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Art Games

By Shamus
on Wednesday Sep 2, 2009
Filed under:
Video Games


In reading the review of The Path over at Playing with Pat, the author talks about the search for “artistic” games. If you’re trying to defend the notion of games as art (always a surefire flamewar in a can) then you should be able to point at a game and say, “This one”. I know we’ve been over the subject before on this site, but this is a topic that bears revisiting.

I’d actually take the position that just about all games are art, it’s just that 99% of them are “low” art. Nothing wrong with that. So what if the medium has churned out a lot of Walt Disney without producing many Mona Lisas? It’s given us a lot of Lethal Weapons without Citizen Kane. A lot of Three’s Company and not much MASH. The fact that something sucks does not disqualify it as art. Otherwise, it would be impossible to make bad art.

But a couple of “artistic” or “evocative” games can help bolster your argument if you’re in the mood to debate a “games aren’t art” type of person. So, which games would you show to someone to make the case that games are art? My own list would be made up of games that did more than just entertain. They told stories that interested me and continued to provoke thought and curiosity long after I’d stopped playing.

In no particular order:

1) Silent Hill 2 – Just read the linked article. It’s a very interesting study of a man who has been broken very badly in some very subtle ways.
2) Jade Empire – Surprising, beautiful, witty, and well-characterized.
3) Morrowind – This one is a bit odd because most of the game is just an endless series of variations on the “kill ten rats” idea, but the main quest and the villain are pretty interesting.
4) Planescape Torment – I guess this is the gold standard of RPG stoies for a lot of people. I’m not quite in the “PST is the best story game, ever” camp, and the game didn’t completely blow my mind the way it did for some. But the significance of the title is undeniable. It’s deep, rich, diverse, and full of interesting ideas. I’d play this through ten times before I even thought of looking at Neverwinter Nights 2 again. It also makes a pretty good case for hand-painted backgrounds over polygons. Alas that we won’t see another one like this anytime soon.

I wouldn’t suggest the Path, because while the Path is clearly art, its status as a game is kind of debatable. Enough so that I wouldn’t use it as an example when trying to explain the importance of mainstream games to the skeptical. No matter how you classify it, it’s fringe and experimental.

So, what games would you show to someone to make the case for games as art?

Comments (127)

1 2

  1. Nickless says:

    I can’t think of many off the top of my head, but here goes.

    Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn – The villain Jon Irenicus made this game for me, so well acted and written. It took a classic villainous archetype and breathed in fresh life for me. My thinking might be clouded by childhood nostalgia though.

    Discworld Noir – A rather odd example for a little known game with hundreds of unresolved bugs and terrible graphics, but the humour in the dialogue and the complexity of the plot drew me in and had me enthralled.

    Planescape Torment – The quest for self-discovery and the futile struggle against fate combined with the outlandishness of the setting had me.

  2. dyrnwyn says:

    I’m going to have to look into this Planescape Torment thing. It sounds good.

  3. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Aside from the ones youve mentioned(well,not really jade empire,since I find KOTOR a much better example),Id add KOTOR,thief(although it might fail due to the difficulty of the first two) and monkey island(especially now when we have a retouched monkey island,with fancy new graphics and voice over).

  4. Vegedus says:

    Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy to the heathens) and Shadow of the Colossus (and probably Ico as well, though I haven’t played it) are definitely art games. They both have their problems though. Fahrenheit is ambitious, with an intriguing plot and some amount of cause->effect, but I almost shouldn’t have to explain how it goes wrong midway through the game. Shadow of the Colossus has atmosphere in bucket loads and a minimalistic story, but kinda dull on as a game.

    What about story driven RPGs in general? Some of the Final Fantasy have deep, meaningful themes and good storytelling and characterisation. Calling them art doesn’t seem appropriate, though. It’s like, The Dark Knight is hailed as a great movie, and not just in amounts of entertainment value, but it’s still a sorta silly superhero movie, so it’s hard to liken it to Citizen Kane or Godfarther or whatever.

  5. F_t_R says:

    Shadow of the Colossus – epic battles, well thought out camera angles and a hauntingly beautiful landscape

    Ikaruga – mainly due to the polarity between black and white and how they managed to make it integral to the gameplay

    The Longest Journey – not only did they create a high tech view of the future, they also created a magical counterpart and managed to link them together almost seamlessly

  6. Deoxy says:

    “story driven RPGs in general” are like books – a video-game version of choose-your-own-adventure books, and some of them are just as badly written as those, too! heh.

    Some of them are really quite amazingly good, though, too.

