Video Games: The Art of the Future

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There has been a certain social stigma against video games for as long as I can remember. Many people consider video games to be a lesser form of art and even more refuse to consider video games as an art form art at all. Of course, most of these people have either never seen a video game, or never played a video game and are only basing their conclusions off of viewing other people play games. What I’m saying now isn’t an opinion. Video games cannot and will not be denied the right to be considered a form of art. Wikipedia defines art as “a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory, or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power”. By this definition, which I would say is a pretty holistic definition, video games qualify as works of art without question. Yet, in our current society, video games are seen more as mind-numbing forms of entertainment meant to distract kids and sedate teenagers. It’s funny because there was a time when other forms of entertainment such as movies and comic books were considered distractors and sideshows that wouldn’t qualify as art. Over time, these mediums eventually became accepted into the prestigious world of high art, complete with their own prestigious awards and snooty critics. Art is about immersion, reflection, connection, and appreciation. How is admiring a landscape painting by Frederic Remington different from appreciating the painstakingly crafted digital atmosphere of the new God of War? Actually, there is a difference…the art presented in video games is more immersive and advanced in regards to interactivity than many other mediums. That’s why I believe video games are not only a rich medium of art but also the medium of the future. There are more and more people buying and playing games each year, and I believe that as time goes on, public perception will change about video games and they will join the pantheon of high art. There are, however, some roadblocks that need addressing that will hinder the progress of games becoming recognized by the general populace as art. I’ll touch on these as we move along assessing what makes video games so incredible as artworks.

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The first thing to recognize is that like movies, video games are an amalgamation of multiple mediums. Just like a movie has music, acting, cinematography, set design, and much more, video games have writing, music, voice acting, motion capture work, digitally rendered environments, interactive gameplay, and much much more. A game like Cuphead has beautiful animation and an incredible big band score. Games like The Witcher series, Uncharted, and Horizon: Zero Dawn are praised for their gorgeous visuals and environments. If you’ve ever seen a collection of cutscenes in video games, you’d see how cinematic they truly are. I’ve seen some counterarguments stating that the things surrounding the video game such as art design, visuals, and music are components that could be considered art, but the gameplay and the full product itself can’t be considered art, but quite frankly that’s ridiculous. When you play a game, the immersion depends upon whether or not the decisions of the player are accurately translated by the game. Multiple people dedicate time to making sure the movements of the game avatar precisely match the commands given by the gamer. There has to be a flow to the gameplay, effectively serving as an extension of the gamer’s own being. A game with bad gameplay is like a poorly made sculpture. In a game, you not only soak in the music, visuals, story, acting, and dialogue, you also soak in the gameplay. Another reason that the full product of a game is art, is the underlying primary objective of any work of art. The elements of any medium, be it visual or aural or sensory, is to tell a story.

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Everything a video game does is to tell a story. It can be a tale of adventure and excitement, fire and fury, survival and horror, etc. Everything, including multiplayer games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, requires a narrative that can either be told by the creators of the game or presented as a blank canvas to the player to create their own stories. When it comes to the traditional linear narrative, video games happen to have some of the best contemporary works of our time. The Halo series crafted an expansive epic filled with additional literature and lore that mirror the literary works of Tolkien. Games like The Last of Us take the player on an emotional journey where they grow with the characters. And my personal favorite game, BioShock, is a reflection of the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand.

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Like I said, there is that special factor to games that makes it the art of the future: immersion. A video game is controlled by the player, therefore the direction the narrative takes is determined by the player, or at the very least the connection that between the player and the narrative runs deeper than other forms of art. If you think about a game like Halo, there’s a silent protagonist, the Master Chief, that is always behind a suit of armor so that the player can project themselves into the game as that character. The Master Chief is given little development so that the player feels like they are him when they go through the events of the game. When you watch a movie, you see the protagonist overcome the challenges, but in a game, you overcome the challenges yourself. You earn the moments by overcoming the challenge. You don’t just remember passively being there, you remember the experience of you doing those things. Challenge and immersion are the golden tools from which a game gets its power. Players want to feel more immersed in the game, they want to feel the intensity. A video game with no challenge can be bland, repetitive, and uninteresting. A challenging game like Dark Souls gets a player’s heart rate up and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they achieve victory. To add to the immersion factor of games, choice can often be a key component of a game. Role-playing-games like Skyrim present the player with a whole world to explore and engage in storylines on their own and at their own pace. In Mass Effect, how you talk to a character determines your relationship with them throughout the game. Because of these interactive games, the experience is different each time. Characters can change and adapt to how you play, and the story adapts to the choices you make. In this way, games are adapting pieces of reality and embedding them into their art more so than other mediums. Entire worlds can be built in games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet.  Art often mirrors reality, and games are becoming more and more like real life. With the advent of virtual reality, video games will only continue to become more life-like. Through this increased immersion, video games are transcending other mediums and doing things that no other mediums can do.

