Expressive and narrative features of Video Games (VG) are bread and butter of Video Games Art. In my articles I often make implicit comparison between artistic evolution of Cinema and VG’s. Here I want to clarify such comparison; the degree of detail cannot be high, so forgive the essentiality of certain passages that otherwise would require very articulated dissertations. I trust in readers to have a basic knowledge of the history of Cinema; usually followers of Video Games Art are quite educated! In the end you can find an unprecedented comparison with Comics, another important medium established in the 20th century, whose evolution has several common points with VG’s. Even in this case I count on readers to have a basic knowledge of Comics history.
Prologue: Catalogation of Arts
In South Europe experts refer to Cinema as the 7th Art because of an ancient and traditional catalogation; Comics are the 9th Art; could VGs be referred as 10th Art in the future? Yes I think so!
1rst art – Architecture
2nd art – Sculpture
3rd art – Visual arts (Painting and Drawing)
4th art – Music
5th art – Literature and Poetry
6th art – Scenery arts (Theatre, Danse)
7th art – Cinema
8th art – Mediatic arts (Photography, Radio, Television)
9th art – Comics
(10th art – Interactive and digital arts, Video Games; not universally recognized still today; maybe in the future)
Expressive evolution of Cinema
Leaving aside the archeological era related to magic lanterns and history of photography, Cinema was born at the end of the 1800s as “technological” curiosity, as entertainment medium for amazing the masses with the illusion of motion through projected frames; just think of the first short movies by Edison, Lumière Brothers and Meliès and of the dawn of silent Cinema. Since 1920s/30s, a few directors realized the narrative and expressive potential of the medium, which in the meantime added voice and music; just think of Dreyer, Ejzenstejn, Chaplin, Ozu, Bunuel, etc., of the experimental short movies of Dadaism and Surrealism, of the German expressionism by Murnau, Lang, etc.
However Cinema has struggled so much to universally establish itself as “7th Art” . There is always a time gap between the emergence of artistic potential and the universal recognition of the medium as Art. It is more correct to speak of assimilation of the most social committed and expressive Art by industry and market. The right questions are: when does Cinema industry turn and proudly rely on a large and widespread production of social committed and expressive films d’auteur? When do directors and screenwriters become universally recognized as authors and artists? When do spectators begin to search for more and more social committed and expressive movies d’auteur? When do competent movies critics emerge in academies and assign unequivocal cultural and artistic value to Cinema? Experts are unanimous enough to place such evolution between ’50s and ’70s. Not all the production starting from those years is devoted to Cinema d’auteur, on the contrary it is only a minor part of the market; however, this is a feature of all entertainment media at any time, including Novels or Music: “True Art” is always a minor component of the entertainment market.
No doubt since the post-war era onward cinematographic Art becomes more and more a salable product, and has been characterizing the industry for decades and decades. Indeed, we can say that still today movies industry and market cannot renounce their cultural and artistic identity; Art films are requested and supported regardless of their box office result; such productions have remarkable audience, their market has respectable numbers, they sell well. Film critics, both academic and profane, are constantly looking for films d’auteur. Regardless of box office result, Cinema finds its cultural and artistic reason in movies by Welles, Kubrick, Hitchcook, Leone, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas etc .; and mentioning more recent works, starting from 2000, in movies like The Pianist (Polanski) or The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese) or Memento (Nolan). Just to mention more recent works, Cinema certainly does not identify itself in films like Jurassic World or Fast & Furious or Transformers or Avengers despite having scored absolute box office records. It is enough to look at today productions for understanding that big companies cannot do without putting in their catalogs Art films, usually social committed artworks; big companies invest substantial financial resources for achieving a cultural and artistic image with profitable commercial value, because it finds the approval of the audience. We are accustomed that films d’auteur are even successful at box office. Think of directors like Kubrick, Leone, Spielberg, Scorsese, Burton, Nolan, Wes Anderson etc. etc.; they were or are still able to make films with considerable depth, expressiveness and social commitment that at the same time sell quite well, exceeding expenses and thus generating profits.