  7. Gresman says:

    I think most of the games that want to be art try to hard and are to artistic to really be a game.
    Games on my list would be: Vampire Bloodlines (interesting story and has a good gothic athmosphere going on), Mass Effect (good story and characters), Warcraft trilogy including Lore (mostly for the Lore, the characters are on their chosen path because they want to do the right thing but end up losing themselves) and Psychonauts (an under appreciated game with good story and characters and a lot of humour)

  8. Jimmy says:

    My go-to example of games as art has been Ico ever since I first played it. It has a beautiful setting and characters and a simple story with a strong emotional pull.

    But the main reason that it’s my go-to example is the minimalistic interface. There’s no heads up display or health bar cluttering the screen. Your only inventory is whatever your character is holding in his hands. It makes it a lot easier to become immersed, especially if you’re not a gamer.

    I think a lot of people in the games aren’t art crowd just have a hard time getting into games. Ico helps fascilitate player absorption. It also shows a great example of how setting, characters and story come together in a game to make art.

    I’ve seen arguments that obviously, the beautiful scenery is art, but the game itself is not art. Obviously, the story would qualify as art in another medium where it wasn’t sullied by interactivity. I think Ico makes the case that yes, those things are art independently, but the way they come together in the game is also art.

    Gamers love to show people beautiful fps or rpgs with great stories and beautiful environments. To them the art is obvious, but to the nongamer they spend so much time figuring out the controls (Press ‘w’ to go forward?) and being intimidated by pages of character stats that they never get immersed. The qualities that make it a fun are also the qualities that prevent them from seeing the art. They conclude that games can’t be art because for them it’s true, games can’t be art.

  9. Greg says:

    I have a few games on my list that I would categorize as ‘art’:
    Psychonauts – If you haven’t gotten a chance to play this one, you really need to. Very original idea, great gameplay, great imagery. Overall I really enjoyed this game.
    Shadow of the Colossus – This game has very little story, but it makes up for it with the epic battles and stunning visuals. If this was to be graphically remade and put on the PS3, I would most definitely buy it.
    de Blob – While it is a silly game, I still believe it to be art. The amount of detail that went into the game design (the subtle things like the sky colorizing the more you colorize the town and the music becoming ‘bigger’ the more lively the town becomes) is great.
    I’m all for the “games as art” thing, but I do have a question. What do people look at when they say a game is artistic? Are we looking at ‘original’, ‘great art direction’, ‘great story’, ‘great music’, ‘great characters’, or ‘great overall experience’? I use a mixture of these things to rate my games. I don’t classify ‘sequel’ titles, either. I promise, the ‘Mona Lisa 2, Electric Boogaloo’ won’t be as good as the original.

  10. Mario l. says:

    That’s a hard question, for there are many games that I truly loved, but still miss something, and there are others that I couldn’t play.
    I think that most of the first Lucasarts games could be art. They’re clever, beautiful (even if the graphics are old) and entertaining. Day of the tentacle had awesome graphics, story and charachters.
    Indiana Jones and the fate of Atlantis is still one of my favourite games.
    Monkey Island trilogy (yes, I said trilogy) is wonderful and hilarious.
    You have also to admit that it’s more difficult to make you smile than make you sad.

    Many rpgs like Baldur’s Gate e Neverwinter Nights are wisely made, the stories behind are absorbing as the gameplay. The great number of suplots, the npcs, the location.

    But if you say that art is something that makes you think, not simply something beautiful to look at (or amusing to play with), it’s more difficult choose.
    Chiefly because games are made to entertain and unwind.

    I read many reviews about I have no mouth but i must scream, but never had the chance to play it, though it seems incredibly deep.
    Awfully i couldn’t play silent hill 2, because of the backward compatibility policy of the xbox 360.

    The first alone in the dark was very beautiful (although those polygons now look really ugly).

    It makes me think that only good horror games can stimulate you to think, maybe because to trigger your fear they have to enter into your mind, make you think about the things you are seeing…

    p. s.: I forgot one of my favourite: Another world. True classic.

  11. Factoid says:

    Ico and Shadow of the Colossus both come to mind for me. SoC has this incredible moment where you can’t believe you’re really killing the creatures, some of whom are harmless and non-threatening to you, just so that you can chase the possibility of reviving a dead love.

    Ico has a great deal of beautiful scenery and has this incredible emotional connection between the two main characters. A little boy leading a little girl around by the hand and protecting her from shadow monsters is very profound at times. Eventually you’ll find yourself in a position where you’re completely encircled by shadows and they’re closing in and you’re swinging wildly trying to protect her. The animations sell it very convincingly.

    Bioshock (though I know that’s taboo title around these parts, I still found it to be excellent. It has some incredible writing, a very cinematic presentation and it really digs deep into philosophy, making you really question where you stand on some of the issues that faced the city of Rapture.

