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⤹ video games as a medium of art I

Hello hello, this is Zabeth with a new and even longer blog post than ever before and honestly I am proud of myself to have been able to release such a post like this. Without further ado, let’s get on with the show. The part two will be linked right here once it's posted: ⤹ video games as a medium of art II

Video Games

I have a very difficult time discussing video games. The complex structures I see, that I would enjoy analyzing, are ignored in lieu of a more accessible form. And I'm sorry to lower the bar here, gamer discourse simply port the way that I want to talk about games. I can't find ethical quandaries of how we aim to traverse one's fantasies. Video game narration, built on the basis of the hyperreal, there's no reciprocator for this line of discussion as tantalizing as it sounds. So maybe it's better to say not that I have a difficult time discussing video games; rather, I have a difficult time finding the space to discuss them on the same level that I discuss my other passions.

I love art, and not only do I love art, but I maintain that it's vital to our survival and growth as a species, and it's most likely that my love for it also stems from that often maligned importance that I know art possesses. Filmmakers such as Béla Tarr or Robert Bresson explore the pit of humanity to talk about them; you question your own existence, whether we live in a hopeless world, and what we should do about that. Songwriters like Leonard Cohen offer a glimpse into our condition with urgency and wit, and this mastery of language allows him to uncover an almost romantic view of our entropic world.

I could give example after example from all different mediums on the abilities of various artists and why I believe their work to be crucial to the very comprehension of our lives. The fact of the matter is, art is a great well of knowledge and has been built upon those that came before, innately tied to the past, encapsulating timeless stories we choose to create an urgent draw of the present moment. They resonate with us on such a deep level; you may have never encountered a piece before, and yet you sense that it's always been there, and a glimpse of the future showing us human potential and all the things that we can become.

I always stress the importance of reference in art when I discuss topics like these as a method of living because if you can compare any facet of your own life to that of Hamlet and Ishmael and the Abrahamic stories, then life opens up to you, you understand more, and you also question more, and everything around you begins to carry such a profundity whose veins run so deep that the once hidden truths of life all of a sudden are offered such clarity. 

That is what art offers, and the reason that I have difficulty discussing video games is because within that medium, such a conclusion is a much more daunting task to reach.

I'll begin with the claim that video games are art, but that's not the main point that I'm looking to examine. And I'm also not going to utterly dismiss games as a medium that's empty and doomed to fail. I can definitely see how it's one of the rare mediums that's actually opened up over the years with the rise of independent creators and URs that are offering different perspectives of the medium itself. "The Stanley Parable" is possibly the most notable game that springs to mind when discussing video games as commentary. In games like "Disco Elysium" offer one of the greatest experiences regardless of artistic medium. 

The song of death is sweet and endless, but what is this? Somewhere in the sore bloated man meter around you a sensation but ensuring these notable inclusions brings me to my major point: the medium as a whole remains the most vacant for interesting discourse to occur more than any other art form. Its degree of artistry is limited. One reason, or maybe one result of this, is there is yet to be a verified network for video game theory (unless we all intermittently agree that Matthew Patrick is our verified network for Game Theory lol).

And by verified network, I'm referring to some manner of publicly accepted institution on the subject. Games are yet to have been swallowed by academia. Take this as a positive or negative; I can see the benefits of both. However, what academic recognition gains is validation of a field as legitimate, that the medium is, for lack of a better term, real, and thus discussions of it will be within the same institution and thus the same canon as the rest of art, philosophy, and the humanities. 

Using a comparison to cinema, cinema has been accepted by academia and as such, has a foundation to be discussed of both higher aesthetic and philosophical levels. Video games, to this day, remain on the outskirts. And though you may be able to point towards individual instances of people using it as a tool for deep thought, the general consensus is that games are not a valid enough medium for these discussions to take place.

So why have we yet to form a legitimate space in which video games can be spoken upon the same level as high art? Is it that the audience is looking at them incorrectly and hindering the development of that course content, with the medium as passive entertainment and nothing more? Or is it that the creators do not share the insight of the audience and are limiting their medium's capabilities? My aim with this blog is to simply treat video games as art, that means through a critical lens, that perhaps we can re-envision what the medium may be. 

I want this piece to be accessible for those with absolutely no experience with video games, and then it benefits those very familiar with it. And I believe that both sides still have a lot that can be exposed to them about this very misunderstood medium simply because of the fact that I'm speaking about video games.

