Minecraft, Rembrandt And Why Sony Might Be Leading The Charge For Video Games As Art

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Either way, The Last Guardian was announced for release on October 25th, 2016, during Sony’s presentation at E3, and ever since then, I’ve been waiting to see how long it’ll be before the “video games as art” debate is rekindled. With the recent acquisition of Hideo Kojima, the scheduled release of The Last Guardian and the on-going development of Shenmue III, it seems like Sony are leading the charge when it comes to this discussion – especially where console gaming is concerned. Kojima is, arguably, the vanguard of gaming’s artistic story-telling, considered by some to be video gaming’s first ever auteur; influencing his games through his own, personal creative vision.

Additionally, The Last Guardian is the third instalment in a sequence of video games from Team Ico – a team that has previously set the benchmark for artistic endeavour – despite delays, difficulties, and team departures. I’ve always been impressed by Team Ico’s attention to detail, and their ability to generate ambient lighting and hauntingly beautiful atmosphere. I expect as much from The Last Guardian, and if the recent, two minute trailer is anything to go by, we can all expect a finely-tuned video game that pushes the boundaries of what we should expect from the medium.

Back in 2006, I remember playing the Shadow of the Colossus. Even before the game was lauded as a masterpiece, I was explicitly aware of Team Ico’s innovative use of lighting. Whether it was dusty beams of daylight bleeding through the cracks of ruined temples, or the sun setting over a vast expanse of tunda, the forbidden lands were made magical through these details. This lighting, of course, fuelled the entire ambience of the game, complimenting the feelings of absolute desolation. There was an uncanniness to the environments too, a kind of atmosphere we’d not see in a video game for perhaps another ten years.

We see it now, particularly in the recent games by Hidetaka Miyazaki, where his art direction captures that similar feeling of the uncanny; a sense of unsettling strangeness. Speaking to the Guardian in early 2015, Hidetaka Miyazaki said playing Ico, “awoke me to the possibilities of the medium.”

No doubt, these influences are undeniable when you observe the desolation of his own gothic landscapes; particularly the Kingdom of Lothric, torn apart by an elusive omnipotence. Even the minimal use of narrative, and the riddle-like nature of Miyazaki’s dialogue comes from outside influences – particularly Shadow of the Colossus and the Dormin’s Riddles: ‘A giant canopy soars to the heavens… / The anger of the sleeping giant shatters the earth…’

The art critic, Jonathan Jones, wrote an article back in 2012 called, “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art.” Within the article, he stated how video games were exempt from art-status because “a work of art is one person’s reaction to life.” He demonstrates a few misconceptions, and seemingly implies that video games are not, what he calls, an “act of personal imagination.”

This stands in contrast with a more recent article, where video game designer, Brian Moriarty, claimed how difficult it had become for critics to deny video games as art. Despite Jonathan Jones’ comments regarding the Museum of Modern Art, Moriarty writes:

“[Video games] have passed the museum test. Dozens of major exhibits have occurred in recent years, at thoroughly respectable venues such as the Smithsonian and MoMA […] Video games have become a significant engine of culture, and a potent economic force.”

The truth is, nobody is asking to exhibit Pac-Man alongside Picasso. But since the 1980s museums like these have displayed video games through retrospective collections. These days, there’s an undeniable link between what we might consider ‘art’ and the developments and achievements of the indie scene, for example. Time and time again, we’ve seen single developers pioneer with little more than ambition and their personal artistic vision.

Either way, many major publishers begin to crumble under the weight of their own copy and paste formats, whilst multinational conglomerates like Sony are investing their money in the talent and technology of the future. Take, for example, No Man’s Sky, an indie game on the cusp of its August release date, set to tingle players with vibrant, colourful visuals, invocative of contemporary artworks. There’s an undeniable trend in the indie scene to create these kinds of video games – and it doesn’t go unnoticed. In the same article, Brian Moriarty, wrote how this indie gaming scene is “now producing thousands of edgy, curious and deeply personal games that smell an awful lot like Art, even to suspicious curmudgeons like me.”

Ever since Marcel Duchamp put a porcelain urinal in a gallery, the definition of art has been as convoluted as it has been contested. Philosophically speaking, anything can be considered art, even video games, even Candy Crush. Personally, I’d define a piece of art as something created by another conscious-being with the intention of invoking a sincere emotional response from a third-party participant. The success of that piece of art can then be shown in how well it invoked emotion. This explains why a video game made twenty years ago, that now invokes feelings of nostalgia, can be elevated to an art-like status.

Perhaps, if we start thinking about video games in this way, it will be easier to see how we might consider them art. Either way, I expect the debate to continue dividing critics. And until we reach a conclusion, I expect to hear a few more jokes about Minecraft in earshot of a Rembrandt.