The Smithsonian recently unveiled a new exhibit called “The Art of Video Games,” a showcase for how video games have changed over the decades. More specifically, it’s basically an exhibit to show how detailed games have gotten when you kill an enemy, from the random red-tinted blocks of yesteryear to today’s blood-soaked fountain of random body parts.
Of course, it’s not without controversy. In some ways it harkens back to Roger Ebert (yes, the movie critic guy) claiming that video games could never be an art form—sure, the actual stills and graphics were art, but taken as a whole the entirety of the piece, with the intent of the game and the necessary interaction—would never be on par with, say, movies or television as art. Of course, this touched off a firestorm of art critics from everyone who claims that only paintings of actual things from 300 years ago are art to people who claim walking through the living room to get a cup of coffee is a “performance piece” and therefore subject to a massive low-oversight government grant. I tend to stay away from such arguments not because I don’t have opinions but because a lot of artists know pot dealers who are willing to cut a guy for money.
Still, for those of us who grew up with video games, it’s a hard sell to consider the art of video games particularly notable. The earliest art in games in the arcade weren’t bad, of course, but then again it often involved plumbers jumping over flaming barrels to hit a monkey with a hammer, so we’re kind of looking at a low threshold of quality. But a lot of us didn’t grow up with arcade games; rather, we cut out teeth on simple, 8-bit consoles such as Atari. And while the games were very fun and quite innovative for their time, they also were not much more than “move this square over to this other rectangle without touching any of the flickering slightly-differently-colored plus symbols and when you hear a BOOOOP that means you get one point. First one to three wins.”
Things got a little better with the personal computer, which rose in prominence only a few years after the original video games consoles. While PCs were more for “productivity,” everyone knew this was a grand lie—you used PCs to spend ten minutes balancing your checkbook and six hours playing some things where you moved a guy that looked like a guy through a castle trying to avoid crocodiles that looked like crocodiles and not green squares that occasionally grew a white square to represent teeth. And actual music that didn’t sound like simply randomly pushing buttons on your touch tone phone was also included. With much more processing power, PCs could have games that simply weren’t repetitive score-building exercises in futility, but full stories that while still mostly ridiculous at least made some sort of sense. Things were still sketchy—many early games could only handle four colors, and there was an awful lot of blocky pixels that were supposed to represent something normal—but for the most part it was a vast improvement on the weirdness that preceded it. (Thanks for the trip anyway, Japan.)
After the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the late 80’s, it was simply a matter of progression. Obviously art and graphics got a lot better, but by this time there was no mistaking that you were stomping on creepy walking mushrooms or fighting against a robot with lasers. (Although you still couldn’t tell that Metroid was a chick. Oh, spoiler alert.) At that point, it was all a matter of how awesome spaceships could rotate or how big you could make Lara Croft’s (or, for you hardcore fans, Tifa’s) boobs before they started to look more like genetically altered misshapen watermelons instead of just really huge funbags. Making a racecar look like a racecar was no longer the challenge—increasing the pixel rate of the fiery crash is what mattered now.
And, of course, that’s when the art moved from the actual representation of what you saw on the screen to the storyline. You didn’t need a huge backstory to understand why you were in a spaceship blowing up other spaceships when that’s all you were doing. But as the shoot-em-up arcade games went out of favor and other genres took their place—adventure, RPG, massive side-scrolling space operas—the story became just as important (although—again, thanks Japan!—these storylines could be just as absurd as ghosts chasing a pill-popping yellow pizza around a maddeningly inefficient maze). And this is where a lot of enthusiasts part ways—are interactive stories the same as their movie counterparts, or does the viewer’s input irrevocably convert a story into a game?
Quite frankly, I don’t think it matters. While I am sure there is some academic utility in examining the evolution of art in video games, we all know it’s more or less an excuse for nostalgia fans to play the games they played when they were kids. Also: the Japanese are kinda creepy.