That’s Not Art

By David Kretschmann

Everyone knows what art is or at least thinks they know what art is. It seems obvious when you look at a van Gogh that you are looking at art and it seems obvious that you are reading literature when you are holding one of Shakespeare’s plays.

            When dealing with video games however, are we viewing art? Or are we reading literature?

Conservative voices will quickly dismiss video games altogether as infantile distractions with little artistic value. The journalist Keith Stuart responded to these critics in a Games blog piece for the Guardian by comparing the critics that dismiss video games to the critics that did not consider early impressionist paintings to be art, the very category of painting to which Vincent van Gogh’s paintings belong. I agree with Keith Stuart’s defence of video games as art, yet I believe that his response to Jonathan Jones does not go far enough, his arguments are thoughtful and well-founded but he argues too timidly in a debate where video games have to demand to be taken seriously.

            Since I have given you very esteemed examples of the aesthetic arts and of literature it is only appropriate to send one of the best examples video games have to offer into the race: “Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons” which the renowned games critic John Bain considered to be: “the best Video Game of all time”. Digital art often has a hard time amongst the elitists of the art sphere, where disliking new art is often a way to appear more cultured and tasteful, yet not a single frame of “Brothers” beautiful environment design would have to be ashamed to be displayed in the world’s finest galleries. The Journey of the titular character pair of two brothers takes them through a world that is beautiful and eerie in diverse settings that are linked by their consistent style. On their journey the two brothers are confronted with a world that constantly challenges their perspective as they make their way through areas that seem to be oversized compared to them. They are often surrounded by death either through largely abandoned structures, corpses or graveyards tying into the overarching theme of death.

            The writing of “Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons” is difficult to compare too literature, since its dialogue consists of a fictional language which is only sparingly used at all, yet even though there is very little dialogue, the plot’s complexity should not be underestimated. Empathy is shown and relationships are established through the characters’ actions and the steps on their journey have a very clear narrative direction; The lack of dialogue is not an impediment to the game’s story but one of its greatest assets. The different events of the plot are clearly linked without further explanation and the direction creates an impactful plot with relatable characters. What more could you possibly ask of a writer?

            The resulting video game demonstrates exactly how digital art and exceptional writing can create art that surpasses what either could achieve on their own. “Brothers – A tale of Two Sons” was universally well reviewed and received prestigious awards such as one for the best Xbox game of 2013 and the award for best game innovation at the 2014 British academy games awards. The critical acclaim of the game may be restricted to video game reviewers and consumers but if any game can prove that the combination of visual art, music, interactivity and writing in a video game have to be taken seriously, it is “Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons”.

            A video game can through its interactivity create countless consumer experiences that can in some cases radically change the way a player perceives the game. Even the most narrow and linear game can be interpreted in many ways as players have their own associations. The potential for educated discussion is endless as the medium allows for completely different experiences within the same work. To Jonathan Jones this difference between individual user experiences disqualifies games from being art. Keith Stuart on the other hand argues that this potential for different experiences and interpretations is similar to the way art can be viewed and interpreted differently.

            There are different genres which have countless different branching stories that change based on the player’s decisions within the game. That may the greatest asset the medium holds which writing can not adequately express. There have of course been novels that tried to emulate the readers’ choice by giving them different page markers to skip to based on their choice, but to truly engage in a story as an actor removing any barriers between the reader and the protagonist, that is unique to video games. The genre that tries to push player choice above everything else is the visual novel, which was named visual novel because it is the genre which relies the most on reading. The visual novel has often been used by creators that felt that a static narrative experience was too restricting for their creative vision as in the case of Dan Salvato’s “Doki Doki Literature Club” and in “Hatoful Boyfriend” which was developed by Manga artist Hato Moa, who chose this form to let players organically explore stories set in her fictional world.

            Role playing games often attempt to give the player impactful choices, yet few games can afford to add to many different branches to their games. An example for a game that has impactful choices while sticking to a rather narrow plot is the game “Gothic” in which the player’s goal is to escape a magical prison, which can be done by aiding one of the three factions within that prison or forcing your way out with no help from the non-player characters, providing the player with unprecedented freedom of choice, resulting in radically different stories along the way.