Are Video Games Art?

I wasn’t born into a family where we could afford such triple A games so I did only start out playing video games fairly recently, only a few years ago when I could afford it as a grubby little middle schooler but regardless I did my best to explore games from triple A shooters to indie horror games. Not much to say regarding my gaming history but I can say that when you have me hooked on a game I will work at it till I am the ultimate player of the game, that’s my experience with video games at least so far.

I want to return to the claim of video games as art. This has been a point of contention for many years regarding the status of video games, and to some, this may not matter, but to me it does. It matters that the predicate as to whether something is or isn't art indicates precisely how we're to speak about that thing. When we treat something as art, we treat it differently than if it were a product or a consumable. Although video games more than most art forms have a lot of elements that categorize it in both camps. 

There have been many examples indicating why video games may not be art, and although I don't believe that certain elements exclude it from the realm of art, I believe that they need to be pondered upon more, particularly by those within its creative realm.

The overwhelming majority of games do not carry that transgressive edge and the artistic process that appears so prevalent in every other medium appears incredibly absent from the game-making process. The understanding of the language of their own medium, how the relationship between creator, creation, and audience relate to one another, how the limitations of any medium are what gives it its identity, these are a fraction of the infinite spectrum that's in effect with any piece of art.

And I see the potentiality of video games squandering this by offering those very little depth. So for now, I think I should divulge into the intrinsic barriers that video games must address in order to be appreciated and perceived beyond the level that they currently are. I'll be segmenting this analysis into two major categories, and the first of those are the mechanics and systems that video games operate in.

Let’s deconstruct this and ask ourselves: What is a video game? 

What is a video game? 

If you break it down to its most simple logistic definition, then what you're left with is the unique facet that distinguishes video games from every other art form, and that is that there is some element of interaction from the participant. This seems to be the only exclusive component that defines a video game, other than it harnesses some manner of digital technology which separates it from other types of 


You are in control of something in a diegetic space created by someone else. No other element is only used by video games, and nothing else seems to appear as a universal cross-section within the medium. You could say that, although there is often storytelling, oftentimes there's not. You could stretch the limits and say that the narrative of two people competing with one another is the story of Pong, but at that point, we may be reaching the limits of applicable analysis.

What video games are is a medium that facilitates the interaction of a person by some manner of controller to engage in an artificial space through a piece of technology. So let's apply that to Pong. Pong certainly fulfills that criteria, but rarely a categorization absolute. So could we expand this definition, or does the definition have exceptions? Well, using Pong, you could argue that games are an interactive medium in which certain goals are to be achieved with varying degrees of puzzle solving.

In Pong, the goal is to score past your opponent's paddle, earning you a point, the ultimate goal being to earn the most points or be the first to cross a threshold of points. The puzzle being how to earn those points by directing your ball past your opponent's unpredictable movement while defending your own net from being scored on. When we think of puzzle solving in games, it's typically something along these lines—a constantly shifting test of one's dexterity. Other more complex games require a number of varied challenges that test speed, precision, and awareness. Eventually, when the player completes all obstacles in front of them, they've reached the end, in essence completing the game.

However, what about games that don't have this type of goal-oriented design? Minecraft is a game that allows complete freedom to do what the player chooses, the same with Terraria, as are a number of the now commonly referred to open-world games. The goal is whatever the player determines the goal to be. There's a space wherein challenges may arise, but there's no set path for a player to embark on these challenges or if they even need to take on these challenges at all.

You can argue that because the game can be played with no definitive goal in mind, then it doesn't really fit into the definition that video games are, at least to some degree, goal-oriented. However, you can also argue that because a video game is still designed, that there will always be some manner of goal orientation at work, simply because there's a limitation on what a player can physically do in a game. For instance, you couldn't spend your character's time in Minecraft teaching Arabic to all the NPCs because that's not a feature in the game. The game is limited to the features available within the diegetic space at the launch.

In No Man's Sky, one of the common marketing points of the game was that you could do anything, but that's not necessarily true. Even in the most free game, you can actually do a finite number of things. It's just to emphasize the point that what you can do and how you choose to do it is up to you, and so the goal in a game like Minecraft becomes manipulating the materials of the world around you in order to see what can be done.

And so the goal still comes with navigating the degree of challenge within the world of the game to the extent that the player chooses to. It's just a goal, simply less defined than in other games. It's continuous rather than finite. So then, perhaps, it's a medium of interaction in which goal orientation revolves around the manner of fail states relative to the goal set within the parameters of the diegetic space.

