Are Video Games art?

Video Games have never been so popular. There are a plethora of platforms which make gaming almost impossible to avoid. Nearly 50million PlayStation 4 units have been sold since releasing 3 years ago, Xbox One has impressive sales figures of over 30million and Nintendo have announced their new console-come-handheld device; the Nintendo Switch. This is, of course, without mentioning mobile phones, Virtual Reality or the juggernaut that is PC gaming. While the video game medium evolves, one question continues to plague video game discourse: are video games art?

Perhaps the question was born from a need for video game culture to be validated in the mainstream. However, the line between the popular mainstream and geeky subcultures is eroding. The term ‘Gamer’ is a disappearing. There now exists a generation of people who grew up with video games. There is no such thing as a ‘Movie-goer’ or a ‘Tv-Watcher’, people simply enjoy these hobbies in everyday life and video games have reached that level. Much of the debate surrounding video games’ artistic value originates from people who are alien to the medium. Roger Ebert, the late film critic, denounced video games as an art form back in 2010 and the debate still rears its head in the media intermittently.

What is important, is that the medium of video games is a platform for artistic expression. Video Games no longer linger in the shadow of movies or television. They can fuse an array of arts like composing, acting, performance, storytelling and cinematography, whilst providing a level of interaction unique to gaming. The successful marriage of these components allow creators to realise their vision in myriad ways. Developers have never had the level of artistic freedom open to them which they have now.

Developers at Naughty Dog are some of the best at making the most of that artistic freedom. Their game, The Last of Us, follows lead characters Joel and Ellie’s trip across America in a post-apocalyptic America after a fungal virus has infected the majority of humanity. The game’s emotional narrative is one of the most resonant in gaming history. The game explores the human condition through emotive themes, with excellent acting and a haunting soundtrack. Unique to gaming, however, the gameplay allows the player to interact with the environment to experience more of the narrative if they choose too. One of the more intimate scenes initiated shows Ellie playing football with Sam in a brief moment of respite for two children in an otherwise unforgiving world. Ellie, a girl born into this desolate world where food is scarce, also remarks upon how skinny a model is in a player prompted conversation in front of a rotting advertisement. These moments prompt intellectual discussion and reflection upon both personal and societal values. Gaming’s best examples of art are those which prompt the kind of intellectual discussion which The Last of Us does.

However, it would be wrong to assert that all video games are art. For every thought provoking title like Inside or Journey, which feature no dialogue and are driven by gameplay, there is a My Name is Mayo. In My Name is Mayo the player must click to tap a mayo jar. That’s pretty much it. The beauty of video games being an artistic medium is that someone could construct an argument for the artistic value of My Name is Mayo. Better yet, you could argue that it does not matter if the game holds artistic value or not.

Ultimately, that is what it comes down to. Video games are an artistic medium, the potential exists for a video game to be defined as art. Defining art, though, is something of a fool’s errand and the debate of whether video games are art or not is a tired one. It might be better to ask why critics feel threatened by the idea of defining video games as an art form. Video games can be art, many games are art but those games that are not, does not make them any less valuable.

Arrival – Review

Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an engrossing Sci-Fi experience which substitutes weapons for ingenuity.  The film is a refreshing take on the first contact trope, as Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) attempts to uncover the alien visitors’ intentions through using her skills in linguistics. The result is an engaging experience which conjures drama and tension without violence, relying upon a captivating performance by Adams and a story which is grand in scope but manages to remain personal.

Little time is wasted setting up the aliens’ arrival. The visitors, dubbed Heptapods, position twelve ships at seemingly random locations throughout the world. The affected countries establish communications with one another in an attempt to ascertain what the Heptapods’ intentions are. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is sent to recruit Dr. Banks after some previous successful linguistic work with the army. Not every country agrees on a particular approach and China’s preference for aggression establishes a simmering threat to Dr. Banks’ peaceful method.

