Experienced Points: Arty Games

By Shamus Posted Friday Apr 30, 2010

Filed under: Column 67 comments

In this week’s column, I suggest five games that I think make the “Games as Art” case fairly well. (Assuming, as Yahtzee points out, that both sides are even working with the same definition of “art”.) My list is actually, “Five arty games that could be approached by a newcomer.”

And this leads to the main reason that this debate is boring to me. An Ebert says games aren’t art. A gamer offers up some examples as I have. Then the Ebert will dismiss them. The Gamer will protest. Eventually they realize they are talking about two different things when they say “art”. And then the rest of the debate is an attempt to define art, which is a fool’s errand.

Art or not, it’s a pretty fun way to spend the time.

I should play some more Max Payne this weekend.


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67 thoughts on “Experienced Points: Arty Games

  1. Sheer_Falacy says:

    Planescape: Torment. The writing is art. Of course, Ebert would counter that it isn’t a game, it’s a book, because No true game would have such a focus on the writing.

  2. Jabor says:

    I can definitely agree with Portal, and <insert your choice of adventure game here>.

    I would strongly consider Ico, and even think about a more sandboxy strategy game (Civilization, Dwarf Fortress, and so on, except something easier to pick up than DF), because there I think is one of the strongest cases for games being art in a way that a noninteractive medium cannot be.

    I’d probably go for Planescape: Torment over Jade Empire, though.

    1. Simulated Knave says:

      I love Planescape Torment. I think it may be the pinnacle of PC Gaming.

      And I must admit that Jade Empire is probably more accessible, likely less complicated, and (thanks to not being so clearly an adapted PnP system), less open to critiques of not actually being its own game.

      Nah. Jade Empire’s probably a better example. Though PST may be better art.

  3. Hawk says:


    How are you defining “art”, anyway?

  4. Video games can’t be art, because video games are too fun and too appealing to the masses! How are we supposed to be taken seriously if we get all snobbity about something like that? Art is what we buy at those shows where they have the little cheese cubes, end of story.

    1. Moridin says:

      You should probably remind Shakespeare about that. But then, he was in it for money, so he probably doesn’t care terribly much.

      1. wtrmute says:

        But Shakespearean plays aren’t art, they are entertainment! Well, ok, over the centuries they’ve come to help shape our culture as Westerners to such a shape that I feel you’d be justified calling them art today. They were definitely just entertainment when they were first staged, though…

        Now, Cervantes’s Don Quixote is another matter altogether. This was originally a lesson in morals, and a commentary on the sad state of popular literature and the nutters who perused too much of it. That one started off as art, and has subsequently continued to be art.

  5. Adam says:

    Hey Shamus, here’s an article you might like to read, if you haven’t come across it already.


  6. I’ll throw down my *serious* vote: Deus Ex. Some of the conversations in that game are quite thought provoking. I’d say you *really* win that game when you find Morpheus in Everett’s compound.

  7. RTBones says:

    It’s all in the definition, I suppose.

    Planescape: Torment
    Indigo Prophecy

  8. Winter says:

    Planescape: Torment? Yeah i think that’d go on there.

  9. Irridium says:

    Personally I don’t even care about this debate and find it, well stupid. He’s a movie critic, so why are people taking his opinion on games so seriously? It just confuses me so much…

    But, as for your question, I would say Okami.

    Its looks like a watercolor painting in motion, and its really fun.

    Otherwise I would say Shadow of the Colossus. Few games have made me feel sad about killing my enemies. I damn near cried every time I took down one of those magnificent beasts…

    But still, can’t we just drop this stupid debate and get back to playing our awesome games?

  10. Jon Ericson says:

    For Ebert, I’d suggest chess, which he half agreed is art already:

    Santiago concedes that chess, football, baseball and even mah jong cannot be art, however elegant their rules. I agree. But of course that depends on the definition of art. She says the most articulate definition of art she’s found is the one in Wikipedia: “Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.” This is an intriguing definition, although as a chess player I might argue that my game fits the definition.

    For video game art I’d suggest:

    Mario Kart
    World of Goo

    If none of those appeal to you as art, nothing will. (And with the possible exception of Civilization, almost anyone can get to the meat of these games in less than five minutes.)

    1. TehShrike says:

      I have seen some beautiful chess games.

      Some positions can even seem artistic – check out this game I lost a few weeks ago.

      1. Jon Ericson says:

        Now that is a beautiful position. But why didn’t white resign long before?

        I’m reminded that soccer (fine, FOOTBALL) is sometimes called the beautiful game. I’m sure it is, but as a North American, I see a slower version of hockey with fake injuries in place of fake fights. I’ve even played the sport and I have a hard time getting it.

        1. Greg from St Paul says:

          If you think hockey fights are fake, you need to watch Derek Boogaard take someone down.

          1. Jon Ericson says:

            Not all soccer injuries are fake either. ;-)

        2. TehShrike says:

          I almost never resign. Why would I? It doesn’t hurt me to keep making moves – worst case, I lose by checkmate (which is no worse than if I had resigned).

