Within Beauty

There’s been a great deal of debate out there as to whether or not games are art. Well, it’s a very silly debate, since it mostly ends up with a bunch of people who have one definition of art arguing about how certain games live up to those ideals while people who have completely different criteria show how those same games fail to live up to their own. And Roger Ebert, who I’m generally a fan of, managed to out-silly pretty much everyone by declaring a medium he knew nearly nothing about was incapable of being art– which he then revised to saying they couldn’t be ‘high art,’ which essentially boiled down to it not being a strictly controlled narrative art form like film or literature.

It’s actually kind of charming that he’d separate out his own arbitrary measure of art and stick to it, since most other people in this debate seem content to each argue towards their own without making any distinction. What strikes me as peculiar, though, is that nearly all of these debates seem to take it for granted that it’s movies and literature that games should be compared to; if a game is simply beautiful it’s dismissed as merely having nice art assets– which, people argue, might themselves be art but don’t qualify the game as art.

So, um… why is that, again? Why are the games judged to be art or not-art based on a completely different set of merits than their assets are?

Apparently a game has to tell a story that will change your life in order to be art. This is the bar we have set. It strikes me as somewhat akin to declaring that the comic book is a medium inherently superior to the painting because of its increased ability to tell narrative.


This is a screenshot from the game Dear Esther. This game– there’s been some debate over whether this is an appropriate appellation, since the actual gameplay layer of the experience is nearly non-existent– is one of the most singularly striking and beautiful aesthetic experiences I’ve ever had. I’m including a screenshot here in order to explain to you just how incredibly inadequate this screenshot is. You cannot see the waves splash against the rocks, or see the candles flicker in the wind. If you liked, you could find a high-definition video of this scene from the game and see everything I’m talking about, but there would still be something missing. You wouldn’t be inhabiting this world. You wouldn’t be exploring this space, this amazing composition. A dimension of it would be lost to you, viewing it this way.

There are pure aesthetic experiences that simply cannot be experienced anywhere but in the digital worlds we create. The logic-defying madness of Silent Hill, the sorrow and decay of its sequel, the surreal drama of Limbo, the facade of iTech covering a crumbling core in Portal… Can any of you who have played these games claim that, gameplay aside, these aesthetics would have had the same impact if you’d simply been an observer? If it hadn’t been you that crawled through the clock tower to discover a twisted shadow world, you who witnessed James’s guilt and sorrow given form and flesh by Silent Hill, you who tricked the spiders and the hunters and tried to escape the nothingness, you who uncovered GLaDOS’s insane lies and found the rusty dying heart of Aperture Science… Would it have been the same?

Our agency within an aesthetic realm changes it in a fundamental way. Don’t pretend that gameplay and story are the only reasons we play games.

We can be wherever we wish. We can occupy the impossible castles, the faerie realms, the infinity of possible futures.

What miser’s definition of art would deny the inclusion of such an experience?


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