Earlier this week I managed, at long last, after hours of sweat and toil and blood and tears, to finish the legendary Dark Souls. I experienced a relief and elation I had only ever known from computer games as a child. Dark Souls is so well made it resurrects the up-tight, lip-biting adrenaline rushes I used to experience playing the old-school games of the 90s. It’s what kept me playing to the bitter end.
When I finished that game I realise I was at a similar level of emotional catharsis as reading epic poetry, or a fine novel, and that made me come to a conclusion over something I’ve been thinking about for a long while.
Videogames are art forms.
They are not art forms in the same way as poetry, painting, or music. They are, like film, a conglomeration of art forms wrapped around narrative, experience and world-emersion. The snobbish may discount this notion of videogames as an art-form as ridiculous, and I accept whole-heartedly that many games have poor scripts, poor music, and no particular depth.
But the fact that videogames now have critics, reviewers, and their own form of intertextuality (i.e. referring older games/prequels/ or classic game devices) should be testament that there is enough depth within these games to consider them a valid form of artistic entertainment.
In my belief some games do rise to the level of art – perhaps even “high art” – and I believe Dark Souls is most certainly one of them.
The script writers for Dark Souls have achieved what most poets only dream of doing, which is to introduce a new meaning or usage to a word and develop this meaning throughout a narrative arc, and what’s more, introduce it to the public. For example, in the world of Dark Souls the great fear is that you will go “hollow” – a state of sunken degeneracy that is simultaneously a condition of madness and also of un-death. The word “hollow” means emptiness. Dark Souls has almost allegorically literalised this – making it a disease or affliction that deprives the human vessel of both life and consciousness. Going “hollow” in the Dark Souls sense is a neologised interpretation of the word that has specific meaning extending far beyond its dictionary definition.
The world of Dark Souls is also as thick with lore as any great fantasy novel or historical text. Not only that, but it is an interesting lore that not only plays with clichés of fantasy writing but ultimately branches into its own originality. For example, fires in Dark Souls are places of reincarnation that stave off the darkness and enemies. This is a common theme in fantasy texts – setting darkness against fire and light (or ice against fire).
But this cliché is then subverted when we consider that the entire world is turning “hollow” and becoming un-dead, and that these bonfires are actually controlled by gods that have let the world rot away. The fires are the only way the un-dead can reincarnate themselves if their physical bodies perish, and thereby cling to a futile consciousness that is slowly slipping away, eventually leading only madness and oblivion. Even the gods and their servants are threatened by this disease. The only way to maintain to sanity is to capture humanity, a special kind of soul that can restore you to a state of living, but to obtain humanity you are often forced to commit inhumane acts. This subversion in any poetic text or painting would be considered genre-bending or generically transforming, and this kind of subversion is present throughout Dark Souls’ story and game-play.
Another incredible example is the sight of the city of Anor Londo.
Anor Londo appears as a gorgeous cityscape lined with gold, under a beating sun, full of angelic beings and luciferic guardians. It is ancient, magical and fulfils the role of the liminal space from which the hero/heroine must return, equipped to overcome their emotional or physical obstacles. All heroes must at some point go to a liminal place in order to obtain knowledge, training or even weaponry that allows them to win through. We see this archetype in all fantasy novels: the world of the invaders in Raymond E. Feist’s The Magician; the House of Holiness in Spenser’s Faerie Queen; Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings (though this occurs early in the text). Dark Souls however, is not merely using this generic convention, but altering it. Don’t read on if you don’t want a secret spoiled, but if you already know, then do…
SPOILER ALERT: If you kill the Princess of Anor Londo (only an optional feature of the game) it is revealed that she, along with the light, was nothing but an illusion cast by a demonic god. Anor Londo is perhaps the only pleasing sight in the game – the rest of the world is so full of horror, death, and incomprehensible monsters – yet that is merely an illusion. If that’s not a subtle poetry I don’t know what is.
