The other night, I stayed up way past my bedtime playing the finale of the video game DragonAge: Origins, the recently released fantasy role-playing game (RPG) by BioWare. Though the game had a lot of technical limitations that drove me nuts, and the fantasy setting was definitely stereotypical (Zero Punctuation had a great review of the game), in the end the characters and the development of the story won me over. The game is designed to force you to make very hard decisions, most of which possess no right answer. Though I made the choices that I felt were right in the game, I was genuinely saddened at the end of the game because of the consequences of those choices. It may seem odd, but it is a game that will probably stick with me for some time.
This reminded me of a topic I’ve thinking of blogging about for some time: are video games artistic? Of course, modern video games have armies of artists producing the graphics and the music, and there are other sites that consider video games as art in a more abstract sense, but I’m really thinking more about the stories that are told and the way they are told.
Roger Ebert has, in years past, caught a lot of flak for expressing his opinion that video games cannot be art comparable to great literature and movies:
…I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.
I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
Roger Ebert has given this a lot of thought (and gotten into arguments with Clive Barker over it), and he makes a very reasoned case. If I understand it correctly, he argues that good movies and literature require the author to tell a story the way he or she wants to tell it — the more one gives the player control over the outcome of the story, the more one is sacrificing their story and artistic vision.
I used to think more or less the same thing as Ebert, but these days I respectfully disagree with him. Firstly, interactivity doesn’t necessarily ruin the story the author wants to tell — it can place the gamer into the story in a way that gets them more involved than a passive reading can do. Furthermore, it is possible to use the very act of interactivity to tell a sort of ‘meta-story’ — showing the gamer how their actions have consequences and showing how those consequences can ripple further along the line in the tale.
Of course, most games don’t do this at all, and I can’t blame Ebert for not being familiar with some of the gems of the genre. Heck, most movies that are produced fall very, very short of being ‘high art’, and someone who casually follows the summer blockbusters would certainly get the impression that movies are shallow and vapid.
With this in mind, I thought I’d share my list of video games that aspire to something more than shallow entertainment. Whether or not they reach the level of ‘art’ I leave it to the reader to decide. Certainly this isn’t intended to be the final word or even a convincing argument in favor; the internet is filled with commentary on the subject.
1. A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985). When I was growing up in the early days of computer gaming, the most popular and interesting games were graphics-free text adventures, also known as “interactive fiction“. The description of the story and the environment is only given as text, and the players interact with the virtual environment only through a text command line. The original text adventure was called, simply, Adventure (later Colossal Cave) and implemented in FORTRAN by programmer Will Crowther in 1975 as a game he could enjoy with his daughters.
Throughout the years 1979 through the late 80s text adventures were extremely popular and the biggest producer was a company called Infocom, founded by MIT staff and students. Infocom produced some 35 adventures before being bought out and closed down by Activision. Infocom aspired to make relatively literary adventures throughout a range of genres, including science fiction, horror, mystery, adventure, and even romance!
Obviously, a command line format is not suited for real-time action, so text adventures typically focused on puzzle-solving. One adventure produced by Infocom, however, possessed in fact only one puzzle at the very end of the game: A Mind Forever Voyaging, by Steve Meretzky. The game is a science fiction adventure with deep and serious political overtones. The player assumes the role of PRISM, the world’s first sentient computer, located in the “United States of North America” (U.S. and Canada) in the year 2031. The country is suffering from a variety of social problems, and an American Senator has put forth a decidedly right-wing nationalist plan, the “Plan for Renewed National Purpose”. With sophisticated supercomputer simulations, PRISM is sent into a simulated future various decades into the future to assess the long-term impact of the plan. The player is free to roam the virtual future to see for him/herself the impact of the PRNP.
Meretzky was making a bold statement about the right-wing populist fever of the Reagan era, though a quick read of the Wikipedia article shows that the game might very well have been written about the Bush era or the current FOX news fearmongers.Meretzky himself was hoping to stir discussion and controversy with the game, but he was sorely disappointed. His next game was the raunchy B-movie style text adventure Leather Goddesses of Phobos. He described his motivation for LGP in the Infocom Newsletter, The Status Line (volume 5, number 3),
A Mind Forever Voyaging dealt with some politically sensitive topics, and I was hoping that it would stir up a lot of controversy. It didn’t. Not a single flaming froth-at-the-mouth letter. So I decided to write something with a little bit of sex in it, because nothing generates controversy like sex. I’m hoping to get the game banned from Seven- Eleven stores. Finally, I get asked all the time, “When are you guys gonna do a graphic adventure?” Well, we won’t add pictures to our stories, so this was the only way to create a graphic adventure.
