Are video games art? Undeniably. They are the amalgamation of a variety of creative expertise that result in a product rendered unique by the joining. As the film takes sound, images, acting, lighting, digital effects and editing to create a cohesive, immersive experience, so too does the video game. However, the question of artistry is so often more layered than that. Usually there’s an implication that “art” is something more than the construction of media—that there is a defining characteristic to “art” that moves beyond directly informing the audience’s reactions through conventions of form and becomes something that can be seen as a true statement on the part of the artist. There’s a snobbish air that comes with this thinking, as all forms of expression are statements from the perspective of the artist and are interpreted from the perspective of the viewer, however it isn’t necessarily an inherently wrong line of thinking.
In film, “art cinema” is a distinct style that is defined by the presence of the artist first and foremost—the film’s goal of achieving a cohesive narrative comes second to its role as a vehicle for the filmmaker’s message. While it’s not necessary to break the rules of film-making to accomplish such a task, it’s more likely that in order for the filmmaker to express themselves conventions must be manipulated or done away with entirely, setting it apart from the classical Hollywood style of film-making. Should a filmmaker wish to evoke the painful drudgery that is “everyday life” it may be necessary to do away with spacial and temporal familiarity and have characters appear and disappear from scenes that have no clear connection to each other. Perhaps sound will be highlighted in such a way that it overwhelms the visual, or people will behave as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening when something would strike the viewer as unusual. Without verisimilitude to fall back on, the viewer must now accept that the way they expect movies to behave (and life in this case) has been overridden, and their new job is to discover why. For some, this is an exercise in navel-gazing with no clear purpose (and thus a disappointment.) For others, it prompts intellectual curiosity (and perhaps soul-searching.) While neither response is necessarily more correct than the other, its important to understand that even if you consider what is happening a waste of time, an artistic intention was still there.
So how do video games fit into this? What would be necessary for an “art game”? Aren’t video games often, by merit of their form, already forcing the player to rethink reality in the way defined by the artist? Aren’t they already engaged in the surreal? Well, it should be stated here that such surreal elements are not inherently necessary for art cinema, nor are all surreal films automatically art cinema. While often, to break the superiority of the narrative, the creator must break down its realism, it’s just as likely that an artist will use the realism to reinforce their message. Further, it is less the form of the narrative transgression than the function that matters. Sure, the development team teaches the player how to navigate their world and utilize all the mechanics, but these often rely on conventions of gaming. Therefore, in order to attain “art” status, a game would have to noticeably subdue the dominion of those conventions. Whether they change the control settings, eschew a linear progression, or even invent impossible tasks the developer can find ways of toning down what is expected and put in it’s stead, their expression.
It’s very easy to consider such acts as signs of a bad game designer, and that’s because, in most circumstances, they are just that. Even if these transgressions are intentional, in the hands of an amateur, they will still be bad design. An “art game” would thus require first a firm understanding of design conventions in addition to the desired message before becoming an effective product. That is to say, you can’t just make the B-button jump and the A-button dash and think you’re being clever. Rather, one might consider why someone’s finger gravitates towards that position first and using that knowledge to predict what changing it would do.
If an “art game” should put its message first, it would be easy to consider the many ways in which such an endeavor would be flawed. Games with obvious agendas or motives beyond producing an enjoyable product, such as religiously themed games or games based on movies respectively, are frequently panned for their blatant, heavy-handed interest in preaching or profiting. What would set a potential “art game” apart from other message-driven games? Well the answer, and the last piece of the “art” puzzle (for the sake of this article) is probably the most nebulous and frustrating one of all: intent. As pretentious as it may sound, “art’s” purpose is the message, not how the message will be taken. It isn’t about the money, it isn’t about the fame, it’s about the “art”. The message’s intent in breaking conventions and re-orienting its receiver isn’t about smashing reality for its own sake, but to portray what reality looks like to the creator, through literal or abstract means.
Now that we have discussed what an “art game” may be, let’s move on to an example and consider in what ways it may or may not be considered an “art game” and whether or not that makes it “good”. This game chooses aesthetic, controls and story progression as the modes it violates to present a specific theme. Its style is morbid, its story near indecipherable and its gameplay is bewildering even with a set of instructions. It is a surreal psychological horror game by MPR ART Hallucinations called The Lady.
