Are Games Art? Here’s How Three Developers Answered


In a recent interview with Empire Magazine, legendary filmmaker Martin Scorcese was dismissive about movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kicking the proverbial hornet’s nest by saying “that’s not cinema.” Others have likewise rejected the idea that video games are a work of art. Film critic Roger Ebert famously stated that “games cannot be art,” though he later softened his stance.

For developers, the question of whether video games are technically an art form has a more complicated answer.

“It almost doesn’t do you any good to think about that,” said Sean Murray of Hello Games. “It’s not your motivation for doing something.”

For some creators, game development is comparable to the artistic process in other mediums. “I think that all of the effort and training and discipline and collaboration of an art department is almost like an amazing band working together to create a single piece of music,” said Jeff Sangalli of Pixelopus, the small studio behind Concrete Genie.

Kareem Ettouney, co-founder of Media Molecule and art director on Dreams, had a much more direct response to the question.

“Absolutely, games at the moment are not only an art but It is the art of this era.” Ettouney said.

Those quoted above are credited with developing some of the most visually striking games of the last several years. The Washington Post spoke with the creators of Concrete Genie, No Man’s Sky and Dreams to discuss how art shaped their vision and how it manifests in their creations.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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Concrete Genie

Art Director Jeff Sangalli and Creative Director Dominic Robilliard of Pixelopus

Q: Can you speak the challenges of taking a group of artists with different backgrounds and aesthetics and what it’s like to bring that all together into one cohesive vision?

Sangalli: It’s sort of a collaboration in the beginning with you just being there to support and try to make sure that there’s people saying ‘yes’ mostly at that early. So it’s getting the best ideas and then creating artwork and then starting to look for commonalities and for artwork stylistically that complements the gameplay and the story.

Q: How do you empower the player to be creative in Concrete Genie?

Robilliard: One of the things that was there from the very beginning of this concept was the idea that the player-character was going to be an artist. The iterations that we went through early on let us explore and try and understand how we wanted it to feel for the player to be an artist in the game. And then there’s this technical challenge of not requiring the player to have any artistic ability in order to make something beautiful, which has taken years to craft.

There’s a really interesting intersection of technology and creative to make something that’s really fun and enjoyable to play with so that absolutely anybody could make something that looks good.

Sangalli: We do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that the brushes that we give you will yield a really pleasing outcome no matter how you use them. But they will give a person enough agency to create what they would really like.

Robilliard: The world itself is beautiful and a kind of melancholic way but it needs your artwork to bring it to life. The mission that Ash has is to paint this town back to life with the power of his creativity. Making sure that world still looks appealing and mysterious and some of you want to explore and spend time in – even before you’ve painted it – is something that has taken some time to get right.

Q: How did you come up with the idea to use urban art or graffiti?

Robilliard: Initially you could only paint in very specific places. And so the thing that we realised by kind of making that version of it was that you didn’t feel enough ownership over the art that you were putting into the game and you didn’t feel connected to it and you didn’t care about it as much as we knew you needed to for this for this concept to work.

The story of the game is about bullying and for you to really understand what that character is going through you have to care about that artwork because it’s not just Ash’s artwork, it’s your artwork. Being able to paint whatever you want and wherever you want to paint it actually became pivotal to making the whole concept of the game work.

Q: You’ve talked a bit about empowering the player as an artist. Has anyone made something in the game that you had never conceived of?

Robilliard: Absolutely. That happens regularly but I can remember the very first time that happened. It was an artist from Media Molecule playing the game and they just made this spectacular montage and they used all the brushes in a way that we had never conceived of. At first, I was like ‘well that’s weird. That’s not going to work,’ and then suddenly everything held up and very quickly this image took shape in a way I didn’t see it coming together.

Q: Do you consider a video game to be a work of art?

Robilliard: It was weird the first time I heard that question because it never occurred to me that it isn’t. When you work on things like this you know what goes into them and there’s just no way that it couldn’t be. The amount of effort and heart and soul and creativity that goes into making games . . . it’s for me the most ultimate expression of art..

Sangalli: To me, I think true artwork is something that makes you feel in some way, whether it be extreme happiness or sadness. I think that video games definitely have that effect. And I see it not only as a vehicle to tell amazing stories and to pull a person in with interactivity but I think that all of the effort and training and discipline and collaboration of an art department is almost like an amazing band working together to create a single piece of music. . . . I think it all comes back to creating emotional resonance with the player. I think that great artwork should do that.

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No Man’s Sky

Sean Murray, founder of Hello Games and creative director on No Man’s Sky

Q: Let’s talk about the planets. They are procedurally generated, but they all seem to share a common aesthetic and color palette. Can you speak to the challenges of making each planet visually unique and also maintaining that consistency throughout?

