Back in June, there was a panel at USC in which Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Don Mattrick sat in. They discussed several topics, but one in particular ruffled my feathers a bit. They both (the directors) made a case for videogames not being able to truly be art. Now before I delve into this I would like to mention I am a huge fan of both Spielberg and Lucas. These filmmakers have revolutionized the film industry in their own, very distinct ways. Spielberg has been the eye behind the lens of countless great films, and what more can be said about Lucas’ Star Wars? Or their amazing collaboration for the Indiana Jones films? These gentleman’s opinions deserve to be heard and taken into account, but I digress.
Don Mattrick, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas
Now, videogames do differ from film for several reasons, with the biggest one being videogames are interactive. When watching a film, the viewer only engages visually and mentally. The interactivity in itself, as stated by Spielberg, is a determining factor for videogames to not quite be there on the level of film or literature as art: “the second you get the controller something turns off in the heart. And it becomes a sport.” What is art then? Literature and film make us strongly feel emotions through what is being presented to us. The content we are absorbing scratches at our soul. We cry when the main character courageously dies for the noble cause, we wince when a character is experiencing excruciating pain and we laugh when a joke is planted just right. We take in the beautiful visuals of a Picasso or Vincent van Gogh with our hearts because when they pressed those paint brushes to the canvas they did so with love and care. All these representations of art have a common denominator: they emanate emotion.
So, do videogames emanate emotion? That depends on the game in question, just in the same way as only certain films speak to your emotions. Not every film is a testament of human creativity. With that being said, the propensity for bad games is still high because of their structure, which Spielberg eluded to. Games are meant to be played and unfortunately more often than not character and plot take a back seat to gameplay mechanics. Gameplay is not something I think can be artful and will agree with the esteemed directors in that regard, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the contents as a whole should be disregarded. According to Lucas, “storytelling is about two things, it’s about character and plot,” but I think he missed something and that’s in the execution of those two components.
One only needs to look at these last two years to see the maturation of videogames as a legitimate storytelling and visually artful medium. Let’s look at some examples I think fit the description of film or even literature caliber stories. Three games stand out to me above all others when it comes to “character and plot.” Those games are The Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite and the sublime The Last of Us. These three games are all about “character and plot.” The Walking Dead and The Last of Us are story-driven emotional roller coasters that tell the story of survival in a bleak world while also entrusting you in the care of a young lady. Throughout the journey strong paternal feelings are developed for the supporting characters who, at times, just steal the show. These are feelings that can not be duplicated in a film or literature because you are not a part of it; it’s more of a journey.
Bioshock Infinite is a tour de force of creative storytelling that spans everything from racism, politics and even a heavy religious backdrop. Not to mention the setting of the floating city of Colombia is simply breathtaking. As far as visually appealing one would have to look no further than Journey. This game is basically poetry in motion as you make your way through the desert to a mysterious mountain. This game has no real story, I mean the main character doesn’t even have a name, but that’s not the appeal for this game: it’s the visual direction. The slight undulations of the sand and the sun shining give the desert almost a vast ocean quality. The camera work only accentuates the experience by giving players breathtaking views of this enigmatic world.
There are many more examples of titles that give you so much more than just a standard gameplay experience, but those last games I touched on are trailblazing a new path to deeply emotional artful games. Again, just the way there are movies that don’t do much for you, there are also games that fall in that category; there is just more of them since videogames are still a very young medium that haven’t had enough time to flourish yet. Film, art and literature have been around significantly longer and are much more mature mediums.
With that I leave you with one recommendation: play The Last of Us. This “videogame” is strong enough to hold up to a good book or film and is also visually appealing. I guarantee it will illicit strong emotions from you and if that’s a sign of things to come, then we have much to be excited about.