Video games are undoubtedly a work of art: they combine immersive graphics, impressive design, originally composed music, and complex writing and storytelling to create a cohesive masterpiece. Of course every game is different, and each has its strengths and weaknesses, but overall they’re one of the most unique and interesting ways in which many different art forms can come together. Surprisingly, I had never consciously acknowledged the cinematic qualities of video games, but I always found myself taking screenshots of amazing moments, or lining up the camera in just the right way to show off an impressive view or landscape. It could be argued that I’m a bit overly sentimental, and that’s probably true, but there is something so powerful about a cinematic picture of a great game and the associations that it creates. I’m not the only one that feels this way; many games have even added photo modes, allowing normal players to take stunning pictures in-game and share them with other players, plus the PlayStation 4 has both a snapshot and screen recording feature, testifying to the popularity of saving favorite gaming moments. I find this trend interesting, especially as games get more and more realistic. Is there a potential future where video games become a dominant medium for photography? Is it possible that video game photography could be its own art form? And who gets credit for the artistic value of the photo; the game developers who created it, or the photographer that took it? Regardless, here are some of my own video game photos as inspiration, and perhaps to get you thinking about the artistic value of the medium:
I’m always discovering more about why I love art and what makes a certain work of art stand out to me, and personally that’s one of my favorite parts about enjoying art. Over time I’ve found that I have really unique interests in the underappreciated areas of art, specifically the small details that often go unnoticed by others. I think these details often go unnoticed consciously, but have a huge impact on how we experience art, and that’s why I love to analyze and explore these details in order to better understand why a certain work of art feels the way it does. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about art that subverts the viewer’s expectations, whether it be a movie breaking the fourth wall, a game that has an artistic twist, or a song that features variations on a theme that take the listener by surprise. Eventually I would love to explore these concepts in all forms of art, but first I want to start with great examples from two of my favorite games: Journey and Monument Valley 2.
I talked about Journey in a previous post, in which I emphasized it as a game of quality over quantity. It’s an overall spectacular game, featuring a gorgeous color palette, emotional story-line, and a beautiful orchestral soundtrack. I was playing through it again recently when I rediscovered one of my favorite parts, in which the game takes this beautiful breathtaking moment to break its format and reveal itself as the work of art it is. The entire game is from a third person perspective, mostly limited to the back of the protagonist, except in this short and surprising scene where you’re surfing down sand dunes and suddenly enter a tunnel, where the camera pans over to display you in profile with this gorgeous and mystical cityscape laid out under a looming mountain and fiery orange sun. It really is breathtaking when you play the game; it comes out of nowhere, and evokes this feeling of pure serenity and awe that is completely unique to this game. The visual nature is perfectly complemented by a reprieve in the music, featuring a bittersweet cello representing the solitary character. It’s an incredible game as a whole, but I think this moment itself characterizes the entire artistic feeling of the game. Art is an emotional medium, and understanding how that emotion is conveyed is essential to understanding what makes it unique. In Journey, it’s this subversion of expectations and a fleeting moment of calm that forces the player to step back and evaluate how the game conveys emotion.
Another great example of art subverting expectations is Monument Valley 2. I’ve discussed Monument Valley before, specifically how it stands apart as a mobile game and how the soundtrack itself is a great example of thoughtful and well made ambient music. However, Monument Valley 2 does something special that the first doesn’t, and that’s including a variation of the theme, essentially breaking its own rules and forcing the viewer to rethink their understanding of the game. The entire game relies on ‘impossible geometry’, level design that is impossible in the real world, but stunning and satisfying in the minimalist world of Monument Valley. It’s 3D and geometric as a result, using an isometric style to make the impossible geometry possible, which in turn defines it’s artistic style and sets the expectations on how the game is played. However, in one sub-level of the game, seemingly out of nowhere, the game breaks its own format and the result is another breathtaking moment (that may sound dramatic, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that these details make me pause with appreciation and respect). Instead of following the expected 3D style, the level is suddenly in 2 dimensions. But that’s not all: interacting with the puzzle reveals the hidden nature of the level, in which a combination of clever 2D design and classic 3D impossible geometry provide jaw-dropping illusions and solutions. Not only is this surprise fascinating enough artistically, I love the self-aware shapes in the background that reveal their hidden dimensions depending on how the level is rotated. The designers clearly knew what they were doing, and since this is the only time this is ever done in the entire franchise, it doesn’t come off as cheap or gimmicky, but instead as an amazing artistic choice that sets Monument Valley apart as a work of art.
