top of page

The Art of Video Games

“Reality is broken, game designers can fix it.” ~Jane McGonigal

When it comes to imagination and creative prowess, human beings are second to none. It’s easy to take the world around us for granted because of how desensitised we often become to what we see, hear, taste and touch daily. As we consciously think about them, it becomes easier to appreciate what humans have created. Visual arts, literature, music, cinema, architecture, sculpting, dance, sport, food, the list goes on. Each one of these examples is responsible for making our everyday lives colourful, how amazing. In this episode, I want to talk about another form of art and creative expression. One that’s close to my heart, just like film, music and any other form of art, but one that I’ve grown to love, respect, and appreciate over the past few years. One that is often overlooked and disregarded because it is more niche than the others. Now that I think of it, I’m surprised I haven’t spoken about it yet. Video games. This will be a fun one.


Industry muscle:


The inspiration for this episode goes to a friend of mine. We were having a conversation with her while driving and the topic of video games came up. At the moment, it was specific to guys loving video games - when I shared with her why I think most guys gravitate towards video games. Generalisation, I know, but gone are the days when video games were just something that guys enjoyed. A survey conducted in the third quarter of 2023 found that 89.6% of female internet users aged 16 to 24 years worldwide reported playing video games on any device. During the survey period, 92.6% of male respondents in the same age group stated that they played video games. The difference has reduced significantly.


Anyway, there are multiple reasons why people may love to play video games, but I do believe that except for those who play video games as a career and a source of income, all other reasons to play video games can be reduced to one key reason, which can also be applied to why people enjoy movies so much. But more on that in a bit. Before we jump into those, however, here’s a little background information about how big the industry is. In 2020, the global gaming market was valued at close to $160 billion USD. This included revenue from console games, PC games, mobile games, and esports. To put that into perspective, the music industry was valued at $19.1 billion USD, while the movie industry was valued at $41.7 billion USD. So the gaming industry was making over 3 times as much money as the music industry, and 4 times as much as the movie industry. Let that sink in. The market size has since grown to nearly $250 billion USD in 2023 and is expected to grow to over $600 billion USD by 2032.


The big 3 in the video game industry are Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. These three companies are the major video gaming hardware manufacturers and dominate the console gaming market. American company Nvidia is the leading global manufacturer of high-end graphics processing units (GPUs) with Microsoft as its biggest customers, who use these GPUs for their PCs. When it comes to individual games, however, there are plenty of developers and players who have their heads in the game. Earlier, the market predominantly included big AAA games - these are high-budget, high-profile games that are typically produced and distributed by large, well-known publishers. For example, the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, published by Rockstar Games, or the Call of Duty (COD) series, published by Activision. Over the past decade, advancements in technology have brought forth many smaller, indie developers into the spotlight who have produced high-quality games that have their own separate fan bases. Mobile gaming has also experienced a surge, with gaming phones making it easier for mobile game enthusiasts to play their favourite games wherever they are.


Photo by Kamil S on Unsplash


Just like how the music and film industry have adopted a subscription-style business model where you pay a certain fee to access a catalogue of songs and movies, Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation introduced their own versions titled GamePass and PlayStation Plus respectively, following the same business model. The age of physical discs and ownership is slowly beginning to fade, as you can pay a monthly fee and access hundreds of games at your fingertips. Your only limitation being storage space, and probably time.


So how did we get here? Why do people enjoy playing video games? And how are they different to other forms of art and creative expression?


The Portal


Simply put, video games act as another form of escape, just like film. However, there are ways in which video games are a different form of escape, almost like a portal of sorts. Once again, like all topics where we explore the ‘why’, this too has a bunch of what I call ‘surface level’ reasons that one might propose to explain why they play video games. However, the deeper we go, it’s easy to boil them down to this idea of a form of escape or portal. And that’s okay. Let me explain.


For example, one might argue that video games offer a sense of novelty. Novelty keeps life new, fresh, and entertaining. With countless different varieties of games and genres out there, saturation is extremely difficult. You can play a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft, or a multiplayer online battle arena game (MOBA) like League of Legends. Here, you form alliances, make friends, complete quests, and obtain items.


Or you might argue that there’s a sense of mastery associated with completing a challenging video game, especially if you compete online and have to hone your skills. Games like Overwatch, Valorant, Rainbow 6 Siege, and Counter-Strike, are a few examples of where reaction time, map awareness, aim, movement, and overall game knowledge are required to play well and win matches. Arcade games like Tekken, Mortal Kombat or sports games like EA Sports FC, formerly known as Fifa require a different type of skill. Alternatively, if you’re familiar with the developer FromSoftware’s games for instance, you’d know that games like the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, Elden Ring and Sekiro are immensely challenging single-player campaigns where the odds are stacked against you, and the only way to progress and beat the game is to get good. These games offer a safe place to try and fail, something that is not often in the real world, I’ll elaborate more on this. These are just a few examples, but with so many different types of games, stories, styles and varieties, the list of new possible experiences is endless.