          When I keep playing, I might pull off a draw if the other guy messes up. As in this other game I played recently: http://www.chess.com/echess/game.html?id=30296996

          Check out the conversation on the right (made during the last 10 moves or so) for extra lulz.

      2. DaveMc says:

        Um, black has *six* knights? How does that work? (Maybe my screen is displaying it wrong …)

        1. Simulated Knave says:

          Lots and lots of pawn promotion.

  11. TehShrike says:

    For World of Goo, I would probably use the word “atmosphere” or “universe” to describe the aspect of the game that was so engaging.

    An aside: there were some mighty big hunks of text on that first page – such well-wielded words deserve to be separated by some paragraph breaks!

  12. Nostromo says:

    I haven’t played Portal or Jade Empire, so I’ll go for:

    -Myst II through IV (Let’s be frank, the first one didn’t age gracefully…)
    -Max Payne

    And yeah, because of you, Shamus, I may have to re-install Max Payne this week-end… *sighs*

    1. swimon says:

      Myst 1 raw or whatever did indeed not age well but I think that’s just because of the technology and the stilted feel it makes. The updated version of myst1 is one of the best in the series imo (end of ages being the ultimate one).

      1. Nostromo says:

        I haven’t played the updated version of Myst, but I was somewhat disappointed a few years ago when the missus decided to give it a try. It was so much better in my memories. I don’t want to play End of Ages, because I don’t want the story to end.

        Besides, I needed to bump one off to include Syberia I.

  13. Drexer says:

    I really wished that you had included Shadow of the Colossus there. It’s mayhaps the only game I ever felt that worked upon a certain point.

    Although there have been many forms of media working upon concept such as anti-hero and the well intentioned extremist, no other form of medium I can remember so well makes the experience of doing evil seem so real. The simple premise of ‘save the girl’ and the whole human condition of facing the obstacle and accomplishing by any means, works perfectly in this game.

    The so talked about ‘dark feeling’ that exacerbates through the advancing of the story was still met by me with the will to continue the quest. not because it was the only path, but because it was THE path. It couldn’t be wrong. And when you finish it and the world seemingly spins out of your control, it’s like any other event in your life where you suddenly ask yourself why are people against you, but this time so much more was balancing on your decisions.

    Sure, it was beautiful and all that, but THAT was the point that drove it to my heart for me.

    PS: Ico is also quite good at driving a point to the heart, but the fact that only a videogame could have done such a thing as SotC is what sealed it for me.

    1. swimon says:

      I haven’t played SotC so I won’t say anything about it’s quality but is it really a good introduction to the medium as art? I mean it seems like it would be sort of hard and disorienting to people who aren’t gamers (I remember a non-gamer who tried WoW and couldn’t get past the camera controls and spent the entire time staring into the sky).

      EDIT: same goes for Planescape: Torment, great game but I have spent years playing RPGs and I had problems with playing it.

      1. Drexer says:

        For most of the game, the third person perspective of the camera is perfect. It follows you around without needing any right-analog tweaking most of the times.

        The controls are specially defined to be more fitting for a new player and all. X to jump? That doesn’t make sense for a a new gamer, it’s Triangle because it’s the top button. R1 is meant for grabbing, because that’s the instinctual reaction of most people to do, they flex the muscles of their fingers that go ‘around’ the controller.

        The game is very simple in that way, also specially due to its very clean interface. At the most, the newcomer may take a bit more to learn how to get to the first colossus, but after that there is no more learning curve, only the atmospheric experience and the trial of solving puzzles.

  14. Jeysie says:

    Chalk me up as vote n+1 for Planescape: Torment.

    I’d also throw the original Fallout in there as well; it was a great original take on the apocalyptic setting, and it was a bit better in the actual game elements than Torment while still keeping most of the same depth of writing.

    I agree that almost any adventure game would qualify, but I think my specific list from that genre would consist of Grim Fandango and Gabriel Knight: The Sins of the Fathers. You could also possibly throw The Dig and Indiana Jones & the Fate of Atlantis in there. …actually, FoA might be a really good one to show off, as IMHO it did a better job of being an Indiana movie than the actual fourth movie did.

    (I’d be tempted to throw in Under a Killing Moon as a great affectionate parody of the private detective genre, if I wasn’t worried that the campy acting might throw things off. The writing is great fun, though.)

    If we decide to get into video games, I echo Earthbound and add in Chrono Trigger.

  15. Kdansky says:

    Phoenix Wright: Ace Attourney
    It is like a book, except you are way more excited than you could ever be while reading, because the game makes you believe that you figured out the difficult puzzle yourself. It uses sound effects and music to great effect (on a Gameboy Advance!) and has writing that is only second to Planescape: Torment.

    It’s like Metroid or Zelda, but not as complicated but instead very beautiful (again: the music is awesome).

    Guitar Hero (or any other such game, Dance Dance Revolution or whatever else). Music is established as an art to start with.

