Arts, Identity and Video Games

Art. The expression of human creativity. A mark our species has put on the world. It seems that art is eternal with so many works being remembered centuries after their creation. Maybe, it’s Van Gogh’s most famous work ‘Starry Night’ or Pachelbel’s brilliant composition, ‘Canon in D’, a composition almost everyone knows without even knowing its name. Classical art is a beauty in itself, beautifully displaying the skills and thoughts of generations past which reflected into our own through the works of William Shakespeare or Herman Melville, with works that question humanity’s own ability to understand and perceive the world. It’s our history as a species, which is quite amazing.

However, when I, as an individual, think of art, I think of something which makes me feel a strong emotion, a feeling of understanding through expression. I keep having this feeling that there’s a monopoly on what can be called art and what art truly is, which is something truly personal. The best way I can describe this for myself is when ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ starts playing, I can’t help but sing along with this big boisterous attitude; When I watch ‘Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse’, I can’t help but feel motivated and figuring things out my way; When I read Percy Jackson’, I can’t help but feel the intensity with which the character feels his experience. The most special art is when what is being expressed to you actually changes you and your understanding of the world. I think that’s where my love of video games collided with my love of experiencing new art forms.

Video games aren’t exactly known for their artistic stylings. After all, a lot of video game media is centred around entertainment, and more importantly, consumerism. The video game industry is one of the biggest industries when it comes to making money, being a 135-billion-dollar industry per annum in the USA alone. It’s safe to say it isn’t a small industry by any standard, but it is one of the more underrated ones when it comes to the public eye.

Why call it an artform though? Well, I think video games are the perfect medium to apply all the senses into a single medium. If you watch a movie or a book or a show, you’re along for the ride, but you never are the one in control. That control is given to the author. What makes my favourite medium of entertainment special is that the creator has made the art, but the experience you get is completely your own. You are the one in control in a video game, giving you that small little taste of something personal. The best part? Since most interactive media with video is called a video game, the creativity with which people use the medium practically endless. Games can show their medium of art through not only storytelling but gameplay and art style as well.

Cover Art for the game ‘Gris’

One of my favourite examples of a game that uses a brilliant art style to put forth its story is the game ‘Gris. This game is an absolute stunner, being a 2D platformer using this magnificent aesthetic. Each frame of this beautifully crafted game is hand-drawn, and then given colour with this beautiful dazzle of watercolour. Each scene in this game seems like a painting, with small imperfections in the art style making it all the more human. The thing is, the art style in this game, is used to enhance the story, which is actually about a girl going through a visualised 5 stages of grief. Each level is dedicated to one of these stages, with the music and colours complementing the emotion on display at that moment. It is an all-around emotional rollercoaster, yet is really easy to get into. There is no game over screen in this game, making it accessible to everyone who wants to see how games can truly be an art form. I just played this game recently and I must say, I have not seen any other media show grief as well as this game, as you empathise with the girl as she struggles through the journey through her own visualised mindscape.

A beautiful art Style realised in Video form

However, a pretty art style isn’t all that’s needed to make things art. I think some of the best artforms question your existence, your identity. What is wrong, what is right, and your decisions on such things are just as important, and in a world so divided by views and politics today, it’s important to know who you are so you know what the world is. I think this idea is best represented in the video game known as ‘Disco Elysium’, a game which gives so many things that it’s actually insane how no one actually has heard of it.

Cover Art for the game ‘Disco Elysium’

Disco Elysium on the surface level is a game about an alcoholic cop who’s lost all his memory, but is supposed to solve a murder. Sounds like your average murder mystery plot, right? Well, I think the funniest part of the game is that the main storyline is a passage to understand things, but it isn’t the main focus at all. The game is about identity, and your place in the world. Sure, that sounds easy enough with all of us having our own likes and dislikes, but I think this game shows how your identity is what shapes the world just as much as it does you. In a way, the game teaches you about the perception of realities, and how there is no right or wrong, just different views. The game allows you to be almost anyone you want to be, having various political ideologies and ideas being portrayed. You could be a communist artsy guy, a feminist fascist, a god-loving ultra-liberal, and my favourite, a disco-loving moralist. What you are is completely your choice, allowing you to role play as any type of person and experience the world in the eyes of someone else. The game taught me so much about my perception of the world, and how my perception is a reflection of the world at large. In other words, your point of view is not only shaped by the world, but it shapes the world itself, as you see patterns that reflect what you believe in right back at you. The game is a beauty to look at too, with our detective’s story being shown in this expressionist watercolour art style, along with a subtle soundtrack to boot. I think what makes the game special is that it makes you question what ‘Disco’ even means. Check it up in Latin, I know you’ll be surprised.

A beautifully Detailed World with a ton of character

With the games I’ve talked about till now you may think that a good story and art style is all that’s needed to make a good game. Well, that is close to my definition of it, but it isn’t true at all. The game which shows this better than any other game before it is ‘Minecraft’.

Cover Art for the Game ‘Minecraft’

For those of you who haven’t heard of this game, Minecraft is a video game that came out in 2010, yet is a game that is played constantly by millions of people to this day. What’s so special? Well, if the power of creation isn’t special, I don’t know what is. Minecraft is a sandbox game, or in easier terms, a game that is built for creating things. Yes, there is a really fun survival mode, but the stuff you can make in Minecraft is absolutely insane. The world is made up of blocks, which stretch out infinitely (literally), and is made to have Earth-like biospheres, with forests, deserts, and of course, caves. Yes, the game is not the best looker, but a game with infinite creation? Shouldn’t even be considered a trade-off! Minecraft is known for being a haven for people to make fantastic creations. You can make a scale model of the Taj Mahal, or Hogwarts, or anything with absolutely amazing detail (as long as it is cubic). It doesn’t even stop there. The game has such unique materials that people have programmed computers INSIDE of the game. In fact, people have managed to play games on the computers inside Minecraft (is that game-ception?).

