Are Video Games Art? Musings On The Fallout Series

Last week, the official trailer and release date for Fallout 76 were announced at E3. I watched Bethesda's conference some hours after mass, after a relaxing day mowing the lawn, reading books, and vegging at home. A smile came to my face as I saw Todd Howard walk onto a dimly lit stage. I was reminded of the time I spent as a twelve and thirteen year-old playing Fallout 3, the first Fallout game made by Bethesda. I explored post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. I was able to overcome catastrophes I knew I couldn't overcome in real life. I began to dream of some day growing up and overcoming great obstacles. I wanted to do something incredible, just like I did in video games.

I remembered when Fallout New Vegas came out. I was about 16, growing up in Texas, and I felt very distant from the culture. My grandfather and a few of my uncles were Vaquero's, but my father was a pretty geeky university professor and I preferred the stuffy attitude of academia over common folk culture. That is, until I played Fallout New Vegas - somehow, this video game was able to immerse me in a culture I had been around my whole life, and it made me love it! That Christmas, my grandmother bought me cowboy boots, and I was proud to wear them. Sure, I get along better in hipster breweries than I do at steak-houses (it probably doesn't help that I'm vegan), but I have a certain pride in my culture which is partially due to growing up in Texas and North Mexico, but also partially due to having a video game make me a real cowboy.

So, there's a question I keep returning to: are videogames art?

Now, I love videogames, and I love art. I want the two to go together. However, I have to be open the idea that videogames might not be art.

One of the problems with having a discussion about art today is that most people seem to believe that art is anything creative. This is a disgusting definition. It places the Motorola ringtone in the same category as Fur Elise. A friend of mine is an art teacher, and he tells me that every semester somebody comes to him saying they want to learn to be a great artist. During the first lesson, the student will smear paint onto a canvas, splash some red here, some yellow there, draw a flower on top, and says something to the effect of, "this symbolizes social oppression of beauty in the business sector." When the student is finished with his project and my friend says, "Okay, now it's time the human figure, or perspective," the student becomes frustrated and quits. "That's not art. It's not creative," the student says, as he drops out of art lessons.

The classical definition of art is imitation, which seems to be why it's best to learn things like the human figure, geometrical shapes, and perspective first. You learn what reality is, then you copy it. The definition of fine arts, which is what people usually mean when they say art, is debated, but generally agreed to have something to do with beauty - usually that fine arts is imitation of the beautiful or imitation for the sake of beauty. Jorge Luis Borges says it's imitation of the beautiful, which is very surprising considering how painfully depressing so much of his poetry is.

What is important to fine arts is that there is a sort of catharsis. Nobody knows exactly what catharsis is, but everybody feels it, to a degree. It's a certain, "purging of emotions." It's how a story is able to stir and unsettle you, or even do the opposite. These definitions should be taken vaguely, because it's difficult to describe a feeling, but anybody who's been moved by art will have a rough idea of what catharsis is.

The question is, is this what videogames get their audience to feel? Maybe, with a few of them. The Fallout series has definitely made me feel like I experience things along with the character as I play as - otherwise, it wouldn't have effected my personality like it did. I definitely haven't felt catharsis with Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. However, there's a certain pain and relief at the end of Gone Home and Papers Please.

[INTERJECTION: For those unacquainted with these video games, Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja are videogames meant to be played on an iPhone, wherein you throw flightless birds at pigs and hack at fruits with a katana. Not very much of a plot. Gone Home is meant to be played on a console or PC, and is what in a genre lovingly called, "walking simulators," because there's nothing the player character can do besides walk and interact with object. The game is entirely plot, and sort of a mystery game. It feels as though it has puzzles, but none of the world interaction is so difficult to figure out as to be justly called a puzzle. Papers Please is a bureaucracy simulator with heavy moral decisions concerning justice, family, and mortality. Most gameplay is text-based.]

So, I've had certain vague feelings of catharsis with videogames which have less game play. I've definitely been emotionally provoked by horror videogames like Outlast, but barring the discussion of whether or not fear is catharsis there's something else I'd like to consider: Why have I cried at the end of books, or at the sight of paintings, but never at the end of a video game? Why is it that Shakespeare's Othello drove me to tears as if I was the moor who killed his wife, and Picasso's The Bombing of Guernica filled with dread and pity for all of those blown to pieces my ballistics during the World Wars, but I didn't cry at the end of Gone Home when I found out my Lesbian sister ran away from an oppressive household with her girlfriend? I will admit, I must have felt a sort of catharsis with the Fallot series - considering it informed my personality so much, but that might not been what is fully meant by catharsis - whereas crying at the end of Othello is.

