Avant-garde Video Games

In 2005 Roger Ebert stated the video games can never be art. Last year he clarified his opinion on that subject, reaffirming his 2005 statement. This caused quite a controversy in the gamer community. Some gamers agreed, but it seemed that most were offended. As a gamer, I have to say that I agree with Ebert. I never considered video games to be art. They are part of the humanities, sure. But to say that they are art? No. I couldn’t agree less. Video games are exactly what they claim to be, games. They are more akin to sports, than they are to Claude Monet.

Still, the controversy over the subject made me question why gamers were so appalled that Roger Ebert would say that their medium of creativity was not art. I can see a few reasons. One obvious reason is that Ebert is not a gamer. He’s not familiar with the medium at all. He really only knows what other people have shown him, or what he’s happened to see. He admits that he isn’t really interested in playing them. Certainly I can understand why a gamer would be upset with Ebert over this matter. He seems to be attacking something that he doesn’t really understand, they claim.

I think, however, that the heart of the upset in the gamer community is that they want video games to be art. In a way, they need them to be art. Picture a stereotypical gamer. Perhaps it is a guy in his late twenties, still living in his parent’s basement. Maybe he rarely sees daylight as he is logged onto World of WarCraft both day and night. Or maybe it is the fifteen year old kid, camping out in Modern Warfare 2. The fact of the matter is, that anyone who fits this stereotype is, most likely, not very cultured. They don’t know who Monet is, they’ve probably heard the name Picasso. Who hasn’t? But they probably think Picasso died hundreds of years ago. He didn’t. Leonardo, to them, was a Ninja Turtle. Granted, fans of the Ninja Turtles probably know that the Turtles were named after artists (and even I admit that I have no idea who Donatello was). My point in stating this, is that gamers want to be able to say that they are cultured. They want to be able to say that what they do is transcendental in some way. They want to say that what they do is art. And so, they say it. They’re wrong. As I said, video games are not art. They are games.

Still, as a gamer, I will admit that there is the possibility that a video game could, indeed, be art. I recently played the game The Path by Tale of Tales. What can I say about this game? I don’t even really know. Certainly the designers seem to want to believe that their game is art. It’s meant to be “experienced” rather than played, they say. I suppose I should explain a little about this game. The game is based on the tale of Little Red-Riding-Hood.

Six girls need to get to Grandmother’s house.

When the game starts you select one of six girls to play as. Each of them varies in age and personality. After selecting your character the game begins. The sound of the city is left behind as the girl of your choosing finds herself standing at the end of a paved road, a path in front of her. You are in control of the girl. A message on the screen instructs you to go to grandmother’s house and to stay on the path. Eerie music plays in the background, and faint images flash on the screen. You can do as directed, and follow the path, or you may wander into the forest. Going to grandmother’s house leads to failure. Indeed, it is necessary to disobey and stray from the path.

As you explore the forest you encounter various objects and people. Each of the girls have different reactions to the things they encounter, and in fact, each girl has her own unique encounters in the forest. The ultimate goal of the game is to find the “wolf” of the girl you are playing as. For the first girl that I played as, I triggered her “wolf encounter” right away. I didn’t even see much of the forest, so I didn’t really learn much about this girl, or about the game in general. I didn’t see her reaction to any of the places or objects in the forest. The second girl I played as was a little short lived as well. I saw more of the forest, but I experienced her wolf encounter fairly early on as well.

She wants a Peeping Tom to watch her. Sounds like the perfect girl for a gamer!

It really wasn’t until the third girl that I played as, that I began to experience the game as I believe the designers intended. The girl was named Carmen. I knew that it was necessary to wander off the path. So I did so. I soon encountered a lake. Carmen’s thoughts on the lake were, “I wish it were warmer. Then I could go for a swim. And perhaps, with any luck, be watched by some handsome forester.” I began to get an impression of who Carmen was. She wanted a Peeping Tom to spy on her. I also noticed that she walked differently than the other girls. She strutted like a model on a runway. She ran like she wanted to show herself off. She was a sexual creature. Later I encountered a forester chopping trees near a campsite. I realized that he was her “wolf”. I approached the man. Carmen pseudo-seduced him and took his hat from him and put it on her own head. I looked around the camp. There was a fire pit. She started a fire. There was a crate of beers. Carmen drank one. Still, I couldn’t figure out how to trigger the encounter with the forester, and eventually left.

