Videogames as art?

So I’m glad to see that videogames & computer games keep getting brought up in this forum whenever the topic turns to artistic disciplines. For years I’ve been hoping for games to mature to the point even of comic books, especially when it comes to the quality of the writing. There’ve been some high points in writing, especially in text adventures (which I hate for the most part) and some of the point-and-click adventure games. But for the most part, I read some of the derivative storylines for games, or hear some terribly amateurish piece of dialogue, and think that the situation’s hopeless.

To give an example of the state of “art” in games: one of the companies I worked for was doing a children’s game where each of the levels ended with an animal giving the player a riddle to solve. Each animal was a parody of some celebrity, like Woody Allen, with the voice to match. At the last minute, though, the legal dept. made the team alter all of the voices and remove any references that would identify the celebrity. The reason is that videogames are legally classified as “product” instead of “art,” so they’re not protected by the right to parody that a movie, book, or comic book has.

The interesting part is that I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been expecting the wrong thing all these years. Some of the games that I’ve had the most fun playing have had a lousy story, or no story at all – Doom, SimCity, Diablo, Super Mario 64, and Final Fantasy Tactics (which had a complex story and interesting characters, that I couldn’t follow and didn’t care about at all). And many of the games that have great presentation or interesting stories, turned out not to be so much fun as games – Grim Fandango, Space Channel 5, Freedom Force, and Crimson Skies. If I can enjoy a game so much just based on the quality of the gameplay itself, does it really even need a story?

So my question (finally) is this: are there any games that you would classify as works of art? If there are, then what’s your criteria for calling it “art”? And is that even important to you, or is it just enough that a game is fun to play?

Some examples of games that I think would qualify:

Jet Set Radio – the game has loads of style, fantastic music, extremely well-designed levels that get more complicated as you go through the game, and is just a hell of a lot of fun.

Ico – beautiful art and character design, with simple gameplay that almost never feels forced or disconnected from the story.

You Don’t Know Jack – a simple trivia game, but some of the best writing ever. One of a bare handful of games I’ve played that was actually funny, instead of just “funny for a videogame.”

Seaman – probably the best example, if you ask me. It’s really more of an “interactive experience” than a game. I was consistently fascinated by what was going on in and was genuinely upset when I accidentally killed my Seaman!


That makes a lot of sense. The purpose of most games is to entertain by providing you with fun game play not with an engrossing story.


No, most games really don’t need a story just excellent game play. That said a decent storyline doesn’t hurt a game.


I have a rather broad definition of art and I’d be willing to classify games as art. Games use dialouge, images, sound effects to convey emotions and moods just like television or the movies. I see no real reason why they can’t be considered art.

Of course the most important thing for a game is that it is fun to play. I loved playing Metal Gear Solid 2 but I hated the story and the lame dialogue.


That “Myst” game was pretty popular and it seemed “artsy”. I played it for about 10 minutes then fell asleep. Pretty boring to me.
Games don’t need stories. I’d be willing to say most games would be better with less or no story at all. When I’m playing a FPS(First Person Shooter) I don’t want or need to know the back story for the charachters. I just want to kill people. When I’m playing a RTS(Real Time Strategy) its nice to know WHY I need to escort this truck(princess, general, prisoner, whatever). Just don’t give me a 20 minute cut scene with bad actors to tell me.
Bottum line, to me games are as “art” as movies or books are. The good ones come from the soul. The average ones come from the pocket book. The bad ones come out of some dude’s ass.

Well, I follow Scott McCloud’s definition of art, which is, “everything that doesn’t directly relate to survival or reproduction.” So, yeah, computer games are art.

However, the “art” isn’t in the writing, or the music, or the graphics, because all of those are already their own art forms. The art in computer games comes in the design of the game. Clever puzzles, balanced gameplay, replayability, open-ended storylines… There is a definite art to game design.

First of all, I’m going to have to take issue with Scott McClouds definition of art. My college roommate thought it was bogus because then mastrubation qualifies as art. So I think it’s really a defn. of entertainment. AND, video games do relate to survival and reproduction. All forms of play do, the same way it does when kittens pounce on balls of yarn. They are practicing hunting, but we could be practicing social interaction, or just boosting our egos and self-confidence (or,of course, hunting). Unfortunately, I don’t have a good defn. of art to offer (i’m not sure anyone does), but here are some examples that I would say qualify. Most of these have some political or social message, and are presented in an asthetically pleasing way. I mostly started thinking about this earlier in the year when a judge decided that games were not protected speech, so I was trying to think of games with political messages.

