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.

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