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Monday, 1 December 2014

My Pick of Video Game Titles that Elevated the Medium to an Art Form

'As artistic as a video game' isn’t a phrase that gets bandied around often. While perceptions are gradually changing, video games have long been associated with degenerate teenagers mashing buttons to effect a mysterious 'pew pew' sound. News and media outlets almost unanimously condemn them as being at the root of all youth violence, and the parents who purchase mature-rated games for their sprogs seem to think of them as little more than sophisticated toys. Video games as art might be a divisive subject – if only because the concept of what a video game should be and do is such a limited one in the first place. Besides. What is art, if not the search for meaning in the abstract? Or something. The following 'game changers' are just a few of a growing number whose interaction design, storytelling and musical direction make a compelling case for video games as a legitimate art form.

Machinarium




A true labour of love, Machinarium was developed by a small indie team of Czech developers with their own savings and a marketing budget of just $1000. The game features exquisitely hand-drawn dystopian industrial environments and is populated by mutely expressive robots.
Following in the tradition of the artistic Myst series, an important inspiration behind the game, Machinarium does not contain any dialogue or comprehensive language in any form. While this can be slightly disorientating at first, without any obvious prompts or hints from conveniently placed bystanders, Machinarium encourages creative thinking by challenging more conventional modes of information gathering, instead inviting players to examine its meticulously drawn world ever more closely. This allows for a heavily absorbing, almost sedative atmosphere and a greater appreciation of the game’s ambient, space-like music.
On the whole, Machinarium is an inventive, memorable and surprisingly sweet experience that is over too soon.

Ōkami




Inspired by Japanese myths and folklore, Ōkami quite literally became an art form by modelling its nature-based visuals on sumi-e watercolours – making for gameplay that resembles an animated Hokusai painting. Mythological deities and demons are reimagined as a vibrant cast of allies and foes, and the award-winning musical score is influenced by traditional Japanese works. 

The game doesn’t just confine its aesthetic elements to its vivid, sweeping landscapes and colourful characters, either; the player is able to actively participate in the game’s artwork with the use of 'brushstrokes' in combat, puzzle-solving and during the course of a typical day’s divine nature restoration.


Ōkami’s distinct visuals set it apart from other titles of its own and later generations and still hold up admirably today (though they have since received a glorious HD update). And, while this title suffered unjustly from poor sales, it received widespread critical acclaim and maintains an artistic legacy that can be glimpsed in more recent titles including Prince of Persia, Street Fighter IV and Bayonetta.

The Last Express




Set aboard the Orient Express days before the outbreak of World War I, The Last Express is a woefully underappreciated gem of a title that captures the dread and mystique of a bygone era. An incredibly ambitious project, the game features a unique art nouveau style, which was achieved by painstakingly hand-painting more than 40,000 frames taken from film footage created with a cast of fifty actors. The pre-rendered 3D train itself was recreated from one of the last remaining sleeper cars of the type used in the Orient Express.
The Last Express is also one of the few existing games to simulate real time; the game’s many-layered narrative is non-linear, therefore, and no two play-throughs are alike. Players can move about the train at their leisure, eavesdropping in on conversations about Sapphic love affairs or political treachery (the agency given to the player came at the cost of a hefty 800-page script). At one stage, the player can even choose to observe a 20-minute-long piano/violin duet.
While creator Jordan Mechner already had the massively successful Prince of Persia franchise under his belt, tragically, The Last Express was a huge commercial disappointment; its first release fell out of print within a year and first editions of the game became like the grail.

Heavy Rain


This dark, psychological neo-noir thriller from Quantic Dream is exemplary of the storytelling potential of the gaming medium. And, despite the rescue mission set-up, in which the player must solve the mystery of the Origami Killer to save a father’s kidnapped son, this game is worlds away from the Save the Princess trope popularised by the 8-bit era. More relatably, it is a father’s overwhelming love for his son that drives forward the rich, emotionally powerful narrative.
The game’s protagonists are ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances, and the game pushes you to the darkest recesses of your conscience in questioning just how far you are willing to go for a loved one. Each pivotal decision you make is designed to screw with your conceptions of right and wrong – like the best art should.
With unflinching realism, there are no immediate 'Game Over' screens – if you 'die', the story carries on regardless, increasing your emotional stake in the game and impelling you to think seriously about every choice you make.
Influenced by the work of director M. Night Shyamalan and featuring real actors, Heavy Rain is quite possibly one of the most cinematic gaming experiences committed to a console.