Hopefully I was able to explain how important these small details and artistic surprises are in developing the style of a work of art, and hopefully you can appreciate them as much as I do. I definitely recommend keeping an eye out for similar subversions in all fields of art; I think you’ll find that many of your favorite and most memorable pieces feature some element of artistic surprise.
The history of mobile games is volatile at best, built on cheap gimmicks and popular trends, as seen in games such as Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, and Flappy Bird. Overall, mobile devices have long been abused and misused as mediums of quality artistic expression, lacking notable works of art and remaining barren of any significant creative expression. It is certainly not due to any inherent limitations of the medium; most modern smartphones can compete with modern laptops and computers relative to graphics and hardware capabilities, but more likely due to the precedents set by the first mobile game gold rush, started by simple, cartoonish games that relied on repetition in order to increase advertisement time. However, one game series stands apart from the rest in every single way: Monument Valley is a stunning and surprising work of art, featuring an amazing style, atmosphere, and complementary soundtrack, all relying on a simple yet endlessly fun and fascinating gameplay. Not only does it demonstrate the true artistic capabilities of the mobile medium and set the bar for future artists and developers, it does it all without relying on cheap ads and gimmicks.
I discovered Monument Valley when it was first released in 2014, as I was scrolling through the home page of the Apple app store. It was praised as a truly unique puzzle game of “impossible geometry”, and it featured a minimal yet beautifully crafted art style. It was actually the first mobile game that I paid money for, which was certainly unusual at the time, especially considering it was $2.99. In hindsight, I find it fascinating how quality mobile game studios are forced to sell their games so cheap relative to console games, which often range anywhere from $20 – $60, just because the mobile market is dominated by cheap games that depend on adds and in-app purchases. Needless to say, it was the best $2.99 I ever spent: since I first opened the game I couldn’t stop playing, I was completely immersed in the colorful and intricate world of Monument Valley.
The game relies on a simple tap to move mechanic, as the player tries to guide the protagonist Ida to the end of each maze-like architectural wonder. My favorite part is the clear care and detail that went into every level of the game (of which there are only 10 levels), as seen in the design, art style, atmosphere, accompanying soundtrack, and subtle plot that is developed throughout, as the player discovers more and more about this forgotten world of impossible geometry. Compared to other mobile games, its simplicity is its greatest strength: it features a few main characters, a simple mechanical concept, and puzzles that are challenging but never impossible. However, it sets itself apart in its quality and artistic craftsmanship, where each level is its own world, full of clever tricks and beautiful geometric design, which perfectly complements the game itself while also making every frame a work of art in itself.
Monument Valley is entirely unique and deserves to be recognized as a work of art, just as significant as any great album or famous painting, if not more so for its role in breaking the expectation of what a mobile game has to be. It is not meant to be played endlessly and mindlessly, but instead appreciated and savored; it is not a pitiful attempt at money grabbing, but a beautiful artistic concept that was perfectly executed through the mobile medium. The developers continued to build on the exceptionalism of Monument Valley with Monument Valley: Forgotten Shores, and Monument Valley 2, which I both equally recommend (Monument Valley 2 deserves its own post, considering how it expands on the themes of the first game while completely revolutionizing its art style). I would love it if these games could receive more recognition, not only because they deserve it, but because they represent everything that mobile games should be.