  12. Alan De Smet says:

    Another vote for Shadow of the Colossus. It’s technically stunning, just a joy to behold. But (to the games-aren’t-art crowd) that’s not enough. But Shadow shines in the story. It appears shallow: guy with dead love shows in strange land, makes deal to kill a bunch of stuff in exchange for restoring his love to life. Except it’s more complex. There is no filler bad guys, no colorful characters. The experience has been pared down to its essentials. Shadow makes the “stuff” you need to kill grand, special, and (mostly) non-violent until you start attacking. In this way Shadow subverts common video game assumptions that everything you must destroy deserves it. It’s like being asked to destroy the Grand Canyon, chop down the oldest redwood on the planet. You have engaged in a dark pact, and it’s not entirely clear what the real cost is. As with all good dark pacts, the ending is complex, making the question, “Do you succeed?” hard to answer. It’s a haunting, moody work that lingers with you after you finish. As Penny Arcade‘s Tycho said, “The game needs to be seen by every conscious organism on planet Earth. And if that means that you must play it in order to do so, that is your cross to bear.”

    Ico is another gem, although not quite as strong as Shadow. We again have the exceptional technical implementation, the moody feeling. But the story, while rock solid and compelling, has been done a thousand times before. Ico‘s strength is that it has been polished to a unique level. One detail worth caling out is that the Ico, the protagonist, is a kid. He’s not especially strong or dangerous. He spends much of the game wielding a branch. As a result, I felt at risk, even my the relatively easy combat. Another details is that while escort missions usually suck, Ico is one giant escort mission and I didn’t mind. While it won’t work for everyone, I found myself forming a connection to the ethereal girl I was helping. She was clearly completely out of her element, even her universe. The end of the game brought tears to my eyes.

    The “Are games art?” argument aside, both are exceptional games, and I recommend them both to everyone.

  13. TehShrike says:

    For some reason, I always think of StarCraft/Brood Wars first… I always thought the story in the single-player campaign was awesome.

  14. Groboclown says:

    I’m going to put my nominations in a different direction. I think that there are quite a few Interactive Fiction games that could be considered very artistic, such as A Mind Forever Voyaging.

    A quick web search brought me to this poll. I’ve played some of these, and, of those, I happen to agree with this assessment

  15. chabuhi says:

    Syberia 1 & 2
    Blueberry Garden
    Max Payne
    King’s Quest VI
    Endless Forest
    Broken Sword
    Many others …

  16. Zanfib says:

    Valve games. Just listen to the developer commentary and it’s obvious that these guys are artists.

  17. onosson says:

    Ultima III and IV, though that’s going back a ways, for sure. Although story and characters are important elements for those two, I actually do appreciate a lot of games that don’t depend on such things at all. For example, Shogun: Total War, which I felt had a very immersive kind of experience (and one that was artistically done), even though the plot is simply “kill everyone”.

  18. WoodenTable says:

    Civilization 3 and 4. Both have very different feels to them, and neither fits the type of art in the games you mention, with lots of deep, meaningful… metaphors… and storylines… and symbolism stuff.

    But they both qualify as art, or rather literature, in the same way that a good alternate history novel does. It’s hard not to build a sweeping backstory for your chosen Civ as the games go on, especially if unusual things happen.

    The Civ 3 Map Editor in particular is a huge boon to anyone trying to make a fictional world with interesting terrain (for a novel or a D&D world, for example). It has a bunch of options, generates entire planets using plate tectonics, rain shadows, jet streams, soil erosion and various other invisible calculations to make worlds both semi-realistic and interesting, and plops resources down in vaguely plausible and sometimes hilarious places (I have seen more tiny islands inhabited solely by cows than I can count, at this point). And on modern computers, it can make a Huge-sized world in under 15 seconds. I barely ever use it above Standard size, so the world’s usually done if I blink after clicking “generate world”. And then I start slapping cities and civilizations everywhere.

    Is that art? I think so. It takes some work, and makes you think about the world around you. Objectively, I suppose it’s more of a creative tool than art itself, but then what’s a painting other than some dribbly dyes stuck to canvas using a hairy stick? It’s all in whether or not it can grab you by the nose and say “hey, think about this for a second”. Which is highly subjective, but in my case, it seems to work.

  19. stormbringer951 says:

    I’m going to go for Thief, Deus Ex, Planescape:Torment and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (just for it’s sheer beauty of atmosphere).

  20. Neil Polenske says:

    I was GOING to say Portal or Braid, but I realize I can only think of one at the moment: Desert Bus. It IS a game, albeit so simple and monotonous that could be difficult to notice offhand, but that is specifically what makes it art to me.

    This is a game specifically designed to be as boring and un-fun as possible. The fact that this is intentional creates an explicit parody of the very concept behind a videogame.

