Dec 12 update: the reddit thread I posted on this topic elicited a fascinating reaction; check it out for a more heterogenous reading experience
I still remember the day my dad brought home a Nintendo 64. With little fanfare, he plopped it on the kitchen counter along with some groceries. The remarkable thing was that it wasn’t even a holiday. It wasn’t my birthday, or his birthday, or my brother’s birthday. It wasn’t even a weekend or a Friday. It seemed in every respect to be a totally run-of-the-mill school day, a placid day that, at the very most, might see a mild ruffle of excitement if a new Simpsons episode happened to air—when my world was unexpectedly upended by the incomparable glory, the absolute ecstasy of adventure, that was Super Mario 64.
What magic! What freedom! I still remember the bumbling Bob-ombs of that first world, the thrill of skirting a Chain Chomp in the beautiful pixelated sunshine, the leaping into paintings that felt so new yet made so much sense as a portal to a new world. It wasn’t the first video game I’d ever played, but in my memory it seems to be the moment of the dawn of love. This relationship intensified with Star Fox 64, a thrilling masterpiece that, to my own astonishment, I blazed through on the day it arrived (and, incidentally, the first Rumble Pak-compatible game, a feature I never would have believed was practicable if a friend had suggested it); Banjo-Kazooie, the goofy charm of which climaxed in the triumph of level design that is Click Clock Wood, where one must strategically manipulate the seasons; and, of course, Ocarina of Time, about which all-time classic nothing need be said.
These were the hooks, cupid’s arrows, the beginnings of a romance that wove itself throughout my childhood: trading Pokémon over lunch at school, sniping friends with the mind-blowing FarSight in Perfect Dark and resenting their cleverly-placed laptop guns, honing our Smash Bros skills to a degree of perfection we’d never even approached in any other realm of activity. Innumerable parties and sleepovers revolved around these games. Lifelong friendships were forged. When the Halo series came out and we organized our languid teenage selves enough to link up several Xboxes and TVs, the nuances of real-time strategic cooperation struck me as so exhilarating that I could imagine no pastime more blissful. And all this was more than a decade ago, since which time technology, as you may have noticed, has, well, improved, to put it mildly.
But I did not continue with it, I did not ride the wave. For many, many years, I took a break from gaming. The idea was that I’d focus on, you know, being an adult, establishing a career, etc., and in the meantime video games would advance to the point that, when I returned, I could plug into the virtual world and live there happily ever after, à la Ready Player One. That’s not quite what happened, but it’s pretty darn close.
When the time finally came for my return, I did the requisite research, the due diligence. I consulted an expert, a friend whom on here I shall call BanishMe, and took stock of the lay of the land. I decided that, partly because I’d grown up on Xboxes and Nintendo systems, I’d invest in a PS4.
As any console gamer knows, the console dictates, to a large extent, the games. So my decision to buy a PS4 was simultaneously a decision to play the lauded Uncharted series. I was tempted to launch right into Uncharted 4, hailed by critics as perhaps the finest game of the latest generation, but BanishMe urged me to be patient and to maximize the experience by playing through the first three games first. I don’t want to get lost in detail, but suffice to say that I did, and I loved it. Then I bought Horizon: Zero Dawn, and it blew me away. And then, after struggling a bit to find another game that could match those two in appeal for me, I hit upon Grand Theft Auto V; it’s a slightly older game, but it had come out during my hiatus so I’d missed it. I played through it. It blew me away. It absolutely blew me away.