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This renaissance of gaming and its movement towards greater recognition should continue to develop as long as story and immersion continue to shine over the commercial aspects of games. As long as games are treated like works of art by their distributors, and not capitalized by shady monetary tactics, then games should be well on their way to high art status. Unfortunately, companies like EA are treating the consumers like dirt and commercializing the art of gaming by introducing said shady tactics. These tactics came in the form of in-game microtransactions. Microtransactions were originally used in free to play and mobile games as a way for them to make money, but of course AAA game developers thought why not add them to $60 games. High priced DLC (downloadable content) already served as a way to get extra money from consumers, and with games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront the $60 product ended up being completely bare bones and unfinished in every way while the $50 season pass was marketed front and center. Microtransactions were an added bonus for games to make more money, and for good reason. Microtransactions make video game companies massive amounts of money, sometimes even more than digital sales for the games. The biggest form of microtransactions is randomized loot boxes. This means that players can purchase in-game content that is given completely at random. So you might be asking, what’s the big deal? So what if games have microtransactions it’s not like the gamer has to buy them? It’s not like not buying them affects your ability to play the game right? Well, that’s where the controversy lies. In some games, microtransactions are just annoying. It used to be that you had to unlock certain things in a game like more playable characters or skins. It felt like an accomplishment to get more in-game content. Now, everything is randomized, so even if you get a thousand loot boxes, you may still not get the content you actually want. In games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II, however, loot boxes are tied to progression, and purchasing microtransactions in the game allows you to unlock content much faster than people who don’t (for example, you can buy a hero for $10 or spend 40 hours unlocking them). Another unfortunate fact is that microtransactions are nearly in every major game, from Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty, to even single player titles like Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Microtransactions are something that the gaming community may just have to live with for some time.

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The ever-expanding world of video games is facing some of its biggest challenges while it brings in an increasing audience. Companies like Activision and EA have prioritized earning money over providing a quality product and treating their customers with respect. The harmful strategies of these companies do not have to be the norm in the gaming industry. As long as games like God of War, Cuphead, and Dark Souls continue to be made, the high art that is video games should triumph over corporate greed. I know I got off on a bit of a tangent with the microtransactions rant, but the truth is that video games are very near and dear to my heart. Video games inspire me to soak in new worlds, learn new music, and engage in new and interesting narratives. The beauty of video games is under attack by these corporate models, and so I wanted to highlight the issue facing the industry as it continues to gain more recognition.

 

Cuphead Review

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What can I say about Cuphead? Cuphead is a “run and gun indie video game” developed by StudioMDHR for the PC and Xbox One. Cuphead is incredibly fun, filled with beautiful colors and incredible music. It’s also INSANELY HARD. That’s right, Cuphead, disguised as an innocent little kids’ game is a harbinger of doom and frustration the likes of which has never been seen in any recent game I’ve played including the Dark Souls games.  It’s a game with very little room for error and no healing mechanics. Throughout my experience with the game, I found so many things that I absolutely adored and equally as many things that I absolutely hated. Its frustrations stem from its difficulty and in-game animations that cause problems during gameplay. There’s one more thing, I SUCK AT CUPHEAD. I’ve always been terrible at 2-D side-scrollers so I knew the game wouldn’t be a park, but I just had to play it after seeing all the hype and the comparisons to my beloved Dark Souls games. I’ll do my best to properly break down all of the aspects of the game, I can’t promise I won’t either gush about what I love or rage about what I hate about the game. Consider this an unbalanced emotional review about a game that evokes within me emotions on both sides of the spectrum.

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The story follows Cuphead and his pal Mugman who are both apparently living tableware. They gamble at the Devil’s Casino and lose their souls to the Devil. In an effort to save their souls, Cuphead and Mugman strike a deal with the Devil to collect the souls of other deviants running from the Devil. These deviants makeup the 19 bosses on Inkwell Island who Cuphead must take down. Inkwell Island acts as a hub world for the game, where Cuphead can move around freely and interact with the various playable missions. The player can either collect the debts owed to the Devil by fighting the bosses or playing “Run-and-Gun” levels where they move through obstacles and fight multiple enemies in order to collect gold coins and buy more weapons and abilities.

 

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Cuphead’s visual style feels right out of a 1930’s cartoon.