    Igneous. Google it, it’s freeware and awesome (though incredibly short).

    Karoshi. Again, google it, there are multiple versions, I recommend to play the non-flash ones first, in order of release (easy to figure out, they are numbered).

  16. Tuck says:

    I personally agree with Ebert. I don’t think any video game can be called “art”.

    Many video games incorporate what is definitely art — be it writing, graphical, or whatever — but they are not art themselves.

    At their best, video games are like a themed (sometimes multiple themes), many-pathed art gallery, which one can wander through in any way, partaking of any art pieces they choose along the way. But in itself, the gallery is not art (although the building may be), it is a space for displaying art.

    (and now I’m off to play soccer, which is not an art, but is, like video games, a space for displaying art…)

    1. Drexer says:

      Then is a movie art? It only uses images and sounds, something which has been throughly explored by photography and painting and music and theater.

      Even if one goes by your analogy of the gallery, you imply that the gallery is not art without considering how its different paths have different meaning and endings. That is very similar that implying that the art of writing is not dependent on the choice of which sentence comes next and which comes after.

      1. Tuck says:

        I would simply define art as a depiction of something, whether it be real or imaginary. Most paintings, writing, movies, and music are art in this way — I would argue that truly abstract paintings are not art, even though they may have a pleasing effect (just like Mario hopping on a mushroom does).

        The gallery is not art: the different paths do not have different meanings in themselves, they encourage (or enforce) a particular interpretation of the art within the gallery. Your analogy of that to writing is not really valid, as the art in writing depends very much on the order of words and sentences — if you put one out of place, the depiction fails. The art within a gallery does not depend on the order, EXCEPT for particular interpretations.

        Of course with writing you have the nebulous question of whether writing itself can qualify as art regardless of what it’s depicting. I don’t know that I’ve formed an opinion on that one yet. :D

        1. Blackbird71 says:

          If you believe that a gallery is not art, then I would say that you have not seen many good art galleries. If you have, then maybe you should spend some time talking to the architects, or any architects for that matter, as well as the curators who design the displays. There is art in the design and layout of the building, and the decoration of the structure. It has to be created so as to best show off the art it will house. There is an art to the design of the displays as well, it’s not just a matter of putting a bunch of paintings on the wall, but rather determining the arrangement of the individual pieces of art in a way that they compliment each other and enhance the experience as a whole.

          Even if you are going to be so narrowly focused as to define art simply as a “depiction of something, whether it be real or imaginary,” then I would argue that under your own definition, many games qualify as art because they are a depiction of an experience.

    2. swimon says:

      I agree to some extent. Games aren’t art but I think that because I don’t think anything is art.

      To discuss art we must first define it and I have never heard a definition of art that wasn’t either:
      1)Completely arbitrary I.E. “has a deep emotional impact” the problem being where to draw the line between deep and non deep.
      2)Includes everything and is thus pretty meaningless or
      3)Includes nothing and is thus equally meaningless.

      Because of this I don’t think art exists.

  17. eri says:

    I really have to agree with you. The fact of the matter is that Ebert likely isn’t well versed in games, he didn’t grow up with them so isn’t familiar with their history in any first-hand way, and most importantly, he already has his own definition of what constitutes art.

    I’d imagine that for Ebert, the subject of authorship is an extremely important one, and he likely feels that introducing the variable of the player into something means that a game’s artistic value is undermined. Additionally, games don’t have the same freedom films have when it comes to market and financial concerns, and so often have to rely upon the gameplay, in terms of ludological action, rather than things like story, music, etc. to actually be successful. Obviously this view has problems, and he’d likely to be the first to admit it’s not the only one available, but it is a valid opinion and shared by many, many people (and for the record, plenty had the same opinion of film as not art that many hold today for games as well).

    1. Jon Ericson says:

      Authorship probably stands as the biggest roadblock for video games as good gameplay relies on good gamers. If the player does nothing, a game like Planescape: Torment amounts to a (very interesting) cartoon. The art of the game comes when the player walks around and initiates the story. I love how the player’s name is inserted in the Earthbound credits. For a game like Tetris (or chess), the player has total responsibility for creating any art that might exist. Any attempt to remove the player interaction pushes a game into the realm of film (or literature or music or painting depending on what remains). Interestingly, traditional art has been pushing the opposite direction (performance art, shock art, and so on).

  18. MintSkittle says:

    I’d nominate Audiosurf for the list. It can be quite the visual feast.

  19. Sekundaari says:

    You wrote “There’s not much art to be found in the game over screen”. Mostly I agree with you, and for a newbie they will get very repetitive, but I have to mention the death screens/menus of Operation Flashpoint. Maybe you’ve seen them? They had a random famous death- or war-related aphorism, bird’s eye -views of your corpse and your killer (often “already too late” for him too) and a sad but good piece of music playing. I’d rather classify these as “art” than “not art”.

  20. Zeta Kai says:


    I had assumed that you would have thrown Shadow of the Colossus in there.

