Why Games are Best When They Accept They’re Games

Walker must descent into hell in Spec: Ops the Line.

Some games blow you away with their originality, their sense of being more than the sum of their parts, their sheer and captivating ownness.

And some just feel like pale imitations of movies you’ve seen.

Back in the early 2000s — the golden era of my young game-playing days — I remember when countless games on the PS2 were like poorly made films, with puzzles or shooting ranges in between cutscenes. Especially the movie tie-ins (not surprisingly). It was like everyone was rushing to get games out on short deadlines and little budget, and so defaulted to emulating the closest kind of proven, successful creative product: the movie. Ever since it has remained the dearest companion and most hated rival to video games.

These days new titles get accused of being “interactive movies”. They can be praised on one hand for being “cinematic” and denounced on the other for being “derivative”.

Where does all this antagonism come from? And why does it even matter?

Games as art

It’s been over 10 years since Roger Ebert said that video games cannot be art, but the argument about games as an emerging art form has been raging for far longer than that.

Here’s why all of this matters. And why it all depends on games finding their place as a unique art form.

Games can be art, but only if they embrace what they are: there to be played, not like books or films or music. Interactivity is a core part of their identity. We want to enjoy games as games, not a pale imitation of something else they were never meant to be. It’s just as painful to play a game that uses its film-ness as a crutch as it is to watch a film that tries to be a book.

To succeed in the way the best and most transcendental pieces of art always do, games need to find their ownness. The qualities that make them totally unique.

Here are three examples of games I believe do this. They accept and embrace their gaminess, and in so doing become true art.

(Spoiler warning: I’ll try not to spoil anything too badly, but I’m going to be talking about the entirety of the games and their narratives. It’s probably best to not read ahead unless you’ve played and finished them.)

Walker and his soldiers look out over a broken Dubai in Spec Ops: The Line.Spec Ops: The Line

Take any generic FPS, any Call of Duty or Battlefield you’ve played recently. Transport it to Dubai. You’ve got Spec Ops: The Line.

At least, that’s how this game sets itself up. It deliberately lulls you into a sense of familiarity, of comfort and self-assuredness. Oh yes, it’s a little quirky because you’re running among skyscrapers overrun by sand dunes with political overtones in the background. But you know what all the buttons do. You look forward to racking up headshots and trying out the multiplayer. You know exactly what you’re going to get from the game.

But you don’t, because from this typical starting point Spec Ops: The Line blossoms into an atypically deep and hugely unexpected experience. Slowly it subverts all of your expectations, until like a frog in boiling water you realise just what it’s forcing you to do and just how bad it’s making you feel for doing it.

I don’t want to get any more in-depth in case you haven’t played the game already. If not, I strongly recommend you invest the 8 hours or so needed to finish its main campaign.

The point is that it’s not just the game’s main character whose actions are questioned. You as the player are also interrogated by the game itself: Why did you do this? Why don’t you feel more guilty? Why don’t you take responsibility for what you’ve done?

Spec Ops: The Line draws parallels with real soldiers, who are forced to make terrible decisions and who can sometimes make these decisions almost without thought in the heat of battle or under orders. It shatters the illusion of the “uncomplicated” gamer, who passively consumes content without really engaging with it on a deeper level. Instead, it embraces the fact that games need to be interacted with — their stories literally cannot play out unless there is a player to play them. You are just as responsible for what you decide to do in the game as the developers who “force” you one way or another. After all, there is always the option not to play.

In Shadow of the Colossus you must overcome sixteen giant beasts.Shadow of the Colossus

To save those you love, sometimes you have to do incredible things. And sometimes it’s only after they’re done that you can stop to question whether they were right or not.

In Shadow of the Colossus you embark on an epic quest to save a sleeping maiden by entering a forbidden land and slaying a series of gigantic monsters. It’s the stuff of fairytales. In fact, the high fantasy tropes are so overt — you have a faithful steed and a glowing sword that guides your way — that we, the player, assume a standard fantasy morality as well. You’re the good guy, and the colossi, and anyone else who stands in your way, are bad.

Apart from a few short cutscenes to establish this basic premise, the game is very light on story. There’s no explanation of what the girl means to you and why you’re going to such lengths to save her. Mostly you’re left with your thoughts as you explore a vast but empty land where the eponymous colossi (sixteen in total) are your only goals.

Instead, the story is told through agency: the meaning you carve from your own interactions with the world. Every player will tackle Shadow of the Colossus differently, and every player will shape their own experience in different ways. This is something that no other medium could achieve. It’s what makes the game beautiful and affecting by virtue of it being a game.

Eventually we learn that not everything is as it seems, and that your own morality is up for question. Because the game gives you so little information to go on, it’s only natural that players try to fill in the gaps. Are they really happy to be killing these colossi, that, while aggressive to attacks, appear to be doing no harm and just trying to live in peace? Why does the main character seem to absorb some kind of dark energy from the colossi when they are slain? Is this girl really worth whatever is going on here?

By the end of the game, your full tragic arc comes into light, and you are forced to acknowledge what you have done. The question of what is good and what is bad is left ambiguous. But everything you’re learned from the game, about mechanics, the colossi, and how to win, comes to a beautifully realised head when you understand that to bring the story to a close you must let go — and atone.

John Marston fights for atonement in Red Dead Redemption.Red Dead Redemption

It’s a game relentlessly praised for its gorgeous visuals, gripping gameplay, and authentic world. But to me the greatest thing about Red Dead Redemption is its story and how it plays out through your actions.

John Marston is a cowboy slash outlaw of the dying Wild West. He’s lived a life full of thieving and killing but is trying to make amends. You must guide him through the land, capturing your old gang members and handing them over to the authorities. If he can find them all he’s promised amnesty, so he can return an honest man to his family, a wife and young son.

John does as he’s asked, but things don’t end happily. Everything you do throughout the game is for nothing, as the life John gave so much to return to is taken forever from him.

That could be the end of the game, but Rockstar take things a step further. There’s an epilogue to the events of the main game that allows you to play as Jack, John’s young son, now fully grown and a man in his own right. Ostensibly this is just to allow the player to continue roaming the world and completing quests if they wish. But there’s actually a final mission that triggers the end credits. Jack must hunt down the man who betrayed his father, and kill him.

The player doesn’t have to complete this mission, but they do if they want to fully complete the game. The message that Red Dead Redemption leaves us with is that this story isn’t finished until Jack gives himself over to the same kind of life his father had — the kind of life John gave everything to spare him from. It’s all the more painful that the player, as Jack, must take these actions, working against all they tried so hard to achieve as John.

Agency as art

So what do all of these games have in common? They all play heavily with the idea of your agency as a player, incorporating it into their story and emotional power. These games are art because player agency is baked into the meaning of the stories they tell. The very interactivity that makes them games is used to draw emotion, drive storytelling and create a meaningful, and totally unique, experience for the player.

No, they’re not perfect by any means. Games are still an emerging medium for storytelling, and like many more flawed titles, my three examples still borrow heavily from cinematic techniques and norms. But they’re powerful in their willingness to use their interactive features to advance the possibility of games as a distinct and creative art form. There are many other examples of games doing similarly exciting things: Journey, Bioshock, Portal.

These games are stronger because you are actively playing through their stories, not just witnessing them, and because they acknowledge and embrace that fact.

They are art because they are games. Not despite of it.

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