Are Video Games Art?
June 4, 2013
(The shortened opening)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic, I remember it so you don't have to. The last video game I've ever played all the way through was...
(Cut to a shot of...)
NC (vo): ...Super Mario Bros. Wii. And before that, it was...
(Cut to a shot of...)
NC (vo): ...Metroid Prime 2 on the GameCube. That's an entire system later!
NC: That's not to say I don't dabble in a little...
(Cut to shots of the games he describes)
NC (vo): ...Mario Kart, Marvel vs. Capcom 3...
NC: ...or my most embarrassing, recording myself playing...
(Cut to a clip of the NC playing Michael Jackson: The Experience in his pajamas; a clip of the game is displayed in the corner)
NC (vo): ...the Michael Jackson Experience in my pajamas.
NC: (angrily) Which you are not going to see! (calmer) I bring this up to give you some idea of where I'm coming from, that I did play a lot of video games growing up, but recently, I've kinda fallen out of touch, and that I still try to keep a little on top of things by being a casual gamer here and there. I bring this up because it's important to know my background when I ask a question that's been circulating the past few years, (Beethoven's "Fur Elise" starts playing in the background) "Are video games art?"
(Cut to a montage of old video games, such as The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., a Street Fighter game, Mortal Kombat, and a Final Fantasy game)
NC (vo): Now, on the one hand, this is a stupid question, as you can easily say, "Of course it's art! Practically anything can be art!" Just look at the definition...
(Text on the definition of the word "art" is displayed, which the Critic reads...)
NC (vo): "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture," or "Works produced by such skill and imagination."
NC: So, hell, even the picture you did of a horsey...
(Cut to an image of a child's drawing, in marker, of a horse is displayed)
NC (vo): ...when you were five years old technically counts as art!
NC: But I think what people really mean when they ask this question is, are video games high art?
(Cut to a montage of action video games)
NC (vo): Will they be remembered? Are they timeless? Do they say something relevant about life or humanity that will be relevant years later? That's what people are really trying to get down to. And let's admit, I didn't really think too hard about this subject matter until I played the game...
(Cut to a montage of images for the video game...)
NC (vo): ...Metroid: Other M. Despite all the hype being built around it, the game pissed off a great number of fans and gamers, but not for the same reasons they would have twenty years ago. The biggest complaint was that Samus, the badass bounty hunter and star of one of Nintendo's biggest franchises, has now been reduced to an overly-emotional, yapping drama queen with dialog more like a soap opera than a space opera. To say fans were pissed was an understatement. But when it came down to the actual gameplay itself, people didn't seem to have that big a problem with it. Of course, some people didn't enjoy the playing part, but the focus of the criticisms was how poorly they represented the character and the story.
NC: When did this happen? Nobody used to question the motivations of...
(Cut to a shot of Mario being embraced by Princess Peach)
NC (vo): ...a plumber going after a princess.
(Cut to a shot of the opening of Contra)
NC (vo): Or the storyline of two guys with guns stopping an alien invasion.
(Cut to a montage of clips from new video games)
NC (vo): But clearly, much more is expected now out of video games, because the medium itself has naturally evolved. But many critics out there still declare that it's just a modern, updated version of this.
(Cut to a clip of the old game Pong)
NC (vo): In my opinion...
(The video game montage resumes)
NC (vo): ...the best way to understand the evolution of the craft is by comparing it to another craft that many people for years argued wasn't art...
(Cut to an image of the poster for The Godfather)
NC (vo): ...movies.
(Cut to a montage of movies, including, but not limited to, a James Bond movie Dr. No, a Marx Brothers movie, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Streetcar Named Desire, Network, Tree of Life, displays of nature and avant-garde imagery, The Pride of the Yankees, and White Heat)
NC (vo): For a long time, many art critics declared films as just a means of escape and entertainment, and nothing else. But as the art advanced more and more, we saw filmmakers take chances by challenging audiences with new ways of telling stories and expressing ideas. Films could be disturbing, thought provoking, enlightening, even breaking the bonds of the three-act structure and just expressing emotion, dreams, and the subconscious. Because of this, it is very hard nowadays to find people who don't, in some form or another, see the possibility of film making great art.
NC: Regardless, the question remains: do video games have the same capacity?