I want to talk about these games, but it’s high time I frame the conversation in terms of the actual, or at least ostensible, point of this post. It’s perfectly evident to anyone who puts a half-second’s thought into it that these games (for argument’s sake, I’ll just focus on the three exemplary games I mentioned: Uncharted 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Grand Theft Auto V) are works of art. They may be more than that, too, but they’re certainly works of art. Just absolutely staggering aesthetic accomplishments. The designers of Monument Valley, the (excellent) phone game, said their aim was to make every screenshot worthy of being printed and hung on the wall—visually, that is exactly what these games accomplish: exquisitely hued skies, deep, layered backdrops, polished physics, complex atmospheric effects, uncannily realistic humans and humanoids, richly textured surfaces, light interacting with water and fog and all sorts of movement, and so on. To create any one of these facets is an advanced engineering project unto itself, which the game then seamlessly combines, on the back of the PS4’s processing power, into a smooth whole. And all this is to say nothing of narrative, of gameplay, of musical compositions and sound design, of character development—all the elements that comprise the heart of any great game. We will come to those. But in the meantime, let me quickly build my case for why the argument needs to be made at all.
When I told BanishMe I wanted to write a post against the stigmatization of video games, he questioned the need. “Is there still that much of a stigma?” he texted. “They are very clearly an art form as much as film.” I agree with that, of course, and there are ways to argue that society does, too. There are four categories on MetaCritic, after all, and indeed “Games” comes right after “Movies,” even preceding “TV” and “Music.” Clicking those links will reveal that there are dozens of professional outlets—USgamer, Gaming Age, GameGrin, Game Informer, and so on—providing nuanced, impassioned, historically informed criticism of any major release, just as we see for film. So that box is thoroughly checked.
Moreover, data abounds to prove that video games are reaching new heights of popularity. Everyone knows how obsessed with video games is South Korea’s entire population, with tournaments broadcast nationally and exceptionally skilled gamers rising to celebrity status. But the sales data around the world is also very strong. GTA V, one of our present case studies, was upon its release the “fastest-selling entertainment product in history, earning US$800 million in its first day and US$1 billion in its first three days.” A billion dollars in three days—mind-boggling! Some major releases are prevented by their exclusivity contracts from achieving sales figures quite so astronomical, but each new Mario, Zelda, Halo, or Uncharted game is nevertheless a major cultural event.
And yet, the sad truth of the matter is that games simply are not assigned the same esteem accorded to “high” art (film, literature, painting, etc). One does not hear the same affected reverential tones from the lips of sophisticated people at parties in NYC. On the contrary, what one hears is an implicitly condemnatory silence. The reasoning seems to be: video games are fun; therefore, they cannot be art. The more cultured someone seems, the less inclined they seem to take video games seriously. Not that all these people aren’t gaming—sales data demographics suggest that many of them must be. But it’s just not something to take pride in; it’s socially censured. Take online dating, for instance: at least 42% of gamers in the US are women, and yet exceedingly rare is the Tinder profile that dares to mention gaming, though every girl in New York seems to love books and movies (and yoga and wine). It’s not that these lovely ladies don’t enjoy video games—it’s that they’re ashamed to admit they do. That’s stigmatization, ladies and gentlemen. It shouldn’t be this way, but this is how it is.
Whence does this stigmatization arise? I can only speculate. Part of it likely stems from legitimate concerns. We have all seen promising lives derailed by out-of-control gaming habits: what begins innocently becomes an addiction, grades go down the toilet, college prospects collapse, etc. Certainly for every self-disciplined, critically engaged gamer there seem to be a dozen mindless drones who play without seeming to know why—perhaps because they feel unable or afraid to compete in the real world, or because the pain of their personal lives is too great to face directly. Whatever the cause, they retreat into the virtual world. We see this, and it begins to taint our impression of video games as a whole; we begin to develop an unflattering stereotype.
