Posted at 1 p.m. April 4, 2017
Video games blur the once starkly defined lines of art
Are the pixels on the screen that we call video games art? Many critics say no.
“Video games can never be art,” Roger Ebert said. “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” But critics could not be more wrong. Video games are one of the greatest art forms and communication tools human beings have ever created.
Storytelling is one of the oldest and most used art forms human beings have created. From word of mouth to books to reading stories online, the art is always changing and evolving. But the greatest change is a recent one. Modern video games provide an interactive story telling experience like nothing else and are an important staple in modern art.
In the early days, games were much more simple. In 1969, proof of concept for video table tennis, later renamed Pong, was filmed for the first time. The first official Pong video game was invented in 1972 by a young engineer and co-founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell. Although other games previously existed, Pong was the first to catch on with the general public. Many different versions of the game were created and it inspired new games as well. But it was basic, two rectangles move vertically while the ball travels horizontally between them. Not much in the vein of art or story-telling. It wasn’t until the 1980s that games began to develop into something greater than a few pixels on a screen.
Video games have become a feast for the eyes, thanks to technology.
The Nintendo Family Computer was released in Japan on July 15, 1983, but it was not released in North America. Instead, Nintendo rebranded it the Nintendo Entertainment System and released it in North America on Oct. 18, 1985. The NES was the platform that allowed games to take off as an art form.
Early releases on the NES were still far from brilliant story-telling or art. “Baseball”, “Duck Hunt” and “Super Mario Bros” were standard gaming fare at the time. It wasn’t until “The Legend of Zelda” was released in 1986 that gamers were exposed to what could be done with the genre.
Zelda was a groundbreaking title for many reasons. It was the first console game with a built-in save feature. No more having to finish games in one epic sitting. It featured an open world that allowed the player to tackle challenges when and how they wanted. Because of the freedom and lack of in-game hints, Zelda is considered by many to be the first hardcore game. Most importantly, Zelda told a story. The land of Hyrule is in distress. The princess, Zelda, has been kidnapped. You must find the Triforce of Power and rescue her. While the story is simple and an ancient trope, this version of it is what hooked many young gamers, whether they knew it or not.
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released in North America in August 1991 and took the next step in the genre with games like “Final Fantasy III”, “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past” and “Chrono Trigger,” the real standout for story-telling.
Chrono Trigger was created by the dream team of Square, the developer responsible for the “Final Fantasy” games, and Akira Toriyama, the creator of “Dragon Ball” and “Dragon Ball Z.” “Chrono Trigger” is a time-travel tale that follows the main character, Chrono, and his adventures to save the past, present and future. Toriyama’s art style is seen everywhere, including the character designs and the colors. The entire game screams manga or anime. The game features multiple branching story paths that can lead to more than 15 different endings, depending on the user’s decision, and it boasted more than 40 hours of gameplay. In those days, that may as well have been a million hours. It was like a create-your-own-ending novel that was worth reading. Epic is an overused term these days, but thanks to the story, art and gameplay, “Chrono Trigger” truly was an epic piece of interactive art.
Games and gaming have changed a lot since then. Computing power has grown exponentially and it is reflected in modern games. Graphics, polygons, pixels and frames-per-second talk sometimes pushes story-telling and good gaming to the back of the line. But there are games out there that continue to blur the line between art and gaming.
“The Witcher III: Wild Hunt” is another open-world game that gives the player endless choices when deciding how to play. A careless decision in the early hours of the game could lead to tough situations later on or the opposite could happen. But the art style really stands out compared to games like “Fallout” or “The Elder Scrolls” series. “The Witcher” takes a lot of its art style from graphic novel versions of the “Elric of Melnibone” series by Michael Moorcock. The Elric of Melnibone series is like a much darker and controversial version of “Game of Thrones.” Gothic themes and subdued colors are major features in the Moorcock’s work and all Witcher titles. Scenes from the game could be pages torn from the graphic novels. But another game takes it one step higher.
“Horizon Zero Dawn” is yet another open-world action role-playing game that was released on Feb. 28. The story is deep and compelling, the gameplay is solid and it is a pleasure to watch in action. While it does feel familiar in many ways, the character models, weather physics and graphics overall are some of the best available on PS4. The game has a unique photo feature that allows players to pause the action and compose photos, save them, run them through various filters and post them online. Players can produce stunningly composed photos in ways that similar features in other games have not been able to match.
Video games have carved their own genre in the art world. Like the Realist movement, video games were rejected as an art form in the early days but eventually even staunch art critics will acknowledge their earned place and accolades. Thanks to technology, creativity and ingenuity, video games are an interactive art form all their own.