The discussion of whether video games are art or not is one no longer worth having. Games are a form of creative expression and those of us who continue to play them must be getting worthwhile experiences – emotional, mental, or otherwise – out of doing so. The more valid question is whether games are good art or not because, well, not a lot of modern games particularly overextend themselves when it comes to trying to take the medium in unique directions and mostly we’ve got boring, samey games.
Much of gaming’s most bizarre, unique, creative, and artistic concepts came from the eighties and early nineties when a title didn’t need several bank accounts emptied into it for it to stand alongside other interactive works. It was more a question of whether one had the skill to work with this fledgling medium and whether they had any idea at all of what to do with it. As such, our gaming forefathers are a decidedly odd bunch, from Mario – a plumber eating mushrooms to grow bigger and jump on turtles – to Guybrush Threepwood, who is named Guybrush Threepwood.
Right now, there’s the potential for a second gaming renaissance. Big budget titles, the majority of which feature hulking manly-men hurting each other with various weaponry, may at present be the face of this medium, but, beyond those, a veritable maelstrom of indie developers have taken to fashioning more modest, yet no less worthwhile titles. This is a fantastic time to be involved in games as, in some respects, we’re back to where we once were. A game can once again be produced with only a few people, some big ideas, and a small budget. Even better, there are more platforms than ever before for these games and, with mobile gaming, the people who discover them can be gamers and non-gamers alike.
Android gaming provides an especially fertile platform due to its lack of a vetting process. Without moderators or the need to work with publishers, anybody can theoretically cobble together a game with the express notion of working toward a vision, rather than a specific demographic. Players are currently more than willing to try out titles knowing they may not be getting something visually or aurally comparable to an AAA console game. In fact, people often flock to these humbler titles specifically for this reason. We all want to see something different. And these indie games are different. Because they’ve adopted a different set of clichés.
It’s depressing enough to witness the state of much of modern mainstream gaming, which (though the roots obviously trace back further than this), can essentially be viewed as the direct product of Resident Evil 4, Uncharted 2, Grand Theft Auto III, and Half-Life. While these were all fantastic, game-changing games, they resulted, predictably, in numerous copycats. Some recent games have taken the formulas established by these titles and done impressive things with them (for example, Spec Ops: The Line seemed to be a criticism of the third-person cover-shooter and series like Infamous and Saints Row took the inherent insanity of sandbox games and indulged in it all the more), but more often we just get lazy attempts at cashing in on current, popular genres.
Since smaller games can’t ever hope to have the cinematic presentation expected from that of the mainstream, we instead end up with various games lazily inspired by the titles of yesteryear. For one, we get a lot of retro pixel art, which usually does nothing particularly new with the style, content to simply recall a bygone era. Games like Fez and Spelunky go for a blocky look that, at one time in gaming, was a necessity due to hardware limitations. Now, it simply looks lazy. You can almost see the ease with which environments were pieced together with a level editor.
Obviously, this is the game these guys wanted to make and this would be fine if a game such as Cthulhu were satisfying a niche, but retro homages (if we choose to label them so kindly) are closer to the norm and titles branching out past this approach are the anomalies. Obviously there’s a benefit to small teams with small budgets using simplistic art, but this is really no excuse for doing a blasé copy job. The unfortunate thing is that the retreading of old concepts triggers nostalgia within us older gamers and that feeling probably suffices for many; simply making a gamer wistful may seem like an artistic feat in itself. However, the joy of the games these titles are ripping from came from the fact was that they were breaking new ground and trying out new ideas with almost every release. This new approach of reheating old game styles is a cheap and in no way novel method of getting inside our hearts.
It’s not as though the past should be completely ignored, but our games should be building upon history, not repeating it. A perfect example of a game doing this right is Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. Visually, it’s influenced by the pixel art of games from the Commodore 64. However, Superbrothers takes this style and puts its own spin on it, resulting in instantly eye-catching visuals that recall past games while also creating something entirely new. The graphics look as though they took a lot of work with each screen in the game unique to the next, but then this shouldn’t be surprising. Making good art is hard work.
