Monday, August 8, 2016

General RPGs as Art

It’s a question that’s starting to get thrown around here and there in gamers’ communities with some frequency, and I only expect it to become more and more widely debated in the future:

Are video games art?

Well, that’s just too big a question for me to answer. I’m not qualified to judge the medium as a whole, so I’m not going to try.

Wait, where are you going? Sit back down; I’m not finished. God, you kids and your trying to leave before the bell rings, I swear.

As I was saying, I’m not qualified to judge the entire form of entertainment that is the video game on whether it is or is not art. But I do feel qualified to examine the question in terms of the RPG, at least.

As long as we’re pretty loose with what we consider “qualified,” that is.

So, are RPGs art? That, I can answer with an emphatic, “Yes! Well, y’know. Sometimes.”

What even qualifies as art, of course, is somewhat subjective, and always has been, and always should be. Still, even if it’s essentially impossible to hammer down the exact edges of the concept of art, we can at least generally agree on a broad area of its spectrum of definition. So even though my personal definition of art may not be exactly the same as your own, we’ll probably still be able to agree the majority of time. With this rule in mind, I feel safe in giving the definition I generally adhere to deciding whether something is or is not art:

To me, Art is a creative work or action created with the intent of conveying to or evoking within an audience an emotional, spiritual, or philosophical meaning, question, or resonation. And, well, gets some degree of success in its result. I mean, you can’t deny that Mass Effect 3’s ending evoked one hell of an emotional response, but I don’t think blind, unending fury against the game’s creators was the intended response, so I wouldn’t call that pile of shit art, at least not for that reason.

So, to me, there are a lot of RPGs that are art, yes. As a general rule, RPGs are plot-centric, attempting to engage us with characters who explore various theoreticals of the human condition, with the intent of making an overall statement on the world.

Are these statements always complex and intriguing? Certainly not. More often, the games convey fairly simple ideas as an overall theme, things like Love = Good, Know and Be True to Yourself, Friendship is Magic, and even just Be a Decent Person. Still, art doesn’t always have to be deep and complicated to be art. Sometimes it’s important to contemplate and reinforce the simple ideals and facets of ourselves, too. Besides, sometimes a simple concept can still make for a powerful piece of art; it’s just all in the execution. Yeah, “Love = Good” may be the simplistic message you can take from, say, Legend of Dragoon, but it’s also essentially the message of the gripping, emotional powerhouse that is Disgaea 1, or the truly spectacular Undertale, and I think it would be difficult to argue either of those creative, nuanced explorations of human connections as not art. Likewise, you can say that “Friendship is Really Good,” which is something you can find as a major theme of simple stories like Wild Arms 1 and Secret of Mana, is too facile to be art...but when you get down to it, isn’t that the fundamental theme of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, a game which explores the power and spiritual meaning of our connections to one another in a grandly emotional and even poetic way, and The World Ends with You, an RPG widely recognized for its creativity and the strong emotional connection its audience forms with its cast?

And whether or not you can accept the RPGs with simpler ideas to convey as art or not, there are certainly a number of games in the genre which explore deeper ideas and emotional truths in a way too creative and devoted not to be called art. Deus Ex 1 explores the nature of government and its power, strongly relevant to our current society, and what the truths it has discovered mean for us as a society. The Shin Megami Tensei series takes a number of perspectives in analyzing the concepts of religion and faith, as well as the conflict within us and our society between the wish for security and order, and the wish for freedom and independence. Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume examines the concept of vengeance, and what it can do to a person who chooses it as his or her duty. The Fallout series explores, celebrates, and critiques the culture of the United States, and the inevitability of both good and bad aspects of human nature. Several RPGs like Tales of the Abyss, Star Ocean 3, Okage: Shadow King, and Valkyrie Profile 1 examine the question of Man against God/Destiny in a definitive variety of ways. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Q both explore the question of what gives our lives meaning. And then there’s Planescape: Torment, which is just damn.

