Video Games and their Evolution as Art - Part II: Specifics
The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of the LDS Gamers' community. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the contributing author and not LDS Gamers. Any mention of any particular game herein does not act as an endorsement by LDS Gamers but only as a reference by the contributing author.
This is the second part of a two-part article on "Video Games and their Evolution as Art." If you haven't read the first article, you can find it here.
As promised, we're going to launch into specific games that will help us illustrate our points. So, let me move on to this more recent decade. The first time I remember being moved by a game was back in 2007, when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out. I was over at a friend's house and he told me I had to play a particular mission. I began the mission firing a Mk. 19 Grenade Launcher from my team's helicopter as enemy forces stationed on top of buildings in a heavily populated region of Basrah, Iraq attempted to stop our evacuation. The graphics were top notch. The sound effects were realistic and pulse pounding. It was pure gaming Zen. The level was nearly over and then a massive explosion occurs in the sky, chaos ensues and your helicopter crashes. The next level, "Aftermath," begins and your character awakens in his downed chopper in the middle of a nuclear blast zone. Immediately after falling out of your chopper, you witness the destruction of this nuclear ravaged city. Buildings are collapsing around you. Everything is destroyed, and your teammates didn't survive. You are alone and you're not faring very well either. As you literally shamble about investigating the area, you eventually succumb to your wounds and . . . die
This death was permanent. No reloading to a previous checkpoint. I was shocked. I was sad, and every time I play that level I still am. I reflect on the devastation of what nuclear weapons have done to few places in our world. I hope that I don't see that kind of destruction in my lifetime. I felt immense gratitude for the military forces who are fighting for an ideal and often pay the ultimate price. We can be the land of the free, because of the brave. Whether this was the intention of the game's creators, I don't know. It certainly did affect me and it still does. I don't know if I can argue that this game is art. It merely opened my eyes to the possibilities of what feelings games could bring to surface in a player.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a drastic shift from the guns blazing action of Call of Duty, but it also is a game that has a greater chance of being considered artistic. It is a game that has animated cutscenes by Studio Ghibli. It is simply gorgeous. The story is touching and really hit home for me. You take the role of a young boy (Oliver) whose mother (Allie) dies tragically after trying to save him. Alone in his room, he holds his favorite toy and mourns the loss of his mother. His tears on the toy awaken a "fairy" called Mr. Drippy who gives Oliver hope by telling him that there is another world where "soulmates" (think more doppelgangers) exist for each person in this world. If he can find/save his mother's soulmate he might be able to somehow bring his own mother back to life. Throughout the game you make people whole again by righting wrongs they have committed, or finding items that they have lost, or by giving them courage. It is a very endearing game.
After playing for many hours of learning to become a wizard, you at last have restored your magic wand so you can fight the "Big Bad" named Shadar and find the great Sage Alicia, who Drippy says is your mother's soulmate. During this great battle, not only do you find out that your soulmate is Shadar, you also find out that the great sage Alicia, was actually your mother and that she doesn't have a soulmate because of traveling forward in time to give birth to you, in a safe place and time, away from Shadar. For all of us who love our moms and try to be good, this was a nearly unbearable 1-2 punch right before an epic boss battle. You somehow are linked to this embodiment of evil, and you can't actually save your mother. Yet, Oliver soldiers on as you find out that Shadar is actually merely a mid-boss and that he himself is a victim of betrayal, making him a sympathetic character. Wow!
I'll admit, to summarize the plot in a paragraph makes the story seem a bit convoluted, but it hit home and it hit hard. Your main focus and mission falls apart in a matter of minutes and you, together with Oliver have to pick up the pieces and move forward. In terms of storytelling, it was masterful and made me reflect on the love I have for my mother and what heroics I would employ, to bring her back if she had died, and having her return to me was a possibility. Beyond the emotional story-based moments, there is another moment where you heal a dragon and get to mount it and go flying. The music that plays when you finally take flight sounds heroic and considering you just helped to heal a dragon, you feel heroic. Add this to the animation, especially in the cut scenes, and what you have is a game that has so many artistic moments, that it is hard not to take the entire game as a piece of art. For me, I cared far more about the story, than about beating the game and it didn't disappoint. It was a beautiful story of redemption and hope and your character wasn't an amnesiac, a rarity for JRPGs.
