The debate over whether or not video games constitute an art form has picked up speed in recent years, carried along by the surge of indie development and the experimentation it’s brought with it. Thanks to community oriented distribution platforms like Steam, GOG, and Desura, along with the increasing accessibility of engines like Unreal and Unity, hobbyist game development has sprung forth from the modding community and beyond, bringing with it a wide range of new expression within the medium.
But this debate goes back further than Steam’s genesis. As early as the late 80s, museums began showcasing games and questioning whether artistic intentionality could legitimize the artistic qualities of games. Through the 90s, games grew into a viable storytelling medium. From the surrealistic ages of Myst and its sequels through the complex Black Isle RPGs like Fallout and Planescape: Torment, early narrative designers were using interactive media as a launchpad from which to explore deep literary themes.
I remember reading a piece from the appendix of Riven’s official strategy guide entitled “Worlds for the Making,” which extrapolated from the Myst lore questions of quantum mechanics and phenomenological intentionality. The central concept of the mythology revolves, of course, around books that linked to other dimensions, and Riven in particular posed the linking books as the battleground of two warring ideologies.
The central question was this: does the author of the linking book create the world to which it connects, or is she artfully describing a reality that already exists?
On the one side stood Atrus, reverent and humble explorer, who took no ownership of the worlds in his books. In the first game, Atrus went so far as to trap his own sons in negative space as a punishment for violating the sovereignty of the ages. On the other side was Gehn, Atrus’ megalomaniacal father, who considered himself the god of his age. As a result of his shortsightedness, his worlds were physically unstable and wracked with humanitarian crisis and political strife.
As a young kid, my mind was blown. The questions raised by this essay, tucked away in the back of this pulpy game guide, lent a new depth to the possibilities that games could reveal. Coupled with my inherent escapism, this revelation calcified my conception of games as portals to other worlds themselves, immersive and vibrant and possessing a pathos independent of any function as simple entertainment.
As I gamed on, I was whisked away on journeys that were as formative to my imagination as any novel. The Hitchcockian charm of Grim Fandango or The Longest Journey’s Tolkienesque vastness offered just as much as my favorite films. And they went further, adding another level.
After all, these games didn’t just show you another world. They sent you there.
As a writer, the idea of placing my audience in a world was always central. It allowed for a focus on exploration and rewarded observation, engaging not just the senses, but the mind as a whole. Although my desire to craft games was always present, I found myself unable to grapple with the technicality of programming and 3D modeling. Even drawing was beyond my motor abilities. As a child, I’d been an active make-believer, which had evolved into an affinity for tabletop gaming. Computer domination of the RPG scene provided a truly immersive storytelling outlet, and when Neverwinter Nights came along, bundled up with the Aurora Toolset, I fumbled along for hours attempting to realize my fantasies. Thus, in search of the next best thing, I gravitated to film.
But film failed to offer the level of interactivity I longed for. Simply watching a story is just not the same as living it, and my inspiration and creative drive always came more from the games I played than the movies I watched.
I found myself in Hollywood, however, with a handful of scripts that no one knew quite what to do with. I’d believed for some time that games were offering better stories than movies, and I realized out west that Hollywood was simply less adventurous than games. Even the indie scene was caught up in formulas, and it was quickly clear that the interesting work was elsewhere.
So it was understandable that I became frustrated by film. At this point, BioWare had evolved from Baldur’s Gate to Mass Effect, Dear Esther had rocketed into the narrative spotlight, and whispers of dedicated writers at game companies were reaching my freshly-graduated ears. I was already familiar with the likes of Marc Laidlaw and Chris Avellone, and I began to imagine a place for myself the game development world.
So, why games?
Roger Ebert argued that the malleability of games as a medium disqualifies games as art. Imagine an optional happy ending to Romeo & Juliet, he argued. Having the option of a happy ending would cheapen the core work and obscure its tragic themes.
Frankly, I find this argument unbearably boring. Ebert is essentially saying that there can be no interactive art. This is foolish. Interactivity is the substance of games. Far from obscuring literary intention and thematic artistry, games as a medium challenge the writer to craft an interactive story, a story whose themes are best expressed through an interactive experience. Furthermore, beyond narrative, designers are pushed to create a meaningful experience from raw mechanics.
This meaning is where art comes from. Period.
And I am drawn to games specifically because of the experience that interactivity offers to convey meaning. Games immerse you in meaning, they reveal a world, and they allow you to live there, for a time. Games insist that you don’t simply visualize the world, but that you manipulate it and actively change it. Ebert claims that games don’t explore the meaning of being human the way other art forms do. He’s right.
For what other art form actually requires you to truly be within it?