To me, RPGs can, and more often than not should, be considered art. Not always--there are plenty of RPGs out there that just clearly are a paint-by-numbers affair that convey nothing but their developers’ wish to make money. But overall, the genre is all about the exploration and communication of truths of humanity, and/or the portrayal and invocation of powerful emotional states, be it in a simple or grandiose manner. And to me, that makes them art.


  1. Are videogame "eternal" in tour opinion? Can you picture people playing suikoden 2 or Planescape torment in the 2216? Imho it's the most important point of the "videogame is art" debate.

    1. Absolutely. We still read works written in language styles no longer current to our own, we still watch black and white movies, and we still listen to music unaided by electronic devices. No matter how far we advance past technical limitations or stepping-stone gameplay ideas, we'll always be able to look back and appreciate the older games for their merits (when they had them, mind you; plenty of trash there, too). The emotional power of Suikoden 2 will always be there for us as long as we're human beings who can appreciate love, pride for our country, a desire for peace, and the sorrow of loss. The majesty of Planescape: Torment will always be there for us as long as we're mortal, question our purpose, grapple with the better angels and fouler demons of our nature, and wonder about ourselves as a collective whole. As long as humans are humans, the great RPGs that have come and will continue to come will hold relevance to us, and we'll keep reaching back to them to guide us forward, as we do for Shakespeare, as we do for Welles, as we do for Beethoven.

  2. I don't see that much value in labelling something as "art", so the purpose of this question eludes me. Still, I expected Fragile Dreams to be mentioned since it seems to be "art" in the same ways that animated movies are.

    1. Yeah, I did consider putting Fragile Dreams, as well as some other titles like Okage: Shadow King and the Shadowrun and Fallout titles, in for their visual and atmospheric power. The thing is, I feel confident when it comes to appreciating, critiquing, and discussing written art, but I don't really see myself as an expert on visual art. I mean, I can recognize it, I can process it to some degree, and in the case of the games I just mentioned, I could describe why they're artistic in a visual and audible way, but not well enough to feel that I was doing them justice. I also kind of feel like the ways that games like FDFRotM achieve a sense of art are more common in games in general, not as much a specialty of RPGs.

      At any rate, there's no intrinsic value to labeling something as art, no. But we're humans, and we assign value to things in ways that don't make sense quite often (example: fashion and what makes different clothes appropriate for different situations). Answering the question of whether RPGs, or games in general, are art is not exactly important in and of itself, but rather, is important for what it means for this medium of expression. When a medium of expression is assigned a value by society, it opens doors to those who want to use it as a means to express themselves. Example: If you compare animation between the USA and Japan, traditionally, Japan wipes the fucking floor with us in terms of creating powerful, inventive, emotionally-charged philosophical art. The USA has had some terrific examples of animation here and there, such as Gargoyles, Hey! Arnold, and Batman: The Animated Series, but these have been the exceptions to the rule. Why? Well, 1 of the most important reasons for this gap is that Japan sees animation as a medium meant for more than just children, whereas the USA has long held this inexplicable mindset that cartoons are mostly just for kids. That cultural understanding is what has made it possible for such titans of art as Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Revolutionary Girl Utena, 12 Kingdoms, and many more truly terrific works to be created in Japan, while in the USA, you basically had to TRICK a company into making your sincere artistic vision a reality--because the companies making the cartoons are doing so in a culture that thinks the audience should only be part of a specific age group. Luckily, that mindset seems to be slowly turning around, with more and more high quality cartoons like Steven Universe and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic coming out in North America and picking up significant adult followings, and a growing appeal of major animated movies from Disney and Pixar to adults and children alike. Animation is actually starting to gain some traction in being perceived as a worthwhile and legitimate form of art, and we're seeing some very good results from those who take it seriously as such.

      Video games are thankfully not nearly so locked up in cultural perceptions as animation is, so there's less of a battle against public non-awareness to create an artist's vision in the medium. Nonetheless, making the effort to establish video games as a potential avenue for artistic expression is still important, because the better that fact is established, the easier it will be for us to keep those opportunities available.