"Midway through the game Psychonauts, in which you literally infiltrate characters' minds for some hands-on therapy, the hero, Raz, encounters a security guard named Boyd. As Boyd shuffles about, babbling incoherently about squirrels, conspiracies and fortified milk, it's clear he's not all there and his mind has been broken for quite some time. But he refuses to let Raz pass until he can locate 'The Milkman,' so the hero leaps into Boyd's brain to determine who and where this Milkman might be.
The subsequent stage, 'The Milkman Conspiracy,' is one of the shining gems in a game already crammed with memorable moments. But more than that, it's a striking and deeply disturbing portrayal of one man's lost battle against his own insanity. When I think 'art in videogames,' I think of this stage."
Lara Crigger explores the role of abstract art in the art of communication.
The Milkman Cometh
Well... we all know what a great game Psychonauts was, and what makes it great is not only how the insanity or sanity of the characters were portrayed. Personally, what I like about the game is how I can jump through, roll over, i.e. navigate in a demented mind. Exploration and navigation is one of the joys that you cannot directly experience in a traditional piece of art.
I've played Psychonauts and I can see why you associate "art in videogames" with the Milkman Conspricary stage. What I want to say is that the joy of navigation, the realness (if there is such a word) you feel because of the procedural feedback you get when you try to snoop around in the Milkman stage is what makes the game a new kind of art. Conspiracy theories are not new, neither are crazy people who you have to deal with to get on with your life. Graphics depictions of such people's minds is not really new either. But the freedom to run, jump, live and die in such a mind is what makes the experience unforgettable.
I agree 100%, lietkynes, and what you've described is one of my favorite aspects of the game. The fact that you can run through, jump in, and manipulate these unwell minds underscores how we all share the basic human problems, and what we define as 'insanity' isn't so abnormal after all. For instance, I felt uncomfortably sympathetic to Gloria (and I think many writers, actors or other creative types would feel the same way). Wandering around in her head made me realise that a) she's more logical and rational than she looks and b) I'm less logical and rational than I look. But without the freedom to manipulate Gloria's mind through Raz, I still would have been an outsider.
Or take someone like Milla, who is ostensibly a sane and rational character. But even she has her demons and nightmares, and she spends considerable effort reshaping the landscape of her mind to mask them. (In fact, upon replaying it, I think her level was one of the most disturbing ones in the game; I swear I heard the nightmare children's voices remixed into the party music). But you never would have gotten to see past her apparent sanity without manipulating her mental world.
Anyway, I think one of the geniuses of the game is that it highlights how we're all a little crazy inside - it's just a matter of degree. The visuals are just one way (one major way) that it does that. The exploratory game mechanics that you mentioned are another. It all works together, I think.
I can only comment on my experience with Colossus, but what I hear you guys describing even of Pyschonauts could be indicative of the large palette of games as art. Wandering and manipulating any sphere of play is to wander inside the vision of the development team. Wander's awkward lunges, exhausted panting and half-determined, half-frightened gait highlight his mortality in his environment. That's noteworthy because most heroes of his ilk are rendered immortal, or worse, swaggering. (Wander returns to us by the questionable grace of the in-game god). I love that Crigger notes that game as a study on death. It's an overwhelming, almost heartbreaking experience. And I think one of the reasons it is so effective is the physics that flesh out the avatar interacting with the environment. Do you think that's why so many GTA clones fall short of being satisfying experiences? The lack of a truly visionary manipulation of worlds?
Though it's not directly related to the content of the article, Psychonauts was just recently released as a downloadable title on Steam if anyone who missed it the first time around wants to give it a shot.
Psychonauts on Steam
I'm holding out on my Xbox version becoming backwards-compatible for the 360, but it's well-worth playing on any platform.