This next exhibit, I mean . . . game . . . I must refer to in euphemism as the LDSGamers staff doesn't want to even appear close to endorsing it, even by reference. The game is pretty violent, but also has copious amounts of strong language. This was a game released toward the end of the PS3's lifecycle and is known for having an amazing ending. In the games post-apocalyptic setting, I figured that the main, reluctant hero (let's call him Joe) would have to sacrifice his life for the teenage girl (let's call her Lilly), who he is tasked to protect and transport across the country because she may be the path to a cure for an infection that is destroying the world. Another "crazy" ending I envisioned was that Joe would have to be killed by Lilly because he would contract the infection that turns people into zombie-like creatures you have had to fight throughout the game. I was wrong. Very . . . very . . . wrong.
To understand this ending and why it is so crazy, you must understand some of the events of the game that Joe lost his daughter when the infection started to ravage the country. You actually witness this in the game. He is broken, and he has crossed many moral lines in the intervening decades to survive. He is not your standard hero, but he has some sparks of real humanity left. He doesn't want to escort Lilly across the country, but they form a gradual bond as they end up spending the better part of a year together. A genuine father/daughter relationship forms. Throughout the game, friends are met with and parted from. Other fellow survivors end up succumbing to the infection, yet you, against all odds, survive. In one rousing series of levels, Joe gets impaled and collapses from his injuries, and the screen goes black. Next you see Lilly bow-hunting deer in the snowy Rockies, only to find out later that Joe is somehow still alive, but delirious and going septic. All of these things can't help but make you feel and examine your life and current situation, but they don't even come close to the ending.
After getting to Salt Lake City, Joe and Lilly get close to their final destination, a hospital. Lilly tells Joe that she wants to fully commit and do whatever she has to, so that a cure to the infection can found. They both get knocked out by an accident right before reaching the hospital. Joe wakes up in the hospital and asks how Lilly is doing and if he can see her. He is told that she is OK, but that she is already being prepped for surgery, so he can't see her. He probes further and is told that Lilly won't survive the operation because of what they need to harvest for the research they need to do to make this cure, and they think it is a surefire way to find a cure. As Joe grapples with the situation and is being escorted out of the hospital, he fights back and then you have control again.
Having played numerous games where you get to choose whether you're the renegade or paragon, I expected to have a choice here. I didn't. My only path to continue the story was to fight my way through hordes of armed guards. I finally reached the operating room and had to kill the doctors who were just about to operate on Lilly. Then I had to escape with this young girl in my arms and try to avoid the guards who were actively attempting to trap me. Crazy ending right? I am not even close to done.
The next cutscene has you facing off with a frenemy, who tells you that you can still make the right choice and you can go free. Well, the screen fades and you see Joe driving away from SLC, seemingly alone, until you hear Lilly stir in the back seat. Lilly asks what happened, because she had been unconscious for the duration of their time in the hospital, and Joe tells her that there were actually many like here and that there apparently was no cure. He completely LIES to her. You then find out through a mini-flashback that Joe had actually executed his frenemy after disabling her because she'd only come after Lilly anyway. The final scene is what shook me. As Joe and Lilly return to a safe haven they located earlier in the game, Lilly finally opens up to Joe and reveals how she got infected and that a friend of hers got infected at the same time. She figured that they could, "be all poetic and just lose [their] minds together." Only thing is, Lilly didn't go crazy and she feels guilty. She then orders Joe, "Swear to me that everything you said about the [cure] is true." Joe, seemingly about to crack under the weight of his dishonesty replies, "I swear," only slightly stiffening. Then, Lilly simply and subtly nods and says, "OK." Fin.
That is how the game ends! It almost doesn't count as a game, more like an interactive story or movie. I didn't know how to process this. I felt like I had lied to Lilly. I felt like I had killed my frenemy, doctors and guards in cold blood. I asked myself, "What would I have done?" I am a researcher. Rarely does research go smoothly. Was Lilly really a sure shot for a cure? If I had lost my daughter would I have done something similar to keep this new "daughter" in my life, at the potential expense of humanity's survival. These are huge questions, potentially made greater by the fact that I would do anything to save my son. What if I lost him, but was given a second chance. Only great literature and films have made me feel and ask those kinds of tough questions! Isn't art intended to make you feel something? I know that the writers of this game intended to punch you in the gut at the end, and with film-quality voice acting and beautifully expressive facial animations I connected completely with Joe and Lilly.
My final exhibit, is the game Journey. If ever there was a gaming studio that made art in the form of games, it would be that__game__company. And . . . if ever there was a game that was a masterwork in our time that embodies art in a video game, it would be Journey. If you haven't had the pleasure of playing this game, go and do it now if you are lucky enough to have PlayStation 3 or 4. If you don't, you might want to consider buying one. (Only kind of kidding).
