With the arrival of the highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto 5 comes the considerably less anticipated time for endless newspapers and websites to make the self-proclaimed ‘daring’ claim that video games can be regarded as works of art. Whilst this is lovely (and well done them, really) it’s pretty clear for anyone who isn’t an idiot to see that games have been works of art for well over a decade now.
I first became consciously aware of it during my first play-through of Metal Gear Solid 2 – a game which is now 12 years old. The whole thing felt like a film interspersed with instances of playable intermissions. As the narrative unfolded the bits where the gamer became directly involved faded into irrelevancy. Yet the story was compelling enough for it to not matter. This was a game that transcended the preconceptions of gaming: it could have worked as a piece of cinema, theatre or performance. That’s because empathy – a keystone of all coherent artistic endeavours – enabled the player to develop meaningful correspondence with the protagonists. We cared about their fate, their lives, as they resonated with us.
As I ascended from the glittering heights of teenage years into the grudging despair of my early 20’s my appetite for games waned. My life was still punctuated by the odd spurt of Pokémon and Sonic the Hedgehog (and still is), but seemly I stumbled into the realms of what would now be considered a ‘casual gamer’ as other commitments and facets of reality took hold. It was not that I outgrew games, or that the quality of games declined – I simply didn’t have the time, money or resources to make gaming a staple part of my life.
However, this comes with its own set of advantages. For, akin to when one takes a step back from a painting in order to assess it, so my step back from gaming allowed me to assess my opinion and persistent admiration for the industry. Moreover, I am now able to develop a correspondence that draws parallels to the very structure of a game and the processes achieved through my own practice. I am talking about the notion of the Beta Game.
Some months ago I became re-acquainted with Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Whilst I enjoyed several nostalgia-filled attempts at beating the Death Egg, I also stove to consider the processes used to create the game. As I conducted a bit of research it became clear just how much preliminary content is removed from the final game: Whole levels have been manipulated from fragments of design into the levels we know and love. This echoes the processes I go through when contemplating a piece of work. For, when I apply the paint I have created onto a surface, allowing it to depict something; I always consider the fact that the paint – my own creation – is becoming altered. The paint is removed slightly from its pure intention, yet potentially able to express something with more coherence than it originally could. Moreover, it still exists within the work – the same way the Beta Levels of Sonic 2 still exist, within the architecture of the game. A Beta Level forms the basis of contemplating something complete, the same way paint does.
A particular level – The Hidden Palace Zone – is the most complete of the Beta Game zones from Sonic 2, and was removed due to the game cartridge not having enough space to fit it on. This echoes the painter’s struggle to achieve a work of art within the confines of a canvas. Indeed, the very reason why I attempt to remove the idea of a canvas – or any surface – from my work is so the work can exist without limitations.
Does this lost Sonic level resonate with my own practice? I certainly think so!
Perhaps, on some level (excuse the pun) my practice of paint making pays homage to the Hidden Palace Zone. The zone can be accessed and played – by downloading it – but it can’t be completed: My paints, too, are not complete – they remain unused, yet with the purity and potential that makes the notion of using them irrelevant. And if a level from a game cannot be completed, and therefore devoid of function, then is it not a work of art?