Editor's Note: Columnist Wayne Santos is a dedicated gamer from the infancy of the medium. He is a contributor at IGN and associate editor of Southeast Asian gaming publication GameAxis. His columns for High-Def Digest examine the world of High-Def Gaming.
By Wayne Santos
In my previous article, I discussed games as a medium and an emerging art form and cited, very briefly, a few titles I felt were good examples of games being an artistic venture. Now if you think of games as a medium, like film, literature, or paint, then many elements factor in to what constitutes an artistic work. In the same way a movie can be hailed for ingenious art direction but not necessarily be considered thematically or narratively important, the same can be said for games. Various elements of a game can be considered to have made some kind of artistic contribution, while others may not. On rare occasions, every aspect of a game may be considered artful.
While games may have a long way to go before they can be considered full blown works of art, that doesn’t mean the groundwork isn’t being laid out. Ask certain observers of the medium and they’ll tell you that the groundwork has been in the process of being built up for quite some time, but it’s only in recent years that public scrutiny has grown outside of the world of gaming enthusiasts. Reasons for this range from the mainstream proliferation of games in greater numbers to the inevitable march of technology finally getting to the point where imagination is quickly becoming more important than technical prowess. After all, it’s one thing to have a graphics engine that presents awe-inspiring visuals, but it’s quite another thing entirely to have a vision and a team sufficiently talented enough to actually create visuals that can inspire awe purely beyond the number of polygons composing a single character model. In the same way, sound in games has been steadily evolving beyond basic beeps to MIDI compositions and now to full blown streaming of pre-recorded orchestral scores off the disc or hard drive. Even more forcefully than visuals, sound is now limited by only one thing; the talents of the musicians and audio engineers. If games still share an appreciable weakness with older more established mediums, they can be fairly criticized for the lack of depth in narrative and themes, but these are concepts from older mediums that are wrestling with the one thing games bring to the table that is entirely new; interactivity.
So for this article, we’re going to take a look at some of the games currently available on the current generation of home consoles that, in one way or another, make a fair attempt at advancing the notion of games as viable works of art. The games may have a distinct visual or thematic characteristic that puts them above the norm, much as some argue that movies such as 'Dark City' rise above mere popcorn conventions because of the visual feast at play, or how the animated adaptation of 'Watership Down' transcends the normal perception of animated features being “just for kids.” These games in some way go beyond mere commercial entertainment to provide gamers with something they can mull over beyond the simple act of being fun to play.
While Beautiful Katamari is actually the fourth title in this bizarre series, it’s the only title available on the current generation of consoles, with the previous three having been available on the PS2 and PSP respectively. This first game is also possibly the weirdest one to appear on the list. For those unfamiliar with the series, the philosophy of the game is very simple; you roll stuff up. As the ball of matter you roll gets bigger, it attracts bigger and bigger objects until what began as a collection of paperclips and staples on a table, is now engulfing entire buildings, and eventually landmasses.
The Katamari series is the brainchild of Keita Takahashi, himself a developer who doesn’t even think of himself as a developer and who cites various sculptors, painters and authors of the Japanese arts as his primary influences. In interviews, Takahashi has gone so far as to admit that he doesn’t even like the gaming industry in its current state, and ultimately would like to go on to design playgrounds for children. The Katamari series is his response to what he viewed as an increasingly dark, serious atmosphere in the world of gaming, that seemed to have abandoned the possibilities for a more innocent, childlike form of fun and enjoyment. The Katamari series certainly lives up to his ideology, lacking any kind of conventional violence and having a simple, blocky, cartoony art direction that stresses the surreal, unreality of the entire situation Takahashi has created.
The basic story of Beautiful Katamari is simple. There is an incredibly muscular (think bodybuilder proportions) “King of All Cosmos” that invariably causes a hideous accident that removes the stars from the sky. In this case, the accident is a powerful serve during a tennis game that rips a hole in the fabric of the universe, creates a black hole and sucks away all the stars, leaving Earth alone in a black, empty void. As usual, it is up the miniscule Prince of All Cosmos to clean up his father’s mess, by going to Earth, rolling things up and creating spheres of sufficient mass that the King can use them to create new stars with which to populate the sky.
