Sunset is a game by indie developer Tale of Tales about being a maid in the early days of a revolution…which you never played. How do I know this? Easy. The game sold 4000 copies and the developer complained about it here. In their blog post, Tale of Tales talked about how it did all the right things, yet the game still failed. There’s a very real sense of entitlement throughout the entire post which hints at why they failed. Beyond that, the post almost asks a very pertinent question: What is the role of art in gaming?
It is unfortunate to see that most artists and art minded critics feel that the role of art is to criticize people who don’t appreciate art. Tale of Tales’ blog post, with the adjoining Kotaku article, lament the popular crowd and its failure to understand the brilliance of the indie scene. From this view, the general games buying public is a mindless mass that gobbles up cheap Call of Duty fare, but lacks the capacity to appreciate the genius of the small, auteur creator. Should the general gaming crowd point out a problem, the indie minded critic cries “but its art!” to explain away all manner of gaming sin, assuming the developer is sufficiently avant-garde and the audience is suitably popular. By the end of this kind of article, art in gaming feels like an elitist club designed to make the complainers feel better about themselves by denigrating the greater masses. The critics are wrong to do so.
The problem with the above argument is that it stems from a limited understand of why people play games and so imposes the motivations of the arguer on to the public. For the vast majority of people, video games are a fun way with to relax and socialize with friends and that’s totally legitimate. The average player of GTA V isn’t looking for deeper meaning, but rather would like blow to stuff up in an entertaining manner. Our hypothetical GTA V player might look to something else for greater meaning, or not, but their failure to do so within the context of games does not suggest there is something wrong with them. Gaming need not be a major source of artistic value like it is for some passionate followers of the medium. It’s also important to recognize that appreciating an artistic game often means understanding the long history of gaming. A new player can’t pickup up an artistic game and appreciate the high level of meaning any more than a consumer of just a few cheap romance novels will grasp Kant. Many of the ideas analyzed in these games rely on a mental infrastructure that artistic gamers, developers, and critics have developed over years of play. Art complainers are effectively criticizing people for not spending the considerable time and money needed to reach this understanding.
The real insidious nature of this kind of argument is how it warps the potential role of art in video games (I got here…eventually). The devoted art gamer often hones in on the most expressive and least accessible examples of the medium, while ignoring the very real potential for meaning within its most popular expressions. One of the greatest artistic achievements in games is the original Bioshock for its ability to marry gaming’s popular appeal with a deep critique of Ayn Rand. The role that art can and should play is to use the relevance of the medium to impart messages in a way that gaming’s audience can appreciate. The more art gaming breaks away from the basic appeal of video games, the more it isolates itself from the broader public who might benefit from art gaming’s message.
There is a role for developers who want to push the boundaries of meaning. They investigate new ways to express ideas through games that may make their way into the popular scene. While we applaud their efforts, we should recognize that their work is necessarily limited by the small, devoted audience the players their games. These developers aren’t better for their niche pursuits. Instead, they fill a necessary role within gaming that should be appreciated alongside the triple A developer who takes a less nuanced approach to a broader audience.