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A Roundtable on Games & Art by Juan Barquin, Kambole Campbell, Forrest Cardamenis, Cole Kronman, Esther Rosenfield
Nearly a decade ago, Brendan Keogh wrote the first column in Reverse Shot’s series exploring video games, Touching the Screen: The Well-Played Game. In it, he noted the myriad discourses around gaming as art—the player as fundamental component to the game, the obsession with being “cinematic” in gaming, the overwhelming critical dismissal of games—and presented a simple but efficient thesis: the focus of the column would be “how we get caught up in these worlds and how they get caught up in us.”
Today, though many film publications have taken it upon themselves to apply the rules of cinema to their coverage of video games, incisive analysis in games criticism is still hard to find. In part one of this special conversation for Touching the Screen, Juan Barquin invited fellow critics Cole Kronman, Esther Rosenfield, Forrest Cardamenis, and Kambole Campbell to discuss potential angles from which to approach video games as art.
Juan Barquin: Whenever video games are discussed within the context of “art,” we’re forced to come back to Roger Ebert’s infamous words on the subject. His essay bluntly states its view in its title: “Video games can never be art.” All of us are here because we disagree. In addition to experiencing other works of art we play a wide variety of games and have been particularly invested in both reading and writing video game criticism. We’ve also all been alive for the majority of the lifespan of what is considered “gaming,” and came to engage with it through different routes. So I’d like to get things started by asking each of you what game triggered that impulse to look at games as art?
Cole Kronman: The big one that comes to mind is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. When I first played it, it seemed endless. Most of the game takes place on the surface of an ocean, and if you were to compare its map size to that of basically any modern open world game, it would look pretty small. But that ocean is so open, so mysterious, that it impressed upon me this sense of incalculable vastness. It was as if there was an entire world in this game, one that extended beyond even the boundaries of playable space, and that’s something I’d never really experienced before. I had this moment where I realized that games, even if they can’t literally do “anything,” can feel like they can do anything, can conjure worlds that seem infinitely malleable. I suppose my other answer would be Xenoblade Chronicles, which on some days is my favorite game of all time. It was made by a group of people who had been struggling to create a fully realized game for over a decade, and they did, finally, and it’s so distinctive and wonderful. Playing it motivated me to take my own art more seriously.
Esther Rosenfeld: I thought of games as toys for a very long time. I don’t mean that derisively. Super Mario Sunshine is a game I remember loving because it felt good, and that’s something that’s still very important to me. Explaining why something feels good or feels bad can be nebulous, which is a problem in talking about games. So because of that sort of tactile nature of how I engaged with games, it felt like how you’d engage with a toy. The first time I remember thinking of a game in an artistic sense was, I want to say, around 2012, when there was a big indie boom happening. The embarrassing answer to your question would be Braid, but maybe the more honest answer is Bastion, Supergiant’s first game, which has this amazing moment at the end. For a while it’s an isometric action game with very linear levels, but at the conclusion it offers you a choice for the first time that determines what the ending will be. I remember being very struck by that, the game overturning the agency that I thought I had in the way the story would go. It’s the tiniest thing—whether a character will be on screen in the last cutscene or not—but it has such an enormous impact because you’ve really come to care about the characters and their world and their story. That moment was the first time I remember thinking, “Wow, this game was designed in a way that had a real emotional impact on me.” Not just in terms of the story it’s telling but also the way it used things innate to being a video game to tell that story.
Forrest Cardamenis: As with Esther, I long considered games toys even as I had been playing them all my life. The most important things in games were having fun and winning. When I started to get more into movies and books, I didn’t play games as much. I got back into them when a friend introduced me to Papers, Please. That game captures exactly what the people looking at your passport have to do. It was a game that was clearly not about winning; on the contrary, it was so difficult to actually win without doing blatantly unethical stuff, like taking bribes, that it was clear that there were other goals. Papers, Please forces you to think in a way you haven’t before, both about the actual labor of passport inspection and also how workers in authoritarian nations frequently rely on a black market economy to make ends meet and what sort of ethical tradeoffs that involves. It made me think about gameplay as a form of expression and making meaning and how games could achieve thematic goals through aesthetics.
Kambole Campbell: I have a really short-term memory when it comes to video games: like Forrest, I had some long breaks in between playing anything. I suppose my first game console was the Game Boy, that was the one console I had when I was living in Cape Town and until I moved to England. When I wanted to play console games, I had to go to my friend's house, so my early experiences are a little fragmented. My main memories are Pokémon Silver and a Dragon Ball side scrolling game that I can no longer remember the name of. I suppose all roads lead back to Goku (the protagonist of the Dragon Ball manga and its follow-ups), because I think that was the first time I was really hooked by what was happening in the story and how the game presented something I was already familiar with, but through a different lens: your direct hand in things like the world tournament, the way that the game put its own spin on the style of the series through its pixel art, the shifts in perspective. I felt similarly about Ultimate Spider-Man for PS2. Up to that point, I had played a lot of Spider-Man tie-in movie games, but this one became a favorite because of how it tied in the visual language of comic books and cel shading that gave it a more timeless appeal over the aspirations to realism in the others in the series. I suppose I hadn’t really been thinking about the style of a game until that point, only the sensations of “game feel” and the more toyetic or competitive elements of it.