In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you have the possibility of not continuing with the story and instead taking the role as a librarian that chooses a more simple life. But even though that would go against the game's intentions, you would still have the puzzle-solving element of building and creating within a virtual space. You can fail by not achieving your goal—the more time spent away from your goal as a librarian living a simple life, the more time spent away from your parameters of success.

Games seem to inevitably carry with them some degree of expanding one's own power, whether that be through abilities or an accumulation of some measurement. In Pong, the accumulation is more points; in Minecraft, it's more materials; in Skyrim, it can be a better library.

But then what about games without fail states? David Cage is a game director who creates what he deems as interactive movies. In Beyond: Two Souls, there's no way to fail the game; the story may change based on your actions, but you can't fail. Even in the examples we gave previously, there are still distinct fail states within those games. The only way to do something wrong in this game is by simply putting the controller down. As long as you're interacting, this is the only state of being that matters.

What does goal orientation matter to a game with this perspective? We can see how defining a game begins to tear apart at the seams the further we progress. I suppose we can agree that it's some form of expression, whether that expression be about certain thematics or simply the expressions of ideas in puzzles through the spatiality of computer-designed space. But by the time we reach VR, simple interactivity has already blurred the boundaries of what constitutes a game, and so the definition already doesn't fully apply.

Therefore, for a game to be more than just interaction via a means of technology, we can be precise in saying that there should be some goal beyond the predetermined experiential nature wherein there is a process of interaction that can, to some degree, manipulate the diegetic space of the world. And then, maybe you have a definition.

Rather than offer you the illusion of free choice, I will take the liberty of choosing for you if and when your time comes around again. This may sound convoluted, but I'm attempting to find a common starting point to analyze what a video game is. I'm also attempting to show that video games, in particular, are just so difficult to even apply a definition in the realm of the arts.

Some may say that film is the illusion of motion through photography, but then you have shorts, you have features, you have television, and so equally, there is disparity between what constitutes a film. However, we can still distinguish the art of filmmaking as it encompasses all of these variations. The difference being that although there is diversity within cinema, there doesn't exist a film that hasn't been shot with some kind of camera and doesn't end.

I'm displaying that there's a much more cohesive structure for how to define and categorize art forms such as cinema than there is for video games. An argument that appears too many times is that video games are simply an amalgamation of other art forms with the added aspect of interaction. However, to also defend the medium, this is a moot point. By that logic, cinema is also essentially a combination of the arts of music, theater, and photography, and if you want to push it even further, the art direction department alone is a combination of fashion, carpentry, and other fine arts. Imagine if you said that theater is just the art of miming but with sound. The more complexities that are added to an artistic medium, the more it opens space for utilizing other art forms within it. Film takes photography and theater but adds montage, and that's its unique variable, which is the major separating factor.

Art isn't inherently diminished with the pluralization of varying art forms. A piece of music can coincide itself with a music video, bringing the art of filmmaking into the fray, though that doesn't dismiss it as a lesser art form simply because the primary form is less concentrated. The manner one experiences art has and always will be a primary measurement of the art itself, and its goal-oriented interaction, that's the limiting factor for games, and therefore its primary facet.

So now that we have a basic definition out of the way, let's analyze how this interactivity works as both a benefit and a barrier for the artistry of games. If we define video game interaction as a controlled process that has a direct impact on the diegetic space of a piece, then that means that that piece is subject to change. Interaction results in experimentation because there isn't absolute objectivity in how a thing can or will be experienced. That experimentation can also be called exploration.

In "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild," after completing the tutorial area, you're free to wander in any direction, taking any path you choose. You have four temples to complete with many towns, shrines, and other areas of note in between, or you can simply head to the final area. It's up to you. This degree of experimentation allows the player to learn the rules of the world, learn its systems, and see how they interplay with one another. Take a cross-section of people—people that play this game—and odds are their opening hours were radically different from one another, and it's variances such as this that lead to widespread acclaim for realizing the expansive nature that video games can take.

However, it's the same element as to why it can be difficult to read video games as one would read other art forms. Envisioning most art, one thinks of a finite piece. Going to any museum so that you can experience a painting, you know to some level the exactitude of what that painting will be, whereas with games, the innate fact that experiencing the piece requires trial and error, choosing how to tackle an obstacle, and various fail states results in wildly different artistic experiences.

