The late, great Roger Ebert once claimed that video games cannot be Art. He later clarified this statement in an article titled Okay, kids, play on my lawn admitting, “It is quite possible a game could someday be great art.” He penned this only a decade ago, in 2008. Of course, many readers quickly jumped to defend the medium, offering up examples like Shadow of the Colossus and Flower as prime examples of artistry in gaming.
Now it’s 2018, and the recent release of Shadow of the Colossus remastered (attesting to its status as a gaming classic) recalls the questions that many had back on Ebert’s comments: How do you define what is and isn’t Art? Ebert went on to say that, in many cases, the Art he truly enjoyed allowed him to “learn more about the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of other people.” From a film critic, this makes a lot of sense. Empathy does play a significant role in the overall perception of any art, be it films, music, or even a painting. Many would say that it plays a major role in what separates the good from the truly great. You may not agree with this, but that’s also what makes art, well… art.
Along with an abundance of technical innovations, video game narratives have greatly evolved as well. From epic character-driven stories, all the way down to smaller personal tales, there are many shoes in which to place yourself. If we’re going by Ebert’s definition, driven primarily by emotion and empathy, he surely would’ve reconsidered by now, right? These are some of the games that I think would’ve changed his mind.
The Last of Us
When The Last of Us first released in 2013, it was near the end of the PS3’s lifespan. I had an Xbox 360 so I couldn’t play it. I kept hearing endless praise for the game from friends and critics, and since it was developed by Naughty Dog, I knew it was probably true. When I made the switch over to Sony’s current-gen, my PS4 luckily came with a copy of the remastered edition. I sat down to play and immediately, and I got it — This was definitely something special.
Within the first 15 minutes, The Last of Us grabs you through one of the most brutal, heartbreaking, and cinematic introductions to a game ever. When the prologue ends, you find yourself playing as Joel, a grizzled man hardened by grief. You attempt to navigate through a cutthroat world alongside the precocious young Ellie, who could hold the key to saving everyone. Voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson give it their all and draw you into their dynamic, which only evolves as the bleak story progresses.
After the credits rolled, I sat there wishing it wasn’t over because I wanted more of these characters to whom I’d grown so attached. Luckily, Naughty Dog is giving us just that with The Last of Us 2. There’s still no release date and plot details are pretty scarce. Fan speculation, however, is not, and from the 2nd trailer it seems the world remains just as dark and unforgiving as before. Perhaps even more so.
Life is Strange
The best way to describe Life is Strange is that it’s the best indie film you’ve (n)ever played. From its quirky Instagram-filter aesthetic to its airy, indie rock soundtrack featuring bands like Alt-J and Bright Eyes, I could easily picture this playing the festival circuit. However, I’m so glad it wasn’t a film.
In Life is Strange you play as Max, an aspiring young photographer who’s been accepted to the prestigious Blackwell academy. With her childhood friend Chloe in tow, the two find themselves trying to prevent a premonition of a catastrophic event all while navigating the dark inner workings of Arcadia Bay. Fans of Twin Peaks will find themselves welcome here. Oh, did I mention Max can rewind time? The game utilizes the choose-your-own-adventure style that the telltale games paved the way for. Over the course of the game tensions run high as Max and Chloe grow close once again, secrets are discovered, and difficult decisions are ultimately made. Life is Strange a truly unique story you don’t find very often gaming, and for that alone it’s worth a play through.
Of all the games on this list, Florence is no doubt the most accessible. I was sitting on a plane recently with my family when I noticed my mom seemed bored, having flipped through a few magazines already. I was occupied by my Nintendo Switch, so I unlocked my iPhone, plugged in some headphones, and opened up Florence as I held it out to her.
“What is this?” she asked, hesitantly. (She never plays games and rarely uses technology)
“Just…play it,” I insisted.
The vivid handcrafted look of the visuals must’ve captured her curiosity, because she surprisingly obliged. For the next hour or so, I couldn’t help but look over and notice my mother smiling unabashedly.