Murray: Yes. It’s a really interesting problem. I think when we started out on our journey with No Man’s Sky we had no idea how difficult it was going to be.

We were trying to use the hardware to generate the planets and the things they see around you where normally they would have been painstakingly made by an artist. We wanted to create this huge scale and have billions of planets that you could go and visit. But the problem is trying to get that computer-generated image to have some sort of sense of style and aesthetic and to try to generate something that feels very important and feels entertaining and not just bland or repetitious.

That challenge got us to a really unique place. Grant [Duncan], who is our art director would draw concepts. And then I would try and work out what kind of mathematical pattern could create the things that are in his concepts. He would always have kind of slightly craggy hills and overhangs. So we’d have to figure out, algorithmically, how do those things come about? What kind of maps might create those kind of images? Trees – because they’re alien trees – would always have these little twists and turns on them. Nothing would just be directly straight like they are on Earth.

Q: Aside from, Grant’s work, were there any other sources of inspiration for the aesthetic of No Man’s Sky?

Murray: When we started the game, when nothing existed, we got in a tiny little room together. We did this thing, which is almost, you know, kind of oppressive. We covered every inch of the walls with little printouts of images that we liked. We gathered hundreds of images of inspiration and we would sit there for hours with all these printed out images, kind of as a group saying ‘this one I really like’ and then everyone else would say ‘that doesn’t scream No Man’s Sky to me.’ We would just be going through them and almost you get a shared collective vision.

When we first sat down to do it, a question was ‘if you close your eyes, what is science fiction for you?’ We felt that in most games and certainly in a lot of films, science fiction was generally dystopian and it’s actually quite grey and it’s raining all the time and there’s grey and black and shiny surfaces.

That’s not the kind of sci-fi that I grew up with. So the aesthetic for us was very much like the book covers from the 60s and 70s, the kind of stuff that you would see on Asimov’s book covers. Which is really different. Bold colours and super imaginative in terms of the shape of ships and terrain and in terms of what you were seeing out on the horizon. . . . And it wasn’t without danger, maybe, but it was a bit more towards the utopian side rather than the dystopian side. And it was certainly colourful and vibrant. Those were the aesthetics that we were drawing from more than anything else. We wanted to make a universe to go out and explore and it should be one that is a bit more inviting.

Q: Can you remember that first moment when you saw a somewhat complete version of the game and you experienced that sense of wonder for yourself?

Murray: When we sat down day one, we always talked about that feeling of the first time you land on a planet knowing that no one’s been there before and that emotion behind it. I remember throughout development, we would always say, ‘if we can just get people to feel that. That’s something that you’ve never really felt before.’ That was always the kind of through line of emotion. And, you know, when we’re making decisions about features or whatever out there in the game, we would just kind of thinking like we can just give that feeling to people like, wouldn’t that be amazing? Because we can’t really get that anywhere else other than a video game.

I remember sitting with the guys late one night and we were playing through a build. We landed on a planet and just felt and that it was our game come to life. Everything was just a little bit perfect. It was raining and, you know, a bunch of us hadn’t heard the rain sounds working before. We just stood there for a moment feeling like, OK, this is what we want for people. Knowing that we were going to name that planet and it was going to go on the servers that would go live. The planet will exist when the game launches. And it was just a really lovely moment.

Q: Can you speak to what VR added to the experience?

Murray: A lot of people have kind of said to me, ‘oh, I had an idea for a game like that when I was a kid.’ I think growing up as a kid in the 80s, you couldn’t help but picture that kind of thing when you imagined the future. Everyone was going to be playing some game where there’s no boundaries, there’s a whole universe there. And in that visual, everyone’s using something like virtual reality.

But you know, we’re adults and we’re running a business and a company. So we’re like, well, ‘we can’t do that just yet.’ There are other things we need to do. And this idea was hanging around all the time. Then we kind of felt we got to this point where we felt like we had, you know, eaten our vegetable in terms of getting a game out and updating it for a couple of years. And we were like, ‘this is our dessert.’

Putting on that VR headset when things were working for the first time and they were working properly, I had that moment. I could play the game and feel what it would be like for somebody else who had never seen the game before. I felt like I had fresh eyes and that is just such a valuable feeling. Imagine you spent five years of your life writing a book. You would just give anything to be able to read that book with your critical mind as if you would never have seen it before and you would never get that chance.

Q: Has the addition of VR kind of changed how players explore or interact with the world?

Murray: People who are playing in VR actually play for pretty long sessions. And that’s quite rare. The general thinking right now in the world is that people only play short-form experiences in VR. That doesn’t seem to be that true for us. . . . The thing we always joke about as a studio is whenever a ship flies overhead like playing non-VR, you completely ignore that. In VR, every single person, every single time will track that ship with their head from start to finish. Like they’re kind of hypnotised by it no matter how many times it happens. I think that’s a real sign that they’re a little bit more immersed.