    To me, the best way to determine whether a game is art (or good art), is to determine how much of an effect the GAMEPLAY has rather than the presentation, since the defining characteristic of videogames are their interactivity. By this standard, Ico would be rather low on the scale as it’s a pretty standard puzzle game. Shadow would be slightly higher, as the ‘puzzles’ are living creatures, but that’s more gimicky than anything else).

    Desert Bus gameplay does this, but taking the road less travelled (hurr hurr) and purposely making the game a chore to play. It may be in the opposite direction than the norm, but it is an artistically valid one…to me at any rate.

    I’ll try to think of more when I can.

  21. Primogenitor says:

    I think “art” needs to be better defined before anything can or cannot be classed as it :p

  22. Neil Polenske says:

    Okay, edit don’t seem to be working, so I’ll add this:

    Shadow would actually rate much higher for the subervise point it’s trying to make regarding the acts you perform as noted by Alan De Smet.

  23. Draco says:

    Earthbound. There’s an example of a post-modernist video game in the SNES era. It’s not only art, it’s older than dirt.

  24. Voltaggia says:

    Definately Braid and Portal. Maybe also Mirror’s Edge…

  25. Ravens Cry says:

    Loom The story of the journey a young member of the Guild of Weavers, who have power over the weft and warp of the fabric of space and time, it uses a highly unusual, yet effective, interface that pulls you through the story. Short, yet delicious, it was going to be a trilogy, but nothing came of that unfortunately.
    Grim Fandango
    A story of life and death, redemption and betrayal, an a setting that combines Mexican mythology, and film moire atmosphere, played out by Day of the Dead calacas dolls. Full of lush and often haunting music, a distinctive visual flare, growing and moving characters, and that Tim Schafer humour, it’s not one to be missed.
    Though praised by critics, it sold poorly, and is one of the reasons Lucas Arts became the Star Wars Game Factory we know today.

  26. Magnus says:

    I’d put my vote in for Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld 1+2.

    Although I’m a big Ultima fan, and would say that the series was possibly the best RPG series ever…

    The story, the graphics, the music, the characters, everything was magnificent, until it was let down a bit by U8 and a lot by U9.

    Important for me is the consideration that it is different than a picture, book, film or piece of music. Otherwise, you end up thinking “that background is amazing” or “that score is fantastic”, without considering the game as a whole. What is unique about gaming is the way each element (characters, storytelling, music, visuals, interactivity) are blended together into something memorable.

  27. Drew says:

    Grim Fandango is a good choice.

    I’d vote for Beyond Good and Evil, which I think is a terribly underrated game. I enjoyed the way it looked, I enjoyed the way it played, it had a nice immersive world, and a good story. All in all, I thought it was brilliant. And I think it’s largely overlooked.

  28. Groboclown says:

    I’ll also nod to Grim Fandango, for the same reasons.

    Though I enjoyed Beyond Good & Evil, and its cousin games Little Big Adventure (which I consider my favorite game, released in the States as Relentless and Twinsen’s Odessy), I don’t consider them a good example of art.

    However, one that isn’t all that great, but was highly unusual and very artistic was Neverhood. A puzzle game set inside a claymation world.

  29. Gregory Weir says:

    To be contrarian: Katamari Damacy. It’s not deep. It’s not solemnly introspective. But it is one of the most vibrant, ironic, and exuberant celebrations of life, joy, and unbound consumerism that’s ever been created. The title of the tribute game for the PC says it all: it’s about the wonderful end of the world. I’m hard-pressed to come up with another title that combines such cheery silliness with such subversive criticism.

  30. Zock says:

    World of Goo
    Today I Die

  31. Groboclown says:

    Ah. I just remembered a set of games that would be considered art, all from distractionware.com.

    Judith: an interesting look at different people in different times, living in the same castle, with a dark mystery.

    Pathways: very simple game in concept. At first glance, it seems like an exploration into how our different choices impact the rest of our lives. However, I see it as how the choices the player makes changes the history and future of the character.

  32. Mephane says:

    I would present Portal as a game that definitely is a piece of art. :D

  33. RudeMorgue says:

    Another vote for Planescape: Torment and one for Baldur’s Gate 2.

    I think Portal is, at the very least, artistic in its ability to create suspense and its truly memorable villain. Half-Life 2, Episode 2 has at least two gut-wrenching sequences that are equal to some great moments in film. (“Close your eyes, baby! Don’t watch!”)

    I’d add some interactive fiction titles, both from the Infocom salad days and beyond:

    A Mind Forever Voyaging – You, a self-aware computer, simulate a man in various stages of life in an increasingly dystopian simulated future. It’s heartbreaking.

    Planetfall – Anybody who says they didn’t cry when Floyd died is a liar or an evil robot.

    From the post-infocom era, Photopia by Adam Cadre is incredible, albeit just barely a game and more of a story.