Using painting for example, you could argue that experiences can vary, but only in the minutiae. Let's say, for example, you visit a museum, and the room you're in is abnormally cold, and so when you finally see the art piece, your physical discomfort may impact your perception of it. If you saw a Rothko piece, your irritation may not allow you to appreciate the interplay of color, something that's supposed to be a calming experience. Now, instead, say you're to see a Francis Bacon painting. The coldness of your surroundings, in this instance, may, in fact, enhance your experience. Everything is cold, and you're in hell. This applies to all art forms, but still, even stretching these variables to their absolute limit, it still doesn't alter the piece itself. There still exists a finite piece of art that may have had an ideal manner in which to experience it, but that art itself doesn't change.

Video games do not share the luxury of being finite. Video games are defined by their experience at a level equal or perhaps even greater to their design. They're measured by one's individual explorative discoveries as well as how the means of their discoveries are placed via the designer.

Using "Metal Gear Solid" as an example, a sandbox is developed which gives the player many tools to stealthily traverse their environments. In the first game, this is primarily through hiding and sneaking up enemies, but there are different points of entry, and the tools that your character carries have a multitude of effects, from disabling cameras to leaving distractions. In essence, though the game is very linear, the journey can be greatly varied. As we work through the games and technology increases, the games become more complex, reaching their finale in "Metal Gear Solid V."

Now, the basic sandbox is similar; however, the system is unparalleled in its complexity. For one, the game is completely open-world, meaning that you can tackle any objective from any entry point or direction. On top of that, there's a dynamic weather system which impacts enemy sight and sound detection. You can leave decoys, tranquilize enemies, interrogate them, even the movement of your character has become so sophisticated in the amount of things you can accomplish just in moving from point A to point B.

This is a form of game design that champions the unbridled freedom that comes with prioritizing experience over the design. Although a sandbox of experience is created by the designers, with the sheer amount of variables that are involved in ever more complex games only rising with technology, this idea of a definitive way to approach a game becomes less and less feasible.

The tools are given to the player, and it's up to them how they feel they should approach it. As games become less reliant on the limitations of their technology, the freedom of player agency rises, and with such diverse responses and approaches, it's harder for an artist to convey to the audiences the messages and themes they wanted to.

The more streamlined and linear a game is, the simpler it is to pinpoint through the design the most definitive way to play the game, as the designer can more closely anticipate what the player is going to do. The obvious caveat being that this methodology is at odds with the aim of exploration. If the unique facet of games is contingent on experience, shouldn't it then mean that the primary evolution of games should be one with less focus on linearity and objectivity in game design and one that leads towards a type of game design wherein even the designer himself won't know what will occur?

This is because video games work in ever more complex systems that interplay off of one another. Perhaps the zenith of this type of game is "Dwarf Fortress," in which every detail of the game is an asset. The digestion of the characters, how the earthly elements interact with one another, and the properties of all different types of surfaces are measured. This resulted in an event in which the cats in the game were getting drunk, and the designers didn't know why. It turns out that some characters would spill beer on the floor, and then stray cats would walk through the puddles, then the cats would clean themselves by licking their paws, and in turn, get drunk.

This is the kind of fortuitous design that can only come with acceptance that some details are too much for a person to logistically create, and so systems are created or procedurally generated in order for players to have complete freedom.

So, how does this relate to discussing artistic merit? Now, I understand that creating art and creating anything, in general, requires instinct and experimentation. However, I'm still a firm believer that in any art form, there's objectivity in its quality, and the bedrock of any creation should come with skilled virtuosity and some degree of certainty in what the artist hopes to achieve. And it seems to me that it's these pieces of art, regardless of medium, that have the most staying power, the greatest resonance with humanity.

Paintings of the Old Masters that are so meticulously crafted through their composition and the meanings they aim to evoke, and that piece is the ultimate—it's unchanging. This is because we have an idea of the finality of a piece of art. But because the manner in which a person experiences a game is in their hands, it can never be definitive.

Just look at the diverse ways in which people play games speed running a game as fast as possible self-imposed challenges even Actively attempting to do the opposite of what's expected in aides scrolling platformer. The idea of someone choosing to go left instead of right most of the time is simply not anticipated. There are obvious goals that game designers create as marks of achievement: finishing the levels, reaching the end credits. But the manner of how someone does that, and if they even choose to do that, is up to them.