            The possibilities for video games to tell stories is still being explored with innovative directors finding new ways for the medium to grow, as in one of this years most innovative games “A Way Out” which was highly acclaimed for its radically different approach to player cooperation in a narrative game.

            Each of these examples can disprove Jonathan Jones argument that video games are not art because they are not an artists act of personal imagination; Dan Salvato and Hato Moa worked on their respective games with very little help to bring their creative vision to life, the environment designs in “Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons” were made by designers who had personal imagination that shaped the game’s world. But Jonathan Jones did not know these games, when he wrote that video games could never be art, I doubt that he knows any of them now, he argued about the New York Museum of Modern Art accepting video games into their collection and the Museums effort to make these games accessible in the future and preserve them as Art. His argument could not have been more short-sighted and ill-informed and I for one hope that many more games are included in collections like this.

             Establishing video games as an art form is not just a matter of vocabulary, I believe that to showcase that artistic potential we should let schools use great video games similarly to literature in English classes or paintings in Art classes. The conversations we have about video games are too often centred on money and multi-million dollar companies and too seldom about the artistic significance they have. Video games may be a historically new medium but they have become a part of our culture that has had an impact on far more people than renaissance paintings had when they were painted or sonnets when they were written. I believe that many who would argue that video games are not art simply do not know how much video games have improved in recent decades, if someone argues that video games can not be art and still thinks of games like “Pong” or “Pac-Man” then they are wilfully ignorant.

Sources and References:

Juggling Between Menial Labour and University Life

By Svenja Krautwald

University life is often portrayed as one of the happiest times in the lives of young adults. By concentrating on leisure activities, games and parties, students often lose focus on education. But I don’t. I often wish I had time to lose focus and forget my studies. Instead, a tightly packed schedule is waiting for me. On work days, my alarm goes off at 4:30 in the morning. There is no time for turning around, snuggling back into the warm sheets. Instead, I face the coldness of the bathroom tiles and jump straight into the shower. It is a daily fight to not spend too much time in the comforting warmth of the water. After painting a bit of life onto my face I leave the house – without breakfast. Usually, I settle for water because working with the same types of bread, sweets and sandwiches every day has gradually decreased my breakfast habits. Also, the awareness that I should be attending a course at university rather than working does not help to increase my appetite.

            Gillian White’s article “The Struggle of Work – School Balance” for The Atlantic points at this and further issues: While it is perfectly fine for privileged students to “intermittently study”, there is a considerable number of individuals who are not only dealing with “pressing schedules of not just classes and activities, but real jobs”. Basically, White re – defines the view of university life. It is not just a world of fun and games where students slither from one party to the next, but rather a harsh reality where social life can be drastically limited. I do not have one, that is for sure. When you have to leave at five am and come back at seven pm you do not want to throw yourself out in this world to party. Sleep becomes more valued, I can tell you that. The struggle of having a real job puts a strain on many students, including myself. We are forced to work in order to pay for our tuition; otherwise we could not take the opportunity to study. Aside from that, some employers will not adapt shifts to the university schedules even though they could. Their indifference leads to problems in attending the courses. This is a paradox I am experiencing right now: students work to finance their education but are not able to make it to class because of their jobs. 

            Nevertheless, many people perceive having a part – time job as a good thing because nowadays work experience is needed in almost every type of business. It is crucial to “[develop] important professional and social skills that make it easier to land a job after graduation”. Essentially, students need to acquire these skills because their future employers are not looking for people straight out of college. In this case, work experience collected parallel to college benefits the students in question. But even though they gain the required skill set which is praised as an incredible advantage, “full time work may not completely cover the cost of tuition and living expenses”. I regard this as a major problem. What does it matter if students will at one point in their lives be able to function in their future work environment when they at this point cannot even pay their rent? 