In these few lines we have traced the expressive and artistic evolution of Cinema, and we have highlighted how the cultural and artistic features of movies have been sanctioned at both popular and academic level when market and industry recognized and invested considerable resources in films with clear expressive purposes. Today Art movies are an important segment of market and industry and move a considerable audience. I say more: identification of Cinema as cultural and artistic medium is so entrenched that often critics and enthusiasts ignore blockbusters and focus just on films d’auteur, despite the commercial core of worldwide Cinema production is always dominated by blockbusters usually with no expressive purposes.
Now let’s see if we can reach the same conclusions moving from Cinema to Comics! Even in this case I will inevitably be very quick and essential. I count on readers’ knowledge about Comics and their history.
Expressive evolution of Comics
Let’s omit the archeology of Comics, which some experts date back to primitive graffiti found in prehistoric caves or to the Trajan column. Comics are “technological” media, linked to modern publishing industry since the end of the 1800s. Their expressive language is based on the editing of illustrations and cartoons, with the aid of balloons and captions; they have precedents in pioneers such as Topffer (Swiss,1799-1846) or W. Busch (Deutschland, author of Max und Moritz, 1865). Usually, for highlighting their mass distribution through newspapers, experts take as referement Yellow Kid by Outcalt (USA, 1884) or at most Alley Slooper by C.H. Ross (UK,1867). Since then, there has been a flourishing of daily and Sunday strips in various newspapers. Just staying in the USA, we find Happy Hooligan, Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Popeye, Blondie, Li Abner, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Mickey Mouse etc. etc. And in Europe we have Zig et Puce by Alain Saint Ogan, Tintin by Hergé, Katzenjammer Kids by Dirks, etc. At the end of the ’30s the Superheroes modern mythology was born in the USA, at first Superman and Batman, then in the ’60s it was the turn of “superheroes with superproblems” by Marvel. In Japan since the post-war era we find the Manga phenomenon that would be too vast to deal with here; by the way it’s a market aimed above all at serial publications, just like the western one. I’m not going into further details, I rely on readers’ knowledge about Comics history and their willingness to research about independently. What can we say about world Comics production up until the 1950s? In general we can see that it is more than anything else aimed at easy entertainment for families, adolescents and children; it is dominated by humor and adventure strips; we are therefore talking of a serial production that, with some exceptions, is not generally aimed at social committed and ambitious Art. Comics are generally considered at most “children’s stuff” and culturally inappropriate before the ’80s. Even in this case, a few authors looking for a deeper expressive narration emerge from the beginning; usually Krazy Kat (Herriman) and Popey (Segar) are mentioned. There are also a few Comics proposing very ambitious graphic style and avant-garde language, such as Little Nemo by W. McCay (Sunday strips, 1905-1911). It must be said, however, that compared to Cinema, such early expressive and artistic component of Comics is less marked, more bland, more rare and exceptional, at least until the ’50s.