Ico - as mentioned above. I was at a conference where Lorne Lanning (creator of the Oddworld games, also artistic) commented on how significant it was that the two characters held hands. It isn’t an easy programming task to blend animations with user control, and even more so when there is this hand-holding constraint, but the creators thought it was so important that there was this physical interaction between the characters that it was worth the extra investment. My favorite part, the very slight rainbow you see in the waterfall room. I was in the room for about 20 minutes before I noticed it, and it took even longer before I realised that someone must have put it there. It just seemed so natural that a waterfall would have a rainbow.

The Sims - This is probably the one game I know of that could have been presented and accepted in a museum of modern art, if it weren’t a mass market video game. The art here, I think, is really in observing people play the game, and the reactions they have to their characters. Maxis created a model of suburban life that is so welcoming and pleasing that you can watch people live their mundane lives for hours. Not only that, but you create far more detailed stories about them than what is going on in the code. I think this is thanks to one of Scott McClouds rules in Understanding Comics where as characters become more general, it’s easier to invest your own feelings into them. The Sims would have been a total failure if the characters actually talked with one-another, because you would quickly realize how limited the behaviors are.

Trinity - One of the first games I know of to tackle political issues (well, I guess Balance of Power was earlier). This text adventure tried to show some of the everyday horror of nuclear proliferation, and how even nuclear testing had its horrible effects. It did this all by linking scenes of nuclear tests with an Alice in Wonderland world where each mushroom represented an explosion (a bit heavy handed, but I think it was effective)

State of Emergency - I haven’t played this one, but I hear it wasn’t that good. Regardless, here is a game celebrating the WTO protests and (especially) riots. A game about rioting doesn’t need a theme, but they chose this one presumably because it would make the players actions seem more meaningful and important.

Black and White - In this game, there were good actions and there were bad actions that you could choose, and based on your choices the environment would change and your worshippers (you played a god) would react differently according to how good or evil you were. I think this is a pretty clear statement about moral choices (black and white, no grey) and how they don’t just affect you, but have an effect on everything around you as well.

Some others that I think deserve mention are:
Deux Ex

Rez is definitely a work of art. What makes it work so well is the subtlety- it takes a couple of times playing all the way through before you notice how everything in the game is tied in with the main theme. If you haven’t heard anything about the game before playing it, the final level is the first explicit mention of evolution. When you play through after beating the game you will notice that everything from the enemy forms to the way your hit points are represented ties in with that theme.
Of course, it is also just a beautiful game.

I’ll have to disagree with MGibson… I consider Metal Gear Solid 2 a work of art. The technical execution is a mixed bag (beautiful and detailed visuals, unimpressive voices), but the plot is a web of intrigue, deception, and conspiracy that belongs in a Hollywood movie.

I would say that all videogames are works of art, the vast majority of them just happen to be bad art.
Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2 are both works of art, one of them is hollow and poorly written, but that doesn’t change it’s status as art.

Just curious, anyone here ever play Eternal Darkness.

An interesting question. Let me play devil’s advocate and say, “No, video games are not art.”

Video games are first and foremost games. Games have been around for ages, and no one has ever thought to call them art. Is chess art? Poker? A well-played game of basketball? Was Michael Jordan the greatest artist of our time?

This is not to say chess or poker or basketball are unimportant or uninteresting–after all, far more intelligent, thoughtful people engage in chess, poker, and basketball than subscribe to Art in America. It’s just that games are an entire category unto themselves. They don’t need to be categorized as some branch of “art” in order to be valid.

Mind you, a great deal of artistry goes into the creation of a game in terms of graphics, sound, writing, etc. But all of that artistry needs to be subservient to gameplay. A game can have the best graphics, sound, and writing money can buy and still be no fun to play. For evidence, see the large number of crappy titles from the “Siliwood” period of the mid-to-late '90s, when Hollywood attempted to colonize the game business.

The reverse is also true: what works in games doesn’t necessarily work in other media. Stories in games are told very differently than in the movies–there’s a lot more exposition and back story, far less character development, and an entirely different notion of pacing (because the player controls the pace, not the author.) The Final Fantasy games are often lauded by gamers for their stories, but last summer showed that if you take the basic Final Fantasy formula and try to make a regular narrative movie out of it, the result is pretty dire stuff.

Playing games is not a creative endeavor, making them is.

The Final Fantasy movie had a story that was nowhere near as good as the games. It’s not merely a factor of the movie having less time to tell the story, the story itself wasn’t as good.
Even though it wasn’t a very good movie, Final Fantasy was a work of art, as are the games- the games are just more successful as artistic endeavors.

Yep, making games is a creative endeavor. Not all creative endeavors are art, though. Science can be extremely creative, but nobody calls great scientists artists.

As I said, art is involved in the creation of games, but the end result is primarily a game, not art. A chessboard may be exquisitely made, but the chessboard is not the same as the game of chess.

