By Giselle Pe
Warning – minor spoilers for ‘Superhot’, ‘That Dragon Cancer’ and ‘Celeste’
Unfortunately, I am a gamer.
All the stereotypes are true – I’m a socially awkward, sunlight-fearing nerd, who lives off Krispy Kreme and anti-depressants. Luckily, many of my friends can say the same, and we have all been united by our mutual love for cute anime girls, mildly misogynist livestreamers, and the looming knowledge that none of us will ever get a girlfriend.
So, it stands. Whatever you think about gamers is probably true. We’re all big losers. However, whatever you think about video games itself – not so much.
“Yeah, I game”, squeaks the 13-year-old boy, voice breaking halfway through. He games for 6 hours a day, calls everybody the n-word online, and fantasizes about any and all female characters at night – though, you can hardly blame him. Most of them are majorly over-sexualised. He plays the sorts of games that probably come to mind when I say the words “video game” – ‘Grand Theft Auto’, ‘Team Fortress 2’, and of course, the dreaded ‘Fortnite’ – your classic somewhat violent game, typically a first-person shooter. Or maybe a retro 8-bit platformer comes to mind. Or a free, mindless ‘Candy Crush’-clone mobile game. Or maybe, if you’re a seasoned gamer yourself, something a little more obscure. Whatever it may be, when I say “game”, your brain doesn’t immediately respond with “art”. Only a freak would think that.
I am said freak.
To me, video games are an art form. Not just any art form – I would argue they are the most versatile, immersive, emotionally-involved art form. Maybe I sound really, insufferably middle-class, because, yeah, it’s a bit of a pretentious opinion. But stay with me for a minute, because video games are not just the future of art, they’re the future of our interconnected, globalised world.
Any veteran gamer will eagerly tell you about the 2011 novel ‘Ready Player One’, popularised by the 2018 film by the same name. It features a freakishly realistic dystopia, in which society escapes a war-torn burning Earth to an extravagant, fantastical virtual reality world, told with a frivolous amount of nerdy references, enough to make any geek squirm with joy. The rise of virtual reality is ever-relevant – it’s used in pilot training, PTSD treatment, children’s education and, of course, gaming.
One such VR game is ‘Superhot VR’. On surface level, it’s a seemingly simple first-person shooter, with a clever slow-motion mechanism, in which time only moves when the player moves. Neat! From a purely technical point-of-view, it’s a brilliant game. The graphics are simple, but the contrasting colours make it highly effective, and the innovative gameplay is challenging and engaging enough to not feel repetitive.
What really elevates the game, however, is its complex metanarrative. The game’s story doesn’t just break the fourth wall – it obliterates it, and smashes the ceiling too while it’s at it. You play as a character playing a computer game – called superhot.exe. The game initially appears to be an ordinary shooter, but quickly dissolves into a surreal experience involving you, your player character, and their player character within the game – there’s a lot of layers and it’s hard to grasp, but it’s pure existential genius when played.
Alright, so we’ve established that ‘Superhot VR’ is a brilliant, innovative game. But does that make it an art form?
An ever-reliable stream of wisdom, The Internet provides us with this lovely definition of the word ‘art’:
“The conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words.”
While I don’t entirely agree with the definition (surely art doesn’t always have to be beautiful), video games definitely fit this model. I hate to admit it, but even games produced for the mass audience are art. Stuff like ‘Overwatch’ or ‘Ark: Survival Evolved’ aren’t particularly thought-provoking, but the character design, environmental rendering, level design, 3D models, sound design, motion graphics and animation are all complex and well executed, with each area arguably being individual artistic forms. Anybody who knows me knows I can and will rattle on about game concept art for hours on end without pause.
So, in terms of their ‘artistry’, video games, particularly virtual reality games, have the unique ability to completely immerse the player into the setting of the world, placing them in the shoes – or headset – of somebody else. The way games like ‘Superhot VR’ are able to make players question their own reality and consciousness is unmatched – literature, sculpture and film may all have their own strengths as forms of art, but virtual reality games have the ability to drag you far into your own mind – something that might catch you off-guard when you thought you’d just signed up to shoot up some funky-looking red people.
Still not so convinced video games can be works of art? Let’s take a look at, perhaps, the most touching game to have been published in recent years.
