Monday, April 16, 2012

Five Games That Prove Video Gaming is Art That Nobody Ever Mentions

The argument on whether or not video games are a form of art is one of the most hotly debated topics in all of gaming, even going as far as to be constantly mentioned by people outside of the industry, like Roger Ebert. Everybody seems to have different opinions on the situation and it’s likely something that will always be there. Recently, the Smithsonian Art Museum designed a new exhibit all around the art of video gaming, so consider that one step closer to getting a true answer.

True art.
Now, in my opinion, gaming is a form of art. Much like film, television, cartoons and traditional art, there can be good and bad forms of it and some might not even be considered art at all. Still, the only thing I think is difference between video games and films and cartoons is that one of them is interactive, that’s it. Also, if something like this can be considered art, then video games sure as hell can be.

But the point of this particular list isn’t to change your opinion on whether you think gaming is art or not, or even to shove mine down your throat. Instead, I’m naming off five video games that I think showcase how artful video games can be that people seem to fail to mention. Usually, when an argument about video games as art comes up, people always throw out the same titles. When it comes to graphics, games like Okami, Uncharted, and Wind Waker get brought up. When it comes to story you get Heavy Rain and the Metal Gear Solid titles. But what about those unsung games that do just as much to prove their place as a piece of art? Well, here are the five (in no real order) that I think deserve more love than they get.
5. Super Paper Mario

By the end, you will care about him.
While I could have easily went with any of the three Paper Mario games just based on their graphical styles alone, I decided to go with the third entry in the series, Super Paper Mario, for a different reason. While in my opinion, in terms of gameplay and even character design, Super Paper Mario is the worst of the three, I also firmly believe that it is the best of the three in terms of story and characters. The reason Super Paper Mario is on this list is not because of the way it looks but because of how well developed the characters in the game are. Not only do we get to learn more about the personalities and goals of characters like Princess Peach, Luigi and Bowser, we also get introduced to a handful of new villains and each of them is so well developed and so well written, you’d think you were reading a 6,000 page novel. Throughout the course of your adventure, you’re constantly seeing what these characters are going through and what they’re planning and you get to see how their minds work and how they’re feelings change over the course of the adventure. Whether it’s Nastasia’s growing feelings for Count Bleck or Count Bleck slowly drifting into a deeper depression over his long lost love Timpani, the characters in this game are fantastic. Despite the fact that you run into them and have to fight them numerous times on your quest, by the end, you’re actually rooting for them and are happy when they reform to the side of good. You want to see them succeed in life and you actually deeply care about what they think and what they want. Nintendo has never really been big on crafting big stories or characters in their games, most of their flagship characters don’t even speak, but the villains in Super Paper Mario are some of the most well-written and interesting characters in Nintendo history. 

4. The Mega Man Series (NES)

This was impressive back in the day.
I’m sure it seems to strange to start a list off with a series of games that by today’s standards, simply don’t cut it but think back to when these games first came out. Capcom was always the leading innovator on the original NES. They knew how to push the boundaries of what the system could do in terms of graphics, sound and gameplay. From simple well known tricks like making the original Mega Man sprite multiple layers to have more than four colors or making the dragon from Mega Man 2 part of the background to make it larger than the limits, Capcom was always pushing the limitations of the medium. Sure, the NES had boundaries, everything does but like a true artist who works around having limited colors or limited space to paint a mural, Capcom did the same thing and by the time games like Mega Man 5, 6 and even games like Darkwing Duck were released, there was no better looking or sounding games on the console. The attention to detail in every sprite and background in those games is just phenomenal and is a joy to look at even to this day. Capcom may not be in good with the gaming industry right now (myself included) and Mega Man isn’t doing much these days but back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, nobody was better at what they did.

