Sunday, September 23, 2012

Video Games as an Art Form, Part 2: The 80's

The 1980's is sometimes called the Golden Age of video games, and though I personally disagree, there is some truth to this term. The 80's was a time of great innovation. Many new genres ranging from Action RPG to Real Time Strategy arose in this period, the home computer market took off, and the Nintendo Entertainment System was released. But there was a much more important change in video games that took place during this period. They became an art form, and perhaps more importantly, a unique one.

And yet another anime image for this series about video games.

     For the purposes of explanation, I will focus on platformer games (which first started appearing around this time) and how they can be "art." To begin, let me show you a little Youtube video called "Go Right."

    If you watch that video enough times, the act of running right almost invariably starts symbolizing the journey through life. In case you didn't, though, "There may be tough things in life, but you can't run away. You have to face them head on and charge through them." is the most obvious take away of the video. It does so using only visuals and music, no words or dialogue. Movies can do that too, and probably better, but the point is, video games can too. Now, this video is not a video game, of course. But it still highlights a lot of the things games can do. They have visuals and audio, and can use them just as artistically as most other media. And it was only in the 80's that this really started becoming a possibility. The NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis all came out in this decade, and the hardware upgrades they brought were one of the catalysts for all the ingenuity the time period saw. Thanks to these upgrades, striking new accomplishments became possible. We got things like isometric shooters, strategy games, graphical adventure games and visual novels, rail shooters, and so much more.

     But now you're probably saying, "Yeah sure, in the 80's video games could appeal to my ears and eyes. That's great. Other media can do that too though, and better, so why the heck should I care? This isn't unique." And to show you how it is, I want to share with you another video, a special kind of review of Mega Man X by Egoraptor. (Probably NSFW, due to strong language.)

     While I recommend you watch all of that video, if only for context (though Egoraptor also makes a lot of the same points I do), the part I want to focus on starts around 14:40. See, he illustrates the point I'm trying to make here infinitely better than I could using only text and hypothetical examples (which is why I chose to include this video). When we play games, the things happening on screen can sometimes go beyond that; they can happen to us, the players. A great example of this is horror games. With horror games, we are experiencing the fear. The zombie attacks/lovecraftian mental breakdowns/whatever are happening to us through our in game avatar. We control the movements, we control the progression, we make the choices of where to go. Compare this to a horror movie or book where the scary things are happening to characters. We can be scared for the characters, but the fear isn't happening to us, it's happening to them. We're just on the outside looking in. It can't really compare to the experience video games give us. While I'm not trying to say that this makes video games a better art form, since they do have some unique limitations, I am trying to say that it makes them a unique one. Video games, unlike every other form of media that comes to mind when someone says "art," are an interactive art form. That's what makes video games special, and that's what first took off in the 80's: the art of interactivity.

     If you watched that whole Sequelitis video, you probably already have an idea of what I'm talking about. Video games don't just communicate their stories using words and dialogue and images. They also communicate stories with their gameplay. Take the message of that Go Right video again (which I assume you watched). Let's pretend it's a game with the same message. The difference is that the message isn't to everybody, it's to you. You experienced the need to continue advancing. Let that just sink in for a moment. You experience the narrative that a game's interactivity tells. If this all seems a little too abstract to you, though, let's take a look at a more hands-on example. For a game...well, what better than Fallout? As I mentioned in my review of it, nearly everything in that game adds to your immersion. How you interact with the game - from not being able to see full areas at once (meaning you have to explore) to the sometimes clunky menus to the unpredictability of the combat - expertly tells the story of what a life can be like in the grim, radioactive wastes of the apocalypse, where mutants and raiders rule and life exists on the borrowed (and degrading) technology of the past. I would call Fallout an "experience" without reservation (despite how much utterly nerdy it would be) because that's what it is. When you play Fallout, you're experiencing a post-apocalyptic world.

     Tying all this back into the topic of this project (the evolution of video games as an art form), this only kind of interactive storytelling only really became possible in the 80's, as I've been saying. A big part of why is what I was getting at with the first post in this series; it's because it was only in the 80's that video games starting taking a form that only video games could. No longer were games mere electronic adaptions of "real life" games, they became a type of entertainment that could only work as video games. The Platformer, RPGs, RTSs, and Hack and Slash games (to take but a few examples) were all types of games that could (and more importantly, did) use their interactivity to tell a story, and they only started appearing in this decade. It had taken them over 30 years, but video games had finally become an art form.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), in the following 20 years games would take a sharp turn to focus on different things. That, however, I leave for Part 3. Thanks for reading!

It's worth noting that Mega Man X is from the early 90's and not the 80's, but I feel the concepts discussed remain fairly applicable to all platformers.

Also, I should make this clear here: I am not suggesting that games told stories through interactivity in the 80's. I'm saying, that's when they first gained the ability, the potential, to do so. Remember, we're discussing games as an art form, here. I only break this up into different time periods because they encapsulate the potential of the art form as it evolved rather nicely.


  1. Interesting. I can certainly see how interactivity had begun playing a large role in this latter part of gaming era. To be able to "connect" with the character you're playing certainly does reinforce the emotions and anxiety when compared to just watching an ordinary film, feeling for the characters in third-person perspective. Felt like I'm copying your words but bottom line is, I agree with most of your points :D