In the ’50s, in the ’60s and then even more in the ’70s, the most mature and social committed Comics d’auteur emerged. Among the strips let’s think of Pogo (USA, 1948-1975, W. Kelly), Peanuts (USA, 1950-2000, C. M. Schulz), Mafalda (Spain, 1964-1973, Quino) . In those decades Comics acquire a narrative depth that was unimaginable before, let’s think of El Eternauta (Argentina, 1957-59, Oesterheld – Lopez ), or The Ballad of the Salt Sea (Italy, 1967-69, Hugo Pratt), that open the way to graphic novels. Once again we find a time gap between the emergence of artistic potential and the universal recognition of the medium as Art. It would be more correct to speak of assimilation of the most committed and authorial Comics Art by market and industry. Once again we have to ask: when does the Comics industry turn and consciously and proudly relies on a widespread production aimed at Art, mature expression and great narrative power? When are Comics authors recognized as great artists? When do readers begin to ask for and consume more and more authorial and committed Comics designed for a mature audience? When do widespread and competent critics assign indisputable academic, cultural and artistic value to the medium? Transition takes place at the turn of the 70s and 80s; publication of graphic novels by Will Eisner in the end of ’70s and above all MAUS by Spiegelman (1980-1991) winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 are the final thrust. In the meanwhile V for Vendetta (1982-1985, A. Moore), The Return of the Dark Knight (1986, F. Miller), Watchmen (1986-1987, A. Moore), etc. upset the richest and most popular market of superheroes comic books. Since then a flourishing of graphic novels and wide-ranging narrative works stand out from serial production; they are published directly in libraries, sold in the shelves alongside other novels; more and more adult readers look for Comics with profound expression that have nothing to envy from other artworks of Literature and Cinema. Let’s think of graphic novels like Fires&Murmur (Italy, Fuochi, 1988 L. Mattotti), From Hell (UK, 1991-1996, A. Moore), Persepolis (France, 2000, Satrapi), Poulet aux Prunes (France, 2004, M. Satrapi), Notes for a War Story (Italy, Appunti per una Storia di Guerra, 2004, Gipi), Jonas Fink (Italy, 1997-2018, V. Giardino), Berlin (USA, 1996-2018, J. Lutes), Ordinary Victories (France, Le Combat Ordinaire, 2012, M. Larcenet), Blast (France, 2015, M. Larcenet), etc. etc. etc. Industry and market expand; serial production is still aimed at easy entertainment of families, adolescents and children, but market of adult and mature graphic novels has respectable numbers, even more than ordinary books. Today Comics are universally recognized as noble artistic media and no longer are considered as “children’s stuff” or culturally inappropriate.
Let’s make a first summary. Cinema was born at the end of the 19th century; after 20-30 years the first attempts at linguistic, authorial, narrative and expressive maturity began to appear, and gradually increased in number and depth; at about 60 years from its birth, the transition takes place; the author’s expressive commitment becomes an essential and important component of market and industry; Cinema rises to the noble peaks of Art with a capital A.
Even Comics were born at the end of the 19th century; with very rare and bland exceptions they remain anchored for a long time to an easy and serial production for teenagers, children or families. About 60 years after their birth, more and more authors begin to emerge, proposing works with a growing narrative and expressive breadth, designed to make a more mature audience reflect about deep contents. The definitive expansion of Comics market and industry towards Art and Culture with capital A and C takes place about 70-80 years after its birth.
Expressive Art of Comics has struggled more to carve out a decent slice of market; the evolutionary leap in Cinema has been a bit faster, about 20 years less. Furthermore, the evolution of Cinema has been more gradual, even before the 1950s-1970s there are numerous examples of authorial films with expressive and narrative ambitions, characterized by a remarkable research on language. Cinema throughout its history has been on average less tied to childish and adolescent audience than Comics.