If you’re simple, you might just say that games are fun, which is true - they are! But it’s more than that. Games are more than just ‘silly forms of fun’. How so?


Video games offer a safe haven from the daily monotony of our lives. They occupy a strange place in our cultural consciousness. Nearly everyone has played a game at some point in their lives. Keeping aside video games, everyone enjoys games in general - where the idea of adhering to a set of rules, understanding those rules and using our cognitive skills to win gives us a dopamine hit - that sense of achievement. Whether that’s something as simple as rock, paper, scissors, or a complex game where you need to learn the combat, magic and movement to slay a dragon, i.e. Dark Souls. The same can be applied to something like Chess, where even for a short while, we delve into a fantasy world where knights, bishops, pawns and rooks exist and have to move in a certain manner - and where queens are more powerful than kings.


Taking it a step further, role-playing games (RPGs) are the best example of how video games are nothing less than portals. For instance, RPGs allow someone who lives a typical 9-5 life to come home in the evening and jump into a world full of monsters, dragons, fairies, cowboys, anarchy, assassins, warriors, and so on and forget about the daily monotony of the ‘real world’, where that sense of fantasy and imagination can be hard to find. This is a feeling that only video games can do. As someone who loves both cinema and books, I must admit that the level of immersion I feel when playing a video game with a compelling narrative is different to that when reading a fiction novel or watching a movie. Now granted, something like this can be argued as a subjective matter. There are people who may not find video games immersive at all, just like they may be people who watch movies without thinking about immersion or connection to the story, character, and the world. But even a simpler example like rom-coms or books have the same principle. With fictional books, the romance genre covers a third of the entire fiction market, raking in $1 billion per year. Why is this? When reading a romance novel, the reader is temporarily transported into a world where they can connect with the protagonist and feel like they’re a part of the story, where they can feel connected to the fictional partner and participate in an idealised, romantic relationship, regardless of how ‘real’ or ‘unreal’ it may be. Or, a mystery crime thriller where the reader feels connected to a detective on the quest to solve a case and find the killer responsible. It may not be real, but it sure feels real. Video games are no different.


For instance, game developer Sucker Punch published a game titled ‘Ghost of Tsushima’, which follows the story of the Mongol invasion of Japan in the 13th century. You play as a samurai named ‘Jin Sakai’, and are responsible for helping the island of Tsushima fight off the Mongols for freedom. Similarly, developer CD Projekt Red published a game titled ‘Cyberpunk 2077’, where you live in a futuristic neon world called ‘Night City’, playing as a male or female character named ‘V’, and must live in a a city full of crime, politics, power and money to build your legacy. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner 1982 is one of my favourite movies, simply because of how it set the precedent for the sci-fi genre with futuristic technology, robots, androids, AI, etc. The synth music and cinematography of that movie made it way ahead of its time. The 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049 was a brilliant film as well, and so for someone looking to actively be a part of a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world, Cyberpunk is one of those games that delivers on all fronts, from graphics to lore, world density, and a narrative that can keep one engaged. Games like these offer portals like none other. It’s impossible to talk about every single game out there, but you can imagine each game being different in the story it’s trying to tell and the level of fantasy it offers to its players.


Or for a more fun example, take the Spider-man series by American developer Insomniac Games. Spider-Man is arguably the most recognised and loved superhero out there, probably tied with Batman. When it comes to really feeling like Spider-Man, these games are second to none. Everything from the web-swinging mechanics to the combat system, to how gorgeous the city of New York looks, has been designed with love and appreciation for the character. If you or someone you know has a PS5, I highly recommend giving it a go. The simple act of swinging will be enough to keep you hooked.


Here’s a still from the game with Miles Morales using his web wings to glide across NYC:



Going back to that sense of achievement associated with playing and hitting a milestone in a video game, this feeling can be hard to find for many outside of the video game world. The feeling of being responsible for a task, a mission, or a group of people, where you as a player have the power to make a difference, cannot be found elsewhere. You might argue that this feeling isn’t real, because it’s limited to the confines of a video game, but when you spend hours of your time with this fictional character focused on one mission, it doesn’t feel all that unreal. Especially if, after you’re done, you have to return to that mundane life of eating, sleeping, working, repeat.


