Video Games as Art: Ico as Isolation

I like to think that we have moved beyond the question of whether video games are art. Critics and consumers are much more receptive to the idea that the medium has reached a level of creative, emotional power that it can be seen as a genuine form of artistic expression, to stand alongside literature, cinema, painting, and sculpture. Indeed, I’m sure many would argue (including myself) that video games have always been art, and there is just as much artistic nuance to be derived from studying Pacman as there is Disco Elysium. However, you will still find pockets of academia, in-industry professionals, and gamers who refuse to see video games as anything more than virtual toys, any true claim to artistic greatness undermined by their inherent nature as product. We can thank the late Roger Ebert for really popularising this discourse to begin with, delivering this infamous quote in 2005: –

‘To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic’.

There is even an interview with Hideo Kojima from 2006, in which he agrees with Ebert’s assessment

‘If 100 people walk by and a single person is captivated by whatever that piece radiates, it’s art. But videogames aren’t trying to capture one person. A videogame should make sure that all 100 people that play that game should enjoy the service provided by that videogame. It’s something of a service. It’s not art’.

Keeping in mind these claims are almost two decades old, it is still easy to look back on both of them as elitist and overly concerned with semantics. To Kojima and Ebert, games cannot be art, because art for them is defined as niche, artistically independent and, in essence, a sublime rarity. Ebert, in particular, when forced to subscribe to his own theory would have to admit that most films are also not art. Indeed, the crux of his reasoning is that nobody living can cite a game worthy in comparison to the all-time greats, which is such an easy critical copout for somebody who clearly had little time, or love for the medium to begin with. Can we, for example, compare the great work of cinema Andrei Rublev to a physical painting produced by Rossetti, Van Gogh, or Gaugin? As consumers, perhaps we can go to some lengths in recognising critical similarities through examining composition, tone, colour theory and emotion evoked. Andrei Rublev is also a film concerning a real historical painter, which is vital context that allows easier comparison between what are, essentially, two completely different mediums. By Ebert’s mindset, however, video games aren’t allowed into this realm of critical collation. Dreams, which allows players to reexperience famous Van Gogh paintings like Starry Night, recontextualised through entirely new visual perspectives, or Starry Knight, an arcade-esque, boss rush that sees players actively fighting and engaging across literal scans of the great artist’s work, apparently just do not count. To skirt around passionate, driven indie games that eschew any sort of guaranteed monetary recompense for uninhibited vision, Ebert offers this rebuttal: –

‘Immersive game[s] without points or rules… cease to be game[s] and become a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them’.

Starry Knight (2022)

Games should, apparently by definition, be something you win – something with set rules by which to challenge yourself or compete with others. This again feels narrow-minded, and needlessly compares video games to (what I can only imagine) Ebert’s own traditional experiences with board games, like chess, or Risk (pass-times with binary rules for success that are designed to do exactly that, pass time). Without going into how this ignores wider, complex tabletop experiences like Dungeons & Dragons (which specifically values infinitely malleable worlds and independent player expression), it also serves to illustrate his claim that art is not something that you can inherently win. While the Mona Lisa doesn’t feature an on-rails turret section, it is part of a wider intellectual sort of game that Ebert happily ignores. If we’re going to talk about games in terms of semantics then I’m going to take it to the illogical extreme, and claim that Ebert sets up a game of his own when talking about the pinnacle of high art. The challenge, in this case, the rules (since they must be present in order for it to be a game) are based on the intellectual hurdles of understanding. If art can only be art through its divine qualities, and (at least through Kojima’s eyes) its niche qualities, its ability to only be appreciated by the gifted few, then you have already, essentially gamified the entire process. To build-up to the correct level of artistic appreciation, one must start to gather a wider, critical knowledge of everything that has come before and, only through the accumulation of experience and understanding, eventually reach a level by which to appreciate what and what is not true art. To me, this sounds akin to playing so much Overwatch you get good enough to reach top 500 and get to rub elbows with the other experts. Ebert claims that games cannot be art when critical theory concerning art is a game within itself. If you are creating barriers to entry, levels of ‘what is’ and ‘what isn’t’, then you are only granting those with what you deem as the correct qualifications to engage. This is, comparatively, much like a video game that is challenging, with only those deemed worthy by the system able to proceed and experience the next step of the journey. I’m afraid that our entire existence is based around ‘goal-based interactivity’, whether Roger Ebert liked it or not.