    Well, while I was reading the first half of the article, I said to myself, “Okay, Shamus McFamous. You’ll prolly choose Silent Hill 2, Braid, SotC, & Portal. What else you got?” Then I mentally ticked off a few more probable candidates according to your criteria. Then I clicked over to the second half.

    And I was surprised by some choices. SH2 & Portal made the grade, but Braid didn’t. You explained that well, so I let it go. Jade Empire was an interesting pick, because it can be long, but I could see that. And I’ve never played The Longest Journey, so I can’t vouch for it.

    For some reason though, the non-inclusion of Shadow of the Colossus bugs me. It’s not long. It’s not hard. It’s not confusing (except that it never explains itself, but that’s a point in its favor). It is minimalist in gameplay, interface, & plot, which makes it like a game-haiku. It’s drop-dead gorgeous. It’s fun. But, above all, it’s engaging as all hell. It pulls you in, makes you feel, & makes you question who you are & what your doing. You kill these magnificent creatures, with only the barest of motivation, & you are made to feel like a heartless jerk for it. And yet you’re the protagonist, the “hero.” This turns video game preconceptions on their head. Shattering preconceived notions & freeing thought to new possibilities & experiences is a hallmark of artistic creation.

    And yet, it fails to make the list.

    Perhaps art truly is subjective. Perhaps I shouldn’t be concerned which games make it onto Shamus’ limited list of games Ebert should play if he were open to media newer than the 19th century. Perhaps I put too much thought into this whole thing. And perhaps I shouldn’t take issue with having my own preconceived notions shattered. Perhaps, perhaps, per… haps.

    But seriously, SotC is awesome. And art. At once, both, inextricably intertwined.

    1. Zukhramm says:

      But does Shadow of the Colossus fit as an introduction to someone who does not play games? I don’t think it does.

      1. Drexer says:


        The premise of the actions for the player? It’s save the girl, a simple and recognizable staple with everyone.

        The camera? It’s third person, probably the easiest 3D camera for any non-gamer to experiment with.

        The controls? See my above commentary for that.

        I’ve stumbled upon this commentary some times and I’ve never noticed why it was that someone always brings this point up. Everyone that I’ve seen grab SotC which has little experience with games, has had no problem doing so.

        1. Shamus says:

          The game is quite punishing.

          “Oops. I fell. I’ll have to repeat the previous eight minutes of climbing.”

          I’d be very cautious of throwing a newbie at SotC.

          1. Drexer says:

            Huh, didn’t remind myself of that.

            Although, I should note that from what I’ve seen no newb player when failing SotC usually reacts as if he blames his lack of ‘skill’. It seems that the percentage of errors is the same for both ‘pros’ and ‘newbs’. This is probably a totally biased and not very scientific observation though.

  21. DungeonHamster says:

    I’ve already said this on a couple other threads, so I’m just going to paste and edit this from my comment on Rampant Coyote’s post on the subject.

    “I dunno about art being squishy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “skill in an activity regarded as governed by aesthetic as well as organizational principles.” Sure there's something like 11 other definitions, but every single one includes the word cunning or skill somewhere in it. Art is always deliberately created and always designed, if we also accept an OED definition of aesthetics, “having or showing an appreciation of the beautiful or pleasing” (well, it doesn't really have to be beautiful or pleasing, it just has to be designed according to those principles, so something designed to be ugly and unpleasing could also be called art without pushing this definition too far).

    The squishy part comes later. What do we mean by skill? Does the artist actually have to have skill, or do we simply mean using what skills the artist has? If the former, is badly done art even really art? Furthermore, accurately defining aesthetics requires us to define beauty. I happen to believe that there ARE universal principles of beauty, that beauty is at the very least partially objective, but I am very ill-equipped to even begin to attempt to define what characteristics of beauty might be universal. The only thing I've read on the subject (not that I've studied it much) that struck me as at all sensible and usable is Edmund Burke's Enquiry into the Nature of the Sublime and Beautiful (it's not long; I highly recommend it), but even that definition seems too narrow; for instance, I would include the sublime as a kind of beauty, and call what he calls beauty something more like, perhaps, prettiness.

    Anyway, the point is that there seem to me to be two questions that need answering before any useful debate can be had on the subject: what is beauty, and does a work require actual beauty or simply attempted beauty to be art. However, regardless of the answer to those questions, it is apparent that very nearly any medium CAN be art, although some may lend themselves to it more readily than others. In fact, playing games can be an art as well as making them, even as dancing, not just choreography, is an art.

    Really, if all art requires to be art is attempted, not actual, beauty, than very nearly any movie, game, story, or anything else in any medium which exists more or less entirely for the purpose of entertainment could be accurately called art, regardless of quality.”

    For the record, I agree that we shouldn’t worry too much about what Ebert thinks about it, but I always (well, almost always) welcome the opportunity for semantic debate. Words are, after all, the primary tools of rational thought the world over (rational in the sense that reasoning is done, not in the sense that reasoning is done well; also, I include symbols such as numbers as well as mathematical and boolean operators when I say “words”), and the search for better and more standardized meanings is both never ending and never entirely unproductive.

