As a lifelong gamer, I've often been in the awkward position of defending my hobby to a roomful of sneering artsy types. Although, to be fair, I do attend a lot of wine and cheese mixers at the New Yorker offices. Nevertheless, it's an experience we've all had to confront. Whether it's coming from our parents, our local clergymen or the critical voices in our own head, at some point we've had to systematically justify the act of spending thousands of hours manipulating an eight-button machine to no demonstrable effect. Like comics, video games are a bastard medium, perpetually trapped in the purgatory of "low art." No matter how well-crafted or sweeping or gorgeous they are, they almost never get auctioned off to millionaires with paddles. But even comics have had some success: The graphic novel movement is giving them some art house cred, R. Crumb drew some parents boning their kids and got a freaking Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and I heard Jeff Koons grudgingly recognized them as “a conceivable medium for the conveyance of art-like imagery.” Well, the next time you get cornered by the Beret Patrol, or just want to flex your gaming-snob nuts, here are 10 games that would be hanging in museums if flat screens weren’t so damned expensive.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: Takashi Murakami, or, if you’re more literal, the sculpture of Michel de Broin.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: Mark Ryden. That’s kind of a shitty answer, since the game was based on his artwork, but it’s also an excellent answer if you haven’t heard of Mark Ryden, because he’s awesome.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: Almost certainly Ron English.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: If Andrew Wyeth painted more castles.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: Disney’s already been mentioned, but with this level of bloodshed and the protagonist being a young child thrown into a fantasy world of indescribable terror, I’ve got to go with Hayao Miyazaki.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: This one’s all about how they did it, not just what they did. To me that makes Kubrick the obvious choice, but at times Hitchcock seems equally appropriate.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: H. R. Giger, if he’d had a few more pieces not soaked in existential horror.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: It’s like reading a Dashiell Hammett novel in the lobby of the Havana Bacardi Building while listening to a Benny Goodman record.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: The obvious choice is Doug TenNapel, comic maven and creator of Earthworm Jim (his graphic novels, Creature Tech and Gear, are both masterpieces), but since we’ve already established that comics don’t count, you should probably go for a mix between Zdzislaw Beksinski and Michel Gagne. He still works on comics, but most of his don't have any word balloons, which makes them art.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: Tough, since each brain has a whole separate visual aesthetic. I’d go with Jacek Yerka as a catchall, but I’m open to other suggestions.
RUNNERS UP: Bioshock, Okami, Heart of the Alien, Beyond Good & Evil, the Metroid series, Mirror's Edge and the works of Warren Spector. Just had to stop at some point. Okami and Heart of the Alien I don't find particularly fun (compared to others on the list), but both innovative visually and deserving of a mention. Beyond Good & Evil and Mirror are fun as hell, and Bioshock is just all around phenomenal. Warren Spector = Thief and Deus Ex, among others.
SECOND ADDENDUM: The commenters have mentioned a number of great games that could have easily made an expanded version of this list, but I'd like to throw my weight behind Neverhood and Skullmonkeys as well, especially the latter. Buy it on Ebay, get the soundtrack, it's all good.
Also, a game being really really good doesn't make it easily comparable to modern art; sorry. And did someone really give me shit for not mentioning Out of This World when I went to the trouble of mentioning the incredibly obscure Heart of the Alien? Seriously, man, I'm trying here. Cut me some slack.
When not writing for Cracked, Michael is apparently playing video games as head writer for and co-founder of Those Aren't Muskets!
10. Katamari DamacyThe World: Katamari Damacy’s world, as near as I can tell, is a fairly accurate depiction of modern day Japan. There’s rice, bamboo mats, plants, animals, cube people and massive hammer-headed monarchs who rule the universe. And that frightening monstrosity has tasked you with rolling up enough of Earth’s material into a ball to cause it to collapse upon itself and turn into a star. Never mind the fact that Earth itself is only about a millionth the size of a modest star; when the King of the Cosmos tells you to roll shit into a ball, you make like a dung beetle or risk being exiled to his velvet crotch-pouch. How It’s Art: Katamari’s bright colors, simple, striking shapes and boundless imagination ignite an ebullient joy in the player. This is pop art at it’s finest; the motifs of Warhol and the primary palette of Pollock gone Eastern. Here we can rediscover the unfettered creative force of childhood, when magic was plentiful and the impossible was just a matter of time and patience. The cutscenes also contain a healthy dose of absolute nonsense, which has been a staple of modern art ever since some douche paid Richard Prince $1.2 million for a photograph he took of someone else’s photograph. How It’s Still Fun As Hell: Anything where you go from being smaller than a pencil to larger than entire continents within a single level is like crack cocaine for my delusions of grandeur. If a Japanese crooner can sing Engrish to me at the same time, all the better.
