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Analyzing the artistic merits of video games

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Tetris, Super Mario 64, Portal

Posted by Nick Dinicola on December 6, 2008

In a previous post I said that a case could be made for Tetris, Super Mario 64, and Portal all being art because of their game design alone. I’m going to argue that case now.


I honestly think Tetris is timeless, it’s just as much fun today as it was back in 1985. This is possible because the game seems to have barely aged. Unlike other games of its time, the core gameplay of Tetris has never been changed. There will always be falling blocks that can be rotated and stacked to makes a full line disappear. The original has been improved upon, but the many variations that have been released make only minor changes, such as allowing a player to see the next three pieces as opposed to one piece, allowing the player to rotate a piece either clockwise or counter-clockwise, rotate a piece even if it’s against a wall, adding new modes with a focus on deleting lines, or adding a timer, among others. It could be argued that together these minor changes add up, so that modern Tetris game is a far cry from the original, but I disagree because there’s one very important aspect of the game that has not been changed: The shape of the pieces. The Tetris shapes are iconic, they work in perfect harmony with each other. Each shape is built with only four squares, and between the six pieces they cover every variation that can be made with four connecting squares. A new piece cannot be added, literally. It would upset the balance that has made Tetris a timeless game, and structurally artistic. Because this is where Tetris shines as artistic: The perfect balance between its pieces. Knowing more of what pieces are coming and being able to turn the pieces different directions makes the game more accessible for sure, but the original hit upon something with the shape of its pieces that made the game consistently enjoyable yet consistently challenging and has not been improved in all the years since its release.

Super Mario 64:

Super Mario 64 was nothing short of revolutionary when it first came out, and many of things that made it such a fantastic game then make it just as fantastic a game today. All of its individual pieces joined together to make it a near perfect game.

Its level design is particularly great. Each world in Super Mario 64 is a miniature sandbox placed before the player with few restrictions on where to go (sometimes a path would only open if a player chose to go after the star it led to). This resulted in moments of wonderful discovery as a player would choose to search for one star based on the hint at the entrance to the world, only to follow an obstacle-laden path to a completely different star. In this way the game rewarded and encouraged exploration. Yet that exploration would not have been nearly as fun if the worlds had been monotonous and poorly designed. Each world in Super Mario 64 is drastically different, and each uses its setting to place unique obstacles in the player’s path: Slippery slopes in an ice world, quicksand in a desert, lava in a fire world,  things that seem clichéd today gave the game a wide variety of challenges. But even by today’s standards, the clichéd ice and fire worlds remain fun despite their clichéd status because the level design is so effective with each path to a star presenting different obstacles according to the theme of the world.

The control it offered the player was also near perfect. It used an analog stick to interpret a full 360 degrees of movement and a 1:1 ratio of the stick’s position with Mario’s position. This ratio means that a quick circle with the stick will result in Mario running in a quick circle, as opposed to some other games in which a quick circle with the stick will result in the character simply turning in a circle but not moving. These are the “tight” controls that Mario is known for, and made distances easy to judge (you always knew where you were going to land after making a jump, an important quality for any platformer).

The level design set a standard for future exploration-based platformers, and even today it remains a structurally superb and structurally artistic game.


By the time Portal came out, the first-person shooter genre seemed to pretty much be standardized what with Doom, Half-Life, Halo and others each setting a precedent on how players interact with virtual worlds. Portal took those standards and applied them to a different genre, puzzles, to create an innovative game. But that innovation is not the only reason I call Portal art, its length is also important.

First the innovation: Portal changed the way players viewed the virtual world. Most first-person games move on a 2D plane within a 3D world. What I mean is that in any first-person game players can move forwards, backwards, and side to side, but if the view were to shift to a top-down perspective instead of a first-person perspective, all those moves would still be available. The Y axis, up and down, was never a major focal point. Portal changed this by forcing players to rethink how they interact with the world, it required some rather complex spatial reasoning at times, and a constant awareness of one’s surroundings. The Y axis was especially important as there were many instances where the player would have to shoot a portal at a wall and another into a pit, jump into the pit, and use the momentum from falling to fly out of the portal in the wall across an otherwise impossible chasm. Any game that requires the player to question the conventions learned from other games deserves an artistic nod as it makes us question what we think we know, and I think a work of art should make us question our perceptions of our world and where those perceptions come from.

Its length: This is where its structural artistry comes into play. Portal is postminimalism in games. It’s a game with all the excess and fluff removed in order to give the player a streamlined experience. It’s all about being concise. With Portal being such a short game there was no need to create repetitive puzzles, so each challenge in Portal was new and required the player to think a little differently each time. Also, the story didn’t need to be stretched out to fit a determined length of play time, so the writing was focused, and every line from GLaDOS managed to be entertaining as well as subtly revealing about her (its) personality and the fate of the Aperture scientists. For example, the constant talk of a cake reward by GLaDOS is some wonderfully wry humor, but also reveals her (it) to be rather arrogant as it makes her words of support sound slightly condescending. Each piece of Portal is vital to its whole, and its focus on a very unique yet very concise experience makes it a great example of structural art. (Though I also think its ability to give backstory through the setting using the Rat Man dens, and its excellent writing make it a great example of storytelling in games as well.)


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