The Art of Gameplay

Screenshot from "Bientôt l’été", the latest in artful gaming.

Screenshot from “Bientôt l’été”, the latest in artful gaming.

The last few years have seen a steady rise in non-traditional games that push the boundaries of the medium itself. These titles are proving that games are not only an interactive form of literature and storytelling, but are also capable of being considered as forms of art. These games are not only aesthetically stunning are also inspired, thought provoking and incredibly moving.

Like all progressive forms of art, there are those that challenge the idea of video games being classified as art. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert in particular has been vehemently opposed to this notion. In a 2010 he wrote an article titled  ‘Video Games Can Never Be Art’ where he not only argued this claim, but did so whilst admitting that he hasn’t actually played any games that fans consider works of art.

Art is subjective. No one will ever 100% agree on what is and isn’t art, and that’s okay. If Ebert wishes to believe and profess that video games aren’t art, that’s his prerogative  However, to state that an entire medium of expression can never achieve the status of being ‘art’ is incredibly short-sighted. Furthermore, to make this claim without bothering to experience some truly beautiful games is simply an example of poor research.

Some of you out there may not be particularly well acquainted with the world of gaming. Like movies and literature, the gaming medium is home to a vast variety of genres. Furthermore, the games within them range from simplistic and light-hearted, to violent and blood thirsty, to heartbreakingly beautiful. Today I will introduce you to two games that are both highly praised and almost universally considered as art in the gaming world. If nothing else, they certainly have changed the way in which people view game play in general.

Bientôt l’été

Bientôt l’été (pictured at the top of the article) is an interactive game that uses real time 3D video game technology. You control an avatar — a man or woman — who walks on a simulated beach. Poetic phrases about love and loss roll in the waves, which you collect and take inside a building. You then exchange these words on a chess board with another person, presumably your lover, via the internet. You don’t know who they are, as the system matches you up automatically.

Confused yet?

Baffling and beguiling in almost equal measure, this most recent interactive experiment from Belgian developer Tale of Tales is a wilfully obtuse game that will frustrate as many as it fascinates. For long stretches it’s slow, perhaps deliberately so, and even tedious, but also contemplative, unusual and at times, strangely moving.

The inspiration for Bientôt l’été came partially from the novels of Marguerite Duras, as well as the real life experiences of the developers – Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn. Like the characters in the game, the pair originally met online and they felt a connection that eventually turned into love. They assumed that other strangers could feel this connection and that they could emulate it in the world of games. Thus, Bientôt l’été was born. Your character and your anonymous lover smoke, drink, quote literature, speak French and ultimately fall in love.

Players can also happen across apparitions that only appear when your avatar’s eyes are closed. They can manifest in the form of objects, which you later use as your chess pieces, or the aforementioned snippets of literature, which become the only options of dialogue that you can exchange with your lover.  This idea was inspired by the 1960 French Art House film Seven Days…Seven Nights and makes the interactive nature of the game utterly unique. Conversations can become nonsensical at times, but sometimes the dialogue can fit together perfectly to paint a rather convincing picture of a relationship. In this way, the game can invoke deep senses of both beauty and loss that can personally effect the players.

Serious emotional reactions are not what people think of when they hear the term ‘video game’. In fact, they would be more likely to associate such responses with literature or art, and games are supposedly neither of those things…

Journey

Screenshot from "Journey" by thatgamecompany.

Screenshot from “Journey” by thatgamecompany.

It’s hard to describe thatgamecompany’s simple and brilliant game, Journey, with mere words. After all, the game itself has none: Journey tells its beautiful story without a single line of dialogue.

In simple terms, Journey is a third-person, sporadically two-player adventure in which you travel through a desert towards a mountain. In this way, it utilises more traditional game-like elements than any of the developer’s previous works, whilst still maintaining the feel of an evocative, interactive art piece. Three hours long at most, it’s concise but not overly short. As such, its cycle of emotional highs and lows are best experienced in a single sitting.

You begin without context as a red-robed figure in a desert, and set out hiking towards a mountain on the horizon. Why? Initially, at least, just because it’s there. Instinctively you seek an objective and the mountain, topped with an unexplained bright light, is your only option. It’s a straight-forward but elegant kind of signposting, making the mountain a near-constant, towering waypoint. Elsewhere, Journey‘s signposting is lighter but similarly deft, suggesting objectives so subtly as to feel like you’re always exploring on instinct.

There are hints at the back story in hieroglyph-like murals and wordless visions, both of which allude to a terrible cataclysm. Mostly though, Journey opts for atmosphere and mystery over exposition. The implication is that you might be all that’s left, and that reaching the distant mountain is imperative. It’s a lonely prospect, and yet an enticing one also.

This incessant loneliness makes Journey‘s intriguing take on multi-player game play all the more evocative. Multi-player mode is anonymous and automatic, spontaneously bringing together two players at the same stage in their respective games. When you come across a fellow wanderer, he or she is stripped of their Playstation Network ID. You have no means to communicate except for a one-button musical tone, with which you can chirp at one other. In the absence of identifying details, you can only wonder who your nameless companion is.

It’s a true accomplishment that Journey draws together so many conventional game elements and still feels like a piece of art – intriguing and experimental. Its deliberate ambiguity urges one to speculate on underlying themes and meanings, which are bound to be personal, and best discovered for yourself, just like any other form of artwork.

It is by experiencing these two incredibly moving games that I cannot help but rebuke Ebert’s statement that games can’t be art. Art is itself considered to be a very personal experience and is subject to the individuality of the beholder. Furthermore, the idea of what can be considered as art is constantly changing and becoming more inclusive. With that in mind, who is Ebert to say that his opinion of art is definitive? He said himself that he chooses not to defend his statement, nor challenge it by playing any video games suggested to him as being artistic.

My suggestion to Ebert is that he actually bothers to play a few games before claiming that they could never be considered as ‘art’. After all, one wouldn’t review a movie without having first seen it, and video games should be paid the same respect before being labelled or stripped of artistic merit.

What are the most beautiful gaming experiences you’ve come across? Would you declare them to be art? Make us a recommendation, tell us your experiences or just let us know your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.

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