It’s worth noting that a number of very good authors have tried their hands at interactive fiction: notably Douglas Adams, who did a text adventure version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well as a stunningly frustrating game called Bureaucracy, and Thomas M. Disch, who did a text adventure called Amnesia. Text adventures are still written by a lot of enthusiasts, and there are web sites dedicated to them.
2. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985). The “Ultima” series of fantasy games were groundbreaking in many, many ways! The main Ultima series eventually resulted in 9 games grouped into 3 trilogies (and the first online RPG, Ultima Online), though only the first 7 games had creator Richard Garriott’s input. I’ve blogged about creator and visionary Richard Garriott a couple of times (here and here), but it’s worth saying a little here again. He produced adventure games originally for his friends, then sold the first precursor to Ultima, Akalabeth, in ziplock bags while working at a ComputerLand retail store.
The games of the first trilogy, Ultima I-III, were groundbreaking technical achievements and showed much creativity in story, but were more or less standard fantasy fare. The trilogy was referred after its completion as the “Age of Darkness”; in each game, the hero faced off against a different evil threat to the stability of the world.
Ultima IV took a stunningly unusual turn, and one that has never really been reproduced in a fantasy game since! The main character, assumed to be the same hero of the first three games, has been tasked to become a moral inspiration to a world still reeling from the trio of evils in the Age of Darkness! The hero must do so by upholding the eight virtues — honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility — and the related principles of Truth, Love, and Courage.
I played this game as a young teenager, and its theme was quite a shock for me! The previous games provided no moral consequences for committing evil or criminal acts, and it was pretty typical to go rob some of the stores in the cities when one’s money was running low. (According to Wikipedia, this was a large motivation for the story of Ultima IV.) Robbery is still possible in Ultima IV, but it is a moral failing and moves the player further away from victory! I still remember the moment that this very simple fact occurred to me while playing.
The game possesses no central villain; in a very real sense, the opponent in the game is the player’s own negative tendencies. There are still monsters to fight and dungeons to explore, of course, but a lot of the game involves traveling the countryside, interacting with its inhabitants, and learning enough about the virtues to prove oneself a paragon of virtue: an “avatar”. This information is essential at the end of the game, too: after traveling to the bottom of a deadly dungeon, one is confronted with questions about the virtues! Answering wrong boots one immediately to the surface, and one must fight all the way through the dungeon again for another shot!
Traveling throughout the fantasy world is really a joy, as well; Ultima IV was the first game in the series to introduce a really detailed, consistent fantasy world populated with characters and locations which would recur throughout the series. Ultima IV was definitely a game that attempted to challenge one intellectually and simultaneously teach some lessons about morality.
The later Ultimas that Richard Garriott designed would continue a trend of being quite thought-provoking. Ultima VI introduced concepts of racial tension: the hero is tasked to defeat an attacking gargoyle nation, but later learns that his earlier actions (specifically at the end of Ultima IV) inadvertently destroyed much of the gargoyles’ homeland! The hero must bring the humans and gargoyles to an understanding and force a lasting peace.
3. Half-Life (1998) & Half-Life II (2004). For me, the best type of fiction is horror fiction, and video games offer a unique opportunity to scare and disturb the player in ways no book can. Half-Life is as much a first-person shooter (FPS) as it is a horror game, but what sets it apart is its strong characters and remarkably engaging story.
The protagonist of the story is theoretical physicist (!) Gordon Freeman, who works at the mysterious and massive Black Mesa research facility, set in a remote section of the New Mexico desert. Much of the complex is set underground, as a wonderfully done opening sequence demonstrates. The player controls Freeman as he goes to work in a tram car that progresses deeper and deeper into the tunnels below the surface, giving tantalizing glimpses of the activities going on in the complex. Freeman participates in a unspecified experiment with a mysterious test sample. The experiment goes horribly wrong, unleashing a “resonance cascade” that wreaks havoc in the complex and opens a dimensional portal and allows hideous extradimensional beings to invade and kill many of the inhabitants.
On the surface, the game sounds like standard FPS fare. The devil is in the details, however, and there are a lot of wonderful details: the biology of the alien invaders, the sinister atmosphere of the sprawling Black Mesa facility, the growing escalation of the invasion and desperation of the human survivors, and tons of little details that turn the game into a truly unnerving and utterly immersive experience. The best detail, perhaps, is the mysterious “G-man”, a man in a suit who is seen throughout the game casually observing Gordon’s efforts to survive.
Six years after the original Half-Life, Valve Software upped the ante and produced the sublime Half-Life 2, also considered one of the best games of all time. Set an unspecified number of years after the original game, Gordon Freeman mysteriously awakens in a world that has been overrun by extra-dimensional invaders, and he ends up leading a resistance movement to defeat the invaders. Half-Life 2 has been followed up in turn with 3 “episodes”, the third of which is as yet unreleased. Over the course of the games, Gordon Freeman has evolved from a physics Ph.D. struggling to survive into a near-mythological folk hero revered by humanity and hated and feared by the alien Combine.
