5 Things Video Games Do Better Than Any Other Forms of Art
Whoa, whoa -- video games are an art form now? Well, here's the thing: The first rule of art is "art is subjective," and the second rule of art is "ART IS SUBJECTIVE" (the third rule: "If this is your first day at art club, you have to art"), and thus the tiresome argument that video games aren't art is rather moot indeed. Oh, and video games are an output of drawings, writing, and music put together by skilled humans in a manner designed to entertain/enliven, so there's that, too.
So with that out of the way, being on the verge of a new console generation feels like a good time to file something of a progress report on the art form in question (if only to desperately justify those 147 hours I poured into Saints Row: The Third). So what the hell can games do that books and interpretive dance can't?
They Can Make You Think Like Someone Else
In a bad video game, you'll tend to refer to your onscreen character as "him" (or, rarely, "her") -- "Look at him fight that giant crab," etc. But a more engrossing game inevitably has you referring to your exploits in the first person -- "I'm sorry, I can't join you for 11 hours of tantric sex right now, I have to kill this giant crab" -- and this is because games can put you in the boots of someone else, to the point where you might find yourself kinda sorta thinking like someone else. Psychologists have long detailed this phenomenon where you'll behave according to what your perceived role in life is, and it's games' ability to harness this in a fun/harmless way that's perhaps unique.
As an example, the Mass Effect trilogy of games (does 2.9 games count as a trilogy?) has a romantic side quest for the main character, and playing as the other gender and then finding yourself genuinely evaluating potential romantic matches from their perspective ("YOU SHALL BRING ME THE BIGGEST HUNK ON THE SHIP") is an experience you can't really get unless the medium is actively telling you to take on another role. A game that more completely focused on all this could be sociologically fascinating indeed (or at least spread appreciation of hunks).
They Can Do What Existing Art Forms Can Do, Only More So
What makes a good painting? Arguably you'd distinguish a work of intrigue from a mere illustration by the presence of mystery, or if someone painted boobs on it. Thoughtfulness and ambiguity in an image are the starting point, and the audience's imagination completes the process that we call art. Thus, paintings are cool. But video games can take all this and extend it to the third dimension.
There's an unusually thoughtful and ambiguous game from Japan called Dark Souls that places you in a strange and beautiful undead land with little real direction as to your quest. You'll meet a number of characters, but the narrative and exposition are deliberately kept minimal to foster endless discussion (the game's director loved the process of making up his own stories when reading English fantasy novels as a child and attempted to translate that experience to the video game medium). The game succeeds as a piece of art because the obvious amount of thought and detail that have gone into it subconsciously tell the audience that it's worth their time to try and fill in its many blanks.
You're not told everything, just like you're not told what the hell The Scream is screaming about, only here you've got an added plane of depth, and this is what's known as "taking it up a notch." About halfway through Dark Souls, you encounter a five-story-high painting in a massive, eerie hall. As you approach, some strange force seizes you, pulling you into the painting, leaving you to wander interestedly around the mysterious world within. This is what's known as "literally the most convenient metaphor ever."
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They Let You Step Outside the Narrative
The movie Minority Report had some good ideas about the future, but whatever was in there was always gonna be mitigated by the fact that a movie gets made because a star gets attached to it, and thus it's the star you're stuck looking at 95 percent of the time. Maybe the movie Prometheus had some good ideas, too, but who the hell knows because the audience was hurtling by them lashed to a mindless, rampaging narrative. The point here is that a linear experience means the audience is largely beholden to whatever the camera is pointed at. It's a big deal that in video games you control the camera.
What makes a world feel real is the little things -- the overheard conversations, the emails, the informative brochures. This is particularly important with science fiction, which generally seeks to present a convincing vision of another reality. A game like 2011's Deus Ex: Human Revolution presents a complete picture of a world where human augmentation is a reality because you get to hear those conversations and read those emails and brochures -- you simply spend more time in the world than you ever could with a movie (Prometheus only seemed like it was eight goddamned hours long).
Sure, you have your mission, but you can easily just say screw it and go around breaking into people's apartments, and when you stumble onto the apartment with the clandestine human chop shop, bags of artificial eyes and arms littered about, alarming emails on the computer, you realize this is the kind of extraneous depth that makes shit actually feel plausible. Being able to park the narrative for a bit and wander off to take in the details is uniquely immersive, and anyone interested in speculative fiction would do well to go "Hmm ..." at this point.
They Can Trick You into Learning Something About Yourself
The worst I've ever felt about myself was the time I let that dude fall to his death from a bell tower when I so easily could have pulled him to safety. I found out something about myself that day -- I was willing to decide that someone I didn't like should die, and I was mad at that dead bastard, but I was infinitely madder at myself. Fortunately, most of this took place in a video game (2012's The Walking Dead), and it's a prime example of something games can do but passive media cannot: They can set you up to do things you assumed you weren't capable of, in a manner typically reserved for evenings at Stanley Milgram's place. A novel or film can show you someone else's descent into oblivion, but it can't make you do evil.
Recently in games there's a mini-trend of examining traditional game protagonists and the way they unquestioningly scythe down waves of enemies because the back of the box says they're The Hero. 2012's Spec Ops: The Line directly confronts this with chilling consequences for the psyche (how to play Spec Ops: The Line, Step 1: Return game to store); The Walking Dead tests the limits of how far you would go to protect one implausibly cute kid (pretty far, it turns out); and even Dark Souls is a game where half the enemies you face inevitably turn out to have some heart-breakingly noble reason for trying to dismember you (you who have unknowingly wrought so much evil because you assumed you were the hero of the game). Why is all this worth it? Because evil starts from assuming that you can do no wrong, and games genuinely have the potential to remind us that we can and will do evil if we're first told how good we are. Plus games keep you off the streets, killing virtual giant crabs instead of real ones, and that's the way to be.
They Can Actually Attract an Audience
In the damn-near-impossible-to-make-a-living/impact world of the arts, you often have to go where the audience is, and that's the biggest advantage of video games right now. Like it or not, that's definitely where the audience is. Even entry-level indie games can get attention not available to other mediums. 2011's low-tech To the Moon is basically a short story infused with a frankly microscopic amount of gameplay, but it's a good short story, and it's one that thousands of people would never have read if it hadn't been in game form.
That might sound unfair, but every medium exists merely to fill the unending need for entertainment and stories, and games are in right now (have faith, erotic limerick writers, your time will come again). Most games are not 3D paintings. Artistically speaking, the majority of video games don't do anything better than a brick, let alone literature or HBO, but most of them are at least fun, and some are legitimately beginning to demonstrate games' unique potential to be equally fun AND thought-provoking (heaven forbid). An actual diversity of voices, attracted by this potential, is maybe all that's needed to take things further. And then 30 years from now when games come full circle and become what Hollywood is now, we'll at least have a golden age to look back on wistfully.