Expressive Evolution of Video Games
I think you understand where I’m going: from an evolutionary point of view, there is a greater affinity between Comics and Video Games than between the latters and Cinema. Curious, because as far as the features of the medium are concerned, affinities are greater with Cinema than with Comics. The latter does not have the dynamism of the “animated” images of Cinema and VGs nor their multi-sensoriality or trans-mediality, I am referring to the integration of images, sound, voices and music. However, all three media have common graphic, pictorial and photographic elements, are based on image and vision. All three media spread in the 20th century, but VGs much later due to the computer revolution that started in the ’50s and emerged strongly in the ’70s and ’80s (digital revolution). Here too we can distinguish a period of VGs archeology in the ’50s and ’60s; the real birth of VGs dates back to the ’70s with the first arcades and consoles. From the beginning VGs present their unique feature: they identify players in virtual contexts through interactivity; whether it’s Pong virtual tennis or Galaxy Game space battle or Pac Man maze, it doesn’t matter, they are all example of virtual contexts. Interactivity is nothing but the result of processing of inputs and outputs exchanged between player and computer. Here we can see another difference with respect to Cinema and Comics; the latter are media that are more easy for narrative purposes, storytelling is almost intrinsic to the sequence of frames or vignettes, also supported by sound or captions/balloons. VGs in their most primitive form are more suitable for elementary interactive mechanics that initially have no narrative or expressive purpose, but rather playful and easy entertainment, almost like electronic toys, technological curiosities. Here, however, we can find a parallel with Comics. Even Comics in their most primitive form are more suitable for the simplest, most playful and easy entertainment: a strip of vignettes, a bit of imagination and fantasy, graphic style and characters amusing eyes, a few jokes, and that’s enough . Going beyond these elementary characteristics and founding a serious and complex narrative, it requires considerable technical, linguistic, creative and productive effort; this is why the evolutionary leap of Comics has come later. From a narrative point of view, Cinema is more immediate: in its most elementary formula the camera can film an appropriately lit theater scene; Theater is already an evolved form of narration; if you add editing and sound to this, you’re done!
VGs have technical limits, the slightest narrative ambition can only be achieved with a notable technological progress of the computing and graphic devices, as well as of the algorithms at the core of interactivity. Textual adventures like Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) show that VGs have not lacked narrative ambitions since their origins, just technical power. Just as Comics are initially associated with simple form of entertainment for children or families, even VGs are initially associated with simple playful experiences based essentially on challenges, from OXO to Chess, from the astroships battle in Computer Space to jumping the barrels in Donkey Kong. Overcoming challenges, e.g. winning virtual tennis game in Pong or achieving levels in Space Invaders, it requires manual skills with game interfaces (joysticks, knobs, buttons etc.), alertness, concentration, etc .; here they are the “gymnastic” features of VGs, which today we can find in e-sports. It’s good that e-sports have become a separate reality, a big market sector. They leave free room for more intellectual and narrative experiences in the traditional market. By the way, even today links between VGs and challenges, interactivity and elementary playful mechanics, are predominant. VGs have not yet made the same evolutionary step of Cinema and Comics. Even in specialized criticism and among enthusiasts the idea of VGs as electronic pastimes based on challenges is predominant. Industry and market are no different, VGs are almost always sold as consumer entertainment for the masses; this is proved by recent investments of big companies in online multiplayer games coming with lots of online purchases. Recently VGs addiction has become an official disease by decision of WHO (World Health Organization). I remember well in my childhood and adolescence the “eating coins” arcades! You were persuaded to insert more and more coins in order to win levels, break down records, achieve bonus, acquire skills and weapons, beat boss, etc. etc. Today is not so different, now you have loot boxes, online purchases that allow you to upgrade skills and weapons in order to win your opponents in online games. I hope that WHO’s decision will be useful to stop such degeneration. By the way, it’s good that multiplayer games are forming another separated market sector, leaving room for more deep single player experiences in the traditional market. Such processes of diversification are good and are the proofs that Video Games are evolving. Narrative and expressive experiences are carving out their market share!
Indeed there is no theoretical reason anchoring VGs to exclusively playful or competitive or gymnastic purposes. Several times I stressed that there is no theoretical incompatibility between narration, expression of content and interactivity; it is just a question of techniques and technologies, of market and industry, of will, of vision, of perception of the medium. Just like it happened with Comics and Cinema. At logical and theoretical level it is not possible to find any impediment to expressive and narrative maturation of VGs, many clues seem to indicate that we are approaching the so much coveted leap.