Like the librarian choice in Skyrim, there isn't really a parallel with this experience with any other medium. And it all comes from the simple fact that, because of interaction, the player may be more in charge of the art piece than its creator. And so we reach the crux: can an art piece in which I choose how things are going to occur be examined tonally and thematically?

Of course, there's the obvious dissonance that occurs in games that employ a likable protagonist, such as Red Dead Redemption, in which I can, outside of the game narrative, commit nothing but awful crimes, separating my experience from the one the game set up for me. But they didn't really separate it, considering it's a valid option, just another example of how unbridled freedom leads to less cohesive artistic design.

By allowing me to completely dismantle the rules of the game, choosing to play in a way completely antithetical to the design philosophy, can it remain a finite art piece that can be examined as such? Or do too many details change that it's too fluid an art form to be perceived like the rest?

Paintings, like those of Bosch, are saturated with so much detail that people will inevitably have differing experiences. Some people read the symbols differently. Others may completely miss the smallest details. But we can still define what this painting is.

But when a game is constantly changing, changing its morality, changing its perspective, changing its choices, its point of view, how seriously it's willing to be taken, then you have to pick and choose what can be analyzed and have to ignore the glaring manner in which all of the artistry can be torn down as the illusion that it is.

Video games are the only art form that a person can decide the innumerable ways they get to experience it and have it be valid. Where one person treats it sincerely as a section of American violence, another treats it as a playground, and both perspectives appear as equally valid. You couldn't really equate those differing experiences when watching something like "12 Angry Men". The subjective experience radically changes all experiences of a game, changing the very perception of what that game is in the zeitgeist.

Even just consider the element of difficulty and how that completely disrupts artistic readings. If you sit down to watch a film, the film is not going to reach a brick wall wherein your knowledge of cinema will inhibit you from seeing the rest of the film. However, a player's proficiency or lack thereof may, in fact, stop them from experiencing the entire piece in a way that games have bypassed. This is through an adaptable difficulty system, which the comparable would be in a piece of literature taking out some of the more challenging and hard to follow chapters.

We ultimately treat video games differently as an art form because of the importance of the subjective experience. Ultimately, the idea of archiving a video game as a piece of art has to bypass all of the infinite variables that emerge when we bring player control to the table.

Imagine a sculpture being constantly repainted or an album re-recorded with changing lyrics. We wouldn't be able to categorize the art unless we created some manner of canon in which there was generally accepted to be a definitive version. But again, not to simply deter the avenue of video games and offer a more positive outlook, perhaps this is merely an issue with our perceptions of art being too rigid.

Perhaps we should allow for the art experience to become more malleable across the mediums. I do kind of hesitate to say this as I also believe that straying too far from the fundamentals in art very often leads to chaos. But when analyzing just how different the medium of video games are, it seems as though we shouldn't attempt to pigeonhole it into the framework that we have for other arts. Because of interaction, video games will, of course, have some deviations in experience, and this is the only possible way to read a video game.

The only way to avoid this  would be to create a game so linear that it could dictate the exact same experience for every participant. That would mean that only one input at a very specific time would work, and every incorrect input would result in nothing happening. And so, video games are perhaps the most fluid of art forms when we take them at the base level of what they simply are: experiences that differ from person to person around a designed framework.

Only by accepting that are we able to begin to read them as art. But then, if we imagine for a moment a cinema that had this degree of audience input, it would obviously be a far more limited experience than games, as there wouldn't be anywhere near as many diverse options. But can you imagine a film where the cinematography, art direction, even the narrative of a film is in the hands of a viewer?

The question then returns to: would those pieces of art be able to represent humanity if they weren't so finite and ultimately final? If in "The Godfather" you could choose the perspective of who you follow, or in "Taxi Driver" if you could move the camera around freely during Travis's monologue as though you were Gordon Freeman in "Half-Life"? I still maintain that video games are art, but their artistic achievements are both boosted and hindered by the simple act of player interaction.

Because the player reigns supreme in the world of the game, it's ultimately catered for them. And there's a simple reason for this, which brings me to my second point.

Video Games Need To Be Fun

Video games, by most parameters, need to be fun. The experiential element is not like that of literature or cinema in that something serious or draining will want to be undertaken by people. We choose to watch films like "Satan Tango" and "Shower", we do not choose to play emotionally and physically draining games in order to convey those same feelings of inertia. Those ideas are more hinted at through video games, but the experience of legitimate negative emotion has yet to be synthesized within the domain of video games.