Journey




Like the other items on this list, Journey transcends the standard Crush Your Enemies/In It To Win It mentality of other games. Instead, Journey evokes in the player a sense of their smallness in the face of a breathtaking desert landscape scattered with mysterious remnants of a fallen civilisation. The game was created with minimalism and harmony of elements in mind, and the player is able to intuitively explore and wonder at the world around them without any rigid direction.
The majestic narrative is structured around the universality of the hero’s journey, in which players are also able to 'meet' fellow wanderers over the course of their voyage. There is no method of communicating beyond enigmatic singing patterns, so any prejudice or division engendered by language does not come between anyone. Instead, players are emotionally connected through their shared pilgrimage – however temporarily.
If everyone played Journey, the world could well be a better place.

Final Fantasy VII




An oldie, but a goodie, Final Fantasy VII is still considered to be one of the greatest role-playing games of all time. Seventeen years later, and the characters, settings and themes of Square’s seventh instalment in the Final Fantasy canon are still as resonant as ever.
The overwhelming success of Final Fantasy VII can be largely attributed to its groundbreaking combination of strong gameplay, art and music direction and epic narrative. The game features stunning pre-rendered backgrounds and character art and a heart-rending soundtrack from veteran Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, which has since placed in the top 20 of the Classic FM Hall of Fame.
Playing no small part in the impact of the storyline is the death of Aerith, a major character, relatively early on in the game. This devastating turn of events signalled a shift away from the inconsequence of video game deaths up till this point. There were no respawns or reappearances for Aerith; a character gamers had invested in, both energy-wise and emotionally, was gone. Alongside Mufasa’s fate in The Lion King, Aerith’s story arc formed a bittersweet induction into the fickle ways of the world for many a young gamer.

Grim Fandango




Drawing from sources as far-ranging as The Maltese Falcon, 1930s Art Deco and Mexican calica figures, Grim Fandango was bound to be different. Indeed, it’s safe to say that Grim Fandango’s wacky yet seamless Aztec afterlife and film noir crossover is probably the only one of its kind, anywhere.
But it works; Manny’s Grim Reaper (or 'glorified taxi driver', as creator Tim Schafer put it) makes for a convincing reluctant noir lead with nothing to lose. The Day of the Dead setting and noir style, meanwhile, are the perfect springboard for the game’s deliciously dark helping of humour. Grim Fandango pays homage to Casablanca and Double Indemnity, but its devilish creativity and razor-sharp dialogue are entertaining enough to spawn its own film adaptation.
Like all great art underappreciated in its time (the game’s poor sales were said to have signalled the 'death' of the adventure game genre to LucasArts), Fandango might at last get the recognition it deserves; reportedly, The Museum of Modern Art plans to add it to its games collection of outstanding examples of interaction design.

Ico



With his penchant for dark fantasy, it should perhaps not come as a big surprise that director Guillermo del Toro has described Shadow of the Colossus and Ico as 'the only two games I consider masterpieces'. And, like its spiritual successor, Shadow of the ColossusIco presents itself as sparsely as possible – but it’s this decisive minimalism that makes it so intriguing. Team Ico employ a 'subtracting design' approach, which draws attention to the haunting, atmospheric setting and music and the tender 'boy meets girl' dynamic that lies at the heart of the narrative. The game art, set off by bloom lighting and key frame animation, is enchantingly beautiful and belies its age.
By stripping the game back to its raw essentials, Ico succeeds in being in turns sweet and moving – even in its smallest moments, such as when Ico patiently helps Yorda over an obstacle – and gut-wrenchingly terrifying. The result is a deeply immersive and poignant work of art that is as much an experience as it is a game. After its six or so hours of gameplay, which many will feel compelled to complete in a single sitting, Ico is sure to impress gamers with a quiet sense of awe.

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