Human beings are infinitely complex and as stupid as it sounds having to reiterate this, different people are going to enjoy different things. Kojima’s claim that games are a service that should appeal to a majority is laughable, only in the sense that the man makes incredibly divisive experiences, with Death Stranding being one of the most critically polarising titles of recent memory. I loved it for all the reasons that Kojima seems to cite as the factors that contribute to something being art – it was a game for the few, not for the many. The people who like Death Stranding really liked it because it was different and insisted on taking strange, slow-paced risks; offering alienating gameplay systems, bizarre narrative twists and elements of game design that go against the grain of what the game-playing population deem as ‘fun’. Granted, Kojima may well have changed his tune on the whole argument of games as art, but it will always endlessly amuse me that some of his creations are the first to be offered on the mantle of rebuttal whenever anybody dares to claim they are not. If Kojima is trying to make games as product that appeal to the masses, then he is doing a spectacularly poor job for the most part. Even early in his career, the auteur was clearly unable to curb his own artistic intention, and it is precisely for that reason that he gained a level of mainstream popularity – uninhibited, personal creative passion, for better and for worse, has shaped Kojima’s career. He has created art.

To move away from definitions and petty jabs at late critics, I wanted to explore Ico in relation to games as art, and specifically its early place within the medium as definitive proof of the claim. From a purely visual perspective, Ico encompasses all the elements of what we might deem as visual art. The game’s director, Fumito Ueda, employed a game design philosophy that focused on removing elements that were deemed unnecessary – mechanics or visual design features that actively interfered with the story and atmosphere. In this way, Ico, is akin to an interactive take on an M.C. Escher painting, tasking players with guiding a young boy with horns and his enigmatic female companion through a mysterious winding castle. Ico’s plot is brief, purposely vague and compellingly strange. There is no clear indicator of any sort of goal or win-condition when playing the game, no prologue filling the player in, or wall of text setting up the stakes. Our protagonist is taken, in chains, to a strange castle and left in a stone pod – the adults who left him there letting him know that it was for his own good. Through small moments of cutscene dialogue, you can begin to piece together finer details, including the fact that the boy is meant as some sort of sacrifice, his horns marking him as a necessary offering. Indeed, you may not even realise when playing that the character you control is called Ico, or that his female companion (who he discovers caged up after escaping his stone tomb) is called Yorda. These names have become common knowledge entirely in retrospect, the game’s place within the cultural canon having led them to become well-known. Of course, an entire spread of information is available in the game’s manual, but I would be willing to bet that most players, even in the early 2000s, ignored it entirely. Ico is more enjoyable the less you know about it, the less that is explicitly revealed to you and, like most art, it is ripe for layered interpretation. There is a stillness and a sadness to your surroundings, a decadent castle seemingly completely uninhabited by anything human, its silence only partnered by the shadowy figures that emerge to steal Yorda away. Are the forces acting within the confines of this place evil? Are you guiding Ico simply to escape? Or to something greater? These are the questions that the player may ask themselves when playing, and most of them will never even be answered. Is the point of art, to an extent, not to ask you something about yourself? To provide a form by which to contemplate something greater? There is no HUD for Ico, no waypoints and nothing to tell you what to do next. Instinct is what guides you, subtle hints of level design that become second nature as you adapt to the location you find yourself in. Ico is alone, he cannot even understand the language of the girl he has decided to take with him – what drives our protagonist? Is it the same thing that drives you day to day? The desire to do what is right in the face of great adversity is a tale as old as time itself, the concept that defines our moral compass as human beings. The focus on character animation and lighting serves to intensify these emotions. Ico and Yorda move with a degree of realism, especially for the time frame in which the game was released, and they react to the environment in surprising, life-like ways. Ico may scamper up a steep incline, lose his footing on a thin beam, or flail a stick haphazardly in the way only a young boy does. He is, for all intents and purposes, real – freed from the strings of a virtual puppeteer – a case in which technological advancement combines with artistic intention in order to elevate the narrative to an even higher level. The degree of bloom, the intensity of the lighting, will mean different things for different players. For some, it may evoke a sort of melancholy beauty, a level of blinding sunlight that serves to highlight the sadness of the empty castle and create a stark juxtaposition with the darker parts of the inner chambers. Or, as it did for me, it can conjure up that naked feeling you experience when placed under a fluorescent bulb. Every pore and fine detail made clear for the world to see, the uncomfortable other world under the magnifying glass – like a patient in an operating theatre.