What makes Beautiful Katamari so difficult to describe as a Game That Is Artful is almost as troublesome as trying to describe art itself. It has one of the most bizarre concepts ever seen in a game, with an even more surreal storyline. While on paper the idea of simply rolling objects up to make a giant ball might not seem like much fun at all, there is a moment when an unsuspecting gamer first gets a ball big enough to roll up an elephant (and said elephant lets off a very surprised roar) that some how compels people to smile, laugh and keep going. It’s an anomaly in the medium of games in that there really hasn’t been anything quite like it. There are conditions for “winning” in that Takahashi has incorporated things like time limits and minimal size requirements to have considered “clearing” a level, but where the game really shines is the ability to create a crazed sense of whimsy out of its ridiculous conceit, making victory an afterthought in the face of the constantly rolling mass of matter that just gets bigger and bigger. In theory this is a game that should not work, and yet it has endeared itself to a devoted fanbase who, contrary to Takahashi’s own wishes for originality, continue to demand more and more of the same old Katamari fun.
There was a reason I used the term “this generation of home consoles” at the beginning of the article and this is it. Although not an HD game, the Wii must be included in the current generation of hardware, and this title in particular is one that should not be missed, but most likely will be.
This is actually the second time that Okami debuts on a console. The first time was during the previous generation, with the Playstation 2. Then, as now, Capcom was the publisher and developer, but sadly the original Capcom team that created the game, Clover, is no more. That is a direct result of the financial failure of Okami and Clover’s other concurrent title Godhand with the gamers. Okami seems to be the sad victim of that occasionally baffling occurrence in gaming where a product debuts to massive critical acclaim and praise, is strongly recommended by everyone in the industry and yet the public ignores it. Released in 2006 by a team comprising the original creators of Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe and Resident Evil the game had all the makings of a giant critical hit. And it was. But few people bought it and the game was considered a commercial failure.
The game itself is an action-adventure in the style of the famed Legend of Zelda games on the Nintendo consoles. It’s set in a fairytale version of old Japan, centering on the exploits of the earthly avatar of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, manifesting as a white wolf with incredible powers. An ancient evil defeated by Amaterasu during her last incarnation has been foolishly reawakened by humans that no longer believe in the legends of old, and Amaterasu must walk the Earth once more, restoring the world from the corruption of her nemesis the Orochi, and using the Celestial Brush technique to literally re-paint the world into order or combat the foes lined up against her. The Celestial Brush was a brilliant innovation in that players would literally draw bridges where they needed one to cross rivers, draw bombs to bring real bombs into existence, or pause the world and slash at enemies with a brush stroke to erase them from existence. On top of that, the world was huge, with plenty of things to do, and the story itself was uncharacteristically positive and optimistic, stressing friendship, love for nature, and the greater good over the usual vengeance motivated stories so common in games.
Where the game truly steps into the direction of the artistic is the art design itself. Eschewing the usual “photorealism=beautiful graphics” mantra that dominates the majority of game design philosophy in the industry, Okami went decidedly old school. Old school in this case means simulating the effect of the ink brush aesthetic that was so prevalent in Asia in earlier eras. As a result, Okami is a game that looks nothing like any other game on the market. The screen itself has been textured to resemble paper, and the graphics are then “laid on top” of this effect so that every screenshot looks like something illustrated for an old book. The resulting combination of brush work and highly stylized character design is so incredibly original by gaming standards that more traditional gamers, insisting on realistic art design may find themselves disgusted with this choice. For gamers that are willing to accept that there is a world of graphical fidelity beyond photorealism, Okami offers an incredibly rich world to marvel at. On top of its beautiful sense of art design, the narrative of the game itself is, like a fairy tale, a hearkening back to simpler times. The Japanese have always had a respectful relationship with nature, and this is clearly evident in Okami where the Orochi’s corruption leaves the world smoky and almost devoid of color. Whenever Amaterasu restores a region to its former glory, a gorgeous transformation occurs, showing the vibrant color wash across the world as flowers, trees and life itself are restored to the area, accompanied by traditional Japanese string instruments in a rising crescendo. Okami is a uniquely beautiful game that stresses positive values and embraces friendship. It’s the kind of game that has the potential to make a very positive impact on younger gamers, or even remind older gamers of the more idealistic side that lurks within their jaded, modern sensibilities. Even though the game is on the Wii and not actually an HD game, its rewarding gameplay, gorgeous art design, and more innocent themes make it a game well worth owning, and in this generation, gamers now get a second chance to see what they missed two years ago.
