The Art of Video Games

Does LA Noire point the way toward a more sophisticated gaming future?

When computer games are discussed in the mainstream media, they are very often portrayed in a negative light. Whether it is influential yet violent first-person shooter Doom being implicated as an influence on school shootings in the USA, or the controversial Manhunt being blamed for youth violence closer to home, games rarely fare well outside the dedicated gaming press.

However, this month saw the release of 1940s based cop saga, LA Noire, and with it a positive reaction right across the broad. Released by Rockstar Games - hot on the heels of their spaghetti western epic Red Dead Redemption - it has all the trappings of a classic film noir: a strong but flawed male protagonist, a femme fatale, expressive lighting, a throaty voiceover and – most importantly – a gripping narrative full of twists and turns.

Starring Aaron Staton of hit television series Mad Men and shot using groundbreaking technology that involves 32 cameras capturing actors’ expressions, LA Noire is the first video game to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. Bridging the gap between movie and game, this once again raises the question, should video games be considered art?

Belfast-based video game blogger and ex-games tester, Jake Wilson, thinks that games like LA Noire point the way toward an innovative new future. 'Games are at a critical juncture in their evolution,' opines Wilson. 'They are becoming less a niche hobby and more a mainstream cultural medium, and being able to define games as art would help legitimise that process greatly.

'In the past, the greatest challenges in game design were largely technical: how do I make this character look human using only 32 colours? Now, the technology has largely caught up with our imaginations and we are seeing developers looking at game design from an increasingly artistic viewpoint.'

LA Noire’s tale of Detective Cole Phelps’ rise through the ranks of the L.A.P.D. wears its influences on its sleeves. The style of writer and director, Brendan McNamara, is heavily inspired by movies such as Billy Wilder’s classic noir, Double Indemnity, as well as the novels of James Ellroy.

Set in 1947, at the wane of the Golden Age of Hollywood, hulking film sets dominate large portions of the game, as well as run-down studios that didn’t quite make the transition to the talkies. Furthermore, there are countless references to the cultural icons of the era, both in the mise-en-scene and the script. Does Wilson that this cross-over influence from various art forms is becoming more apparent in today’s games?

'Red Dead Redemption borrowed heavily from Sergio Leone films, and as a result felt almost immediately familiar. The upcoming Rock of Ages uses a variety of artistic inspirations in its level design, from the aesthetic of the Ancient Greeks through to Goya.

'One could view this as simple plagiarism, but it certainly shows that developers are starting to put much more emphasis on creating an emotional engagement between player and game. For a piece of work to be considered art, it must engage the viewer on an emotional level. Similarly, an emotional connection with the characters or events in a computer game is also fast becoming one of the defining characteristics of a high quality game, so there is a growing connection between art and games.

'However games, by their very nature, rely on rules and conventions and it could be argued that this is the antithesis of art. I would suggest that whilst some games could be considered art, and many more possess artistic elements, to baldly state "videogames are art" would be inaccurate.'

Another aspect to consider when discussing the artistic merit of video games is their realism. LA Noire relies heavily on its authenticity, from the stitching on the stylish designer suits to the detail of the classic cars motoring through the streets. Indeed, when the player enters one of these vehicles, the radio plays recordings of shows from the era, including the hilarious Jack Benny Programme.

It might seem that this attention to detail is paramount if a game’s artistic merit is to be taken seriously, but according to Wilson it isn’t that simple. 'I always feel that if a game is striving to be ultra realistic, then it should be doing it for a very good reason.' he states. 'A game like LA Noire needs to be as realistic and historically accurate as possible, but on the other hand, a game like Call of Duty wouldn't be nearly so popular if it accurately depicted the true horror of war.

'Then there are plenty of games like Super Mario, in which realism isn't even a question. Most games offer escapism as one of their main attractions, but there are also no shortage of implausible simulators out there, which offer the player an almost true to life experience of, say, driving a train. Where one might discuss the art of videogames, these simulators represent the science.'

Finally, Wilson is uncertain whether or not games being validated as ‘art’ truly matters. He is torn. 'As a gamer, no. The sole responsibility of a game designer is to make a good, fun game. If you put anything ahead of that, you are failing in your responsibility as a developer.

'However, as a human being, I would say the complete opposite. It is absolutely essential to have someone pushing the boundaries of game design, or the industry becomes stagnant. The best studios are those who challenge our assumptions about what makes a game or approach their development in the same way an auteur approaches filmmaking.'

Whether it should be considered art or not, playing LA Noire is an engaging gaming experience like no other. This is a sophisticated game driven by a good story rather than the ultimate death toll: a step forward, in my book. Both hardened gamers and those who have never picked up a joypad before will enjoy the experience.