Is it a problem with me? Or, is it a problem with the median itself? Maybe there just hasn't been a video game writer talented enough to make a story I can cry to.

Image result for Picasso the bombing of
Picasso - The Bombing of Guernica

What I loved about Fallout was that the world was real to me. I could never role play anybody who wasn't very similar to me because the world was so real. Yes, I know this kind-of defeats the purpose of a role-play game, so after a few play throughs I made an evil character and an Ariana Grande character, but the first one had to be me!

Fallout New Vegas was my favorite game in the series because the characters were rich, the world was meaningful, and the story wasimmersive. The other Fallout games threw me into artificial and unimportant family relationships, which last for a few cut-scenes during the intro levels and never matter again. Sure, you meet your robot son in Fallout 4, but he never has much of a character until you find out he's an evil genius, and by that point Nick Valentine is a machine with much more personality. The point is this: every element of world immersion and many elements of good story were present in Fallout New Vegas, but I never cried or felt the way I have when reading great books. Death was all around me, tension built, tragedy happened when I saw dozens crucified by Ceaser's legion, but it didn't make me cry. Same was true for the sigh at the end of Gone Home. I was interested in my Lesbian sister's relationship, I was invested in the story, but not enough to really feel moved by it.

The first mark of a fine art is not simply that it moves your emotion, but that purges them. Crying is a great touchstone, one video games just don't seem to achieve yet. but art does not have to make you cry to be great art, or to be art at all. If it does make you cry, that's a good sign that there was a level of catharsis, even if nobody knows what catharsis really means.

The ultimate test of art, however, seems to be that if it can achieve what Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Flannery O'Connor achieved - namely, a dedication to the gods. I don't just think that art has to strive for something higher. I mean that if fine arts are truly an attempt at the beautiful, the greatest pieces of art must, in some way, be directed towards God. If there is something about video games which makes them impossible to set their focus on God the way that literature and painting are able to do, then it might be impossible for video games to be pieces of fine art. I see no immediate reason why you couldn't create a video dedicated to God, but there is something to be said about how awful the video game adaptation of Dante's Inferno is. What made it awful wasn't just unruly camera, the useless attacks the game gives you, the ripped shirtless depiction of Dante, the fact that it's too much like God of War, etc.. What made Dante's Inferno the video game awful was the fact that it could not truly portray the demonic.

Because a video game relies on the player doing stuff for immersion, demons and souls suffering in hell become boss battles or scenery. In order to read a book, you must be a reader - which is mostly a very passive job, all you do is take things in. In order to play a video game, you must be a gamer, which is incredibly active. While literary devices are designed to make interesting a story you are absorbing, game mechanics are designed to make tangible a world you are exploring. This constricts videogames where literature is fairly unconstrained. Videogames have to tie everything to an image, and that image must be one the player can interact with. Literature ties things to an image which is close enough to you for your human experience to feel it through a character, but far enough from you  so that your imagination, and, more importantly, your emotions, can run away with it. Flannery O'Connor, T.S. Elliot, and Erich Auerbacher all have a notion that literary power hugely relies on a tangible object being filled with meaning - meaning which is given to it by a chain in a story. Video games have an opportunity to fill tangible objects with meaning, but objects in video games are so tangible that the median is more concerned with touching, throwing, or using objects for gameplay, than it is with filling objects with emotional meaning. Because of this, greater concepts like Demons, or Hell, or God, might forever remain away from the reach of video games. You can't interact with them the way video games demand you to.

I guess I still don't know if video games can be art. But I know I haven't played a single video game I am certain is art. Not fine art, anyway. I'm certain that it takes a lot of artistic skill to write and design video games, but I will not feel comfortable calling video games art until one makes me cry. Even then, that doesn't make all video games art. That would just mean the video game which made me cry is likely to be art. There would still be something missing - the metaphysical. Maybe I'll find a game which takes on a great human epic, but the second it tries to get me to virtually interact with the divine, the video game would fall flat.

So, sadly, Fallout New Vegas was not art, and Fallout 76 probably won't be. The premise of the future installment in the series is being one of the first people to leave the vaults after the nuclear war. Because of this, there will be no NPC's in the game, no human characters, taking away the human element of story telling. "Every person you see in the game will be a real person," announced Todd Howard at E3, to point out that Fallout 76 relies on online multiplier. "We want players to tell their own story."

Tell my own story? That's what I'm paying you to do!


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