More in the realm of criticism, I would concede that there’s almost always something silly about video game plots. There seems to be no way around it, because the story must always set up the gameplay—which inevitably is, needs to be, somewhat repetitive—and because the gamer doesn’t necessarily bring the same appetite for a complex narrative that he or she would to a book. Let’s dive back into Horizon: Zero Dawn, for instance. When, playing that game, I first found myself among the machines, they seemed fearsome and I crouched with much trepidation among the tall grasses, maneuvering my character slowly and quietly. Over time, my skills as a warrior improved, I developed a sense for which machines I could easily handle and which still posed a real threat, and, slowly, my confidence grew and my fear receded. This process—the process of becoming a machine-slaying warrior, of achieving mastery over one’s dangerous open-world environment—is one of the game’s real pleasures, but any plot faced with the task of stitching together such a long series of somewhat similar battles is going to struggle to sound fresh and compelling at every moment. The same goes for Uncharted 4: there are only so many ways to pretend that there’s yet another extremely time-sensitive reason for Nathan Drake to solve a series of puzzles and blast through a company of bad guys—but that’s what the gamer wants to do, so the plot must conform to that. In other words, it’s true that purity of narrative is compromised somewhat by the fact of a game’s being a game. The constraints of playing preclude the perfection of pacing and plotting perceived in pieces like The Great Gatsby or The Shape of Water. So perhaps it is a sensitivity to this inherent imperfection of narrative that forces snobs to repudiate gaming as an art form. One can only speculate, but to me this seems likely to be a contributing factor, at least.
Yet the fact is that video games are balanced in other ways, often exquisitely. Any good game must be. StarCraft achieved unprecedented success largely because the three races were wildly different yet still, incredibly, all equally matched; only an enormous dedication to focus grouping and iterative tuning could have produced such a finely calibrated result. Similarly, in Horizon: Zero Dawn, the machines’ menace must scale precisely, not only with your character’s stats and protective outfits, but also with the weapons you acquire and the combat techniques you develop. This balance must be in perfect sync throughout the game, always keeping the player challenged, but never overwhelmed. Every great game must strike this balance, and many fail. That’s something people tend to forget: for every Horizon: Zero Dawn, there are a dozen games that, despite millions of dollars and years of investment by some optimistic studio in California, couldn’t quite get the gameplay right, and flop. Yooka-Laylee, for instance, was essentially a flop, despite the hype and the record-breaking KickStarter campaign. Games fail all the time, because there are so many little ways to fuck up a game. But on the rare occasion a game manages to sidestep the myriad pitfalls that could ruin it, a masterpiece is born.
I’ll conclude, then, by running through a highly abbreviated list of reasons the three games I’ve mentioned are masterpieces. This may seem more an ode to gaming than an argument against its stigmatization, but that’s just it: the ode is the argument. The fact that games can be appraised critically, can be relished emotionally, can take on tremendous personal value—these are the criteria we’ve always used to identify great art, true art, “high” art. There is no convincing argument to be made that video games should not be granted the highest artistic respect—not one that I’ve heard, anyway—and as such, New York snobs shouldn’t hesitate to drone on about them at cocktail parties, nor should ladies hesitate to disclose them as an interest on their dating profiles. In fact, what ought to embarrass people is a groundless, or at least ill-founded, bias against gaming. I just hope this post serves to open such closed minds to the magnificence they’re missing.
Playing through the Uncharted series was a great idea (thank you, BanishMe) because it was like observing in fast-forward all the progress I’d missed during my time away from gaming. The graphics improved from game to game, of course; with Uncharted 4, Elena had become so beautiful that I fell in love with her instantly. But the game design also improved: the climbing became smoother and more realistic, the vehicles more diverse, the settings more elaborate, the plots more ambitious. Later games experiment with flashbacks, for instance: you alternate between playing Drake as a teenager and Drake in the present. A deuteragonist, Drake’s long-lost brother, is introduced. The set pieces become more compelling: who would not enjoy, in a world beyond morality, scurrying across rooftops and cutting the power at just the right time in order to steal a priceless work of art in the middle of a private auction at a secluded mansion? Who would not be entranced when walking into a cavernous ruin and facing the challenge of producing a certain dramatic shadow from the complex interplay of several light sources and several dozen positionable but fragmented statues in the chamber? Playing through these and other inventive puzzles of dazzling scale, it occurred to me that many of these challenges are precisely the things humans would find most fun to do in real life—but alas, in real life it would cost a hundred million dollars to build just one of the many ludicrously large-scale puzzles in an Uncharted game; thus video games are the realm in which these adventures can be realized.
