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 werent so damned expensive.
How Its Art:Katamaris bright colors, simple, striking shapes and boundless imagination ignite an ebullient joy in the player. This is pop art at its 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 elses photograph.
How Its 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.
How Its Art: For one thing, Robert De Niro produced it, which more than makes up for Chers involvement. For another, its Wikipedia entry describes it as a game designed to represent the limits of mans 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 Its Still Fun As Hell: If youre a comedy fan, theres 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 youre 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."
How Its 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 Its 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.
How Its 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 Its 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.
How Its 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 Its 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.
How Its 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 players 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 Its 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?
How Its 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 Its 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.
How Its 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 Mannys 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 Its Still Fun As Hell: Vast conspiracy. A journey through the fires of hell on a car designed by Big Daddy Roth. A swarthy accent youd 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, its not necrophilia if youre dead too.
How Its 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). Its 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 Its 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. Theres basically never a moment in a Shiny game when youre not killing someone in a way youve never killed anyone before.
How Its Art: Razs 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 Its Still Fun As Hell: Tim Schafer, creator of Grim Fandango and most every other awesome Lucasarts game, made this one too, which means its smart, funny and theres 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!
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.