The Art of Video Games
How Interactive Stories Affect Us Emotionally
Photo courtesy of Martin Hare Michno
by Sam Moore
Video games are rarely seen as legitimate forms of art, despite the amount of work that goes into many of them. Like films or books, there are the blockbusters churned out every year, but there are also individual creative works that give us an immersive experience with a strong creative voice at their heart. Why, then, are these games not considered art?
For art critic Jonathan Jones, video games are excluded from consideration as art because ‘their very interactivity means that the creator was unable to claim an authorial vision’. Apparently the lack of one singular source disqualifies them from being considered art. This feels wrong, as performance art forms such as film, theatre, and dance thrive on collaboration, even if the initial idea is derived from one source. While I disagree with Jones’ tight limits on artistic classification, I want to explore the idea of video games as art from this angle. Can video games express one clear, authorial vision?
Many games have such a vision behind them, but I want to focus on one in particular: Naughty Dog’s 2013 post-apocalyptic masterpiece: The Last of Us.
The game is ultimately the authorial vision of creative director Neil Druckmann, despite being produced by an enormous team and co-led by game director Bruce Straley. Although he was trained as a programmer, Druckmann had also shown his skill as a talented author of narrative fiction through the graphic novel A Second Chance at Sarah, and he and Straley both believed that video games had the potential to create an immersive emotional experience through powerful storytelling.
The game centres around the relationship between the two protagonists: Joel, a smuggler who loses his daughter at the start of the game, and Ellie, a mysterious young girl who Joel is tasked to protect. Over the course of their journey across an abandoned America, a father-daughter relationship between the two slowly blooms, culminating in a bittersweet and ambiguous conclusion. The game is very rewarding to play, as you scrounge for increasingly limited supplies and fend off not only fellow humans but also the terrifying infected. However, despite the detail of the worldbuilding and game design, the one consistent factor of the game, championed by Druckmann since its inception, was the relationship between Joel and Ellie.
The gameplay is designed in such a way as to reveal the subtle nuances of how the characters relate to one another. For instance, when Joel (controlled by the player) first meets Ellie, she is wary of him, and so her character will often be a few steps behind the player and she won’t automatically help the player out when necessary, thus allowing us to empathise with Joel’s frustration. In one chapter of the game, players also have the opportunity to control Ellie, and that interactivity makes her emotionally traumatic coming-of-age all the more personal. The gameplay is rewarding not just because you survive to fight another day, but because you intimately experience the emotional catharsis of Joel and Ellie’s journey.
That was Druckmann’s vision.
That, according to Jonathan Jones, should qualify this game to be recognised as a work of art.
Things are not all bleak for the artistic vision of video games. In 2011, the US supreme court granted the same artistic protections offered to novels and films to video games, and museums such as The Smithsonian and the V&A have had exhibitions dedicated to the interactive medium. However, Jones’ narrow classification still bothers me. While I’m only a student, I want to give the question of ‘What is Art?’ a crack.
Art cannot be defined by being confined. We cannot say that art must be one individual’s vision, created in a particular medium, in a particular form. For me, good art is a piece of work that leaves me viewing the world in a new way.
From the emotional to the aesthetic, there are masterpieces out there waiting to be discovered, so pick up a controller and enjoy the immersive art of video games.