In a massive step for the credibility of the industry the Museum of Modern Art in New York has followed up the Smithsonian Exhibit on video games by acquiring fourteen titles that will form the ‘seedbed’ for a collection that will ultimately number forty. Being the geeks we are we’ve got ten suggestions for other games that should form part of the collection.
For this list we considered more than games that had an artistic presentation, since the quality of the brushstrokes is not all that define a painting. We’ve cast our gaze wider to consider games that present unique and innovative interactive experiences, as that is the defining quality that separates video games out from other forms of artistic entertainment.
#10 – Fallout 3/Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
These two games have been bundled together on this list because they differ mostly in aesthetics and themes. Both developed by Bethesda Studios using the same gaming engine they drop the playing smack bang into the middle of an epic world. Fallout 3 takes place in post-apocalyptic America following a nuclear holocaust that occurred during the 1950s and Skyrim takes place in a fantasy world populated by dragons and wizards. Whatever flavour you choose the artistic merit of the games lies in the detail. Each world is remarkably build with everything from wide sweeping landscapes to hundreds of books available for the player to pick up and read.
Every person who plays the games will have a different experience depending on their attitude in taking on their fictional role. They might be stealthy or favour heavy armaments, magic or sniper rifles. You make friends and meet companions, even finding a pet dog. Whatever way the player wants to go into the world it’s impossible not to appreciate the work that has gone into these virtual landscapes.
#9 – Flower
If you have a Playstation 3 and a high end TV you owe it to yourself to play Flower because few things will give you the opportunity to show off the technology you’ve dropped all that cash on. It’s a simple game that miraculously makes good use of the PS3 motion controls. By tilting the controller you control the movement of a gust of wind as it gathers up flower petals and uses them to spread the growth of grass and flowers across the landscape. With the most taxing problem you’ll face being a couple of wind tunnels through valleys that wonderfully speed you along you’re in for a relaxing time helping nature reclaim the Earth.
#8 – Bastion
Bastion turned up the online gaming marketplace a couple of years ago and more recently on iOS, so there’s no reason why you can’t check it out. Bastion begins with the player waking up and finding that the world is gone and the small piece of land surrounding him is all that is left floating in a void. As you move the player around the ground appears underneath his feet, which is a nice artistic effect. But with so much competition for this list you’d need more than that to make the cut. Bastion also features a particular interesting story telling dynamic where a grizzled yet honey-tongued narrator reads the story as you’re playing it, changing up the dialogue as the player changes their actions. It gives the player the sense that they’re more involved in a classic fable than simply steering an avatar through a virtual landscape.
#7 – Batman: Arkham City
Before everyone gets bent out of shape about a ‘mainstream’ game being listed, consider what defines a piece of art. Few people would deny that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight could be considered to be art as it depicts the traditional conflict between good and evil while drawing upon different philosophies. The Joker represents anarchy, Batman symbolises control and Harvey Dent symbolises hope, and the three are thrown into a war against each other. Arkham City is no different, presenting players with an extreme social situation in which a range of dangerous and deranged characters are left to their own devices in an enclosed eco-system. Each creates their own niche that feeds of the others until Batman, the wild card, enters the environment only to be manipulated by the world he can’t control.
#6 – Prince of Persia
This would be a perfect example of design over presentation if it didn’t also revolutionize video games graphics. Although many players were initially put off by the repetitive and bland looking environments (the game initially flopped in North America) others discovered that the game featured some of the most remarkable puzzles in the annuls of video games, many of which only occurred once in the game like the skeleton warrior, the mirror and the mouse puzzles. The fluid animation of the character came about when the developer and designer used photographs of his brother as a visual reference giving it was at the time an unseen level of realism.
#5 – Bioshock
Bioshock has plenty going for it in the artistic stakes. It looks fantastic and has an amazing steampunk design to it’s underwater utopia that has descended into chaos, with the Big Daddy’s rapidly becoming one of the most iconic images in modern gaming. There’s also the philosophies that drive the primary characters that reflects the work of Ayn Rand and draws the viewer in an examination of the nature and folly of man. What really puts it on a pedestal, however, is the manipulation of the player through the interactive medium. As most people will know by now everyone reaches a point on the game where they learn that they have been manipulated. When the penny drops that whenever you were asked if you would kindly complete a task you’d been involuntarily carrying out the will of a madman whether you like it or not is a remarkable moment in modern gaming.