  22. Eggbert says:

    I’m adding another vote for Myst. It’s basically a bunch of beautiful pictures that you interact with, and the sensation of exploration is further amplified by the incredible sounds. Not only that, but I’d say it’s great for beginners. I rarely play serious games, and don’t own any home consoles. But I’ve got an iPod Touch, and got Myst from the App store. It’s easy to pick up, and easy to play. All you had to do was start exploring, and you were drawn into the experience. If your definition of art includes evoking emotion, any of the endings created a huge emotional surge, and you got little (or large) surges of triumph for every puzzle you beat, every book you found. You felt a sense of tragedy reading through the history, and developed such a sense of loss as the secrets of Myst were known to you. It looks like art, it sounds like art, and it felt like art. Interactive art, and all the stronger for it.

  23. Personally I think that any game where the developers are actually having some “fun” with the game should be considered art.

    Mass Effect series (as an example) for example shows that the devs have fun adding various (inside) jokes and humor, and that sometimes there are elaborate scenery which the player just blasts past barely noticing while it’s clearly some dev spent maybe weeks detailing the thing, and only a handful of players may appreciate it.

    That’s what I call art, and whenever those devs hear people comment on that they walk around the office grinning stupidly for days. *laughs*

    Shamus, I can’t recall if you’ve played or like the X3 games at all but,
    X3: Terran Conflict v2.5 has removed the copy protection/activation so both DVD and digital distribution owners wont have to worry about that.
    Not only that, but the version releases have all been free, and the community is heavily involved in some of these versions.

    And recently v2.6 added steam achievements… (I don’t “Steam” so it’s kinda “meh” to me but..) And here’s the real kicker. To avoid isolating non-steam users, Egosoft has with Valve made sure that non-steam users can use their game serial to get the steam version of X3 Terran Conflict…FOR FREE.

    Egosoft clearly deserves some mention on how nice they are to their players, and it would be nice seeing you look at/mention game companies that does it “right” in contrast to the Ubimess (Ubigate?) recently, just to show how customers “should” be treated. *laughs*

    I’m sure Egosoft is not the only “nice” company out there, so maybe a article pointing out a few of those that stand out as the “good guys” ?


    PS! v2.6 also includes a new story mission called A New Home, created by the community in cooperation with the devs, and is now part of the main game though update v2.6, I can’t recall the last time any devs for a game did something awesome like that. i’m almost tempted to dust off my DVD and install X3:TC again…

    1. Matthias says:

      @Offtopic: Loved reading that, because I happen to know for a fact that at least one Egosoft developer is an avid reader of this blog :-)

      And on topic: the definitions of art vary so wildly that one could argue for pretty much anything being art – or not. I myself have never really cared about this term, I enjoy what I enjoy.

      There might be a practical result of this classification, though, at least in Germany: it is illegal to depict symbols related to Nazis outside of pieces of art, which includes (all) movies but not video games, so every game that takes place in that era probably needs a censored version in order to be allowed to be released.
      I don’t think the opinion of one movie critic will influence the legislation here, though ;-)

  24. MichaelG says:

    Two points: 1) Ebert liked The Polar Express. It’s CGI and boring. What possible difference could there be between that and a video game? You can’t play the movie?

    2) The MOMA has painted rectangles on the wall as pieces of “art”. With that low a standard, how could a video game NOT qualify?

  25. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Well gore can be art as well.Remember yahtzees review of painkiller.

    +1 for planescape:torment and portal.

    Also +1 for tetris.I dont think there is a single other game where its art is purely in the simplicity of its gameplay.

  26. WWWebb says:

    There are lots of games with beautiful visuals or moving story, but I kind of have to agree with Tuck that that is not “gaming as art”. That is visuals-as-art or story-as-art and the other “arts” are going to claim that that is not enough. To get respect as “art”, games have to have something that is unique to the medium.

    For me, what I would judge as the “art” is the addictive experience. It’s the ability to draw people in and compel them to continue the experience for hours and hours.

    To that end, I would nominate Civ…it incited the strongest “one more turn” of any game I’ve played. There are plenty of games with a more intense experience, but those tend to end a lot sooner and can’t be repeated. There are plenty of games that can be played on and on (think Bejeweled, Tetris, Minesweeper, etc.), but they don’t have the variety or intellectual stimulation and get boring after a while. Hell, I’d be hard pressed to find controlled substances that can induce a 36 hour dopamine high.

  27. WarlockofOz says:

    Not video games, but definitely art in my view:
    Paths of Glory
    Twilight Struggle

  28. silver Harloe says:

    All I know is that Ebert reminds me of an English teacher that can not comprehend the idea of Science Fiction being literature (or even art).

    However, I don’t think there’s a need to convince anyone that games (or science fiction) can be art. The right people already know. Over time, it will be obvious to everyone.

    These things, too, shall pass.