Using "Satan Tango" as an example: it is a film in which the actual watching of a 7-hour monolith is exhausting. Its usage of the time watched is reflected within the inertia of the diegetic space. This is a synthesis where process and content meet. The idea that playing a game could convey those emotions through the act of playing, some may say, is an impossible task. There are certain emotional states, such as fear, which can be synthesized through a gaming experience, but this can put us in an adrenaline-fueled state, which ultimately can be an enjoyable experience.

But legitimate introspection of one's humanity or the experience of sadness, very rarely is this incorporated into games, and even less so successfully. Greek dramaturgy is the genesis of this thought process in their idea of catharsis. The reason that we enjoy experiencing high drama is because those negative emotions that we recognize in a character become purged in us, making us feel a positive emotion. But with games, this manifests itself in a very different way.

I'd like to use a specific example for how to illustrate catharsis in video games. The first time that my friend played through Dark Souls, she reached the final boss, the Soul of Cinder. Now, to summarize the impact of this boss: it's an amalgamation of every single person that's ever been in the same position as your protagonist. Every character that attempted to prolong this dying world for some faint glimmer of hope, and they have been metastasized into this final entity.

And so, you defeat the boss, but then something happens: his demeanor changes, his moveset changes, and then the music changes. In a final dying act, the collective suffering of the world coalesces back to its starting point as the Soul of Cinder adopts the persona of Gwyn, the final boss of the first game and the cause for all of this anguish. A tragic and fallen character reemerges trapped in a body of ash.

The story ends as it began: all you have to do is kill once more the desperate man that began this cycle. It's a deeply emotional moment as the mood shifts from heroic to outright trauma. And when my friend played this and got to this moment for the first time, she continued as much as she could until she accepted that she couldn't, because she was crying. She had to accept that she wasn't going to make it.

Now, for me, this is the perfect anecdote to illustrate catharsis in video games. Because although she experienced an incredibly deep emotional response, which is what the game wanted to evoke, it had to be embodied differently to how we experience other arts. For catharsis to truly experience that emotion, she had to have a moment of reflection, remove herself from the act of playing in order to reach it.

Because catharsis requires a degree of introspection, whereas playing a game requires engagement. The same way as in a high-intensity situation, your body is numb to feeling until after the adrenaline wears off and you start to feel pain. Emotion works similarly with games: you're hyper-focused on the goal, on the orientation, on the control that you're seemingly able to bypass the actual emotional catharsis. In essence, the two states of being are mutually exclusive of one another, or at the very least, they can't entirely overlap. The moment the process of playing actually evokes those emotions is the moment it stops being fun.

The benefit of this, however, is that other thrilling emotions like enjoyment or fear may even be amplified through the gaming experience. But again, this merely exemplifies the need that games need to be fun.

Another example is in one of the greater meditations on the nature of video games: in Spec Ops: The Line. This is John Conrad, United States Army. His evacuation of Dubai was a complete failure. Too many deaths. Spec Ops is a commentary on the abundance of military shooters in video games and the distance that this employs between player and protagonist.

Firstly, by not removing the genuine hardship of war and displaying the severity of PTSD, it severely separated itself from the majority of military shooters. Secondly, it employed US soldiers as the enemy rather than the typical foreign insurgents, humanizing them more to people that have a similar history as the protagonist and most likely the player. And lastly, there's the complete deconstruction of the metagame narrative. Loading screens begin to address your actions in a less than complimentary fashion, calling you by name directly, and the illusion of choice becomes a major facet of the game storytelling.

The game asks: does the player have a responsibility in their actions morally? Can a game of this kind express itself ethically? And what would happen if the player simply stopped? All of these questions are superbly explored within the game. 

Because engagement is what instills those feelings of fun, and sometimes it can be the very idea of fun or entertainment which can reduce one's perception of a piece artistically. But with games, this is less so. The mechanics of how we measure the quality of a film are different from the mechanics measured for the quality of a video game. Although the concept of fun is subjective, there are certain parameters by which games can be objectively measured as successful. Games can be exclusively measured by their technical aspects, and if certain aspects of art weren't subjective, then we wouldn't be seeing general agreement as to what is good and what isn't.

