There has always been a lot of argument over whether or not video games can be considered art. Some write them off as fun, mindless diversions, while others laud the mixture of narrative and interactivity. Almost all of us have that one game, or even moment within a game, that we can point to and say “I’d hang that on a wall.” So then, why are so many gamers divided on the existence of “Art Games?”
Now, I don’t mean games seen as “a work of art” or could be used as examples of modern games as art, like Shadow of the Colossus or Journey. I’m talking about games that, for all intents and purposes, were made with the express interest of being art. Games that do not follow the normal game formula or push it to the wayside in favor of some other agenda. Games like these often focus on dialogue, exploration, and taking in the meaning of one’s surrounding instead of gaining EXP or making it to the end of the level.
On paper this doesn’t sound so awful, at least to me. I love it when games break the mold and show us something different then Point A to Point B missions and directives. You can only save the princess so many times. Yet I look at what people consider “Art Games” and see a very divided audience. Tale of Tale’s The Path for example is interesting in premise; stay on the path to Grandma’s house or explore the surrounding woods. I played The Path expecting a horror game, and instead walked around a virtual forest for a few hours, looking at abandoned cars and shopping carts while my characters made comments on the state of childhood innocence. I enjoyed it at the time, but I’ve read accounts of people being bored to death within the first chapter.
Glitchhikers has the player driving a car down a highway at night, picking up strange hitchhikers every so often and listening to them tell stories inspired by Carl Sagan. That’s the whole game. You just… listen to people talk about being made of star-stuff. The biggest complaint I’d heard with that one was the writing was pretentious and the message heavy handed, which I would have to agree with to a degree, though I enjoyed the atmosphere of a nighttime car ride with a pleasant stranger.
I see a lot of art games begin called out as pretentious, aimless, and trying-too-hard-to-be-deep by their critics. The games themselves appear to be of a genre exclusively made by indie devs on a low budget, often for game jams and such. In this I see a weird, underground movement of almost nonsense games that focus entirely on exploring low-poly worlds with vague symbolism in the background. In other words, not even remotely everyone’s cup of tea. The audience seems reserved to those few accepting of that kind of art… and those under the influence of whatever substance suits their fancy. Take it as you will.
It reminds me very much of different schools of art denouncing each other for perceived flaws; scholars of modernism denouncing post-modernism, and everyone getting angry at that one guy who fills a paper bag with pine-cones and titles it “Self Portrait.” Video games, as we know them, have been delivered to us in the same way since games like Pac-man arrived in arcades. Avoid the bad guy, get the power up, destroy the bad guy. This can be applied to almost every major game that has been released since, in some way or another. It’s only natural, if we know nothing else, to reject something that breaks the “action-for-reward” formula. Players are going to question whether or not they can be considered games at all.
So, where the heck do art games fit in? Are they games, or a weird, interactive way of expressing art? Is it possible that modern games as they are, expensive and highly consumed, can never be truly considered art, but these games can? Are they just another genre thats cropped up as we make advances in game-making? Am I spouting rhetorical questions for funsies? I suppose its like anything creative; it’s all up to opinion. Some people will look at art games and appreciate them, others will be turned off. There’s nothing wrong with this mind you, no “you just don’t get it” hipster mentality. Art games are interesting to me in comparison with traditional games, but I personally prefer a bit more structure. That the main body of gaming fans aren’t really feeling the whole “walk around a weird train station while characters lament the death of artistic freedom”, isn’t at all unexpected, but like any creative media, there’s an audience for everything.