    A sort of gray area is that of in-game or opening cinematics. Some of these are at least as much “art” as the work of animation studios producing features. I’m thinking of the Warcraft series here, mainly, because that’s most of my experience, though I know Japanese games have a very high bar set on these as well. The opening cinematic for Wrath of the Lich King, in particular, resonates pretty strongly.

  34. Zeta Kai says:

    1) Ico & Shadow of the Colossus are pure art. They evoke emotions both deep & subtle. Their effects linger long after the discs are back in their cases.

    2) I’m gonna swim against the current here & recommend Final Fantasy X. It may seem like an odd & commercial choice, but I was genuinely moved by the storyline at several points. I felt the struggle against Sin, the pathos of the main characters’ sacrifices, & the bittersweet (almost Pyhrric) nature of the final victory. Shamus has sung this game’s praises before, but it needs to be said again: this game is great. It is also art, at least in my opinion. Like Shamus & his Bioshock, I made a massive love letter to the game, in this case a 407-page D20 conversion of FFX. I don’t do that for just any game, but FFX is definitely worth it.

  35. I think it is fair to say that games can be MORE than art. Writing isn’t always necessarily an artform. What about a textbook? What about a brochure? What about a stop sign?

    Games can be tools, art, anything really. But I digress.

    -Within a Deep Forest

    Nevermind, I’m gonna be citing a lot of indie examples. Art doesn’t really sell all that well in the mainstream. Well actually, it does… but for some reason we still don’t think so.

    Has Psychonauts been mentioned yet?

  36. RibbitRibbit says:

    To me, Ultima IV. Real quest story, my first “real” RPG before I knew what “mixing spell ingredients” was, years before I rolled any polyhedral dice. And why? Because of the Avatar mechanic that actually rewarded courage, honesty and humility. Made me feel like I’m taking part in a great epic story.

    LucasArts were making great classy comedy in their heyday. Monkey Island, Grim Fandango…

  37. JohnW says:

    Citizen Kane was stupid. It was a quest to find out what his last word, “Rosebud,” meant. But no one was in the room with him when he died to hear it!

  38. Macronomicon says:

    Oh boy. Hmmm….

    BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger
    One of the prettiest games I have ever seen. Also, the gameplay is really good and punishes players who try to run away too much, or block too much, and prevents instant deaths from happening except in the third round when the opponent is at 20% HP or less. Plus, the story is compelling. Not to mention the music.

    Baten Kaitos
    Not well-known, but still one of the prettiest games on the Gamecube. Also, this is the only game that I played which froze my system after four hours of play (Twilight Princess, which was just as pretty, froze it after ten hours). The story is rather involved as well. So many plot twists…

    Tales of Symphonia
    Yeah, people say it is merely a copy of Tales of Phantasia, but I don’t care. Pretty cel-shading, interesting story, and at the point which marked that the first third of the game was over contained no less than seven plot twists in as many minutes. I suppose it helped that the characterization was so well-planned that I fell in love with all the characters (main, villain, and NPC), even the ones I hated.

    Chrono Trigger
    Yeah. Shut up. This was one of the first RPG games I ever played, and the graphics are decent by today’s standards (they were ahead of their time in the early ’90’s when it came out). Though the story was rather convoluted, the characterization was so well-done that Chrono Cross (its very pretty sequel) is often compared as being inferior, due to the horrible characterization except for three or four characters and despite it having a superior story. Also, the score by Yasunori Mitsuda is one of the best examples of music – even better than SquareEnix’s mainstay, Nobuo Uematsu. And Mitsuda has unbelievably improved since.

    Kingdom Hearts
    Only the first one, mind you. The other games in the series are great, but none of them have had the impact that the first one did, at least to me. This was the first time I threw all my prejudices about anything (Disney in particular) out the window in favor of the graphics alone. Yes. All the ones I have noted have been beautiful, but I was drawn to the games for other reasons. Kingdom Hearts drew me in based on the graphics alone. I loved the gameplay and the story as well, despite, or perhaps because of, its child-like views about good and evil, light and dark. The music is memorable as well, though not as good as Mitsuda.

    The only other game I will mention is the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES as that was the first game I ever played, and I’m still discovering secrets that are in that game to this day. Besides, this was one of the first industry-revolutionizing games ever. Also, composer Koji Kondo made his debut in this game and he’s the man who has set the tone for game compositions since. There is probably no one who has not heard the theme song to this game.

  39. Nathon says:

    I think that what really makes video games art is that they open up new dimensions for appreciation. I would argue for sim city (whatever version you prefer) as a good example. Most people are voting for story telling as the way games demonstrate their artistry. That, or with pretty pictures. While I’ll agree that stories and pictures are long established art forms, simulations are also starting to show up in art museums. I see no reason why an interactive simulation should not be considered art.