Several times I have dealt with the ever growing narrative trend of VG. Before I mentioned the old text adventures, now we could mention point & click graphic adventures: LucasArts adventures starting from the late 80s, e.g. Monkey Island, or the enigmatic and surreal Myst (1993); not to forget later FMV titles (Full Motion Video) , like The 7th Guest, Gabriel Knight 2, Phantasmagoria, etc. etc. In the 90s the introduction of CDs and then DVDs allowed the creation of long and sophisticated cut scenes with main narrative role; think for example of the Metal Gear series by Kojima. The today most widespread genre of single player game was born in ’90s: gameplay is based on challenges and action mechanics that are generally still lacking of narrative and expressive depth, just gradually becoming more and more sophisticated from a technical point of view; gaming experience is dressed with stories that over time have gained a growing depth; however, narration is confined just in cut scenes. I have repeatedly noted such dichotomy: interactivity for fun and challenges, film sequences for storytelling and content! This dichotomy was broken by Interactive Drama at the turn of 2000; in other articles I analyzed the most recent Interactive Drama (The Walking Dead (2012), Life Is Strange (2015), Detroit: Become Human (2018) etc. etc.) and their precursors, such as The Last Express (1997) and Shenmue (1999). More recently the novelle vague of narrative games was born, often wrongly labeled as Walking Simulator: The Path, Dear Esther, Gone Home, Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch, State of Mind, etc. These titles take important steps towards integration of gameplay and story, interactivity and narration, mechanics and contents. Also noteworthy are the titles by Fumito Ueda; they innovate gameplay starting from the need to express deep contents: ICO (2001), Shadow of The Colossus (2005), The Last Guardian (2016). They are quite particular titles that cannot be categorized as purely narrative; they have stories but are traditionally told through cut scenes; they are more similar to dynamic and interactive paintings; contents emerge more than anything else from imaginative situations and visionary scenarios, and from the innovative mechanics implemented. These games show that it is possible to create new interactive mechanics for expressive purposes, it is not necessary to always recycle the usual ones. Recently Hideo Kojima is trying to reach the same expressive result by creating new mechanics and different type of actions in his last project still in development, Death Stranding.
Signs of a future evolutionary leap are visible today: more and more developers, especially indies, are contributing to create a purely narrative and expressive interactive language; algorithms and technologies are evolving more and more; we have reached the first generation of virtual reality; increasingly sophisticated AI algorithms are spreading; I am not referring only to NPCs AI, but to how environment, human relationships, dialogues and story react to player’s input. Now it is easier for a growing number of artists to use powerful development tools that years ago they could only dream of. Average age of players is increasing, those who played Space Invaders and Pac Man in their childhood now are adults and ask for more mature products, so there is a constantly expanding market niche.
The turning point is not here yet, and probably won’t happen in the short; making a comparison with Comics, today there is not yet the VG-equivalent of MAUS or The Return of the Dark Knight, artworks able to trigger the irreversible expansion of market and industry towards mature expressive titles; perhaps we are in the phase equivalent to ’50s and ’60s of Comics, when forerunners of graphic novels like El Eternauta or The Ballad of the Salt Sea were published; maybe Life Is Strange or Edith Finch are the equivalent in VGs! Big companies still do not devote enough resources to authorial, experimental, committed, narrative-oriented titles; mainstream market has not yet expanded, is anchored in the playful and challenging tradition of consumer entertainment; it resists innovation, is still strongly oriented to teenagers and children. However, it is also true that large companies are more and more financing innovative titles of independent developers, and a few productive realities have emerged that point exclusively to narration and expression of contents, see for example Daedalic or Annapurna Interactive. Specialized critics begin to take into consideration and praise the less homologated titles, the latter are also awarded in important media events, see BAFTA; but it has not yet created a hard, broad and compact base of mainstream criticism with the mission of supporting the artistic and cultural evolution of games. However, sites and blogs of enthusiasts dedicated to narrative and expressive aspects of VG are on the rise, including Video Games Art. Usually, playful paradigm and disengaged entertainment for teens remain dominant, the rest is put in a niche in second or third place, considered less interesting, less attractive. Just he opposite of what happens today in Cinema and Comics, where no one would doubt the pole position of the most authorial, committed, expressive titles, even if they do not hold the record at box office or in sales; paradoxically in Cinema and Comics the opposite excess is very widespread, that is judging scornfully the best selling blockbusters and serial Comics! Cultural, ethical, moral, expressive, socially committed aspects are predominant in specialized criticism of Cinema and Comics!
