Four Centre College students were tasked with answering the question, “are video games art?” for a prompt ahead of the Norton Center for the Arts’ Fifth House Ensemble: Journey LIVE performance. The four students were the highlight of the Norton Center’s pre-show pop-up party.
To explore this theme, each student chose to feature a video game they believe are works of art because of their design, musical score, story, or all of the above. Each student presented their selections to the public during the pre-show, detailing how the arts are represented in the gaming world.
Video game: Zelda: Breath of the Wild
You awake to a voice in the dark, calling you out of a one hundred year dream and into a world of which you have no memory. Save for this nameless, faceless, voice, you are entirely alone. It calls you Link, but you have otherwise no identity. In the starting moments of the game, you learn only one other thing: “You are the light–our light–which must shine upon Hryule once again”. Thus begins The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Released in 2017, Breath of the Wild achieved significant renown within its first year, winning the 2017 Game Awards for Game of the Year and Best Game Direction, as well as the 2017 Golden Joystick Awards for Best Audio, Nintendo Game of the Year, Critics Choice Award, and Ultimate Game of the Year. In 2018, it won several SXSW awards, including those for Excellence in Gameplay, Excellence in Design, and Video Game of the Year. Also in 2018, it won the NAVGTR awards for Art Direction in Fantasy and Original Light Mix Score, and the BAFTA award for Game Innovation.
One of the largest open-world games to date, Breath of the Wild offers players the chance to explore a land as expansive as their own interest and as alive as their own imagination. Though you play as Link, the landscape is as much a protagonist as he, shaping the narrative through a compelling—and often melancholic—subtext. You are thrust into an apocalyptic world, where each race has been forced to the outer regions of the continent and the once mighty kingdom of Hyrule has fallen to Calamity Ganon–evil, itself. Link must embark upon a journey to retrieve his memories, save Hyrule, and make peace with the events which occurred one hundred years prior. It is a story of grief, memory, and rebirth, masterly interwoven with an unforgettable adventure—as thrilling and dangerous as it is beautiful.
Breath of the Wild is a striking artistic endeavor, combining fantasy with realism in a dreamlike landscape; it is a living painting of a world, and richly diverse in its many biomes, cultures, and characters. The music takes a backseat to the sounds of nature, setting the tone of a quiet apocalypse; it is not violent nor gritty, as many apocalypse stories tend to be, but verdant, swallowed up by the land, and tinged with tragedy. Your interaction with the Wild brings humanity back into the picture, and in return, the Wild is brought back into you.
Video game: Celeste
The narrative begins with Madeline, a young girl who one day decided to drive to Celeste Mountain in order to climb it. She meets an older woman who warns her of the climb, as well as an influencer who she makes quick friends with. Her trek upwards is primarily alone, and at many points she meets an altered version of herself that is her anxiety, personified. Doubts, setbacks, and regrets plague her mind as she continues to trek this perilous climb, as she realizes she can no longer run from her anxieties.
Developed by independent studio Matt Makes Games, Celeste released for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Linux and macOS, and gained almost instant recognition. It was winner of Best Indie Game and Best Game for Impact in the 2018 Game Awards, and best control precision in NAVGTR in 2019. It has been nominated in numerous other programs, many of which nominated it for game of the year.
The game is a platformer, where the ultimate goal is to progress forward (or up). Through tools of jumping, climbing, and a midair dash, the player maneuvers past obstacles to progress. The simplicity in movement options is complemented by ways the environment can change how certain aspects work – for example, some platforms may move when the player uses a dash. This makes the game a challenge in executing, but also a puzzle when thinking on how to progress to the next room. The gameplay is tough, but there are options available to alter difficulty, so that individuals can gauge what would be best suited to their needs as a player.