  40. Dev Null says:

    Define art. Without a definition the discussion is pointless. And because its such a subjective term, with different meanings for different people, the games I would put up would be different for pretty much anyone I was having the conversation with. I’m a loose definitionist myself – I’ll count just about anything man-made which is aesthetically pleasing, from the Sistine chapel to a good ice cream sundae – and pretty much any game you enjoyed fits that definition.

    Points to RudeMorgue for remembering Infocom though; they were fine art. I weep for you Floyd!

    [EDIT: Decided to add something more than just my opinion to the discussion. The most relevant definition from Webster appears to be:

    4 a : the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects

    From Dictionary.com the most relevant would appear to be:

    1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
    2. the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria.]

  41. guiguiBob says:

    I vote for Tetris for it’s simplicity yet infinite forms.

    Also Katamari Damacy was a pretty artsy game overflowing with joy and weirdness from the gameplay to everything around.

    the Soulcalibur on the dreamcast, as I remember finding rythmes in the fighting styles and going into training modes just to try to make the characters flow through their move.

    Add a vote for Loom and System Shock 2.

    I found experience 112 pretty strange in the gameplay and the game proper. You controlled the game through a surveillance system, lights and a few other security systems, pretty cool and strange. It added a lot to the mystery. I would definetly say it was an artistic game.

  42. Kiwipolish says:

    I’ll chip in another vote for Final Fantasy X, even if Tidus annoyed me – it’s one of the most visually stunning games I’ve ever seen, is a very (I thought) unique world compared to most boilerplate fantasy games, and has one of the most beautifully bittersweet endings I’ve ever experienced. Certain scenes like Yuna dancing on water and the Wall of Human Fayths outside of Zanarkand are still haunting.

    Aside from the other ones everyone else has mentioned (Shadow of the Colossus, Grim Fandango et al.) I’m going to throw in Okami. That game was beautiful on all levels. (And like all games of that ilk, didn’t sell very well.)

    But really, I’m not sure what people think is “art” if they argue video games aren’t it.

  43. DocTwisted says:

    Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are definitely up there for me.
    Also, No More Heroes and Madworld, though it’s more the kind of art you’d expect from Tarantino.

    For the art of storytelling, I’d point to Guild Wars. For cinematography, Final Fantasy VIII’s cutscenes made my jaw drop the first time I saw them.

  44. Juni says:


    I guess Psychonauts, and Deus Ex maybe.

    I subscribe to the definition of art as “Actions or creations not mainly motivated by survival or mating”.

    Shamus… you don’t have System Shock on your list?

    Edit: Chrono Trigger. It’s beautiful, because it created the illusion of a world that lives and breathes so much better than some modern games with much better technology.

  45. Rutskarn says:

    I’m gonna second (or whatever, can’t be bothered to count) Longest Journey.

    Also, if real art hurts, than the story of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is the realiest art there is. I think I broke my wrist from flinging the disk at the wall.

  46. Icarus Tyler says:


    Because it is so entirely surreal and somewhat beautiful at the same moment.

    And most of all because it makes you think. “Wait, did I just kill 90 million people?”

  47. Mari says:

    Just want to third Katamari Damacy. There’s something soul-touching about the simple, bizarre silliness of the thing.

  48. Kalil says:

    I’d like to echo Shadow of the Collossus and FFX.
    I’d also like to add that there were some long moments in GTA:Vice City where I just sat in my car, listening to the stereo, and watching the sun set. I’m pretty sure that must be art. Also, if comedy is art, then VCPR most certainly qualifies.

    EDIT: Oh, and I’m amazed that no-one has mentioned Myst or Riven yet. A lesser known but spectacular title in the same genre is Schism: Mysterious Journey.

  49. Scott M says:

    I’ll go back a few years and mention Myst. At its heart it’s just a puzzle game, but the lush, haunting scenery, the eerie and evocative sound effects, everything combines together to create an experience that cannot be described as anything other than art.

  50. Chev says:

    Killer7 – it’s, so to speak, the crazier version of Silent Hill 2. Instead of being about an almost normal man in denial trapped in a city that brings out the worst in him, it’s about a hitman whose horrible acts have left so unbalanced he’s litterally fragmented into several distinct persons, all trapped inside his head, where the worst doesn’t have to be brought out.

  51. Chris says:

    Shadow of the Colossus

    What about games that help people create art/get creative:
    Crayon Physics Deluxe etc.
    The Sims

  52. David V.S. says:

    I’ll add World of Warcraft to the nominations.

    I have not played in over a year, and still think fondly about some of the vistas, views, and landscapes. (Even some of the places that were among the most annoying to actually play.)

    The game play was usually nothing special, and the social networking features were barely sufficient. But it was hours and hours of eye candy. It was artistic to see, and an aesthetic experience to explore.