#4 – Ōkami
Okami turned up very late in the PS2 era, overlapping with the release of the PS3 resulting in poor sales despite the massive critical acclaim. Set in a mix of historical and mythological Japan players took control of Amaterasu, a goddess in the form of a white wolf. In this form you embark on a pretty standard video game adventure with a couple of very impressive artistic tweaks. Okami stands as one of the only games that used cell shading and made it look awesome. In addition players has use of the Celestial Paintbrush that they could use to draw on the screen to create bridges and ledges as well painting cuts and wounds on your enemies. Easily a work of art.
#3 – Braid
If you haven’t played Braid by this point then you’ve no doubt heard about the ending. If you haven’t heard about the ending then stop what you’re doing and go and play it right now. Seriously, right now. Braid is a rare game that combines parody with artistic presentation, innovative gameplay and mind-boggling good story telling. For most of the game you’re just Tim, a dandy looking chap who is searching for his lost princess in a magical fairy land complete with dragons, turtles and castles. The references to the Mario Bros series is pretty clear and despite the saccharine colour palette the satire is biting. Tim has the ability to rewind time at a whim leading to some downright ingenious puzzles. When the player finds themselves in levels where time is already running backwards and some enemies and objects are immune to Tim’s time manipulation their minds will be twisted into a pretzel trying to solve them. When you manage to make it to the end you are confronted with the shocking realization that the princess was not being rescued by Tim but is fleeing from him and time was running in reverse. Minds blown. And then there’s the odd Easter egg that implies everything is an allegory for the Manhattan Project.
#2 – Shadow of the Colossus
Some of the games listed here put their focus on the story whilst others are more about artistic presentation. In Shadow of the Colossus the two are so woven together that you couldn’t separate them out without the jaws of life. The wordless protagonist arrives in a deserted landscape carrying a dead girl and proceeds to hunt and slay the Colussi. Very much is left unsaid. Each successful killing sees a stream of dark matter leech into the heroes body leaving him looking more twisted and another humanoid spirit haunting him. What the Colussi really are is also unclear as most of them don’t seem hostile until attacked. The enormous creatures are all brilliantly designed and always manage to intimidate when they come lumbering after you, big enough for vegetation to grow on them and block out the sun. The gameplay mechanics blend together platforming, puzzles and action by challenging gamers to find a way to climb the beasts, clutching onto their hide as they try and fling you off with the ground hazy in the distance below you. Every moment of these epic battles are spectacular and it remains one of the best gaming experiences ever created.
#1 – Journey
Speaking of games that don’t give much away…
Journey begins with the player controlling a hooded figure alone in the desert, the only indication of a goal is a mountain in the distance. With nothing else to do you start your journey. Before long the (amazingly rendered) desert gives way to some scattered ruins and some puzzles to solve through experimentation and instinct. Over the course of a few hours you encounter different environments, each unique but with a great sense of continuity. You’ll get a sense of what is happening and what your role is while developing the ability to float across the landscape. The part of the game that really stuck with people was the multiplayer element. Eventually you’ll see another figure in the distance. You might ignore them or head over, but you’ll realize that you can’t communicate outside of a whistling sound. Without knowing anything about this other human player or being able to communicate in a straight forward manner you may find that you feel very close to this other person as you share the journey, whether in part or through to the end. It’s downright amazing that sound a simple dynamic can produce such an involved experience.
The game is stunning looking and the ethereal way your character drifts across the landscape between landmarks is mesmerizing. With only a few hours between the desert and the summit the game is best experienced in one sitting. Whether you choose to team up with another random player to journey together or occasionally cross paths with another, you’ll still find it a unique and strangely fulfilling game.
No doubt you were expecting to see a few other games turn up on this list – the final ten is vastly different to the original shortlist. It’s a positive sign that there’s so many great games that would qualify for this article, so go ahead and suggest some more in the comments!