So the consensus—at least among developers—is that the best video games stack up quite well against other entertainment mediums generally considered “art.” Is that because game designers and developers constantly are thinking about the artistic ramifications of their masterpieces-in-the-making?
Sometimes, although as is often the case it depends on whom you ask.
“Every day we think about this,” Dyack says of himself and the staff of his Ontario-based studio (www.siliconknights.com). That’s evident in the universal theory of creating games the developer has been championing for some time—called “Engagement Theory.”
According to the theory, engagement is the product of story, game play, technology, audio and artwork.
“It’s ironic that I have expressed this in a formula, since there really is no formula for creating games,” Dyack explains. “But, we do use this theory as a guiding principle for every game we create. Essentially, we believe that the five elements of story, game play, technology, audio and artwork should always be considered when creating a game.
"We believe if these elements are balanced well you will get something that is greater than the sum of its parts and will be an engaging and immersive form of entertainment. If there is one thing Silicon Knights strives for in every game, it is to create an engaging experience. The ‘Engagement Theory’ is our roadmap toward this goal.”
Adds Siri: “I wouldn’t be happy with myself if I didn’t practice what I preach,” who has been working for the past year on a “drama game” called Utopia, “a political game that explores the narrative possibilities of interactivity.”
“Of course, for a living, I also do commercial work at Three Melons (www.threemelons.com), where we make games for Sony, Coke, AT&T and some other big brands,” he adds. “In those projects, I get as subliminal as I can to let the final user know that games are art, although I do understand the final purpose of those projects is not always art intended.”
Schafer’s intentions when developing a game are a bit less focused on “making art.” “I only strive to make the best game I can, and I naturally build them around things that interest me,” he says. “I like characters, and characters are best when they express feelings. But I never set out thinking, ‘Okay, gotta make some art here.’”
Molyneux says he and his crew at Lionhead Studios (now part of Microsoft) take a similar approach to creating games. “Does a painter decide to make art or paint a picture? Does a composer decide to compose a piece of music or make art? Does a film maker want to make a film or art? I think they're more concerned with evoking emotions and creating something meaningful and enduring.
“I set out, especially today, to instill emotions in the people who interact with my games, which are broader and more visual than they have been before,” he explains. “I want players to feel a range of emotions, not just excitement—that is my ambition. If on this basis some critics describe this as artistic, then I will feel like I have succeeded.”
It’s obvious not all developers think about creating art as they make games, but should they?
Dyack certainly sees the benefit in it. “Thinking about games as ‘art’ is most useful because it helps guide your development process,” he says. “Unfortunately, our industry is still full of people who think of themselves as ‘rock stars,’ and that doesn’t promote discipline during the development cycle.
“We need to try to understand and analyze methods of our art form to elevate the medium and make better entertainment,” Dyack adds. “Thinking about games as ‘art’ is simply the first basic step.”
Schafer says more important than setting out to create “art” is for developers to “make the kinds of games they want to make, the games they are passionate about. That’s what is going to lead to the best games overall.”
That would be easy in a perfect world, where developers are given free reign to go wherever their imagination takes them, but that’s not always possible in the games industry, suggests Bogost.
“My guess is that the forces of commerce are putting much more pressure on developers than the forces of art,” he says. “Sell millions of copies, ship in time for the theatrical release, work 80 hours to get it done. It seems to me that these pressures are precisely the ones preventing developers from thinking about how they might use their chosen medium for other goals, beyond the ones laid out for them by the IP owner, the publisher, the producer, even their own prejudices built up in years of playing games.”
Developers lucky enough to be free of those pressures, however, should still be free to create the games they choose—whether they’re artistic in nature or not.
“If you care about injecting subtext and meaning into your game, then you definitely should,” Schafer says. “But if that doesn’t interest you then you should spend your time on the part of the game that does, and that’s great too. Games don’t all have to be the same thing to all people. They can—and should—be completely different depending on who’s making them. That’s one of the things that makes them art.”