    Which makes sense. Of the roughly 2,000 people employed to make WoW happen nearly 800 are artists. (About half are GMs, and the remaining 200 are the “core” of programmers or planning and development.)

    I’m surprised Shamus did not mention WoW, considering this post from June 2008.

  53. vede says:

    I think that saying one thing in a medium is art, and another in the same medium isn’t art, is a very, very stupid thing to do.

    Firstly, there are no real standards for what is and isn’t art, so you’d end up either going with the idea that anything filled with symbolism is art, or that anything simply unusual is art, or maybe just that stuff you like is art.

    Next, you’d have to realize that, overall, calling one game (or song, or whatever) art, and another game not, causes the significance of the word to decrease to nothing. What difference does being art make? Are people not able to like things which are not art? Is “art” FACTUALLY better than “non-art” media? Of course not. If it can’t be any better than other things due to the “art” title, then what’s the difference? There is no difference at all, so people who say “x is art, y isn’t” aren’t succeeding at much other than trying to say that their opinions are better, or make more sense, than someone else’s opinions.

    Honestly, if you’re going to be fair to everyone, ALL games are art.

    The only way you can get any information from your question at the end would be by changing it to something like “Which games are really symbolic?” or “What is your favorite game?” because “Which games are art?” results in a list of every single game ever made.

  54. Carra says:

    Planescape Torment. The Longest Journey. SW: Kotor (never played Baldurs Gate). Grim Fandango. Monkey Island.

    Mostly rpgs and adventures.

    Neglecting to see Walt Disney movies as classics is plain wrong. Snow white is considered a classic by many movie critics. It’s like saying planescape torment is not art compared to the beauty of Crysis. Having realistic graphics is not enough to be art.

  55. WILL says:

    Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, without a doubt.

    I’d add Bioshock (and possibly SS1 and 2) simply because the writing/story is great, but also because it’s got an incredibly art direction.

    Also add KotOR 2, simply because if you understand what the characters mean and really listen to everything they say you get something better written than 75% of movies.

  56. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    I cant believe I am the first one to mention the Metal Gear Solid series. GREAT storyline, interesting and well developed characters, and the graphics on each are always stunning by the standards of the time each game was released. Also I would like to point out that the games creator Hideo Kojima is well known for his devotion and passion for the game. He is a brilliant story teller and deserves to be refered to as an artist.

  57. SteveDJ says:

    I’m surprised it took until comment 49 for someone to mention MYST. Yes, it is old (though has been re-released on newer platforms, like Nintendo DS). But I would consider it, and most all of its sequels, as a pioneer in art-like games. (Though, I think I would pass on MystV – never even finished it :( )

  58. Sean Riley says:

    OK. This is going to be a longish post, because I question the idea. What IS art, in relationship to games? I don’t have a single definition for this. In one respect, all games are, to some degree. Just as every television show is, to some degree. As an advertisement is, to some degree. Artistic skills were put to use in their creation, ergo they are art. (This is the ‘low art’ idea Shamus mentions.)

    But that’s unsatisfying. For me, art is about arousing ideas and emotions in the audience. It’s about connecting with the audience, making them realise things about themselves they otherwise wouldn’t have.

    And when it comes to games, that means more than just having great graphics, or a compelling story. It means the gameplay mechanics themselves must induce that connection. They must somehow force you to reconsider your actions, or to imprint a feeling in you so strong it changes the way you play. In a way, that’s a good guideline. If the game doesn’t change the way you play the game, it’s probably not art.

    The Path therefore counts. It’s a game, I challenge any notion that it isn’t. It has a goal, challenges, and true interaction. At any point, you are free to connect with the wolf, or walk away. The option to just press on to Grandmother’s House is always there. By doing this, it forces you to slow down, to think, to contemplate. I don’t consider it the best art I’ve seen (its methods seem brutal to me) but it’s art. The notions here are to redefine ‘success’ and ‘failure’ for the player, to reject the power-mythology most games subscribe to, and to see railroaded, guided experiences as hollow, and false. I think it succeeds, but not entirely.

    Ico counts. It’s my favorite game ever, so it’d better. The point of Ico isn’t the simple escape story, it’s about seeing another character as human, rather than just a tool. It’s about caring for another creature. And I think it works, beautifully. There is a choice to be made late in the game (it involves a bridge) that I’m almost certain everyone makes, and it proves the game works.

    Shadow of the Colossus also counts. It wants the player to accept the violence of their actions, to see the ramifications of what they’ve done and, again, reject the power-mythology most games accept. This is powerfully done, but I feel never as strongly as in the game’s simple premise: In exchange for the murder of 16 lives, we will restore one.

    Braid: With some reservations. Braid is about trying to connect abstract concepts of play to a story, to think in metaphor rather than literal terms. That said, I don’t think it works. I love it as a game, but I think in the end it fails as art. Great game, though.

