On Games Growing Up, Players, Art, Sunset, Tales of Tales, and the IBTimes

growupA few days ago, Edward Smith wrote a piece for the International Business Times where he makes the suggestion that the attitude of players towards games like Her Story and Sunset are killing the video game industry. His argument stems, unsurprisingly, from the recent bankruptcy of Tales of Tales, the studio responsible for Sunset, and his perception of the general reception of Her Story, an FMV-driven narrative with minimalistic player input in the tradition of Night Trap. Edward explains how he longs for video games to grow up and become an artistic medium, and that player’s receptions to art games are preventing the medium to grow up. This is by no means the first article of its kind. Indeed several commentators have decried how the medium has yet to grow up and how players are preventing the medium from reaching maturity. I disagree with their premise.

I have already explained my thoughts on gaming “growing up” as a medium. I think that gaming HAS already frown up and most critics either have not realized it or are willfully blind to this development. I have argued that Watch_Dogs is a game that explores surveillance and that Dante’s Inferno forces the player to consider the power benefit of forgiving or purging a soul versus Dante’s consciousness. Admittedly, this latter argument regarding Dante’s Inferno is based on my own reading of the game and on Gee’s discussion of game characters and their relationship to the player in What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Gaming and Literacy, but it’s a very real one nonetheless. Likewise, one could argue that Gears of War is about placing the player in the shoes of the invading force and (hopefully) getting the player to think about their actions, Ni No Kuni is about grappling with loss, Catherine is about the question of relationship and faithfulness, and Persona is about identity and the self. These games explore “grown up” topics while still allowing players to engage in compelling and meaningful play. Of course, these games are hardly what one would call artistic masterpieces. However, that does not mean that there are not games that do not fit said description.

Edward’s argument revolves around the notion that what audience there is for artistic games is relatively small. He does mentions that Fullbright, makers of Gone Home, and other artistic game developers are still in business, but that ultimately when an artistic game fails it is the fault of the players who are “an audience that will not try something unless it knows in advance that the something is going to be good”. As I have seen in some discussion regarding these articles, Edward is making the humorously named “filthy peasants” argument. Players are not good enough or smart enough to “get the point” of art, so it’s their fault that we don’t have “better art”. But the thing is that we do have better art.

On 2001, Sony Computer Entertainment released Ico, a game in which the player takes control of a young boy trying to escape from a castle filled with shadows. The boy, however, has to guide a helpless Yorda to escape with him. Some of the areas cannot be cleared without Yorda’s help, thus creating a symbiotic relationship between the player’s Ico and Yorda. This clearly artistic game recieved a 90% rating at Metacritic and sold a respectable half a million copies.

Following the critical success of Ico, Sony released Shadow of the Colossus on 2005 – a prequel to Ico. Shadow of the Colossus puts the player in control of a wonderer whose task is to explore The Forbidden Lands and to kill sixteen giant colossi. The game is often hailed as an example of games as art, specially because of the final sequence in which, after killing sixteen majestic creatures and wondering why they don’t defend themselves better, the player is turned into a colossus. At this moment the player, despite having the option of smashing some hunters, feels the helplessness of being a giant colossus under siege because the game reverses the role. It places the player in the role of prey, rather than hunter. This prequel to Ico received a score of 91 in Metacritic and sold over one million copies.

On 2009, That Game Company published Flower, a game in which the player takes control of the wind and gathers flower petals from a withering landscape in order to create a spontaneous bust of life at the end of the stage. Flower received a respectable 87 in Metacritic, and while there is no easily accessible sales data the game ranked #1 in sales on the PSN for April 2009 (http://www.engadget.com/2009/04/15/flower-remains-best-selling-psn-game-in-march/) and November 2013 (http://www.playstationlifestyle.net/2013/12/06/november-2013-psn-sales-charts-in-north-america-have-flowercall-of-duty-ghosts-at-1-on-ps4/). Flower is, unquestionably, video game art.

The remarkable Papo y Yo, an exploration of a son’s relationship with an alcoholic and abusive father, which stands with a Metacritic score of 70 (I honestly think it should be higher) and a debut as a top seller in the PSN when it was released on August 2012. Steam reviews give the game a ranking of 9 out of 10.

The Unfinished Swan, Limbo, Flow, Echochrome, and Rain are all games often considered as artistic. All of these are highly regarded by critics and players alike and have had strong sales.

Yes, there is a glut of first person shooters with gray and brown aesthetics and unmemorable characters, but the fault of that lies squarely with Activision’s yearly releases of Call of Duty (the latest installment of which I admit is unlike the others and quite fun) and EA’s Battlefield series. But is The Gaming Industry only EA and Activision? No. Is The Gaming Industry only gritty first person shooters?


The Gaming Industry includes HearthStone, Super Smash Bros, Shovel Knight, Child of Light, Monument Valley, The Crew, Broken Age, Transistor, Hohokum, and much more. And yes, that includes gritty first person shooters like Call of Duty, but it also includes colorful first person shooters like Splatoon.

And so the question remains: why did Sunset fail? Why is Her Story poorly received? The answer to the first question is addressed by the developers of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a 2014 supernatural detective game considered by some as artistic. Having not played it yet I will reserve my judgment on its artistic quality, let alone play, but if its Steam scores are any indicator it was a very well received game both critically and commercially. As for Her Story, I’m not entirely sure that Edward is being honest in his assessment of the situation. The game is highly ranked both in Steam and Metacritic, and the only two negative reviews of the game in GOG are negative because it’s an FMV game with minimalistic play. The game, based on what little data I can find of it, seems to be selling rather well and to be well liked by those who purchase it.

Now here’s another question.

Let’s suppose for a second that Sunset, which Edward admits “I did not even think Sunset was very good”, failed miserably not because the game failed to appeal to players but because, for some reason, players dislike art games. Let’s suppose that Her Story was universally hated (which it’s not). Would this mean that the game industry is dying?

Again, the answer is no.

If we were to concede all of Edward’s points that players are universally a mob of angry art-hating juvenile delinquents who froth at the mouth when they read the terms “art” and “game” in the same paragraph (which I am not), then this would mean that the industry would cater to said demographic, as it would be the demographic that buys games. If Edward’s claims were true, what Movie Bob calls “the tip of the iceberg” in his latest video would be the entirety of gaming.

But it’s not.

Gaming is far more than what Edward claims it to be. Gaming is far more grown up than Edward gives it credit for. Games are more artistic and inspired than ever before. Games are smarter and more engaging than they have ever been. And given the character trends in the 2014 and 2015 E3, I think it is unequivocally true that gaming is now far more inclusive in terms of character representation than it has ever been. And one experimental game company closing its doors because a game sold poorly is not going to change that.
Now that you’re done, catch a similar argument made by Movie Bob (like him or hate him, everything he says here is spot on) and when you’re done go play that other highly successful art game Life is Strange.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on June 29, 2015, in Media Commentary, Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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