- By Ethos & Ipsolorum
Hey fellow TAYers! It’s-a me Ipsolorum, a collaborative writer for the Ethos gaming channel. I’m not sure how many of the folks on TAY are fans of Ethos and his work, but I thought we’d take the chance to share some of our stuff here. I hope you enjoy it!
There is no doubt left that videogames are becoming a dominant form of entertainment that stands toe-to-toe with giants such as the music and film industry. Video Games are not niche anymore. They are for everyone and they are just going to get more popular.
So when it comes to the question of whether video games are a legitimate form of entertainment there is no question anymore. The question of whether video games can be art, specifically whether they can have any artistic merit, is still an open one.
What Does“Art” Mean?
I have to be clear about how the word “Art” is being used here. There are quite a few meanings to the word and when most people think of art they think of the products of artistry. When you drew something in kindergarten it could rightly be called art in the sense that it required some artistry to create it.
On that level games are undeniably art. They are a product of colossal artistic collaborations the same way that films are. There are artists of every type that work to create video games just as they do with films. This includes sculptors, painters, writers, musicians and many more.
But it stands to reason that just because something is the creative product of an artist, this does not make it art in the sense that people who say games can’t be art are using it.
After all, we don’t consider every movie to have artistic merit or to be art. That’s why we have so-called “art films” as a separate category of film. Because they have qualities that stand apart from film as a whole.
I hope at this point it’s obvious that I am drawing a distinction between artistry, which is the technical ability of an artist to produce creative products for various purposes, and art as a phenomenon.
The main difference between a Hollywood blockbuster and an art film is the intention behind their creation. Art films are made mainly to be appreciated on an aesthetic level or to let the artists say something using dense symbolism or many layers of meaning. It’s confusing because a Hollywood blockbuster can also do these things, but it does not exist for the sake of aesthetics as its main reason for being.
Is It a Game?
One of the big issues is how a game can be art if a game is not built around aesthetics or deep symbolism. Like art, a game exists for its own sake, but that’s where the comparison ends.
Let’s take Journey, a PS3 and now PS4 title, as an example. I don’t think that anyone could strongly argue that Journey is not art. It hits our main criteria well. It’s made mainly to be appreciated on an aesthetic level and it has multiple layers of meaning, fairly deep symbolism and a strong artistic message.
But is it a game? I’d argue that Journey is not in fact a game, but a piece of art that’s both digital and interactive. On the surface it resembles a game, but there are a couple of reasons it doesn’t fit the category. At best Journey is an artistic puzzle box, but since there is no real loss condition, there are no real game rules and so on. I think my most charitable position regarding Journey would be to see it as an edge case teetering between the bare bones required to be a game and being something else.
Enter Nier Automata
I recently played and finished the five main endings of Nier Automata while picking up a handful of the less serious endings on the way. After putting just over 40 hours into the game I came to the conclusion that this game is finally the one that makes the strongest argument that a game can also be art.
By this I mean that Nier Automata is fully and truly a video game and it is fully and truly art in the sense that I described before.
I don’t think that I have to argue much for the case that Nier Automata is a proper video game. From its Platinum-perfect combat to the RPG chip system and multi-genre spanning gameplay, Nier Automata is practically several games in one.
I will now however try to make the argument that the game is truly art at the same time.
Beauty for It’s Own Sake
Aesthetics are central to Nier Automata. As you play the game it’s clear that whenever director Yoko Taro had to make a choice between aesthetics and other considerations, aesthetics won the day.
Giant trees, steampunk alien robots and androids wearing Harajuku fashion with military visors that are identical to velvet blindfolds. This is all done with as little explanation as Salvador Dali had to give for his melting clocks in the painting Persistence of Memory.
In a game like Dragon Age or Mass Effect concessions would be made to suspension of disbelief and the appearance of plausible reality. Even in a fantasy setting. Taro makes no such concessions. The look you see is the deliberate intention of an auteur with something to say.
Which brings up an interesting point. When Yoko Taro was asked in an interview why the character 2B looks the way she does he replied simply “I just like girls”.
This is a refreshing and widely-applauded response in a world where artists apparently have to justify their choices as if there were some sort of fascist government bureau which had to approve their art according to an external standard.
At the same time I’m convinced this is just another example of Taro playing us all again. The YorHa androids are all beautiful and perfect dolls. Other androids in the game are not built to be such perfect and angelic specimens. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t played the game, but if you have finished Automata think about what YorHa’s purpose is and how the very specific aesthetic of 2B and 9S fit into that. Think of what A2 represents and how her hair and body reinforce that theme.
Heart on a Sleeve
The other key part of qualifying Nier Automata as art has to do with its emotional effects. Nier Automata is not a game made to speak to your brain, but to speak to your heart. Everything in this game is calculated to evoke emotion in the player. When you play it next or play it for the first time, pay attention to even little things. When the game subtly take a moment every now and then to thread an emotional message you can feel it in your heart rate or your breathing.
The music and aesthetics reinforce the emotional rhythm of the game expertly, enough to leave you exhausted at the end of a play session and yet feelings about the game linger like an after image even when you’re doing something else.
A Touch of the Divine
The final aspect of the game that qualifies it as art to me is also the one I think will divide opinions the most. Truly great art evokes the transcendent aspects of the human experience. When you stand in a museum and look at a work of art you may feel something that could almost be described as a spiritual experience. The artwork speaks to you on a level that’s more than intellectual and more than emotional.
It’s this ineffable quality of the transcendent that separates truly great art from everything else. Nier Automata is probably the first game that I’ve played which strongly evokes the transcendent. The sense that there’s much more to this than what I see and hear. More importantly, I strongly feel the message that Yoko Taro wanted to share. Whether I hear it as intended is another question, but that I do hear it is something I can’t doubt.