 

The uniqueness of Cuphead is due to its visual and musical style paying homage to 1930’s animation. It’s obvious that the creators were heavily influenced by early Walt Disney animations like Steamboat Willie, and they executed their vision perfectly. The overall animation is flawless. All of the movements of the characters are seamless and if someone were to watch gameplay footage they might think they were actually watching an animation from the 1930’s. The screen is always filled with color, the visual flair of Cuphead makes it a spectacle of a game that is not only entertaining to play but also to watch. Accompanying the brilliant animation is the music, the other half of the aesthetic whole. Cuphead’s soundtrack, composed by Kristofer Maddigan, features original jazz, big band, and ragtime music that resembles the works of Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. As a jazz musician who’s played a couple big band gigs, I can genuinely say that the charts here are spectacular. Every instrument has an audible and distinct sound and the selection of instruments vary from tune to tune. The tunes themselves range from whimsical calliope/circus-like to lightning fast swing or bebop tracks. In the boss battles, jazz has never sounded so intense, the upswing tempos and shredding saxophones create a frenzied pace as you desperately try to dodge a barrage of attacks. The ragtime and waltz-like pieces in Inkwell Island connect well with the movement and give you a nice change of pace from the intense action.

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Speaking of the intense action, Cuphead tries to crush you with it. The difficulty, in my opinion, is through the roof. I say this having played through all three of the Dark Souls games multiple times. By the way, this game has drawn a lot of comparisons to Dark Souls in terms of difficulty so I won’t hesitate in drawing them myself. As I’ve said, Cuphead is way harder than anything from Dark Souls, and the reason why is because Dark Souls gives the player a lot more control. It is an RPG you have the freedom to move around, explore, run away, gain distance from enemies, and dodge attacks in three dimensions. If you’re having trouble with a boss, you can upgrade your weapons and buy armor and level up stats until you can face the boss on a better playing field. In Cuphead, your movement is usually limited to the area that is on the screen, half of which is usually taken up by bosses. This gives you little room for movement or error, forcing you into corners and platforms and giving you mere inches of space to dodge multiple projectile attacks. There is no leveling up, and you can only choose from six abilities and six weapons. Oh, and by the way, you can only take three hits before you die. Considering that each level features about twenty thousand projectiles flying at you every second, I’d say three hits means little breathing room for the player.

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There are several aerial boss fights using a bi-plane.

To beat an especially hard boss, sometimes you just have to be perfect. Your dodging and firing have to be exact and you need to anticipate the attacks before they come and be in a position to exploit them; Only then do you feel like a badass when you beat the bosses. Often times the difficulty is so frustrating you end up following a side-scrolling platforming version of “spraying and praying” which hurts the game just a bit. In Dark Souls, when I beat a really difficult boss I always feel this moment of overwhelming relief and joy. But because sometimes I’m just randomly firing at the bosses and hoping for them to die, I don’t feel as powerful or overjoyed as I was beating bosses in Dark Souls. Instead, I’m more relieved that the Cuphead bosses are done. Some of the difficulty issues stem from the in-game mechanics. The button to shoot on the Xbox One is X, but the button to jump is A, which is right next to X. It’s not a major hindrance, but it does take some getting used to since the buttons are so close together. The right analog stick not being used is another issue of gameplay. In order to aim, you have to hold down the RB button to lock the character in place while you shoot. This could easily be avoided by having the right analog stick to aim and RB or RT to shoot instead of X. Another issue is that sometimes the space is so small that you feel you are getting hitboxes in places where you shouldn’t. The animation, though very fluid especially with the bosses, can sometimes obscure important set pieces needed to defeat the bosses. I find myself getting hit for no reason until I notice small little projectiles almost completely blended into the background. Yet another issue, is that the backgrounds, though visually interesting, can sometimes interfere with the platforming. In at least three different boss fights, the platforms on which I had to stay on where lightly colored and melding into the light background. This would often be a frustration when I would jump to what I thought was a platform but was actually nothing, causing me to take a hit.

 

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Aiming requires standing still.

 

Despite the faults with some of the aspects of the gameplay, I still have to chalk up a lot of the difficulty to the fact that I suck at the game. All art is subjective, and when it comes to something that is complicated to figure out, whether it’s an intricate thriller film or a hard video game, peoples’ subjective views on what they see will often be affected by the obstacles that they faced in understanding the experience. I know some people who think Dark Souls is the greatest thing ever (me) and others who think it’s a terribly clunky game series with unnecessary difficulty. The experience of a game will be affected by the player’s ability to play through the game. Dark Souls is not for everyone, and neither is Cuphead. That being said, I still think Cuphead is a fantastic game. Aside from the few frustrating difficulty and gameplay issues, the game is wildly entertaining and a joy to look at. It’s a near flawless product if you consider sound design, graphics, story, pacing, etc. Being a big fan of early swing and jazz music, and early cinema and animation (I love Tom & Jerry), the style and aesthetic of Cuphead clicked with me more than anything else in the game. If you’re a fan of arcade-style games and aren’t afraid to die a few times (or a lot), then I would definitely recommend checking out Cuphead. Especially considering its price of $20, the game is a steal.

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