Roger Ebert once wrote that games can never be art. “No one,” he said, “in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists, and poets.” For a while, I agreed with him.
Growing up, I didn’t have much exposure to video games outside of my Nintendo 64. The only games I had were Mario Kart, Mario 64, and Pokémon Snap. Everyone else had Super Mario Smash Brothers, but I was never that good and often left out. Like many teens, I struggled to find my place. I was surrounded by friends but was suffering internally and felt terribly lonely. I read fantasy books to escape and developed a deep appreciation for literature and poetry. Reading and writing became an outlet for everything that I was feeling. My interest in gaming faded. I didn’t have time for games because I didn’t think they were worth my time. The closest I came was having my mom buy me a PlayStation so I could invite friends over to play Dance Dance Revolution. I was desperate to be popular and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I never bought anything else for my PlayStation. I saw commercials for Grand Theft Auto and thought that this was the extent of video game culture. To me, games were pop culture, horror, blood, guts, and, in my opinion, shallow. As a girl, I didn’t think games were meant for me. They were for boys playing soldiers. Boys who took pleasure in blood splattering and killing and hypersexualizing women.
My PlayStation collected dust.
I didn’t start to adjust my views until I moved in with my boyfriend last summer, around the same time Destiny was released. It was one of the few times, he said, that he would ever preorder a video game as it was supposed to be the next big thing since Halo. The highly anticipated game came with a promise of celebrity voice talent, a unique story, outstanding visuals, and revolutionary online gameplay. I nodded and said nothing. I didn’t really care that much.
So he picked up his copy on a Saturday and put the disc in while I fiddled around on my laptop until he became bored or something. But then the game started. And I couldn’t stop watching.
There was detailed animation, a colorful environment, and what seemed like the potential for a rather interesting scifi story. I ended up watching him play. I offered him the occasional “To your left! Shoot it!” advice. I asked if we (read: he) could play every weekend. He was so excited that I was getting into it. I was hooked. What was The Traveler? How did the Ghost thing make you alive again? What the heck was happening? Will pressing X make that thing go boom? I became invested in the characters much like I do when I read.
And then it ended. And none of these questions were answered.
My boyfriend and I just stared at the television screen.
“Well, that sucked,” I said.
“I feel cheated,” said my boyfriend.
This was supposed to be something special. And in the end, it was just okay. Maybe my original thoughts on video games were right.
By then it was October and Alien: Isolation, my boyfriend’s personal most anticipated game of the year, released. Never have I ever—not during a movie or scary TV show or a Stephen King novel—felt such genuine and visceral fear. Never had I expected that a video game would be brave enough not just to hack and slash and shoot, but to have hiding and sneaking as the main part of the gameplay. I think my boyfriend was stuck under a desk for an hour, paralyzed with fear. And we were playing on easy.
Never in a million years did I ever think that a video game could bring out such pure emotion in me. I was hooked.
My boyfriend was glad to see me enjoying this, so he bought me Tomb Raider, the new Lara Croft reboot from 2013. Completely different from Alien: Isolation in terms of gameplay, the themes of a young woman thrust into a survival situation and stepping up to the plate were there and, in my opinion, more masterfully told in a superior story. I swear my soul hurt when [Spoiler warning] Roth got an ax in the back. I was so upset when the game ended (and equally upset when we found out that Rise of the Tomb Raider would be exclusive to Xbox for a good while). I wanted more. I wanted to feel more.
I didn’t realize that video games had evolved into vehicles of intricate stories and creative gameplay. At the heart of these games were stories of resilience, hope, anger, and grief—expressed in a way that gives the player agency and responsibility. In a book, you can only read what the characters do and, if it’s a good book, feel empathy for them. But in a video game, it’s more than empathy—it’s responsibility. If it’s a well-crafted story, your guilt, fear, and joy is real and it’s yours.
Storytelling hasn’t changed all that much and it seems unfair to compare an institution that has been in development for thousands of years to an institution that has only been around since about the 1950s. Though any vehicle daring enough to change the vehicle of storytelling, to innovate and make anew, is bound to be met with resistance from traditionalists. Movies, for example, were considered less of an art form than theater, and so on. To separate them entirely—two struggling industries that can desperately use each other—seems almost like a tragic loss.
It’s not right to speak ill of the dead, but I’ll quote Mr. Ebert one more time:
“Perhaps it is foolish of me to say ‘never,’ because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”
By recommendation of a good friend, I picked up Journey for PS3. Immediately, I was taken by a gorgeous landscape of rusty reds and shimmering golds and the emotional sounds of cellos and violins. As an emotional story of civilization found and lost, death, rebirth, enlightenment, and the ones left to figure out why unfolded across my eyes, I realized that this was something more than just a game. This was storytelling at its finest. This was art.
Maybe this is the beginning of my gaming journey.