5 Titles That Prove Games Are Capable Of Art
by Thom Peart
Are games art? This is a question that has been asked since the dawn of video games. Perhaps at first it was easy for people to think games were nothing more than a simple past time for kids and teens with nothing better to do. A parent in the 80’s, looking over to see their child playing the 8-bit Super Mario Bros game, would be forgiven for not being wowed by the amazing graphics and soul searching plot. However, like art, gaming has evolved. We started off with the cave paintings of 8-bit gaming and now find ourselves in a renaissance with games so beautiful, thought provoking and atmospheric; they would make Da Vinci jealous. It also seems odd to me that the artistic world is often quick to shun video games despite accepting the likes of modern art, which many people would describe as pretentious rubbish. Why is a man or woman, who spends five minutes putting a cherry on a toothbrush called an artist, but a man or woman who spends years designing and/or developing a video game shown the door? I’m not saying we should bin The Last Supper in favour for gaming but why can’t the two co-exist as different types of art? I also want to make it clear that I don’t consider every video game art. There is a huge difference between a game like Shadow Of The Colossus and Duke Nukem Forever. Shadow Of The Colossus being on par with the Mona Lisa, Duke Nukem Forever being on par with the crude drawings of genitalia you find in public toilets. In this article, and in no particular order, I’ll be examining five games or franchises that, I believe, prove games are capable of art. Warning, some spoilers ahead!
1. Shadow Of The Colossus
Ask any PS2 gamer worth his salt what his top five PS2 games are and I guarantee nine times out of ten it’ll feature Shadow Of The Colossus, and with good reason. Unlike most hit games, Shadow Of The Colossus, despite great reviews, had a slow start which people put down to poor advertising. However, like a rolling snowball, it soon built up enough speed and size that it became widely known as one of the greatest PlayStation 2 games of all time. Hell, it even came No. 1 in IGN’s Top 100 Video games. No easy feat when you’ve got the likes of God Of War 2 and Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time to compete with.
The irony is that on paper Shadow Of The Colossus seems a terrible idea. You play as a boy named Wander who makes a pact with Dormin, some kind of demon or God, to resurrect Mono, a young woman. The catch is the boy must kill sixteen huge (in most cases) Colossi. You are plonked in a huge open world completely devoid of life. It’s just you and your horse Agro. There are no people to speak with, no towns to explore and almost no story to guide you. What sort of relationship do Wander and Mono possess? Who or what is Dormin? Where did the Colossi come from? Are they good or evil? Yet, somehow, Team Ico pulled the game off so well that they are now regarded as one of the best video game developers around, despite only making two games to date: Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus (like Shadow Of The Colossus, Ico was a great game and very nearly made it on this list!).
But what does this have to do with art? Well one of Shadow Of The Colossus’s greatest features was how alone it made you feel. You’re in a huge, empty land, with no one to interact with other than your horse. The sense of loneliness and isolation that Shadow Of The Colossus instilled was profound. There were no larger than life characters to distract you from your goal. Just you, alone with your thoughts. The minimalist scenery along with the amazing visuals of these stoic giants crashing to the ground instilled a deep feeling of melancholy that fit in perfectly with the game. Playing Shadow Of The Colossus was like staring into a heart breakingly beautiful painting that made you feel sad, though you weren’t sure why.
Art is the medium which arguably has the widest scope. From Van Gogh’s Sunflowers to Banksy’s graffiti, art comes in many shapes and sizes. However one thing that connects all art is creativity, and there is no game that has creativity like LittleBigPlanet. You play as a cute little Sackboy who, when he’s not relaxing in his customizable pod, spends his time platforming across a huge variety of colourful, individual and distinct levels. You know a game’s artistic when its tagline is: Play. Create. Share.
However, it’s not just the distinct levels that make this game artistic. It’s the huge amount of customisation that is available to the player. Want to give your Sackboy a fez and moustache? Go ahead. Want to cover your hub in stickers? By all means. However the most creative part of LittleBigPlanet lies in its level design feature. Players can create their own levels and share them online for the whole world to see. Other players can then play your levels and rate them, meaning your levels can become more famous than the levels made by the game designers themselves. There are no restrictions and you can theme your level around anything you can think of. The world of LittleBigPlanet is your playground and there are no rules.