Q: Do you consider a video game to be a work of art?

Murray: So I have a slightly weird take on this.

I think as a developer, I sort of don’t think that’s for me to say. Or at least I don’t think it has a lot of value for me to say that one way or another. Do I think that I have poured a huge amount of myself into something like No Man’s Sky? Yes, definitely. Yes, a huge amount of kind of emotion and passion and who I am.

Does it have an impact on people’s lives? Does it change their perceptions of things? Or have a kind of an emotional response from them? Do they get out some of the emotion that we put in? I think that’s all very true. I don’t think there’s any other medium where you can deliver something like that, where you can interact with something and have a completely unique experience that has been kind of that has come about by a lot of passion and emotion that other people have put into that experience.

For the person who is experiencing or enjoying that, the question of whether it is technically art, I don’t even know how important that is. I’m not sure what extra kind of criteria that is super valuable that needs to be brought to that conversation.

You can you can imagine if you were writing a book or you were in a band and somebody was to say to you, ‘do you think what you’re doing is art?’ It’s almost doesn’t do you any good to think about that. It’s not your motivation for doing something. At least for me.

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Kareem Ettouney, Art Director and co-founder of Media Molecule

Q: How do you develop a cohesive vision for something that’s based on user-generated content?

Ettouney: We first did user-generated content in LittleBigPlanet. That was our first baby. The art direction of LittleBigPlanet was very realistic, but it was trying to be an arts and crafts kind of DIY aesthetic, making the player nostalgic for children’s low-budget school plays. That was a disarming direction. People in the community ended up exploiting it and doing very different visual styles outside of that. So the first lesson we learned is that no matter what you do in terms of cohesion, people find ways of breaking out of it.

The first thing I faced as an artist and an art director was how to make a user-generated 3D package in a time when tools have come a long way.

Most of the tools that we see are all about the result. If you look at, for example, any animation out there or any game that is fabulous from the very realistic to the very stylised – most of the time if you watch the artist or animator doing the act, you will look at someone using a very sophisticated user interface and it’s full of graphs and buttons and you don’t really know what is going on. While if you watch a painter painting or a sculptor sculpting or a guitarist playing a guitar or a caricature artist in the street, the act of doing the piece is a product in its own right. You can watch it and immediately know what is going on. So there was a gap in user interface design and tools that have that kind of intuitiveness.

The user interface of Dreams lends itself more towards taking liberties and artistic risks. If you want to make something cartoony, that’s fine. Just like using a pencil doesn’t force you to draw like Michelangelo.

Q: What were some of the challenges of making those tools accessible while still getting out of the way enough to maximize creative potential?

Ettouney: That was a very long journey.

I was very interested in pursuing a toolset and engine features that have minimal buttons and features in front of you even though, technology-wise, there is a million features going on under the hood. As a result of this philosophy you end up with tools that are both expressive for the advanced user and appealing to the beginner. Sometimes people assume that the beginner needs tools that guarantee success.

I believe in piano-style tools – my children find the piano very alluring because you press a button and it makes a sound. I like that more than the kids toys where you press a button and it plays you a whole sample of a song.

Q: Do you consider a video game to be a work of art?

Ettouney: Absolutely. Without hesitation.

The same questions are asked with every new medium. When oil painting was invented, it was questioned because the previous mediums were fresco. When they started using lenses and prisms and things to transfer imagery in the 17th century, that was scrutinised. People will always use whatever means and whatever techniques they can to recycle tradition. We just find new mediums to turn them over and over and in doing that, we assemble things in slightly different ways. Definitely games are now in the heart or in the core of this generation in this era because it combines all mediums – animation, visuals, music, sound, storytelling, filmmaking and interactive design. So, absolutely, games at the moment are not only an art but it is the art of this era.

Q: Can you envision anything else that isn’t technologically possible yet that would take Dreams or other games like it to the next step?

Ettouney: I think everybody in software is trying to improve user expressiveness. The art form of animation is only less than a hundred years old and there have been so many advancements – from keyframing to timelines to stop motion and green screen motion tracking. I think there is definitely lots more to be done in making breakthroughs in user expression across all mediums.

Q: Here’s a hypothetical: If you had all the time in the world to just sit down and make any game using Dreams, what would that be like?

Ettouney: What a lovely question. My background is preproduction and scene design, so Dreams encourages me to move a bit. So rather than making a wonderful aesthetic space, it’s not hard for me to sequence some cameras going through that space and then it’s also not hard to make choreographed events happen when my camera is at a certain point. One of the things that I find myself not getting bored of doing is journeys into dreamlike collages of spaces that start forming something meaningful. It could start having a theme and a story and a bit of meaning.

© The Washington Post 2019

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