I’ve never concerned myself with answering the the “are video games art” question because it seems like the proverbial quest to nail a gelatin dessert to a wall, but the debate itself can be interesting and enlightening. Brian Moriarty, a former game designer for Infocom and Lucasfilm Games among other credits, gave a talk at the 2011 Game Developer’s Conference that takes the form of an apology for, and a defense of, Roger Ebert’s well-established and much-debated position that games cannot be considered great art.
Are video games sublime art? If not, why not? If so, how can this stately designation be justified? Brian Moriarty attempts to answer these questions, and draws some interesting and surprising parallels between the games industry, the movie industry and museum-legitimised works of visual art.
One of the features or purposes of great art Moriarty examines is that it seeks to convince the viewer of an inevitable conclusion. Games are guided systems of player choice, and as such work against this effect as part of their nature. Active and conscious participation dilutes the kind of contemplation necessary to be moved to that inevitable conclusion the artist intended. Although Moriarty’s lecture focuses on visual art, the same idea of viewing versus participation holds equally true for literature. As a reader my only task is imagining what the author has described for me, and not to exercise any purposeful will in a constant action/reaction cycle.
I remember some of the loudest silence I ever heard after reading the final line of George Orwell’s “1984,” closing the book, and lowering it. Was I ever the same after I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl?” I hope not. My only experience approaching the sublime in gaming is Kotaro Uchikoshi’s visual novel 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Visual novels are a type of video game that follow the form of Choose Your Own Adventure books with more intensive art requirements, scrolling text, and sound. In most of these games the story generally unfolds in a linear way, with occasional dialogue choices determining which branches of the story are followed to the end. 999 explodes the linear tree structure by featuring five endings that must be played through following multiple non-linear and overlapping paths before the sixth “true” ending with the most complete explanation of the game’s events becomes accessible; and it is spectacular exercise in narrative structure. It is also a seemingly gigantic and inefficient pain in the neck to play through the set gameplay sections repeatedly to find new dribs and drabs of information that inform the complete picture of the “true” ending.
While playing 999 the biggest metaphorical slap to my face was the moment several playthroughs deep where the protagonist realised the truth of the situation he was in; a situation which was violent, brutal, and created with a contempt for humanity that nature could hope to emulate with access to better technology. However, this revelation could just as easily have been a particularly well-written passage of a prose story, or the camera slowly tracking to a close-up of the character’s face as this new information dawns on him. I understood that I was experiencing something transcendent and only possible in a video game at that moment when I realised that the flaws in the gameplay were being harnessed to tell the story.
Did this qualify the game as great art? It was certainly a memorable experience of an artistic cultural product, but to my mind being able to call it “great art” ultimately wouldn’t change anything about the game, how I felt while playing it, or the achievements of the game’s development team.