How Video Games can be Perceived as an Art Form:
What makes a piece of media art? If you look at movies today you will find the medium cluttered with cash grabs, remakes, sequels, and adaptions that have little originality. Of course, many of these familiar movies are very much enjoyable and have a large amount of following. However, there are few movies today that attempt to do something original. Video Games are the same way. The reason gamers are looked upon with such unscholarly prejudice is perhaps because it is difficult to convince others that games can be a work of art with multiple interpretations and high symbolism. This is mostly due to the fact that there are few games in the industry that can be considered art. There are very few titles in the gaming industry that can be interpreted as an expression of the creator, Undertale is one of these games.
Video Games have had some harsh criticism over the years from non-gamers. From claims that they cause teenage violence to the misconception that games are composed of meaningless ideas and mechanics and are simply just meant to be FUN. There have of course been a number of great games that most definitely defy these claims and demonstrate video games as an art form. Bioshock and Metal Gear Solid, for instance, have incredibly interesting character development and world commentary. For this review I will be looking at what the new game Undertale does differently in these aspects and what I think it does to demonstrate games as an art medium.
You may have heard about this small indie title sweeping the gaming community by storm. Gamers everywhere are raging about the many unique ideas and mechanics this game implements. But what is it exactly? Well, it’s a traditional looking game with an amazing soundtrack and art style for one. Also, it’s a story focused RPG that lets you either kill or spare every character you meet. Unlike most games every important character’s fate lies in the players hands. Because of this, there are many ways to play this game. The creator uses this to create some very interesting commentary. Why do we play games? What does it mean for a game to implement player choice? What does this mean to the player? How realistic should we consider games to be? Among playing this game I encountered every one of these questions not just because it asked them to me, but because it made me think. Unlike most games Undertale is an experience unique to the player but also an experience that means something to its creator. But why is this?
Perhaps one of the reasons few games can be considered an expression of the creator is because with most games so many people are involved with the conceiving of the entire game. With games like The Elder Scrolls, and World of Warcraft (both amazing games) there are hundreds of people working on one product. Compared to paintings that are constructed by one person, it’s no wonder it’s difficult to perceive art in this medium. Undertale, however, was mostly created by one person, Toby Fox along with help from Temmie Chang. With such a small team you can be sure that this creation that has been release is completely of the authors intent. It is a game that uses each and every character and game mechanic to tell a story. Every piece of this game means something to the player and that is what often gets lost in other games simply trying to please every demographic. Undertale is unique because every mechanic, every design choice this creator made, he did so for a reason other than to please gamers.
Undertale uses each of its mechanics to say something. For instance, a player can choose to kill another character or spare them. However what if the player changes his or her mind. Can’t he just reset the game and play it over. Well in Undertale this is still possible but if one does this characters won’t treat the player in the same way. This also creates more commentary on the act of resetting a game present. Did we the players create this mechanic to avoid moral choices in games? Is it wrong to do such a thing? Notice how this game is simultaneously engaging players in a Video Game and also commentating on what it means to play a Video Game.
This game also uses each of the battles to deconstruct the characters the player fights. Unlike most games that use unengaging dialogue and exposition to detail NPCs, Undertale uniquely uses an enemies attack to describe their personality. For instance, some attacks may be in the form of tears symbolizing an enemies remorse in fighting. Other Characters won’t let you move side to side to show how determined they are.
Another central idea Undertale revolves around is Determination. This game makes mention to this word many times for a good reason. Unlike most forms of art, a player must have skill to finish a video game. Readers and movie watcher only need to show up. But in Undertale’s case, they must repeatedly inform the player that in order to understand this piece of art to its intent, they must stay determined and finish it.
Let’s look further into the games art style. Why did the creator choose to make such an old looking game? I think it’s used as even more commentary. What it’s trying to say is that games this deep were always possible. Despite the lacking amount of truly metaphoric games in our era, there has always been the technology for games like this to exist. Undertale is strikingly dense with meaning in every aspect of its creation. No matter what aspect of the game you look at, you will find thought and meaning put into it, something that many recent games seem to forget.
When movies first began to become a reasonable form of art people began to see that there are some things that can’t just be conveyed in writing. Undertale serves as an example how video games are an important media in our generation. There are many ideas, themes, and messages that simply could not by conveyed in any other form. Games are indeed an important piece of our culture. And the choices us gamers make when we buy and play games greatly affects not only us and our games, but the people around us. This game poses many questions with a lot of answers if you look hard enough. There are numerous metaphors and symbolism to be found here and that is why I think a game like this is so important to us. If you have the time and appreciate games as much as I do, please look into this game, and if you do decide to play it try to engage with this game and think about what it means, both to you and to its creator.
Thank you very much for reading,
Written by James Murphy