The story of the Half-Life series is not exactly “deep”, but it is well-crafted and engaging, even emotionally so. Supporting characters are wonderfully fleshed out, and as a player I found myself caring about them and their fates just as much as I have any movie character. The character of Gordon Freeman, though he never speaks, develops a distinct personality through his actions (performed by the player) and the reactions of those around him. Overall the series is a near-perfect blend of action, horror and science fiction, and a wonderful example of how a game can be fun and tell a story worth telling.
4. Kingdom Hearts (2002) & Kingdom Hearts II (2005). Kingdom Hearts is a game I would never have thought could interest me! It seems like an unlikely concept: a role-playing game that merges the characters and worlds of the Final Fantasy series of games and Disney movies. The result, however, is an utterly unique, sentimental, and charmingly effective experience.
The game introduces us to three young friends, Sora, Kairi, and Riku, who live together on the idyllic Destiny Islands. In an extended introduction to the game, the player guides Sora around in his daily games, and learns of the rivalry of friends Sora and Riku for the attentions of Kairi. We are already attached to the characters when the Destiny Islands are invaded by mysterious creatures called the Heartless. The Heartless are spreading through the multiverse, consuming the worlds that they encounter.
Sora is separated from Riku and Kairi and ends up in a strange city called Traverse Town. He soon meets up with Donald Duck and Goofy, who are attempting to find their lost King Mickey. The trio set off on a quest across multiple worlds to find their lost friends and end the threat of the Heartless.The worlds encountered include the worlds of many popular Disney films, including the undersea world of The Little Mermaid, Agrabah from Aladdin, Wonderland from Alice in Wonderland, and Neverland from Peter Pan. The player gets to interact with the characters from these stories, and battle with their infamous villains.
If this were all the game had to offer, I would hardly include it in a post about “artful” video games — it sounds like a rather silly and childish premise! The game’s emotional content is really what stands out. Sora’s search for his lost friends is filled with an atmosphere of longing and melancholy. The game does a wonderful job of conveying childhood love and friendship, and the loss of both.
The first Kingdom Hearts has a rather open-ended conclusion, and the second game continues the story. Sora explores more Disney worlds — including Pirates of the Caribbean — and explores further the origins of the Heartless and the newly introduced Nobodies. The back story of the Heartless and their masters is surprisingly detailed and doled out in small hints throughout the two games. The conclusion of Kingdom Hearts II wraps up most of — but not all — plot points in the game and completes the tales of the protagonists of the Disney Worlds. The ending was so sweet and sentimental, I very nearly teared up!
As reported by Wikipedia, the first game was conceived by chance when producer Shinji Hashimoto met a Disney executive in an elevator. It was directed by Tetsuya Nomura, who had previous experience as the director of a number of the later Final Fantasy games. The later series is also very well known for its strong stories and beautiful artistic direction.
5. Katamari Damacy (2004). This one isn’t terribly deep, but the game is so utterly unique and the story so completely bizarre that I can’t help but think of it as an artistic endeavor!
The player plays the role of the pint-sized son of the “King of all Cosmos”, a deity who goes on a drunken bender one night and smashes all the stars and planets in the sky. Regretting his actions, he tasks his son to create more stars by rolling up objects on Earth into a ball (katamari) of ever-increasing size, snowball-style. The player must roll a ball of a certain size within a time limit, or face the harsh disappointment of the King. The target size of the katamari grow larger as the game progresses: the first one ends being only centimeters in size, while the final one is hundreds of meters in diameter.
According to Wikipedia, the game idea was originally conceived as a thesis project for designer Keita Takahashi studying at the Namco Digital Hollywood Game Laboratory. It has spawned 3 sequels on major game platforms as well as editions for mobile platforms (I have it on my iPhone).
The game is simply a wonderfully whimsical diversion. It was designed to meet four basic criteria — novelty, ease of understanding, enjoyment, and humor — and succeeds on all points. It also introduces unique story, world and characters in the process. The music is also incredibly addictive: the original soundtrack can be downloaded from the internet here.
6. Shadow of the Colossus (2005). Shadow of the Colossus is a beautiful and challenging action game that manages to bring a significant amount of emotional impact with it!
The player takes the role of a young man named Wander. Wander has traveled to a desolate isolated valley with the body of his love to find a mysterious disembodied being named Dormin who is said to be able to raise the dead. Dormin agrees to do so, but only if Wander slays 16 colossi in the valley – the smallest of which is pictured on the box cover! To slay a colossus, the player must figure out how to climb onto the creature and find a way to its vulnerable points, all while avoiding attempts to be shaken off. Each creature is in essence a moving puzzle that must be solved and conquered.