But that isn’t all there is to the game. Superbrothers recognizes that technology is changing and that our interactive media must follow suit. As such, the game actually takes into account the fact that it is being controlled through a mobile device with a touch screen, requiring you to solve puzzles with multiple fingers and including inventive little touches like having you turn your device vertically to unsheathe your sword. The beauty of Superbrothers is that its look and the way it’s played are so completely fresh that it brings new concepts to those who typically game as well as those who do not. There are so few games that I feel confident in being able to recommend to gamers and non-gamers alike, but this is one of them. Again, there are references in it that will make old-school gamers smile, but being a gamer is not a prerequisite to enjoyment. This is art more people can appreciate because there are various ways to appreciate it. This is good art.
The problem of alienating non-gamers is something of an epidemic in this industry and is the result of a number of factors. A big part of it is that so much of gaming is just a boring copyfest. If this stuff hasn’t been intriguing to previously uninterested parties, why would revisiting it make them care now? Additionally, the indie scene has even managed to quickly create new clichés as there seems to be a new movement of developers functioning under the notion that black-and-white graphics coupled with a semi-morose, piano-centric soundtrack automatically equates to being artistic.
Contrastingly, Contre Jour feels like it chose two random elements and stuck them on top of uninventive game mechanics that are immediately reminiscent of another recent (and admittedly fun) game, Cut the Rope. But Cut the Rope just feels like a whimsical little puzzle game that wasn’t aspiring to be morose or moving whereas Contre Jour has the audacity to suggest you put your headphones on at the start for the most engrossing experience. Of these two, Cut the Rope is actually the better work of art. It’s basic, fun gameplay, so its visuals and music follow suit. Contre Jour’s presentation does not mesh with its gameplay. It just feels like the art, graphics, and gameplay happen to be in the same place at the same time by accident.
The problem here is that this sort of approach fools a lot of gamers because we’re so used to our art being subpar. Googling Contre Jour will reveal numerous pieces citing the game as an example of an artistic achievement in gaming when it’s actually just an average (though essentially solid) physics puzzle game that sounds and looks “sad.” Not that black-and-white graphics can’t be artistic. For example, the platformer, Limbo, used them effectively, but Limbo was centered on the depressing concept of a static existence beyond death and, again, this is working toward a singular vision. Minimalist, colorless environments seem appropriate in this case. Also worth mentioning is that Limbo opts for an ambient soundtrack consisting mostly of effects rather than music. It doesn’t try to force you to feel anything by cramming strings and pianos onto its soundtrack. Those might work in some media, but the developers of Limbo recognized their theme was minimalism and loneliness and created their soundscape in service of that.
When these things work together well, it’s something more of us, not just us gamers, are able to feel. Too many of us too deep into this medium to be objective are easily moved (or think we’re moved) by seeing nostalgic refurbishments of images and ideas from our past or by the removal of color from graphics or the addition of pianos to soundtracks. However, for people to whom video games do not yet seem a viable art form, this stuff is either completely foreign or just average. In the world of film, Kevin Smith pulled the black-and-white retro look way back with Clerks and sad scores show up in almost every dramatic picture out there. If we want to make something more worthwhile—both for those who typically game as well as those who do not—we need to put sincere effort into considering what specifically our medium can do that will be unique, novel, and beautiful.
Cherry-picking concepts and art from other works and dropping them into your own is a bad way to do art. As a developer, you should work toward a singular vision that would be fun and interesting for you as a gamer, sure, but even just as an individual. What fascinates you? What interests or troubles you? What are ways you can express or address these issues that you cannot in other media? And remember that, with mobile gaming, you’re working with a portable platform that allows for heretofore unexplored methods of interaction.
The tools to make something new and better are available, so stop trying to make art that just makes gamers remember older, better art. Make something actually interesting. Make something genuinely enjoyable. Make something beautiful. Make something fun. Make something great. Make good art.
Article by Joe Matar, lead contributor and reviews editor at Hardcore Droid (www.hardcoredroid.com). He hasn’t stopped gaming ever since he first played Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders for the Commodore 64. He is always on the lookout for solid game narratives and never gets tired of writing about the games that do it right. Or terribly wrong.