  29. Ramsus says:

    For me… Planescape: Torment (story) , Drakengard (surrealism) , Shadow of the Colossus (fairy tale/pretty pictures), Okami (pretty pictures), and Disgaea (comedy).

    None of these are intended as what I would call beginner games (though I suppose Okami would be fairly easy to get into) but just which ones I view as art and what form of art I identify them with.

    I certainly would agree with anyone who said Max Payne or Portal as well.

  30. Khizan says:

    Myst. It hasn’t aged all that gracefully, but it was beautiful for its time, and while I remember it being a bitch to beat/play, the point/click interface is simple and easy.

    Also, I’d say Final Fantasy 7. As my first FF game, I may be looking at it through a distorting cloud of nostalgia, but the storyline is one of my favorites and the backgrounds are beautifully done. Additionally, JRPGs have some particularly forgiving gameplay, and the story is pretty good at pulling even non-gamers into seeing what happens next.

  31. I don’t think games are art (as in, I don’t think a game is an ART FORM in and of itself). I think that many of them CONTAIN massive amounts of art. So upwards of 75% of the people who WORK on a game may very well be artists and everything they produce is art, but the final product is not an “art work”. It’s a game. Because it contains a game aspect.

    If it didn’t contain the “game” part, it’d be *an* artwork–but then it’d basically be a movie. But the game part is a vehicle for viewing the art (or, in some simplistic games, the art is a method of making the game more engaging).

    Defining art is not a fool’s errand. What’s a fool’s errand is what people usually do, which is to try and define it via extension by trying to list every single thing that they consider artistic in the entire universe. All you really need is what you need for any other definition: a genus and a differentia. The genus tells you what general category the term belongs to, and the differentia tells you how it is different from the other things that are in that category.

    The second mistake people usually make when defining things is to assume that the definition and the word are interchangeable. This is not so. The definition is a SHORTHAND way of describing the referent(s) of the concept, but it does NOT list EVERY component of that referent. I usually use Ayn Rand’s definition of art: “A selective recreation of reality in accordance with the artist’s metaphysical value-judgments” even though it’s rather complex because it’s actually about as simple as you’re going to get. But I know a lot of people who read that and forget a lot of ancillary details like the fact that, say, utilitarian objects are not art. They may be artistic (and many often are extensively decorated), but a chair, no matter how beautifully made, is not an artwork.

    Then you get the spiritual issue, which means that for some reason everyone wants to be considered an “artist” because this title is supposed to convey upon them some holy aura of spirituality. Ridiculous. Anyone who has ever done something productive partakes of the same sort of spiritual process as someone who produces art. It’s the fact that art is a productive endeavor that makes it spiritual. It requires just as much focus, thought, and rigorous attendance to reality to write code as it does to paint a picture.

    1. Daimbert says:

      I’m not sure I get what you mean by “game part”. It sounds a lot like Ebert’s comments about how the goal is to score points or win or something like that. But in a lot of games — like RPGs or adventure games — is that really the point?

      For me, it never is. The game parts are what let me move on to the next part in the story, and so I’m willing to cheat my way past them. Because killing enemies or bosses or blowing up ships isn’t why I have that game loaded up; I have it loaded up so that I can see how the story fits all together and can play it out the way I want.

      Persona 3 makes this abundantly clear, at least to me, by splitting the standard gameplay — dungeon-crawling/killing things — from the actual social parts of it. And I only spend as much time in the dungeons as I need to be strong enough to get through the next story boss to the rest of the story. The rest of the time, I’m essentially living the life of a guy who’s been sucked into that world, dealing with friends and training and things happening.

      This is not a movie, surely, and yet it seems to me that the game parts aren’t what makes it good.

      Even taking Sakura Wars, the fact that you CAN interact with the world makes it more interesting than a movie or an anime. It’s not just an anime. It’s an anime that you get to star in, effectively, and mold in some sense the way you want to. The “game part” makes it different, but doesn’t make it different in a way that it lessens any artistic merit. In short, you get to choose how the movie plays out, but that doesn’t impact why it was that we think that movies and anime CAN be art.

    2. Roy says:

      But I know a lot of people who read that and forget a lot of ancillary details like the fact that, say, utilitarian objects are not art. They may be artistic (and many often are extensively decorated), but a chair, no matter how beautifully made, is not an artwork.

      But why?
      Not all chairs are created with the intention of being a utilitarian object. For that matter, isn’t that a little like suggesting that something like photographs or, for that matter, literature or songs, can’t be art, since the original purpose of those things was actually pretty utilitarian? The point of writing, books, and stories was originally just to pass information–very utilitarian. Writing as an art form is a pretty recent development.

      Just because something has utilitarian uses doesn’t mean that the particular piece wasn’t created as art. Most art forms started with very utilitarian purposes.

