Why Video Games Need an Aesthetic Theory

Video games will be the next great aesthetic medium. They certainly aren’t yet, but neither were movies before the 1970s nor television before The Sopranos. Video games are still in their infancy as an aesthetic force, and may be for some time. But within the next decade or two, new video games will undoubtedly challenge present boundaries and push at least a significant chunk of the medium to a higher artistic plane.

The purpose of this blog is to develop and explore a theory of objective video game aesthetics. I am fairly sure that the timing of this project is perfect precisely because the medium is still in the early stages of exploring its artistic potential. Games with tremendous aesthetic value have been and will continue to be produced, but the medium has yet to experience its Sopranos game, or collection of games, which redefines the medium as a whole.

To reach that point, the entire video game industry has embarked on a project since its inception decades ago to study and refine the parameters of video games. Experimentation and ingenuity has since moved the industry from simple games like Pong to enormously complex games ranging from intensely polished and detailed shooters (ie. Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc.) to grand strategy (ie. Starcraft, Crusader Kings, etc.).

However, development of the medium has, for the most part, existed along stratified parameters which can be characterized by “mechanical” and “narrative” strains. The former refers to the “game” part of video games (ie. how player inputs effect a system which includes win and lose states) and has typically taken such a dominant role in video game design that the medium has always been, and likely will be for some time in the future, thought of as an advanced form of a toy rather than as an artistic medium. Meanwhile, the narrative potion of the game has typically referred to the story which (often weakly) contextualizes the game’s mechanics.

Unfortunately, the mechanical/narrative divide is a false dichotomy which has hindered video game design. It is based on an incomplete understanding of the nature of video games and their potential as an artistic medium.

Whatever attention video games have garnered as aesthetic products thus far have largely been a result of narrative development. Plenty of games have been praised for having emotional or well-written stories. Unfortunately, this factor alone is often considered sufficient for making a game artistically valuable. This occurs because most people (unfortunately including most video game critics and developers) think of artistic achievement in the realm of video games by the standards of literature and film.

This paradigm can be witnessed in any review of a major triple A game by a mainstream video game news outlet. Typically a game’s quality is primarily determined by its mechanical properties (ie. how fun the game play is) while the story is treated as a separate entity which holds a small bearing on the quality of the overall product. Imagine a similar evaluation standard applied to literature: The quality of a book would almost exclusively be based on its prose, while the actual story told would be a minor factor relegated to one or two paragraphs in a standard review.

Literature and film are artistically judged by the quality of the stories they tell as well as the manner in which they are told. When those standards are applied to video games, it is typically done by examining a video game’s story through its cut scenes (which are breaks from gameplay in which non-interactive [or barely interactive] scenes play out in the style of a movie). As a result, most video games which tell a story (but certainly not all) have opted to mimic movies by introducing a sharp divide between mechanics and narrative. In practice, this turns most video games into a short movie with mechanic-less scenes intercut by long chunks of mechanically-heavy and narrative-lite gameplay. Of course since video game developers primarily focus on mechanics and only consider story to be a secondary factor (at best), both the manner in which video game stories are told and the stories themselves tend to be vastly inferior to even average Hollywood output. This form of video game storytelling, personified by Uncharted, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and most major triple A games, has become the industry standard.

Judging a video game by the standards of literature and film is just as bad as doing the reverse. Imagine if everyone deemed movies to be worthless because an audience cannot interact with a movie’s characters in any way. If that occurred, eventually movie producers would begin including joysticks in movie theaters so that the audience could control the on-screen characters for ten minute bursts sporadically throughout the film. After a while, the most exceptional movie producers would create mildly entertaining gameplay (but still vastly inferior to the gameplay of even average video games), and said movie producers would be hailed as master game makers. That is essentially what has happened to video games.

It must be said that the mechanical/narrative false dichotomy has not been internalized by all video game developers and critics. Plenty of games have told stories without the use of cut scenes or its more primitive iterations like text boxes, especially in the last five years (ie. Papers Please, Gone Home, Crusader Kings II, etc.). Even modern games which personify movie-mimicry have slowly started to utilize more video game oriented narrative techniques (The Last of Us is a great example). But a conscious understanding of the dichotomy has only recently and slowly begun to emerge in the video game world. Indie developers especially have moved away from mimicking movies and towards crafting narratives unique to video games a medium. This movement may well be the germ of what eventually transforms video games into a legitimate and celebrated artistic medium.

Video games are unique. They do things which painting, poetry, plays, literature, film, and tv shows cannot do. They have the potential to create great works of art on par with The Godfather, the works of Shakespeare, and Michelangelo’s David. To a minor extent, a few games already have broken the mold of what other mediums can do and the results have been extraordinary. Yet video games still have a long way to go in filling their unique aesthetic potential.

Fortunately, there is an ever increasing awareness of the current and potential value in the video game community. Developers, pundits, fans, and even full time intellectuals have been embarked on a project to discover the true aesthetic potential of the medium. Outlets like Twenty Sided, Super Bunny Hop, Errant Signal, and Zero Punctuation are discussing the nature of video games in a fundamental manner that hasn’t applied to the likes of film (outside of film school) since the 1960s.

Hence the purpose of my blog is to present my own perspective, which has been heavily influenced by many current conversations, on the objective nature of video games and how they can develop as an aesthetic medium.

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