(Cut to a montage of new video games, whose cutscenes look like movies in themselves)
NC (vo): Well, many would argue nowadays that video games are just a cheap imitation of movies, that they're trying to cash in on a lot of the unique elements of film without actually making a film. And in many respects, they're correct. There's no doubt that movies make big money, and the more game makers can make their games look similar to movies, the more people will get the impression that they're actually playing a movie, which is a very attractive idea, seeing as how people are attracted to movies already. So, does that mean video games are just movies lite?
(Cut to footage of Dragon's Lair)
NC (vo): Are they just advanced versions of Dragon's Lair, where footage tells you where to go, and if you don't follow, you just lose a turn? There's no denying that some, if not many, games are very much like that.
(Cut to footage of the video game version of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King)
NC (vo): So how can games be expected to evolve as an art form if it's just (images of the poster for Return of the King and the cover for its corresponding video game are shown) a watered-down version of another art form?
(The video game montage resumes)
NC (vo): Well, games do have a very distinct difference over movies, music, paintings, and other forms of art, and that difference is (the following word is displayed in big yellow letters...) choice.
(Cut to a clip of The Maltese Falcon)
NC (vo): For the most part, you can't decide where a movie, a book or a piece of music goes.
(Cut to an image of the cover for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)
NC (vo): It's finished when it's finished, and you observe it from there.
(Cut to footage of a first-person shooter game)
NC (vo): But video games, by design, are dependent on different outcomes.
(Cut to two images of people looking abstract pieces of art)
NC (vo): And true, there are some pieces of art and literature where the choice of the observer plays a big part.
(Cut to a clip of World of Warcraft)
NC (vo): But in video games, that's not just a small part of the process, it's the majority of the focus.
(Cut to footage of The Sims)
NC (vo): Because of this, we create a medium where not only are they allowed to experiment with choice, but they're actually expected to. And when you're expected to produce more possibilities, you're expected to experiment more, take risks more, and generally find out how many outcomes can be created.
(Cut to a clip of a fighting game, with an aircraft flying through the air and dodging enemy fire)
NC (vo): Sure, most of them are simple, as in, avoid getting hit by something or you'll die.
(Cut to another video game, involving a first-person camera exploring a rocky terrain)
NC (vo): But how about the games that create new worlds to explore...
(Cut to footage of World of Warcraft)
NC (vo): ...new stories to create, and not just from the creator anymore, but from the observer?
(Cut to some footage of a social network simulation game, involving town life)
NC (vo): Few would disagree that much of art is about the creation, and this is one of the rare mediums that allows the viewer to make just as much great art as the artist who created does.
(Cut to some shots of another game in which some panda bear characters are being custom-created)
NC (vo): It isn't just the graphics and the technology that's evolving, it's the unique interaction between the player and the game.
(Cut to a clip of a first-person shooting game)
NC (vo): And yes, there are games that try to serve as nothing but mindless entertainment...
(Cut to shots of Samus from Metroid: Other M)
NC (vo): ...and there are games that try to be complex and interesting but instead come out as predictable and boring.
NC: But how is that any different from bad art or bad movies?
NC (vo): They're all trying to tap into something that makes you understand or celebrate the human condition.
(Cut to clips of the Transformers movie)
NC (vo): Even something like Transformers... Yeah, I know, easy target, but nonetheless... Something as simple as Transformers is trying to get across what we value as good human ethics, right down to the very basic good vs. evil. Now, does that make it as something that's gonna be relevant and studied years later? Probably not, but at the same time...
(Cut to a brief clip of Casablanca, before returning briefly to Transformer)
NC (vo): ...you don't call an entire artistic medium a failure because some bad art is popular.
NC: Now, if the question is, have video games reached that level of high art, that's a little bit more debatable.
(Cut to a montage of video game clips)
NC (vo): As a casual gamer, I don't know if I've seen that landmark that's the game equivalent of The Seventh Seal or 2001. But I would make the argument that some have come close.
(Cut to footage of the game The Sims)
NC (vo): This may sound strange, but something like The Sims, as much as I personally don't like playing it, toils with the idea of living your life in a world almost identical to ours. But once again, the choices you make in the environment, I think, can be say much about how people live their lives in the real world and in their fantasy world; just the experience in what you do and how you play, and how it contrasts to how you react in the real world. That's a very different and interesting form of artistic expression, whether you realize you're doing it or not. And again, the genuine art comes from the user, not necessarily the creator.
