Art Thou Entertained?
"Hug Marine is an art game. It's much more EXPANSIVE than your average artsy title, but it still falls into that category. Consequently, it doesn't take long to beat, it doesn't feel like a full experience, and it has a definite message in mind." - Browser Rousers.
Games are an artistic medium. This is not a topic that should realistically be debated, given that cinema, music, and literature can produce expressionist think-pieces consumed by the masses in the exact same way, although other media have the added benefit of being older, more established and thus less susceptible (though sadly not immune) to ignorant scepticism of the public's "art" classification.
But there does seem to be an odd behaviour cropping up every time a game departs from the clichéd status quo. People will define something as an "art" piece — not to define it as a form of expression through a creative medium, but to ostracize it, to remove it from everything else because it doesn't match their expectations. What worries me is that I'm not sure who should be more insulted: those making triple-A titles that will never be seen as art, or those attempting to take video games in a new direction only to be seen as spikes on the mainstream electrocardiogram of the audience?
The method of rationalising this approach to video games that first occurs to me is that triple-A titles are not artistic expression in the same way that, say, Braid was. In Braid, Jonathan Blow injected much of himself into the story, and knowing that it is a self-expressive piece changes your perception of its identity, and its purpose, sitting there on your hard drive, awaiting its chance to take you on a tour of Blow's inner self.
On the other hand, there's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which has had an entire team's input on the storyline, and hundreds of people have been involved in its overall conception, execution and marketing. While multiple individuals governing the story of something can certainly create art, the design-by-committee nature of large-scale videogame production does induce a scepticism on our part of just how personal and expressive it can be, and whether something so far from an individual or a small group can still feel like art, to us.
Oddly, however, the numbers involved may not actually be the problem, here. Super Meat Boy was created by two people, and Minecraft by one (initially, at least), but these games are not seen as art-house creativity yearning for the approving nod of those in-tune with self-expression through video games. They are competitive, straightforward, devoid of the overt signals that they hold some deep meaning (in stark contrast to Team Meat's Edmund McMillen's other titles, such as Aether or The Binding of Isaac) that allows gamers to firmly set them down in the Art Games box for all to look at and appreciate through that lens.
Are people afraid? Confused? Disappointed? It's hard to know how to feel when someone calls something you made "art," as though its expressive, personal nature is an excuse for some lack of polish or quality of gameplay. Some of the worst attempts at creativity you'll ever see can be written off as passable because they're "art."
I'd love to suggest that this is simply a fall-back, a reliable crutch for those debating a video game's merits — apologists, every last one of them! — but I can't. The reality is that people will often look past the flaws of the various ways in which we express ourselves because the meaning of what we have created resonates far more strongly than their desire for sweet weapons or multiplayer optimization.
That's definitely the case with Hug Marine. It now sits on Newgrounds with over 35,000 views and fans from average gamers up to Tom Fulp himself, many of whom mention that the mechanics may not be up to scratch, but it's the game's message, its meaning and its purpose, that is what makes them throw four or five stars at it when it comes to voting on my newborn attempt at expressing something a step to the left of the safe, market-research-assisted tones and traits of Battlefield 3.
Of course, that's not to imply that big games can't have a message or themes that go beyond Hollywood clichés, which we've come to rely on because they are easier than doing the work of reading into a game's deeper meaning. They can, by all means, provide commentary on war, sexuality, relationships, friendship and so on — but it is arguable that with a development team in the three or four digits, games like Battlefield 3 are never going to provide you with the personal sentiments of a single developer.
Is it art? Of course it is. All video games are. But should people classify it as art as a means to apologise for its failings? No. It's not a mechanically impressive game, and I'd rather people simply said that, rather than using the "art" label to sweep its flaws under the rug.
However, for every indie developer trying to talk about friendship, or depression, or religion in their games, there's a concept artist, or a writer, at a large studio attempting to bring something expressive to the table. It's high time we realised as an audience that although Halo 4 may not be to the high standards of the indie-praising elite in terms of its ability to express emotions and themes outside the safety of the norm, it's arguable that it may contain elements that can be read into in a positive, exploratory light, expressions worth touching on and discussing. Games are only as meaningful as we allow them to be, and it stands to reason that we can perceive them as art should we open our minds to the fact that they are created outside a rigid, industrial approach, despite the market figures and consumer research. Or so I hope.