The gameplay is one of many aspects of Celeste that contributes to its overall motifs. Supported by narrative, music, player action, and the levels themselves, the game crafts challenges and tones that highlight anxiety, trial, but ultimately perseverance and acceptance of one’s self. An early section of the game, Chapter 3: Celestial Resort, highlights anxiety built through the crossroads of narrative, player action and music. Here, Madeline encounters an inn’s receptionist, Mr. Oshiro, who has growing anxiety of his own. As he hasn’t gotten customers in years, he worries Madeline will leave, and this shows in his desperate, manipulative dialogue. The game furthers this concept through level design, where lethal obstacles become more prevalent the more Oshiro’s anxiety builds. The music spearheads this idea, as Lena Raine’s “Scattered and Lost” starts with just a piano, slowly adding synths and drums until it’s a much more dissonant, unsettling piece.
Each part of this design – the narrative, music, and increasingly difficult movement for the player – culminates into the harrowing onset of Oshiro’s paranoia, leading to him lashing out at Madeline. This motif’s potency was only possible through the multimedia capabilities a game provides.
Video game: Rime
Released in 2017 for the PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One, Rime follows a young boy named Enu who is washed ashore on an unknown island. Guided by a magical fox, Enu makes his way to a large and mysterious tower. On the way to the tower and as Enu scales the tower, he encounters a mysterious figure cloaked in red, bearing no discernable features. He tries to follow the man as they travel through several ethereal worlds housed inside of the tower. Strangely, Enu is never able to reach him, but as he climbs the tower, mysteries of the island, the tower, and his past begin to unravel.
Rime was developed by Tequila Works, an independent Spanish game studio, and published by Grey Box and Six Foot. Rime takes inspiration from Journey, produced earlier in 2012. After launch, Rime was nominated for several awards including IGN’s Best of 2017 Awards’ best puzzle game, Golden Joystick Awards’ best audio, Titanium Awards’ best indie game, and several other nominations. Rime received the awards for best Spanish game and best soundtrack from Titanium Awards in 2017. Rime was also ranked 19th in Eurogamer’s “Top 50 Games of 2017”.
To progress in the game, the player must solve challenging puzzles, transverse unknown and unique landscapes, and learn more about the world the player now inhabits. Puzzles take advantage of several game mechanics such as carrying objects, using perspective to alter reality (for example, aligning rays of light in the shape of a door to create a doorway), and triggering Enu’s voice. By using these mechanics, the player can advance the story and unlock new areas of the beautiful world.
As the boy climbs the tower, he comes to five stages, each representing the five stages of grief. The player learns more about Enu and the loss he has suffered through incredible visual imagery, soundtracks, flashbacks, and the characters that Enu meets on his journey. Rime draws on the emotions of the player and evokes a surreal and ethereal experience that is both pleasurable and thought provoking, resulting in a true piece of art.
Video game: Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight is an indie game created for Windows systems by Australian game developer Team Cherry. The game follows the adventure of a nameless hero on a quest to stop a plague from spreading amongst the bug inhabitants of the land. The descent into the underground world is fraught with many dangers of other bugs that have succumbed to the infection. As you travel the player character meets all sorts of bugs friendly and not that will help you on your quest.
The game is rendered in a beautiful hand-drawn artstyle and draws a lot of gameplay inspiration from games like Metroid and Castlevania.
The main gameplay revolves around the player controlling the character in a 2D environment and fighting enemies. It utilizes a mix of platforming and combat elements. The environment is separated into areas each with their own unique color palettes and overall mood that is tied together with the evocative music that plays for each area. Part of what makes this game art is that the story is rather open-ended and the player has to piece together what is happening in the world by speaking to the bug inhabitants that you can come across during exploration.
Depending on what NPCs the player discovers each player will have a different understanding of the world and as they explore and find new characters their knowledge on the inner workings of this bug society becomes clearer. The artwork in the game is the biggest contributing factor as each character has unique and fun designs that the player can really connect with.
The game has been nominated for many awards since its initial release and won the award for Independent game of the Year at the Australian Games awards in 2018 as well as Australian developed game of the year. The game’s success has led it to being ported onto many different systems including Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and linux.