Roger Ebert made headlines back in 2005 with the contention that video games could never be art.
Ebert said the very nature of video games weakened them as a form of artistic expression. Imagine a version of Romeo and Juliet that allowed for the possibility of a happy ending. The very fact that people can interact with games weakens their power as art.
Ebert was talking about a fundamental weakness of games as a medium to explore the human condition. I'm not here to bash Ebert. A lot of what he was reacting to was simply the nature of video games at a certain point in time.
But games are changing, and more importantly, the technology that allows people to make small, meaningful games is getting better all the time, putting those means of production into the hands of people who are willing and able to make artistic statements in the video game medium.
Here's a couple recent examples.
We now have a mainstream studio devoted to games as interactive storytelling. Telltale Games has made a name for itself developing movie and TV licenses into interactive video games.
You still play them, in a sense, and the games react to your choices, but everything is in the context of a story. These are more like digital versions of choose your own adventure books than they are like conventional video games. These stories are built on moral choices, split-second decisions and long-term consequences.
Telltale has developed games based on Jurassic Park, Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, and even Batman, but their most famous series is based in the Walking Dead universe, exploring the adventures of alternative characters in a different part of the world, happening concurrently, or a little bit before the events in the television show.
If you're looking for an introduction to games as interactive storytelling, these would be a good start. They follow the adventures of Clementine, a young girl who is left orphaned by the zombie apocalypse, as she is adopted by a man named Lee.
Lee and Clementine struggle to survive in a world full of zombies, interacting with dozens of characters along the way. Some turn out to be heroes, some end up as villains, and all of them are forced to make horrible choices as they struggle to survive.
The Walking Dead games do a great job of exploring the heroism and the pettiness of ordinary people as they struggle with constant danger and limited resources.
The interactive nature of the games puts you in the driver's seat and forces you to confront the consequences of life and death decisions. Who do you save when the walkers are closing in? Who gets the food when supplies are running out? Do you trust the mysterious stranger on the bridge or do you shoot them on sight? Do you trust the well-meaning but foolish friend from your old group, or do you break his heart?
Now imagine having to make those choices for 8-year-old girl.
Does this exploration of choice and consequences elevate the game to the level of "art?" Every player gets to define that for themselves. But if you define art as an exploration of the human condition, this interactive comic book set in the Walking Dead universe has a way of getting to the heart of things that puts it ahead of the pack.
The Telltale version of Game of Thrones captures all the dramatic beats you've come to expect from the show - random cruelty, battlefield chaos, and even palace intrigue are well represented.
The Telltale formula strains a bit when it tries to tackle action titles like Batman and Guardians of the Galaxy, but there are still solid stories to tell here, if you're the kind of player who likes Bruce Wayne as much as his costumed counterpart.
But when it comes to games that explore the human condition, Telltale is just the tip of the iceberg. Indie developers and big studios have made worthwhile entries in this new format of storytelling games, often with chilling results.
The game Firewatch, by Campo Santo, follows an unlikely video game protagonist, a fire lookout at Shoshone National Forest.
The forest environment is rendered in precise and loving detail, capturing the grandeur and the loneliness as the protagonist, Henry, tries to solve a mystery, guided only by the voice of his supervisor, Delilah.
You make choices for Henry as he functions as a kind of impromptu park ranger, investigating illegal fireworks, confronting rowdy teenagers, eventually trying to figure out the story behind a mysterious death.
All of this is set in 1989. Many of these storytelling games are set in the past, partly for nostalgia, and partly to avoid the problem of cell phones. Cell phones have ruined the modern horror genre, so if you want to weave a tale about loneliness, abandonment and getting lost in the forest, it works a lot better if you roll back the clock.
Firewatch is a mystery, but it's also a strange kind of romance, as you become more and more attached to Delilah's voice on the radio. Henry's obviously falling in love with her, as she subtly leads him on. Determining how much you can trust her, figuring out what her intentions are, is the real heart of the game.
That depth of character is an accomplishment in itself, a kind of video game Turing Test. Video games are known as a straightforward, point and click medium, where story is added as an afterthought. But a video game with tentative romance and an unreliable narrator? That's a kind of art in itself.
I enjoyed Firewatch and the Telltale games, but my last example is a game that really disturbed me.
In Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, the player explores a small English town whose inhabitants have mysteriously disappeared. The story of the town is revealed by interacting with inanimate objects and with glowing streams of light, intended to be the spirits of former inhabitants.
The game is about the lives of these complicated, ordinary people, their hopes and dreams, their conflicts and personal dramas, all lingering in the form of these glowing, drifting memories, while the people themselves are gone.
If you were raised, like I was, on stories of the biblical Rapture, this game taps into an elemental kind of childhood dread, the fear that one day you'll wake up and be the only bad person left in the world, while all the good people have gone to Heaven.
This game makes that experience hauntingly real. All these ordinary lives cut short by some mysterious transformation. Is it science, magic, God, or aliens?
All those questions are answered, but it's the journey that matters, as you explore this perfect recreation of a quaint English town, learning about, and mourning for, the people who used to live there, now turned into spirits who can't quite let go.
Do these games qualify as art? Only your English professor knows for sure. But if you define art as a story that keeps you up at night, haunted by the lives of characters who never existed, second-guessing moral choices that you clicked through on a screen, I'd say any of these games could qualify, and any of them would make for a fun and thought-provoking weekend.
All of these games are available on Steam, and from their respective publishers.
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