3. Limbo

Still gives me chills.
Limbo is one of the most surreal gaming experiences I have ever had the pleasure of playing through. While much like Super Paper Mario, I could give this game a nod based on visuals alone, I’m actually placing it on this list for another reason; it’s amazing atmosphere. Limbo is a game that features minimalistic graphics that are literally just silhouettes with shades of black, white and gray filling the world and yet somehow, everything about the game builds up such a heavy and chilling atmosphere the likes of which many games I’ve played, even many games I would put in my top ten of all time, would ever hope to achieve. The game features no dialogue, no text, no voice samples and very little, ambient music. You are literally given no information about where you are, what you’re doing there or who you are and yet somehow, because of all of these elements combined, you are still constantly in a state of panic and a state of wonder as to what the answer to all those questions hold. You always want to know what’s beyond the next puzzle, you want to know why there are giant spiders, why there are people hanging from trees, why there are brain slugs ready to eat through your skull and yet, at the end of the game, almost none of these questions are answered. This game has one of the most bizarre and again, surreal endings not just in gaming, but in fiction and I absolutely love it. Limbo might be a 12 dollar game with only about three hours’ worth of gameplay but the way the game is set up and how heavy the atmosphere is is guaranteed to make me remember it for the rest of my years as a gamer.

2. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

Every little thing he does is magic.
I will never be able to stress enough just how amazing this game is. If you have no played this game, do it. You owe it to yourself because this is one of the most beautiful games of the last ten years and it wasn’t even on a super high-def graphics, next-gen console. It was on the Nintendo DS. Ghost Trick has one of the most unique art styles I have ever seen in a video game, using a form of rotoscoped, vectorized sprites similar to those of Another World but far more fluid and detailed. Every single tiny animation in this game is so full of life and so well detailed that I can literally just sit and stare and get lost in it. Whether it’s Cabanela strutting down the stairs or the way the hippy in the park hands out fliers, every sprite for every character, no matter how minor, is so well crafted that it almost makes you wonder how it was even possible. No sprite based video game has ever looked this good before and it’s likely one never will again because of the way gaming is headed. And on top of how amazing the sprite work is, the story and gameplay are as equally important to the overall package as the sprites. The reason Ghost Trick is such an amazing game isn’t just because of how it looks but because of everything about it. The story is well told and full of twists that, upon a second playing, are hinted at far more than you ever thought they were. Nothing comes out of complete nowhere in this game. Everything is planned and established whether you see it or not. Then, of course, there’s the amazing characters. Each of the main characters is so well-developed and well written, you feel like you know these people, especially the dog, Missile. Seriously, if a dog could speak, I think they would act just like Missile does. He has to be one of the most accurate portrayals of a dog in fiction. Ghost Trick is the best kind of game, one that looks good, plays good and tells an amazing story. Don’t let this one fall to the wayside and never let people forget just how artistic a game can be.

1. The Beatles: Rock Band

The highest form, even.
I’m sure you didn’t see this one coming but honestly, when I first decided to do this list, it was the first game that came to my mind and let me explain; The Beatles: Rock Band is one of the most beautiful, most artistic video games I have ever played and it’s all centered around capturing the spirit and the beauty of the most famous band of all time. From the moment you turn on The Beatles: Rock Band and watch the incredibly well drawn opening animation, you know you’re in for something special. Then of course, you start the game and you get to play as The Beatles on their very first television appearance. Each of the fab four is beautifully rendered and captured in a fun, playful cartoonish artstyle, not dissimilar to that of Yellow Submarine. As you perform, the camera occasionally cuts to the crowd holding up signs or girls screaming, being held back by security. The little details in this game are phenomenal and it makes it even better how after you beat a set, you get to see little videos of the actual Beatles and hear conversations they shared or see pictures of them as a group, it’s a nice little trip down memory lane. But then, once you get to the studio years, everything is blown out the door. Since The Beatles were no longer doing live shows at this time and just watching them sit in a recording studio would be boring, the developers took the game the extra mile and made each and every song from that era go with an accompanying dream sequence that are just as much fun to look at as they are to play. From the gigantic trumpets blaring in the background of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to the surreal, often times scary, masks and strobe effects of I Am the Walrus, the Beatles: Rock Band captures the imagination, the joy and the spirit of The Beatles better than anybody could have ever imagined from a video game. And because of the interactivity, the fact that you actually play along with some of the most beloved songs of all time, I think it’s a better way to experience just who the Beatles were than even watching a movie about them. It’s clear that this game was crafted with so much love and respect for the source material and it pays off in spades. The Beatles: Rock Band is not just a video game, it’s an experience and I think every gamer should play it, regardless of your opinions on plastic instrument games. 

So there you have it. I’m sure there’s plenty more I could have shared and I’m sure you all have your own opinions on gaming as art or games that showcase how gaming is or isn’t art. Feel free to sound off below and remember, I’m not trying to change your opinion, I’m just trying to share with you my own thoughts on the whole situation.

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