When art is actually what you make of it, it is truly something special, and Minecraft oozes the creativity that no other media has come even close to doing. Whenever I play Minecraft with friends, we really do try our best to build something as cool as the stuff on YouTube, but well, sometimes making a cool house is good enough for us (usually it’s a 3-storey mansion which looks really dull, but it’s not easy being creative okay!?).

What a creative bankrupt like me would want to build some day

Minecraft is really great game for making stuff, but if you’re a creative bankrupt like me, then you may be a bit dead in the water. I really love doing things on my own, and luckily, making something cool isn’t all that you need to feel something different. Sometimes a good puzzle or riddle is all you need. This is where my love for the detective/puzzle game called ‘Return of the Obra Dinn’ comes into play.

Start Screen For Return of the Obra Dinn

Unlike Disco Elysium, where you play as a detective, in Return of the Obra Dinn you play as an insurance investigator for the East India Company in 1807, investigating the reappearance of the good ship ‘The Obra Dinn’, without its crew on board. Your job is to investigate what happened on the ship and find out the fates of all the crewmates on the ship. Sounds easy? Well, it isn’t, since there are 60 crewmates and you need to find out who they are and how they turned out. Your only tool is a pocket watch which can turn back the clock to the moments of death of the crewmate. With that, it’s up to you to piece together what went so wrong on the final voyage of the Obra Dinn. The difficulty of this game stems from the actual detective work you have to do. Let’s just say playing the game is like doing 10 extremely hard sudoku puzzles all at the same time since no information is spoon-fed to you. It is a brilliant detective game with an old-timey computer art style to sell its picture. The satisfaction you feel when you finish the game is immense, and I seriously felt smart as heck when I finished it, 8 hours later that is. It is amazing how a single developer was able to make such a work of art and putting in so much thought into a video game.

A distinct art style no other medium has ever tried out

When it comes to tough but fair games, another game comes to mind, even though it is a different genre as compared to Obra Dinn. This title is ‘Celeste, a platformer about climbing a mountain.

Cover art for the game ‘celeste’

It is really a tough game, but that’s because its subject matter is tough, since the game is about the depression of a girl named Madeline. She is a person riddled with anxiety, and it makes her very human, and like so many of us, she tries to distract herself from her issues by trying to do something big for herself, which in this case is climbing Celeste Mountain. In her treacherous journey up the slopes of the hill, she has to face the personified and vilified anxiety, taking a tangible form. The uphill battle against depression is so well characterised through the pixel-perfect gameplay that it’s I find it quite outstanding how the game designer was able to weave the story and the gameplay so well. I feel like at some level, everyone has felt the effects of anxiety, of feeling not sure of themselves. Madeline becomes a very relatable number of pixels very quickly, and it can be seen that the designer understands the struggle. I think everyone who has had feelings of depression and low self-confidence can empathise with Madeline, which is what makes this challenging game such a masterpiece. This game’s beauty is just enhanced by the fantastic pixel art and a soundtrack that encapsulates the story so well. Celeste’s understanding of complex emotions and visualising an actual struggle makes me believe that it truly deserves to be considered one of the greatest games ever made.

Sometimes We find it easier to run away than face ourselves

For my last argument as to why games are an art form, I chose one of the biggest games made in recent times, that being Rockstar Games’ magnum opus, ‘Red Dead Redemption 2‘.

Cover art For the game ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’

Unlike any of the previous games, this game is here as its storytelling is unparalleled, telling one of the deepest Westerns ever told. Heck, it puts some of the most acclaimed films to shame, chronicling the tales of the cowboy outlaws known as the Van Der Linde Gang. Through the eyes of the protagonist, Arthur Morgan, the turn of the 20th century is shown in magnificent detail, showing the rise of bureaucracy in the United States. Each and every character in the game is given such care and nuance all having their own personality and motivation. This game could even be called ‘Details the Game’ since the world is just as detailed as the characters themselves. There are animals and non-playable characters that react realistically. Every frame in the game feels like a beautiful landscape painting. The story is just one of the best ever put out there, with Arthur’s journey and thereafter redemption is put masterfully. Once I finished RDR2, I had laughed my hardest laughs as well as bawled my eyes out. So much emotion went through me when I played this game (which I don’t intend to spoil in the slightest) that it cannot be called less than art in my eyes. It is genuinely a masterpiece of media.

Every frame feels like something out of a painting

When I look back on the games I’ve written about, I realise that these are games I admire, I adore, since they tried new things, creative things. I think without the emotion and pain the developers went through in creating their masterpieces, it wouldn’t have been possible, and how this media helps me experience and understand my own world with all of its little nuances. Video games are in a way a perfect medium as they stimulate your brain in a way you can’t really explain until you give yourself up to it, which is the first step to understanding art.

I think the best part is that even though I myself have written about games, there are a ton of new art forms out there that are just begging to be experienced. Real art is given fruit through the passion of its creators, and the viewers, we experience that passion in the way we wish. Basically, our interpretation, that’s what makes art. Emotion, understanding, and the ability to change, that’s what art means to me. In a way, art is someone’s identity, since what we give meaning to tells us so much about us as individuals. The best part is I know there are more games, nay more media, out there which test the boundaries of human understanding, just waiting to be experienced. I think all we need to do as people is open up a bit to the various arts around us and really let ourselves feel the emotion represented, since sometimes cold hard facts aren’t the answer. The one thing art teaches you is that sometimes the best meaning to something is the one you give yourself, and as a big art geek myself, I stand by that.

Shlok Kalekar

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1 Comment

  1. Wonderfully written. Excellent dissection of art forms and analogies !!

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