There’s a common argument against video games. I’ve had old white men speak-shouting too close to my face in that way where loads of spit comes out, telling me that “video games promote violence” and that they might turn a “nice young lady” like me into “a school shooter”, to which I reply, without missing a beat, “we’re not in bloody America!”, which really ticks them off. Tell any gamer that they’re going to become some sort of violent psychopath and they’ll immediately come back to you with ‘Animal Crossing’ or ‘Cooking Mama’ or some other sort of equally wholesome Nintendo game. But more seasoned gamers might decide to enlighten you on the masterpiece that is ‘That Dragon, Cancer’.
‘That Dragon, Cancer’ is an interactive point-and-click story adventure game, which follows the true story of the game’s producer, Ryan Green, and his wife, Amy. This autobiographical game depicts the heart-wrenching tale of Ryan and Amy’s son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at just 12 months old. The player sees, through a combination of first-person and third-person perspective, the journey Ryan goes through with Joel. The game, described by critics as “a living painting, a poem”, plunges the player into Ryan’s world, seeing first-hand his experiences with grief in many powerful immersive metaphors. The player travels from a lavish picnic, through a wild sea, to a massive chapel, and, in a beautifully reduced, poignant moment, to a simple hospital room.
At the core of the game is the story. Ryan Green, who had already produced a handful of small games, turned to game development as a way of coping with his son’s cancer. He felt that no other medium would be interactive enough to fully express the scope of emotion the family felt during the process, and wanted to produce “a message of grace” through the game as a form of therapy and closure. Joel was four years old when Ryan had the idea – three years ago they had been given the news that Joel had been diagnosed with an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour (ATRT), and that he would, at just one year old, only have four more months to live. Despite this, Joel overcame the odds and lived to five years old, dying while the game was still in production.
The heart-breaking tale is poignantly told through beautiful colour palettes, honest dialogue and, crucially, the game mechanics. At points, the player loses control over the game, symbolic of the intense sense of helplessness Ryan and Amy felt over their son’s illness. A particularly memorable moment where this happens is in a hospital scene. Where Joel could previously be comforted with various objects and stories when distressed, at this point in the illness, Joel is in too much pain to calm down, and nothing the player tries will help Ryan stop the heart-wrenching wailing of his son.
I’ve seen endless streamers and playthrough YouTubers break down in tears playing ‘That Dragon, Cancer’. Hell, I have the emotional capacity of a worm, and I definitely cried. There’s something so raw and vulnerable about the storytelling. It’s so immersive, both simple and complex at the same time – it just reaches out, grabs your heart, and pulls. Despite following the story of one specific family, the game is amazingly universal – everybody finds an element they can relate to at some point in the narration, whether in the joys of being a parent, or in the destructive impact of terminal illness, or even in the journey towards finding peace through faith. ‘That Dragon, Cancer’ is truly the epitome of art.
It seems, with these examples, that a good story lies at the heart of a good game. While, admittedly, it is incredibly fun just mindlessly shooting at things and causing general pointless destruction (see ‘Untitled Goose Game’ if you want some real terror), the games that really stick with us are the ones with the stories. Once 2020 rolled along, several websites like IGN, Metacritic and GamesRadar released Top games of the last decade rankings. The lists were all pretty unanimous – ‘The Last of Us’ consistently placed the top, with gems like ‘Breath of the Wild’, ‘Red Dead Redemption’ and ‘Portal 2’ following closely behind. The common denominator for all of these fantastic games is, as you may well have guessed, solid gameplay combined with a memorable narrative.
I’m going to take this opportunity to completely nerd out and expose myself as even more of a loser than I already have, and talk about my personal game of the past decade: ‘Celeste’. (Warning: major ramble incoming.)
‘Celeste’ is a platformer. Yawn. A platformer, Giselle, really? The final game you’re gonna bang on about is a bloody platformer? I’ll stick to ‘Super Mario Bros’, thanks. But wait, my dear reader! You are entirely mistaken. Platformers, although 2D in a literal sense, can have as much depth as any other genre of game, when done right. The classic side-scroller format has been around for decades and there’s a good reason it’s still around. From ‘Kirby’s Adventure’ to ‘Hollow Knight’, platformers have a lot to offer, and I will continue to defend them to the death.
Really, ‘Celeste’ is a simple game at its core. You play as a young woman, Madeline, climbing a mountain. It’s simply an A to B journey – start at the base of Celeste Mountain and get to the flag at the top. The game is beautifully executed. It’s the visuals, the music and of course, the big ol’ “S Word” – the story – that elevate the game.