The Lady thrusts you, the lady, unceremoniously into a room of broken glass. The foreground is a shattered pane, and shards fall from above. To move you press A or D to move left or right, and the left, right and up arrows fire a short-ranged spectral head of sorts. With no instructions beyond controls, you are left with little else to do but move left and right. If you’re hit by glass shards, you will find your armless body recoiling and stunned. There is no life meter, so you find out through trial and error that you can take about three hits before having to start over. The projectile heads will destroy the glass, so you aren’t completely helpless as you stumble through this strange, bleak room.
Your objective in this game is to trundle across the screen and causing doors to spawn so you can advance to the next level. The doors are about as recognizable as the objectives, as the game opts for haphazardly placed pillars of static to represent the doors that you seek. What makes them appear varies some, but by and large it involves moving to either side of the room and responding to the change in the environment. The game features a “noisecore” soundtrack that tends to amp itself up when progressing through each stage. When you unlock an image of an agonizing “lady”, the music begins to crackle and intensify. The soundtrack is clearly intended to line up with the stark, industrial setting of the game.
The obstacles change throughout the game, and how you deal with them attempts to defy your expectations. For example, one room features barbed wire barriers that effectively trap you in the center. Shooting a projectile now creates a longer lasting head that causes it to bounce for a long period of time off the wires, damaging you. What you are supposed to do is walk straight into the wires to cause them to disappear and proceed. If you take too long to cause the doors to appear, a new element, such as a torrential rain of glass, will begin, making it all but impossible to succeed, as you’ll be too busy trying to survive.
While we could go through the entire game, much of what we need to evaluate the game for its potential as “art” has already been brought up. Is The Lady an “art game”? Yes, but not for its form. While the art has a distinct aesthetic, there is nothing particularly unusual about it considering the genre. The gameplay, however, manage to confuse the player, turning the arbitrary into necessity (moving left to right) and breaking its own rules without explaining why (running into barbed wire allows you to progress). Though much of its gameplay is still conventional, with its combat-shooter elements largely similar to most timed action/adventure games, it does rob you of a general understanding of how long you have before your unknown objectives must be met and how much damage you can endure. These elements lend themselves to the experience of the game, and the mechanics, though strange at times, do not seem broken. The game designer made conscious decisions regarding these aspects of the game, and thus had reasons for doing so, even if those reasons aren’t immediately clear. What is clear though is that due to the cohesion within the game itself, even if the game is at odds with other games, the design was thought out to illicit a certain experience that the designer felt could not be brought out through conventional means.
Now its merits as an “art game” are certainly debatable, and since such things are so subjective and I have made clear my efforts in this piece are less to express opinion and more to construct a framework for the “art game”, I will leave such interpretation for another day, or even just for another person to expand on if they so choose. However, what I will respond to is a very obvious question: “Is The Lady a good game?” And I would say that, in general it’s an okay game. At the very least, it offers a game experience that can conceivably be enjoyed. The Lady wants to unnerve you, and does so by giving you just enough familiar gameplay to really set you off when you run into the unfamiliar. The images, instead of trying to achieve a cheap jump scare, are tied with the score to build suspense rather than instigate shock. The art is decent and the music fits the environment really well. Personally, I see it more as a surreal adventure game than a psychological horror, but I can understand why the developer went with that description.
In spite of that, however, I will admit there is a good chance that The Lady will not entertain you. After so many failures, you become more aware of the track you’re on, and the arbitrariness of the progression may wear out its welcome before you can find yourself satisfied with a new reveal. Though I do think most issues with the game are intentional, it would be quite easy to feel like The Lady is just crawling with bugs and trying to hard to shock you into an edgy story about a cut up lady torso wandering in a room—and frankly that’s fair. It IS those things, but it is also an experiment to try to get into your head though unconventional means. If nothing else, playing The Lady can be an exercise in trying to take the “art” structure of the game and make it better. The message I get out of The Lady should be clear, but I’ll state it here anyway: Even an odd, seemingly pointless game, if done well enough, can spark a conversation about the artistry of games. Even the stuff that challenges us or the stuff we don’t like give us something to think about, even if we must force ourselves to trudge onward into the unknown.