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After a decade of revolution, can we now call video games art?

Reassessing the form after ten years in which games both broke into the mainstream and became increasingly experimental.

Are video games art? Their voiceover actors include the acclaimed and the award-winning, from Patrick Stewart to Chloë Grace Moretz. Their music is written by some of the world’s most respected composers, whose influences span our greatest musicians, from Mozart to Miles Davis. Some of the most discussed products of the industry’s last ten years are the subject of a major retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “Design/Play/Disrupt”. One line of argument is: anything with that level of creative energy behind it must be art.

Another argument is that anything which moves you – whether that be to joy, to grief, to anger or to awe – is art of one kind or another, and good video games certainly succeed at that. But they are also one of the world’s more bizarre art forms, because as the game designer Frank Lantz once said, “Making games combines everything that’s hard about building a bridge with everything that’s hard about composing an opera.” The music has to be right, the design right, the scripting right, the voice acting right, and that’s before you get to the gameplay itself. Only cinema gets close to the number of creative and logistical challenges that must be overcome – and film directors don’t have to work out how to represent everything they want to do in lines of code that can be understood by a computer, in scenarios that will not play out passively but with involvement from a human they have never met and cannot control.

As an example, take a moment in Papers, Please, in which you play a nameless border guard in a crumbling dictatorship. You must decide whether people have the correct paperwork to cross the border. You get paid for every correct decision and fined for every incorrect one. If you don’t make enough money at the end of the day, your own family will go short – of food, heating or medicine.

In one harrowing scene, an ageing woman is looking forward to finally being reconnected with her son, but her papers are out of order. By that point in the game, you may already be under pressure from on high, and if you’ve made any mistakes that day, you can’t risk another. Whatever decision you make, the result is a distressing insight into the banality of evil. But for Papers, Please to pull off that moment, everything has to go right: the woman’s appearance and dialogue must convey – in just a few short sentences and a brief shot of her face – her advanced years and her desperation to see her son. And while she might pop up at a point in the game where you’ve got away without any mistakes, making it easier for you to let her through, the process of getting the paperwork right (and the consequences for your own family) must already have been made clear to the player. If the creators get any of those things wrong, the weight of the scene will be lost.

Papers, Please is one of a number of games produced largely by small, independent design companies: the last decade has been one of immense creative innovation by designers, and huge reward for players.

Others in the mould include Gone Home, a first-person game in which you play a woman who returns from university to find her family’s house deserted and in disarray, with a note from her younger sister begging her not to investigate further. The beauty of Gone Home is that it subverts our expectations: the design, the score and the gameplay make the player believe the genre is horror, and the first time, you play with your back pressed firmly against the nearest wall, turning around uneasily in every room. But as you navigate through the game, you realise that you are uncovering an altogether more domestic, but no less devastating, story of family strife.

At the top of the market, among the so-called “triple A” games (video games with the budget of Hollywood blockbusters, and often with the formulaic set-up to match) there is also plenty of fun to be had, albeit of a very different kind.

Bloodborne is a sword-and-sorcery adventure designed to provide a physical and strategic test. The plot is a load of gothic nonsense, but the joy of the game comes from the Everest-like challenge of its battles. Tomb Raider (Indiana Jones, but with a female protagonist) and Grand Theft Auto (reach the top of the criminal underworld) are no-questions-asked, check-your-common-sense-in-at-the-door romps.

Then there are the various sporting games, such as Fifa, the football simulation in which you control a favoured team or a single player and compete with either the computer or your friends.

None of these take big risks or push the boundaries of what a game is, unlike Papers, Please or Gone Home, but the fact they are all played on the same piece of kit shows how rich and intellectually diverse the world of video games has become.

Sadly, the industry’s rude health – some 21 million Britons, around a third of the population, play video games – doesn’t seem to have done anything for the V&A’s confidence. “Design/Play/Disrupt” has a vague-at-best understanding of whom the exhibition is pitched at, veering wildly from addressing industry insiders to visitors who have only just heard the term “video game”. The show seems to want to placate a sceptical patron of the V&A, who has to be convinced that there is value to an exhibition on the subject.

That’s a shame, because there are fascinating questions to be asked of the industry, particularly at the end of a decade in which video games both broke into the mainstream and became increasingly experimental. Horizon Zero Dawn is a game of exploration in a lush, post-apocalyptic setting in which the last remnants of our world have been all but overcome by nature.

The gripping plot propels the player through mile upon mile of open terrain: it follows a classic structure in that you are rewarded for successfully beating up your opponents (in this case, other people and the odd robot dinosaur) by receiving another video sequence revealing more of the narrative. The actual gameplay, while perfectly good fun, is just a hurdle that has to be jumped to move the plot forward.

The story of Papers, Please is also intimately linked with its gameplay: your ability to process more paperwork at the border, and your handling of the people who come to your checkpoint, are the essence of the story. Papers, Please lingers far longer in the memory than Horizon Zero Dawn, but while you’d play the latter over and over again, the former is a one-off experience. Which is the better piece of art? Both? Neither? Does it matter that Gone Home is all plot and no physical challenge, or that Bloodborne is all hand-eye co-ordination and no heart?

“Design/Play/Disrupt” should be the arena in which to ask these questions – or at least to set out why the makers of one title should have such different ideas about what a video game should be than the makers of another. What visitors are offered is a defensive and muddled exhibition, rather like what would happen if you put Henri Matisse, John Millais and Hans Holbein together in one attraction called “Painting, eh?”. The question of what makes a great game deserves better than this. 

Design/Play/Disrupt is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until 24 February 2019

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism