Video games are a viable artistic medium, capable of presenting both superficial beauty and deep commentary. Here are 10 video games that can be considered, for various reasons, works of art.
Bioshock not only stands out as one of the best games I've played this year, but as an artistic double-whammy. On the purely aesthetic side, Bioshock presents incredibly beautiful art deco architecture and sublimely hideous character design. On the literary side, director Ken Levine presents a clever and insightful interpretation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, asking how the Objectivist writer's novel would have played out if the characters were not nigh-infallible paragons. The game also presents many interesting questions about choice and humanity, though any further details would spoil the plot.
Artistic relevance: Objectivist commentary and interpretation, art deco aesthetics
Related artists: Ayn Rand, Hector Guimard
This pair of games from Fumito Ueda not only showed us just what the PlayStation 2 could do graphically, but how video games can convey emotion and solitude. Both adventures drop the player into empty, mysterious worlds with few friends and an almost overwhelming sense of mystery. The visual design and curiously quiet narrative of both titles are simply brilliant, and evoke powerful emotions in players without actually saying much. Whether the game throws a confused princess or a massive giant at you, it's hard not to react from the heart.
Artistic relevance: Romantic heroes struggle with futility and near-isolation in beautiful, sparse settings.
Related artists: Lord Byron, Francisco Goya
Clover Studios' PlayStation 2 opus uses traditional art to drive both its gameplay and aesthetics. The game's visual style is influenced heavily on Japanese Sumi-e, while its story is based largely on Japanese mythology. Both the art form and mythos affect how you play the game, to the point that most puzzles require the player to actively "paint" with the brush of a Shinto god. The end result is an utterly Japanese game that players from all cultures can dive into and appreciate both as entertainment and art.
Artistic relevance: Incorporates both traditional Japanese art and mythology into a universally accessible package.
Related artists: Sesshu Toyo, Shubun
Former Lucasarts developer Tim Schafer forced players to literally explore some very disturbed minds in Psychonauts. With a cartoony, over-the-top style and lovable-but-ridiculous character design, this story of a boy at a psychic summer camp runs through legions of aesthetic changes. Every mind you explore looks and feels vastly different, with every little detail representing facets of the subject's mind. The only visual consistency is that Psychonauts looks amazing from beginning to end, with nary a bonfire, hedge, or giant fish monster wasted.
Artistic relevance: A cartoony but varied and surprisingly complex exploration of the psyche.
Related figures: Carl Jung, Tim Burton
Plenty of simulation and strategy games let you play God, but very few actually make you feel like a god. Peter Molyneux's Black and White series turns you into a nearly all-powerful deity who must deal with the nagging question of good versus evil. Do you treat your worshipers and pets well and rule as a benign god, or will you smite the disappointing with vengeful strokes not seen since Leviticus? Beyond that, forcing you to directly deal with followers begs the question of whether gods exist for their man, or men exist for gods. Black and White asks these questions, and forces you to decide whether right or wrong, responsible or irresponsible, are right for you.
Artistic relevance: Explores the morality of playing God.
Related artists: Hieronymus Bosch, Arthur C. Clarke
American McGee hasn't had the best luck with games lately, considering the abysmal reception his Bad Day LA met. Back in 2000, though, Mr. McGee made waves with Alice, a direct but twisted sequel to Lewis Carroll's novels. The gameplay itself suffered from a variety of balance and variety issues, but the artistic direction was exquisite. The nightmarish, detailed levels felt like looking at Through the Looking Glass through a looking glass, and gave a wonderfully insane picture of what happens when Wonderland goes very, very bad.
Artistic relevance: An exploration and expansion of Alice in Wonderland. Related artists: Lewis Carroll, Salvador Dali
Plots in the Metal Gear Solid series can range from the intriguing to the utterly insane, but they always tell a carefully crafted, layered story. On the surface, the world of Solid Snake and his compatriots is filled with nuclear robots and plot twists. Underneath that surface, however, sits series creator Hideo Kojima's philosophies of war, humanity, and identity. Every ally, every enemy, and every Snake have a narrative purpose in the games.
Artistic relevance: Looks at the issues of war, duty, humanity, and identity, and poses the questions of those different factors conflicting.
Related figures: Franz Kafka, Carl von Clausewitz
Most musical games simply make you play along with the songs, whether it's tapping fret buttons in Guitar Hero or jumping on a mat in Dance Dance Revolution.Rez, on the other hand, places you inside the music, into a surreal, rave-like rail shooter in which rhythm and beat influence both the game's score and your own. This juxtaposition of action and audio can get your toes tapping while your own fingers set the beat.
Artistic relevance: Combines music with gameplay to produce an interactive experience where sound is as important as sight.
Related artists: Underworld, Kraftwerk
On its surface, the upcoming 360 title Eternal Sonata looks like another cookie-cutter Japanese RPG. However, while most JRPGs take place in fantastical-but-generic worlds, this game takes place inside the head of Frederic Chopin just hours before his death from tuberculosis. While Rez makes music part of the gameplay, Eternal Sonata (Trusty Bell: Chopin's Dream in Japan) makes music part of the story. By putting musical concepts into a medium that can be seen and read by the nonmusical, it makes the Polish poet of the piano accessible to a much wider audience.
Artistic relevance: A look at Chopin's work from the metaphorical perspective of the last few hours of his life.
Related artists: Frederic Chopin, George Sand
It takes an obscure, decades-old Japanese-only Famicom (NES) title to get this absurd. Designed by Japanese comedian-turned-actor/director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano as "a video game by a guy who hates video games," this strange title intentionally broke almost every major game convention at the time. Between having to kill a boss with 20,000 individual hits and having to put the controller down for an hour without touching it, this game makes a statement with just how unplayable it is. It's meta-art, making a commentary about the medium itself. This sort of game is best appreciated from afar; I wouldn't recommend actually trying to play it.
Artistic relevance: Dadaism, pop art
Related artists: Andy Warhol, Mark Divo