By Matthew Burrows
Watching the recent Hannibal TV series, I remarked to a friend ‘now that is art’ – something I don’t often get to say about TV. I mention this because anyone whose definition of ‘art’ cannot stretch to television programmes is not going to agree with my suggestion of an under-appreciated art form: games.
And no, I’m not talking about Call of Duty. Even more than other forms, there seems to be a very clear consensus on which games don’t count as art: The Hollywood blockbusters of the computer scene, I suppose. There are plenty of artistic endeavours arising from the Indie scene, however. Atmospheric narratives (or ‘walking simulators’, to those who disapprove) like Gone Home or Firewatch focus on telling a story – or rather, letting the player discover it from clues scattered about the environment. Games like The Banner Saga or Life Is Strange intersperse gameplay with decisions, allowing the player to write their story to some degree. It’s very fun to watch your friends play, to see if they make decisions based on what they think their character should be feeling or just what they would do (in which case you can judge them eternally for letting a homicidal maniac join your caravan). Oh, and there’s The Binding of Isaac – I have an essay plan lying around about what that game says about mental health, religion, capitalism and gender, but if that essay ever gets written it will be far too large to fit in a column of a newspaper.
The game I’d really like to focus on if I hadn’t run out of space is Dark Souls. Dark Souls is a series about cycles and repetitions, always throwing you in at the last breaths of a dying world, and posing the question: do you imagine the former glory, and reset the age of fire to recapture it? Or do you see the horror the world has become and refuse to perpetuate it, letting the fire fade to an age of dark? Narratives are told through fragments of dialogue and descriptions on items, the story broken and fragmented like the world itself. Some characters pose you as a hero: “chosen undead” they call you, or “ashen one”. They treat you like the protagonist of some fantasy romance, fated to link the fire and save the world.
But then there’s a fantastic moment in Dark Souls 3 when you find a hidden area called ‘Untended Graves’. This is a replica of the area you started in. The Cemetery of Ash, only dark, underground, and unlit. But it also contains fragments of previous existence: a coal on a blacksmith’s anvil, a broken sword, the eyes of some other fire-keeper. There’s no description for the area, the game relying on the player’s memory to make its point as you re-tread your steps: perhaps you’re not that special. You weren’t the first to walk that path – and the presence of identical areas implies they were constructed, not willed into being. Someone planned this; suddenly all that destiny talk sounds more like manipulation than cheesy writing. Who is really behind this quest to link the fire? Have you ever even asked yourself why you are doing what the game has told you to? Perhaps you might find other endings to the game, and then you must ask yourself – which should I pick, and why? The developers can change your view just through careful creation, trusting you to draw your own conclusions from what is presented. And that, to me, is art.
This article was published in our September 2016 issue.