Madeline arrives at Celeste Mountain, in need of a challenge and a break from her regular life, much like the player. Ignoring warning signs and the words of a cynical old lady, she begins the seemingly straightforward ascent. Things quickly turn fantastical, however, as the mysterious powers of the mountain separate Madeline into two parts – Madeline, and the comically named Badeline – a physical manifestation of her mental illness. Badeline, much more powerful than Madeline, chases her through both her dreams and the real world, which blend more and more as they progress further into the mountain. With the help of fellow traveller Theo, Madeline evades her dark counterpart, and keeps climbing.
The story comes to a climax, however, when the two finally clash, and Badeline reigns superior, sending Madeline down to the bottom of the mountain. This is the moment she realises that neither running from nor fighting against her depression will work out. Rather, she begins talking to her dark counterpart, befriending her as they both open up about doubts and fears. Eventually, the two are able to combine into a single, power entity, and make it to their final destination – their local GP.
Just kidding. Of course, they make it to the summit of the mountain, realising that depression is a complicated journey that will take the two of them working together to get through. The game’s poignant exploration of mental health means I hold it close to my heart – from anxiety-inducing phone calls to full-blown panic attacks, Madeline goes through it all. Despite the surreal backdrop of the game, the beautifully realistic portrayal of what it means to struggle with friendships, self-esteem and conflicting consciousness when facing these issues is incredibly accurate, and makes the game unbelievably validating to play when dealing with these issues yourself.
The message of ‘Celeste’ is tied together perfectly by the visuals. The classic pixelated aesthetic works perfectly with the vibrant, fantasy setting of the game. Some of the scenes in this game are genuinely breath-taking. The player gets to explore everything from a peaceful waterfall area, to a galaxy-like dream stage, to a horrific, nightmarish temple filled with disgusting sort of – I dunno? – eyeball monsters. Yikes. The emotional journey Madeline goes through is so vivid.
The game would not be complete without the work of composer Lena Raine. The soundtrack of the game, entirely written by her, is pure genius. As a qualified illustration nerd, I know next to nothing about music production but – oh, boy! – anybody could recognise the soundtrack of Celeste as a work of art. I listen to it on repeat the whole time I study (sorry, “Lo-fi Hip-hop Beats 24h Stream”. You’ve been fired). Taking classic sounds that remind veteran gamers of the Gameboy, she skilfully layers them with distorted voices, to create compositions that do an impeccable job of conveying a whole range of emotion. From one level to the next, Lena Raine’s music evokes something different: hope, anticipation, fear, determination, panic – the list goes on. When playing the game, the music really makes you feel whatever Madeline is experiencing at that point. And this is crucial to my argument.
Why? Because that’s what games can do – bring together visual, audio and kinetic elements into one big beautiful heap, in a way no other art form can. All your senses are involved. Video games enable us to be truly immersed in another world – as familiar or as impossible as you like. The element of choice is one you can’t often find elsewhere, either. The weight of choice and the ability to easily break the fourth wall gives games the potential to make you question morality (see the ‘Undertale’ and ‘Detroit Become Human’ for more of this) in a fashion that just isn’t as personal in traditional media. Unless there’s a really deep existential ‘Choose Your Own Story’ book out there.
My point is this – the capacity games hold for storytelling is unmatched. Surely, that is what art is all about?
So, I rest my case. Video games hold an unparalleled potential for artistic expression. Games can make you think. Games can make you cry. Games can connect you with people around the globe or, at least, with similar people who are also massive nerds. Games open an entire realm of possibility. The writing, the creation, even the playing of video games – art. And, most importantly, at the end of the day, they’re fun.
If this article has inspired you to get gaming, here are some wonderfully arty games to check out. Think of this as the rather long ‘Honourable Mentions’ list. I could write a whole article for each and every one of these! Some are included for visuals, some for their writing, and others for expressive gameplay. Enjoy!
· Bury Me, My Love
· Detroit Become Human
· Doki Doki Literature Club
· Escaped Chasm
· Far from Noise
· Heartbound (still in development)
· Heavy Rain
· Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
· Hyperlight Drifter
· Kind Words
· Life is Strange series
· Marie’s Room
· missed messages.
· Monument Valley
· Persona 5
· Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky
· Plug and Play
· The Beginners Guide
· The Last of Us
· The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
· The Stanley Parable
· Undertale / Deltarune
· What Remains of Edith Finch
· Yume Nikki