The art of it all


I was at a bookstore a few weeks ago when I came across a book titled ‘How to Watch a Movie’, by David Thomson who is a British writer and film critic. The book was essentially about the various things to look out for when watching a film. For instance, Thomson wrote about how noticing elements such as acting performance, dialogue, background score, screenplay, and cinematography can significantly enhance our viewing experience and change the effect the film has on us. Now granted, not everyone may choose to do this. For some people, watching a film may just be a casual experience of turning Netflix on and having something to do as they enjoy their dinner. That was the case for me too for a while, until I realised how noticing these elements helped me enjoy movies all the more. The same can be said for video games, where the number of elements involved truly separates a good game, from a great one.


Depending on the type of video game we talk about, there are numerous elements involved that separate it from the rest. Going back to RPGs, elements such as animation style, world design, combat systems, character models, music, story narrative, and performance capabilities, all contribute to creating one unified package of entertainment. With stories, video games also have the benefit of being able to flesh out better and deeper narratives because of the time they have versus other forms of art. Developer Guerrilla Games who is responsible for creating the Horizon series, is a great example of how a good narrative and protagonist can change the experience for a player. The Horizon series follows a post-apocalyptic setting where you play as Aloy, a female warrior who was cast out of society for being different. Not being able to fit in her society, Aloy ventured out to find the meaning behind the apocalypse and uncover the truth. Along the way, you fight through robotic dinosaur-like machines in a worn-out world for survival. First, it’s easy to appreciate the creativity of this type of narrative. Second, Horizon joined the ranks as one of the few games featuring a female protagonist, changing the standards of video games where traditionally, the protagonist was a male. Here’s a still of a game with Aloy approaching a machine called a ‘Slitherfang’, inspired by a cobra:



Game designers also have the ability to change the way their games are available and enjoyed by the community. Take, for instance, the idea of accessibility. With the growth of the video game industry, there has also been a concurrent growth in accessibility inclusions in games that make them for everyone. Games increasingly now allow players to change preset settings such as brightness, contrast, subtitles, motor functions, sound changes, and more to help people with visual, motor, or auditory impairments to still enjoy their games. Developers know that firstly, doing so will attract a larger segment of people so it’s good for business. But also, that they take pride in their creations and want everyone to be able to experience what they’ve made.


What lies ahead


Steven Spielberg’s 2018 film Ready Player One, based on the book by Ernest Cline is a great example of how digital worlds have the power to transform our day-to-day experiences. If you haven’t watched, I recommend doing so if you’re someone who enjoys a light sci-fi adventure. While Ready Player One dabbles more on the side of virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) and how it can change our conception of reality. The game is a fairly accurate depiction of how our society could look, should the metaverse develop properly. I won’t spoil it for you, but the future of games is full of potential. VR and AR can enhance the level of immersion even further, taking us away from what is ‘real’ and what ‘feels real’.


The industry has no plans of slowing down any time soon either, with more developers and more games entering the spotlight to tell stories and narratives that transform experiences. For instance, there was a time when I avoided horror games and movies like the plague. However, upon playing some horror games such as the Resident Evil and Metro series, I developed a strong liking for the genre - mainly because of how thrilling and connected they made me feel. Add the element of VR into the mix, and you’re in for one scary experience. I couldn’t do it, 15 mins in and it was too much for me - that’s how immersive and real it felt.


Metro Exodus for instance, the latest instalment in the Metro series by developer 4A Games is based on the novel series by Dmitry Glukhovsky. The story of "Metro Exodus" follows Artyom, the protagonist, who is a survivor of a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war. The survivors of Moscow now live in the metro tunnels, trying to survive while battling mutated creatures and hostile factions. Here’s a still from the game:



Once again, it’s impossible to highlight every single game out there, simply because of the sheer number of stellar games there are. That’s not to mention the amount one can potentially learn from video games as well, particularly problem-solving and puzzle-solving skills that some games use to put players to the test. Solving these mini-games may seem trivial, but they do transfer over into the real world. If only one could use that in an interview when asked about what ‘transferable skills’ they can bring to the role.


Video games are more than just a fun way to pass the time, they’re portals that lead us to worlds like none other, worlds where players can feel responsible for a higher cause. The amount of effort that goes into creating a video game, no matter what size and scale is commendable and nothing short of creative prowess at the hands of humans.


As someone who loves all forms of art, I have nothing but love and appreciation for everything that has been created for expression and entertainment, be it movies, music, or the lot. Video games though, are different.


They’re a different kinda special.


 

Podcast Links


Prefer listening?

Check out this podcast episode for the Ideas & More show on Apple Podcasts & Spotify.

17 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page