Though I have to admit that my job improved my punctuality, this experience is not something I need right now. I neither plan to work as an assistant in a bakery later on nor do I fancy the behaviour of some customers who question my intelligence on a day to day basis just because I work as a sales assistant. I only work because I have no other choice, not because daddy got me an internship at a respected company. What makes the matter even worse is that a few students have to drop out of university because they spent too much time away working. This should not be happening. In my mind, it seems like people who come from the lower middle class are purposefully put at a disadvantage because they do not have the same chances as the privileged part of society. My brother for example also has to work alongside university, whereas his flatmate does not. The flatmate recently applied for his first “job” (which really is only an internship with all the benefits). It was very surprising to him that he had to write an application. He seemed to have imagined that they had only one golden candidate in mind – him. I think he also got a little upset when he saw the work hours. Here you can perfectly see the difference menial labour makes: they started studying simultaneously, but my brother has not finished his bachelor yet because of work. His flatmate, who did not have to work a single day in his life, graduated recently. I believe we are ready to agree that the privileged few are able to wholly concentrate on their studies and do not have to worry about money. But that should not force students who do not have more money waiting in their bank accounts out of university. Everyone gifted with potential and intelligence should be given the chance to further develop their abilities.

Works Cited:

White, Gillian B. “The Struggle of Work-School Balance.”

From Novel to Screenplay: Harry Potter, Arrival and the Impossible Adaptation

By Tom Akehurst

Movie viewers can often be left unsatisfied when they leave the theatre. Such dissatisfaction stems from various causes: an underwhelming performance by their favourite actor or actress, weird or too cartoonish looking special effects, corny lines in the script or an unnecessarily complex plot. But when it explicitly comes to movies based on books, I believe the following statement to be the most common criticism: “The movie was nothing like the book.” This is supposed to be an inherently negative statement about the quality of a screenplay, which through this phrasing is thoughtlessly deemed inferior to the source material it was adapted from. To many people who have read books and then watched the corresponding movie, the latter can never live up to the original. This means: if a movie based on a book is not exactly like it, it is not a good adaptation and, therefore, not a good movie. For these people, it should be the ultimate goal of any movie adaption to be just like the original or as close to it as possible.

My view, however, contrary to what these people argue for, is that movies can and should not be like their source material. There are good reasons for changes, cuts and additions made to a book’s story when adapting it to the big screen. Taking a look at three exemplary book-to-movie adaptations reveals why being “nothing like the book” is an unfair criticism of great movies and their screenplays. 

Size Does Matter

Let us start with a simple reason why screenplays are different to their book counterparts: they have to be shorter. A standard cinematic movie is usually about two hours long, give or take thirty minutes. Books can be of varying length, and therefore demand different amounts of time from the reader to finish them. But with a book you can stop reading at any moment and resume later when you are in the mood. A movie does not have that option (unless of course you buy a disc copy to watch at home, but since most movies are released in cinemas first where you can not press the pause button, we can safely ignore this argument). Therefore, a movie must be of a reasonable length so the audience can watch everything in one sitting at the cinema. This is especially important when it comes to trying to turn a long book into a comparatively short screenplay: there is simply too much source material to adapt, so some things need to be left out in order to achieve an adequate length for the screenplay. And even then, sometimes, parts of the movie are left on the cutting room floor and never make it to the cinema.

Here is an example: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a book with 607 pages. Judging from the length of the audiobook, it takes around 19 hours to read every last page. Would anyone be willing to sit in the cinema for 19 hours, missing parts of the story each time when going to the bathroom or getting a snack? Most people would probably not, and so Steve Kloves reduced the number of pages in his screenplay for the movie adaption of Half-Blood Prince to 162, with the final cut of the movie being 153 minutes long. This is a much better length for a movie targeting mainly children and young adults, and Kloves’ strategy paid off: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince made over 900 million dollars at the box office. I do not think this number would have been that high if every single scene from the books had been adapted. Also think about the amount of time and money necessary for such a project. It would be ridiculous to even try if you don’t have millions, maybe even billions, of dollars and years time for production. From a commercial point of view, adapting a book as a whole would be financial suicide for any studio.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

So if it is okay to leave certain plot elements out in a movie adaptation, why would the scenes that make it into the movie get changed instead of staying true to the book? A good question without a simple answer. It largely depends on the individual movie whether changes are justified. Sometimes, there is no need to do something different. But in some cases, there is a need for changes and additions to a screenplay when it is based on a book.