It should come as no surprise that if an original ideas are going to come from anywhere, they’re going to come from outside the established machinery of the industry. Everyday Shooter is the perfect example of this, as the game is the sole work of one man. Jonathan Mak created the game purely as a labor of love, and eventually won awards at Indie Game Development shows before getting noticed – and picked up – by Sony Santa Monica to have his game first appear as a PS3 exclusive before debuting on Valve’s Steam Digital Distribution network just a few weeks ago.
Like Okami, Everyday Shooter has its gameplay roots firmly planted in a very familiar genre, that of the shooter, specifically the top-down shooter. There have already been many games released in this genre since the advent of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, and, like Everyday Shooter, they are largely games available as downloadable content available on the respective console’s online store. The genre is nearly as old as the medium of games itself, hearkening back to Asteroids where the mechanics were as simple as “move around the screen and shoot anything that moves.” The simple fire and turn buttons have been replaced by the more contemporary and elegant twin analog stick control system where one stick handles movement and the other lets you fire in whatever direction you’re pushing towards. This should, in theory, be a simple, almost IQ-free exercise in reflexes that appeals to that reptilian hindbrain in our skull that responds to movement. Surprisingly, while Everyday Shooter can meet this requirement quite handedly, it does a good bit more, although in the most surprising of ways.
Everyday Shooter has no story, and, perhaps more intriguingly, has no consistent gameplay. Yes, you shoot everything that moves, that much is true, but Jonathan Mak thinks of his game as an “album,” in that the rules – like music of the game – change from level to level. While the first level teaches you how to shoot certain enemies to create an explosion which, when other enemies make contact, causes another explosion, encouraging chain reactions, another level dispenses with these rules entirely and has you simply avoiding a giant central eye and spits out dozens of tiny eyes out to get you. On top of this is the unique audioscape of the game, which is partially a programmed melody of simple electric guitar riffs, and partially created by the player him or herself as every action and explosion is actually another guitar riff which counterpoints the basic melody. In effect by playing the game, the gamer is creating part of the score, and no game session will ever sound exactly like the previous one.
Everyday Shooter is, one sense, easy to think of as art, because like some works of art, it leaves the audience baffled and unable to easily explain away what they’ve just experienced. Of course, the game isn’t for everyone and some will find the constantly changing game mechanics to be repelling, while others will ignore it simply because its functional, colorful -- and yes, even psychedelic – graphics will bore them because of the lack of photorealism. But for people willing to give the game a chance, Everyday Shooter offers an experience at once familiar and at the same time quite original. The simple mechanics of gameplay are challenged by a sense of discovery with every new level as gamers must puzzle out what the new rules of this “song in the album” are. The visuals, bold, colorful and largely randomized, react violently to the player’s actions with sudden changes in color and massive “explosions” that could be interpreted as rays of light or streaks of paint. Much to Mak’s own dismay, while he finds the actual gameplay to be tense and still very twitch-based, many critics have hailed Everyday Shooter as one of the most original, and strangely relaxing shooters they’ve ever played. The game is probably the closest thing that gamers have right now to being able to “play” an abstract painting in that the collision of sound and colors often resembles something out of the collection of a modern artist. At the same time, even when all the levels have been conquered there is still replay value here as points acquired during a session – even a failed one – can be spent on unlocking additional features or even buying extra lives to make the next game a little easier. Even though it’s easy to get caught up in the almost hypnotic visuals, music and simple movement of “move, shoot, kill or be killed,” there is still a sense of fair play in Everyday Shooter, and it never forgets that first and foremost, it is a game that should be fun.
Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Once again, Bioshock makes an appearance on High-Def Digest, with its first appearance being the second article for 5 HD Games, and a brief mention in that previous article, and now, for obvious reasons here. The most recent game out of all the titles mentioned so far, it’s also the only one mentioned capable of being played on both consoles, or will eventually be, as the Playstation 3 version has been slated for release in winter with hinted at “new content” including all the previous add-on content included in the earlier Xbox 360 version. Bioshock is the biggest game on the this list in more ways than one, not only is it the most critically acclaimed, widely covered game in this article, it’s also the most commercially successful, pulling in numerous awards and making its creators, 2K Games Boston extremely visible amongst both the fans and the industry right now. It’s the kind of game that is that most rare of convergences, a mix of mainstream first person shooter gameplay with enough thematic and narrative material that it actually gives academics something to chew over.
The story itself starts out similarly to most games. You play Jack, a seemingly innocent traveler in the year 1960 who is caught in a plane crash over the Atlantic. Swimming through wreckage of your former transport, you spy a lone lighthouse out in the middle of the water. Upon exploring the lighthouse Jack finds a bathysphere – basically an elevator designed to work underwater – and entering, descends to an underwater city called Rapture, originally conceived as a secluded utopia for the great thinkers, artists ,and scientists of the world to work free from the constraints of authority or popular opinion. What Jack finds, however, is a ruin of buildings inhabited largely by hideously mutated people that are violently out of their minds. Paradise, in this case, has already been lost, and Jack must fight to survive the experience.
This initial set-up may sound typical of an FPS plot in that there’s mystery, atmospheric environments to explore, and plenty of things out to kill the player. But where Bioshock takes such a massive step away from established convention in the FPS is its commitment to exploring WHY Rapture failed and constantly challenging the player with questions about its inhabitants and their motivations. For students of contemporary literature, it doesn’t take very long to recognize that Andrew Ryan and his philosophy is a dead ringer for Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. But where Ayn Rand proposed a similar fictional utopia in her novel Atlas Shrugged which showed the slow decay of society without great people tied down to it make it prosper, Levine shows the flipside. Here the great people who are theoretically the intellectual, moral, and emotional superiors of the people back on the surface have gotten away from the blandness and restrictions of political/religious authority… and they have still succumbed to ambition, corruption, war, and ultimately, ruin.
From an art perspective, Bioshock is obviously the most ‘literary” of the games presented here. Beautiful Katamari is like pop or performance art, Okami is an exercise in classical, painterly art, Everyday Shooter is very modernist in its geometric style and execution, while Bioshock handles narratives and themes, the province of novels and film. It is one of the few games on the market that was not afraid to make the basic conflict at its heart a philosophical one, forcing gamers to see the possible consequences that come with greatness and striving for greater things. While some players may simply get an atmospheric, perhaps even frightening FPS experience out of the game, others willing to listen to the audio recordings scattered throughout will get a wealth of detail about the basics of Objectivism. They can then decide for themselves whether the game’s exploration of a failed Objectivist paradise is an interesting criticism, or an unjustified attack on the philosophy. The game itself doesn’t make any deliberate declarations one way or the other. Like a novel or a movie, Bioshock is meant to provoke thought by presenting the question, and then leaving it up to the individuals themselves to find an answer. This is a very far cry from the usual good/bad dichotomy of most game plots that leave little doubt as to right, wrong and who should die. In the end, Bioshock is a bizarre fusion that somehow works. The FPS is often considered the “brainless” genre of gaming and yet here very complex concepts and questions about philosophy and humanity’s purpose (self-determined or not) are presented to players while they attempt to survive everything from crazed genetically mutated lunatics to gigantic men in armored diving suits out to prevent the execution of little girls that run about the ruins salvaging bodies. It is a strange world with very familiar ideas, and for those willing to seek it out, it provides challenging questions.
Unfortunately, for the scope of this article, we can only limit the games presented here to the ones that are appearing on the current generation of consoles. There are many more titles equally deserving of attention for the steps they’ve taken in advancing the medium artistically. Shadow of the Colossus is still probably the closest that games have come to approaching art, and the PC has seen the birth of many kinds of artistic games, particularly adventure games like The Longest Journey which was so far ahead of its time in terms of narrative and thematic complexity that to this day it’s still ahead of the curve for storytelling in games. The current generation is still pretty young, and there is plenty of time for more statements to be made, but for now, these are the games that – if you own the appropriate console – you can go out, buy, and enjoy right now.
Wayne Santos's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.