Editor’s Note: Chris Melissinos is a gaming expert and author of “The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect”. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.
As I ascended the back of the beast, my grip slick with fear, I desperately clung to anything that would prevent my demise. Lurching towards a glowing artifice, my sword found its mark and plunged deeply.
Limb by limb, the magnificent creature upon which I stood succumbed to lifelessness and gravity, shaking the world as it descended.
Rolling from its cratering mass, I found myself staring into the beast’s eyes as its body shuddered with the last gasp of its vacating soul.
Well, not really me, of course.
But the video game, “Shadow of the Colossus”, allowed me to engage in its story in a way that no other medium could.
In fact, the better I was at playing the game, the worse I felt about my actions – I was experiencing deep, emotional engagement.
The player as artist
Say the word ‘art’ and some immediate images form: sculpture, narrative, painting, and illustration, to name a few.
Video games exist as an amalgam of many forms of traditional art, where the player is no longer merely an observer – as one would be in admiring a painting on a wall or a sculpture on a pedestal. Rather, the player is an active participant in the emergence of the form.
I’m not proposing that all video games rise to that emotional level – just as every canvas that has paint applied to it may not be embraced as art by society. However, as an art form that is still in its early stages, the rapid rate at which the medium has expanded to achieve output worthy of that definition is astounding.
The ‘bit baby’ generation
Video games emerged from the engineering playgrounds of the 1950s and 60s and made their way into homes in the early 1970s.
This generation of video game players, which I call the “bit baby” generation, were the first members of society to grow up with computers in the home. They willingly poured themselves into their Atari Video Computer Systems, Intellivisions, Apple IIs, and ZX Spectrums.
While rudimentary by today’s standards, these machines held massive storytelling potential. If we could apply ourselves to learn how to speak to them we could see our ideas, stories, and humanity reflected back at us.
Take “Missile Command”, which was an immediate hit with the public when released by Atari in 1980. Although a seemingly simple target game, people engaged with the morality of its designer, David Theurer.
Reflecting his views on the threat posed by the Cold War, Theurer decided to make his game one of defense. The six cities the player protects are all in California, where Theurer lived at the time, and he suffered nightmares about the possible devastation they could be subject to for several years.
Here is an artist who created a work imbued with his morality and observations of the world around him, and who suffered for it. It is no different to the experience of anyone else who has brought art into the world.
The ambition of early game developers was no less than those of today, they just lacked the language and tools to fully communicate their stories. More than four decades later, artists and storytellers no longer have those limitations and we “bit babies” never stopped playing.
The highest form of art?
Today, video games are an important form of artistic expression the world over.
From games that recreate the childlike wonder in discovering magic and delight in the world – like “Super Mario Brothers” – to those that explore the hopelessness of losing a child – as in “That Dragon, Cancer” – video games are capable of expressing the full breadth of human experience.
At a time when technology is no longer a significant limitation, game developers often create deliberate constraints – such as limited color palettes, constrained controls, or abstract depictions – out of artistic choice to enhance the narrative and emotion conveyed.
Key examples of this are the minimal aesthetic in “Thomas was Alone”, which creates an emotional connection with geometric shapes, and the silhouetted universe that unnerves the player in “Limbo.”
Because video games demand our attention and effort to truly engage with them, it’s easy for those who don’t play to be dismissive of the medium. Movies may last two hours, a book may take three days to read, but some video games need 40 or 50 hours of dedication to fully unpack their tale.
The stories that reflect our world, reveal our aspirations, question societal norms, challenge our own morality, or simply exist to bring people together, are expressed through so many of these games.
If we choose to let ourselves engage, video games will reveal themselves not just as a dominant art form for the 21st century, but one of the most important art forms in the history of mankind.