JB: When I was younger, my brain always went straight to “story,” and my fixation was just what the game was telling me. Pokémon is actually how I can track that evolution in my own engagement with games. Red/Blue/Yellow was very much “I get to discover this world that’s also airing on television on 4Kids,” but Silver/Gold/Crystal was a revelation. It was a world I hadn’t experienced, but at the same time it tied right back into the earlier games and deepened their lore. I came to a point around the fifth generation where it both stopped being fun and started feeling rote and mechanical. If nothing but the surface narrative and context was changing, am I really playing anything new? Has it not just become a system of repetition that, each time, results in less engaging art?
This has affected how I look at other games that exist within an ongoing series, particularly something like Final Fantasy. There are, undeniably, highs and lows in this decades-spanning series, but once I hit my twenties, I started thinking about how each of these individual works functioned beyond just surface narrative presentation. And by looking beyond their stories, I discovered ever-evolving gameplay that was key to whether or not those games worked and why they appealed to me. It was essential to why I’d defend something like Final Fantasy VIII, which people often loathe because of its gameplay rather than just its “messy” story. I loved how much strange leeway the game gave the player to break it mechanically if they didn’t stick to the script. Gameplay and aesthetic value are inherently in conversation with each other, despite the desire to separate them or favor one over the other in the same way that film critics often accuse works of being “style over substance.” A gamer can settle for stunning graphics with rote gameplay, but, to pitch another question: Can we analyze how gameplay specifically impacts every part of a given text? More specifically, how can we approach gameplay as part of something’s “artistry”?
ER: Something that makes games really unique as an artistic medium is that there is only one way to watch a movie. Maybe you watch it on different formats, on a TV or in a theater, but ultimately you’re receiving the same thing. The way you receive a game is going to be different depending on what the game is. You don’t play an RPG the same way you play an action game, the same way you play a stealth game, and so on. It makes it challenging to have a hard-and-fast rubric for understanding a game’s artistic value. What makes one game art is not going to be present at all, maybe, in another game. I think this is why a lot of people stumble when it comes to analyzing games from an artistic or aesthetic perspective. They fall into the trap of saying “let’s just talk about the story” because we understand what makes a story good, or the visuals, or the way it uses cinematic language in a way we can understand.
CK: It does feel like—and this has been the case for as long as critical evaluation of video games has existed—there’s a general failure within mainstream games criticism to approach the medium holistically. I remember reading reviews on IGN and GameSpot when I was younger, and they would rate every aspect of a game separately before combining those numbers into a calculated average. That approach isn’t as common now, and as with most critical disciplines, the best work is being done in more independent spaces, but it does seem, broadly, like the inclination is still there.
KC: So often reviews frame games as bits of technology rather than as complete pieces of art. I wonder if it’s possible to talk about a unified video game grammar, beyond “feeling good,” in the same way you might talk about cinematic grammar, being able to recognize the specific parts, without delineating things in a sort of tech sense.
FC: When we look at early film theorists, they are frequently prescriptive. Arnheim said the things that make cinema less like reality—its lack of sync-sound, its lack of color—make it art. For Béla Balázs it was about the close-up. For the Russian theorists it was montage. Even a few decades later, Bazin stressed the indexical nature of the image. We seek similar approaches for evaluation, and they do exist, in games criticism—Clint Hocking’s term “ludonarrative dissonance,” which described the gap between what the narrative of a game told you and what the incentives and rewards of its gameplay are, introduced a type theory to evaluate games by—but there were always different movies attempting different things. You weren’t going to look at Griffith films in the way that Vertov wants you looking at his films, and you shouldn’t be applying the standards of an indie walking simulator to a Final Fantasy. But we feel like we need to find a way to make “games” into “art,” so we fall into those models, even though much of what makes film theory valuable is its pluralism. We have many theories and can apply them as they fit rather than because every work in a medium ought to fit one ur-model. Most great art teaches you its own ontology. If you’re reading Nabokov, he is abundantly clear about how he wants you to read him; Antonioni is clear about how he wants you to watch him. The same is true in games.