Many people say that video games can’t be art precisely because they are interactive. However, I’d argue that all art is interactive. Even a stationary painting hung in a gallery is interactive. No two people looking at the Mona-Lisa will have the same reaction. No two people hearing the Moonlight Sonata will feel the same. We project our own experiences, thoughts and belief onto art and ask the art to talk back in alignment with these beliefs. When the art can’t talk back to us we often reject it.
As Walter Pater once said: “in aesthetic criticism the first step toward seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly”. In other words, we must identify our own subjective tendencies when we look at art. No objective exists – or at least, not one that we can grasp. Not even science is objective – data has to be interpreted by humans and therefore is malleable. For example, the complexity of the atomic construction of the universe has been used both as an argument against and for the existence of God!
But interaction can be even more than that emotional response. When entering a fantasy world, let’s say the fantasy world of a novel like The Lord of the Rings, or A Song of Fire and Ice, we feel like we are interacting with the world. We form attachments to different areas, families, characters, races, creatures and conversations – we interact with the world at large in our heads. We go through scenes with different inflections, just as players in Dark Souls will talk about different ways they got through certain obstacles in the game. For example, players with an insect phobia would find The Depths area of Dark Souls difficult. Others would find this area easier and struggle with The Tomb of Giants because it is so dark the monsters literally jump out of the shadows. Similarly it is not just the challenges of the game that evoke a range of emotional responses but also the moments of rest. Players will stop at Firelink Shrine just to hear the peaceful double-lute concerto that plays – perhaps the only soothing area in the entire game. Others have found that area unremarkable. Just as some readers would response differently to Satan as a character in Milton’s Paradise Lost (some finding him charismatic, others pathetic, others glorious), so too can videogames invite this engagement. The fact that most games have voice-actors now alongside text adds to the cinematic quality.
So, a video game is, in essence, the natural progression of art. Games create a universe of symbols, language, music and form that we interact with – the only difference is that we are being subjected to several artistic forms at once (as with the film) and that our brains are perhaps less engaged with interpretation as the world has been rendered for us. But even having said that, many of my friends use video games as the inspiration for their writing, artwork, stories and poetry. The video game is not a mindless or numbing activity when approached in this way, although I accept that abuse of videogames, like abuse of anything, can lead to adverse effects that actually stymie creativity.
And as a final point, the key to identifying whether something is art is by asking one simple question – do people care? Academics dismissed the works of Tolkien and Conan Doyle. Yet, 70 and 150 years on respectively, they are both still popular and loved. This love keeps them alive and proves, more than anything, their literary merit. People care about videogames and more importantly, about the characters that inhabit them. We all cheered when Snake beat Liquid in Metal Gear Solid, and screamed with rage fighting Psycho Mantis. We all loved Dante from the word go in Devil May Cry and hoped that Leon and Clare would get through to hook up at the end of Resident Evil 2. The ending to Shadow of the Colossus left us all breathless and torn, and Oblivion did a whole range of things to us we’re still not sure about.
These games are art. The stories they tell have resonance on a mythic level and a contemporary. They move us – and there’s no more too it than that.
And one more thing…
Lame as this will sound, I really don’t mean that you should sit around and play videogames all day – or that you should miss out on all the stuff going on in the world outside. Life is full of amazing things that have to be actively seized. I personally keep up a regular routine of running and fencing. I also have a 5:2 diet. This only makes the enjoyment of sitting down at the end of the day to pick up the controller more enjoyable – so remember kids – do lots of stuff not just gaming. Sorry about that – but just to be sure.
So, I suppose the only thing to do now is to leave you with perhaps my favourite videogame quote. It took us all by surprise when it happened – and no game will probably ever be able to play us like that again.
“Raiden, turn the game console off right now. The mission is a failure. Cut the power right now. Don’t worry, it’s a game, it’s a game just as usual…”
(Colonel Campbell, Metal Gear Solid 2, Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo)