Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the distinction between art forms and works of art. All works of art are built using the unique limitations and demands of some art form; they take what is abstract in some form and make it concrete. In some cases, the lines between form and work are a bit fuzzy. For example, Baroque violin music is an art form and Bach’s First Sonata for Solo Violin is a work of art, but if we consider Bach’s piece as only an arrangement of notes on a page, it is still somewhat abstract, just as a blueprint is an abstraction of a particular house. A particular performance of a piece of music fits the notion of a work of art more closely; it has the same relation to the written piece that the written piece had to the form of Baroque violin music. The written piece gave a certain set of rules and guidelines, and the musician built something uniquely personal using those constraints.
It may be possible to go even further. A particular performance of a piece of music could be considered an art form when you take into account all of the different experiences it produces in its listeners. An attentive listener, over time, will learn to read more and more into what he hears, discovering an ever-increasing number of possible experiences and interpretations. These, of course, will be unique to the person experiencing the work of art, shaped as they are by the person’s history, personality, and so on. Just as the written piece allows for an infinite number of performances, each performance allows for an infinite number of experiences. To take an example from the world of games, one person might experience Dear Esther as a nihilistic examination of despair, while someone else might experience it as a meditation on the redemptive power of suffering.
A decent definition of a work of art is simply something made with skill. Under this definition, even art forms are works of art in a certain sense. For example, if one intentionally created a new form of painting, like Cubism, with new restrictions and aesthetic goals, you could probably say that that form was a work of art, simply because you had to invent it. However, in most cases the distinction between art forms and art works is pretty clear. An art form tells you the kind of things you can make, and a work of art is that potential reduced to the actual. The more concrete and incarnated a thing is, the more appropriate it is to talk about it as a work of art. The more something instructs and limits the creation of something else, the more it’s an art form.
Looking at it from this perspective, it seems that a game might be more an art form than a work of art, and that it is instead the individual playthroughs of a game that are the works of art. Again, this is not to say that the rules of a game couldn’t be considered works of art (although a rather cold, intellectual sort of art), or that the visual, audial, or narrative elements of a game aren’t works of art in their own right. However, it should be clear that all of these elements are intended to enhance and guide the experience of playing the game. They are means, not ends, so we shouldn’t let them distract us from looking at the basic purpose of a game.
Games are created incomplete. We have to play them for them to be whole, to have fulfilled their purpose. As long as this is true, any game, no matter how restrictive, appears to be more form than work. Dear Esther and Journey give the player far fewer options and outlets for creative expression than Minecraft or The Walking Dead, so it can be tempting to prefer to call them primarily works of art. They are more fixed after all, more complete. This is understandable, and I would concede that they exist farther towards the “work” end of the form/work spectrum than most other games, but it does not change the essential need for player performance built into their fabric. Games do not affect players directly, which is what you would expect if games were primarily works of art. The thing that effects players is the new playthrough that they have created.
There are other problems with calling the game itself the primary work of art. Doing so seems to imply that if you want to call the game itself a great work of art, you have to call every possible playthrough of the game a great work of art as well, and this is clearly not the case. I could play Skyrim, for example, by wandering up mountains until I was repeatedly slaughtered by Snow Trolls. If I complained that this wasn’t very fun at all, an observer would probably protest that I was playing it wrong, and he would be right. There are better and worse ways to play a game, just as there are better and worse ways to put on a Shakespeare play. At root, a playthrough of a game is a kind of performance, one that can be judged like any performance.
This is probably where my fascination with Let’s Play videos comes from. They are one of the best ways to see game performances in action, since people tend to get self-conscious when you sit with them on the couch and tell them that you are going to analyze their interpretation of Shadow of the Colossus. Let’s Play videos, although I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that they’ve achieved great art status, have tremendous potential. This is especially true for me when the player narrates what’s going through his head as he’s playing, or when he begins playing in an unorthodox but interesting fashion. What emerges is a kind of exposition of the player’s inner character, brought to life and expressed within the game’s framework. They are usually played for laughs, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be used as an artistic medium (see Matt’s XCOM journals, Dwarf Fortress’s Boatmurdered, Brendan Keogh’s Minecraft horizons experiment, or Ben Abraham’s Permanent Death).
Of course, one of the difficulties with this is that there aren’t a great number of games that really encourage this kind of expression. Most games remain fairly linear, with only a small handful of reasonable decisions at any given point. They remain more Checkers-like in this regard than Chess-like, Chess being a game that allows for enough expression for experts to regard some matches as works of art. It seems almost certainly the case that no videogame has reached the level of being Go-like, where, in a match between masters, a single move could be considered a profound artistic statement.
One of the best examples I know of a game being performed properly comes from my teenage years. My friends and I had a handful of HeroClix superhero figures. We didn’t really collect or play the game in any serious fashion, but we knew roughly how the rules worked and we’d played short matches before. On this particular day, for some reason, we began playing the game without a grid. In something of a knock-off of the Matrix Reloaded freeway scene, we placed the figures on top of a number of toy cars, semis and motorcycles, and set the scene as if these vehicles were racing down the interstate. What played out from that setup was the best gaming session I’ve ever experienced. Rules were stretched or adapted to the new situation, as heroes leapt from car to car, were thrown from moving vehicles, or were dangled above the speeding pavement. Minions driving the vehicles would fire through windows, blowing out tires and causing cars to swerve. The semi spun out of control, whipping its tail end across lanes of traffic, crashing into other cars. We simulated all of this on a second-by-second basis, eventually not even caring who won the battle, just attempting to spin out a more and more dramatic and visceral scene. It was the closest I’d come since being a child to a moment of pure play, and we did it while following the game rules as closely as we could.
That play session made a far greater impact on me than the game of HeroClix itself, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s been a reminder to me not of the greatness of games, but of what games can make. If you’re like me, your best memories of games are not of the games themselves, but of individual sessions or moments, where something extraordinary happened that you were responsible for. These are the things that keep us coming back to games, so perhaps these are the things we ought to be looking more critically at.