ER: The way you review a game is sometimes the way you might review a car, which doesn’t really do justice to what games are. All artistic mediums rely on technology in some form, but with games this can present overarching issues. When Cyberpunk 2077 came out and it just didn’t work, for example, technological failures made it hard for players to even really approach the work on its own terms. That’s not a problem any other artistic medium has.
JB: When it comes to those technical flaws though, are they not sometimes actually why a game is good? Looking at something like Deadly Premonition, which is mechanically broken in a number of ways, it’s hard not to consider all of its faults to be part of its charm. This also extends to someone like Yoko Taro, whose earlier works like Drakengard 3 and Nier (which had to be reskinned for its North American release) are unique and arguably groundbreaking in spite of being riddled with frame-rate drops and glitches. How many works in film and literature are excellent regardless of whether or not there were perceived flaws at first, or whether or not they had some level of limitation or producer interference? How much does this situational awareness about a game’s design, which largely comes from playability, impact the way you engage with a game?
CK: The question of whether or not truly great works “age” comes up a lot with video games in particular. For one, the medium is still so young, and I think we’re still trying to understand what compelling art looks like in a technological landscape that’s constantly shifting. But when we talk about games “aging,” I do detect similarities with the ways some people imply that filmmakers working in, say, the silent and pre-Code eras, didn’t yet know how to tap into cinema’s full potential. In reality, the best of them did tap into its full potential at a very precise cultural and technological juncture, and are now rightly considered superlative artists. At the risk of equating Hideo Kojima with Josef von Sternberg, you might draw a parallel to how some people refer to the original Metal Gear Solid as “dated.” Metal Gear Solid is as significant as it is because the people behind it applied their total understanding of the medium’s potential—circa 1998—to its design. That’s worth certain considerations, even if future entries in the series mechanically “improved” upon it. Which is itself such a subjective, mercurial notion.
ER: That gets back to the question of approaching games as technology, because technology gets better over time. MGS was as advanced as a game could possibly be at that time, but we have to be able to understand it as a great work even though it was surpassed, in a lot of technical ways, by its immediate sequel. Does the recently announced MGS3 remake look better because you can see more of Snake’s stubble? These are the questions a lot of people get really stuck on in games, the idea that something is better due to increased photorealism and graphical fidelity. I still see people online say, “I can’t believe people like that Zelda game, it runs at 30 frames per second.” Oh, the horror!
KC: It feels insecure to use the term “cinematic” as aspirational, but it’s something I feel like I’ve encountered in a lot of writing around games, same as in animation. In addition to analyzing the work, you also have to justify that you’re talking about it. I'll defer to Forrest in a second, because it comes back to what you were saying about cinema being loved for its qualities that are furthest from reality in the same sense I think the things I find interesting about video games are the elements that are furthest from other mediums. Something like NieR: Automata and how it conjures the visual language of different video game genres—using shoot-em-up, side-scrolling, or even text-adventure gameplay—to illustrate changes in perspective or to underline an emotional point. It does this where other games might switch to a cutscene, emulating the more passive “cinematic” language of the cut, for example.
FC: It also comes back to the idea of looking at games more holistically. Metal Gear Solid is an excellent example. It seems like there are elements of the sequels that are obviously “better”—first-person aiming or needing to hide bodies, for example. But they remade Metal Gear Solid with all this stuff as Twin Snakes, and it actually isn’t good, because everything else about Metal Gear Solid was built around the technological limitations that “limited” its gameplay. The Revolver Ocelot boss fight was ruined by the more modern mechanics. So, sure, the technology gets better, but yesterday’s technological limitations informed design every step of the way. We can say, “Oh, they wouldn’t do it that way today,” but they had to do it that way yesterday, so everything else they did was with the awareness of that.
ER: I think you’re absolutely right—it’s much like the way some people said movies got worse once sync sound was invented. A lot of games are produced in a particular context only because of those limitations. Maybe some games are worse nowadays because those limitations don’t exist and you can just have system on system on system in ways that aren’t productive.
FC: Exactly. And in other arts, we have created theories to “explain” the flaws. That’s partially what Auteur Theory is. The ending of Bigger Than Life is obviously a studio imposition, in narrative terms, but Nicholas Ray filmed it in a way that heightens the disconnect between this imposed happy ending and the horrors that precede it. We have defined artistry in part by how the conventions of a genre, the necessities of the Hays Code and censorious boards, the technological and political limitations, and whatever else are used or subverted.
CK: Similarly, you might see people citing the merits of oblique design in older games, frictions that arose chiefly from technical limitations. There’s this tension between treating them as “games”—if we accept, at face value, that games are supposed to be fun—and as objects that are representative of a very specific historical context. If we play a game and we’re not having fun because certain elements seem outmoded, how might we reckon with its placement in the canon? It may occasionally be necessary to expand our definition to encompass designs that don’t fit within traditional rubrics of fun, intentionally or otherwise.