pins and sweets from a tabletop and ends up picking envelopes, then televisions, then tables, then houses, then streets; until in the end you can roll it across the whole world picking up clouds and continents.”
Katamari may sound like an oddity, but its pleasures are typical of a central kind of video-game experience, in that they are in part architectural: something one inhabits and encounters incrementally; a space designed to be occupied and experienced rather than viewed simply as a whole. Players in a well-made game will relish not just its appearance but also the feel of exploring and gradually mastering its unreal space. Yet, in what sense is any of this art, or even artistic? Just as every word within a novel has to be written, of course, every single element of any video game has to be crafted from scratch. To talk about the “art” element of games is, I would argue, to talk about the point at which this fantastically intricate undertaking achieves a particular concentration, complexity and resonance.
It’s worth remembering, too, just how young a medium video games are. Commercial games have existed for barely 30 years; the analogy with film, now almost 120 years old, is an illuminating one. In December 1895, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, showed the first films of real-life images to a paying audience, in Paris. This, clearly, was a medium, but not yet an art form; and for its first decade, film remained largely a novelty, a technology that astounded viewers with images such as trains rushing into a station, sending early audiences running out of cinemas in terror. It took several decades for film to master its own, unique artistic language: cinematography. It took time, too, for audiences to expect more from it than raw wonder or exhilaration. Yet today you would be hard-pushed to find a single person who does not admire at least one film as a work of art.
If, however, you ask about video games, the chances are that you’ll find plenty of people who don’t play them at all, let alone consider them of any artistic interest. This is hardly surprising: at first glance it can seem that many games remain, in artistic terms, at the level of cinema’s train entering a station – occasions for technological shock and awe, rather than for the more densely refined emotions of art.
Yet the nature of games as a creative medium has changed profoundly in recent years – as I discovered when I spoke to Justin Villiers, an award-winning screenwriter and film-maker who since late 2007 has been plying his trade in the realm of video games. Even a few years ago, he explained, his career move would have been artistically unthinkable. “In the old days, the games industry fed on itself. You’d have designers who were brought up on video games writing games themselves, so they were entirely self-referential; all the characters sounded like refugees from weak Star Trek episodes or Lord of the Rings out-takes. But now there is new blood in the industry – people with backgrounds in cinema and theatre and comic books and television. In the area in which I work, writing and direction, games are just starting to offer genuine catharsis, or to bring about epiphanies; they’re becoming more than simple tools to sublimate our desires or our fight for survival.”
I suggest the film analogy, and wonder what stage of cinema games now correspond to. “It reminds me of the late 1960s and early 1970s, because there were no rules, or, as soon as there were some, someone would come along and break them. Kubrick needed a lens for 2001: a Space Odyssey that didn’t exist, so, together with the director of photography, he invented one.” How does this translate to the world of games? “It’s like that in the industry right now. Around a table you have the creative director, lead animator, game designer, sound designer and me, and we’re all trying to work out how to create a moment in a game or a sequence that has never been done before, ever.”
Villiers is, he admits, an unlikely evangelist: someone who was initially deeply sceptical of games’ claims as art. But it would be wrong, he concedes, simply to assume that the current explosion of talent within the gaming industry will allow it to overtake film or television as a storytelling medium. Today’s best games may be as good as some films in their scripts, performances, art direction and suchlike. But most are still much worse; and in any case, the most cinematic games are already splitting off into a hybrid subgenre that lies outside the mainstream of gaming. If we are to understand the future of games, as both a medium and an art form, we must look to what is unique about them. And that is their interactivity.
To explore this further, I spoke to a game designer who is responsible for some of the most visionary titles to appear in recent years – Jenova Chen. Chen is co-founder of the California-based games studio thatgamecompany, a young firm whose mission, as he explains it, is breathtakingly simple: to produce games that are “beneficial and relevant to adult life; that can touch you as books, films and music can”.
Chen’s latest game, Flower, is the partial fulfilment of these ambitions, a work whose genesis in many ways seems closer to that of a poem or painting than an interactive entertainment. “I grew up in Shanghai,” he explains. “A huge city, one of the world’s biggest and most polluted. Then I came to America and one day I was driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco and I saw endless fields of green grass, and rows and rows of windmill farms. And I was shocked, because up until then I had never seen a scene like this. So I started to think: wouldn’t it be nice for people living in a city to turn a games console into a portal, leading into these endless green fields?”
From this grew a game that is both incredibly simple and utterly compelling. You control a petal from a single flower, and must move it around a shimmering landscape of fields and a gradually approaching city by directing a wind to blow it along, gathering other petals from other flowers as you go. Touch a button on the control pad to make the wind blow harder; let go to soften it; gently shift the controller in the air to change directions. You can, as I did on my first play, simply trace eddies in the air, or gust between tens of thousands of blades of grass. Or you can press further into the world of the game and begin to learn how the landscape of both city and fields is altered by your touch, springing into light and life as you pass.
“We want the player to feel like they are healing,” Chen tells me, “that they are creating life and energy and spreading light and love.” If this sounds hopelessly naive, it is important to remember that the sophistication of a game experience depends not so much on its conceptual complexity as on the intricacy of its execution. In Flower, immense effort has gone into making something that appears simple and beautiful, but that is minutely reactive and adaptable. Here, the sensation of “flow” – of immersion in the task of illumination and exploration – connects to some of those fundamental emotions that are the basis of all enduring art: its ability to enthral and transport its audience, to stir in them a heightened sense of time and place.
Still, an important question remains. What can’t games do? On the one hand, work such as Chen’s points to a huge potential audience for whole new genres of game. On the other hand, there are certain limitations inherent in the very fabric of an interactive medium, perhaps the most important of which is also the most basic: its lack of inevitability. As the tech-savvy critic and author Steven Poole has argued, “great stories depend for their effect on irreversibility – and this is because life, too, is irreversible. The pity and terror that Aristotle says we feel as spectators to a tragedy are clearly dependent on our apprehension of circumstances that cannot be undone.” Games have only a limited, and often incidental, ability to convey such feelings.
Thus, the greatest pleasure of games is immersion: you move, explore and learn, sometimes in the company of thousands of other players. There is nothing inherently mindless about such an interaction; but nor should there be any question of games replacing books or films. Instead – just as the printed word, recorded music and moving images have already done – this interactive art will continue to develop along with its audience. It will, I believe, become one of the central ways in which we seek to understand (and distract, and delight) ourselves in the 21st century. And, for the coming generations – for which the world before video games will seem as remote a past as one without cinema does to us – the best gift we can bequeath is a muscular and discerning critical engagement.