To make a comparison, if a film had the right intention and was able to give a deep emotional resonance in certain elements but it was shot terribly, had obnoxious editing that interfered tonally, then it would, by many counts, be a failure. The technical aspects are a part of the artistic process, and virtuosity within those technical feats does enhance the art. But pure technical skill will never be art, just as the drawing of a realistic portrait is not considered high art, even though it could be argued that the style offers the greatest representation of real life. Pure technique is not equated with art.

Yet in the realm of video games, the better one's technical aspects are, the better it succeeds at being a game, regardless of its artistic input. Like we said earlier, individual experience trumps design for most games. The way that games are read first and foremost is as a vessel of entertainment. If it's not fun, why bother? If it's not a battle, where's the fun? If a game is fun, then it's achieved one of the medium's highest appraisals.

A game can be fun with no traditional artistic reference whatsoever and still be perceived as a pinnacle of the art form. Tetris is just a game. Outside of the player experience, there's no great philosophical questioning, no great degree of introspection. Of course, every experience offers something, and you can expand on this by saying it artistically evokes achievement, exhilaration, and how those experiences relate to one's memory. But ultimately, in regards to traditional artistic relevance, Tetris doesn't fall into that category.

Yet it equally can still be defined as a masterpiece. It's one of the few video games on display at the Museum of Modern Art. To make another comparison to show the difference in our perception of games to the other art forms, if Tetris had an equivalent in cinema, then it would be a film with beautiful cinematography and presentation, nuanced sound design, and so on, and it would be a film whose narrative and thematics are completely negligible.

I can't envision a world in which merely the technical skill of an artwork is the primary function. The majority of art that we've created throughout history is because of its emotional resonance, and it's been bolstered by its unique skill and virtuosity. Video games are quite literally the opposite way around. Feats of technical prowess are bolstered by their good thematic and emotional resonance.

And again, it all comes down to the fact that video games still have to be fun. What this can result in is a medium focused too much on the surface element, where design emerges without imagination or a sense of the human behind them. They essentially become a paint-by-numbers affair in which everything works but exactly as you'd expect it to, because the medium becomes so technically based, then there's a much more set way of making a game good, much like large corporate blockbusters.

Games can take elements from many other games that became staples of the genre. In fact, games are often more defined and limited by genre than any other medium. Resident Evil emerges and becomes the staple for the perspective of third-person action, and so many games that follow copy its blueprint. Dark Souls inadvertently creates an entire genre which people lift directly from over a decade later. Many AAA titles ultimately take the pre-existing elements of video games: an enticing crafting system, clean precise movement without room for error, and an exploration of the world that never feels too empty or too overwhelming.

Play some Towers to uncover the map, have a simplified start system, and what you have is a perfect system that has no surprise to it whatsoever. It's why people like Dark Souls so much. From a purely technical level, there's so much detail and variability within its combat system, from the minor details of equipment and how that changes gameplay to the precision of the hitboxes which allows for a deep understanding of what does and doesn't work. But the thing is, the entire system of Dark Souls was so unique to it. Prior to it, there was no system that incorporated this kind of dodge mechanic, the maneuverability from targeted to non-targeted combat, the difference in speed and weight of both weapons and character. Every element feels specifically crafted for this world, whereas many others simply employ crafting systems because they know that they've been implemented in previously successful games, so they feel as though they've been copied and pasted across the board, because they have.

And yet, even these games which have far less innovation will still be considered, to a certain degree, good. But good game mechanic surely would result in a fun experience. Seeing as how defining a mechanic as good would result in it becoming more competent in the realm of video games, therefore, as a game, making it feel more fun, feeling as though the player has no control of the events that occur in front of them, that the rules of the game world being inconsistent, player inputs not matching what occurs in front of them beyond a reasonable point, these would be things that would definitely not be considered fun, and so game simply have to avoid this.

Spec Ops: The Line disguises itself as the contemporaries that it's critiquing. As a result, the actual gameplay is rather lackluster. It copies many tropes of its genre: large turret sections, a simple cover system, and a rather uninteresting weapon selection. Because you're essentially going through the motions in order for Spec Ops to convey its themes, you have to feel the lifelessness of its gameplay, as that is what it aims to deliver: killing people for entertainment. Maybe it shouldn't be fun. There are over [X] people alive in Dubai the day before you arrived. How many are alive today? I wonder how many will be alive tomorrow. I thought my duty was to protect this city from the storm. I was wrong. I have to protect it from you.