VGs critics are divided in ludologists and narrativists. The formers are the most numerous, they think that the word “game” is equivalent to toy or sport or challenge, so they look at VGs just as playful entertainment; they are bored by interactive experiences focusing on narration, exploration, aesthetics, expression of contents, alternative or unusual mechanics, etc. etc. This is the most widespread approach to VGs even in most of today players. Narrativists think that the word “game” is equivalent of experience or role in virtual context, that’s the broad meaning of the word “game”; so they don’t deny the traditional features of VGs as electronic and challenging toys, they think that VGs can be even something more and different, VGs can tell stories, express contents, develop new interactive mechanics and become complex experiences. The truth is that Art can not help but live with the most consumer entertainment, there is no clear line or discrimination; as I said many times, entertainment and Art are in continuity, the one doesn’t exclude the other. Art is the most noble entertainment, it is the last stage of the evolution of a medium, which always starts from pure entertainment and then reaches Art only as a last resort; it is not always possible to distinguish where entertainment ends and where Art begins. It is a question of intentions, of quality, of nuances, of register, of contents, of values, of social commitment, of authorial purposes; Art can be extremely fun and rewarding, even with a deeper, cultural and intellectual substance.
The final question: When will the evolutionary leap of VGs industry and market take place?
By daring a parallel with Cinema, the leap could take place in about ten years, about 60 years after the birth of VGs. Mmmm … it seems too premature, it’s even a matter of technological progress. I’m more inclined to the comparison with Comics, because they share the playful, disengaged, adolescent side with VGs; even today it is said that VGs are stuff for children, they carry violence, they are not to be considered even cultural products but only consumer products. The tragic is that this vox populi fits very well with some mainstream titles, such as Mortal Kombat 11; if it were a movie it wouldn’t even have succeeded at the box office because of its trash! Cinema has many more antibodies against such rubbish, it is difficult for similar trash films to achieve record sales as MK11. Fortunately, VGs market is wide and show graceful titles such as Last Day of June (2017, Ovosonico), Walden, a Game (2018, USC Game Innovation Lab) and Gris (2019, Nomada Studio). In conclusion, following the parallel with Comics, we should be witnessing the evolutionary leap of VGs in 20 or 30 years, about 70-80 years after the birth of VGs. It seems plausible to me.
Of course, nothing should be taken for granted! The artistic evolution of Cinema and Comics was propitiated by the passion of ante litteram critics who advocated and stimulated the expressive potential of the two media. That’s what I’m trying to do with Video Games Art! Speaking of Cinema, we can remember F. Truffaut, founder of the Cahiers du Cinema, then also passed behind the camera, well reknown for The 400 Blows (1959). Speaking of Comics we can mention A. Spiegelman and his underground magazine Raw, which promoted many authors and independent social committed Comics on the USA market; Spiegelman also rose to the top of Comics Art with his masterpiece MAUS. Not to forget Umberto Eco, author of the novel The Name of the Rose, who in the ’60s wrote several academic essays about Comics, strongly contributing to spreading an adult and serious image of the medium. Obviously much has depended on the courage of innovative artists, who over the decades have experimented with the most daring expressive forms; on the sensitivity of readers and spectators that started to consume more and more adult and committed films and comics; on the entrepreneurial initiative by new generations of producers and publishers who invested in market niches making them expand dramatically. For VGs it is the same, we need the courage and desire to innovate by young developers and artists, the initiative of new producers moving big resources towards current market niche of narrative and expressive titles, the alternative sensibility of players and critics.