Like most people, I think my hobbies are pretty awesome. I also think it’s pretty awesome when authority figures agree with me, which is why I drove four hours from my Middle-of-Nowhere, NY, college to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, to listen to professors, game designers and critics talk about videogames as an art form.
“The Art of Play: Symposium and Arcade,” a joint venture by the Carnegie Mellon School of Art and Montreal-based Kokoromi, couldn’t be more aptly titled. From 12 to 5 P.M., guests had free reign over a room populated with the most artistic videogames the industry has yet produced, from classics like Grim Fandango to newcomers like flOw. Sadly, the Commodore 64 blue-screened, so I never got to enjoy Moondust – allegedly the first “art videogame” – but there was plenty to keep me occupied.
After a day of nostalgic gaming, attendees sat down for a talk by Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and former Chairman of the International Game Developers Association. “Play itself is a lot like art,” Schell said. “It’s one thing to talk about making games as art, but playing has a lot in common with art; play is experimental like art is, it’s creative … it’s flexible … it’s immersive. You get in there and you’re doing it, just like artists are immersed. Play doesn’t know where it’s going … often that’s the case with art, too; you don’t know exactly what you’re going to build.”
Randy Smith, a creative director at Electronics Arts and columnist for Edge, spoke about how his interest in games waned as he got older. “When I wanted to feel a certain type of emotional resonance in my environment, I was a lot more likely to turn on a song; or if I wanted learn something new about life and human experience I would usually turn to film,” Smith said. “I really wanted to know why … wasn’t I connecting with games anymore.”
After finishing work on the third installment of the Thief series, Smith set out to find out what games really meant to him. Eventually, he came to the realization that videogames, in addition to combining various art forms, possessed a unique quality: the ability for the player to author their own story. To make his case, Smith cited the Ultima series as a model for games with an artistic message.
“In Ultima V, as soon as you can leave your early state town … you can walk right straight into the swamp and get totally eviscerated by a hydra,” Smith said. “You can go out in the ocean and get killed. You could walk into a dungeon and get killed by a dragon. It’s a dangerous world out there, and they didn’t do a whole lot to make sure you were taken care of.”
“As art, games carry messages … Ultima teaches you that what you choose to do matters and where you go is going to have consequences,” Smith said. “In modern games, somebody’s watching over you. By the key standards, Ultima is more artistic; this is more honest. It describes the real world.”
While Smith’s comparison of the Ultima series to modern titles might imply games have lost their artistic edge, Schell nominated a more recent release as an “art game”: BioShock.
“It forces players to make this terrible, terrible choice,” Schell said. “Early on you learn that you can kill [Little Sisters] and take out the horrible thing and get energy from it. Later, someone says, ‘I have a tool for you that will let the girls survive and you can still get the energy, but you’ll only get half as much energy.’ And it’s up to you … the game doesn’t care what you do; you can kill all the little girls.”
While the choice in BioShock might seem over the top, Schell used it as an example that games, like art, don’t always communicate a clear sense of right and wrong. But BioShock is a new game with high-end graphics produced by a large team of professionals. Can independently developed games accomplish the same thing?
David Jaffe, creator of God of War, seems to think so. Among the myriad of games at the “Art of Play” arcade, Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a five-minute long, 8-bit game, made an appearance. Rohrer, an independent game designer, programmer and critic, created Passage in about two months, and Jaffe has praised it as one of the most emotional video games he has ever played. Based off the Latin phrase “Memento mori,” meaning “Remember you will die,” Passage attempts to capture the essence of what it means to be human.
“Passage was my life flashing before my eyes in video game form,” Rohrer said. “It’s not just about saying, ‘Hey… you’re going to die!’ The question is my life is limited. I’m mortal. I know I’m going to die. What am I going to do with the oh-so-valuable time that I have left?”
To Rohrer, videogames are unquestionably art. Like Schell, Rohrer brought up how videogames contain multiple forms of art and likened this combination to film, where all the components come together to resonate with what the work is trying to express. For games, Rohrer feels the components should come together to enhance interactivity, something unique to games that provides its own special experience.
“Though a lot of people in the industry might have Hollywood envy … they’re not really trying to use game technology to make a movie,” Rohrer said. “A film might plant a question into your mind as you walk into a movie theater, and you might think about it on the way home. A game can actually let the player explore their answer to that question right within the context of the work itself. Games can really beat other mediums in dealing with these elements of the human condition, especially ones that have lots of choices.”
Whether new or old, videogames have indeed demonstrated the potential to be art, despite the varying strength between each artistic message. But will videogames as a whole continue to develop and evolve into a new form of art, or will artistic games like Ultima, BioShock and Passage continue to simply stand out in a sea of “almost-but-not-quite?” For now, we can only ponder and debate the notion – perhaps just as one would a piece of fine art.
Michael Crawford has been playing videogames since he was 6, so he fools himself into thinking he knows what he’s talking about. When he’s not writing novels or playing D&D, he maintains a blog at www.myspace.com/withoutbounds.