  32. Zaxares says:

    I’d give another vote to Planescape: Torment, but you were suggesting games that are comparatively easy for a non-gamer to get into and appreciate. With that in mind, I’d also propose Lucasart’s Full Throttle. It’s extremely easy to play, the puzzles aren’t too difficult (unlike some found in TLJ), and come on… EVERYBODY loves seeing that mouthy Rottwheeler biker get his teeth punched out. :D

  33. Daimbert says:

    I’d more aim for at least making newbies think that games MIGHT be art, so I have some additional suggestions:

    Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. I did a couple of blog posts on it (see one here:
    http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/2010/04/10/sakura-wars/ ) and it really is an interactive anime. Anime series, in fact. It has a very similar structure and uses a lot of the same techniques. Basically, you walk around an episode focused on one of the members of your group, building your relationships with that member and the rest of your team in the process. All the while, in the background there is some sort of evil plot going on, with a “villain-of-the-week” trying to do some evil at the request of some weird woman for “their lord”. Eventually, everything comes to a head and you have to fight a last mech battle to end the threat, the episode has a resolution scene, and then you get a “On the next episode” screen.

    If anime can ever be art, a game like this certainly could be. And it’s easy enough and structured enough that you’ll get that in the first few hours. Is it really art? Is it too shallow an anime to count? Well, possibly, but the point then would be: if there was a deeper plot, would it count? And it doesn’t get to be a book or an anime itself because what you do really does matter to the game, and you can — and, in fact, MUST — win to advance.

    I’d also include Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. Again, it’s an interactive movie. If you turn cheats on and lower the difficulty, the flying portions won’t get in the way. But it has a deep message and a pretty good story that way, and your actions really do matter to the story, and emotions do come into play (I felt really bad when I made Sosa cry by not saving her boyfriend, and putting the mission first).

    Ultimately, the best RPGs are games where you can play a character in a story. Games that would best count as art, then, are games with a linear storyline but where you can be the character you want to be. So I’d add the Personas here, because it’s obvious what you need to do — and the story moves on even without you deliberately making it go — but you have the freedom to associate with and act in a lot of ways as your character would act.

    KotOR was, for me, the best at this, mostly because it didn’t tell you all that often what you were thinking, and so you could say things and think something else if you wanted.

    I’d add Torment, but in my multiple replayings I think I’ve gotten out of the Mortuary once. Yeah, might be hard to get into …

  34. Jeysie says:

    In response to the thought that in order to properly qualify as art on its own merits, the interactivity must be part of the art, how about something like the IF game Galatea, perhaps? (Actually, there’s probably a lot of IF games that might match that thought, but Galatea’s the one that comes to mind off-hand.)

    There’s also–dipping into the admittedly obscure here–Bad Day on the Midway by The Residents, which has the same interactive feel of creating a story by weaving your own paths through the narrative.

  35. Kell says:

    “And then the rest of the debate is an attempt to define art, which is a fool's errand. ”

    And this is the problem. No, it isn’t a fool’s errand. If you don’t know what art is, you are in no position to assert games ( some or all ) are art.

    That defining art is ultimately an entirely subjective issue, and a pointless one at that, is the chief evasion of those who, in actuality, don’t know what they’re talking about.

    And the real problem of understanding is not what one’s definition of art is, but rather that there isn’t a definition, only a description. Is one’s understanding of the nature of art sufficient? In all of this games-as-art debate, I have yet to see anyone displaying a clue, except Ebert who at least makes some attempt by saying games cannot constitute art because they are non-authorial.

    I am not merely berating; I care enough about this issue to be angry.

    1. Daimbert says:

      Sakura Wars, the Personas, Wing Commander IV, Torment, and KotOR deny the non-authorial part. In fact, any linear RPG belies that. The best games as art are games where there’s a strong storyline underneath your ability to act in a manner consistent with how the main character — who may be you — acts in the world.

      For my part, I don’t really know precisely how to define what is or isn’t art, since my definitions disagree with other people’s. However, what I do know is that I can in some sense argue that games can be art by doing comparisons with other mediums, and pointing out that if movies or books can be art, so can games since they seem to share the right kinds of qualities.

    2. Sheer_Falacy says:

      So if art can be defined, and isn’t subjective, please explain the definition of art (or “nature of art” if there’s no definition).

      And if you DO know what art is, I think you will find that there are a lot of other people in the world who also know what art is. Of course, they don’t call the same things art that you do. Which must mean that they don’t know what art is, because of course you’re correct and they’re all wrong. And I guess Ebert can be correct too, because he agrees with you about games. Bet he disagrees with you about other things, though.

      1. Kell says:

        The thing to grasp about the nature of art is that it is an evolved behaviour of our species, like telling lies or telling stories or telling jokes. It isn’t something we merely invented for convenience.

        It is the process and the product of the urge to convey via sensory material – such as images or sound – an experience of some form of human truth, from the individual to other people. That’s a shorthand description, but it will suffice for now.

        And please note the importance of the word “experience”. My biggest disagreement with the Wikipedia definition ( referenced in that stupid bint’s presentation ) is that it suggests art is about conveying ideas. It isn’t, though ideas may be intimately involved.