Much of the emotional resonance in the movie is attributed to a tragedy in Dr. Banks’ personal life. This tragedy, and the scenes depicting Banks’ personal life, creates an additional layer of tension which compliments the pressure situation of trying to communicate with the Heptapods. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an astrophysicist, is an effective foil for Banks and the two build their own relationship as they attempt to construct one with the Heptapods.

Banks’ efforts to communicate with the Heptapods are key to getting an answer to the question: ‘What is your purpose on earth?’ She establishes visual aids as the most effective method of creating an understanding with the visitors. It’s fascinating to witness a rapport develop as they teach constructs of our language that we take for granted.  Each breakthrough that Banks makes is met with further pressure from Colonel Weber as the twelve countries stop cooperating with one another.

It becomes frustrating that Weber often doubts Dr. Banks, despite the obvious duress he is under, as this slips into cliché territory. Whittaker’s accent becomes as inconsistent as his character’s motivations. One particular plot point is too quickly glossed over whilst another borders on descent into the realm of silly. However, Adams’ engaging performance keeps the audience grounded as the film reaches its climax.

Fans of recent Sci-Fi hits such as Interstellar and Midnight Special should enjoy Villneuve’s Arrival, as it poses thought provoking questions whilst managing not to lose sight of the human aspect. This is owed to Adams’ excellent performance. The movie’s more ambitious elements remain grounded through her ability to engage the audience as the Heptapods’ true intentions are deciphered. Indeed the prevailing message, that humanity must work together, has never been more relevant.

 

Don’t Breathe – Review

Don’t Breathe focuses on three young thieves planning to rob a blind army veteran’s home. The movie lures audiences in with this premise and what we uncover is something far more sinister. Fede Alvarez’s latest horror demonstrates a masterful use of silence to develop tension whilst toying with the audience as we question just who it is we are rooting for.

Don’t Breathe opens with a scene which casts doubt on how innocent The Blind Man is, before spending a few short scenes establishing the daily lives and struggles of the ‘protagonists’ in attempt to lend sympathy. It’s fairly routine stuff; Rocky (Jane Levy) plans to escape Detroit with her young sister, saving her from a dead end life. Money (Daniel Zovatto) is in a loose relationship with Rocky and is responsible for trading the group’s bounty for cash. Alex (Dylan Minnette) is the voice of reason – initially unwilling to break into The Blind Man’s home. It’s also clear he has romantic feelings for Rocky. Their target, The Blind Man, received a huge cash settlement when his daughter was killed in a road accident.

The Blind Man’s neighbourhood is desolate, each house abandoned, only his home remains reflecting the only choice these characters feel they have. The setting captures the dead end life the thieves are facing. Once inside the home, they quickly lose control of the situation. The Blind Man is more than capable of defending his home and they become trapped in a situation which threatens to cost them their lives. The vacant neighbourhood that seemed to grant them freedom instead traps them, as their screams fall upon deaf ears.

The camera work is particularly effective in capturing hints that help The Blind Man navigate his home. One terrifying scene in the basement has Rocky and Alex attempt to flee The Blind Man in the pitch black. Alvarez expertly demonstrates the advantage The Blind Man has as he navigates using his other senses. He holds his arm aloft, touching a segment of lowered ceiling and feels items on shelves which help to place himself.

Alvarez grips the audience through his use of silence. The biggest advantage the thieves have is to avoid making any noise. The suspense creeps up on the audience and snares us, just as the thieves strive to contain every breath and squirm across floorboards as they attempt to escape.

The initial plot is formulaic enough, though this doesn’t serve to spoil the enjoyment. That the Blind Man harbours a secret is somewhat predictable. However, by twisting the formulaic premise the movie creates an extra dimension. It scratches at some of our most primal fears, adding another horrifying layer to the movie.

Don’t Breathe is an engrossing horror which exploits silence and clever camera work to deliver a thrilling, twisted experience that exceeds its initially formulaic premise.