Lately, I have been contemplating the artistic value of video games. IP wrote about video games as therapy recently but one debate that persists is whether or not video games are art. One of the more (in)famous opinions about this is Roger Ebert’s, in which he rejected video games as art because games are competitive and there is no winning at art. If we were to look deeper, it feels like that argument is not sufficiently nuanced for today’s video gaming experiences. Video games can tell great, masterful, and beautiful stories. If we divorced the interactive element from them, wouldn’t they be considered art?
The problem with this argument is that separating the interactive element from games is to negate the work as a game, right? Ten years ago, this would have seemed like a no-brainer. What’s a game without gameplay? Despite that, something makes that argument a little stilted: a recent trend in games that have all the trappings of a game except gameplay. What are these?
This is an awkward family, with such members as Dear Esther, Proteus, Her Story, and Gone Home. Gangly and geeky, these games are often considered not even to be games by so-called hardcore gamers. That’s a curious position for such games to be in when you note that they are distributed through venues like Steam. So, if they aren’t games, what are they? If you can’t win at art and a game necessitates gameplay, what do we call these things?
Embarrassing, probably, but let’s investigate further.
In the early 90s, we had a lot of adventure games that inexplicably give gamers of a certain age fond recollections of swinging and missing time after time to connect the right key to the right lock, metaphorically speaking. There was also that incredibly uncomfortable fad of FMV games that exploited sex and violence as a vehicle for peddling the wave of the future: compact discs. With a little hindsight, I think we can all agree that there is a reason Night Trap did not launch its own franchise and adventure games have generally fallen by the wayside. Even the star power of Corey Haim could not make Double Switch worth purchasing, I’m afraid. Those things, for better or worse, at least had gameplay in them, even if they weren’t as fully engaging as, say, platformers, which were in their heyday at that time. Between the failure of the Sega CD and the Sega Saturn to gain footholds in the North American markets (both systems pushed FMV games more than their competitors did), FMV games were doomed never to reach the soaring heights of platformers at the time or FPSes, now on their way to becoming the predominant video game genre. Of course, the problem was that FMV was a gimmick; with the rapid changes in technology, FMV alone would never have been able to carry itself as its own genre anyway. In a way, though, these were the forerunners of what would be today’s walkabout games: they were really trying to tell a story and were just throwing in the occasional interactive bit to involve the player, lest it simply be a movie. Now we have games that have dropped all pretense to being anything but story-driven walkabouts. Players move their non-character entities toward flags to trigger more narrative until an endpoint is reached. In the case of Proteus, there is not even narrative.
So, we have games that have no gameplay and sometimes no narrative. People want this?
As you might have gleaned from my earlier paragraphs, I think that video games can be art. I don’t know that there is a case to be made for these walkabouts as video games, though. It’s hard to say that without sounding like an incredibly pretentious critic (as if there is any other kind of critic) but games are defined by some involvement of the player investing himself or herself in a goal. One might say that wheeling yourself from Point A to Point B to trigger more story in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture counts as involvement, being invested in reaching the end. Cynically speaking, I reason that if the player’s job is simply to be a cameraman, it is not far enough removed from being a movie to be called a video game. It can be art without being a video game. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Perhaps you disagree. What would you call these creative works?