There are clear goals within the moment-to-moment gameplay of Ico, and it contains rooms to traverse, puzzles to solve and bouts of combat. Despite all the strangeness, the game design that baulks at the expected, Ico is still very much a video game, owing as much to The Legend of Zelda as it does to Studio Ghibli, Escher and other visual art. That said, if we were to impose Ebert’s criteria on top of Ico, then we find it does not fit into any of his preconceptions about video games. The game very clearly has rules, and it does have a point, a goal that can be reached – a point of completion. It is not an ‘immersive sim’ that acts only as a virtual playground, and it certainly isn’t trying to ape another medium or act as a representation of an art form that is distinctly not a video game. Ico is also, resolutely, not a marketable product in any way shape or form, it is genuinely original and personal creative material. During a time when mascot platformers were still pretty much at the forefront of gaming, Ico stands out as slow, deliberate and strange; a stew of elements that absolutely guarantee that the game would not be a financial success. To put it in the same comparative terms as Ebert does in his own writing, Ico is to Cormac McCarthy as Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex is to Nicholas Sparks.

‘I might argue that the novels of Cormac McCarthy are so motivated, and Nicholas Sparks would argue that his novels are so motivated. But when I say McCarthy is “better” than Sparks and that his novels are artworks, that is a subjective judgment, made on the basis of my taste (which I would argue is better than the taste of anyone who prefers Sparks).’

There is a clear critical and artistic dichotomy between these two titles, a dichotomy that it seems Ebert cannot believe exists within the realms of video gaming, which to him are simply product, their value defined by their money-making potential. It’s funny to realise that Ico existed as a piece of art well before Ebert even made his original claim in 2005, a whole four years before. I would argue that games have been art since inception, and it’s easy to point to titles that evoke similar feelings to Ico as far back as you want to go. With my age and my current experience limiting what I have played, I can only talk about stand-out artistic accomplishments at certain points in video game history, bringing up the likes of Terranigma, Ihatovo Monogatari, Earthbound, Sweet Home and Another World. Ebert, to an extent, was blinded by his own refusal to engage with video games in the same way he chose to engage with cinema – the latter made sense to him because, of course, he was an expert, the former did not because it was new, a fad that, for some reason, had stuck around. It is easy to be dismissive of emerging art forms, the same way it is easy to outsmart a child. Yes, you are older and wiser, but one day you will be overtaken by what comes next, and whatever it is will have the advantage of learning from your mistakes.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge Ico’s one clearly intentional tie to the realm of high art, which is clearly present in the European and Japanese box art. This piece, painted by Ueda himself, is a clear reference to the work of Greco-Italian artist, Georgio de Chirico, specifically his paintings produced during his metaphysical period. Concerned with isolation, Chirico’s paintings often contained elongated shadows and imposing, large towers. However, hand in hand with that emptiness are allusions to freedom, to the power of open space, a visual manifestation of the feelings that being by yourself can conjure – you may be alone, but you are powerful within your own realm. It is no surprise that Ueda apes Chirico’s style in this instance since Ico plays upon many of the same feelings. Indeed, just as the in-game camera can pan out until our hero is a mere speck on the landscape, you can see him boldly run across the cover art, hand in hand with Yorda. The sheer unspoken heroism is moving in ways you do not initially expect, the young boy is almost swallowed by the landscape but see how tall his shadow falls. This subtlety, this artistic nuance pumps through every vein of Ico – from the box art to the graphics and animation, to the gameplay and mechanics, to the little bouts of story and plot implication. Ico is, undoubtedly art, it doesn’t take a genius to see that, and just like art, many may find it boring, dull, or not clear enough – the same criticisms you can see levied against greats like Terrence Malick, Tarkovsky and Bergman. The argument surrounding games not being art is old hat now, and indeed, widely considered untrue. I look back to challenge Ebert and Kojima’s, admittedly, off-the-cuff claims in order to try and challenge myself, and my own critical understanding of the medium. Examining art through the lens of the critics you disagree with can help reaffirm what makes it so special to begin with, an interesting exercise within the realm of media consumption. Ebert was a powerhouse within the sphere of film criticism, and a fiercely intelligent man, it is with the utmost respect that I voice my disappointment regarding his refusal to engage with video games as art. And, it’s with even greater disappointment that I come to realise he never got to play Ico.

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