Image is from Brendan Keogh's "Towards Dawn" project.

Works of Art

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.

Ben Milton

About Ben Milton

Ben Milton makes his home on a hill in Oregon with a wife and the lonesome ghosts of a dozen boardgame prototypes.