Monday, March 16, 2009

Art of Gaming 101 - Basic overview

I started this blog in response to the lack of gaming websites that fully tackle video games as an art form. Most main websites have had the passing article about the topic, but for the most part they either glance over the issue or hit all the wrong details. This is expected since video games are a very new art form and many people don't know how to react to it yet.

Do I claim to have all the answers? No. I just want an open forum/blog that will focus on video games as an art form and how to explore it as such.

One of the first issues many people come across when looking at video games as art is they do not know what angle to critique at. Some only look at the story in a game and dismiss it as too shallow to be considered art. Some cling to games that are visually appealing and focus on the visual art. Other's spend a great deal of time and energy on the music in games. There really is not a problem with these responses to gaming as art but I think they all just haves pieces of the puzzle. The big picture is that all of the things I have mentioned contribute to the artform (and more). Personally this is how I break down the art of gaming.

Story (narrative art)

Video games have long been bogged down with critisism as either having shallow storylines or being overly complex and unrealistic . It is true that if you look at 99% of video game storylines on their own (seperated from the rest of the game) you will find that the narrative is lacking. However, this is just part of the game and functions as one piece of the whole. Sure, a really bad storyline can hinder a players interest in a game, but it all depends on what that game is. Super Mario has an exteremly simple and bland story line on it's own (princess captured, needs saving) but as a whole it is part of a perfect game. Video games are not books. Books rely 100% on the narrative, without a good story a book is no longer literature it is just trash. But games can use a simple story as a catalyst for the rest of the game.

Do not get me wrong some games have fantastic stories and you can tell the people involved cared deeply about the plot, characters, and symbolism in the game. An RPG of any variety must have a good storyline in order to succeed. The battle system could be perfect, the graphics could be stunning but if the narrative falls flat the whole house of cards fall down. The game designers have to make a choice on how important the narrative of their game is. But do not mistake a shallow narrative as a hit against the video game art form because there are many other important factors.

In the Metal Gear Solid series you watch the story unfold more than you play.

Visual Art

One of the first thing that catches anyones attention is the graphics of a game. Companies live and die by showcasing what their games can do. Unlike narrative art every game must be visually appealing. Cutting edge high definition graphics might help some games but it is a mistake not to consider other visual art directions as artistic. Sure some Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 games may look extremely appealing but that does not make it any more artistic then Super Mario Bros. It the same way a realistic portrait can be just as artistic as a piece of abstract art.

It is important to keep in mind that is a mistake to judge a game as artistic just by its visual style. A game could look gorguous but if it doesn't play well the visuals can't hold up the game. Visual art is just another piece of the entire video game art form. Some games do rely more on visual art then others to convey their message but overall the game just has to look appealing to succeed.

Even still pictures of Okami look like pieces of art.


Video Game music has come a long way. Full live ochrastras currently tour playing video game music, and a number of rock bands produce their own interpretations of video game music. Unlike visual art and narrative art, music can stand on its own away from the game. In japan it is not uncommon to find many video game soundtracks for sale. I would still argue that even though video game music can stand on its own as art, it must first have been tied to a game that had a connection to the listener. Sure, video game music can be finely composed but it is its original tie to the video game that matters most.

More than just sounding good, music can also set the mood for a game. Everyone knows the Super Mario Bros theme. The music is fun and light hearted, and it complements the gameplay. When your time is running out though, the music turns into a fast paced frantic. This music alerts the player to move with the beat of the music or he/she will lose. Anyone who has played a game that knows, once hearing the music change, they will immediatly find their hands tightening around the controller and mind racing. It is not the time ticking down that bothers the player but the frantic music. In some games the music changes during battles into a harder tune to gear the player toward the fight at hand. Video game music affect the way we play.

Rez is a music game where the soundtrack unfold as you progress

Interactive Art

Finally we have the thing that ties all the previous art forms together, interactivity. Video games wouldn't be what they are without interaction from the player. Some games allow the player to manipulate and change a great deal over the course of the game, while others set the player on a linear path with one clear goal. Even in this diverse spectrum, interactivity plays an important role. If you are playing a simple platformer like Super Mario Bros, that only allows you to go left to right, you still have control over a piece of the game. You can choose which enemies to hit, what blocks to break, and what coins to collect. The way you play a game, no matter how strict the guidlines are, will always be at least a little bit different for another player's experience. This is where the real magic of video games comes in. It is through interaction that we connect to the game, we are happy when we accomplish a goal, frustrated when we can't get past a certain area, and a whole range of emotions in between. Even though we know that we are just playing a game on a TV screen we can still get lost in the moment - like in a good book, or movie.

Sometimes interaction goes beyond just trying to help your character accomplish set goals. Currently it is a trend in gaming to allow the player to change more of the game. Expansive RPGs have many optional side quests that the player can ignore or join in to gain rewards, adventure titles now play with your morals allowing you to make decisions that will change how the rest of the game world looks at you, and some games let you build and create entirely knew set pieces and scenarios from scratch. Interactive art is the most essential piece of the video game art form. The earliest games which couldn't realistically represent impressive visuals, or have any music, and lacked a narrative completely still thrived with interaction. Pong had no visuals besides two white paddles and a ball, no sound but a slight ping when the ball hit a paddle, and no narrative whatsoever, but it had intuitive interaction and that is all it needed to be a hit. On the flip side something with beautiful visuals, amazing story, intrancing music but no interaction is not a game at all.

Little Big Planet lets players use all the tools in the game to create their own new experiences

Well that is my long winded intro to this blog. I can promise I will not always write at such lengths. I just wanted to let you know how I will be looking at video games as an art form. Currently I have plans for looking at classics along with newer titles as pieces of art, along with "feature pieces" focusing on certain game design choices (music, colour, level design, etc).

Please leave a comment and input.

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