Uncharted’s greatness is hard to summarize because so much of it lies in the details of its scenes: bits of wall collapsing as you climb; a manor overgrown with vines flooding as you explore; fires catching unexpectedly; an ancient bridge crumbling beneath your feet, requiring you to leap from stone to stone, as you flee across. Yet at the same time its greatness strikes you in calmer moments, as when your offroading becomes too muddy to progress and you must rely on a winch to haul your jeep up to the next gorgeous vista, or when gravelly slopes are so slippery that the well-timed use of your trusty grappling hook is the only way forward.
One thing that struck me that all these games do well, but hadn’t been present in my heyday, is the way important dialogue occurs not just in cutscenes but also while you’re playing—while you’re traveling from one place to another, say. In Uncharted 4, Drake and his brother reminisce about their past while climbing together, providing crucial backstory and character development; they chit-chat fraternally while driving across African savannas; they discuss realistically germane tactics in urgent whispers while slinking quietly towards the next enemy stronghold. Similarly, Horizon's Aloy often carries on a dialogue with her mysterious remote guide, Sylens, during moments of peace, or when approaching a new revelation. GTA V, of course, takes this kind of thing to a whole new extreme.
A quick word, then, on GTA V: what a game! Superficially it seems to be a merciless (and brilliant, and hilarious) satire of contemporary American culture and of Los Angeles specifically, but so hyper is its hyperrealism that I would say the labor to make the game could only have been founded, fundamentally, on affection, even love. The level of detail with which an entire sprawling city is recreated in that game is so impressive it makes Elon’s conjecture that we’re living in a simulation start to seem totally plausible; if we stinky apes can make a simulation of our own world this good, it actually seems a bit silly to think that we might be anything other than a simulation ourselves. And the game is refreshingly unsparing, all the way down to its prostitutes (a bj is cheaper than the full shebang) and controversial torture scenes (you can’t avoid ‘em; in fact, as u/GazeboGlutton points out, your forced participation makes you feel that you, and not the character, are the one doing the torturing). There’s even a set of side-missions involving smoking what seems to be marijuana: the environment turns kaleidoscopic and next thing you know you’re fighting for your life against an onslaught of teleporting aliens or murderous clowns who trundle up in party buses. Point is, this extraordinary game covers pretty much the full gamut of ordinary human experience, and it does so with style.
Thank you for your patience, friend. This is a long post about video games, and you could only have made it this far if you love them, too. So that is a bond we share. I’ll leave you with one last bit of praise for Horizon, since it gets at the single most important, or enjoyable, thing about gaming: strategy. What Horizon: Zero Dawn may lack in terms of the sheer scale of GTA V or ingenious puzzle design of Uncharted 4, it more than makes up for with its beautiful, beautiful gameplay. In this wonderful game, the creatures you fight are machines. When you encounter them, you use a device that sits on Aloy’s ear to scan them, called a Focus, and you learn about them. Specifically, you learn about their components: where they are and what they do. This information allows you to approach the battle with a strategy, and it makes all the difference. There’s much to learn about a machine, of course, that your Focus cannot tell you: how and how quickly the machine moves, for instance; exactly how it attacks, what its camouflage really looks like, exactly how devastating are its blows. Those are attributes that you have to learn and adapt to in real-time, and that may require many attempts, many deaths, to work out. But all this is exactly what makes the game so fun: each new machine is a formidable new mystery to conquer, in real-time, with the highest possible stakes. Find some rock to climb on to best the Rockbreaker and maximize your Tear to disable its tunneling, target a Stalker’s cloaking device with your very first arrow, use the Thunderjaw’s own disc launcher against it, hit the Stormbird’s freeze canister with a freeze arrow—all these stratagems force you think while you fight, your heart pounding, notching extra arrows and taking aim at the great terrifying machines in dramatic slow-motion, literally hastily constructing batches of new arrows in the middle of the heat of battle from materials you’ve hopefully been prudent enough to gather. This shit is fun. This shit is incredibly fun. And a game well-designed enough to give you that kind of experience—well, that’s a beautiful game. A work of art, to be sure—and, sometimes, a masterpiece.