A friend of mine here on the site recently posted an article entitled Video Games: A Purpose Forgotten. It’s a good article, I’d recommend reading it, but I personally disagree with his central thesis. In summary, he argued that with the rise of competitive video games like Overwatch, Rocket League, CS:GO, and other competitive games, the gaming industry has abandoned its artistic side. The moral questions raised in games like The Last of Us don’t come up in a match of League of Legends, which is true, but is that a sign that games as a whole are becoming less artistic? I don’t think so.
Brandon brought up Saving Private Ryan and the painting The Scream as examples of great artwork, in no small part because they bring a strong emotional reaction from the audience. The Scream is harsh, bright, and can create feelings of dread in anxiety when looking at the deep reds and distorted central figure. Saving Private Ryan reminds us of the bloody history of the world, forcing us to remember those who died so we could live. I completely agree with this analysis, these are fantastic pieces of art that humanity is lucky to have. On the other hand… not all art has to do that.
Let’s stop for a second to smell the roses.
Unfortunately, you probably aren’t able to smell the roses through the screen, but look at them for a second. A photographer somewhere worked hard to get that picture, finding exactly the right flowers, looking for the right angle, focusing perfectly to get sunlight glinting off the dew. It’s a beautiful picture, and it’d fit in well with other nature pictures hanging on the wall of my living room, taken by my very own sibling. This picture comes from Wikipedia, on the page for “rose”. As beautiful as the picture is, it doesn’t elicit as nearly a visceral reaction as something like The Scream, and in the context of a Wikipedia article, you might not look at it twice. Is this art? I can’t really answer that. I think the only question any of us can answer is whether or not this picture holds artistic merit in the eye of the audience.
Now let’s move on to something I believe is art, although you’re free to disagree: Live and Learn by Crush 40, featured track from the game Sonic Adventure 2. The opening few bars is a motif played throughout the game, and it’s the first thing you hear upon opening the main menu. It sounds great, and if you take the time to understand them, the lyrics mean quite a lot. It’s about picking yourself up when life knocks you down, taking your own path, freeing yourself from the sorrows of life. Staying determined to reach your goals. We could argue about whether a rock song from a video game from 2001 constitutes “art” all day, but I’ll firmly be on the side of “art”. Maybe it doesn’t make me think about the world in a different way, maybe it doesn’t unite people behind a common cause, but if that’s your definition of “art”, I’d say you’re leaving a lot out.
On the flip side, there’s many songs that many will firmly believe to be art. Bohemian Rhapsody, All You Need is Love, Stairway to Heaven, and hundreds more. Here’s another gray area: Septette for the Dead Princess, as covered by RichaadEB. This is another song I really like, although its merits as “art” may be questioned. It’s a guitar cover of a video game song. There’s no lyrics, and some people may feel like there’s not much emotion you can feel from the song. Those people could say “this isn’t art”, and they’re completely right to feel that way. Art is in the eyes of the beholder. What I think is a work of great art, another might think is “mindless” or a waste of time.
That brings us back to our main point: are video games really losing their artistic edge? Does the popularity of games like Overwatch, League of Legends, or EA’s take on Star Wars Battlefront 2 signal a change of the industry? Let’s look at Overwatch, because that’s the big online competitive game I’ve been involved the most in. When you play a game of Overwatch, what do you feel? What emotions does this game imprint on your brain? It can be intense, your heart will start racing. Someone might make you angry. You might feel on top of the world after a huge play. If you’re lucky, your teammates might encourage you, making you feel good and inspiring you to be good back to them. Overwatch can make you feel a number of surprisingly intense emotions. Is it art?
Again, I can’t answer. Personally, I’m leaning towards no. However, a game of Overwatch isn’t all Blizzard has to offer. For a while before the game’s release, they released animated shorts featuring the upcoming characters, starting with The Last Bastion. The animation on these is of the highest quality, and you can tell people poured their souls into them. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t choke up at a few of them. Going even further, some of these shorts do bring up bigger questions. The Last Bastion has a killing machine wondering if that’s all he’ll ever be. Dragons discusses forgiveness, redemption, someone’s willingness to change. Heroes asks what it means to be a hero, and makes you think about the consequences of action and inaction. Even if the game Overwatch isn’t art, the stories surrounding it are.
This isn’t unique to just Overwatch, even though that’s the game I know the most about. League of Legends does something similar, creating origin stories for each hero, and more recently even commissioning a song as part of a promotion. Of course, maybe this isn’t “art” to you. They’re ads all dressed up to be more appealing. The next question is, so what?
A handful of games that don’t ask big questions, that don’t unite people around a common goal, that don’t bring a big emotional response from people are getting popular. So what? The Last of Us 2 is coming out soon. Delta Rune, sequel to the fantastic Undertale released its first chapter a few months ago, and more is in development. Final Fantasy has been popular since the late 80s and is going strong to this day. Just because some games don’t ask big questions doesn’t mean that none do.
Before I close this off, I’d like to conclude with a look at another argument Brandon made. In response to seeing the top 10 highest ranked games on metacritic, he asks “is this the bar video games have set”? On this list were two Legend of Zelda games, both Super Mario Galaxy games, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and 3. My answer is both yes and no, this is and isn’t the bar we’ve set. Video games aren’t to be judged by the same standards as books or movies. The ability to play a game is a big component of how it’s rated. If a game checks off all the boxes for “great art piece”, but it crashes once every hour and you press up to jump instead of A, it’s critical score will tank. This is a list of “these are the games that are the best to play”, not “this is our standard for art”.
On the other hand… yes, this kind of is the bar we’ve set, and I don’t think it’s too bad of a bar. I think Brandon left out an important part of “art” in his article: the ability to inspire others to create. Super Mario Galaxy came out when I was fairly young and wanted to be an astronaut, and while that dream’s gone, my love of space and other galaxies stayed with me for a long time. Alongside all the books and movies I read and saw as a kid, I’d say two of my biggest reasons to become a sci-fi writer are Super Mario Galaxy and Spore, which I also played a lot as a game. Are they art? Maybe not by most definitions, Spore is even arguably not very good. Are they inspiring? To me, yes.
Let’s end by going all the way back to the original Super Mario Bros., in which a red plumber runs and jumps to the right for a couple hours to kill a turtle and save a princess. Art? Again, that’s up to you. Inspiring? Absolutely. Almost every 2D platformer that came after it was inspired in some way, shape, and form by the most popular gaming mascot in history. Light Fall is just one example of a more agreeably “artistic” game that would be incredibly unlikely without Mario.
If a game isn’t “art” to you, that’s fine. There’s plenty of other games that will be more your style, and they’ll continue to keep coming out. However, don’t look down on it just because you think it’s not “art”. Maybe it’ll inspire something that is.
Max is a student at Rutgers who likes writing fantasy and playing video games such as Zelda, Mario, Undertale, Earthbound, and Stardew Valley.