Many people balk at Nintendo’s strategy of bringing family fun into the living room, and with gaming as an “art form” becoming more and more prevalent, the divide between the two philosophies have drifted further and further apart, to the point that Nintendo isn’t even considered a contender against Microsoft and Sony’s consoles, who put out much grittier, and at times, much more artistic games than that of their counterpart. One of the problems though is that many will divide these fun, enjoyable games and artistic games into two separate categories; as the video game medium has grown, these two genres have grown as well, melding together and rejecting this mutual exclusivity. Many games find both enjoyability and artistic value, both bringing fun to the living room and giving fans who want something more exactly what they are looking for.
When I first played Mass Effect, I thought it was little more than a typical science fiction story with a really cool backdrop. Little was was I aware of the series’ depth and overarching mythology, which created one of the greatest gaming trilogies of all time. Mass Effect was all about Shepard’s journey towards understanding, and some may even argue enlightenment. Looking at it closely, it is a very spiritual one, and although many think the two (or three) choices given to Shepard at the end of the game ruin everything the story built up to, it is in that moment where Shepard must let go of everything he held dear and sacrifice himself (sound familiar? Star Wars, The Matrix, etc.). From this standpoint, it is a work of art, like many other stories before it, dating back thousands of years. It doesn’t matter the medium; film, the written book, plays; they all engross us and tell a story, which is what many artistic mediums do.
Mass Effect even takes this one step further and allows the player to shape their own experience by way of making choices throughout the story, something unheard of in modern storytelling, immersing the player in their adventure. While Mass Effect is undoubtedly science fiction, not unlike Star Wars, it’s actually more of a space opera. It is much more than a simple story; it’s a piece of art that touches into our subconscious and causes us to react to stories the same way mankind has always reacted to them over thousands of years. While Mass Effect is a grand space epic, its RPG and third-person-shooter elements make the game incredibly fun and enjoyable to play, despite its grandiose nature. Whenever I would unlock a new ability, or a new weapon, I would be overjoyed. Shooting down enemies while using my biotics? Count me in! The combat is incredibly fun and is only made better in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. The cover mechanic integrates strategy into the game and I only looked in awe while exploring brand new worlds and exploring the universe. I can’t describe my experience other than that of pure joy; it was a lot of fun to play, and the storytelling aspect of the game helped supplement this.
Okami is another one of those games that bridges the gap between a game filled with fun and artistic vision. The visual style of Okami is the first thing that stands out; its unique cel-shading style, set against the backdrop of ancient Nippon mythology, establishes the tone for an incredibly artistic and breathtaking vision. The game is set in Japan and draws on many Shinto beliefs and myths in order to tell its story, all while the player assumes the role as the Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu. The towns players visit are endearing, resembling an ancient and more simple Japan. The game also introduces a very cool gameplay mechanic, the Celestial Brush.
The Celestial Brush allows Amaterasu to combat enemies and solve puzzles, acting as one of the pivotal gameplay mechanics in the game — and it is a ton of fun to use. Okami is very much in the same vein of The Legend of Zelda, only Okami took Zelda to the next level in terms of its world, mythology, puzzles, and even dungeon exploration. While it did have an in-depth and mythical story, Okami was also fun, at times lighthearted, and imparted valuable lessons onto the young people who played it, which is one of the points of artistic work: they pass on values and are a reflection of the society we strive to be. It is the epitome of the marriage between art and fun in video games, drawing on past gaming adventures to forge its own destiny.
I will be the first to admit that Zero’s Last Escape: 999 and its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, can be a little hard to get into. There is a ton of exposition and by nature of being a visual novel, it is a piece of art — at least according to contemporary definitions of art. The two games are so much more than that though. The two tales tell a story of love and time travel, under the backdrop of a sadistic game that must be played to the death (literally). While in the end 999 is a love story at heart (with some time travel) that has a beautiful resolution and Virtue’s Last Reward is a classic time traveling story that doesn’t reveal its true nature until the end, the pair of stories tell two of the most unique narratives in the genre.
This, however, isn’t all there is to the games. There are also a myriad of puzzles that the main character must navigate through to escape a series of secret rooms (in both games), utilizing clues and tools found within each room — many times very difficult. This is the most rewarding aspect of the Zero Escape series. While the puzzles may be difficult to figure out, the bottom line is that it is incredibly fun finding your way to the end of each puzzle and there is an incredibly rewarding feeling once you figure it out. While the Zero Escape games are telling an exquisite narrative, they also are balanced out by the gameplay elements found within the titles, which arguably drive the series. Yes, many people do play the games for their narrative prowess, but this is only counterbalanced by the sheer enjoyment that the puzzles provide. And there are a lot of them.
While these are only three examples of how the fun and enjoyability of video games have joined with the artistic nature of the medium, video games are still a relatively new storytelling medium. While the fun aspect of gaming should never be neglected, games are clearly evolving. They are more engrossing, and better than that, they allow you to create characters in your own image and immerse yourself in another world. This has never been done before in storytelling. There will always be a place for the Marios of the world, but gaming has moved so far beyond that. It’s the dawn of a new age, where gaming will finally be recognized as an art form, though not at the expense of the fun that gaming has to offer.