High Concept, Low Art

The young man is nameless; he lays the girl down atop the altar and begs the heavens above him for help. She was taken too young, he says, but I will do anything for you to bring her back to life. Back to me.

The skies open up and a voice beckons. Bring us these trophies, the voice says, and we may be able to help the girl.

Anything, the young man says. I will do anything.

The light shines to a point in the distance. Start there, the voice says, and do not return until you have what we want.

And with that he is off to face challenges unknown, with nothing stronger than hope to guide him as he wanders through the cold and unforgiving world.

The girl, lifeless, will be kept safe. For now. And, he hopes, forever.


It reads like some kind of inspirational tale, something out of Greek or African tribal mythology. A nameless quest, love surviving the afterlife, redemption of the dead through the trials of the living, and so on. Some very intense themes indeed, but what comes as a shocker to a lot of the people I describe this too is not that this is a work of fiction, but what that fiction is used for.

Not for life lessons. Not for inspiration. Not for a lecture on morality. Not even as the premise for the last of this summer's swashbuckling epic movies, complete with some hot Hollywood starlet as the comatose girl in a low-cut dress.

It's the setup for a video game, of all things.

A game! That lowliest of entertainment forms! What ever happened to blowing up Commies and using spaceships to destroy other spaceships?


No one's sure of exactly when, but at some point video games grew up and they grew up in a big way. Some will cite the maturing of the audience, others will cite the leaps and bounds in development made possible by the new audio and video technologies. Still others will point to the financial growth of the industry giving developers the resources to develop something a little deeper than "finish the race as fast as possible."

Not that Super Mario didn't change a life or two, but when countless gamers out there (myself included) are pushing two decades of home console ownership, you have to just assume that the consumers and the producers figured out a way to mature together.

Where Kid Icarus had us slaying cartoon renditions mythological monsters, we now have God of War leading us to topple the celestial hierarchy itself in extremely graphic detail.

Where Contra had us defending the planet from alien invasion with one gun and one combat buddy, Halo now leads us through tens of hours of staving off human enslavement and fighting a war of epic proportions, complete with platoons and biblical overtones.

The evolution is there even in continuing series: where the original Metal Gear was a chain of simple stealth infiltrations through fortresses and compounds, the Metal Gear Solid games now have us infiltrating the very fabric and foundation of modern government, diplomacy, conspiracy and international relations.

And where the original Legend of Zelda had us conquering monsters to save the girl, we now have Shadow of the Colossus, which leads the player on a mission to...well, conquer monsters and save the girl. But in way more dramatic fashion, as pointed out by the beginning of this column.


The sad part is that, despite these leaps and bounds in narrative and storytelling and presentation and gameplay dynamics and themes, there are those who still write off the entire medium.

Juvenile, they say.

Immature, they say.

Condescending, they say.

Glorifies violence while demeaning and objectifying women, they say.

And in many cases, that's true. I'll be the first to admit that Panty Raider is stupid, and the first to admit that the Grand Theft Auto games definitely veer into territory that can be described at best as "grossly sexist." What these critics don't realize is that these things aren't at all exclusive to games.

Up and down the annals of great literature and classic films there are countless blotches of sexism, racism, drug glorification, reckless boozing, and sexual themes bordering on obscene. Ernest Hemingway, revered as the greatest American writer of the 20th century, was no stranger to dropping a few n-words throughout his stories. The great romance at the center of Sergio Leone's gangster classic Once Upon a Time in America begins with Noodles raping Carol - who later becomes the apple of both his and Max's eyes - during the robbery scene. Even the beloved children's tale Alice in Wonderland - both the Lewis Carroll story and the Disney movie - acts as one giant inside stoner joke, replete with hash, opium, pot and mushroom references. And the list goes on and on.

So why pick on video games? Why write off the entire medium as some people do? Why threaten legal action against retailers selling adult-oriented games to minors but not against movie theaters who don't ID underage patrons paying to see bloodbaths like Sin City?

The sad truth is that video games, to this point, have yet to establish their legitimacy in this country. Their artistic underpinnings are only taken seriously within the industry and in the fringes of design schools across America. Compare this to their portrayal across other media: in movies and on TV they are relegated to the obsession that took over someone's life or the inspiration for someone's act of horrific violence. In music, games are name-checked as jokes, even though more and more software titles are producing scores that rival whatever Hollywood studios are using to accompany their latest endeavors.

What it really comes down to is that games are the reigning "low art." In much the same way the book crowd mocked movies, and the way the painters mocked cartoonists, something happened where every other medium put themselves in a position to take potshots at the world of gaming. The evolution of popular art suggests that this is out of fear that games will take over the hearts and minds of the public the way every other form has in some way been knocked down by whatever came after it; the financial figures and the insane amount of money that successful titles are making for their developers suggest that a lot of this is out of good old-fashioned jealousy.

Whatever the case, it's not a stretch to say that it's only a matter of time before no one's worried about games anymore. There will be something more immediate, something that penetrates the culture on a deeper level. And then, the developers out there can shake their heads at this vulgar new "low art."

And they too will finally know just what all those writers, musicians, movie makers, radio hosts, painters, illustrators, comic authors, and television talents were talking about all along.