There has been a lot of upset in popular culture recently due to drastic changes in media that a lot of people are nostalgic about. Currently the millennial generation is starting to experience this, specifically referring to the new Sonic the Hedgehog movie, Spongebob Squarepants movie, Scooby Doo movie, and Pokemon games. Personally having been born in 2000, I grew up with these characters and franchises and they found a unique place in my heart and childhood. As time has gone on I’ve grown out of those interests, but I can still appreciate them for their quality and the importance they had on influencing me as a person. Even now I will testify that the first 4 generations of Pokemon games are timeless, and that the classic Scooby Doo movies are iconic due to their quality animation and plots. However, growing up means moving on, and as a result I haven’t kept up to date with a majority of the developments in those franchises. My attitude is simply this: I enjoyed them when I was young, and now it’s the younger generation’s turn to enjoy them, and I can’t blame the companies that have to change to fit this new demographic. However, I’ve recently given this change a lot of thought, and have come to a few conclusion about what it means for my nostalgia.
The new 8th generation Pokemon games that came out earlier this month are especially interesting to me in exploring this question of reconciling change and nostalgia. Before it was released, it was announced that there would be no more National Pokedex, a staple in all of the previous games that allowed you to “catch them all”, the slogan of the entire franchise. The reason for its removal: they didn’t want to make models for all of the Pokemon. Obviously fans were disappointed and rightfully upset; like me, they had grown up playing these games and were used to this important feature of the game. Personally, I haven’t even played a Pokemon game since the 4th generation, and I’ve been a critic of the direction of the series for awhile.
Usually I criticize the declining creativity in creating new Pokemon; they have worse names, concepts, designs, and generally look more and more cartoonish and childish. People might rebuke me and argue that the original Pokemon were even less creative, specifically noting Rattata, a Pokemon that is essentially just a rat. However, I’m quick to point out that at least those designs were consistent and developed a believable and interesting world; compare the 1st generation Pokemon to the 8th generation Pokemon and you wouldn’t recognize them as both being from the same game. The reason for this is obvious to me, and it is simply that the series has aimed to cater to younger and younger children, not to the original fans like me who have grown out of playing the games. This trend is apparent in almost every other franchise that I remember from my childhood. I’ve come to the conclusion that change is inevitable, but I still don’t agree with how these companies tamper with my nostalgia. I wish the new media didn’t reflect so poorly on the franchises as a whole; it’s frankly embarrassing that something I hold in such high nostalgic regard is now ridiculous and childish. All I can really do is ignore the changes and focus on the original art that I fell in love with.
I think a lot of people from any generation can relate to these feelings; almost all franchises that endure undergo changes that break away from the original. A great example of this is the Star Wars movie franchise, which has been added on to drastically, more than 30 years after the original movies came out. It is not uncommon for those who saw the originals when they were young to be nostalgic for them and resent the new direction of the franchise. Many people boycott the new movies, or become harsh critics of them in a way that can ruin it for the younger generation that the new movies are targeted at. Personally, I think it’s unfair that those nostalgic people try to ruin it for everyone else, and that’s why I try to stay out of the debates over my favorite franchises changing. In the end, I’m just happy that I got to experience the golden age of entertainment in my childhood, and I’ll always appreciate the originals and my memories of them.
Journey is an indie video game produced by the small studio “That game company” and was released in March of 2012 on the PlayStation 3, then later updated, refurnished, and brought to the PlayStation 4. I first heard of the game on YouTube in 2012, when I watched Pewdiepie play it from beginning to end. I was blown away by how beautiful it was; it was so rich in color and the soundtrack complemented the game so perfectly, it just felt like something entirely unique. At the time I couldn’t afford to play it myself, although I did download the free demo, to get just a taste of the game’s amazing world. Yesterday I was finally able to buy it for the PlayStation 4, as a reward for finishing the first project in EECS 281, and believe it or not, I already finished playing it. I couldn’t believe how fast it went either; it felt like I had just gotten started, then it was the climax, and then the end credits were rolling and I was divided between disappointment and amazement. It probably only took 3 hours, making a cost of $15 seem a little outrageous, but the quality is so overwhelming and memorable that it really makes up the difference.