On an emotional level, the story is filled with sadness and regret. Wander is trying to undo the harm done to his love (he refers cryptically to her “sacrifice”) by committing a crime and entering the valley forbidden by his people. All elements of the game, from the scenery to the music, emphasize the isolation and loneliness of Wander.The colossi themselves are beautiful creatures, and not all of them are hostile to the player. While playing the game, I felt undeniably guilty about slaying the beasts, and a feeling that the actions I was performing were definitely wrong. Shadow of the Colossus is a bit of a case study in the idea of ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. Adding to the apprehension of the game is the early observation by Dormin that Wander may have to pay a great price to achieve his goals.
Lead designer Fumito Ueda had a clear vision for what he wanted his game to be. From Wikipedia again,
All elements of the game—including audio, gameplay and visuals—were used to achieve an atmosphere of a “lonely hero”, which Ueda considered important in the development of the game. Lighting, in particular, was used to establish a dark, fearsome setting for the forbidden land, while the protagonist’s sword would provide a means of navigation that was “direct and only expressible visually”.
The game intentionally leaves many questions about the story and characters unanswered. A movie version of Shadow of the Colossus is listed on IMDB as being in development.
7. The Path (2009). I expressed my excitement about this game in a previous blog post! The game was produced by a pair of independent game developers running the company Tale of Tales, and came out in March of this year.
The Path is inspired by the tale of Little Red Riding Hood: the player’s official goal is to get six sisters to their grandmother’s house through a dark forest. The girls have been given one important instruction: stay on the path to grandmother’s house. One can easily follow the path to grandma’s place without incident. However, unlike most horror games, the true goal of the game is not survival; rather, the only way interesting things happen is by breaking that one rule. Exploration of the areas of the forest off the path will reveal more about the story of the girls and eventually lead to their demise.
The Path is, in a sense, hardly a game at all, but an interactive story in a manner similar to A Mind Forever Voyaging. There aren’t any puzzles to solve or battles to fight, only places to explore and events to experience.I really, really enjoyed The Path, and spent hours wandering around the woods with the various sisters. Its high concept premise — you have to break the rules in order to see the (interesting) horrific consequences — can only work effectively in an interactive game. There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in working towards a horrible end for the game’s characters, especially when a happy ending is easily achievable.
8. Dragon Age: Origins (2009). Let me end by saying a few words about the game that got me motivated to write this post in the first place! Dragon Age: Origins is the new RPG by BioWare, which has previously produced high-quality RPGs such as Mass Effect, Baldur’s Gate I and II, and Knights of the Old Republic.
In many if not most ways, the game is a standard fantasy RPG: the player’s character becomes a Gray Warden, a warrior trained to fight the corrupt monsters known as darkspawn, and must unite the fractious nations of the continent (human, elf, dwarf, and mages) in preparation of a “Blight” of darkspawn, led by a dragon-like archdemon. Along the way, the hero grows in power through new skills and weaponry, and assembles an eclectic party of adventurers to help in his quest. Sounds pretty typical, no?
Where Dragon Age really excels and distinguishes itself is in the difficult choices the player is faced with during the game. These choices rarely have a “right” answer, but all of them have important consequences for the game and its outcome. For example, going to the dwarves for aid reveals that the kingdom is currently undergoing a crisis of succession, and the player must choose a side, making a deadly enemy in the process. The other members of your adventuring party also have their own motivations and moral codes, and your choices can bring them closer to you or alienate them, even to the point of violence.
The game as a whole is about choices, and the consequences of those choices. As I noted in the introduction, this is the ‘meta-story’ associated with the game. Many consequences can be heartbreaking, or even hugely detrimental to your goals, or both: on the eve of the final battle, I lost my two most powerful and closest allies over disputes, and had to go into the battle without their aid. I kept expecting them to have second thoughts and come “riding to the rescue” in the end, but it was not to be — I had made my decisions, and had to face the consequences. Strangely, though, looking back on the game, I can’t imagine doing anything differently, even knowing the results. My choices, to me, were the morally right ones, and I wouldn’t take them back.
A game which encourages this sort of self-reflection is pretty rare, and should be commended. Though the script is not completely fixed, as in a novel or a movie, the overall point — the consequences of our choices — is something that cannot be achieved as effectively in a film.
So, these are the games that, in my opinion, aspire to be more than simple entertainment. Are they comparable to the greatest films and novels ever written? Of course not, but they show that video games have much potential to artistry; perhaps one day they will fully realize that promise.
So what do you think? Feel free to suggest your own candidates for “artistic” games in the comments.