While short, Florence is also very sweet. Crafted by Ken Wong of Monument Valley fame, it follows a girl named, as you might’ve guessed, Florence — Florence Yeoh to be exact. By making use of clever and intuitive game mechanics, you follow a storybook of chapters as Florence meets and starts to fall for a young cello player named Krish. The game is basically dialogue-free, and the story flows so naturally it makes it all seem effortless.
Though the gameplay, different activities and interactions become meaningful puzzles. For example, when Florence and Krish first meet, you have a conversation by putting together responses like an actual puzzle. First you start with six to eight pieces and you go back and forth, but just like any real conversation, it gets easier as you become more comfortable with the other person. Word bubbles start becoming four pieces, then two pieces, and before you know it just one, and any worry fades as the connection blooms. It manages to capture a very human experience, one that almost anyone will melt into as they realize they have been Florence at some point in their lives.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One
I was already a big fan of The Walking Dead comics and TV show before I heard Telltale was going to be developing a game. Most studios would go the easy route, taking The Walking Dead, slapping some FPS legs on it, and sending it on its way. In fact, that already happened once. That’s not the Telltale way though, oh no. Telltale prioritizes story and characters first. Those two elements really take the spotlight in the comics, so it should come naturally. Yet, I still had no clue what I was signing up for.
You play as Lee Everett, a convict on his way to prison. When the police car holding Lee hits a walker and careens off the road, suddenly Lee has his freedom back, trading one problem for another. Once out of the woods, Lee stumbles across a home with a young girl named Clementine. Offering to help her find her parents, Lee takes Clementine with him, acting as her protector. Told episodically, the game offers up some nice twists and turns, culminating in an ending that I still remember watching through tears. Happy or sad tears? I’ll leave that up to you to figure out.
Although Telltale has gone on to create a few continuations of this tale, this first act cemented its place as one of the best offerings from the studio. It also remains an example of direct interactive storytelling at its finest.
It’s hard to accurately describe a game like Journey. A game that largely relies on the player’s curiosity, while allowing for a meditation of their own beliefs. What do these symbols mean? What is this place? These questions become secondary as you wander Journey‘s ancient locales, supplemented only by a rich soundtrack that reflects the beautiful essence of each one. The game also features a unique multiplayer experience that made me stop and rethink the traditional ways shared gaming. Traveling by the side of a player who can only interact with you via unspoken, innocent means creates a strange yet gentle bond, one fully realized upon the final stretches of the game.
“It’s about the journey, not the destination,” and I’d say they’re right.
…But who’s to say both can’t be rewarding?
The Beginners Guide
At first, I was hesitant to include The Beginner’s Guide on this list. When I took a step back, it didn’t sit nicely. It seemed like I was trying to fit a star-shaped block into a square hole. Then I thought about it more. It probably wouldn’t fit many places. The game has no urgent drama and it isn’t explicit in its emotional prowess. It sneaks up on you — but that’s all by design. What it does do exceptionally well is provide a lot to chew on afterward.
The game is narrated by its creator, Davey Wreden, as he takes you through a series of games that his friend Coda had created as he attempts to learn more about him. Some he got around to completing, some he didn’t. There are no real objectives, as the game acts as a sort of psychological museum. If you’ve played Wreden’s other game, The Stanley Parable, you know that he has a knack for the subversive, and it’s no different here. Over 1-2 hour of gameplay, The Beginners Guide offers a powerful look into how we interpret other people’s work, value our own, and a number of other spoilerific themes I won’t dive into deeper now. I already feel like I’ve said too much.
Why do we go to the movies? Depending on who you ask, you’ll probably receive a number of different responses. “This one looks interesting” or “I love (insert actor here)” are common responses of course, but we don’t ever offer up the real, subconscious reasons. We go for an escape. We go for catharsis. We go to join in on a journey we may not take otherwise. The same can be said for video games. Except they can go one step further.
In becoming a part of the action, making choices, and often times creating a character that reflects either our inward or outward appearances, we get that much closer to understanding others and respecting their choices. Empathy comes out on top.
Listen, I don’t play Fortnite because deep down I wish I was a full-time soldier, part-time architect. I play because it allows me to have fun while bonding with friends, new and old. And as far as I am concerned, there lies a certain artistry in that as well.