        The best way I can capture the essence of what art is would be by quotation: Terry Gilliam was once asked in an interview why he made films, and he replied “Because I want to leave my dreams in other peoples’ memories.”


        “I think you will find that there are a lot of other people in the world who also know what art is.”

        But that’s my point. No, I don’t find that at all. What I find are a lot of people who use the ‘everyone’s opinion is right’ bullshit to excuse their lack of understanding. Internet culture is saturated by it. More or less defined by it.

        Even if someone were to submit their understanding of art to the discourse, it might be insufficiently insightful or articulate. It might be lacking substantiation. It might be earnest and well intentioned, but still not as extensive as my own. It might just be crap.

        Just because everyone has an equal right to express an opinion does not mean every opinion expressed is equally right.

        And to dismiss the need for a sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of art in the midst of a controversy about the status of games as art is frankly to commit anti-intellectualism.


        “And I guess Ebert can be correct too, because he agrees with you about games.”

        You reveal your idiocy by assuming too much. I do not agree with Ebert entirely; I believe games can be art. I know that some games are art. Or rather contain elements that are art. But not most. Games are not a good medium for artistic expression. Neither are they a good medium for storytelling.

        And yes, compared to all of the pretentious, pseudo-intellectual drivel I’ve read so far, I am right and all those people are wrong.

        “What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.”
        – William Blake

  36. Low-Level DM says:

    I’m going to agree with a lot of people up there and make the general comment that I think this discussion is a very engaging one and that the issue, while ultimately (as Shamus says) unsolvable, I think it is a very worthwhile debate. Many of the normal games that I’d cite here have been rehashed so many times that I’ll sort of skip that and go to something else.

    Just today, while browsing the Internets for something to do, I stumbled across the flash game called The Company of Myself (Armorgames.com has it, if you care). It is a very simple platformer with time-based mechanics that are very easy at the beginning and which become increasingly difficult to manipulate to the degree of accuracy that the levels demand as the game progresses. More importantly, though, it has a VERY moving storyline and an extremely potent method of conveying that story, both through the text that tells it and the symbolism and allusions that the game itself makes to certain aspects of the story.

    It was an incredibly moving game for me, and an experience that I was completely unprepared for at the hands of a Flash game. I’d call this art, just for the raw emotion it tore out of me, and it certainly made me do a double take. “Wait – my head’s this turned around because I’m playing a FLASH GAME? Hmmm.”

  37. DKellis says:

    I’m intrigued by the description of Portal in the article as:

    But since the player doesn’t need to shoot and only needs to be able to walk around without bumping into things, this is a great first step.

    I would argue that the player needs to do more than just “walk around without bumping into things”. Quite apart from the obvious about shooting the portal generator, they also need to figure out ways to get past things which are shooting at you (the fact that you have fast-regenerating health and the turrets can be neutralized by, as it were, bumping into them, does not change the part about being shot at), figure out how to get past insta-kill fireballs, have enough FPS-platforming skills to get over insta-kill acid pits… things like that.

    You could argue that the deathtraps in Portal are part of the puzzle: do this, or die. Don’t do this, or die. But it’s all twitch-based puzzles, requiring you to Press X NOW To Not Die. The skillset to appreciate the “art” in the game is not the same sort to appreciate the “art” in, say, a movie. Unless there’s a movie where you have to repeat the same five minutes of footage until you can prove your mastery of spatial awareness.

    I’ve been told that I could just use cheats, which does help me get past the tricky bits, but by removing the gameplay. And as comments above have noted, without gameplay, there’s not much of a game. Therefore, if I have to bypass the gameplay in order to see GLaDOS’s dialogue, how much of that game is still art? Would it still be art to watch someone else playing through the game?

    The early parts of Portal may be a good introduction to a non-gamer. (Apart from those who just don’t like FPSes: my sister, for example, gets motion-sickness from the first-person view.) But when you encounter the usual ridiculous jumps and platforming that seems to be a trait of the Half-Life 2 engine, it quickly becomes less friendly to non-gamers, in that if they can navigate those puzzles without problems, they’re likely to be gamers-in-the-making.

    Tangent: regarding art-games making you feel emotion, a lot of people bring up the Companion Cube in Portal. I never really got into the whole Companion Cube thing, because I was using that cube to shield myself from insta-kill fireballs, which doesn’t seem like the kind of thing to do to a companion. And since the cube could survive that

  38. Yonder says:

    Homeworld doesn’t have a control scheme that is really favorable to a new gamer. While I think that it does what it has to do about as intuitively as is possible it’s definitely harder to navigate in three dimensions than it is in two.

    That said, I think it’s a great example of a game as art. The third mission–where you return to your planet from the hyperdrive test run–is very moving, and had me misty eyed the first time I played through it. It instills a wonderful sense of urgency, loss, and a dread of failure.

    The fact that all of your progress (researching, units, and construction queues) stay consistent between levels constantly reinforces the feeling of being exiled and only being able to depend on your own fleet for survival. The plot, music, gameplay, and visuals all work wonderfully together to create a really great atmosphere.

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