    Silent Hill 1 & 2: Both are about forcing the viewer to see that the story they are experiencing is not the story that is being told. Truer for 1 than 2. Both, however, do a brilliant job of making the player feel, truly and in their gut, powerless and revolting. A nod here to Fatal Frame as well; while not as comprehensively brilliant in its desire to minimise the player, it did a great job with making injury and hurt personal and horrific.

    Left 4 Dead: Yes, again, I’m serious. The gameplay mechanics, similar to Ico, make you think of each other as people. It uses the players’ own panic and fear to charge its experience. The game is never stronger than when you’re playing with people who aren’t great at it. My only argument against the game is that it fails when players get too good. Once you feel you can waltz through the experience, the horror evaporates.

    And finally, Far Cry 2. Yes, I’m serious. It counts. Far Cry 2’s goal is the inverse of Shadow’s. It wants you to embrace the power-mythology of most games, and accept every last inch of its dark horror. It wants you to do horrible things of your own volition. It wants you to realise, accept, and integrate the horrid truth of most games. It’s like the film Punch Drunk Love; just as that film took the standard Adam Sandler character but stripped away all false pretense of humour, Far Cry 2 takes the standard videogame narrative and strips away all false pretense of justice or heroism.

    Which games aren’t?

    Farenheit: Not only is it not art, it’s a bad game. By its end, the storyline is ludicrous. The mechanics are asinine. The characters are cardboard and the plotting arbitrary. It has less interactivity than almost any game on the market, and David Cage needs to stop making games immediately, and just make damn films. It’s what he wants to make.

    Metal Gear Solid: With some reservations. I think Hideo Kojima, unlike David Cage, is serious in his intent to make games. And sometimes he succeeds. But my problem is that I don’t think he has a message. He’s trying like crazy to expand the canvas of gaming, but I’m not sure to what end at all.

    Half-Life series: Very important series. Introduced numerous innovations in level design, plotting, and storytelling. But the mechanics are almost entirely irrelevant to this. I love the series, but I wouldn’t call it art.

    So there we go. That’s my take on it.

  59. Shishberg says:

    Ditto everyone who mentioned KOTOR. Also, World of Goo.

  60. Sean Riley says:

    A retraction:

    Metal Gear Solid 2, after a quick discussion with a friend, does count. The game was an attempt to get the player to question the nature of computer games, and what they were teaching you.

    That I did not like it personally does not mean it’s not art.

  61. Jonathan says:

    Baldur’s Gate II and Fallout 1/2, for painting a complete world and making it come alive and make sense. Fallout 1/2 also for the wit and ’50s style artwork

  62. ccesarano says:

    Earthbound, Bioshock, Final Fantasy Tactics and a few others I forget right now.

  63. Julian says:

    I’d say that since gameplay is an integral part of a game, it should also be part of the “art”. An artsy game isn’t the same as an artistic game. For instance, yes, the architecture and character design in Assassin’s Creed are gorgeous, but the gameplay has no relation to the artistic aspect.
    On the other hand, Okami’s posterized, cel-shaded, paintbrushed landscapes, along with its amazing, fitting soundtrack merge seamlessly with the main gameplay mechanic: using your brush to paint the landscape and progress the story.
    The exception to the rule is when the gameplay is minimalistic, to allow more room for the other artistic elements (the sound, the storyline). That’s why I’d consider games like The Path or The Longest Journey.

    Also, the game should (or rather, MUST) evoke some sort of feeling in me through its artistic elements. Okami makes me relaxed, Fatal Frame terrifies me, The Longest Journey and Dreamfall make me feel sorrow and have deep thoughts, those are art. The exception being feelings like boredom or sleepiness, which of course aren’t intended.

  64. Sean Riley says:


    The exception to the rule is when the gameplay is minimalistic, to allow more room for the other artistic elements (the sound, the storyline). That's why I'd consider games like The Path or The Longest Journey.

    I’m curious as to why you say this. I see the observation, but The Path’s minimalistic gameplay was indeed part of the point, I rather felt. I love point and click adventure games, but I’m unsure I can call (say) Monkey Island art.

    But maybe you can. I can’t see how you could really do a lot of those jokes in any other medium. A lot of the jokes came out of the disconnect between the interface and the character’s response. (An example: “Excuse me Guybrush, do you know what ‘Keelhaul’ means?” You choose: “Keelhaul. Noun. To drag someone underneath a ship as punishment or torture.” Guybrush SAYS: “I see what you mean. Thanks.”) So maybe it is art as well.

    But anyway! Why are you letting games that have minimal mechanics off the hook? Shouldn’t even those minimal mechanics contribute toward the art? If they don’t, shouldn’t they be made to?

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