(Cut to clips of Skyrim and World of Warcraft)
NC (vo): I think the same can be said for games like Skyrim or World of Warcraft or any of these games where you're allowed not to just go on adventures, but live a life any way you want to live it, in a completely different reality.
(Cut to footage of BioShock Infinite)
NC (vo): I think you could also make the argument that games like BioShock Infinite, though not allowing as much choice as other games, creates some very powerful commentary while also being a visual marvel. But like I said, as a casual gamer, I can't act like I'm the biggest expert on the subject.
(Cut to alternating clips of World of Warcraft, BioShock Infinite, Skyrim, and The Sims)
NC (vo): Maybe that big game changer is out there and I just haven't seen it yet. Maybe it just hasn't gotten the public attention it deserves. Or maybe the big game changer is one of these games and the reveal of time will slowly show that. But what I do know is, the possibilities are there, and they're being experimented with day after day as the medium continues to grow.
NC: It reminds me of when people used to say that comic books...
(Cut to images of the covers of Superman and Batman comic books)
NC (vo): ...weren't high art, and that they were nothing but childish nonsense. I'll admit, I used to be kinda in that boat, too.
(Cut to a montage of covers and pages for newer comic books, such as Maus, Watchmen and Persepolis)
NC (vo): But then groundbreaking works like Maus came out, and Watchmen, and Persepolis, and a lot of other great works that said, "Hey, we don't care what you think. We're going to prove that there is a medium here that can be as powerful, thoughtful, provoking, and emotionally stimulating as any other great work of art."
(Cut to images of newer superhero comics, like those for Spider-Man and Batman)
NC (vo): And sure enough, the medium is much more respected now than it was before. An argument has even risen that comic book heroes are the new Greek myths...
(Cut to a montage of shots of the various Superman movies, those with Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, and Henry Cavill)
NC (vo): ...being written from so many different points of view, but still being the center of value that popular culture looks up to.
(Cut to a shot of Link from the Legend of Zelda series, evolving throughout the franchise's run)
NC (vo): Perhaps the reimagining of video game characters, with their legends and quests, could be working its way up to the same page.
NC: So, in answer to are video games art or (makes finger quotes) "high art", I would make the argument that, if people don't see that the answer is yes... they will.
(The video game montage resumes)
NC (vo): If a game doesn't exist that'll sway you over, the possibilities that continue to evolve with technology inevitably have to. And yes, many great people I admire like (briefly cut to a shot of...) Roger Ebert declared they never have been and never will be art. And while I respectfully disagree, I don't see him or anyone who thinks similar any less intelligent or influential. I simply ask that people who think it cannot evolve at the very least keep their minds open to the roads that can be traveled with the medium, that if you think video games are not high art now, be aware that they certainly have the ability to be so in the future.
(Cut to an image of a painting by Van Gogh)
NC (vo): Many evolving artists and mediums have been shunned...
(Cut to an image of a cover of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn")
NC (vo): ...in the past, and much of their progress came from...
(Cut to an image of a poster for A Clockwork Orange)
NC (vo): ...not what they weren't, but what they could be.
NC: And it's hard to see how the evolution of this... (a clip of a silent movie, showing a train traveling, is displayed) ...to this... (cut to a clip of what looks like 2001: A Space Odyssey) ...is any different from the evolution of this... (cut to a clip of Pong) ...to this. (cut to a clip of World of Warcraft)
NC (vo): Yes, there will always be...
(Cut to a clip of a first-person shooting game)
NC (vo): ...mindless games for escapism...
(Cut to a clip of Transformers)
NC (vo): ...in the same way there will always be mindless movies for escapism.
(Cut to footage of the BioShock game the Critic mentioned earlier)
NC (vo): But if that is the full extent of the possibilities you can see in video games, (a shot of a man playing a video game fades in on the screen) I humbly challenge you to stop, start over, and play again.
NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic; I remember it so you don't have to. (starts to get up from his chair, but then stops and looks at the camera with resignation) And speaking of mindless escapes... yeah, you've earned it.
(NC pushes his finger on the desk as if pushing a button; cut to the credits, played over footage of the NC playing the Michael Jackson Experience in his pajamas; at the end of the credits, there is a message that reads: "You'd Look Stupid Playing This, Too.")