With the chessboard analogy in mind, a great game may be a work of art in addition to being a great game, but that’s secondary and somewhat unimportant. Everyone agrees that, say, Tetris and Quake and Civilization are great games, but if you try to analyze them using the traditional vocabulary of “art” they’re woefully lacking.

(Well, I suppose a Mondrian fan might make a case for Tetris.)

Wumpus, as I said earlier I feel that most videogames are bad art.
A handfull of games succeed as art, here are a few:
Rez, Fallout, Jet Grind Radio, The Residents: Freakshow… actually those are the only games I’ve played that I feel are good art. Of those, I feel that Fallout is especially notable in that it presents a world of moral choices more effectively than any non-interactive medium could ever do it.

If movies are an art form (certainly most would agree they are) then videogames are definitely an art form.

I will nominate Xenogears as the shining example of game as art,the plot in that game could easily be turned into a book.

Incredibly complex,and spanning 10,000 years it tackles everything from religion,the nature of “god”,psychology to the nature of war and human behaviour.

And lets not forget the musical element of games,that cetainly qualifies as artistry.

Nobuo Umatsu creates better scores for Final Fantasy games than many films have.

Deus Ex.


Fallout (1 and 2).


Final Fantasy (just about any of 'em).

Tell me that either of those games had no “story”, or didn’t need any story, and I’ll laugh in your face.

Clearly, games CAN express artistic ideas, even if all of them don’t. Judge ALL games based on the lack of artistic merit in a few of them is folly. Should we judge the entire movie industry based on such drek as Armageddon or Freddy Got Fingered?

I find it interesting how many people are defending the idea of games as art by citing the story, which is only one aspect (and usually the least important aspect, even in strongly story-driven games). I think there is a definite art to the game itself: in the way reality can be represented (often to a high degree of accuracy) through extreme abstractions and alogorithms. Hell, a well-designed control scheme by itself can be a work of art.

I would have absolutely no problem calling Albert Einstein or Richard Buckley “artists.” Of course, I have a highly elastic definition of art. I also would not argue against calling Michael Jordan an artist, although his art is not to my taste.

It is when I do it.

Gabriel Knight - 'Nuff said.

Get ready to start laughing, because Starcraft is one of the games that made me think of the issue in the first place. I would’ve included it in my list of “games with no story that I enjoyed playing” if I’d enjoyed playing it; I’m terrible at RTS games and get too frustrated to enjoy them.

I’ve no doubt that Starcraft is a brilliantly-designed game and like every Blizzard game, is polished and tuned to (near) perfection. But I have to wonder why they bothered with so much “story” if their story is just regurgitating characters, situations, and dialogue from the Alien movies and various other sci-fi cliches. Basically, if you separated the story elements (cut-scenes, in-game dialogue, mission briefings) from the gameplay of Starcraft, would it be able to stand on its own? I don’t think so; I think it would come across as just derivative sci-fi with a clearly-less-than-feature-film budget.

Starcraft and Grim Fandango are perfect examples of what I’m getting at: the former has great gameplay that’s hamstrung by cheesy, amateurish dialogue and a hackneyed plot; the latter has interesting characters, beautiful background art, fantastic music, and competent writing, that are all hamstrung by contrived adventure game puzzles. The Final Fantasy games, of which I’m a huge fan, are basically just anime stories periodically interrupted by random encounters; Final Fantasy X is the first in the series where I actually thought the combat was fun, but it’s also the most linear in the series.

That’s the most interesting thing to me, because for years I believed that the natural progression of videogames was towards movies. Therefore, Starcraft and Grim Fandango were steps in the right direction; eventually they’d meet and we’d end up with The Perfect Game. Now, I’m not so sure. I think I’m starting to agree with Miller; the story is only one aspect of the game and is often not the most important part. In fact, a story/campaign mode probably would’ve ruined great games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater.

SPOOFE, you seem to be suggesting that any game without artistic merit is a bad game. (Even worse, you’re suggesting that any game without a story is as bad as Armaggedeon!)

What I’m arguing is that many, nay most, games don’t need to have stories or “artistic merit” in order to succeed as games. Chess does not need some elaborate back-story that explains why White and Red came to blows. Tetris doesn’t need its blocks designed by the trendy artist of the month. Quake doesn’t need one-liners written by David Mamet. Games need to be judged as part of their own genre, not as the bastard stepchildren of art. If they forced to be judged as art, as grendel notes, you will quickly conclude that even most games recognized as great are bad art. Which would miss the point entirely.

(Mind you, I heartily agree that many games count as speech–but that’s a different issue entirely.)

But some games are good, or even great art. Certainly the story isn’t the only element that can make a game “art”. Of the games I listed as “good art”, Rez is significant in that although it has a story the story has to be gleaned by the player- it is not presented directly. Grasping the story in Rez is much like interpreting the intent of abstract art.