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:
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.