Video Games as Art

The term “video game” conjures up for many the image of a testosterone-fueled digital arena, populated chiefly by teenage guys venting the unimaginable into a headset. This adverse stigma is not without truth – multiplayer video games have historically been male-dominated spaces. In recent years, however, games have risen to challenge conventional notions of the video game, bringing imagination, depth and emotion to the screen in a way not previously explored. The advent of indie games signals a change away from the traditional gamer to a more curious mainstream audience.

Following their emergence in the 1970s and despite technological limitations, home video games quickly grew in popularity and spawned a thriving business. The 1980s marked the rise of classic video games – this was the great acceleration period for the industry. With the expansion of the Internet in the early 2000s, indie video games saw a rise in popularity through increased ease of online sharing. In more recent years, crowdfunding and small-scale studios have allowed for the production of truly independent and unique games, unfettered by large-company regulations. Journey, Child of Light and Papers, Please are examples of memorable recent indie video games. They challenge notions of reality through a combination of engaging gameplay, immersive soundtracks and touching storylines – these are what truly set them apart and demonstrate the potential for video games as an art form.

Papers, Please follows the life of a lone border patrol agent in a fictional totalitarian state. Set in 1982 amidst postwar political tension, the player’s job is to vet and process potential entrants, migrants and refugees. Upon first seeing my roommate playing the game, it seemed dull and rather repetitive. This is far from the truth; the myriad characters, each with unique backstories, motivations and reactions that are themselves contingent on your choices, provide hours of intrigue as you peek into the lives of the people passing through your checkpoint. The seemingly tedious gameplay contrasts with the heavy moral quandaries that arise as the story plays out. Do you waive the rules and reunite a war-torn family? Ideally yes, but penalties for “mistakes” will cost you as well as the family you support – too many and they won’t survive the winter. The true artistic nature of this game lies not in graphics, but in the level of empathy it demands from the player. The player is asked to step into the emotional shoes of the protagonist, and forced to make choices that you, as a “good person,” would never make. The emotional pull from such simple game mechanics is what makes this a truly immersive experience. Ultimately, Papers, Please diverges from conventional espionage/war games and instead, draws focus to the human experience in the context of wartimes.

An image from Papers, Please.

In Child of Light, you play as Aurora, a young girl who awakes in the fairytale land of Lemuria, only to learn that her step-mother has stolen the sun, moon and stars. To return home and restore balance to the world, she must recover them, all the while grappling with her own unfolding destiny. The dreamlike artwork of watercolor backdrops and fantastical scenery compliment the overall surreal atmosphere. Along the way you meet various characters, whose tragic backstories are revealed as they join Aurora on her journey. The endearing rhythmic dialogue and fantasy landscapes provide a beautiful medium for the story to unfold, further complimented by a soundtrack that is both serene and poignant. Combat and puzzle mechanics, while not insanely challenging, are unique enough to keep the player interested. The warm atmosphere draws players into an experience that feels like a combination of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and your favorite Studio Ghibli movie. Ultimately, the greatest appeal of the game is its beautiful artwork and touching story, which plays on the nostalgia of familiar fairy tales to enchant and intrigue.

An image from Child of Light

In Journey, players encounter an altogether unique experience. You begin as a robed figure dwarfed amidst sprawling sand dunes in every direction. There is neither dialogue nor linear guidance; the only item of note is a distant mountain. As you begin to head towards it, slow strings of the breathtaking original soundtrack fade in. The Grammy-nominated score is merely one-third of the game’s incredible appeal. Throughout the game, you traverse through ancient ruins, finding art and slowly understanding what happened to the civilization there. The scenery and color scheme are majestic, and the ruins encourage exploration into the fringes, beyond just progressing the story forward. Journey refuses to impose a singular story or narrative throughout the entire adventure, allowing players to make of it what they will. Players grapple with complex situations in the face of multi-faceted themes, like death and rebirth, hubris, ascension, solitude or something entirely. It lacks the in-your-face style of other games, leaving you instead to ponder events and scenes as you play. It stands as my favorite game of all time; each of my friends who have played were equally captivated, though had entirely unique thoughts during their play-throughs. Each element – music, graphics, story and theme – blends together to create a masterful and unforgettable experience. If nothing else, the trailer offers a glimpse into what I have tried to convey.

The games explored above represent a small sample of the unique and incredible creations out there today. They have been used to demonstrate the potential for video games as art forms, and attempt to dispel knee-jerk reactions toward conventional ideas of video games. Though mainstream competitive “gaming” will continue to thrive, and while nothing is inherently wrong with this, there is an emerging sphere of unique, creative games that seek to explore diverse themes and provide a different kind of experience. With originality, imagination and a desire to push boundaries, the video games discussed above truly offer an interactive medium like no other. Why does the rise of indie games matter? Not only does it signal a shift away from formulaic and over-milked franchises, but it also allows games to engage with social issues that large corporations are hesitant to touch, such as child abuse, environmentalism and mental health.