The very first game I built was about a spaceship that had to collect medical supplies for people on a space station. It was about avoiding asteroids so you could get the medicine to the people who needed it. Even at this early age there was a human interest there. I didn’t know games were art but I knew that they were more than what people made them out to be.
It wasn’t until I played King’s Quest [a classic Sierra adventure game]on a PC that I said, okay, I’ve got it. I’m actually interacting with a fairytale, with a storybook that’s communicating back to me the stories I’d learned as a kid. That’s when I knew that games approached art.
What is the link between games of the past – black screens with just a few active pixels – and modern games, which are incredibly cinematic, that makes them both art?
That’s a great question. Even in the very first, simple games, it’s not that a desire to tell an expansive story wasn’t there. It’s that the technology of the time did not afford them the ability to do so within the game. So you end up with abstract notions of environments, and of a need and necessity that propel the narrative forward.
Early games would ship to the public along with additional visual materials, like a comic in the game box. You’d read the comic, then you’d play the game and you’d realize that the square you see on the screen with the arrow sticking out of it represents the warrior you just read about in this epic battle.
The only thing that has changed is that the technology and tools now available to game developers allows them to more fully articulate their narrative. You can see the ties. Look at Pitfall!'s [Activision, 1982]Pitfall Harry grabbing a vine and swinging over a crocodile-infested lake, then look at Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [PlayStation 3, 2009] grabbing a vine and swinging over a watery area. The mechanical vocabulary of games persists over time. It’s just that the evolution of technology has given game developers a much wider canvas and broader palette with which to paint these experiences.
Do you think there’s a particular game or series represents the apex of games as a form of art? Is that even a fair question?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a fair question. I think the answer would be different depending on who you ask.
Look at a game like Flower [a poetic adventure for PlayStation 3] It’s a game that’s intentionally open in terms of its narrative. But in its mechanics it allows you to inform the game with your own voice and story. This is something that I believe few games have achieved. I grew up in Queens, New York. And as a kid you’re always looking for colour in a city’s muted grays and browns. When I was playing Flower I was going through this city environment and picking up all these flowers in the windstream you control in the game. And then there was this building that suddenly stood upright. It had colour brought back to it. It had an incredible impact on me. I had to stop playing the game. There was this wave of emotion I felt that transported me back to a time when I was a kid.
Video games have the ability to do this. They can reach into us and bring out the things that make us who we are. Our memories, our morals, our compass, if you will. I can argue that Flower has achieved this while most other games have not. Is that the pinnacle of the medium? It may be for me, but it may not be for others.
Film critic Roger Ebert famously declared that games cannot be art. Can people who don’t play games ever be convinced that games are artistic?