Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Artistic Value of Video Games

When you hear someone talking about art and the various mediums it applies to, video games normally don’t come to mind. As a matter of fact, until recently, video games have been seen as a time waster. A kid's activity, or even a form of entertainment that causes laziness. Though these things may be true in some instances, even today, video gaming is indeed an art form. And I'm not talking about artistic value when it comes to playing shooters online with friends. That's more entertainment at its purest form. What I'm talking about is artistic storytelling, character development, and stylization using the interactive medium.

We are in an innovative time for creative storytelling. As our technology progresses, we see artists from every walk of life pushing their inspiration and stories through different avenues. In recent years, we have seen a progression in creative freedom in gaming with companies like Naughty Dog, Bethesda, Media Molecule, and CD Projekt Red to name a few. It is because of gaming's progression that this recreation is finally seen as what it is, rather than be in the negative spotlight that it has been in for some time now.

But what makes gaming so artistic, you ask? Well, it has a lot to do with its ability to draw people in almost instantly. By giving someone control of a character's movement, actions, and decision, you are opening up a world of artistic possibilities that were not available before. You are given the chance to provoke thought and leave the player with something more than just a fun time. You are giving them an experience. And these experiences can, and in most cases will, have emotional responses. Isn't that what art is all about? Provoking thought? Discussing the human condition? Attempts at emotional response? If you're still not convinced, here are some examples in recent gaming history.

1. Last of Us

A fan favorite and justifiably so. The game does not relent in emotional ups and downs and tries to pull the player in, not letting go until the very end. Or does it let go? The ending has such an impact that it leaves the player thinking for days, months, maybe even years later about what it all meant. The game is not just about zombies (and they're not even really zombies on the surface either), it's about human connection and grief. Everything from the tight gameplay to the cinematic cutscenes, Last of Us is an emotional experience that will not be forgotten years down the road.

2. The Little Big Planet series

On the surface this may appear to be a children's platformer, but that is most assuredly not the case. With the themes of creativity and individuality in mind, LBP not only creates a great cooperative experience, but it has artistic value pouring out of the screen and into the player's heart. The way the game uses platforming is innovative and brilliant. They place your small characters in a larger world, flowing with harmonious color, an upbeat soundtrack, and fluid gameplay. Though strange at times, the game can't help but bring out the inner child in all of us.

3.  The Fallout series 

A lot of people will read this and say "whatever," but just give me a moment to explain. Fallout is an open world RPG that takes place after a nuclear holocaust. I know what you're thinking. "Wow, sounds real original." Okay, but here's where we get into the stylization and specific tone that separates Fallout from other games in the same genre. Taking inspiration from the 1950's outlook on what the future would be like (you know, like flying cars and living on the moon), then uses that as the foundation. It's a what-if scenario. What if humanity used nuclear energy to save itself rather than destroy it? When we get to the year 2077, we realize that it has its own consequences. Eventually, there is a nuclear holocaust after humanity dries up the world's resources. Once you get into the game, you see that the universe is a mix of 1950's culture (cars, music, furniture, etc.) and blends it nicely with futuristic tech (laser weapons, robots, etc.) Though the story elements may not be completely original, the execution is without a doubt creative.

4.  Heavy Rain 

Talk about heavy, this game really gets into your psyche and holds you tight. It's relentless. It's emotional. It's groundbreaking. The game places you in the shoes of several different characters all revolving around a missing child case. What's creative about this is how it's handled. The gameplay itself is simple. Make the right choices. As a player you are suddenly having to choose what is moral and what is not. What is good and what is bad. What is going to save this child and what is going to get them killed? It raises moral questions of justice and pushes the player to think on their feet. It is not just a video game but an experience, more gripping than a lot of dramatic films.

4. The Witcher series

This one makes the list because of its ability to take a worn down genre and revive it. Fantasy RPGs
have been around for some time, but Witcher comes at it packed with as much lore and world building that they could cram into a single game. This in itself gives the storytelling an edge. When playing, you feel as though the narrative, the characters and the world all belong in a novel. A strong, well written, fully developed novel. The game instantly immerses players in its universe and invites them in. Witcher 3's soundtrack is also worth mentioning, which sets a dark, dreary tone that’s threaded throughout the game. When first playing, I couldn't help but realize that it was a thick, full experience that would not be forgotten.

5. Soma 

Now this one stands out like a sore thumb amongst the others. It's not mainstream, but more of an independent game. The story follows a protagonist that wakes up in an underwater facility, only to find that it has suffered damage and is occupied by strange creatures. The gameplay is much like Penumbra and Amnesia where the focus is to run and hide. There's not much in the way of combat, but that's what makes it so intense. None of this is what makes it artistic by the way, just giving it a little introduction. What makes this different from others is the mind-blowing, though provoking twists and turns the game throws at you. It introduces ideas that have not really been attempted in gaming history, giving the player more than just a terrifying horror experience. Without spoiling anything, I just have to say there was a concept introduced in the game that haunted my sleep for weeks after. It really gets under your skin with it's theories that you can't help but chew on it's philosophical themes like a piece of fat from a steak. If you want to risk the deep ocean and story on this one, it's a must play.

These are just a few examples of artistic storytelling in the medium of video gaming. There are of course thousands of others out there ready to be admired. Don't think of gaming as just entertainment. See it as an appendage to the art movement. A branch on the tree of creativity.

What other games do you think has great artistic value?

By David White

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