In Half-Life, one of the best video games ever made, you are dropped straight into the action with little explanation. As the title of the game flashes in white over a black screen, you hear an announcement from a female voice: “Good morning, and welcome to the Black Mesa transit system.” You’re on a tram gliding through a sprawling underground facility, headed to God knows where. One of the things that makes the game work so well is the sense that you are jumping into a living, breathing world that existed long before your arrival.
That’s a bit how I feel about this new column: I’m nudging my way into a cacophonous conversation that has been going on for some time, unsure of exactly what adventures await (hopefully they will be less exciting than those of Half-Life protagonist Gordon Freeman, who shortly after his tram ride is forced to face wave after wave of transdimensional horrors).
The conversation I’m joining is a noisy one because gaming has become a formidable force in American culture and commerce. What was a nerdy subculture 30 years ago stands toe-to-toe with Hollywood today. Everyone has heard of Angry Birds; even the most tech-averse person can name some of the world’s top-selling video games.
There’s no shortage of coverage about video games, including plenty of dedicated magazines and blogs. The problem is that most of this coverage fits into a couple of well-worn categories: obsessive coverage of the biggest video game studios and releases or tired, uninformed debates about games “corrupting” those who play them.
What’s lacking is thoughtful conversation about how the latest games intersect with and transcend traditional notions of art; about whether they may be better at eliciting certain reactions than other, less interactive forms of representation; about what’s required for a game to qualify not only as art but as good art — art that even a nongamer can enjoy and find meaning in.
Even some of the biggest, most mainstream releases are showing signs of the thematic nuance and sophistication one would expect of a medium coming into its own. The first-person shooter Bioshock: Infinite, a recent release that will be a favorite for many 2013 game-of-the- year awards, deals with themes of religious zealotry, white supremacy, and founding-father worship — all in the first few minutes of play. If you want to treat Bioshock: Infinite as simply another excuse to mow down hordes of enemies with cool weapons, you can, but if you have the cultural and historical sense to fully grok the world 2K Games has created, the game is all the more enriching.
The most exciting, artful games, however, are generally being made by independent publishers — some of them established veterans who broke off from larger studios, others one-person efforts attempting to get projects funded on Kickstarter. Some upcoming indie games, like the two-dimensional side-scrolling (think of the style of Super Mario Bros.) action/adventure Shovel Knight, embrace retro aesthetics and gameplay mechanics while applying the occasional modern flourish. Others, like Boon Hill, provocatively push the boundary of what constitutes a game (in this case by offering a game that consists almost entirely of wandering around a graveyard, reading the epitaphs inscribed on its tombstones). As for games that have already come out, Braid and Limbo, two of my favorite indie offerings of recent years, both took the decades-old 2-D side-scroller format and imbued it with breathtaking atmosphere and heavy questions about relationships and the passage of time.
So just as you couldn’t fairly judge American cinema by looking only to offerings by Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, if you restrict your view of gaming to what the big studios are producing, you’re missing out on a lot.
Overall, this column’s goal is to explore — for gamer and nongamer alike — what’s worthwhile and interesting in video games from a cultural and artistic perspective. What does the current appetite for video games tell us about our society? Which developers are pushing at the frontier of the medium, creating unique, truly emotionally resonant games? And which are toying with gaming’s traditionally staid notions of narrative, perspective, and morality?
Given that video games are now a multibillion-dollar industry, given that multiple generations of American kids have now grown up with gaming sitting at the forefront of their leisure time, given that working in video game production is now as viable a career as any for some of the most talented young artists and designers in the world, it’s time for us to stop drawing a thick black line between video games and “real” culture. Games, like all other forms of contemporary art, reflect all of society’s most important debates, trends, and neuroses, and deserve a more thoughtful, nuanced discussion than they’ve received so far.
I hope you’ll join me in this conversation each week — feel free to reach out at the e-mail address below — and I look forward to exploring this exciting, rapidly evolving world together.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the upcoming game Shovel Knight.