9. 9: The Last ResortThe World: The Last Resort, previously owned by your uncle Thurston Last, has been left in your care. In a stunningly short period of time, this turns into you trying to oust Stephen Tyler and Joe Perry with the help of Cher, Christopher Reeve and Jim Belushi. Well, you’re actually dealing with the characters that they voice, although I think the game I just described sounds equally fun. How It’s Art: For one thing, Robert De Niro produced it, which more than makes up for Cher’s involvement. For another, its Wikipedia entry describes it as “a game designed to represent the limits of man’s imagination.” That may seem like a stretch, but only until you play the carnival organ to get past the Tiki guards to the room that houses the entirety of space. How It’s Still Fun As Hell: If you’re a comedy fan, there’s not a lot more a video game can do to unnerve you than have Jim Belushi continuously heckle you from a tiny plane. And if you’re a gaming fan, this is one of the most non-intuitive and challenging adventure games out there. That's code for, "it's like trying to play Riven drunk."
8. The Fallout SeriesThe World: The Fallout games are among the most well known on this list, primarily because of the immense popularity of the newest entry, and the fact that I tacitly endorsed them at the end of last week's blog post (sales immediately rocketed 4000 percent). And while they’re set in what could, at first glance, be considered a run of the mill post-apocalyptic wasteland, it’s the touches of brilliance, attention to detail and abilities to have sex with people and swear that truly make these games shine. How It’s Art: By drawing on the buttoned-down iconography of the 50s and infusing it with the paranoia and very real dangers of the Cold War era, the Fallout series presents a pastiche of an America that could have been. Traces of the boundless, wholesome optimism of the Leave it to Beaver era barely obscure twisted, smoldering corpses of what may have once been human. Monuments to our faith in the ability of science to “bring us the convenience of the future, today!” dot a landscape made scarred, barren, lifeless by that same overgrown technology. And all of it set to the uncomplicated music of bygone days, like vinyl ghost voices blown on an irradiated wind. How It’s Still Fun As Hell: Last night, I blew up a super mutant with a mine, then shot him in the face with my sniper rifle before he hit the ground while the Andrews Sisters sang me a vaguely racist song about the Congo. THAT HAPPENED.
7. Ico/Shadow of the ColossusThe World: At a time when every video game was operating on the “more is more” principle, Ico and its sequel, Shadow of the Colossus, dared to do away with basically everything. In the original, you got a board, a giant deserted castle, some shadow monsters and a princess who needs saving and lacks any other discernible traits except for her staggering inability to follow directions. In the next installment, you got a giant open field, 14 enemies (yes, total, for the whole game) each the size of a building and a horse that lacks any discernible traits except for its staggering inability to turn around. How It’s Art: The spare lines, soft focus and contemplative silences of this world draw us into its eerie natural beauty, at the same time challenging us to ponder the brutal deaths of ancient and stately creatures at our own hands. As we ride over rolling hills devoid of life, we are given time to question: Is the killing of an innocent being ever justified? What are the ethical limits of love? Why did that little kid have horns? How It’s Still Fun As Hell: You get to leap from your horse onto a giants’ beard, climb up his body as he tries to shake you off, and stab him in the fucking head. Then come the black snakes, and they cannot be stopped.
6. Heart of DarknessThe World: Pretty much the same as Ico, except this time, instead of fighting the shadow monsters with a board, the kid’s got a laser gun and inexhaustible power orbs. He also never has to deal with a near-mute princess, although he does have stuff trying to kill him in horrendous ways at every possible moment, which is almost worse. Here’s a YouTube video with all 50-plus lovingly animated cutscenes of the precocious 10-year-old getting crushed, drowned or ripped apart by shadow-scorpions while screaming. Rated E! For everyone. How It’s Art: The stunning animation quality and uniqueness of each and every screen and event reminds us that each day is a concrete experience, every moment fleeting and distinct. We must learn to live in the now, to appreciate the thing in itself, lest we fall pray to the devouring shadows of apathy and banality. Also, the book Heart of Darkness. How It’s Still Fun As Hell: Imagine playing through your very own Disney movie, but add a bunch of dinosaur skeletons and evil bats. So basically, imagine playing through the “Night On Bald Mountain” part of Fantasia.
5. PortalThe World: The same one as Half-Life, which is basically the same one as most other science fiction action/adventure games. What makes Portal a work of art isn’t actually the world it’s set in; it’s the full and rigorous use of the gaming medium to deploy story, build tension and conjure atmosphere. Playing Portal is like watching someone fashion a fine Swiss watch that then spontaneously evolves artificial intelligence and leaps up to strangle the watchmaker. How It’s Art: With the grace and simplicity of a master film director, the designers of Portal capitalize on the unique characteristics of the game environment, allowing the player’s interaction with their world to slowly bring about a full comprehension of plot. Using only a single speaking character, the game subverts a gaming staple (the helpful robotic narrator/tutorial), creates a complex and frightening relationship complete with subtext-laden dialogue and comments on the medium of gaming itself even as it deconstructs it. How It’s Still Fun As Hell: When you shoot one portal at the ceiling and another at the ground, you can get going really good like a train. WOO! WOO! Also if you position them right, you can sometimes look at your own butt. And you get cake at the end. Or do you?
