Every art medium changes with time. From the novel to portraiture to video games, each different creative form chronicles a complex journey where the modern day equivalents hardly resemble the first forays into the medium. It is certainly no secret that video games have grown from the seeds of 8-bit into complex worlds with compelling characters and stories. At some point, they transcended being a diversion and became a storytelling device that had just as much emotional impact on players as movies and books have to their consumers. From the graphics to the storytelling, video games have brought art to a whole new level with interaction and immersion. Since its conception, gaming has evolved similarly to more traditional art forms.
As we have already started to see from some indie developers, video game storylines, mechanics and graphics are not only becoming more true to life, but also starting to transcend simple storytelling. Exploring new graphics and new ways to “recreate” gaming seem to be the newest industry trend. Looking forward, we have only slightest idea where games will head but with expanding technologies the room that creators have to play with is growing. No matter the future direction of videogames, they easily deserve to be thought of as artistic. So grab a seat, strap yourself in and enjoy the ride as we take a look into the art history of video games.
Just like the cavemen, the first creators of games had very few artistic tools. The early history of drawing utilized dirt or charcoal mixed with spit or animal fat. This was used to create simple lines and hand tracings to create the first art. Video games went down a similar path,using only a few pixels to create lines and dots. “Pong,” arguably the first game, portrays the beginning of the gaming world. Just like the cave paintings, we have no context for these first games and can only speculate to what the story is behind the screen.
It’s hard not to see the similarities between hieroglyphs and the in-game art of early Nintendo and late Atari games. Both relay their messages via basic forms and figures to tell their stories. This is when plot just started to enter video games — we weren’t in the arcade anymore. Of course, the stories weren’t Oscar-worthy dramas quite yet — they primarily relied on typical tropes (i.e. Mario’s save the princess) or rehashed the plotlines of movies (i.e. the infamous E.T. game that nearly killed the burgeoning home game industry). These games, however, became some of the most iconic games of all time as they introduced beloved characters like Link, Mario and many others.
This third era of gaming art began the journey of 3D, similar to how perspective was first seen in Medieval art pieces. The release of Xbox and PlayStation allowed for greater and greater computations — introducing the ability to see games in three dimensions for the first time. Stories became more in depth as the graphics started to show depth. Games like “Jak and Daxter,” “Ratchet and Clank” and others immersed gamers in their environments. This era also ushered in MMOs like “World of Warcraft” and “Everquest” which became immensely popular.
The Renaissance is often touted as one of the most intellectual time periods in history. The great Renaissance Man was one that had mastered both the sciences and the arts. What is gaming if not the melting together of science and art? By the mid-2000s, games started to epitomize their artistic realism and explore increasingly in-depth environments. Visually, characters started to look like real people and less like cartoons. Mechanically, characters could not only move in 3-D like before, but could interact with almost any object. NPCs began to move, and games became fully fleshed-out fantasy worlds.
Like Da Vinci and Michelangelo, all movements of art had their leaders and forerunners and its no different for video games. Naughty Dog, Blizzard and Valve are some of the great of commanders of the video game industry. “The Last of Us,” developed by Naughty Dog, not only explored the visual mind but also pulled on our heartstrings. These graphics are not only some of the most scenic views we have seen yet but the story puts us in tears.
Few games, however, can hold an artistic candle to Valve’s “Portal” series. The innovative combination of strategy and first-person shooter, along with the eerie setting, in depth story and fleshed out characters, melds perfectly to create one of the more iconic modern games without relying on typical tropes.
There are many games that fulfill our definition of artistic in this era of gaming — an era that is just coming to a close. Both triple-A games like “Mass Effect,” “Dark Souls” and “Half Life,” and independent games such as “Papers Please,” “Ori and the Blind Forest” and “Never Alone” have amazing emotional impact on players. This impact hopefully will only grow as gaming does.
As we move onto the future of videogames the styles of art will become more drastic. It’s starting to happen now with indie developers taking unique choices to make the game great. Will we see a Van Gogh? The next Andy Warhol? Only time will tell, but one thing’s for certain: video games have developed a brand new visual field of art.