One of these cases is Arrival, a movie by Denis Villeneuve about language and determinism, in which aliens land on earth and a team of linguists is tasked with finding out what they want. The screenplay was adapted by Eric Heisserer from the science fiction novella Story of Your Lifeby Ted Chiang and released in cinemas in 2016. Heisserer changed parts of the story to make it work in the form of a movie, the first one being the titular arrival of the alien species called heptapods. In the short story, the heptapods never actually land on earth as they do in the movie, and instead send down a number of so-called looking glasses acting as “communication devices, presumably with the ships in orbit”[1]. Would you watch a movie in which the protagonists merely look at screens to talk to aliens you never get to see because they are so far away, completely detached from what is happening on earth? Probably not. Such a movie would not be compelling because there is no immediate threat. So Heisserer pitched the following first major change to Ted Chiang: “they show up at our door”[2]. And suddenly, there are things the protagonists (and with them, the audience) wants to find out: How can we communicate with the aliens? What is their purpose on earth? Are they a threat? The tangible existence of the heptapods in the movie as opposed to their only presumed presence in the novella generates public hysteria and military acts of aggression against them, and the actual face-to-face interaction between humans and alien lifeforms inside the spaceship of the heptapods is much more interesting to watch than what Heisserer called having the scientists “spend a year in a room skyping with some aliens”[3]

What I am saying is that in order to sustain a movie of standard length, sometimes you need to add or change something to create a certain amount of tension and conflict so the audience does not get bored and walk out of the cinema saying ‘this was not compelling at all’. To tell an interesting story in the cinema, a screenwriter needs to look at the source material and ask whether it is interesting enough to sustain a movie of two hours. If not, he is free to make changes to it in order to achieve that important goal. After all, if the movie cannot be like the book, it should at least be entertaining.

Movie to Book to Movie

A good example for an entertaining movie with critical and commercial success that was adapted from a book is Your Name. The story follows Taki, a boy from Tokyo, and Mitsuha, a girl from the countryside of Japan, as their lives get intertwined through the sudden event of them switching bodies. Famous Japanese director Makoto Shinkai came up with this story and published it in 2016 – both as a movie and a novel. He finished writing the novel three months before the movie was finished, and has admitted in the afterword of the book that even to him it is unclear which one is the original. He goes on to say that both the movie and the novel can be experienced on their own just fine, but they inevitably complete each other through their media-specific characteristics. This completion happens through changes in perspective.

In the case of Your Name, the novel is written in first person from the perspective of Taki and Mitsuha. What they do not see or do not know cannot be told, and thus, our knowledge of the world, its inhabitants and the events happening is limited to what the two protagonists know about them. The movie though is told in third person, as all movies are in principle, and the audience can see and know everything the camera sees. This broadens our knowledge of things besides the main characters, but also excludes us from knowing their innermost thoughts and emotions. So in order to grasp the whole range of information about the story and everything else in it, interested parties must both watch the movie and read the novel. And yet, both forms can stand on their own, as they tell the same story only from different perspectives. So sometimes, a movie does not cut things out, but adds them in, and the story only benefits from it – even if it is not completely like the book. Ultimately, a book and a movie should be seen as two separate works of art based on the same idea instead of one being the groundwork for the other. 

In my view, stories told either as movies or books, are just like people: different, and all the better for it. We should not complain about one version being different from the other, but rather enjoy both individually. We should not judge movies based on their closeness to their source material, but rather view them as a separate form of expression. And we should not limit ourselves to only one medium, but rather be open for all of them. I think we, as an audience, would be a lot better off.

[1]     Chiang, Ted: Stories Of Your Life and Others. Picador 2015, p. 116

[2]     Quoted from the Audio Podcast “The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith” Ep. 99 “Arrival Q&A”, available here: (17.01.2018)

[3]     ib.