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Analyzing the artistic merits of video games

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Are Games Timeless?

Posted by Nick Dinicola on November 14, 2008

What does it mean for a game to be timeless? The game has to be enjoyable no matter how much time has passed since its creation, but for a game to be timeless art it has to still have an emotional impact on the player no matter how much time has passed since its creation.

Artistic merit doesn’t rely on graphics, I think most people would agree with that, but the artistic merit of a work does rely on that work’s ability to evoke emotions from its audience, and I believe the more real a character looks the easier it is to sympathize with him. So realistic graphics can help, but are they necessary? Do dated graphics have a negative impact on the emotional power of a game? Are we less able to sympathize with blocky characters than with more realistic looking characters?

I think that last question is the most important one here. If graphics do affect our emotional reaction to a game, I think that effect would be strongest as it relates to character development: When we’re being told a story, our emotions are directed by the storyteller towards the characters since the dramatic crux of any story depends on how we feel about the characters. If we don’t care about them then we don’t care what happens to them, and if we don’t care what happens to them then any themes the story may have been trying to present to us are lost. With that said, back to the question at hand: Do dated graphics prevent us from caring about a game’s characters?

I would argue “no.” Realism does help form an emotional attachment but it doesn’t guarantee one, because, to use an old cliche, it’s what on the inside that matters. It’s the actions and personality of a character that make him enduring to us, not how he looks. The Final Fantasy games before VII support this as they star some very memorable characters that are just tiny sprites on a screen. But we still care what happens to them because these characters have likable personalities. Even if a story involves an anti-hero, he has to have some quality that makes us care about him otherwise what’s the point in listening to the rest of the story?

People can be made to care about anything if their emotions are manipulated properly, regardless of any kind of realism. Portal is a good example of this: It’s hard not to care, at least a little bit, about the Companion Cube. Not because of anything it does, it’s an inanimate object, nothing more than a big block, but rather because of how GLaDOS personifies it. She gives it a voice even though it clearly doesn’t have one. Throughout the level she describes it as a close friend. Even though the whole thing is presented in a tounge-and-cheek manner, if, at the moment we are supposed to part with the Companion Cube, we hesitate even for a second, than we’ve allowed ourselves to care about it. Even if we don’t care enough to stay behind with it, we care enough to hesitate. So if we can care about a big block, it’s no stretch to say we can also care about blocky characters.

Another reason games can be timeless art is that their artistry can be presented through gameplay. Braid and Shadow of the Colossus are a good examples of this. In Braid, the themes are presented to us through the gameplay elements such as rewinding or stopping time. We’re made to think about the philosophical implications of these powers in the real world. In Shadow of the Colossus, controlling (or lack of) our horse is meant to make us care about it, and the lonely world is meant to reflect the loneliness of Wander. The thematic elements in these games stem from our interaction with the world, not from the characters and their actions.

I think games can be timeless, but in all honesty I also think the medium is too young to prove me right or wrong. Older games are still fun, and we can still come to care about 16 bit characters in an older RPG, but the first commercially sold coin-operated game was sold in 1971 (according to Wikipedia). While Tetris or Mario may still be fun now, and a certain scene in Final Fantasy VII is still held up by many gamers as a truly emotional moment despite the blocky characters (While I’d like to use an example from an older, sprite-based Final fantasy game, I actually haven’t played one.) there’s no way of knowing if these feelings will remain 40 years from now. GoldenEye was praised as an amazing console FPS when it first came out, but its gameplay has aged with its graphics, and it simply can’t compare to modern games. Will the artistic games I praise on this blog meet the same fate decades from now? I have my own opinions, but only time will tell for sure.

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