They say the best gifts come in small packages, and that is certainly true of this little gem that appeared in the Xbox Live Arcade in the summer of 2011. Arcade games are arguably the purest form of gaming as they are made by small development teams who neither have to please the masses nor compromise their ideas for the gaming fat cats. As a result they have become slowly but surely more and more popular. At a glance Limbo seems to be nothing more than a simple platformer made by a few developers trying to break away from the ever increasing corporate nature of gaming. However what they produced was an outstanding work of art that was hailed by gamers and critics alike. Limbo’s premise was simple; you play as a young boy who is trying to find his sister. Along the way you solve puzzles, avoid traps and do plenty of platforming. However, in practise Limbo is so much more. With a fantastic minimalist, black and white art style Limbo creates a hugely atmospheric world that sucks you in and doesn’t let go until the credits have rolled. The isolation and loneliness you feel as the young boy trudges his way through the dark forest is rivalled only by the dread and tension that grips you as you see a huge spider creeps towards you. What’s interesting about Limbo is that the boy you control is utterly helpless against any enemies you encounter. You will always lose a fight and so will have to rely on cunning instead.
Atmosphere and tension aren’t the only things present in Limbo. Its story, or lack thereof, will have you thinking on it well after you’ve finished the game. It does a great job of leaving lots for you to interpret whilst giving just enough information for you to back up those interpretations. You can easily spend hours arguing with your friends about where the boy is, how he got there and what the ending means. Not bad for a game that’s only an hour long.
4. The Metal Gear Solid Series
At a glance the Metal Gear Solid franchise may seem nothing more than a well-made stealth and action series with larger than life characters and memorable boss battles. However, take the time to play any Metal Gear Solid game and you’ll find a story that never shy’s away from the horror of war and asks many thought provoking questions regarding the nature of good and evil, loyalty and duty, and peace and war. Metal Gear Solid also makes a point in noting that while politicians may be in charge, it’s the soldiers who ultimately pay the price and must sacrifice everything in the name of patriotism.
Asking deep philosophical questions isn’t all Metal Gear Solid can do. It does a great job of showing that the difference between right and wrong is often skewed by perspective. For instance, Metal Gear Solid 3 tells the tale of how a young Naked Snake was forced to kill his mentor, who had defected to the Soviet Union, and earn the title Big Boss. He later discovers his mentor had been loyal to the end and had played the role of villain to cover up a huge mistake made by the American government. Big Boss is later the villain of another Metal Gear game when he sets up a “terrorist” organisation made up of soldiers who fight in wars they choose as opposed to their government. The Metal Gear franchise may seem hard to get into with its elaborate plots but trust me when I say, put the effort in and you’ll be well rewarded.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Journey. Released only in March, this was a small but hugely anticipated game released exclusively on the PlayStation Network. The story centres around a robed traveller trying to make his/her way to the top of a mountain. You aren’t told where you are or why you need to get there but it doesn’t matter. Just like life, it’s the journey not the destination that’s important. As well as jaw dropping visuals, Journey has a fantastic co-op feature. You can’t choose who you play with but you will randomly encounter other players throughout your journey. They only way you can communicate is through little musical chirps that mean nothing but get the attention of your companion. This may seem shallow compared to other games multiplayer but it works perfectly. The joy you can feel as you and your companion fly through the beautiful landscapes is compared only by the sorrow you feel when your companion befalls a trap and you are forced to leave him/her behind. You will then be forced to continue your journey alone until you meet another traveller. At the end of the game you are shown a list of your companion’s PSN Live tags and despite not recognising one of them, you will feel as though you’re being reunited with old friends. There is no dialogue to be found in Journey but it does include a beautiful score that deserves to be released on CD or downloads.
However, just because Journey doesn’t focus on a linear story doesn’t mean there isn’t one to be found. I won’t spoil anything but it gives you enough for you to form your own ideas and interpretations as to what you have just witnessed. Like Limbo, you could spend hours sharing your theories with friends and I would urge you to go online and read other gamers thoughts. There are some mind-blowingly good theories, particularly one that theorises Journey is a metaphor for life and death, but you’ll have to look that up yourself.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article and I hope you check out some of these games if you haven’t already. But most of all, I hope I have provided a decent article that helps prove games are capable of art and that they should no longer be seen as cheap wastes of time, or mindless violence that will turn children into violent thugs.