4. The Oddworld SeriesThe World: The Oddworld games follow unlikely (read: deformed) protagonists as they struggle to free their various peoples from a slave-like existence. To accomplish this noble goal, they jump a lot (except the one in a wheelchair) enlist the aid of their fellow slaves, and fart. The other twisted combinations of amphibian and machine that inhabit the world scuttle on robotic claws, swing eyeless faces while snapping hungry jaws and just generally imitate a cross between a squid and a Terminator. How It’s Art: The cigar-chomping beverage moguls who head the corrupt slavers echo and embody the corruption of our own plutocrats, bringing into sharp relief the subjugation of the working class on the grim, and often dangerous, factory floor (whiff of an Industrial Revolution critique?). Even the slaves themselves, with mouths and occasionally eyes sewn shut, confront us with the haunting visage of a lower class that cannot see, that cannot scream, that has had its very voice stripped from it through the dehumanizing processes of big business. How It’s Still Fun As Hell: Did I mention you can fart? Like, at any time. Seriously, you just press a button and out it comes. Glorious.
3. Grim FandangoThe World: Welcome to the Land of the Dead. It’s surprisingly Latin, and surprisingly pleasant, unless you have to work there. A pretty staggeringly brilliant mash-up of Casablanca, bebop, jazz, Art Deco and the rockingest Dia de los Muertos party ever, Grim Fandango is probably the most overlooked Lucasarts adventure game outside of The Dig. How It’s Art: Few works have dared to embrace death so fully, to question life from the perspective of the no-longer living. The flat, disquieting collages depicting the living world seem to invite us into Manny’s head, and through his eyes, to question whether our shared fear of death is a fear simply of the unknowable, or of the garbled and misunderstood. Is it, in fact, the gossamer curtain separating the two which distorts our vision of both? Truly chilling. How It’s Still Fun As Hell: Vast conspiracy. A journey through the fires of hell on a car designed by Big Daddy Roth. A swarthy accent you’d just sound like a dick if you tried to use in real life. This game's got it all, and the chance to seduce a hottie skeleton into the bargain. Hey, it’s not necrophilia if you’re dead too.
2. Every Shiny Game Except The Ones Based On MoviesThe World: Once, there was a time when muppets still starred in movies, everyone took David Bowie very seriously and Shiny Entertainment was the wonkiest, weirdest, most awesomely twisted game company in the world. From Earthworm Jim to MDK to Sacrifice, every Shiny game seemed to exist in the same darkly comic, ooze-dripping, subversive and sticky quadrant of the underworld, and even the ones that were torture to play (Messiah) kept you engaged with solid dialogue and voice acting, inventive new ways to kill stuff and backpacks full of snot. How It’s Art: As a cohesive body of work, the Shiny collection speaks to the smirking jester in all of us, relentlessly satirizing everything from the petty infighting of religion (Sacrifice) to the medium of gaming itself (that boss fight in Earthworm Jim where you just eat the goldfish). It’s a dark, surrealist topsy-turvydom where the only rule is chaos, and the only valid pursuit is that of the guiltily maniacal chuckle of schadenfreude. How It’s Still Fun As Hell: In Wild 9, you use your telekinesis gloves to toss enemies into giant threshers. In Messiah, you possess police and use them to shoot other police. In MDK, your head is a gun. There’s basically never a moment in a Shiny game when you’re not killing someone in a way you’ve never killed anyone before.
1. PsychonautsThe World: “Worlds” is actually more accurate. As a student at psychic summer camp, Raz is able to dive into the brain of pretty much any character in the game, and each is a unique, fully developed world with its own physics and art design evolved from the characteristics of the mind itself. Accordingly, the uptight Germanic counselor’s brain is a two tone neon box of ever-transforming precision; the paranoic security guard’s head is crammed with shady, faceless men muttering about conspiracy on an impossibly twisted version of Main Street, U.S.A.; and the giant fish-monster’s mind is exactly what you’d expect that to be. How It’s Art: Raz’s descent into the world of thought is nothing short of an attempt to suss out the true inner workings of the human mind. As levels shift and flow, illusory as dream, we are faced with the manifold physical manifestations of the metaphysical: the body of self-loathing, the shape of fear, the dark recesses of denial and repressed emotion. We emerge sobered, and ready to explore our own minds with an equal amount of depth and rigor. How It’s Still Fun As Hell: Tim Schafer, creator of Grim Fandango and most every other awesome Lucasarts game, made this one too, which means it’s smart, funny and there’s a move that lets you set squirrels on fire with your mind. Thus, the fabled trifecta has been achieved, and Psychonauts receives the Michael Swaim official seal of “Best Platformer of All Time.” Let the rabid argument begin!
When not writing for Cracked, Michael is apparently playing video games as head writer for and co-founder of Those Aren't Muskets!