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We need to redefine the term ‘art game’

By Angela Espinoza, Arts Editor

The term ‘art game’ sets off an alarm for a lot of people. Relating back to the term every time is the argument on whether or not video games can be considered a form of art. That argument is very much the “graphic novel” of the gaming world, that is—to this writer anyway—a stupid, Rorschach test of an argument, if you can even call it an argument anymore. The ‘argument’ has gotten even more complicated in the last two decades, as many (mainly indie) developers have become more creative with their projects.

To better define the term, ‘art game,’ as times have changed, now refers to games that focus on their atmosphere more than anything else. The argument previously mentioned has since lost most of its meaning as the term has now mutated into its own genre of games. For example, video games such as Braid (2008), And Yet It Moves (2009), and Limbo (2010) have all fallen under the genre of art game.

Where I feel a new debate needs to arise is in what specifically can be listed under this new genre. The three games listed above are, I feel, distorted into the genre’s mix because their artwork is a major factor in how the player experiences the game. All three games are platformers that gradually get more complicated as the player treks on, and while they are amazing to look at, these games are not here just to look pretty—the player actually has to accomplish a goal within the game. Other games with gorgeous artwork, such as Stacking (2011) or Bastion (2011) for example, aren’t considered art games, perhaps because their goals are more obvious (in Stacking you solve puzzles, in Bastion you largely fight enemies).

That’s not to say what I consider an art game doesn’t have a goal or at least an ending for the player. Usually what is seen in these games is either a story (oftentimes revealed out of order) or a setting that is meant to envelop the player, and that’s basically it—the term ‘minimalist’ comes to mind.

I recently played a French-language indie game called Bientôt l’été (Soon the Summer in English), which came out on February 8. In this game, the player chooses either a male or female avatar, traverses a beach for apparitions that drop chess pieces, and then converses with whoever else is playing over an apparent game of chess—rinse, repeat, beat the game. I did not like Bientôt l’été, which struck a chord in me because I actually enjoyed the hotly debated Dear Esther (2012). In Dear Esther, the player walks through various environments, gradually piecing together the fragments of how they got to this point—that’s the entire game. Both games are stunning to look at, but if their stories mean nothing to the player, than I can assure the player has wasted their money.

Dear Esther and Bientôt l’été are the types of games I truly feel are art games. They’re the arthouse and the avant-garde of the gaming world, and they can either be deeply meaningful to a person or a crappy way to spend two hours.

Many more of these art games have popped up in the last few years. Tale of Tales, the Belgian company that developed Bientôt l’été, has a slew of other art games under their belt, including another hotly debated title, The Graveyard (2008), in which you are an elderly woman visiting a graveyard (it’s been advertised you sit on a bench at some point). Rez, an older title released in North America in 2002, is considered to be an art game as it is largely visual and sound-based, as is its 2011 prequel Child of Eden; both games attempt to replicate synesthesia. The widely beloved 2012 game Journey, for those who don’t already know, is also an art game in that the player traverses a desert and occasionally interacts with their environment.

Back to the topic at hand, each of those games previously listed are, again, true to the art game form. They’re experiments for a player to take on and, like any experiment, you either come out of it somewhat changed or shoulder-shruggingly disappointed. Someone desperately needs to redefine the term ‘art game,’ because experiencing your environment (like in Dear Esther or Journey) is not the same as solving a puzzle (like in Braid or Limbo). Now I play the waiting game as Walden, a Game nears completion—Walden is a video game adaption of the Henry David Thoreau book, and considering how divided readers of the book are known to be, I’m looking forward to the debates on this soon-to-be art game.