Monday, June 29, 2015

Are video games art?

Years ago, the late Roger Ebert wrote that "Video Games Can Never Be Art". I wasn't playing a whole lot of video games back then, so I didn't really have a horse in that race. I could see where he was coming from, but I understood those who took him to task for his assertion as well. After all, even with the most basic video game like Pac Man, there is an art to the design of the characters and concepts. There's obviously a reason why some of them became more popular than others, and just as we can critique one novel as being "better" than another, we can do the same thing for video games. In other words, I leaned toward the "video games are art" camp.

I've been playing more video games in the past year though. One major reason is that my four-year-old son really took a liking to our old Wii games, especially anything to do with Mario. I went and bought the Wii U for Christmas, and once that was paid off, I went ahead and got the Playstation 4. (I already own the PS3, and I got the PS4 because I wanted the upcoming Rock Band 4 and Batman: Arkham Knight, neither of which would be available for PS3 or the Wii U.)

Roger Ebert
I bought the bundle that comes with The Last of Us: Remastered. I didn't know too much about the game, but I heard that it won a lot of awards. It was this experience that got me to thinking about the question as to whether video games were art or not, and I'll be damned if I deny that this game was a work of art.

I should probably say right now that if you haven't played the game, and you intend to do so, there will be some pretty major SPOILERS ahead. Read ahead at your own risk.

The Last of Us is a story-driven game which heads toward a pre-determined resolution. As the player, you take over during the action scenes as you try to get the protagonist, Joel, through his various trials and obstacles. The setup is your standard zombie apocalypse, plus a few twists on the monsters themselves, and the goal is to get a girl named Ellie across the country to a group called The Fireflies. Why do you need to get her across? Because she's been bit by one of the infected, and she hasn't turned. In other words, she holds the potential cure for the plague.


Joel's character arc begins with him losing his teenage daughter when the plague begins. When he meets Ellie, he wants nothing to do with her. This makes sense, but the two eventually form a bond. When it comes time to letting the Fireflies extract a cure from her, it turns out that they also need to kill her. Joel isn't willing to lose her by this point, so he goes on a shooting rampage in order to rescue her, thus dooming the human race. It sounds like a monumentally horrible decision when you summarize it that quickly, but by the time you've gotten to the climax of the story, it's completely believable that he'd be unwilling to let go of her, even at the expense of humanity.

I've written before about some favorite movies of mine, two of which are The Bridge on the River Kwai and Taxi Driver. What both of these movies get you to do is to root for a guy that you probably shouldn't be rooting for. In "Bridge", Colonel Nicholson wins you over when he gets the best of the Japanese while being their prisoner. Eventually you realize that Nicholson's motivation is solely his obsession with rules, and he'd help out the enemy if it meant following them. With Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, you feel for the guy because he's a bit of an outsider but seems to mean well. Then he takes his date to a porno, and you wonder why you're such a crappy judge of character. In both cases though, you stick with it because you found yourself liking them just enough to care about what happens.

The Last of Us does the same thing, only you don't only find yourself empathizing with a guy who's probably doing the wrong thing, it makes you a participant in his bad decisions. I remember sitting there at the end, wondering if I should keep shooting up all of these people, yet I continued anyway.

Would you doom humanity for the sake of this girl?
Every genre, whether it's movies, music, video games, novels, comic books, etc. has certain advantages and disadvantages. Comic books, for instance, invite the reader to be an active participant in setting the pace while reading the story. With video games, you have something that no other art form can do when it makes you an active participant in the decision of the characters. It's one thing to watch Travis Bickle shoot up a room full of people. It would have been something else if you were pulling the trigger, forcing his hand. With The Last of Us, I've had probably the most profound sense of moral ambiguity than I've ever had with any other art form.

It's this idea alone that makes it hard for me to even entertain the notion that video games are not art. I'm still kind of new to all of this, so I don't know if any other game comes close. However, the potential is there, and it's exciting.

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