Wandering around in the forest some more, I encountered a meadow. I’d seen the meadow before with one of the other two girls I’d played as, but I’d never really gone into it. It was the only place in the forest where the sun shined. Carmen commented on how she would like to be a flower, but if she was one, she would be the only one. She seemed somewhat depressed. Maybe she wasn’t so happy with her sexuality after all. I didn’t know. She picked up a flower and put it in her basket. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do in the meadow so I wandered into the forest again. I found a record player, and Carmen picked up a record. She thought, “Let’s get the party started! I have the music. Where’s the beer?” I knew she was a party girl. This was all well and good, but I spent a few hours wandering around trying to figure out what to do. No luck. I found more objects, some that even suggested that one of the girls wanted to commit suicide, but I could not figure out how to trigger Carmen’s wolf encounter. To be honest I was bored at that point, and I decided I’d try to go back to grandmother’s house and get the failure ending for Carmen. I soon found that I couldn’t find the path. The forest was and endless loop, there was no way to get back to the path from which I had strayed. A metaphor? Maybe, but to be honest I was too bored to think about it.

Eventually I gave up and search the internet to find out what to do next. I was supposed to sit by the campfire and wait for the forester to sit next to Carmen. It was a matter of waiting. I had no idea. Quite frankly, I was so bored at that point that I was ready to quit for the day. I did play again the next day, and with the last three girls I had no problems triggering their wolf encounters or finding other objects of interest in the forest.

Was this game art? I don’t know. It’s certainly the closest I’ve come to considering a game as art. Certainly it is avant-garde, experimental, unique among it’s kind. It wasn’t like any other game I’ve played. It was a totally different experience, and as an experience, the game was certainly interesting. It isn’t the type of game that one would want to play all day, or even put that much time into, but it wasn’t terrible. The game had it’s fair share of problems, it’s controls were awkward, which perhaps made it a little difficult to experience the environment. And, truth be told, the game was a little boring. The interesting parts were somewhat infrequent. I won’t say the game is a failure. It really isn’t that long, and doesn’t take much time, but it is a good thing that not all games are like this. As bored as I was at times, I admit, I enjoyed playing it, and might even go back to it someday. But one thing I can conclude for certain, is that video games shouldn’t be art. They should be games. They should be played. The rare avant-garde game is okay, but if all games were like this, it would be a disaster.

Video games are like an endless forest…

Gamers can argue with Ebert all day about how their medium is like an endless forest. Where wandering aimlessly, in directions undecided, leads to the beauty and horror of things not experienced in the physical world. That games are a sense altering, mood enhancing, thought provoking exploration of human interaction, a high more potent than forest mushrooms. They can argue as much metaphorical mumbo-jumbo as they like, but it doesn’t prove anything. What I think, is that gamers find themselves in the desperation of awkwardness, trying to flower into the world and say, “I know how to find meaning.” Yet their hearts are ill-content to accept that their claims are rejected by those with the proclamation of expertise. And so they recluse into the creativity of some designer, where thy are the master of their medium. They camp, they grind, they aim with precision, until they target their endless goals. Their passions, though, go unfulfilled, and in the end they are merely players on a stage, and not spectators of, what the educated call, art. How’s that for some metaphorical mumbo-jumbo?

4 thoughts on “Avant-garde Video Games”

  1. but surely this applies to everything: films included, to take roger ebert’s speciality. a lot of people don’t consider films to be art. a lot of people don’t even consider anything that isn’t inside a picture frame to be art. so it follows that a lot of people don’t consider video games to be art. and now a respected, esteemed, but most importantly, NAMED individual from that latter category steps forward to confirm all of these opinions. but art doesn’t work like this, art isn’t a majority rule or a democracy. surely the art world can understand the simple fact of art: if some people consider something to be art, it is art. art is based totally on the minority.

  2. sorry, didn’t read the article lol
    however, it’s just dawned on me that its inevitable that video games will become art. as soon as today’s sophisticated 3D engines become accessible and more importantly, understood, by the majority of gamers the ‘video game as artistic concept’ will be all there is to accomplish. people are already bored with games, it’s the little glimpses into the future, of how we can interact with art and ideas and there potential and expression, that keeps us playing. sorry to be vague, it is long way off. we’re are all illiterate when it comes to programming and 3D design, mostly; the joypad renaissance can’t happen soon enough though

  3. I agree with Dawson, art isn’t about the media, but the concept, a game can be art and can be not art, same for a movie, a picture or a music. I belive in the artistic pontential of the video-game media, I think that it can lead to experiences that other media can’t, and it cuold be great for art and for games too. and this process already started, look at the “indie games” scene, its like a first step to emancipate games from the “entreteinment industry”.

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