Written by Jason Rechtman & Jose Angel Salado from Random Nintendo.
Can video games be considered art? The short answer is yes, but like all media, there are many factors to take into consideration.
Unlike other fields of art, video games are unique in that they are a hybrid of many things. They combine aspects of passive and active media that allow for them to act like interactive novels, films, or simply tests of reflex and strategy. The best part? They can be presented in any way imaginable. When done well, we are treated with something that deserves recognition from more than just its players. That’s not to say the medium is perfect, though. Video games are only 50 years old and even in that brief time, there have been knock-offs, cash-ins, and even broken games that flood the market. This of course hurts the reputation of gaming in general, but if you look past the trouble spots, there is most certainly art to be found.
Little Big Planet, 2008
Admittedly, the most artful games – the ones that bring together gameplay and visuals in a way that enhances both – are few and far between. Those that succeed, however, can be considered art in the truest sense. Nintendo’s recent “Yoshi’s Woolly World” on Wii U and Media Molecule’s “Little Big Planet” series on PlayStation are both excellent examples of this. These games put to use a ‘found material’ aesthetic that helps them stand out in a sea of shooters, racers, and sports. Instead of bullets and explosions or meticulously rendered blades of grass on a football field, you’re placed in a world made of felt, yarn, and cardboard cut-outs. While the idea of theming a game around such materials may predate these titles, they go one step further by integrating the materials into the gameplay itself. If you see a loose string in a level, for example, you can pull it and the world will literally unravel. It’s a level of immersion that video games could not achieve in the past. 1997’s “Yoshi’s Story” for Nintendo 64 also used a found material aesthetic, but it was just a template. The 3D polygonal characters clashed with the ‘hand-made’ backgrounds almost breaking the illusion, and as far as gameplay was concerned, you could have just as easily been inside a space station opposed to the storybook setting its developers chose. It was a good idea at the time, but ultimately wasted potential that couldn’t be fully realized until the graphical technology caught up in “Yoshi’s Woolly World.” And only when the gameplay and visuals could play off one another did the full artistic vision come into view.
Yoshi’s Woolly World, 2015
Unfortunately for the gaming world, this idea of an artistic vision came second to a graphical arms race for much of the 1990s and 2000s. At that time, every company wanted to produce the most ‘realistic’ video games. Granted, many succeeded for their time – if you saw Madden ‘99 or the original Ridge Racer when they first launched, you’d be blown away. But looking at those successes now would leave you scratching your head, as many older games could be considered unplayable by today’s standards. It flies in the face of the timelessness of art. The good news is some developers instead used the power of their consoles to make games that would actually stand the test of time. Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker,” for example, used a cartoon aesthetic instead of hopping on the ‘realism’ bandwagon. When it was revealed in 2002, many actually shunned it for that very reason. Yet now we see that the choice to sidestep the realism race not only made “The Wind Waker” look like almost nothing before it, but such a drastic style also made it age incredibly well. Sure, it may have gotten an HD remake recently on Nintendo’s Wii U, but it didn't even need one with how well it still looks today in its original GameCube form. In addition to looking like a playable cartoon, its gameplay also utilized the visual style to make its characters more expressive, directly affecting how players engage by having protagonist Link’s giant cartoon eyes provide hints based on where he looked. The same idea of timelessness can also be seen in PlayStation 3/4’s “Journey,” a game that looks like a living painting and asks players to go on a literal journey through an open-ended desert. Combined with its simple controls, its art style makes for a game that is not only fun to play, but also a sight to behold on its own.
With the technological advances that we are constantly making, creators have even more tools to make beautiful worlds that can only be experienced in the video game medium. These are worlds that combine interactivity and visuals in a way that literally nothing else can, be it on your TV, on your phone, or even in virtual reality. And when you take into consideration how young the industry still is, you’ll realize that video games are an art form you’ll want to keep an eye on.