A History of Significant Art Videogames
- Allow me to explain. If you make a list of "Greatest movies ever as entertainment," you might mention Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Star Wars. But list the "Greatest movies ever as art," and you'd start to mention Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- Those are movies. What about video games?
- Problem is, every list of greatest games is the entertainment type. These lists are consumer guides, telling you what products will give you the most fun for your dollar. They never ask which games have contributed the most to the story of art. They never consider games from an "art first, entertainment second" perspective.
- And that makes sense. Few games are made with an "art first, entertainment second" vision. There is no Luis Buñuel of videogames yet. There are no game critics, only game reviewers. And there is certainly no market of players who want to spend $50 for an artistic experience that may or may not be "fun."
- That's beginning to change. Games are an infant art, but the last few years have seen a few serious art games, a few serious game critics, and a few university programs in ludology.
- Most games, especially those with large budgets, will continue to be pure entertainment (just as in every other art form). But an underground of art games is about to explode. Here is a brief history of significant art games:
- Creating the medium's basic form [compare The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin Porter]
- SpaceWar! (1961, short) by Stephen Russel. The first truly interactive videogame, Spacewar! was a multiplayer game involving complicated controls, projectiles, physics, limited "life" resources (fuel), a powerup (hyperspace), customizable game settings, and moving background maps, all printed to a CRT instead of paper. It remained the most creative and complicated videogame for more than a decade.
- Elaborating the main elements [compare The Birth of a Nation (1915) by D.W. Griffith]
- Spasim (1974, short) by Jim Bowery. A 32-player networked game of 3D wireframe spaceships; a bold new world for videogaming.
- M.U.L.E. (1983) by Dan Bunten. Perhaps the first game to make effective use of multiplayer in the modern sense (not the Pong sense), M.U.L.E. set players on planet Irata, competing with each other for resources but also cooperating to ensure the colony's survival. Gameplay rules were elegantly simple but allowed for an infinite number of strategies and gameplay scenarios.
- Elite (1984) by David Braben and Ian Bell. An advanced and masterful space trading simulation that laid the blueprint for all to come.
- Super Mario Bros. (1985) by Shigeru Miyamoto. Each level was an organized map of platforms, powerups, enemies, objects, and more, which allowed for designed, creative varities of gameplay. In addition, the "easter egg" concept was taken to a new degree: there were entire secret levels. It revolutionized platform games, all genres of games, and game design.
- Ultima IV (1985) by Richard Garriot. RPGs developed gradually since 1978, with few stand-outs. Ultima IV did not present an enemy, but focused on the development of a virtuous life. Even character setup was a moral test.
- Super Mario 64 (1996) by Shigeru Miyamoto. Established the template for all 3D platform, adventure, and action games. The game made an unprecedented leap from 2D games using prerendered 3D sprites to a mature, free-roaming, fully 3D action-adventure essentially indistinguishable from its descendents a decade later.
- Half-Life (1998) by Randall Pitchford II. A mature shooter that upped the ante for immersiveness and story-driven action.
- Façade (2005, short) by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern. Façade's game mechanic of emotions management and natural language conversation is such a sharp break from all past games that it seems like great art, but in 20 years you will see this is really just the birth of a new genre based on new software technology.
- Masterful mainstream games [compare The Godfather (1972) by Francis Coppola]
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) by Shigeru Miyamoto.
- Homeworld (1999) by Alex Garden.
- Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) by Dan Houser.
- Significant Art Games [compare The Last Laugh (1924) by F.W. Murnau]
- Shadow of the Colossus (2005) by Fumito Ueda. A surreal, epic, minimalistic masterpiece. Even the controls have artistic design, especially those involving Wander's steed, Argo.
- Okami (2006) by Hideki Kamiya. A Legend of Zelda adventure in a ghostly land exploding with energy, shapes, color, and movement, in the style of a Japanese wood-cut ink drawing. Many actions are performed with a painting brush, not buttons.
- Appendix A: List of people who seem to be making videogames as art. Fumito Ueda, Jason Rohrer, Rod Humble, Hideki Kamiya,
- Note. Just as a "short film" is one shorter than 40 minutes, I'm defining a "short game" as one whose typical gameplay is less than 40 minutes.
Someone asked, "How can games be considered art?"
We must define art. That is notoriously difficult, like defining love. But maybe we can agree that art is:
"any conscious arrangement of sense objects (colors, sounds, movements, words, tastes, etc.) that expresses itself in ways that are unnecessary to its utilitarian purpose."
Of course, it will be easy to find flaws in any definition of art.
So, a game's utilitarian purpose is to entertain. Pong can entertain, but there's not much else there. The Legend of Zelda and Max Payne are expressing something more.
