Are video games art?
Yes. Next question.
Okay, not all of them have artistic merit but just like any other creative medium, video games have seen their fair share of a few masterpieces, as one of the fastest growing markets opens to up indie developers and the original generation of gamers turn to making their own games. The late great Roger Ebert may not have understood their appeal, but I guarantee there’s a game out there for everyone, even the discerning bookworm who can’t tell the difference between an X Box and a Playstation. I have selected a choice few games that I believe would appeal to avid readers and novice gamers, based partially on my own preferences and partially on what I personally believe such newbies would be looking for in a game. All tastes are subjective, of course, and recommendations are always welcome. I’ve got to fill up that wish-list before the next Steam sale, after all!
The Secret of Monkey Island: This is really a representative for a whole bunch of point and click adventure games, a genre that’s slid in popularity but still retains a dedicated fan-base. The first Monkey Island game is king of the genre as well as a huge influence on pop culture (I’m looking at you, Pirates of the Caribbean movies). You play as the magnificently named Guybrush Threepwood, a wannabe pirate caught up in a kidnapping plot involving ghosts, sword fights and general derring-do. Written by god amongst men Tim Schafer, Monkey Island offers simple and accessible gameplay coupled with mind scorching lateral thinking and a script that will have you laughing out loud multiple times. The humour is really the strength of this game, and is often sadly missing from modern gaming which seems so po-faced in its steadfast dedication to seriousness and blowing people’s heads off. (See also: Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, anything by Tim Schafer).
Gone Home: A young woman arrives at her new family home after a year of travelling to find the vast and foreboding property empty, with a note on the door from her younger sister telling her not to look for her. It’s up to you to piece together the evidence you find in your abandoned house to discover what’s happened to your family. Not much happens in Gone Home. The graphics are simple, no characters appear on screen and there’s very little action of any kind beyond the opening of doors and climbing of stairs. None of that matters though because Gone Home excels so wonderfully in its storytelling. The narrative folds out before your eyes, giving the player so much with so little, and creates a fully rounded portrait of a family and the crises within with just a few objects and diary entries. Games are often criticised for putting style over substance, action over emotion, and many gamers claimed Gone Home was boring or not really a game. Believe me, it’s a game, and a quietly devastating one at that. It also offers a depressing rarity in gaming by offering multiple deftly characterised women who are never presented as props.
The Walking Dead: You’ve read the comics and you’ve seen the phenomenally popular TV show, now play the game. This episodic adventure game is a sublime combination of the two, one that doesn’t skimp on the scares or emotions. The dialogue choices you make and the time it takes for you to finish your actions can dictate how your journey unfolds, for better or worse. The immersive experience offered by The Walking Dead is a throwback to old adventure games but one with a distinctive literary edge, and not just because of its source material. A lot of games on this list emphasise story over gameplay, but all are sublime examples of the heights that can be reached within the medium, and The Walking Dead is a particular standout. Play even if you’re a scaredy-cat like me.
The Sims: A bit of an obvious choice but it’s the perfect game for writers in many ways. You get to flex your creative muscles, wield maniacal omnipotent power over your creations and have fun torturing them if you so desire. The Sims also gives players an opportunity to make choices, tailored to their specifications, and see the consequences of them fold out in an occasionally realistic manner. With multiple sequels, add-ons, expansion packs and downloadable treats, it’s not hard to see why so many people are addicted to The Sims. (See also: Sim City, World of Warcraft).
Braid: Once upon a time, there was a dashing man who went to save a princess in a castle… Everyone’s heard that before, and the damsel in distress is a benchmark trope in video games history, for better or worse (see Anita Sarkeesian’s video series on the trope for more). However, all is not as it seems in Braid, the critical darling of indie games. I won’t say more about the plot for spoiler reasons, but if you love subverting expectations, cryptic storytelling, a surprising critique of male entitlement, and are up for a challenge, this is the game for you. The exposition is spouted a little lazily, as beautifully written as it is, but it’s all worth it for the final 5 minutes. (See also: Thomas Was Alone).
Journey: A robed figure, voiceless and genderless, must make a trip through a seemingly endless desert. That’s it. That’s the game. Describing Journey solely on its premise does it no favours. This indie game, which only takes about 90 minutes to complete, is a powerful experience. It’s a game free of dialogue and with relatively simple graphics that unfolds so beautifully, every moment imbued with pure emotion and mood. Mere words don’t do it justice. Great stories don’t need lots of dialogue or a complex premise or even an ensemble of deeply characterised protagonists. They all help, of course, and this isn’t to dismiss the great work that can be done by creators with all of the above. The other games I’ve described show that. Journey stands out because it believes in its audience enough to commit to its premise, and the results are nigh on perfect. Yeah, I said it. Perfect. Laden with symbolism that could mean anything and nothing at all, Journey is almost spiritual in its approach, but no less accessible for it. It’s the kind of game that has its fans rolling around the floor babbling pretentiously trying to describe it. (See also: Brothers A Tale of Two Sons, Dear Esther).
Portal: Chell wakes up in the labs of Aperture Science, instructed by an omnipresent computer voice to begin testing with the often mind-bending portal creating device. As the puzzles unfold, it becomes very apparent that Chell doesn’t know the whole story. Portal is well loved amongst gamers for its ingeniously designed puzzles and the passive-aggressive and psychotic GLaDOS who rules over Aperture Science. Like Monkey Island, Portal embraces humour, albeit with a much darker edge, and highlights the benefits offered by an interesting narrative voice. It’s a tightly constructed game, both in terms of writing and design (it was even on display at the Smithsonian for a time), and appeals to all who enjoy unreliable narrators. The sequel is an equally strong effort, with more laughs, an even more sinister undertone and opera singing robots. (See also: The Stanley Parable)