“What video games are good art?”

As bloggers, we know that our journeys on the Internet can sometime lead to unexpected places. That’s where I find myself today, at this point, answering a very innocent question posed by the kind proprietor of The Long and Short of It (a blog/blogger worth following if you’re not already) on my article “Are Video Games Art?” And that question is:

What video games are good art?

To further quote, of said question, he succinctly and brilliantly dubbed it a “storm in a teacup.” I simply love that turn of phrase; how remarkably accurate it is here. Because truly, how in the holy hell of cultural edifices does one even begin to answer that?

Believe me when I say that this question has been on my mind ever since his comment, and it remains thoroughly confounding. Because what IS “good” art anyway? Perhaps many will agree that, for example, the Mona Lisa is good art, but why do we believe that? Is it the technique? Its artist? Its style? Its mystery? Its legend? Its any-other-number-of-ethereal-ideas-of-human-nature??

?????????

Hell if I know.

But, perhaps all isn’t lost, because if there’s one that the Mona Lisa does do, it’s that it invokes emotional responses. Some people will argue to death what the painting is and what it isn’t, and that expression of human emotion is what makes “art” art. In fact, many of the responses to the Well-Red Mage’s original post on the topic say exactly this.

So taking that notion — video games are art because they solicit/require/foster human emotions — it’s a little easier for me to consider what video games might be good art. Good for me, anyway. Because no matter how objective one tries to be, “good” is always going to be subjective when it comes to art.

Apologies for the circuitousness, but here’s what I’m getting at. I’m going to answer the question of

What video games are good art?

by looking through the lens of human emotions, or more specifically, a list. This list developed in the 1980s by psychologist Robert Plutchik:

  • Joy
  • Trust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Anticipation

If this list looks familiar, you might recall it, as I do here, from a basic psychology class, perhaps one you took in college because all the other electives had been taken and you had to take something because you dropped that bizarre philosophy class which was really more about taking a philosophy class at 8am which is just an awful thing to begin with so fuck that and bring on the 2pm rando psychology class.

*Ahem*

Again, art is meant to bring about emotion, and when it does, no matter the emotion, it is therefore good. Above is a decent enough list of basic human emotions, thus, if I play word association…or rather, game association, with the list, I should be be able to come up with my own list of eight good games. (Sure, I could put more thought into it, but word association is a good thing to practice occasionally and holyshitontoast if I don’t write this now I never will.) So without anymore goddamn ado…


Emotion: Joy
Game: Super Metroid


Simply put, I love playing Super Metroid. It’s a game in which I find solace, peace, and the utmost joy. It’s a game that I’ve mastered and from which I still learn. I first played it during a rough time. I was stumbling my way though college, my parents were splitting up, my siblings and I didn’t communicate much. In Super Metroid I found comfort. And sure, maybe a good bit of distraction from all things real. But that was okay. The game spoke, and I listened. It’s what I needed at the time and every time I feel just a little bit out of sorts.


Emotion: Trust
Game: Portal

Above all else, the genius of Portal is that it doesn’t believe players are idiots. (While I do understand the need for accessibility, there have been and are far too many games that forget that players have brains in their heads, too.) From the start, Portal gives players everything they need to survive, and it believes that the players will survive, no matter what GLaDOS – a character that represents doubt – says. Because of this, Portal is a challenging and rewarding game that know no match.


Emotion: Fear
Game: DOOM

I’ll admit that this one is a little on the nose. But I don’t play horror games, and I can barely get past intensely suspenseful games, so…DOOM. DOOM was one of the first games that really frightened me as I was playing. Sure the pixel-y game doesn’t look very scary now, but between the viscerally fleshy levels and the disembodied, guttural sounds of the monsters, I constantly found myself frozen, unable to move forward until I built up my will. To this day, I freeze up in a game any time I hear what seems like the sound of a far-off beast. While I conquered my fears in DOOM and DOOM 2, I’ve yet to do so with DOOM 3, and I’m not sure I ever will. (Hmm…maybe that should be my next game project…)


Emotion: Surprise
Game: Bioshock

I remain in awe of Bioshock. Not only did the game keep me utterly glued to the screen, but its major plot twist literally had my jaw on the floor. It’s a game as calculatingly brilliant as it is horrifically beautiful. The sad thing is that I avoided the game for the longest time because I sincerely didn’t think I would enjoy it. First-person shooter? Bah. Keeping track of supernatural powers? No thanks. Traveling through yet another world in ruins? Eh, so what. Goddamn how wrong I was on all counts.


Emotion: Sadness
Game: Shadow of the Colossus

Once again, thought meet nose, but Shadow of the Colussus made me openly weep. The profound sadness I felt at the game’s end was part relief, part exhaustion, part embarrassment, part ecstasy, and all real. I’d honestly never experienced emotions so deep with a game before, and I was so very taken off guard by my reaction. Just thinking about playing the game again breaks my heart, because I don’t think I could handle Wander and Mono’s story again.


Emotion: Disgust
Game: Bayonetta

So this might seem like an odd choice, because truly, Bayonetta is one of the most gorgeous and fun games I’ve ever played. I adore everything about its style, its character designs, and tremendous grace of its game world. Except…good lord is the game ever bloody! I really don’t think twice about blood in games, but Bayonetta really made me take notice, especially with her torture attacks, which range from enemies being pushed into iron maidens to them being decimated by Bayonetta’s summons. At her capable hands, the bad guys – angels of one sort or another – erupt in massively bloody clouds of limbs and feathers.  I don’t have a problem with exploding bad guys in principle, but watching them in Bayonetta always makes my stomach churn.


Emotion: Anger
Game: The Stanley Parable

This darling indie game of 2013, which was more a commentary on the state of games than anything, isn’t necessarily rage-inducing.  In fact, after about my first hour of with it, I actually found myself rather amused at being the butt of the game’s “big joke.” But the more I played, or rather, tried to play it, the grumpier I got. And eventually it felt as if the game was making fun of me for trying to play it at all. I’ve certainly gotten angry at games before, but the anger that arose from The Stanley Parable was different. It wasn’t all rage-quit and brimstone. It was more of an indignant, defensive anger. How dare this game make fun of my favorite pastime??! In that, it succeeded in making its point.


Emotion: Anticipation
Game: Fallout: New Vegas

You know that feeling when your away from your current favorite game but you just can’t stop thinking about it? Like, no matter what you’re actually doing, in your head, you’re strategizing and planning your next move in the game? That’s how it is with me and many games. In fact, I almost answered here with Mass Effect, because no matter how many times I play it, it never fails to capture a good bit of my attention when I’m away from it. But Fallout: New Vegas rose to the top. A much as I love me some quality time with Commander Shepard, Fallout: New Vegas was absolutely engrossing. Every time I played it, I struggled to put down the controller. Every time I was away from it, I couldn’t wait until my next session. Every time I entered its world, I found something new to explore. The story, the characters, my character, every piece of the game fell perfectly in place to the point that I simply couldn’t wait to see what happened next.


Whew. I wish I had a neatly perspicacious statement with which to put a bow on this post, but that required a bit more thinking than I thought it would. Still, I’m pretty pleased with the list. I thought that a number more of my perennial favorite games might end up on it somehow, like Super Mario World and Red Dead Redemption, which are surely no less emotionally stimulating than any other games, but my brain being what it is, I’m never too sure what to expect. Of course, as with anything that’s subjective, my list here only represents me and my own interpretation of “good” art. If you feel like giving this loaded question a go, I’d love to hear yours.

19 thoughts on ““What video games are good art?””

  1. Emotion is a good measure, definitely. I think many, most, maybe all games can be argued for as art. But bring in the question of what makes “good” art, and you’ve got a whole new dilemma on your hands. Personally, I’d apply the term to games that have a strong sense of atmosphere or vibe to them, since I find those games lend themselves to reflective thinking, something I associate with art. Games like Super Metroid, Demon’s Crest and Super Castlevania IV stood out in their day by going against the predominant trend of ripping off 80s action films. Moody soundtracks, muted colours, subtle storytelling, deliberate pacing, and explorative game design; it may be my artsy liberal arts background talking but these games are completely in line with many of my preconceived notions of what makes good art.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent reasoning! Defining “good” “art” is going to be different for everyone – there’s no two ways around it. And what’s awesome is that it’s not something to argue over because no one can ever be right or wrong. (Of course, people try, but people are people so…♪ why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully. ♪)

      Sorry for the Depeche Mode moment.

      Anyway, you make an interesting point about games and their relation to pop culture. Because there are those games that mesh with current trends and those that go against the grain. If we use “unique” in our definition of “good” then it interestingly cancels out games that are often universally considered “good,” from Super Mario 3 to Mass Effect. Hm. Now you’ve got me rethinking my choices! 😉

      Like

  2. great list and cool approach to tackling this question.

    I will add my own little tid bit since I absolutely adore Super Metroid. The whole end sequence against Mother Brain is beyond art in a way. I will never forget and still get goose bumps playing this sequence. The game does such a great job making you think you’re going to die and then the Metroid comes and saves the day. Really portrays that feeling of being helpless onto the player and making you think you are in total control when a cutscene is actually playing out without you knowing. Any game that does this is the epitomy of art to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That whole boss sequence is just genius, I agree. It’s funny that the whole “x character swoops in to save the day at the 11th hour” trope is as old as time, but the twist of it in Super Metroid pushes all the emotional boundaries of the game. It’s as brilliant and as unforgettable as art gets!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting approach!

    I never came across Plutchik’s list of human emotions, and to be honest I can’t really see human emotions as a useful basis for defining “good art”.

    However, associating individual games with a set of individual emotions, that alone is pretty inspiring! Already I find myself thinking which games I’d select… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Should you create you’re own list, I’d love to read it. 🙂

      I’ll readily admit that my approach here isn’t the best. However, I strongly associate art with emotion, generally, so maybe it wins as far as personal merit goes, but it doesn’t beyond that. Just trying to define “art” is enough of a heady trial. “Good art” goes a step further, and boy…it’s one hell of a step.

      Like

  4. I totally sympathize that The Stanley Parable inspired anger in you; I ended up giving it a 3/10 myself.

    Shadow of the Colossus remains one of the few games that went a pathos-heavy route with its storytelling that didn’t go overboard, and for that alone, it’s one of the best of its kind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And if you’re dense like me (haha), with SotC, those feelings don’t resonate until the end of the game. Once they do, holy shit if they don’t arrive like a tsunami. That wave of pure emotion is truly unlike anything I’ve experience with any other game, ever.

      The Stanley Parable is such an odd duck. I really like the game in principle but dislike it in practice. And then again, I think that’s its entire point. It’s inspired in its insipidness. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I tend to have more of a problem when creators go too far in the other direction wherein they show how sad something is, remind you how sad it is as it’s going on, and repeat how sad it is once all is said and done in case you didn’t get it the first fifteen times. I’m not sure if I was really overwhelmed with emotion at the end of Shadow of the Colossus, but I firmly believe that it’s a better take on the art game than a majority of the efforts it inspired.

        I can agree that The Stanley Parable’s insipidness is inspired, but I wonder if it was really something worth making.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Y’know, I think The Stanley Parable was well-timed in terms of release, if not a game for the history books. It spoke well to the sequelitis — Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and so forth — that plagued (and still plagues, though to a lesser extent, maybe) the industry. Where some games were little more than retreads of their (recent) predecessors. It’d be nice to think that perhaps the “meaning” of the game influenced at least a few people; maybe it did with the notable influx of new games that question what it is to be a “game.” But as only an observer, I don’t really know.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I do agree that the HD release was timed well; 2013 wasn’t what I’d call a great year for gaming. It’s kind of like this year when it comes to movies in that the good games were amazingly good (i.e. Fire Emblem: Awakening), yet the bad games were stupefyingly awful (i.e. Ride to Hell: Retribution). Considering how much attention the bad games got, even an experience as flawed as The Stanley Parable was bound to catch the critics’ attention as long as there were a few genuinely good things about it – especially because it was perceived to be a rebellion against the AAA industry’s worst trends. However, I think it fell in the trap many modern satirists regularly get caught in; at the end of the day, the people who appreciated what it had to say were already on its side while the people who could have done with what little introspection it had to offer either ignored it or dismissed it once they were finished.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Great list, Trust really struck a chord with me, Portal is such a perfect game to represent trust; perhaps The Stanley Parable would fit that category too. Too many games are all about making the player feel joy. If a game challenges the way I think and questions the reasons I’m playing it, I have a greater connection to that piece of art. Make me FEEL!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s just it, and those feels don’t have to always be the good kind. There’s just as much to be said about a game that makes you feel angry as there is about games that make us all feel good. I imagine that any developer hopes that players will bond in some manner with their games, because those connections form the basis of the player-developer relationship. It’s why so many of us take it personally when games “fail” in one way or another. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

      Thanks for the kind words, and for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a really great post and it made me think of which games I would categorize for each emotion. 😀 I think I have the topic for my next blog post! But I also think games are art too. Sure, it’s interactive art but there’s a vision and a creative process involved that’s the same as writing a book, composing music, or painting on a canvas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! Games would be nothing if it weren’t for the visions of developers and the creative processes involved in making them. There’s an art to each step, just as with any artistic process.

      Should you formulate your own post, I look forward to it! I don’t know that my process here for formulating a list of video games as “good art,” but it turned out well enough. And it even threw me a few surprises. Guess that’s what happens when you examine games through different lenses. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Start a conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s