We also need to define videogame, which is:
"a game with a user interface (even if it's a urinal) that generates feedback on a video device (and perhaps in other ways, for example sound or a rumble controller)."
But now, what's a game? We might say a game is:
"an interactive activity governed by artificial rules (different than the real-life rules of physics, etc.) with an uncertain end."
Also see notes by Chris Crawford.
If we add anything to that, we start losing games we want to include.
If we add a notion of "challenge," we lose games like The Endless Forest.
If we add a notion of "goals," we lose games like The Sims.
If we add a notion of "fun," we lose lots of games.
But alas, our broad definition does include many things we probably don't want to consider games, for example Healing by Brian Knep, Mine Control by Zachary Booth Simpsons, and Videoplace by Myron Krueger.
So it's tricky.
But enough with definitions. How can we evaluate art?
You have to remember that almost anything can be art, if viewed that way.
A rope is not art; it is a tool for holding things together.
But what if I tie knots in the rope at certain places that make it look beautiful while it is holding a tire swing to a tree? Now it is expressing something beyond its utility. It is serving as art and as a tool.
What if I untie it from the tree and the tire, toss it on the ground, and arrange it into the shape of Homer Simpson's head? Now it has no utility, and is purely art.
Videogames are like the rope. Some have nearly 100% utility (rule-based activity provided with an uncertain end), like Pong. Others express varying ratios of utility and art. A few might even express more art than utility, like Shadow of the Colossus.
This question also depends on how you evaluate any art. You might be...
(1) a Realist, who believes aesthetic quality has an absolute value outside any human view.
(2) an Objectivist, who believes aesthetic quality has an absolute value, but is dependent on human experience.
(3) a Relativist, who believes aesthetic quality does not have an absolute value, but varies with the experience of different humans.
I am both a Relativist and an Objectivist.
I am a Relativist because works of art have different values to each of us because we each have different experiences. A particular Korean art film might have less value to me than a Korean because I am missing many of its symbols, jokes, references, moods, and wordplays.
I speak as a Relativist when I tell people why some movie or song or painting is "one of my favorites."
I am an Objectivist because I think that if you provide specific criteria for "good" art, certain works will excel in those criteria better than other works.
(These criteria always relate to human experience, which is why I'm not a Realist. For example, one criteria might be an art work's use of sense objects to express an idea. But this depends on human experience. For rocks or bacteria, there is no such thing as a "sense object" or an "idea.")
I speak as an Objectivist when I talk about the "greatest" film or the "best" videogame. I'm writing the list above as an Objectivist.
Of course, there are no "universal criteria" on which all humans agree. That is one reason we disagree on what the "best" works of art are.
Michael Sicinksi has different film art criteria than I do, and so he thinks both Zucker's Airplane! and Brakhage's The Arabic Numeral Series are among the best films of the 1980s. I haven't figured out yet what his criteria are.
Art critics also disagree because we have different abilities and knowledge. Even if we have exactly the same criteria, a Korean critic has a better chance of estimating the value of Salinui chueok than I do.
That's one reason Scaruffi is a great art critic. He has Ph.D.-level knowledge of world history, artificial intelligence, computer science, physics, philosophy, neuroscience, classical music, jazz music, rock music, avantgarde music, film history, poetry, painting, political history, world travel and cultures, and literature. That's a lot of Ph.D.s, and a lot of knowledge. Basically, he knows a lot about every form of art and every realm of human experience. Most critics just know about rock music, San Francisco, and information technology.
Critics also disagree because of our biases and filters. Even if John Doe had the same criteria as me, and even if we tried to eliminate our biases as much as possible, we'd make a very different list of "Greatest Films Ever."
So even if I could exactly specify my criteria for good art (and I can't), I still can only guess at any art work's absolute value (according to my criteria), because I
(1) lack a lot of knowledge,
(2) can't eliminate my biases, and if I try, I may overcompensate without knowing
(3) can't eliminate the filters of my personal experience
One way to approach a "correct" estimation of a work's absolute value is to experience it many times. But I don't get paid by the hour (or at all) to critique art, so even Persona I've only seen 5 times.
Another way is to read what other people have to say about it, whether they share you criteria or not. But be careful; this might actually make things worse by adding to your biases and filters.
Another way is to learn more. If I'm watching a film about World War II, it might help if I study the era - not just the war but the spirit of the time, the patterns of speech, the pop icons, the dominant philosophies, the history of the involved socities, etc.
It also helps to learn more about the art medium. It's hard to tell the artistic difference between Beethoven's 5th and Beethoven's 7th if you don't know much about music theory.
One of my criteria for good art is innovation, and so it also helps me to know about the history of a medium. This is what helps me decide whether Un Chien Andalou is really a big step past The Seashell and the Clergyman and many other earlier surrealistic films.
