What makes a video game profound?
Video games struggle to be taken seriously as an art form despite the fact that they are the culmination of several art forms, creating an experience that is more than just the sum of its parts – a visual, audial, interactive experience that can be entered, customized, and sometimes even completely altered by the player’s input. Often when we think of the artistic merits of games, we think of their stories, and so perhaps weak writing is to blame for the general refusal to see anything deep about a video game.
While I don’t want to talk too much about video game writing here, as I feel it takes up the bulk of the discussion time when it comes to this topic, I will say (as I have in the past) that it is very difficult to take a medium with such a large emphasis on interactivity and expect people who have not played a specific game to understand the experience. Snippets of video game footage don’t always hold up the way a profound quote from a book or a scene from a film do. In some ways that’s a failing on the writer’s part, but it other ways it’s just sort of a given that if someone hasn’t learned to interpret a video game (that is, didn’t grow up playing them or has never paid too close attention) they won’t “get it” the way you want them to.
Beyond just writing though, video games are a thing to be seen and heard. The skill in the artistic design and the soundtrack will determine how absorbed the player will become in the setting. Games are also programmed, and this programming is also part of the artistry. Games need to react to controls, be accessible, contain options and menus that have to work intuitively – or perhaps not! Perhaps the intention in the design is to work against what the player expects.
Another issue I think people run into, especially those born before 1990, is that we all have a shared understanding of what a video game is, or rather was.
When the general public considers a video game, they consider blips, pixels, and repetitive action. Now of course we still use all of those things, and there’s nothing to say those things are incapable of being interesting, but for a lot of people this simplicity is part of what makes them think of games as shallow – because for a large part of their history, games were, by necessity, shallow.
What’s hard for people to conceive of, however, is the possibilities within gaming – the breadth of stories and music and art that can be put on display in a video game. Some very compelling and culturally rich games are coming out these days, and their profound effect on video games and storytelling is undeniable.
Now some may argue that using a video game as a vehicle for telling a story comes at the expense of the gameplay experience. This, in some ways, is true. By requiring a player to follow a set path or limiting the outcomes, you do prevent the player from fully exploring a game’s potential. However, I disagree with the notion that the interactive portion of a game is always the most important. RPGs and visual novels have long been considered games, and interactive elements still exist in even the most linear of plots. That’s another example of the profundity of the medium: it can be comprised of various types of experiences. (Also, for anyone who thinks Never Alone “isn’t a game,” I don’t have a long argument for you – you’re just wrong.)
And I think that last point is where I’ll end this little reflection: the fact that the breadth of video game form itself is profound. Depending on the intention of the artists behind the microphone, the keyboard, the pencil and whatever else you may desire, your experience is going to brush up against something meaningful. And that, in my view, is the purpose of art: to discover meaning.