From the stirring opening chords of a solo cello, to the full vibrant orchestration in the games climax, the music in Journey isn't so much background music as it is accompaniment to your adventure. The music somehow feels choreographed to your movements and your location. I really like to play it on our music station, and I listen to it often during work. There is no question in my mind that Journey deserves the awards (BAFTA) and nominations (Grammy) it has received, just for its music alone. Austin Wintory created a masterpiece that is contemplative, triumphant, perilous and yearning throughout its hour long runtime.
The animation is relatively simple, but despite its simplicity, sand has never been so pretty. The fluidity of movement, and simplicity of control make this 1.5 to 3 hour game one that you'll play over and over. If you play it via a wired connection, you can often find yourself venturing into another traveler. Sometimes they are resting (likely AFK) and other times they start communicating with you via the games chirps which can be rapid or prolonged. It's amazing how you almost feel as though you can understand one another despite not uttering a single coherent word. What's even more amazing, is that the tones you make with your character are always in tune with the music currently playing.
Despite no gamer tag appearing over the fellow adventurers head, you actually form an attachment with this stranger. You have a unified goal and a common interest and that is enough to often bond two strangers together for a couple hours. I even found myself almost panicking as I left my new friend behind or when I couldn't spot him or her. It was remarkable.
What really caps off Journey though is that it really pulls on your emotions. To explain exactly how might spoil some of the games more integral parts, but intense sadness and loneliness often gets replaced with pure joy and exultation as you literally fly and float through this game. Then, when you finish, you are filled with awe and wonder at what you have just experienced. If there were a game to bring to an imaginary court proceeding, that would determine whether games could be considered art, I would present Journey as my key witness and I am pretty sure the jury would be convinced.
Video Games have come a long way. Their graphics are more lifelike. The music has gone from bit-tunes to full orchestral arrangements and the stories often go deeper and strike chords with their audiences. While Roger Ebert may have been correct in his time about video games not being art, I think they have begun to evolve in the last decade as a medium that can be art. Let's summarize his position one more time from the first part.
In 2006, Ebert took part in a panel discussion at the Conference on World Affairs entitled "An Epic Debate: Are Video Games an Art Form?" in which he stated that video games don't explore the meaning of being human as other art forms do. A year later, in response to comments from Clive Barker on the panel discussion, Ebert further noted that video games present a malleability that would otherwise ruin other forms of art. As an example, Ebert posed the idea of a version of Romeo and Juliet that would allow for an optional happy ending. Such an option, according to Ebert, would weaken the artistic expression of the original work. In April 2010, Ebert published an essay, dissecting a presentation made by Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany at the 2009 Technology Entertainment Design Conference, where he again claimed that games can never be art, due to their rules and goal-based interactivity.
"One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them."
— Roger Ebert
At the time of his statement, games like Grand Theft Auto were making headlines for their sensibility numbing violence and cavorting. While blights like this exist today, other games reflect beauty in many different ways and bring forth deep emotions that for me, are on par with the greatest of artistic masterpieces. If anything were to start poking holes in Ebert's case, it would be Joe and Lilly's Excellent Survival Adventure and Journey. Those are most definitely games, yet they also have only single ultimate outcomes. One is poignant and makes you question the morality of the character you have experienced an intense saga with, while examining your own life's choices, and the other celebrates the Hero's Journey through simplistic beauty accompanied by music that perfectly choreographs your adventure. These aren't "a representations of a story, a novel . . . [or] a film." They are squarely games.
An interesting thing to note though is that I didn't feel like I won them. I experienced them and I will likely re-experience them like other excellent books or films. I feel though that Joe and Lilly's story would make an excellent novel or film, however the lack of script in Journey might make it a bit . . . boring in either medium. Both of these games told an interactive story that benefited from being interactive, however, their overall story wasn't malleable. Just because something may be interactive shouldn't exclude it from being art, as this new age of "performance art" proves. These original works are intended to be interactive and yet their story isn't malleable. They benefit from the interactivity and aren't ruined.
Do all games qualify as art? No. The ones I have cited do explore the meaning of being human though. They may be malleable, but the best video game stories often have quite predefined and moving conclusions. While this interactivity or malleability may ruin other forms of art, it can accentuates the artistry of a video game. These artistic games are also more experienced than won. As a child I said I had "won" or "beaten" a game, even the most recent Zelda I said I had "beaten," but never have I said that I beat Journey. That game was experienced and was beautiful on so many levels that a person who has the pleasure of enjoying Journey will come away saying, "This is truly a work of art."
I rest my case.