The entire time I played I was lost in this strange place, being carried away by this incredible music as I made a long journey from the deserts to the top of a frozen mountain, all as part of some vague quest that is only told through the context of the journey. The style of the game itself is amazing as well; it’s simple, but well-crafted, which makes it completely convincing and immersive. The game isn’t particularly difficult either, because the emphasis is on the length of the journey and the development of the story and the world. Overall, I really loved being able to finally play it, and I think it’s a testament to how quality can triumph over quantity. Any small game studio, or even a single person, can create something great with passion and dedication; the ability to make it large doesn’t affect its ability to be great. I think that’s partly why this game was so unique for its time, and also why I found it so memorable. As games get larger and more complex, games like Journey stand out from the crowd and remind players what they love about truly incredible games.
As somebody who consumes a lot of art and media, I can tell you first-hand that it’s financially frustrating. I’ll hear about a book that I want to read, or an album that just came out, or a new video game that is stunning, and I always have to come to the same conclusion: I can’t have it all. This is easily attested to by the many lists on my phone of things I would love to get, and also by all the items saved for later in my Amazon shopping cart. Perhaps it’s something unique to me, but I doubt it; I think anybody who enjoys art wants something physical that can serve as a reminder of how great a work of art was. In this way, art is inherently nostalgic, and that’s a quality that I greatly appreciate, being a sentimental person myself. For example, the first video game I ever remember playing was Pokemon Sapphire on my brother’s GameBoy Advance; I absolutely loved it even though I had no idea what was going on (to be honest, I’m pretty sure I was stuck in Mauville the whole time because I didn’t know how to progress).
It was a combination of the style, the game-play, and the interesting Pokemon that kept me entertained, but more importantly, the game came to represent a simple time in my life. Eventually the game was sold, as it became obsolete in the face of iPods and iPhones, and I gradually forgot about it. Then a year or so ago I started to feel nostalgic about the simplicity of the GameBoy; it didn’t need internet, the battery lasted for days, it wasn’t cluttered with apps and social media, and it was a reminder of one of my first great experiences with art. Needless to say, I ended up finding and buying a used GameBoy and started collecting the Pokemon games, which eventually led to buying a used DS Lite for the nostalgia of playing Pokemon Diamond and Platinum. However, the cost was adding up, and I started to realize that I had forgotten the point entirely; I never wanted all of the games, I just wanted the one that was sentimental to me.
I learned a lot from that experience, but most importantly that art can be appreciated and enjoyed in small quantities. When I thoroughly enjoy a work of art, I no longer try to buy everything related to it, instead I focus on the one thing that I loved about it and try to find something that will represent that in a nostalgic way. As a result, I have a little bit from everything: the seventh book of One Punch Man (the style of the fight scenes in this book are especially impressive), the first volume of One Piece, a deck of tarot cards, and a poster from the anime Akira, just to name a few. Each of these things I would love to indulge in, but I’m glad I haven’t; it is essentially quality over quantity, which is perfect for somebody like me who already enjoys so much art to begin with. And as far as cost goes, I can appreciate a work of art without having to waste money; for example, if I wanted to own every manga from Akira, it would run me about $170, when instead I can appreciate it and remember how much I enjoyed it with a $15 poster. Obviously this is just my personal philosophy, and some people might think it’s outrageous to only own one book from a series. I can’t say they’re entirely wrong, and in a perfect world I would want the whole series too, but realistically this is what works for me. So consider this an alternative way of thinking about and appreciating art; perhaps you can find the same value in this philosophy as I do.
(Image Credits: Google Images)