Or at the very least, if you're aiming to evoke something deeper, it can definitely cause moral ambiguity. Because if the game was fun and it became a joy to kill your enemies to the point that you wanted to do it more, then its commentary would fall apart. So ultimately, if a game aims to achieve catharsis, it must reduce its degree of engagement, where games either resort to full-on cutscenes or minimizing gameplay by holding a direction to move, or you can focus on the mechanics and attempt to weave a story in the middle of it.

But if genre were not such a defining factor of a video game, would games look like this? I'm more inclined to believe that game developers like Sway are the closest thing that we have to an active outsider artist within the medium of games. And this is simply because all convention is discarded in order to make individual experiences. And I would much rather have a collection of unique expressions for games rather than the cookie-cutter reliance on pre-established franchises and remakes using pre-existing systems which are as functional as to the point that their heart is ripped out of them.

Sometimes form over functionality can result in very interesting works of art. I knew I could count on it. Never fails. And this reliance on fun means that there results an innate dichotomy between the level of interaction and the serious themes that a piece of art aims to employ. We can assume that most players will be in the role of the protagonist, in which case the major plot points will be resolved by the player. This means that there has to be a synthesis between the moral and ethical choices of the player and those same choices of the character. However, this restricts the nature of what the protagonist of a game can be.

If we are to instill those feelings within the player, "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov is able to follow the first-person perspective of a man attracted to a child. Could you even conceive of a video game attempting to employ a perspective such as this? Ultimately, these types of games are made, but they're very specifically transgressions of the genre. One of the more notable examples being "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!" in which players actually take the role of the Columbine Shooters through an exploration of media influence and violence in video games.

The end result is a very thought-provoking and interesting divergence on the video game formula. But again, precisely because of this, its aim is not to be fun, rather a different kind of perspective, one that only video games can be. I don't necessarily believe that all video games need to be fun, but I definitely don't believe in the opposite either. I also think that this establishes a binary within the medium wherein either focusing purely on the mechanics results in a very artificial and shallow experience, although an experience which is incredibly entertaining, or alternatively that the experience itself isn't particularly satisfying but does pose interesting avenues of thought.

There are instances in which gameplay serves as an accurate portrayal of what appears on screen. I think of something simple like the Lone Wolf mission in Halo Reach. I just feel as though video games are primarily something that we enjoy, but I do also enjoy the deeply resonant experience of Silent Hill even though it may not necessarily be fun. Ultimately, each game is going to offer differing experiences, and I think that each of those experiences should attempt to rekindle the catharsis through the player via its design. Games are essentially tests of one's own dexterity, and although I said that we don't seek out certain emotional states to play, we inadvertently experience them in a unique way through the game design.

Resident Evil makes us choose whether to run or shoot, as opposed to having both as an option. The developments in linguistics is how you gradually learn the language of Tunic to the simple inclusion of a grip meter in Shadow of the Colossus. These are instances of a synthesis between player and character that allow for a closer representation between the two systems that don't simply evoke fun. And yet in our mastery of these systems, which is an innate object in our goal-oriented mindset, we may finally achieve catharsis."

While the game retains the emotional and thematic conveyance, we're always, in our own ways, working to make the game more fun simply by mastering it. So, if the design prioritizes cathartic elements like Dark Souls, Breath of the Wild, and Eternal Darkness, then I believe that the prioritization of games only as a form of escapism may be conquered.

Stay tuned for the part two as much as I hate to say it. Thank you all for waiting and I hope this arrives to the right people! <3

With matsalab,


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RainbowDash's profile picture

I found this essay yesterday while looking if anyone made blog posts of thought provoking indie games to play. I am glad I stumbled upon it. This is an incredible articulation of video games as art. I love the concept of video games critiquing the player. Such as the columbine shooting simulator, Spec ops: the line, and The Beginners guide. I also liked how you organized it. It's well thought out and an enjoyable read. Thank you for writing this. After I finish this comment I am going to start reading part two!

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Zeddekiah's profile picture

This was a fantastic read! Some parts that really stood out to me was how you pointed out the dichotomy of fun v. catharsis and the relationship between technical aspects and emotional resonance in video games. If I'm comprehending it right, you're saying with traditional art, things like composition and mastery of color and light enhances the emotional experience where as a video game's emotional experience enhances things like gameplay. That's an idea that never came to light for me and I think I can pinpoint experience I've had that support it. Again this was a fantastic read and I'll be going on to pt2 :D

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