Defining the Art: What We Do Wrong with Video Games

Let’s start this off with an annoyance: Shadow of the Colossus is art.

Fine. Why? Because a bunch of sites said so? Because it “looks” like what we think art is? Because it doesn’t have a flood of enemies and a somber tone? Because it’s different?

Not really, or at least not completely. No one can seem to pinpoint why that PS2 classic is labeled as some high-end piece of gaming art. You can apply most of those descriptors to numerous games. Why do we constantly fall back on a handful of titles in an industry of thousands when Roger Ebert brings into question the “art” of the gaming industry? Is it wrong to say Final Fight is art with is oversized sprites and absurd premise? No, it’s not.

That’s where this industry and its fans don’t seem to understand what they are actually playing. Games have something no other art form does, something they alone can replicate in the same manner every time: feel. It’s why Shadow of the Colussus can stand right next to Final Fight as their own stylish pieces of art despite being generations apart in terms of technology.

What is feel? It’s a fully realized sensation that what you’re doing on screen is happening, and all because of a button or other control device. When you punch someone in Final Fight, there’s this subliminal message that the hit has connected, the satisfying pop of the button, on screen animated reaction, and your own enjoyment. Shadow does the same thing, jabbing a sword into the weak point of some mammoth creature, seeing them writhe in pain, and the feeling of success of completing that action… or even the sorrow.

It doesn’t have to be some immediate response. Tactical RPG’s are successful for a feeling of accomplishment, and for the same reasons as above, combined with the visual and audio prowess. A similar board game, while fun, doesn’t have the plethora of elements working in tandem like a video game. It takes a wide array of elements to come together in a digital format.

Haven’t you ever wondered why shooting someone (or something) in Battlefield or Call of Duty is more satisfying than one of their lesser cousins like Jurassic: The Hunted? Journalists and gamers alike have been citing the feel of a game for decades now, referring to how the controls are smooth or tight. Guns can have a virtual “weight” to them or feel like they float on air.

Variations amongst the art is important too. Where the “feel” of Final Fight may fail someone, it works flawlessly for someone else. There is a reason some people favor Battlefield over Call of Duty, Dice’s series having weapons that hold some heft to them, Call of Duty choosing a smoother approach, sacrificing other qualities. Neither is wrong, yet despite being similar in execution, the games couldn’t be any more different.

There’s nothing wrong with it, and those games that tend to fall off in terms of their feel don’t have the art down pat for some reason. Superman 64 is ridiculous of course because all you do is fly around rings, hardly a Superman-ish experience. Looking deeper, it’s an utter failure because the controls are impossibly stiff, and the on-screen reaction as a result is lost. The sensation of flying isn’t there, a disconnection created. Is the fun generated by level design, difficulty, and other elements important too? Sure. If the feel of a game is right though, it’s easier to ignore those issues. Since Superman 64 flunks the first category, everything begins to crumble around it.

Defining the art in this way allows River Raid to stand next to Ikaruga. It lets a Genesis game compete against one on the 360. It lets classic gaming and modern gaming  survive together as equally relevant. And yes, it lets Final Fight stand up to Shadow of the Colossus, because what they do as individual pieces is amongst the best in their respective genres.