It also helps to know the history of other art mediums. Memento would be even more impressive had it been the first narrative ever told backward, but earlier experiments exist in television, literature, theater, film, music, and more.
Now, about videogames.
Older arts like music or film have been evaluated as art for more than a century, and lots of people have wrote very eloquently about how to judge these media as art.
For music, you judge the melody, structure, texture, range, lyrical poetry (if any), etc.
For film, you judge the narrative (if any), the composition of the shots, the acting, the light and shadow, the colors (if any), the "meaning" and "ideas", the musical score, the juxtaposition of shots, the juxtaposition of scenes, the set or landscape designs, the historical-culture honesty or commentary, etc.
Videogames haven't been around as long, and people don't know what to judge. Film seems to be the closest artistic relative (indeed, some games are basically films with short bits of interactivity), so we can borrow most of the ideas from film criticism above.
In that sense, we might say that Max Payne has a good narrative, Manhunt has good shot composition, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis has good (voice) acting, Ico makes good use of light and shadow, Okami makes good use of color, Bioshock has good "meaning" or "ideas," Homeworld has a good musical score, Half-Life has a good juxtaposition of "shots", Beyond Good and Evil has a good juxtaposition of "scenes", The Longest Journey has good set design, Destroy All Humans has good social commentary, etc.
But we've also got this element of rule-based interactivity that is lacking in films. How can we judge the artistic merits of play?
Start by assuming we're judging the original art work, not the performance. We're judging Beethoven's 9th, not what a particular conductor and orchestra did with it. We're judging one of John Cage's "indeterminate" compositions, not a particular performance of it.
This comparison gets trickier in other cases. How can we judge John Coltrane's Ascension instead of a particular recording of it (including the original)? How can we judge a piece of Forum Theater and not a particular performance? How can we judge John Zorn's Cobra and not a particular performance of that rule-based composition?
Of course, the player of a game could produce an artistic improvisation (performance) within the games rules. You might start looking here. But for now let's focus on judging the game as art.
That means judging the game, at least partly, by its rules. That could mean:
(1) How much freedom does the player have?
(2) How many types of activities can the player engage in?
(3) When/where/how can the player engage in those activities?
(4) How do the player controls function?
(5) How much depth does the game have in its gameplay (Wii Sports vs Diablo II)?
Usually we ask those questions in relation to how entertaining the game is. "Grand Theft Auto IV has lots of freedom, intuitive controls, and lots of gameplay depth, so it's a great game."
But what happens when we ask those questions in relation to how artful a game is? How might these game rules be set up in an artful way?
Say I designed a game with themes of death, futility, and fleeting happiness. A game about the last days of an Alzheimer's hospital patient. I would give the playable character had bad eyesight, and blur everything in the game world. I would make the controls for standing up from a chair as difficult to perform as for an 80-year-old woman to stand up out of a chair. I would trap the player in a little room. I would make ordinary objects difficult to handle. And perhaps there would be dream sequences in the game where the player is suddenly transported to a world of absolute freedom and sense clarity and ease of control. This kind of idea is explored in the micro-videogame Gravitation, by Jason Rohrer.
Or consider the controls of Shadow of the Colossus: "To attack a colossus, the player must press the O button once to raise his sword, and O again to strike... Compare this to... God of War - you press X once, and you've killed 8 skeletons, deflowered a virgin, and ransacked a city... Unlike God of War, killing your enemies is far from automatic or easy - it's a concerted effort and a pre-meditated choice."
I remember sequences in Max Payne where Max is dreaming or drugged or something and the world changes from a gritty pulp-noir to a surreal Alice in Wonderland arena of narrow walkways over a bottomless pit of fire. And I remember playing a game where if the playable character got drunk, the screen went blurry and the controls got sluggish.
My criteria for judging games as art.
I judge games as art similar to how I judge films as art. A great game:
(1) innovates a new language for videogames
(2) uses that new language in ways that are cinematically, narratively, emotionally, musically, visually, and philosophically powerful.
(3) uses each element of its art to reinforce the others.
Most videogames merely translate an existing game into a virtual playplace. Sports games, driving games, fighting games, matching games (from Concentration to Dance Dance Revolution), and shooting games are obvious offenders. But even Diablo II is basically a souped-up version of the card game Dungeons and Dragons. StarCraft is a souped-up version of chess. Videogames are called videogames because most of the early games just translated earlier games onto a video screen. And most videogames released today are basically sequels of those early games, but with 3D graphics and more complex gameplay.
Some games invent a new language but do not do much with this new language: Stonkers, Air Warrior.
Many games are artistic with regard to several areas (innovation, cinema, narrative, emotion) but not others (controls, music, visual, philosophy).
As for making a game's elements reinforce the others, see the example I gave above about the Alzheimer's patient game.
And that's about as specific as I can get.