10 Video Games That Should Be Considered Modern Art
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.
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.
Modern Artist To Compare It To: Takashi Murakami, or, if you’re more literal, the sculpture of Michel de Broin.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
When not writing for Cracked, Michael is apparently playing video games as head writer for and co-founder of Those Aren't Muskets!